Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Yankee Doodle Dandee: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Performs 'American Classics'

I knew as soon as I received the Cadogan Hall brochure earlier this year that I wanted - no, HAD TO - go to this concert: Bernstein, Gershwin, and Copland all in one place?  Not gonna miss out on this rare opportunity.  So just because no one wanted to go with me (cue sobs) didn't mean I couldn't go - I just went by myself.

Upon arriving at Cadogan Hall, however, it was clear that I had totally misunderstood the seating chart on the online booking screen. What I thought was the back of the auditorium was actually the front, facing the stage, so I basically ended up in the first violins' armpits (which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the sound is a bit out of balance - however, it did allow me to notice, for the first time, what a vital part the harp plays in the Overture to Candide - who knew?).  The last time I was this close, I was sitting with my mom under Julian Lloyd-Webber's nose, as he performed Faure's Elegie.  Good times, good times.

Next to me was an attractive older man in an expensive business suit who was also unaccompanied. We both stole sideways glances at each other as we fiddled with our Blackberries before the concert began.

Finally, the doors closed, the lights dimmed, the winds, brass and strings tuned and the concertmaster (sorry for any UK readers, "leader") took his place. Dmitry Yablonsky, the conductor (and also a world renowned cellist) appeared on stage to luke-warm applause (it didn't seem as though the audience was familiar with him, though his not-small-in-size stature caused two little old ladies behind me to titter, "Oh MY, he's BIG." Tact, ladies, tact.  Even if you're just whispering) and I braced myself for the opening of Berstein's Overture to Candide as it's quite a gutsy introduction, not to mention an incredibly, incredibly difficult piece to play (I've sightread it once).  And it was wonderful - so wonderful, it moved me to tears (and that was within the first page of the score - oops).  The ensemble was absolutely spot on, the sound solid, though I questioned a certain lack of playfulness which the piece requires.  Nevertheless, I was thoroughly impressed and happy to see many audience members around me also smiling and enjoying the piece.  American music - it's toe-tapping stuff.  You can't expect to sit there in thoughtful meditation when imitations of car horns are blaring (Gershwin) or gun shots are being fired in a Western shoot-out (Copland).

The Overture is possibly my favorite piece - ever.  Controversial, I know, but I can't think of another piece that makes me happier, hopeful and in an instant good mood.  And it's the best kind of piece to hear performed live.  Blasting it on even the best hi-fi stereo system won't do it justice.  But like a dessert you never want to end (what - am I the only one who experiences that in restaurants? A sad regret that you didn't enjoy every morsel a tad bit slower?), the piece was over as soon as it had begun and we had reached the next piece, the also highly anticipated Gershwin Piano Concerto in F Major, featuring pianist Farhad Badalbeyli.

Now, I'm not familiar with Mr. Badalbeyli, but I found he had a rather interesting posture when sitting at the piano which involved him gripping the fall, often with both hands, during the rests or before his entrances, as if bracing himself for a job to be done.  How a pianist behaves on stage and in concert is part of what makes him unique, I feel, but for whatever reason, I didn't particularly warm to Mr. Badalbeyli's playing.  That's just my opinion, so don't chastise me if you disagree.  Technically, he executed a flawless performance, but again, missed the playful, jazz-infused, mischievous character of the concerto.  He did, however, after two rousing rounds of applause, return to the stage to play an encore.  Before he had nearly sat down on the bench, he began a serious of arpeggios in the right hand: was it Liszt? I questioned.  No, too modern for Lizst.  Somewhere In Time?  No, not soap-operatic enough, although it did sound akin to a movie score.  So I tweeted RPO frantically (the suspense was killing me) to find out what he actually played and the answer was this: his own composition.  How ... nice?  Despite my slightly unimpressed attitude however, the audience loved him and he returned the favor by bowing deeply and gripping something other than the fall - his heart, which was a lovely gesture of gratitude, I felt.

During the intermission, I exchanged a few pleasantries with my seat partner and he asked (in a voice eerily similar to Javier Bardem's), "Are you involved in music?" "Well, yes, I mean, no, I mean, yes, sort of - I play for the Royal Orchestral Society," I answered.  "And you're American?" he remarked, with a smile. "Yes! I am," I replied. "And these are my favorite pieces!" I said emphatically, pointing to the program. "And you?" I asked, not wanting to offend a famous musician or conductor I had no knowledge of.  "Are you a musician?" "Me? No," he laughed.  "I'm Brazilian. I own a business in Brazil but left it in the hands of my partner so I could go on a 2-month sabbatical.  I lived here 20 years ago and used to come here all the time."  I switched my Blackberry off.  "And you," he said, "Are like me ... always 'on'," he said, gesturing towards my phone.  "Oh no," I said, blushing thinking of my minute-to-minute updates of the concert to Udita and my mom (as in: 'ZOMG, I'm in the front row, right under the firsts' and 'ZOMG, American in Paris is on the program!!! LOLZ').  "Yes, but this is personal, not for work," I assured.

Suddenly, the man in front of us swiveled around and took the opportunity to chastise my new Brazilian friend for "bumping his knee into the back of his chair".  "It's constant, it's like ... like ... like being on a ship," the incensed man spat.  My eyes rolled up to heaven.  I gave a death stare.  There are more polite ways to put forth complaints, you know.  "Oh? Did I?" the Brazilian said, very surprised and deeply apologetic.  "I'm so sorry, I didn't know, I hope you didn't think I was doing it on purpose." "Yes, well that's the problem," the man continued ranting before turning around. "You didn't realize what you were doing." The Brazilian looked at me and shrugged helplessly.  "Would you like to trade seats with me?" I hastily suggested to my new acquaintance.  "There's more room here since I'm in the aisle and you'd be more comfortable."  "Oh thank you," he said, acquiescing.  "That's very kind."  Then the lights dimmed and the orchestra commenced with Copland's Billy the Kid.

