Sunday, November 2, 2008

Pittsburgh Symphony - October 26

Pittsburgh Symphony - October 26
Conductor - Marek Janowski
Max Bruch - Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46 (with Arabella Steinbacher)
Hector Berlioz - Le Roi Lear (King Lear), Op. 4
Richard Strauss - Macbeth, Op. 23

First of all, let me say that Mark Rohr is my new favorite program-notes-writer. This week included such gems as:
"In his own time he was considered to have a similar stature to Brahms; today, not so much."
"Berlioz was, of course, a nut"
"... and often critics and audiences treat [Strauss' Macbeth] as a batty uncle kept in the attic."

I'm not being sarcastic, I really do enjoy them. His notes make me smile, because often they say what real (non-critic, non-writer) people would think, the way that they would be thinking it, if they were thinking like critics or writers, which they are not doing, because they are not.


I'll give you a minute to sort through that last sentence. Enjoy.


Back to the program. Janowski didn't really leave much of an impression on me, which was surprising considering how much I had noticed the previous two conductors through their respective concerts. I have no theories on why this is, I'm just sayin'. (< channeling my inner Mark Rohr? Maybe not . . . )

The program notes made a big deal out of how much Bruch was respected equally to Brahms in their time, and how it is a shame that this equally great composer has been so forgotten, etc etc. Sorry guys, but I disagree. It was a good piece, I enjoyed it, it was fun . . . but it was no Brahms. Let's just all get on board with that and move on.

Ms. Steinbacher was interesting to watch. She seemed to move her right shoulder much more than most violinists I've seen. But while her playing certainly looked very athletic, it didn't sound that way . . . neat trick. Her sound was lovely and everything went well (and, because I'm girly, she was wearing a knockout red strappless dress that she only pulled off by virtue of being a twig, and I mean that in the flattering, jealous way). There were a few little tears between the soloist and orchestra, but not enough to cause any serious distraction.

For an encore, she played something more modern that I didn't recognize, but in my opinion she shined more brightly during the encore than during the concerto. She seemed more at home in the style, freer, as though THIS was from the heart, while the concerto was from a publicity photo. Not that her playing in the Bruch was bad by any stretch, but it wasn't nearly as *alive* as it was in the encore. I really wish I knew what the piece was.

I don't remember too many details from this one. I enjoyed it, and I remember thinking that it would make a good college orchestra piece. Not too long, nothing too complicated ensemble-wise, but still fun to listen to.

This was the highlight of the concert for me. WHY have I not heard this before?? If you don't know it, go listen - you have been missing out. It was seriously exciting with all the extremes that you expect from Strauss . . . it had all of the personality of his other literarily-inspired works (and yes, literarily IS actually a word), but because it alludes to rather than outlines the plot, it has somewhat more musical freedom. I wish I could remember more details about this performance, but suffice to say that I wandered out with a huge grin that lasted the rest of the afternoon. I must get a good recording of this piece, asap.

Pittsburgh Symphony - October 19, 2008

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra - Oct. 19, 2008
Conductor - Leonard Slatkin
with Hila Plitmann, Soprano and Kevin Deas, Bass,
and the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh
John Adams - Slonimsky's Earbox
Derek Bermel/Wendy S. Walters - The Good Life (World Premier)
Dvorak - Symphony No. 9 in e minor, Op. 95 "From the New World"

Please excuse the belatedness of these next few posts. I have no heat in my apartment yet, and ice-cubed fingers are not conducive to typing! But since it warmed up today, here we go . . .

I was excited to see Slatkin conduct, and he truly was a class act in every sense. When he addressed the audience, he was soft-spoken and articulate, and yet was clearly passionate. In his conducting, he was so stable and grounded - quite a contrast from Andris Nelsons the week before (though I did enjoy watching both of them, they were VERY different in style). Also, when he was leaving the stage, he always did a few steps in a very adorable, bouncy half-run sort of gait. It was endearing.

I remember that I really enjoyed it, but not much else . . . guess I waited too long on this one . . . oops! Still, it was my favorite of the Adams pieces that I've heard this season. So here you have it: a generic thumbs up with no corroborative detail.

