Blog London 2017A – London Concerts May-June 2017 A – Piano Concerti
On our annual visit to London and the UK, we attended 15 classical music concerts in 21 days. Five of them included five of the greatest piano concerti, which I will be discussing in this Blog London 2017A. Four included opera, ballet and opera choruses and solos which will be discussed in Blog London 2017B, and six included solo and chamber music performances which will be discussed in Blog London 2017C.
London has the greatest density and variety of classical music of any major city in the world, with New York City probably second. There are over 40 professional orchestras including six major orchestras. The price of tickets is also generally significantly lower than other major cities in both the US and Europe. We typically get the best tickets to concerts and they generally range from 35 to 45 GBP ($45 to $58 at the current low post Brexit vote exchange rate of about $1.28 per GBP. The one exception is opera (and to a lesser degree ballet). Our tickets to the Royal Ballet were 69GBP for center stalls ($89). However, the opera is very expensive at the Royal Opera (where seating in the centrally positioned but quite distant with very tight seating (no arm rests) was 100GBP three years ago ($128), and the best stall seats at Glyndebourne were 260GBP ($335). The latter receives no governmental subsidies. The cheapest seats we had were in the gallery at the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford, only 10GBP ($13) for unreserved seats (benches with no backs!).
We arrived in London, inauspiciously on May 22, the day of the terrorist bombing in Manchester at the pop concert of Adriana Grande. Less than two weeks later, we attended a concert at Royal Festival Hall on Saturday evening, June 3rd, and were heading home at about 10:10PM when two police cars whizzed by our taxi to a destination we learned later was only about a mile from our location, down the Thames river at London Bridge, where a second terrorist attack was taking place.
We didn’t suffer any ill effects from those events, other than higher levels of bag checks and some lines as security at public locations was increased.
We were very fortunate to hear five of the most famous piano concerti in the repertoire, the Beethoven piano concerti 3, 4, and 5, and the Brahms piano concerti 1 and 2. Here is a brief description of each concert, which also included other orchestral pieces – symphonies and tone poems. I’ll be commenting on the performance and the concert venues, including where we sat.
Barbican – London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) with 88 y.o. Bernard Haitink – Beethoven Piano Concerto 3 with Mitsuko Uchida (another of the greatest living pianists). Uchida, who lives in London (and coincidentally is very good friends with Richard Goode whom we also heard), plays so musically with great clarity and tonal richness – sheer delight. Unusually, we sat in the third row of the Circle, which sits behind and above the stalls (main floor), on the piano side. This is farther than we normally sit, but we felt the sonics were quite fine, with the piano very easy to hear. I would guess we were the equivalent of being in the 25th row, although elevated, so the sound carried quite well. The Beethoven 3rd was one of three of the Beethoven concerti that we heard on this trip. We know all the Beethoven concerti very well, particularly my wife Pearl, since she has played all five concerti with local orchestras in the period between 1997 and 2002, and still practices them regularly at home. It was one of several Beethoven compositions we heard in the key of c minor, Beethoven’s darkest key. It is also the only one of the piano concerti in a minor key. The second half of the program was Bruckner’s 9th symphony, which he left unfinished (no fourth movement) when he died. (Another composer who only got to 9 symphonies). Haitink, who was reasonably spry at 88 years of ago (he did sit down between movements), is something of a Bruckner specialist. I have his complete Bruckner symphonies in a Philips vinyl box which he did 40+ years ago, when he was music director of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. It is fairly densely written, with lots of brass (9 French Horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 bass trombone, 1 tuba). The last four French horns play a larger horn during the third movement – not sure what that is. I’m not very knowledgeable about many of the Bruckner’s symphonies (other than 4,5,7 and 8) and this one was structurally not so easy to follow. However, the LSO sounded great and I assume Haitink knew what he was doing.
Cadogan Hall – Royal Philharmonic – this was a concert of familiar 19thC classical works, including the Schubert unfinished symphony, the Beethoven 4th piano concerto and the Brahms 4th symphony. The concert began with a moment of silence for the Manchester bombing that had occurred the night before, shortly after our arrival in London. The RPO is usually considered the least of the top major large orchestras (after the LSO, LPO, Philharmonia, BBC Symphony and Orchestra of Royal Opera House), having fallen from the top position which it held in the early ’50’s under its founder Sir Thomas Beecham. The orchestra plays well, but without the sheen in the strings possessed by the LSO, for example. It is also about 20% smaller than the other orchestras. Cadogan is a converted church, which has been the principal home of the RPO since about 2004. It is very near the toney shopping mecca of Sloan Square. The hall is relatively small, holding about 800-1000. We usually try to sit relatively close (this time in row D – the eighth row) left center to be on the keyboard side. Local British pianist Danny Driver played the Beethoven very well – he records with Hyperion, and he used the more difficult and less rarely played cadenza, one of two by Beethoven (Pearl played the easier, more popular cadenza when she soloed the piece 20 years ago).
Sheldonian Theatre – Oxford Philharmonic. This was our most distant concert from London. We had attended a matinee at the Royal Opera House that ended at 3:20 on Saturday afternoon, giving us enough to time walk to the tube and go to Marble Arch, where we caught the bus to Oxford (11 GBP per person for a cheap round trip for those over 60). Oxford is about 90 minutes from London by bus and this one leaves about 3 blocks from our London time share and returns about 2 blocks away, so is faster than the train. It stops in central Oxford about 3 blocks from our concert site.
