Intimate Brahms at Landgren Schonbach Home

A special event for CSO and CCM was held at the gorgeous house of Peter Landgren, Dean of University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music last night. The authentic English Cotswold hosted about 30 patrons to enjoy an evening with the acclaimed Ariel Quartet, joined by Christian Colberg and Ilya Finkelshteyn from Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performing Brahms String Sextet No. 2, Op. 36.

After some snacks and vino, the guests were seated around the spacious living room, surrounding the musicians. The setting was comfortable and perfect for chamber music as such. It was definitely enjoyable for the patrons to be so intimately close to the musicians whom they have been supporting for years. Brahms Sextet is rarely performed because it is a challenge to find an extra violist and cellist, who are compatible with an established string quartet. In this case, the collaboration between CCM Ariel Quartet and CSO principals is a huge success as Brahms sounded incredible in Dean Landgren’s house.

The connection between the musicians was tight, and the unison sections were perfectly in tune, especially when Sasha Kazovsky (1st violin) and Jan Grüning (1st viola) were playing an octave apart in the Scherzo movement. Maybe there was not sufficient time for the musicians to play together,  because even though these six professionals were phrasing the music in sync, it lacks of more adventurous flexibility. Brahms music could have used more space and a lot of the cadences were simply rushed through without caution.

Ariel Quartet’s playing is impeccable. However, to my taste, Sasha Kazovsky’s vibrato, which has high frequency with smaller motion does not match the character of Brahms. Looking at Brahms sitting in front of the piano with big belly and full beard, the main melody lines could imitate these characteristics and have more warmth. A slower and bigger motion vibrato could create the so-called German sound, but it definitely needs the musicians to explore.  Amit Even-Tov is a new member of the group, who is truly expressive and makes beautiful sound from a cello, but somehow seemed to have difficulty keeping the same pulse with the group. I noticed this when they first performed at CCM and it still remains a flaw to the outstanding musicianship.

This kind of setting is fun and should be held more often when you have a big group of patrons who enjoy it. Overall, it was a memorable evening. Great architecture, great music and of course, great food and wine. What else wouldo you ask for?

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World No.1 and China No.1 Orchestras; Beethoven and Bruckner No.7 Symphonies

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and China National Symphony Orchestra (CNSO) both performed in New York last week. Concertgebouw performed in the Carnegie Hall while China National performed at the Lehman Center of Performing Arts in Bronx. Although it is not fair to compare these two performances, since there is no comparison to the prestigious Carnegie Hall, but it is important for us to see how fast the Chinese orchestras are catching up or how far behind they still are.

Mariss Jansons, of course is fantastic conducting Strauss Tod und Verklärung and Bruckner Symphony No. 7. Both pieces are on the faster side, smooth and have great flow, although it could have more intensity and roughness at times, such as in the second movement of Bruckner. The melody line of violins sounds too pretty on high position of G-string. After all, it’s in C minor and the “nature” of the G-string (a little screeching sound) at that register was totally overcome by the great violinists. Li Xincao, the principal resident conductor of CNSO, is a wonderful conductor too. His minimal movements forced the orchestra to listen more (according to Maurice Peress, who was sitting right in front of me that night), and he was in full command. Even though the rhythm in the first movement is arguably accurate, the second movement was very well executed. He took a “real” allegretto tempo, which was very easy on the ears, not a moment of dullness in such a long movement. For the last movement, Maestro Peress felt that it was a little fast although I think it was a reasonable tempo since I have heard the fastest Beethoven 7 in my life a few months ago at CCM.

Sometimes listening to each other is overrated. I am not suggesting that one should not listen while playing, but depending on the hall, sometimes it is just impossible to hear anything. The concertgebouw on Thursday in Carnegie Hall was by far the most balanced orchestra I have ever heard. Even when the brass section was blasting (or maybe not so much), you can still hear every single wind instruments. Another great feature of the orchestra is that the string players project the sound so well, especially when they are playing on the higher register. There were no fear and hesitation of being not in tune, and of course they are perfectly in tune. In a hall like Carnegie, you could easily hear your colleagues on the stage and balance the sound, assuming they are used to doing so. Everybody on the stage that night knows when to play out a little and when to retreat. That was truly a treat although there was a moment in the Strauss, where the horns and basses were not completely in tune playing in unison since they were separated at both sides.

