Sunday, December 27, 2009

Met - Elektra - 12/26/09

Composer: Richard Strauss
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Director: Otto Schenk
Elektra: Sandra Bullock
Chrysothemis: Deborah Voigt
Klytamnestra: Felicity Palmer

By the time Saturday morning came around, there was not a lot of snow left on the ground and we had the relentlessly falling rain to thank for that. It, however, did not bode well for the start of the weekend. It is not like I terribly mind getting up at 4:45 am (even after my upstairs neighbors had kept me up until past 12:30 am), but walking under a torrential downpour for 40 minutes on my way to the bus stop really did not qualify as a good start of the day. On the other hand, there was no way I was going to missed the UK's rising soprano Sandra Bullock scheduled to make her Met debut in the reassuring company of Met superstar soprano Deborah Voigt. Not to mention that Strauss' terrifically expressionnist and brutally difficult music is usually reason enough to justify yet another trip up the 95. Overflowing with fury, madness, hatred and revenge, Elektra may not be everybody's idea of entertainment for Christmas weekend, but then again, why be everybody?

The fact of the matter is, Sophocles' tragedy about the young Greek princess obsessed with killing her mother because she and her lover killed her father is pretty heavy stuff. It first inspired Hugo von Hofmannstahl to turn it into a play, and later into a libretto for Richard Strauss in what would be the start of a long and fruitful collaboration. The German composer eventually came up with a one-act opera focusing almost exclusively on Elektra's debilitating thirst for revenge, unmistakably reminiscent of Salome in its viscerally tempered heroine and Hamlet in its iffily dysfunctional family. Such intensely lived issues, so little time...
After more than 50 presentations around the world, the title role is certainly no stranger to Sandra Bullock, and yesterday she slid into Elektra's skin with some impressive poise. Her voice had no problem fiercely impersonating her character's unstable state of mind and changing moods, but it also had to suffer the indignity of occasionally being overpowered by an irrationally loud orchestra. Of course, one could argue that it was a perfectly appropriate way to play Strauss' blazingly modern score, but too much is too much. As her milder sister, Deborah Voigt had no trouble making herself heard over the more subdued music she is associated with and offered a touchingly human Chrysothemis, a welcome breath of sanity in the decidedly unhealthy atmosphere of the court. The rest of the cast did a remarkable job as well, especially Felicity Parker who did not hesitate to crank up the madness quotient of a pitifully out-of-control Klytamnestra.
The set was simple enough to keep us focused on the music and the action, although it did feature the large statue of a horse broken in two, a stately symbol of nobility and chaos. The music, to be performed by an unusually large orchestra, can be blatantly grating with its resounding dissonances and other modern techniques, but it also offers beautiful lyricism when things calm down. Yesterday afternoon, guest conductor Fabio Luisi kept constantly busy trying to tame the wild score and did not always succeed. But still, each character's predominant traits were vividly, if often not subtly, emphasized by their respective recurring musical phrasings, therefore creating a wide range of raging colors. A virtuosic composition and excellent singers for a tough day at the court... and yet another satisfying trip to the Met.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Met - Les Contes d'Hoffmann - 12/19/09

Composer: Jacques Offenbach
Conductor: James Levine
Director: Director: Bartlett Sher
Hoffmann: Joseph Calleja
The Muse/Nicklauss: Kate Lindsey
Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr Miracle, Dapertutto: Alan Held
Olympia: Kathleen Kim
Antonia/Stella: Anna Netrebko
Giuletta: Ekaterina Gubanova

Snow storm? What snow storm? Oh yes, that one, the big bad one that had the audacity to start at the same time as my Contes-d'Hoffmann-at-the-Met weekend got underway. But where there's a will there's a way, at least as long as I did not mind trudging through whirling wind, rain, sleet and fast-accumulating snow at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning on my way to Union Station and forking out big bucks to Amtrak since the bus service had unsurprisingly been cancelled. But once the train had made its way through the raging elements, it matter-of-factly ended up in a winterly cold but still dry Big Apple and I, well, went about my business.
Les Contes d'Hoffmann has always appeared to me as a strange beast, especially coming from the undisputed king of French operetta. Without an actual plot but oozing poetry, phantasmagoria, torments and excesses, it is a production all the more difficult to put together as Offenbach died before having had a chance to complete it. So all we have left is the beautiful, if not flawless, swan song of an artist who literally fought to his dying breath to be accepted in the traditional French society of the time, thus fully identifying with his hero's struggle as an eternal outsider. Although eagerly anticipated Met favorite Rollando Villazon had to bail out as the lead, his favorite partner and other Met regular Anna Netrebko and Washington's very own Alan Held were going to be there along with maestro Levine, finally back on the podium. That definitely sounded too good to pass, snow storm notwithstanding.