This was a world premier, the piece was commissioned to celebrate Pittsburgh's 250'th anniversary. It was a big to-do, with two soloists and a large choir. BUT . . . can't say I liked it. It was long, with no breaks between movements, and I thought the libretto was pretty cheesy (sorry Ms. Walters!). Well-done and all, but just not to my taste I guess. The soprano soloist's tone wasn't very appealing, either, although I guess she has a very good reputation so it's possible that I just don't know what I'm talking about (as always). The bass, however, I liked a lot. When he was singing, I kept thinking about how much I wanted to hear him do Porgy and Bess . . . lo and behold, the program notes said that that was his signature role. Now, before I start sounding too negative on this one . . .

LOVED LOVED LOVED IT. Of course, how could you not? It's Dvorak 9! Slatkin gave some really interesting comments at the beginning about the piece being less about America and more about homesickness while in America . . . because after all, while there are melodic elements that reflect American music, the piece is clearly in Dvorak's personal, Bohemian style. It was sort of a different experience listening to it from this perspective. In this performance, I was particularly impressed by the brass - their featured sections were so warm and big and powerful, and really well-blended. Also the big English horn solo was the most mellow English horn sound I've ever heard. None of the harsh buzz that sometimes happens with that instrument. It was another exhilarating finale at Heinz Hall.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Pittsburgh Symphony - October 10, 2008

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra - Oct. 10
Conductor - Andris Nelsons
John Adams - The Chairman Dances
Christopher Theofanidis - Violin Concerto (World Premier) (with Sarah Chang)
Sergei Rachmaninoff - Symphony No. 2

First off, the conductor. I had never heard of Andris Nelsons, but wow - I have never seen someone conduct with their entire body like that. And not in the showy, pretentious, "look-how-musical-I-am" kind of way . . . the movement was so organic! Even his knees and feet were conducting (and I could see his movements this clearly from the next-to-last row of the top balcony). I couldn't take my eyes off of him most of the night. He's young (early 30's I think) - watch for this guy, I guarantee that you will hear about him if you haven't already.

Adams - The Chairman Dances
I wasn't into it at the beginning, but as it went on it developed a really neat groove. My favorite part was the ending. I didn't even realize it was happening until it was almost over, but the orchestra fades out bit by bit to leave the piano playing solo. Very neat effect.

Theofandis - Violin Concerto
Had never heard of this guy, but really enjoyed the piece. Since it was the world premier, he was there, and gave a little talk about the piece before they played it. It was interesting to hear the conductor talk about the creative process and talk us through the ideas that he used (illustrated by the concertmaster playing the excerpts as they were discussed).

The first two movements are lyrical, and the third is a technical showcase. The first movement was especially beautiful - at one point the violin section is playing a unison melody really softly on these whispered high harmonics while the soloist played a quiet countermelody . . . . I actually teared up a little. Eerie and haunting and gorgeous.

Sarah Chang - amazing. She is so musical. There was one particular passage where she played a series of repeated notes (sounded like one eighth note on beats one and three, separated by rests, or something to that effect), and I was just blown away by the fact that each individual eighth note sounded like a phrase in itself. How can one short note be so expressive???

I was ever so slightly underwhelmed by the last movement - not that she didn't play the ridiculously difficult thing perfectly (it was written for her to play at this performance, after all), but I just wanted some more power from her sound. I'm assuming this is because I was about as far away as I could possibly be, and she appeared to be about 4 inches tall from my seat. ;)

So, whenever a recording of this piece comes out, buy it. Stunningly beautiful. Modern, interesting, but still seems to be grounded in a lyrical aesthetic (even the fast part).

Also, Sarah Chang moves A LOT when she plays. At one point I was a little worried that she would fall over on some string players. She kicks her feet around and paces a bit. This is neither good or bad, just an observation, and it surprised me a little bit.
(And also, I just have to note that her dress was fabulous! Silver and sparkling in the light, backless, long, with a flared skirt.)

Rachi V was great, of course. Not quite as goosebump-worthy as Mahler was a couple of weeks ago, but it was so unbelievably solid and they really took it up a notch at the end. Great fun. Also, I'm pretty much in love with the principal clarinet player. He nails it every time - it's just perfect - his solos make me hold my breath.