Compared to the Carnegie, the auditorium at Lehman Center has huge problem on top of the crapy piano which the soloist, Wu Muye had to play on. The piano itself is not a bad one but it was in a pretty bad condition when it was played. Some notes, especially the high notes were not properly tuned, which is quite disturbing for Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1. Wu has perfect technique, octaves playing was impressive, loud and clear, but musically, it is more about himself than about Tchaikovsky. Well, that is always open for debate anyway. Fourteen pieces of acoustical sound shells were used in the hall, but that only made the horns and trumpets sound extremely loud and covered the rest of the orchestra as they blast. The wind ensemble itself could not balance among themselves. Different instruments stuck out at random places, more like a controlling problem than listening issue. Therefore, it sounds like the wind and brass were never playing as a group which makes the strings relatively good. Unlike the Concertgebouw, the CNSO plays more from note to note and lacks of phrasal sense. I do not think that Li Xincao did not show enough lines, but the orchestra just did not seem to respond to that.

With both Maestri’s gestures, I must say the CNSO played more together on each beat. However, unfortunately that does not equal to great music making especially when all the end of the phrases were sloppy. The horns would never cut off together with the strings, and the winds would never end together. On the other hand, since there were not much of “attack” playing in the Concertgebouw, you do not hear them “banging” the downbeat at once, but the sound somehow merge together beautifully. And the beauty of music is when everybody ends together, maybe not exactly together, but there is an instinct of a same gesture. The musicians in the Concertgebouw agree with each other stylistically, share the same musical taste, and blend their sound.

It was a great trip to New York, to see one of the best orchestra performances in my life.

Concerts on Feb. 14 and 16.

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Butterfly and Violetta in Munich

A 15-year-old innocent Japanese girl and a famous Parisian courtesan came to Munich at the same time. The Bayerische Staatsoper built a nice Japanese house, a beautiful garden with a long wall with Asian paintings, and a nice wooden bridge to connect the back stage for Cio-Cio San. Well, she killed herself at the end still, but that happened in her nicely built home, without her American husband, her son and her maid. What about the famous Violetta? She is ranked at No. 2 (according to Wikipedia) while Cio-Cio San is only No. 8, but she only owns a mattress when she’s dying. The only comfort for her is that she has both Germonts beside her when she passed away.

For Butterfly, her guests at the wedding were invited to her beautiful garden, across the well-built bridge. On the other hand, Violetta’s toasting happened outside some black doors. I was hoping to see what’s happening inside at the party, but they have another layer of red doors inside, covering up everything. Suspicious huh? All the guests had to drink and dance outdoor, such a poor crowd as it must be cold since there are dried leaves all over the ground…

Cio-Cio San’s house has several compartments with sliding doors, gorgeous roof and some photos of her husband. As for Violetta, nobody knows how her place looks like, because we were brought to a playground, with a seesaw and a swing, and tons of dried leaves on the floor (the same I’ve seen at the party before, so they must have lived very close to where they party three months ago). Oh, I forgot, there are some wooden chairs, some standing and some lying on the ground, which later showed up in Violetta’s bedroom. Well, at least I could see the backstage exit, so we as the audience know that Alfredo and Violetta have a way to get out from where they live.

Flora was unfortunate to be Violetta’s good friend because she didn’t get a house to hold her party as well. It was again outdoor and she invited a bunch of Zombies (instead of Gypsy girls and bull-fighters) to entertain her guests, with the same dried leaves from Violetta’s playground on the floor. Then a group of well-dressed gentlemen were gambling somewhere outdoor since I really couldn’t identify where that is, Flora’s yard, a garden, a park?

Here comes the best part. Let us see how both famous foreign ladies died in Munich. Like I told you before, there are many compartments in Cio-Cio San’s house, so she disappeared into one of the small corner after her final aria and then appeared lying on the floor at the ff chord. Honestly, it was not powerful enough because we wanted to see how she killed herself. No blood on the stage??? Bummer…

Now finally we get to see how Violetta’s room looks like, two chairs and one single mattress. According to the lighting, I am pretty sure it is a rectangular room. Suddenly, the zombies appeared again in the playground, singing and doing their zombie dance in the dark. Scary! So Violetta lay on her mattress and sang for quite a long time, and poor Annina and the doctor had to bend over while singing to her, since they were forced to sit on the chair “stolen” from the playground. Violetta must have sold everything she owns, until she had to use the broken chairs from the playground. She used to be so rich! That bastard Alfredo must have made her sold all her belongings.

