Blomstedt = Bruckner

The last time I saw Blomstedt was in 2010 at Frankfurt when he conducted the Mahler Youth Orchestra performing Bruckner Symphony No. 9. My less mature opinion back then was that he is clear but physically not extremely smooth. With the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Blomstedt’s conducting is a completely different story, although the style remains the same. The orchestra responded so well with all of his gestures especially in Bruckner Symphony No. 7.

The concert started out with another German composer, Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s “Concerto funebre“. Violin solo, Thomas Zehetmair is also a conductor. He has a good grasp of the piece, created a nice atmosphere and was not shy to play soft. However, as I was sitting right in front of him, his soft sustaining notes were not well-controlled. You could easily hear and see the bow was shaking towards the tip. It is hard to tell whether it was the nerves or he just simply need to practice slow bow strokes. He was able to play a solo piece written in 1939 from memory , which means he must have practiced adequately, so my guess is that he is more comfortable playing in his quartet group rather than solo with an orchestra.

Highlight of the night was definitely Blomstedt’s Bruckner 7. No doubt, from memory, Blomstedt shaped the whole symphony perfectly. There was not a single moment where one would feel bored and disconnected. You could feel the strong bond between the conductor and orchestra, which made the performance so enjoyable. However, the violins’ tremolo did raise my concern. Even as one of the top orchestras, the tremolo of the 1st violins are not consistent. Question to all conductors, would you like the tremolo to be more consistent over random? Well, I am not talking about misurato, but to my taste, different tremolos have different tension, and the strings should be more cautious with their strokes rather than just play it fast. Throughout the whole symphony, I only saw one violinist (out of 14 within my sight) used different amount of bow and tension to play the tremolo. Others were playing the tremolo in the same way no matter it is loud or soft.

In reality, it might not make too much of a difference to the sound (maybe yes?) but visually it does make the audience feel how the atmosphere is being created, and to me, this is the reason I prefer the real orchestra to organ. You can control the volume of the organ, but there is no way you could tune the tension of the sound from an organ.

By all means, if you have a chance to see Blomstedt’s Bruckner, please do not miss it. Over the 7 performances of BR Orchester, this was the only performance where the orchestra paid tribute to the conductor, just saying.

Concert on December 9, 2011

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Another less satisfying sub for Chailly

As Riccardo Chailly was still not in the best form to conduct, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks invited another conductor for this huge program. David Robertson, an American conductor was brought in to conduct Luciano Berio’s “Rendering” (1989), and Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé.

My first impression of Robertson was there are a lot of influence from Claudio Abbado. Robertson’s gestures come mostly from Abbado including how he holds his left hand and the use of his chin, which are exactly like Abbado. As imitation is not always a bad thing, it would be more appreciated if the orchestra is actually responding to it. Is it a myth that a conductor has to cue every instrument or s/he would be considered a bad one? Well, unless you memorize the scores by heart, you would not want to give every cue. Robertson looked at different section almost every measure, which is pretty cool, but, he looked back down to his scores one second right after his short attention to the sections, which seems extremely busy. There was no doubt at all that the orchestra was playing together the entire time, and the flow was smooth, but the lack of musicality makes the concert somewhat boring, especially Daphnis.

Luciano Berio was a big surprise of the night. From the first glance of the description of “Rendering” – Re-Komposition eines Symphoniefragments von Franz Schubert, I could barely imagine how an Italian would do to complete an Austrian composer’s symphony. So Berio took fragments from the sketch of Schubert’s Symphony No. 10, orchestrated, used elements from Schubert’s other music, and added modern composition techniques to create a complete symphony. The idea is extremely cool and reminds me of the show I saw in Cincinnati conducted by Annunziata Tomaro. Various young composers like Danny Clay, Jennifer Jolly, Douglas Pew and others were invited to compose new music for each movement of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of Animals. I am fond of this combination as it creates a different kind of art. “Rendering” is neither a classical symphony nor a modern symphony. If you think Mozart is too straight forward, and modern music is too unpredictable, there might be a good chance that you would love this “Rendering”.