National Symphony Orchestra - October 4, 2008

National Symphony Orchestra - Oct. 4
Conductor - Miguel Harth-Bedoya
Beethoven - Overture to "The Consecration of the House," Op. 124
Beethoven - Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 (with Helene Grimaud)
Shostakovich - Symphony No. 5

Nicole and I showed up only to be told that there were no student tickets that evening - bummer! But the awesome guy at the ticket office said that somebody had just cancelled two $78 tickets in the tenth row, and he gave them to us for $20! More ticket luck!

The Beethoven Overture was, honestly, disappointing. There were numerous ensemble tears, the string sections didn't always line up within themselves (violas playing undulating 8th notes, I'm talking to you), there were tempo problems (rushing, first violins!), the winds hung over on some cutoffs, the last stand of first violins were slouching back in their chairs and not using much bow . . . AND a clarinet played in the rest before the final chord. Talk about a buzz-kill. At this point, I was wondering if it was worth even the $20 we paid.

The Piano Concerto was better . . . still, the orchestra played like they were bored. The soloist was golden in the soft moments - so delicate and musical and perfectly played - , but didn't seem to have the power that one expects from a pianist playing Beethoven. It was good, but not great - I fell asleep a couple of times.

Intermission - we were nervous. A lackluster Shosti 5 would be a little soul-crushing.

FORTUNATELY - the Shostakovich was awesome. I would have liked some more precision from the first violins in the first movement (some of the moving figures after sustained notes didn't start exactly together). The rest though . . . stunning. Movements 2, 3, and 4 . . . SO great. And after sitting for the third movement, you'd better bet that the brass section let it rip on the finale opening! There was plexi-glass in front of the brass, and it was still just a wall of sound! Very impressive.

Overall - the strings weren't as together as I expected, the winds were "nice" but didn't have as much depth of sound as I'd like (the principal bassoon did have a killer solo in the Beethoven overture, though), the brass were pretty kick-ass.

So it turned out to be a great experience after all. Ok, so it was a guest conductor . . . but still. My disappointment was less because of the occasional imprecision and more because the whole orchestra just seemed BORED most of the time! Because really - if they can play Shosti like THAT, why did they waste my time with that sad, half-hearted excuse for Beethoven?

*Disclaimer - I am, of course, well aware that that orchestra is full of amazing musicians who are all a great deal better than me. But the fact remains that the first half of the concert was just not exciting. Sorry.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Pittsburgh Symphony - September 27, 2008

Pittsburgh Symphony - Sept. 27
Conductor - Manfred Honeck
John Adams - Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto (ft. Joshua Bell)
Mahler - Symphony No. 1 "Titan"

First off, the hall is freaking gorgeous - marble and gold leaf everywhere. That alone was an experience! And hooray for student ticket prices - Chuck and I got seats in the first row of the balcony for $14 each. Watching the strings from above like that was awesome - with the exception of occasional short bow strokes from the last couple of stands, they were pretty militant in their precision. It was mesmerizing at times.

Adams -
I was really wrapped up in the performance, and I was paying attention . . . and yet I don't really remember the piece! It was . . . . hypnotic, then it stops. Very cool, had never heard it before (except in a piano arrangement.)

Tchaik -
Well, it was Joshua Bell. The fast movements were amazing - perfectly clean, sounded easy. But the slow moments didn't move me as much as I would have hoped. A great piece, of course, and it was fun to listen to (especially the first movement - I was so glad everybody clapped for it! Silly stodgy conventions and their no-clapping-between-moveme

Mahler -
Amazing. I should have written this sooner, because now all I remember was that it was amazing. Especially the third movement and the finale . . . just, wow. Yay PSO!

Overall - it was so exciting, I literally had goosebumps at the end. Such a fun night. And this was so early in the season (2nd concert of the first weekend) with a brand new conductor . . . I cannot wait to hear how they sound together by the end of the year! (Also, he's working on recording a Mahler CD with them - when it comes out at the end of next year, BUY IT.)