Les Contes d'Hoffmann narrates a dreamy journey into the troubled mind and vivid memories of the poet Hoffmann and takes us to a wide variety of places where our hero relentlessly wanders in search of true love. Every time a new paramour seems likely to fit the bill, drama and heartbreak ensue, brought in no small part by each episode's designated villain, who personifies the various incarnations of Hoffman's nemesis. On the positive side, his faithful muse, disguised as his friend Nicklauss, follows him everywhere too, sometimes discreetly observing the scene, sometimes fortuitously intervening.
Because Hoffmann is the character driving the whole opera, casting the right tenor is paramount. Stepping into much acclaimed Rollando Villazon's shoes is no easy task, but rising newcomer Joseph Calleja whole-heartedly threw himself into the challenging role and deftly embodied a very engaging Hoffmann. His young, cherubic face was a nice contrast to his more mature, Kafkaesque demeanor, and his truly versatile voice was easily soaring when experiencing the transports of love, desperately bristling with anguish when facing unfulfilled hopes. Assuredly displaying impressive stamina and unwavering timing, he's definitely one to watch. But he was not the only one undertaking a daunting singing marathon as he was often accompanied by Kate Lindsey, an understated but discreetly indispensable muse/Nicklauss, and Alan Held, efficiently representing diabolical forces everywhere he went.
Hoffmann's three ill-fated love stories feature three drastically different and interchangeable facets of the new and ultimate object of his passion, the unattainable prima donna Olympia. Accordingly, Kathleen Kim and her stratospheric coloratura was a to-die-for doll, dazzling the audience with her humor-infused vocal acrobatics and effortlessly earning the biggest ovation of the afternoon. Anna Netrebko was predictably all lush lyricism as Antonia, the obsessed singer who will die from her art, and Ekaterina Gubanova brashly exuded cunningness and greed totally fit for the courtesan Giuletta.
Naturally, all those fantastical acts gave the set and costume designers the perfect opportunity to go wild and man, they sure did not hold back, for better or worse. The mechanical doll Olympia was exhibited on a colorfully kitsch fairground while Antonia's bourgeois German home was downright minimalist, which made the ill-conceived apparition of a hanging violin all the more awkward. But it was the third act that got everybody's undivided attention, simultaneously prompting a collective gasp of disbelief and spontaneous clapping from the audience, when it opened on a sumptuously orgiastic party in a lavishly decadent Venetian palace straight out of Fellini film, complete with a bright red gondola in the background and dancers engaged in, errr, suggestive gymnastics in the foreground during the famous Bacchanalian tune "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour". Mon dieu, mon dieu!
The musical score was also an undiscrimating mix of various genres, from the sparkling enchantment of Olympia's crowd-pleasing "Les oiseaux dans la charmille" ("The Doll Song"), to the richly lyrical power of "Elle a fui, la tourterelle" ("She has fled, the turtledove") during which Antonia remembers her beloved mother who died from singing, and of course the ravishing sensuality of the Venetian feast. But Offenbach's vaudeville roots were never far off and they could be easily detected in numbers such as the drinking songs in Luther's tavern and the servant's comical interlude, all the way to the frankly grotesque narrative about the dwarf Kleinzach. So the musicians were in for a endurance test as well, and they proved all afternoon long that they could keep all those various ingredients in steady balance under their masterful conductor's baton.

So, was it worth all the extra efforts in getting there and back, including a dreadfully expensive and suspenseful-until-the-very-last-minute return trip? Absolutely! Even if the production lacked some cohesiveness and may have indulged a bit much in all the theatricality, it had made some bold but welcome visual choices, the singers were well-versed in their parts (I gave up trying to understand the lyrics of French operas a long time ago, never mind who sings them), and James Levine kept the orchestra moving along just right. Now all I can hope for is a return to routine traveling for Elektra this coming Saturday...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Met - From the House of the Dead - 12/05/09

Composer: Leo Janacek
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Director: Patrice Chéreau
Alexander Ptrovich Gorianchikov: Willard White
Aleya: Eric Stoklossa
Filka Morozov: Stefan Margita
Skuratov: Kurt Streit
Shapkin: Peter Hoare
Shishkov: Peter Mattei

