Saturday, September 27, 2008

BSO - Bernstein & Mahler - 09/25/08

Conductor: Marin Alsop
Bernstein: Symphony No 1 (Jeremiah)
Mahler: Symphony No 1 (Titan)

Last Thursday evening I was finally back at the Music Center at Strathmore for my first concert of the season by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which is their third of the new season. The program cleverly combined two major pieces by two musical giants without whom classical music wouldn't be what it is today: Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No 1 (Jeremiah) and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 1 (Titan). There are many obvious reasons for this association to happen: both men were composers, conductors, Jewish, and struggling with their faith. Among his many other accomplishments, Bernstein can boast of having reintroduced Mahler to the world, and he also was a mentor to Marin Alsop, the current conductor and music director of the BSO. This year, he would have turned 90 years old and a lot of activities have been planned to mark this milestone by the BSO, of course, but also by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he had a relationship for most of his professional life, not to mention special programs at Carnegie Hall.

Written and performed by Bernstein when he was only 25, his Jeremiah symphony is a stunningly mature piece of work. Deeply rooted in Jewish history (it recalls the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians), its three movements are eloquently titled Prophesy, Profanation, and Lamentation. After a short introduction, Maestra Alsop led her musicians through a thoughtful performance of the 30-minute symphony, stressing out the hovering voice of the prophet, the merciless destruction and ensuing chaos, and finally the minuscule glimmer of hope in the quiet finish. During the third movement, she was ably accompanied by Kelley O’Connor, whose subtle but powerful mezzo-soprano voice ably highlighted the pain and suffering brought by senseless violence.
After the intermission, the second part of the program was Mahler’s ground-breaking Symphony No 1 that, as such, has had a tumultuous history and was not well received, to say the least, in European capitals when it first came out. Under its current and final form, it contains four movements. While the first and second movements invoke beautifully, but rather traditionally, the sounds of nature and a rustic ländler dance, the third one, the funeral march, stirred all kinds of passion when it was first heard in public. Blending “vulgar” and serious music, featuring a variation on the theme of Frère Jacques played by a double bass soloist, it was way too eclectic and unusual for easy consumption at the time. The stormy fourth movement concludes this daring work with a roller-coaster of loudly triumphant sounds and brilliantly melodious dialogues leading to the final victory celebrated by seven dominant horns.
The orchestra’s performance was full of life, vigorously conducted by a deeply involved Marin Alsop, especially doing justice to the last part, which wrapped up the evening with an exhilarating climax. Despite its ominous beginnings, the Titan is now one of Mahler’s most beloved symphonies, and last Thursday's concert proved one more time that listening to such a complex and expressive work live undoubtedly remains an extraordinary experience.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

NSO - Season Opening Ball Concert - 09/20/08

Conductor: Itzhak Perlman
Glinka: Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla
Strauss Jr.: Wiener Blut, Op. 354
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33 - Alisa Weilerstein
Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-flat Major, K. 364 - Itzahk Perlman (violin) & Pinchas Zukerman (conductor and viola)
Ravel: Boléro

And going back I am. Last night was finally the night of the National Symphony Orchestra’s Opening Season Ball, and I was really looking forward to hearing Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and a new 26-year old cellist prodigy (or so the program claimed) named Alisa Weilerstein, play a safe, but fairly eclectic, program.
After accidentally mingling with the canapés-eating and wine-drinking tuxedo-and-gown crowd on the terrace of the Kennedy Center, I found a quiet spot from the hoopla to study my guidebook on Berlin. I had refrained from eating or drinking anything and was doing my best to escape notice, but that did not work for very long. Maybe it was the jeans or the sneakers I was wearing (Hey, at least I’m walking and keeping the ozone level down), clean and all, but definitely not blending. I was politely directed back inside by a very nice and sincerely apologetic waitress. No more fresh air or sunshine for me. So I hiked the three floors to my perch and waited for the festivities to begin by reviewing the program. Eventually, once everybody was settled, the musicians streamed in on stage, the ladies’ multi-colored dresses creating lovely bright spots among the more traditional tuxedos. Then Itzhak Perlman appeared, warmly greeted by the almost-full house, and without further ado, the concert began.

