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Philadelphia Orchestra, London’s Philharmonia and the Montréal Symphony…all in less than two months June 14, 2012

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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It’s been a busy couple of months for concert-going. I was fortunate enough to visit six different concert halls in five cities to sample performances by some of the world’s finest musicians.

During a stop in London on April 24th, I saw Leif Segerstam conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra and pianist Denis Matsuev in London’s Royal Festival Hall.  I found Segerstam a bit of a plodder, in a programme of works by Sibelius, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky – “respectful, subtle and down-to-earth”, as I said in my review for Bachtrack.

It was my first real stop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the end of April, and was delighted it coincided with the city’s eponymous orchestra performing in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts under Sir Simon Rattle.  I was keen to find out how Maestro Rattle would fare with an American orchestra going through Chapter 11, having swept the world off its feet with the Berlin Philharmonic.  In a programme of Brahms, Webern and Schumann, he gave me some interesting insights into works which shared similar origins but took different paths of development. 

The Kimmel Center for Performing Arts, Philadelphia

In October 2010, I saw Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic’s dynamic Music Director, in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.  My heart goes out to him, as he must feel the breath of Mahler down his neck, the famous composer having been his predecessor as conductor of the orchestra a century ago.  The performance in the Carnegie Hall on May 2nd was impressive enough, and a reviewer taking copious notes in the next seat remarked that the concert was “pretty good”, but I preferred what I heard some one and a half years previously.

For many years, the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, part of the Place des Arts complex in the heart of Montréal, was home to the city’s world-famous orchestra (Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal – OSM).  Having steadied itself under Maestro Kent Nagano after reeling from a few years of turmoil with the departure of Charles Dutoit, who brought OSM international recognition, the orchestra seems to have picked up the pieces and pulled itself together.

I was lucky to get into the OSM’s concert at the end of May featuring Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé, not often performed as a symphonic work in its entirety.  For a change, I sat in the balcony this time in the orchestra’s new home, La Maison Symphonique de Montréal.  I was never a fan of Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, where at one point I heard only muffled sound under the balcony covering half of the lower level of the hall; I was equally unimpressed by La Maison.  With a large number of wooden surfaces, it sounded too much like an echo chamber.

I had it on good authority that Kent Nagano had just returned on the morning of the concert with the OSM from Munich, where he had been working on the première of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the Bavarian State Opera.   He showed no sign of fatigue as he raced his way through a fine programme of Berlioz and Shostakovich, in addition to Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloé, the latter featuring Cirque Éloize.

Closer to home, I had my first experience with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, smaller than the Hong Kong Philharmonic but with a fine reputation for innovation and audience development.  It was quite refreshing to hear conductor Jason Lai in fairly demanding and well-known works by Arvo Pärt, Mozart and Brahms.  The Sinfonietta and piano soloist Yeol Um Son, 2nd prize winner in the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011, challenged very high world standards and did well.

The change of guard at the Hong Kong Philharmonic is already taking place.  Outgoing Artistic Director and Chief Conductor Edo de Waart said his farewell in an emotional performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in April, and the music director designate, Jaap van Zweden, arrives later in the year for the new season.  The two concerts I heard in the past couple of months featured guest conductors Johannes Wildner and Jun Märkl, the former’s lacklustre interpretation of Debussy’s La Mer having been saved by the soloist Garrick Ohlsson, while the latter put in a truly exceptional performance of works by French composers with clear Spanish themes in collaboration with soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

I can’t imagine my lucky streak with world-class orchestras and soloists will continue for long, but I’ll relish it while it lasts.

The Bicentenary of Franz Liszt October 22, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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Two hundred years ago today, Liszt Ferenc, better known to us as Franz Liszt, was born to Marie Anna Lager and Ádám Liszt in the Kingdom of Hungary.  In the service of Prince Esterházy, his father played a number of instruments and counted Haydn, Hummel and Beethoven as personal acquaintances.

As talented musicians are wont to do, Liszt started playing the piano early, and appeared in concerts at age 9.  He was to develop friendships with leading musicians of his time, including Berlioz, Paganini, Hans von Bulow and Wagner, who influenced him and were influenced by him.  For example, Paganini’s superb skills on the violin spurred Liszt on to become a virtuoso piano player.

For a good part of his life, Liszt travelled frequently and more or less divided his time among Rome, Weimar and Budapest, playing music and directing musical events.  His biggest legacy is his compositions, which can be divided into two types: transcriptions of works by other composers and those of his own creation.

Although having been vaguely aware of his piano works for a long time, I am a relative newcomer to Liszt’s music, and certainly not qualified to discuss it in any detail.  But I do know this much: his piano music can be technically daunting, and he practically invented the symphonic poem format.

As I tried to find out more, I came across some interesting sources.  As always, the first stop for any information is Wikipedia, which has a long entry on him:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Liszt

From there you can navigate to a page which contains a full list of his compositions:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_works_of_Franz_Liszt

Allmusic is a good source of information about popular music for me, but it seems to be lacking in classical music.  Nevertheless, its entry on Liszt is a good starting point for further investigation:

http://www.allmusic.com/artist/franz-liszt-q7627

Naxos, the pioneer of affordable classical music CDs, has a long list of items on its catalogue with recordings of Liszt’s music:

http://www.naxos.com/person/Franz_Liszt/22599.htm

I recently stumbled upon an excellent web site, apparently maintained by author Rich DiSilvio:

http://www.d-vista.com/OTHER/franzliszt.html

On this site, not only are there detailed sections with commentary on his biography and his role in the development of music, there is also has a list of recommended recordings and bibliography.  What I find most fascinating is its list of links to other sites with information relevant to the composer:

http://www.d-vista.com/OTHER/Links.htm

Of course, it’s easy to find a list of videos of Liszt’s music on Youtube.  With the help of Toobbox.com, I have compiled a list of my own personal playlist of Youtube videos:

http://toobbox.com/playlist/franz-liszt–11243

And to whet your appetite further, you can create your own radio channel of music similar to that of LIszt on last.fm:

http://www.last.fm/listen/artist/Franz%2BLiszt/similarartists

But if you insist on generating a list of videos on Youtube, here it is:

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=liszt&aq=1

If you are anywhere in Indiana from October 27th to November 13th, you may want to attend one of the concerts the Indiana University is putting on to celebrate Liszt’s 200th birthday:

http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/19912.html

This is by no means an exhaustive list of sources.  I’m sure you will come across a lot of other sites with interesting information.  If you find one, drop me a line and let me know.