“Rendering” started out with Schubert’s strong statement and led into atmospheric section, and that’s the pattern of the entire symphony. It is always alternating between a square-structured classical style music and atmospheric modern music. To me, this is a perfect combination as the “modern section” prepared the “classical section”, creating the atmosphere for the “classical section” to “show up”. It is more or less like watching a movie, where you have the background music and the conversations. Don’t get me wrong here, the background is essential, just imagine if the movies have only the speaking lines without any music. Berio’s transitions are extremely smooth, which you would not think of it as two different sections coming from different centuries.

I must say that the choirs in Germany have never disappointed the audience at all time. They sing with full passion and beautiful voice. As much as people would say the Germans are more “self-centered” than others in the world, it is surprising that their voices blend perfectly. I felt that the orchestra and choir could have performed the piece recently because they seemed to play like auto pilot. Another explanation is that Robertson is a great “rehearsing-conductor”, who is able to train the orchestra to play at a high level, except that his gestures are not fully connected to them.

Concert on December 1, 2011

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Ivan Fischer and Münchner Philharmoniker

It was such a fabulous evening watching Ivan Fischer, a real treat. This is the first time I have seen Maestro Fischer live in action and I am totally thrilled. It was by far the best conductor I have seen in a live performance. It seems to ba a norm to memorize the scores in Munich, so Fischer conducted Schubert Symphony No. 5 and Mahler Symphony No. 4 by heart.

Fischer is extremely fluent and smooth with his arms, incredibly gifted and yet knows the scores very well. Everything he does on the podium seems right as he is precise, elegant but not arrogant, and the gestures fit the character of the music perfectly. You can understand what kind of sound he is looking for through his baton and you could hear it from the orchestra as they responded promptly and accurately.

Usually when a conductor conducts from memory, there will be some kind of space or disconnection due to memory lapse or uncertainties. Those are the moments when the conductors will beat through a number of bars without any control. You will not be able to tell physically, but you could definitely feel that the music has suddenly become “dead” especially with great conductors like Lorin Maazel and Zubin Mehta. Fischer managed to maintain full control throughout the 2 hours of music, and keep the music “alive” at all time. However, I thought the slow movements of both Schubert 5 and Mahler 4 could be more dramatic and drastic.

Conductors like to talk about orchestras playing on the beat or behind the beat. It is natural for the orchestras in Munich to play behind the beat, especially at the beginning of everything. It is impossible though, to keep that all the time especially when you have a solo passage. What happened in the 70s and 80s could be that the conductors were in full control, even when there were solo instruments. Nowadays, the conductors tend to give space to the soloists in the orchestra, and stay a little passive. In this case, if the orchestra played behind the beat of a conductor, they would sound late. The trick is to listen and keep the pulse. There should be a balance between listening and looking at the conductor or just keeping the pulse, but so far, from what I have seen, there are musicians (especially the string players) who always play behind the beat of a conductor without listening, some do both, and others listen quite a lot (like the principals). The simple equation is, the strings do not play together at a lot of times. Fortunately, the wind and brass always play as a group and thus they usually sound as a group.

The travel from Asia to North America and then to Europe allows me to observe the differences between these three continents. There are more details we have to consider and think about in the US and China. In Germany, you speak and play in a natural way. You don’t have to think what “e” sound you are making. You don’t have to think about how long an 8th note in a classical symphony should sound.

Is it necessary to think and talk about those details? Is it necessary to tell the professional musicians to follow the soloist instead of watching the conductor? I brought this up because Ivan Fischer did it with Münchner Philharmoniker. He beats ahead a lot of times, but when he needs to, he makes the orchestra playing on the beat (it is probably the non-rebound that helps him to achieve that). His gestures are just natural, the orchestra did not have to think whether it is on the beat or behind the beat or whatever the beat is.

Conductors = know the scores and choose the right gestures.

(Concert on November 26)

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Das Lied von der Erde II

Three days after the Münchner Philharmonic’s performance of Das Lied von der Erde with Zubin Mehta, the Symphonieorchester des BR had the same program. Berlin Philharmonic will be playing Das Lied in mid December, but unfortunately the tickets are sold out, so no Berlin trip for me.