The first piece, the overture to Russlan and Ludmilla by Glinka, was light and fun, a nice warm-up exercise for the orchestra, and a nice appetizer for the audience. Although I have a predilection for Russian composers, I don’t know much about Glinka, but since that according to the program he’s no less than the “father of Russian concert music,” I’m glad I finally got to hear one of his pieces.
Next was J. Strauss, Jr. and his Wiener Blut. I’m not sure if the fact that it was composed right after the Vienna Stock Exchange collapsed, which incidentally happened right after the city titled itself “the capital of Europe” with the opening of the great Vienna Exhibition in 1873, is a total coincidence or not, but the popular waltz was, of course, as engaging as ever.
Back to the Russian repertoire, we got to hear Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations featuring Alisa Weilerstein. She proved to be quite an accomplished player, following the intricate variations with grace and precision, and effortlessly winning the crowd’s approval.
After a short intermission, we were back in our seats for speeches by two NSO big wigs and, mercifully, more music. The first piece was the Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart, where the two main instruments were played by Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, who also took over baton duty for that one. The dialogue between the two virtuosi was predictably self-assured and playful, sometimes spiritedly talking to each other, sometimes intertwined in perfect harmony. The orchestra was solidly backing them, and the whole ensemble was a true delight to the ears. The audience obviously couldn’t hold its enthusiasm and clapped during both breaks, which was kind of odd coming from a supposedly protocol-aware crowd. Zukerman, however, did not let these trouble-makers distract him and dove right into the following movement, efficiently reconnecting with the music.
Then last, but certainly not least, was Ravel’s famed Boléro, a quintessential crowd-pleaser. Even if its debut was less than auspicious (the critic Edward Robinson called it a “most insolent monstrosity,” and Ravel himself admitted that “it contained no music”), this hypnotic seventeen-minute crescendo and its exuberant closing has rightfully remains one of the most beloved pieces of music ever. Last night was no exception, and the orchestra’s tight interpretation of it concluded the official program with panache.

Of course, a special celebration is never complete without a couple of encores, and yesterday’s both turned out to be dance-related, maybe as preludes to the ball that was to follow. One of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and one of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances (the latter eliciting an [ecstatic?] scream from a female audience member) were wonderful little treats and kept the crowd, who even joined in for a few measures during the Brahms’, enthralled. It's good to be back.

Friday, September 19, 2008

"Favete Linguis" (SSSSSHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!)

When Roman priests requested that their audiences “favor them with silence” two millenniums ago, they probably did not have to contend with the electronic gadgets or crass behaviors polluting our modern lives, most notably our cultural venues, but they were definitely on to something. While we do not routinely have cult ceremonies any more, there are still enough occasions for the die-hard aficionados of live performances to pine in seething desperation for the Almighty Silence amidst a tumultuous ocean of unruly philistines.
As summer has drawn to an end, the 2008-2009 cultural season is now underway. Last year I attended over seventy classical music concerts and a dozen operas, mostly in the Washington, DC area, with a few in New York City for good measure. While all those performances varied widely in genre, scope and, dare I say, quality, the most challenging part of an afternoon or evening at the opera house or concert hall was definitely the ever-present possibility, which often materialized, of some unwelcome distraction spoiling the enjoyment.

Among cognoscenti, the most common, and apparently commonly reviled, breach of protocol is neighbors freely and loudly exchanging opinions, sometimes with themselves, about what is happening on stage, as if 1) their seatmates couldn’t hear or see for themselves or 2) their comments were particularly enlightening (hasn’t happened yet). A couple liberally swapping observations about the admittedly spectacular singing at the GWU’s Lisner auditorium during the Washington Concert Opera’s concert of Bellini’s I Puritani compelled my neighbor and me, perfect strangers one minute, tightly united allies the next, to shush them forcibly across the couple of empty rows between us. And if a couple of intermittently cooing lesbians were obviously finding the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Mahler’s 5th symphony at Strathmore quite amazing, and rightfully so, I would have much preferred they had kept their amazement to themselves.
At the wrong time of the year, disturbances become even more wide-spread, and wide-spreading. In early March, the Lang Lang recital at the Kennedy Center was badly spoiled for everybody in my section by an obviously sick child who was sniffling and coughing his heart out while sitting on his stoic father’s lap. Two other memorable instances of the noise/germs combination also happened last winter, which has decidedly become the season of my discontent, during otherwise totally engaging performances of the Pathétique by the National Russian Orchestra at the Avery Fisher Hall and the Brandenburg Concertos by the St. Luke Chamber Ensemble at the Kennedy Center. It is highly unlikely that Tchaikovsky or Bach would have appreciated the relentless sniffling cadenzas added to their masterpieces by cold-ridden neighbors, and neither did I.

Beside season-related annoyances, another major peeve to be encountered all year long is patrons eating and drinking as if they were in desperate need of extra calories. (Let’s face it, most Americans are not.) If music be the food of love, then why can’t some people enjoy a live performance without loudly stuffing their faces? Why would someone wait for the delicate canzonetta of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, at the Kennedy center last February during a benefit concert for the NSO Young Soloists’ Competition, to unwrap a piece of candy V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y? Maybe as some revenge against his wife, who had dragged him there? Fortunately, he did it only once, unlike the young boy who kept on digging into his Skittles bag during Sol Gabetta’s fired-up interpretation of Shostakovitch's cello concerto with the NSO again. Maybe some revenge against his mom, who had dragged him there?
Occasionally, it’s not the sound, it’s the smell. While not quite as annoying, it is still a drag, but at least an avoidable one if you don’t mind closing your nose and breathing through your mouth. In the space of a single week last spring, I had to put up with a pretty virulent BO from a gigantic man sitting right in front of me at Strathmore for the Leif Ove Andsnes recital. The artist, although in spitting distance, seemed completely unfazed and gave a truly inspired performance. An equally headache-inducing perfume cloud was relentlessly exuding from a well-dressed woman at the Kennedy Center for a Saturday night NSO concert. Luckily, she had been directed to the wrong seat and moved to another section. This fortuitous turn of events helped me fully enjoy Julian Rachlin’s thoughtful rendition of Shostakovich’s haunting violin concerto.
Other times, audience members are considerate enough to remain quiet, but engage in activities that make you wonder about their reason for being in a concert hall in the first place. This past December, on a rainy Sunday night, while the glitterati crowd was getting ready for the full-blown schmooze fest that is the Kennedy Center Honors, the daily Millennium Stage was exiled upstairs, but treated the little people to a brilliant performance by the Virginia Virtuosi. While they were delivering catchy acoustic versions of songs from Prince’s Purple Rain album, a young woman was sitting quietly a couple of rows ahead of me, totally engrossed by her book. Besides the obvious disrespect shown to the artists, reading a novel or the program can become problematic for the surrounding concert-goers as well. While the activity itself is usually conducted silently, more often than not the readers keep busy by turning crisp pages with sticky fingers while fidgeting around to catch some light, kicking a couple of nearby seats in the process.