Two tragedies in a row could really make me sad, but fortunately (or unfortunately) these two productions were not that touching, so I didn’t drop a single tear. We will talk about the singers tomorrow, need to brush up on Wagner now!

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Bayerische Staatsoper Orchestra

As I have told my friends in Asia and the U.S., almost all the symphonic concerts and opera performances in Munich are sold out. There are usually some tickets reserved for students for Munich Philharmonic and Bavaria Radio Symphony Orchestra, but you definitely need to buy your tickets to the opera houses earlier. I regret that I didn’t realize how fast the tickets for German operas would go out, thus the only tickets I could get are the standing tickets for Italian operas, and I booked them a few weeks in advance. So too bad that no Der Fliegende Holländer, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Die Zauberflöte for me.

Over the weekend, I went to the Bavaria State Opera House for Madama Butterfly and La Traviata. It is interesting to see how good and bad this world class opera house could produce a production. The previous production that I had attended, Fidelio was actually not great other than the cubical stage that was movable. I remember that Zubin Metha had a hard time cutting off the trumpets and making them play together. So let’s talk about the orchestra first.

Overall, the orchestra was pretty good under Stefano Ranzani’s baton in Butterfly. The playing was powerful and engaging, very tight with the signers. One of the most obvious problems is the timpani, of course and the trumpets again. Maybe percussionists out there could help me with this, but I don’t think holding the mallets up in the air waiting for the conductor’s downbeat is a good idea. The truth is that he was late all the time, especially at the climaxes, which was a complete turn off. At the end of Cio-Cio San’s final aria, when she sang: “guarda ben!”, and the ff chord where she killed herself, the timpanist came in late at both climaxes. Seriously, that ruins the entire opera.

When the trumpets were playing in Fidelio, it was understandable to be a little frustrated to play I-V-I-V…., and maybe forgot to look at the conductor since the parts are extremely easy. But for Butterfly, they still ignored the conductor. At the beginning of Act III (Or Act II scene 2), there are many nice melodic lines where the trumpets are in unison with the 1st violin and sometimes with the winds as well, but they were playing all by themselves and were off with the others by half a beat. At the same spot mentioned above, the “guarda ben!”, they didn’t wait for neither the conductor nor Cio-Cio San’s “Amore…” but hit the f# minor chord earlier than anybody else. That being said, after the timpani hit the b minor ff chord late, in the same measure the trumpet pushed Cio-Cio San’s high “A” fermata early. That was a tragic and I would have killed myself if I were Cio-Cio San at that point.

Strings were pretty good on Saturday evening (Butterfly), but were quite awful on Sunday evening (Traviata). Just right at the beginning of the show of Traviata, some violinists played D natural at m.15. Although it is not “extremely”obvious that the prelude is in E major (marked 4 sharps?!) but even if you think it sounds more like B major (dominant key), you still need to play D#. And when it gets really obvious that it’s in E major, some 1st violins played A# when it should be A natural. Maybe that foreshadowed that the entire Traviata was a joke.

The orchestra on Sunday evening was not energetic, unlike Saturday night, the sound was not blending and with no spirit at all under Henrik Nánási’s baton. However, the timpanist and brass section were pretty alert, mostly in time and gave ways to the young singers on stage. Although I am not 100% sure, but the off stage banda and chorus sounded like pre-recorded and not live performance. Can we consider that as cheating? Well, more details about this low cost production coming up soon.

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2011 Compensation Reports of American Orchestras

Here is an overview of the 2011 Compensation Reports of the CEO, Music Director and Concertmasters of American Orchestras. Please keep in mind that this is not from the IRS and is only the basic pay.