The concert started out with a very nice romantic piece by Arnold Schönberg, “Verklärte Nacht”. It is a shame that Riccardo Chailly was sick, and Iliahu Inbal stepped in as replacement. “Verklärte Nacht” is such a great piece to precede Das Lied von der Erde. It foreshadows the bright Tenor who lives in the dream and the melancholy Mezzo who lives in the reality. Of course it would not be ideal if Das Lied is performed by a Baritone. As the piece is originally written for 2 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos, the chamber-like-character is still obvious after being rearranged to string orchestra by Schönberg himself. BR Orchester sounded pretty good although Maestro Inbal’s gestures are not particularly string-friendly. He is clear with his beats, but somehow lack of connection with what the strings are doing. It was a shame to see a conductor who does not trust the BR Orchester that much. Not only his cues were all over the orchestra, with very harsh face and gestures, he was singing so loudly at the orchestra (more like screaming at them).

I am grateful that my teacher told me not to use my index finger to point at anybody in the orchestra. Maestro Inbal pointed at the musicians not only as his cues but also as invitation to the solo instruments for bows after performance. It seemed extremely rude, as if he was saying: “YOU, YOU, YOU, YOU, YOU….”.

Das Lied von der Erde is definitely a hard piece to conduct. It is a symphony but with soloists and thus the conductor is not as free as s/he would want to. Compared to the Münchner Philharmonic’s performance three days ago, BR Orchester sounded harsh to me. The sound was cold with a lot of edges. It was probably the conductor’s gestures, as Maestro Inbal looked for precision rather than creating emotion, atmosphere, and tone colors etc.

Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano) did a fabulous job. She was not flashy but honestly presenting Mahler through her voice and clear diction. Ben Heppner, like Peter Seiffert, has great instrument (of course not as good as Seiffert) but does not pay too much attention to the text. The big structure of each song is there, but Christianne Stotijn and Thomas Hampson (alto/bariton part) had more details than the tenors.

The truth is, a good orchestra needs a good conductor. The winner of this week’s “Mahler Battle” goes to Zubin Mehta!

(Concert on November 24)

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Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde

It is a luxury to live in Munich when you can hear two different top level performances of the same music in a week. Münchner Philharmoniker played Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde last night and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks will be playing the same piece this coming Friday.

After hearing the New York Philharmonic playing Beethoven 6 live two weeks ago with Bernard Haitink, I actually have doubt about these world class orchestras and conductors. Why are they so much different from the recordings? I am not saying the live performances are bad, but there were not too much emotional expressions rather than notes, and it was not moving or touching in any sense. Aren’t we supposed to sound “more real” in live performances? Luckily, Zubin Mehta made quite an impression!

Last night was quite an experience. First, when I was in the line trying to get a ticket, this girl at the counter gave me a ticket for FREE, and I later found out that the seat was right in front of Mo. Mehta. He started with Schubert’s Overture to Rosamunde. Of course, Mo. Mehta had the overture memorized and to my surprise, he did not have a lot of rebound and was extremely calm throughout the whole piece, which is quite a contradiction to what I have seen on DVDs and what I am expecting. The orchestra responded to him quite distinctively from Lorin Maazel. I thought there were more discipline and focus, and it is amazing how they sounded so much better under Mehta’s baton. The only flaw in Schubert’s overture was the trombone’s syncopated passage, where they were late, both times!

The second piece on the program is Moritz Eggert‘s “Puls”, a kind of minimalism composition. There are some very cool effects but at the same time, there are some John-Williams-like passages that I thought could be less cheesy than it is, but overall, it was a moving performance.

Peter Seiffert (tenor) and Thomas Hampson (bariton) were the soloists of the night, both with great instruments. Although it is not necessary to have Mahler memorized, but the distinction was obvious when one was singing without looking at the score while the other was looking at almost every single measure (You will have to figure out who used the score).

The orchestra sounded pretty amazing playing Mahler, especially the bass section. Their opening was just impeccable, the arpeggios were perfectly in tune with the right color and energy. Even though I have known that Marie-Luise Modersohn (principal oboe) is capable of changing her tone color accordingly, she was impressive with that warm sound of Mahler. Overall, the wind section is very strong as the principals are great in leading the whole group to play together.