Better late than never, yesterday afternoon I was finally back at the Lincoln Center for my first Met opera of the season. I really can't say that a work titled From the House of the Dead taking place in a Siberian prison camp sounded immediately appealing, even if it boasted associations with Dostoevsky and Janacek (thought-provoking artists, yes, but a bit on the dark side indeed). At least it was as far away from jingle bells-induced merriment as possible, that's for sure. On second thoughts, it sounded like a pretty intriguing adventure and having highly regarded French director Patrice Chéreau and equally praised Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Halonen - both making their long overdue and eagerly awaited Met debuts - involved were two other deciding factors in my getting a ticket after all. Last, but not least, I hadn't paid a visit to the Big Apple in a couple of months, and any excuse was good to immerse myself in its non-stop festival of sights, noises and smells once again.

Although it was officially presented as a novel, Dostoevsky's account was obviously inspired by his own detention as a political prisoner in the 1850s. Composed of several vignettes depicting specific memories and situations on a background of grim everyday life, it was very easy to just see the prisoners' community as full of violence, boredom and hopelessness. This was definitely a man's world out there, with its unspoken codes and rituals, but you didn't have to look very deep to realize that there were also some genuine sparks of humanity and an irrepressible will to live right underneath the rough surface.
All the main characters made memorable impressions with solid, nuanced voices, unmistakable physical presence and compelling personal stories. Little by little, each of them became his own person, deserving to be heard out regardless of his crime. In a primitive and brutish society, those men still related to one another, relationships formed and life went on against all odds. Although the opera contained no main anchor beside this actual House of the Dead, the 20-minute monologue sung by world-famous baritone Peter Mattei as Sishkov was the undeniable highpoint of the afternoon with its all-consuming combination of painful narration and agitated music, inconspicuously pulling in the audience the same way as when you pass by a dreadful car accident and can't help but look over, strangely fascinated.
The set was gray and bare, basically consisting of three concrete walls on which the surtitles were inexplicably projected. The lighting was discreet, emphasizing the complete lack of the slightest ornament, and the sudden pouring of trash from the ceiling between the first and second acts certainly did not help make the place more welcoming. Even if the two plays-within-the-opera, definitely the lighter moments of the whole 90 minutes, brought in some temporary and much needed comic relief, never mind how flat out vulgar it was, you couldn't forget where you were.
In a production without any actual lead or even a plot, the star of the performance was without a doubt Janacek's fiercely inventive music, a score so richly evocative that only repeated listening would allow to decipher all its subtleties. It may have symphonic dimensions, but it also expresses thoughts and emotions with economy and efficiency, intricately mixing modern sonorities with more traditional folk themes. Esa-Pekka Salonen, well-known for his commitment to contemporary music, sure managed to keep a firm grip on the orchestra, eliciting a consistently riveting performance from them, bringing some visceral humanity out of what could have easily been a bottomless ocean of gloom and despair.

At the very end, the wounded eagle the prisoners had originally picked up and healed back to health got to spread its wings and fly away. Hope springs eternal...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Saint Lawrence Quartet - Haydn, Vinao & Adams - 12/04/09

Haydn: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 54, No 2
Vinao: String Quartet No 3 ("Sirocco Dust")
Adams: String Quartet

When so many venues whole-heartedly plunge into the holiday spirit, the Library of Congress remains steadfastly committed to inviting la crème de la crème of chamber music ensembles throughout the world. Accordingly, yesterday evening it was the Saint Lawrence Quartet who got to entertain us all the way from Canada. After a delightful recital by Angela Hewitt the night before, it looks like our neighbors from the North have taken over Washington in force lately, even if these days the Saint Lawrence Quartet are technically US residents through their "ensemble in residence" status at Stanford University. With sure-value Haydn, a world première by Ezequiel Vinao and a Washington première by John Adams, emphasizing the musicians' commitment to performing contemporary composers, the program was decidedly as eclectic as intriguing.

