08.10.2009

My lovely wife and I visited the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine last Saturday night to attend a concert by the Pacific Symphony, Orange County’s resident orchestra. The concert was titled “Rhapsody and Rapture,” and featured Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Carl Orff’s magnum opus Carmina Burana.

Neither of us had been to the amphitheater before, and it was a fun experience. It’s an outside venue; we were pretty far off to one side, so we couldn’t see the whole stage, but they had big screens above the stage which helped. And it’s a relatively small theater, so we weren’t terribly far away from the action.

The first piece, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody, was performed by the orchestra and pianist Yeol Eum Son, the silver medalist of the 2009 Van Cliburn piano competition, one of the foremost piano competitions in the world. It’s a great piece, often used in movies, trailers, commercials, etc.; it’s big and passionate (as Russian artworks tend to be) but also has its whimsical moments (see the very end of the piece). Unfortunately, since the amphitheater is an outdoor venue, most or all of the sound comes from speakers, rather than primarily from the orchestra as it would in a concert hall; this gives the impression that you’re listening to a recording, rather than seeing a live performance, but it’s an unavoidable consequence (I suppose) of the great outdoors. What’s more unfortunate, though, is that it wasn’t a terribly good recording. The mix in the speakers left something to be desired; the piano was a little low in the mix for my taste, and the brass was especially low–instead of being at the forefront when playing loudly, as they would be live, they were relegated to a role somewhere in the middle or even in the background. Yeol Eum Son, however, shone in her performance. Some of the big loud passages felt a little thin, and it was hard to tell whether it was the fault of the pianist, the piano itself, or the mixer. But her delicate touch in the softer passages was second to none, and she had a lightness to her touch that seemed almost supernatural. Her staccatos in the nineteenth variation (the return to the minor theme after the slow, major theme) were the crispest and shortest I think I’ve ever heard from any pianist. She was certainly the star of that show.

Carmina Burana comprised the second half of the concert. It’s one of my favorite pieces of all time, a huge cantata for orchestra, choir, children’s choir and tenor, baritone and soprano solos that takes about an hour to perform in its entirety. The opening and closing movement, “O Fortuna,” has been used in movies, trailers, commercials, etc. almost as much as Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. (You can listen to a recording courtesy of Last.fm by going here and clicking on the black “play” button.) I’m fond of saying that it’s a piece everyone should see performed live before they die.

After this performance, I said to Eleanor that I may have to take her to another performance of it live before she dies, because this one wasn’t exactly top-notch. The orchestra had some tuning problems in the beginning. Conductor Carl St. Clair took some passages at a faster tempo than I’m used to hearing them, and it seemed that the orchestra and the choir (the Pacific Chorale) had some trouble keeping up. And the mix still wasn’t as clear as I would have liked. Whoever was operating the cameras that controlled the large screens above the stage didn’t seem to be paying much attention to what they were doing; the clumsy, rapid switches back and forth combined with shots that lingered too long and panned out into nowhere were often more laughable than useful. And that goes double for the subtitles. In an effort to make the text, which is in Latin and German, understandable to the audience, they projected subtitles onto the screens as well, translating what the choir was singing into English. But whoever was in charge of the subtitles was clearly not paying attention. Even without the rudimentary understanding of Latin and German I have, one could tell that the subtitles were often late in changing, sometimes having to rush through three or four slides to make up for missed time before it caught up again. Sometimes words would remain on the screen when no one was singing; sometimes words would disappear during the singing; and sometimes a section of singing would pass with no subtitles at all. I assume the concept behind the subtitles was to be helpful to the audience, but more often than not they were just distracting.

However, despite these things there were some strong highlights to the performance, and these highlights were the three soloists. The tenor solo only sings one movement, the “Lament of the Roasting Duck,” which is a tortuously high aria from the roasting duck’s perspective, played to very comical effect. The tenor, John Duykers, did a terrific job of acting out the part as well as singing it and was very funny. The baritone, Christopheren Nomura (whom I’ve seen sing this part with the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale before), had a much larger role but was extremely expressive with his facial expressions and body language, as well as being a very talented singer. And the soprano solo, Kiera Duffy, was even more expressive–almost too much so, as some of her expressions were pretty suggestive, especially toward the end of the piece (much of the text in Carmina Burana is quite salacious). And she did an amazing job with “Dulcissime,” the impossibly high cadenza before the penultimate movement (you can hear it here; the highest note is a high D, two octaves above middle C).

Unfortunately, the end of the concert was a clunky throwaway for the unwashed masses, where the choir and orchestra reprised “O Fortuna” while booming fireworks went off and obscured the music completely. I suppose that summer concertgoers aren’t satisfied unless the performance ends with fireworks, but it was almost an insult to the greatness of the piece to revisit the “fan favorite” movement and fire off some explosives immediately following its end. And whoever was in charge of the subtitles must have been in charge of the fireworks, too, because there were sometimes long pauses where no fireworks went off and they came in seemingly random spurts; and, just as I thought they’d finally gotten something right as the big fireworks finale went off during the climactic final chord, another big fireworks finale went off a few seconds after the music ended.

It was a clumsy and unnecessary ending for a concert that wasn’t bad, but wasn’t the great one that it could have been with two great masterworks and two competent ensembles. I’ve heard both the Symphony and the Chorale perform better than they did on Saturday night; only the soloists really stood out. I’m sorry that we caught them on an off night.

(The local Orange County Register had a different perspective on the concert; you can read their review here, but beware the unrevealed bias–the Register was the primary sponsor of the concert.)

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  1. Gravatar

    Mark W. on 08.12.2009

    In addition to the clumsy timing of the subtitles, the text was in white while most of the people on stage wore white tops. The result was text that was difficult to read and on occaison impossible to read. How about colored text next time?

  2. Gravatar

    AJ Harbison on 08.12.2009

    Hi Mark W,
    Great point–I noticed that too, but I had to stop griping at some point. :) Thanks for stopping by!

    AJ Harbison

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