In contrast, the strings, first violin in particular, were not together at times especially soft passages and at high register. As the hall is extremely exposed, it is hard for the violins to blend as a group, or rather they are not trained to do so. As much as I like Mehta, his rebounds does not help the violin to play together and he constantly hangs up in the air waiting for the singers made it hard for the strings and they somehow have to guess.

The ending was quite a joke. Mehta showed a little gesture (something like a jerk) and the oboe stopped playing while the celli kept on for another beat. That actually ruined the whole intention of ending together and let the sound ring. There was no resonance, more like a sudden halt, but Mehta still had to move his arms slowly upward showing the “unheard” resonance. In spite of the abruption, it was a great experience, the best by far with Münchner Philharmoniker. Look forward to Friday, for another performance of Das Lied von die Erde.

(Concert on November 21)

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Münchner Philharmoniker Concert

Last night was my second encounter with the Münchner Philharmoniker this year, and before this, it was two summers ago when I visited München, Salzburg, Milano, Paris and London. I remembered loving this city because of all its cultural activities, and it is finally all coming back now after the summer break.

Wednesday evening was Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Gärtnerplatztheater. The production was a little cheap but smart. There were not too much of set changing, but rather with changes of the painting on the wall as indication of the scene change. Act II was pretty nicely put together after “a little boring” second half of Act I. Maestro was mostly in control, but there’s something awkard with his preparation for off-beat especially a 16th rest.

Münchner Philharmoniker played Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms and Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem with Philharmonischer Chor München. The choir makes perfect sound, particularly the resonance they create as a whole group. It is a timbre that I have yet heard in live performance. As a German trained choir, it is distinctive to hear the ending of each syllable loud and clear. However, the cosonants at the front were not carefully articulated like the end. Is it because they are trying to avoid a harsh beginning that might distort the beautiful vowel sounds?

Well, I love when there are 10 5-string basses playing in the Symphony of Psamls. The low C with bass trombone is just satisfying! I wish Maestro would go to them more often so they could give even more to the sonority.

One should notice that the principal oboe, who played in both Stravinsky and Brahms used two different timbres. She played the Stravinsky with brighter tone color and faster vibration while it was slower and fatter in Brahms.

As clear as he is known for, Maestro Maazel was not able to be in control during fugal sections, which occurred in both Stravinsky and Brahms. There was a sense of out of control in both pieces as I thought Maestro was rushing a little bit, and the ignorance of bass section, which is always dragging stayed behind him at all time.

It is good to be in a city where there is always performances going on. In two weeks and I’ll be back in Cincinnati again.

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这两天在忙着找地方住的同时,收留我的一对德国情侣朋友在闹别扭。女方和我坐了火车去看男指挥的演出,谁知道男方表现很冷淡 ,并觉得这一趟跑得有点多余。女方当然不乐意了,大老远跑来支持男友却被冷漠对待,顿时发飙,上演摔手机,打包行李冲向火车站打算即时离开的戏码。我就自编自导,让男方上演抢行李,苦口婆心劝其留下,并带她到浪漫餐厅安抚其情绪。

男方过后跟我坦言,在夏令营碰到“更好”的对象,不知道该怎么办。更好是什么?更好就是你还没真正认识这个人,还没看到这个人的缺点,所以觉得很好。这个在一起五年多的伴,什么缺点都看清了 ,当然觉得烦。话说回来,难道你自己就没有缺点?当你的伴侣了解你的缺点后,还决定留在你身边,你是不是应该庆幸呢?如果你无法忍受某个人的缺点,那你肯定无法接受任何人的缺点。我们不是应该学习包容和接受吗?

永恒说起来很难,但也能够很简单。人很复杂,其实也可以很简单 。严以律己,宽以待人;度量大一些,你的世界也会更宽广。与其老觉得其他人什么都不好,大家还不如多看看自己,挖掘自己的缺点,改变自己,提升自身的修养,那样的话,你就会了解到,每个人都有不足之处,包括你自己。如果你能忍受自己,那你更应该宽待别人。

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