Starting with vivacious outbursts interspersed by unexpected silent pauses, Haydn's string quartet was the German master at its best, concluding the lively piece on a particularly soft, whispering note.
After that healthy dose of classical fare, the one-movement "Sirocco Dust" felt like a runaway train rhythmically blazing through an ever-changing landscape. Keeping the four tightly synchronized musicians fully engaged the whole time - about 20 minutes - the relentless score took us all on a Middle-Eastern music-infused, recurrence-based hypnotic journey that left everybody on and off the stage breathless, flushed and utterly exhilarated.
After that exotic interlude, it was John Adams' turn with a rich, multi-faceted quartet composed of two movements, the last one of which stood out as much for its compact vigorousness as for the cellist breaking a cord during the last few minutes. After everyone good-naturedly waited for the instrument to become whole again, we got even more music than we bargained for as the fired-up ensemble started the last movement all over again.

And that was not all. In response to our thunderous ovation, the Saint Lawrence Quartet treated us to the final movement of Haydn's Op. 20, No 4, thus bringing the whole concert full circle, back to "the father of the string quartet".

Friday, December 4, 2009

WPAS - Angela Hewitt - All-Bach - 12/03/09

Bach: Aria with Thirty Variations BWV 988 (Goldberg Variations) - Angela Hewitt

Although I'm doing my darnest to stir clear of the unavoidable Messiah-Nutcracker-led holiday fare, I still find myself facing Cornelian dilemnas such as the choice I had to make last night when the National Symphony Orchestra was presenting the world première of Jennifer Hidgon's new piano concerto performed by tiny-but-mighty Yuja Wang along with Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow and the Maiden and Tchaikovsky's first symphony while at Strathmore another pianist extraordinaire, Canadian Angela Hewitt, was scheduled to tackle her field of expertise (and what a field of expertise!): Bach's Goldberg Variations. Either of these hugely talented ladies was a prime choice, of course, and I ended up picking Ms. Hewitt because of the dreamy combination of her well-established talent and Bach's enchanting masterpiece.

Supposedly composed by the German master for the 14-year-old harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg - therefore their name - so that he could help insomniac Count Hermann Keyserlingk fall asleep, Bach's Goldberg Variations first and foremost stand out as a delightful musical work on their very own. There are very few indications on how to actually play the variations, but that did not stop Angela Hewitt's fingers from assuredly working the keyboard, creating music that sounded by turn like the delicate rain drops of a refreshing spring shower or the vigorous hail of a relentless, mean thunderstorm. The thirty variations on the theme Aria are short by nature, but each and every one of them is an indispensable link in Bach's perfect chain. Angela Hewitt has long made this quasi-continuous 90-minute piece her life mission, and listening to her is like having an old friend take you on a exhaustive tour of her favorite place.

The long, enthusiastic ovation even earned us a lovely encore in the form of an arrangement of an aria from Bach's Hunt cantata. A stunning parting gift that I didn't even expect after the exhilarating but no doubt draining marathon she had just brilliantly completed. My only lingering regret was how even more enjoyable the whole experience would have been in a smaller venue, where the auditorium would have been fuller and the whole journey more intimate, but now that's really nitpicking.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

NSO - McMillan, Lalo & Mendelssohn - 11/22/09

Conductor: Hugh Wolff
MacMillan: I (A Meditation on Iona) for Strings and Percussion
Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 21 - Joshua Bell
Mendelssohn: Symphony No 3 in A Minor, Op. 56, "Scottish"

This afternoon was the last concert of my immensely enjoyable four-day, final stretch before the holiday season, four drastically different performances expertly driven by an international array of exceptionnally talented gentlemen: the French ( Jean-Louis Thibaudet), the Swedish (Leif Ove Andnes), the Italian (Riccardo Muti), and now last, but by no means least, the American: Joshua Bell. It's like Christmas before Thanksgiving! Today, the National Symphony Orchestra's program featured an unreservedly sunny piece inspired by Spain book-ended by two ostensibly sterner works reflecting the much greyer skies of Scotland, the first one being fairly recent and unknown to me, the third one Mendelssohn's inexplicably little performed "Scottish" symphony. Lalo's delightful Symphonie Espagnole is also a rarity in concert halls, which is another mystery I've never been able to explain either since its attractive melodies are perfectly accessible to dedicated music lovers and less knowledgeable neophytes alike. Go figure. The festivities were expected to unfold under the baton of Hugh Wolff, a former associate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra under Rostropovich before he launched into a prestigious international career, and whom we were happy to welcome back on the Kennedy Center concert hall podium.