CEO

No. Ensemble    Amount (US$)
1. Los Angeles Philharmonic 1,393,112
2. New York Philharmonic 1,017,074
3. Boston Symphony Orchestra 606,725
4. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra 562,829
5. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra 553,794
6. Chicago Symphony Orchestra 513,659
7. San Francisco Symphony Orchestra 480,989
8. Cleveland Orchestra 472,220
9. Philadelphia Orchestra 447,953
10. St. Paul Chamber Orchestra 444,854

Music Director

No. Ensemble    Amount (US$)
1. New York Philharmonic 3,291,791
2. Boston Symphony Orchestra 1,767,748
3. San Francisco Symphony Orchestra 1,588,816
4. Los Angeles Philharmonic 1,195,145
5. Philadelphia Orchestra 1,161,000
6. Cleveland Orchestra 1,124,033
7. Minnesota Orchestra 1,039,479
8. Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra 837,628
9. Seattle Symphony Orchestra 785,113
10. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra 711,626

Concertmasters

No. Ensemble    Amount (US$)
1. New York Philharmonic 530,153
2. Cleveland Orchestra 489,376
3. San Francisco Symphony Orchestra 464,704
4. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra 447,798
5. Chicago Symphony Orchestra 441,487
6. Los Angeles Philharmonic 435,298
7. Boston Symphony Orchestra 434,456
8. Philadelphia Orchestra 402,561
9. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra 374,982
10. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra 307,822
12. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra 250,554

All information comes from http://www.adaptistration.com/

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岁末的省思

看到Facebook上好多人都说2011年过的好快。其实一年一年的过,觉得越过越快应属正常的吧。随着年龄的增长,生活步伐加快,当大家刚刚要适应变快的步调时,它已又加速!然而我今年的流程,经历了好多变化,速度一直都不一样,所以到2011年的最后一天,我并没有觉得它过得很快,只是不确定自己在这一年里完成了多少目标。

前半年自己就是积极把博士课给修完,同时尽可能从CSO不同的指挥身上学习不一样的东西。4月份参加了人生第一个交响乐指挥大师班,终于上了Gustav Meier的课,也认识了JoAnn Falleta,一个很有想法的女指挥。7月份参加了人生第一个指挥比赛,获得香港中乐团国际指挥比赛特别奖。这比赛让我几乎与世隔绝,完全封闭的在准备,吃不好,睡不着,真的非常痛苦!哈哈!!!

经过这一段的煎熬,就飞到欧洲,开始新的生活。在欧洲的两个月,除了去Spoleto时稍微轻松了一周,其实自己也很封闭的躲在图书馆准备Qualifying Exams及找写论文的资料。这一段日子也不好挨,没有朋友,没有太多音乐会,不知道在哪找好吃的,就知道图书馆,非常无趣!在离开德国之前,收到UC的来信,说Qualifying Exams取消了,变成我到Frankfurt就纯属游玩。经过了5天的潇洒游,我人就回到了Cincinnati。前半段原本是要考试的,现在就变放假,只是到图书馆找资料,然后吃吃喝喝的。到了下半段,才开始和乐队排练及带总谱读法课。因为这次的工作,和Gibson起了大冲突,至今还没说一句话,呵呵!人啊,“心”要大,我会尽可能的把关系修复。

最后这一个半月,我就是穿梭于Munich两大图书馆之间,以及巴伐利亚交响乐团及慕尼黑爱乐乐团的演出之间。为了提高写作水平,自己开始写乐评,把每次看完的演出都用语言记录下来,也把心得传达出去。这么看来,这后半年就是处于忽快忽慢的状态,说实话,真的非常难调整。生活规律反差太大,对人是有很大影响的,很多时候,自己变成不知道在干什么。德国,并不适合我,虽然有好多很棒的音乐会及歌剧,但是这里的人并不友善,让你永远觉得自己是外人。即便是德国人本身都觉得在慕尼黑很难交到朋友,更何况是一个不会说德语的亚洲人呢?

这两天接连收到两个指挥同僚,加上一个中学同学感情破裂的消息。我只是淡淡的和指挥及他们的伴侣聊几句,毕竟他们四个都是我的好朋友,实在不适合加诸太多意见。台湾百年结婚热潮,我周围的朋友却一对一对的分开,即便是我自己也搞到与教了我四年的老师失和,看来人与人之间的磨擦好难调和哦。话说回来,跟我关系非常好的两个堂姐,今年感情都有着落。丽婷9月结婚了,慧敏在圣诞节前夕订婚了,真的为她们感到高兴!