I lost myself once again in the music (a disgusting, cliched phrase I hate, but sadly, true).  Having played El Salon Mexico and the Red Pony Suite during my days as a first violinist in our highly competitive but local youth symphony in Washington, I had forgotten how accurately Copland's vast, sweeping melodies (and dissonances) paint a picture of the American landscape.  Copland, of all the American composers, is the only one whose music makes me feel nostalgic for America; I am so easily moved by the stillness and quiet of his pieces and simultaneously wrenched by the jarring dissonances of conflict within as well.

But the gem of the evening, and what I had been really looking forward to (aside from the Bernstein), was Gershwin's An American In Paris.  My own memories of this piece involved playing it at a youth symphony summer camp, having been given only one week to prepare and perfect it, under the nose of a terrifying conductor who'd thwack his baton on a black, metal stand whenever he got annoyed we couldn't transition smoothly between the various time signatures and syncopated rhythms.  Picture a symphony orchestra comprised of 16-18 year olds, squinting at an impossible score while being scared shitless by a man who threatened to make you play difficult passages on the spot before you could have lunch.  But it was still a happy memory.  So happy, in fact, that when the familiar, whistling opening theme started, I got goosebumps up my arms.  

I was too shy, but if I could have mustered up the guts to give the RPO a standing ovation from the second row, I would have.  They played as one throughout piece after demanding piece and with an intelligence and sensitivity I haven't yet experienced from any of the English orchestras I've seen so far.  The wind and brass shone (as they usually always do) but the strings were really remarkable, creating a velvety sound that was maintained from the leader to the last stand.

This isn't the RPO, but Leonard Bernstein himself conducting Candide - I hope you enjoy it as much as I do, even if you're not a classical music fan:

Photo source


  1. Hooooly cow, I remember working on An American in Paris- and the fear of getting called out.... memory lane! ;) Lisa

  2. RIGHT? Seriously, it was the first time I had heard it performed since we left TYS ... and apparently I'm still traumatized. Also, remember how we had to watch this film with Bernstein talking about the 'Rite of Spring' REALLY late at night, you know, one of the 9 pm lectures we had to go to and he goes, "The Rite of Spring is about ... SEX." And the whole auditorium of teens burst into laughter? Yeah, that's what I remember.

  3. Also, how cute is Bernstein conducting, above? His hands are like a puppy's paws.

  4. Geez- yes! Hahaha! Bernstein rules. Remember the choir where we had to "sing- so that you can make your instruments sing!" And it was like...a requiem.

  5. Yes, the Faure Requiem! I love that requiem now. But I'm still bitter I had to sing alto rather than soprano.

  6. I love it, too- but in retrospect, nothing says "fun times at summer camp" like a good ol' requiem! ;)

  7. I was there on Tuesday, on my own (as always, unfortunately). I had an even worse view than you as I was in the side gallery, so couldn't see half the stage! I regret not buying a better ticket for this particular concert.

    The piano concerto is one of my all-time favourite pieces, and this is the second time I've seen it live. The first time was three years ago by the New York Phil and Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the Proms, and I'm sorry to say this to an American, but this week's was a much better performance. The New York Phil made rather a sloppy job of it under Lorin Maazel, who isn't my favourite conductor anyway, but I do wonder if they were jet lagged. Fellow prommers agreed, incidentally.

    My favourite moment is actually the trumpet solo at the start of the middle movement. I couldn't actually see the trumpeter due to my seating arrangements, but at least he or she (I don't even know that!) didn't fluff any notes this time! Somehow, though, this is a section that just works better in a recording, where I find it gains a more dream-like quality. This movement was still the part of the concert that moved me to tears, anyway.

    It never occurred to me that the horns in "An American..." are actually car horns. I'm not sure what I thought they were! Was there something wrong with the highest horn (only heard in the final moments) or was it intended to sound funny as a joke, do you suppose?

    I wasn't that familiar with either the conductor or the pianist. Without wishing to be tactless, I did think both of them would have felt more comfortable on a stage less compact than that at Cadogan!

    At the end of the concert, Yablonsky asked each section to stand up in turn, but unless I missed it, he seemed to forget the percussionists. If there was one section that deserved their applause after that concert, it was them!

    I don't think sounding like a film score is necessarily a bad thing, although I think the piano concerto is more akin to a Tom and Jerry soundtrack. Certainly, there are parts that make me tap my toes (once I'm sure they are nowhere near the seat of the person in front!)

    I'm glad you were impressed with the RPO's performance. Have you experienced the Philharnonia yet since you've been in London? My particular favourite: I recommend you give them a try.

  8. Hi Jonathan, thanks for reading and for your comment. It's always great to hear a different perspective on concerts, which is something I definitely miss when going by myself. I'm a huge fan of LSO, but not so much LPO. I seem to catch them on an "off" day every time! Terrible ensemble, car-crash entrances, etc. I keep giving them chances but they never fail to disappoint me. Alas.

  9. Well I go to hear both the Philharmonia and the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall, and there's a big difference. It can't be the acoustics! The LPO are somehow a bit too brash. But it's the RPO that are, perhaps unfairly, considered the poor relation.


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