Almost Too Much of a Good Thing: My Mini Concert Tour of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio

Almost Too Much of a Good Thing: My Mini Concert Tour of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio

Some days, you just get the burning desire to fly 2,700 miles across the country to hear a great orchestra. At least I do, being the unabashed nerd that I am. Last month, as I continued to adjust to life post-PhD and search for a full-time job, I decided to take a short trip to the Northeast/Midwest to visit some cities, see some friends, and, yes, hear some concerts. With an unusually generous helping of something called “free time” at my disposal—a concept still somewhat foreign to this recent graduate—why not?

I don’t normally take selfies, but when I do, it’s in front of buildings of historical significance.

My travels took me from New York City, down to Philadelphia, across to Pittsburgh, and then a bit further west to Ohio. Over the course of twelve days, I attended five orchestra concerts and an opera, each of which displayed some impressive repertoire and truly top-notch music-making. It was also my first time visiting this part of the country during the fall, and it was a bonus treat to experience the gorgeous weather and stunning colors along the way (because, let’s be honest, our excuse for “fall” in Southern California is more often than not a hot, dry, fire-ridden joke).

So, how was my experience? In a word: remarkable. It was an absolute joy to hear some of our nation’s top orchestras on their home turf, several of which I had never before heard live. The only downside? I attended so many excellent performances in such a short time that it became slightly tricky to distinguish them after a few days; they were all fantastic in their own way. But perhaps experiencing almost too much good music is the best kind of side effect of a trip like this (and of being currently unemployed). Overall, this mini “concert tour” was a total blast, and I’d love to do it again someday.

Below is a brief “review” of each concert I attended, along with some additional thoughts and observations. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get right into it…

Metropolitan Opera

Program

• Dmitri Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District


• Keri Lynn-Wilson, conductor

• Svetlana Sozdateleva as Katerina Ismailova

• Brandon Jovanovich as Sergei

• John Relyea as Boris Ismailova

• Et al.

The Metropolitan Opera is a complicated institution. Though one can’t deny its rich history, recent years have seen the company dig itself out of several holes of its own making. From a horrendously belated response to accusations of sexual misconduct to its disappointing track record of presenting operas by women and composers of color—not to mention its failure to pay its musicians during the early months of the pandemic—the Met is struggling to stay in touch with the fast-changing society around it. (Not to mention that the aesthetic of the Opera House itself, while beautiful, is super 1960s and hasn’t aged super gracefully, IMO.)

The cast of Lady Macbeth during the curtain call.

All shade aside, it was quite an experience to hear an opera at this storied institution… and a Shostakovich opera at that! His tragedy-satire Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District is talked about more often than it’s programmed. (That infamous 1936 article in Pravda, which denounced the work as “muddle instead of music,” is still perhaps the most common place it comes up.) It’s a shame, too; this opera is ridiculously wacky. It’s got deceit, revelry, murder, sex, political satire… what more could one want?

The Met’s production amped the wackiness up to eleven (see the video below for a taste). Created by the late English director Graham Vick, this version transports the original story to the 1950s, in a sort of America-meets-Soviet Russia fever dream. Here, Katerina is a suburban housewife who shares a picture-perfect “white picket fence” lifestyle—complete with Sedan and working lawn sprinkler—with her dull husband, Zinovy, and slimy father-in-law, Boris. Slowly, though, these trappings of suburbia begin to crumble as Katerina falls in love with the toxic but alluring laborer Sergei, and is ultimately driven to commit heinous acts.

This delirious, fast-paced performance was a total delight from start to finish. Scenes of laugh-out-loud hilarity—the cavalcade of murderous brides in the second Act I interlude—were balanced neatly with moments of searing pathos—Katerina’s final aria in Act IV, for instance. The cast was phenomenal. Svetlana Sozdateleva, Brandon Jovanovich, John Relyea, and Rodell Rosel were particular standouts as Katerina, Sergei, Boris, and the hilariously-lewd peasant, respectively. The orchestra and chorus were also top-notch, and the whole ensemble was corralled marvelously by conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson. (I was also a big fan of the “Met Titles.” It was so much easier glancing down at translations right in front of you than looking above the stage and then back down to the action.)

All in all, it was a total blast to hear this striking opera, since it is unlikely to be performed around here anytime soon, but here’s hoping I’m proven wrong!