再过差不多三个小时,我就要跟2011年说再见。之前和马来西亚视频聊天,看到一大堆人说说笑笑,好不快活,自己要在德国平静的度过,的确有点感触。不过,明天开始,必须调整步伐了,慢了就加快一些,快了就放慢一些,总结这几个月的生活,忽快忽慢使我没法干好任何事情,只有认真的调整,才有可能把博士给拿下,加油!

是时候准备出门啦!据说今晚慕尼黑将会是“恐怖”的夜晚,德国的年轻人不但没有教养而且爱破坏公物。在被允许放鞭炮的情况下,每年都有好多意外发生,在加上酒精的催化下,更是一发不可收拾。无论如何,我还是得拿起相机,出去探险,毕竟自己应该不会在慕尼黑度过第二个新年。

祝大家新年快乐,2012年顺顺利利!

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Shostakovich night – Care or not care

This might not be an easy evening for many people. Shostakovich Symphony No. 14 is more than 50 minutes with little exciting moments, while the 2nd half of the concert, you have 45 minutes of bombastic music, his Symphony No. 5. It is extremely difficult to program Shostakovich 14! A chamber string orchestra with a soprano and a bass, consisting only the non-typical percussion instruments. Valery Gergiev made a great effort to keep the flow since the soloists tend to drag from time to time. Although all 11 poems that Shostakovich chose deal with death, Gergiev proved that it does not have to be dragging to death.

I might be a little bias, but once Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcovici (one of the concert masters) walked out, I knew it would be a bad concert because he is the one who “does not care”. He sets such a bad example for the entire orchestra. Musically, he plays everything loud and harsh regardless the style of music (terrible solo in the 2nd movement of Shostakovich 5), he does not care about articulations and he plays out of tune. On the stage, he complains about his chair (both times I saw him as concert master) and requested to change it, looks around while not playing, very very loud page turning, always the last one to pick up his violin before an entrance (does he know he gets paid more?) and makes all sort of noises while his colleagues are playing solo passages. He makes me wonder if a concert master needs so much attention… His attitude is simply irresponsible to the composer, the conductor, his colleagues and most importantly, the audience. The concert is not about YOU.

In order to program Shostakovich 14, you really need “outstanding” violin players. According to the score, only 10 violins are required. As they are constantly playing two octaves apart (typical Russian), so you could imagine the 1st violins are mostly playing at very high register. The setting of Münchner Philharmoniker, having the 1st on conductor’s left and 2nd on the right, makes them even harder to play in tune. That being said, the 1st violins were mostly out of tune since the 5 of them had no confidence at all with their higher register. Usually, conductors would ask the lower strings to play out a little. But in this case, the 1st violins are too shy to make more sound, which ruined the whole intention and effect of the double octaves as the warm lower strings overshadowed the 1st violins.

Gergiev is so much better when you see him in live performance. Even though I still do not understand why he shakes his fingers (especially the beats before downbeats), it did not bother me too much because he has much more to offer to the orchestra. I hope someday I would find out what quality of sound he is looking for by shaking the beats. Unfortunately, Münchner Philharmoniker did not respond to Gergiev. The most obvious example is the last movement of Shostakovich 5. Gergiev showed the accents of two eighth-notes and less for the subsequent four sixteenth-notes, which repeated for several times. Outrageously, the orchestra played everything at the same level, ignoring what Gergiev has shown them. Well, we are not expecting Gergiev to be extremely clear with his hands, but he did show phrasings and emphasized certain characters of the Russian music that none from the orchestra has picked up.

To my taste, the whole string section has a wrong color for Shostakovich. It sounded too warm, lacking the taste of coldness and vastness. The few moments that I really enjoyed are the solo passages of Michael Martin Kofler (flute), Marie-Luise Modersohn (oboe) and Laszlo Kuti (clarinet). They have their own way of interpreting Russian music, showing that they care about the sound they are producing. Their solos gave the audience the sense of loneliness, coldness and emptiness, giving us an exceptional 3rd movement. As an audience, I feel comforting to see the wind section’s interaction. They communicate during performance, trying to fine-tune their sound as a group. There was one moment when the chord was not particularly in tune, and all four principals turned to each other after that and Kofler made a sign with his hand. Are you not pleased when you see that they actually care?

Concert on December 22nd, 2011

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