The Sheldonian is a wonderful smallish concert venue built by Christopher Wren about 450 years ago. It has superb acoustics and the concert was recommended to us by Kedar who lives in London and writes the main equipment part of the Zero Distortion blog. The concert, including both the Beethoven Emperor Concerto and the Beethoven 5th Symphony was in celebration of the sister city relationship of Oxford with Bonn Germany, birthplace of Beethoven. The theatre has splendid acoustics, maybe better than Wigmore, and certainly better than the big London venues. The Oxford Philharmonic is a professional orchestra, relatively small, less than 80 players, sprinkled with some members of top London orchestras.. The music director Marios Papadopoulos was also the soloist. From the upper gallery seats directly in front of the orchestra two levels up, we had a very clear view of the orchestra and piano sitting in the front row with its cover removed. The sound was crystal clear. The cost of the tickets to the upper gallery are only10GBP each, unreserved. So we got there early, in time to get the best seats. No back and no cushion, made it a bit of a strain for the elderly like us, but the rest of the seats were sold out. The Emperor Concerto, Beethoven’s fifth and last, was written when Beethoven had lost so much of his hearing that he could no longer perform in public, and it was the only one of his concerti that he did not premiere as soloist. The concerto was played quite well and conducted from the keyboard, though without the subtlety of Uchida playing the 3rd concerto. In both the concerto and the 5th symphony, Beethoven connects the last movement with the previous one (2nd and 3rd in the concerto, 3rd and 4th in the symphony) so there is no pause between movements. In both, particularly the symphony, it makes for a dramatic transition from dark to light which is always a great thrill.
Cadogan Hall – we were back at Cadogan, this time with the Curtis Orchestra (the orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Philadelphia on a European tour). The Curtis Orchestra gives you a sense of what the quality of orchestral players will be like in 10 to 20 years when many of them will have joined the major orchestras of the US and the rest of the world. Most people regard the Curtis as the finest conservatory in the world. It is extremely competitive (acceptance of 4%) with free tuition for all students. Most of the students in the orchestra are Asian, with most of those foreign students. Osmo Vanska (the fine MD of the Minnesota Orchestra) is conducting them on this tour, and Peter Serkin soloed in the Brahms Piano Concerto 1 in d minor, one of the great concerti. The second half of the program was Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. The Curtis orchestra is massive, over 100 players, and the stage of Cadogan was extended to cover the first four rows of seats, so being in row C meant we were just three rows from the front of the orchestra (unlike the concert with the smaller RPO when we were in Row D, the eighth row. Serkin, who is now 69, is the son of Rudolph Serkin, one of the most famous pianists of the 20th century. I first heard Peter when he was 17, 52 years ago, playing with the Budapest String Quartet in Boston, also Brahms, the f minor Piano Quintet. Serkin had graduated from Curtis in 1964 (also where his father taught for many years). The Brahms is a magnificent piece, dark and brooding and powerful. Serkin played well, missing a note here and there, not consequential. Vanska did a fine job with the orchestra, and Ein Heldenleben was very clearly played – the concertmistress, I believe a student from Russia, was very fine in her extended solos of the love theme. They played Bernstein’s Overture to Candide as a very spirited encore.
Barbican Hall – London Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, Yuja Wang soloist. We have seen MTT and Yuja Wang several times near our home in the San Francisco Bay area, where he has been musical director of the San Francisco Symphony for the past 20+ years. Before then he was principal conductor of the London Symphony and now holds the position of Conductor Laureate and regularly conducts the LSO during his hiatuses from the SFSO. Yuja Wang, who was recently named Musical America Artist of the Year (joining a long list of top artists from Artur Rubinstein to Yo-Yo Ma), has been a protégée of MTT for the last decade or so. We first heard her playing the Prokofiev second piano concerto with MTT conducting the SFSO nearly 10 years ago. She has played the MTT and the SFSO regularly since then, expanding her repertoire. The Brahms second piano concerto is one of my favorites. I have a previous blog about it. Wang’s performance was both musical and technically spectacular. She is at the top of her game. Technically, she can play the most difficult pieces at any speed (see her You Tube performances). But what is most satisfying is that she has continued to grow as an artist and plays with great subtlety and artistry. As she has done for the past several years, she wore one of her signature dresses that defies easy description. (You can google her images to see what I mean.) For the second half of the concert, MTT led the LSO in the Nielsen 5th Symphony, one of the two most accessible of this symphonies (the other is 4th). Nielsen is Denmark’s best known composer, but is much less well known than his Scandinavian counterparts, Sibelius and Grieg. His music is more dense and less clearly melodic, but has some similar atmospheric qualities as Sibelius. The LSO as usual showed they are one of the top symphonies in the world. We started the concert on the far right stalls, Row F – so the piano and first violins were at the left edge of the orchestra, which made for slightly unconventional sense of instrument placement. At the interval we were able to move to the center stalls, where we sat just right of center of the orchestra. I was sitting next to a violist for the LSO (who was not playing that night). She told me that MTT and the LSO were going on a Scandinavian tour after the concert. So the Nielsen makes sense for the tour. I looked on the web and they were doing the same program two days later in Denmark.