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Mozart in the Jungle: A Beautiful Dumpster Fire

Mozart in the Jungle: A Beautiful Dumpster Fire

There’s a moment in the first episode of Mozart in the Jungle when the camera cuts to a lively party in progress at a spacious New York City apartment. Young people are scattered throughout the room, which is abuzz with chatting and drinking. One character scratches a record back and forth on a turntable before the “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s Carmen begins to play over the speakers. Gleefully, the character shouts:

“Let’s get Biz-AYYY!”

It was then my suspicions were confirmed—this show was going to be a glorious mess.

The first season of Mozart in the Jungle dropped on Amazon Prime Video in December 2014. It continued for three more seasons before ending its run in 2018. Loosely based on Blair Tindall’s memoir of the same name, this fictional dramedy series follows the story of young oboist Hailey Rutledge (played by Lola Kirke) as she tries to make it in New York City’s vibrant and competitive classical music scene. Along the way, she must navigate musician egos, backstabbing, blackmailing, mounting expectations, and performance anxiety, not to mention lots of sex, drugs, and alcohol. Sounds fun, right?

Let’s call this one “Mozart in the Jungle out-of-context”

Whenever classical music appears in films or TV shows, the results are always a mixed bag. They either stretch the truth (as much as I adore Amadeus, it’s not the most historically-accurate portrait of Mozart or Salieri), present it as a symbol of the upper-class elite and/or notorious villains (hello, Mr. Bond), or just miss the mark entirely (nothing like trying to sell more Volvos with the music of an unhinged, manipulative mother who’s trying to get her daughter to kill someone). However, there are occasions when the media does get it right. (I’ve always been a fan of this iPad commercial starring Esa-Pekka Salonen.) So, the appearance of Mozart in Jungle sparked lots of excitement and trepidation in the classical community. Would the series finally get classical musicians—and the music itself—right for once?

Well, yes and no.

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Nine Symphonies

In 2015, the Southern California-based writer CK Dexter Haven posed the following question to the classical music blogosphere: “If you had to pick nine symphonies—no more, no less—by different composers to include as part of a proverbial desert island survival kit, what would they be?” This intriguing challenge quickly caught fire across the Interwebs as countless people weighed in with their own picks, ranging from KUSC’s Brian Lauritzen to New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. Some found that their favorite symphonies naturally fit into each corresponding slot. Others found it much more difficult. (On Twitter, Brian Lauritzen appropriately called the task “fun/impossible.”)

Me making my “nine symphonies” list

Fast-forward five years later. The COVID pandemic has graciously provided loads more time to listen to music (there’s a bright side for ya!), so I decided that it was time to take on Dexter Haven’s challenge. Throughout the month of August, I listened to many different symphonies—ones I already knew and loved, others that were less familiar, and some that were completely new. After working my way through over 60 pieces (!!), I considered possible outcomes and drafted up my own “desert island survival kit” of nine completely different symphonies by nine completely different composers. And let me tell you, it was not exactly a walk in the park.

There were a few additional rules to this challenge. In his original blog post, Dexter Haven states the following:

  • “You can only pick one symphony per composer.
  • You must choose numbered symphonies 1 through 9 only. No Symphonie fantastique, Symphony of Psalms, Symphonic Dances, etc.
  • Once you choose a numbered symphony, you cannot choose another similarly numbered symphony by a different composer (i.e. no choosing both Beethoven’s 7th and Sibelius 7th).
  • Use only current numbering conventions; so if you were to pick the New World Symphony by Dvořák, you’d have to put it in the 9th Symphony spot, not the 5th Symphony where some folks 50 years ago may have put it.
  • Bonus point for including symphonies by composers who actually composed at least nine numbered symphonies.”

As you can see, this was an extremely tricky undertaking (and many, many wonderful symphonies got left out in the process), but it was loads of fun nonetheless and the perfect end-of-summer time waster. So, without further ado, here are my nine picks, followed by some additional thoughts at the end. Let’s do this…

1. William Walton: Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor

For my opening slot, Walton’s First Symphony takes the crown (a rather appropriate metaphor for a British composer). This work is truly marvelous and sadly underplayed here in the States. It brims with both vivacity and heart-on-sleeve passion and features one of the quirkiest endings after Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. Plus, this work has a special familial connection. While on the bus for a choir & orchestra tour in the 1980s, my dad first laid eyes on my mom while listening to the Symphony’s gorgeous third movement on his Walkman. They’ve been happily married ever since. Awwww…

Honorable Mentions: Shostakovich, Mahler, Brahms, Corigliano, Mendelssohn, Price, Mathias, Still

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