Sometimes, I found myself in situations so unexpected that a double, occasionally triple, take was necessary. How about the older gentleman next to me who suddenly picked up his set of keys and started to very methodically clean his ears with one of them during the BSO opening season concert at Strathmore last fall? All the better to hear the music with, I guess. Still at Strathmore, during the first movement of Brahms’ violin concerto with Cho-Liang Lin and the National Philharmonic last spring, I realized that an intermittent air-sucking sound was coming from a nearby elderly woman with tubes coming out of her nose and apparently connected to a breathing apparatus by her feet. Mercifully, I was able to take advantage of the break between the first and second movements to dash up a few rows until I was at a safe distance from Darth Vader and her undesirable accompanying soundtrack.
Every so often, disturbances come from the most unlikely source. A while back, as I was slowly slipping into a state of blissful immersion in Mahler’s 9th symphony at Strathmore, I heard the screeching sound of Velcro being manipulated, here we go again, V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y. I turned around and realized that the culprit was, of all people, an usher. At the Salute to Slatkin concert this past June at the Kennedy Center, as our minds started to soar during Yo-Yo Ma’s exquisite rendition of Bloch’s "Schelomo" for Cello and Orchestra, we were rashly and repeatedly pulled back to earth by an usher absent-mindedly moving her arms, thus causing her bangles to add a mood-breaking rattle to the music. Is it so darn hard to get good help these days?
Two of the most frequent complaints from concert-goers are electronic devices and coughing. I have to admit of being lucky in one department because I have rarely come across cell phones ringing while they should have been turned off. Of course, I had a young woman furiously typing on her BlackBerry when Mozart’s Requiem had already started last summer at the Avery Fisher Hall, but she put it down rather quickly, no doubt after firming up some all-important plans for the rest of the evening. Ah, Priorities! Coughing is another story. While it is to a certain degree uncontrollable, it does remain a major grievance. A few times I have heard the NSO announcer politely asking patrons to refrain from it. The orchestra’s powers-that-be should also be praised for having an etiquette page in the programs reminding their patrons about common courtesy: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” What remains to be seen is how many people find it, read it and, last but not least, heed it.

Speaking of unspoken rules, it has been noted that, occasionally, part of the audience claps “at the wrong moment,” which typically means between movements. While Leonard Slatkin and Lang Lang publicly acknowledged during their NSO’s Afterwords Q&A that they “like it,” purists never fail to deeply resent this total verboten violation to the sacrosanct integrity of a piece. However, I have to admit that after an exceptionally intense part, it is a real blessing to have a window of opportunity to release all the built-up tension. So what was I supposed to do at Carnegie Hall last March, when the crowd erupted into spontaneous, unanimous and prolonged applause after Joshua Bell masterfully wrapped up the infectious, multi-faceted first movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal? I have to confess that instead of sitting on my hands, which I had resorted to quite successfully in the past, I shamelessly gave in and whole-heartedly joined the unwashed. Purism, be damned… for once!

Collective rapture is a truly unique experience, and while being part of a crowd automatically makes one subject to external interferences, the magical reality of live performances is too exceptional to let a few bad apples ruin it for the dedicated audience. When the connection happens among the holy trinity of composer, performer and listener and everybody embarks on the same transcendental journey into the composer’s psyche, the bonding power of music takes over, the universe aligns, time becomes suspended… and then the inevitable program falls on the floor. Of all my ventures in concert halls and opera houses throughout the years, I can say that I have heard at least one program fall every single time. In fact, it has come to the point where I almost feel that no performance is complete without the familiar thump.
Hope springs eternal, they say, so the faithful keep hoping. Hoping for people to understand that in opera the overture is part of the performance and should command the same respect, that introducing kids to live entertainment is a good thing, but preparing them for it is even better, and that rushing out while the last note is still ringing in the air is unforgivably rude. Yes, parking’s a bitch, it’s probably getting late, and you may have a long way to go, but think about the musicians and singers, who have often come an even longer way to bring us the gift of Hegel’s fourth art and illuminate our lives. “Without music, life would be a mistake,” claimed Frederick Nietzsche. And he was right. I'm going back for more.