Ringing bells unmistakably invoking deep-rooted Catholicism opened the concert with their clear sounds before giving way to a powerfully atmospheric tone poem inspired by the same rugged landscape described in Mendelssohn's "Fingal's Cave". In I (A Meditation on Iona) the profound seriousness of the music, whether contemplative or fragmented, strongly emphasized the historical and religious backgrounds of the island of Iona, but was still most effective at earnestly conveying its stark beauty.
After McMillan's bleak images, Lalo's luminous Symphony Espagnole, which is in fact more of a violin concerto than anything else, quickly cheered everybody up with its wide range of Spanish rhythmical and harmonic elements, among which notably stood out leisurely languorous passages and spontaneously sparkling notes. Originally composed for violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, it openly radiated flamenco-infused lightness and sensuality while keeping the audience constantly engaged with its whimsical intricacies, and Joshua Bell seemed to have as much fun playing it as we did listening to it, easily succeeding in making us completely forget the unbelievably gorgeous fall afternoon we were missing outside.
The prevailing upbeat mood got drastically tempered after the intermission when we went back to Scotland courtesy of Mendelssohn's third symphony. But what a memorable trip it was! Written to be played without a pause, the composition is a seamless journey into the brooding Romantic emotions felt by Mendelssohn when confronted with Scotland's austere scenery, climate and history, which even the more light-hearted second movement cannot fully dissipate. Today, the richly dark melodies came beautifully alive thanks to a NSO obviously engrossed by the task at hand and conducted by a Hugh Wolff who clearly remained on top of things. Best of all, a fading sun was still bathing the late afternoon with a golden glow when we eventually came out, slowly reentering reality.

WPAS - The NY Philharmonic - Listz, Elgar & Prokofiev - 11/21/09

Conductor: Riccardo Muti
Liszt: Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem No 3, after Lamartine
Elgar: In the South (Alassio), Concert-overture for Orchestra, Op. 50
Prokofiev: Selections from Romeo and Juliet

Finally! After almost two decades without bothering with Washington, superstar maestro Muti found the time to bring his aristocratic demeanor and Italian charisma to our nation's capital to conduct the prestigious New York Philharmonic Orchestra with whom he's had a long and much involved relationship, but one which he has never made "official" despite a lot of ardent and repeated courting. The oldest orchestra in the US and one of the oldest ones in the world, the NY Philharmonic is as well-known at home as abroad, and was first presented by the Washington Performance Arts Society 60 years ago. Although I am not familiar with either Liszt's Les préludes or Elgar's In the South, I know enough about the composers' oeuvres to feel confident in their capacity to please. I was lucky enough to hear some excerpts of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet just a few weeks ago in Berlin with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, but one can never hear too much Prokofiev, so bring it on.

Probably the most popular among Liszt's symphonic poems, Les préludes had a tortuous genesis. The actual connection between the score and Lamartine's verse has often been seen as vague at best, but what has been clearly established is that the sequence of musical moods had originally been inspired by Joseph Autrans' poems regrouped under The Four Elements (Stars, Waves, Earth and Wind). Accordingly, yesterday afternoon we got to experience plenty of nuanced lyricism, some stormy weather and a life-affirming ending, all under the fully engaged control of Riccardo Muti, who firmly conducted an exceptionally tight orchestra.
Next, we moved to the musings of an Englishman in Italy with Elgar and his Edwardian take on the bucolic village of Andora. The result was a lively tone poem with an exuberant opening before grandly evoking ancient Rome and prettily exuding the joys of nature. Although the radiant viola solo was an unforgettable trip in itself (Who knew such an inconspicuous instrument could make such incredible sounds?), the whole orchestra beautifully delivered a truly brilliant account of the composer's striking vision of that part of Italy. As a loudly enthusiastic audience member kept on repeating to himself and everybody around him, the first part of the program was no less than "fabulous!"
Originally deemed "undanceable" by the dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet, Prokofiev's score for the ballet of Romeo and Juliet has long become a classic thanks to its Romantic-to-the-core musical interpretation of the famous tragedy. Yesterday, one only had to listen to "Montagues and Capulets" or "Masks" to quickly fall under the spell of their infectious melodic lines, but the more emotionally dramatic accounts, such as Romeo and Juliet's passionate love or Tybalt's violent death, received a masterful treatment as well. Beautiful music was made by our visitors on this late Saturday afternoon, and we can only hope to see them again soon, and together.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

WPAS - Leif Ove Andsnes & Robin Rhode - Mussorgsky, Schumann, Larcher - 11/20/09

Mussorgsky: Memories of Childhood - "Nurse and I" & "First punishment" (Nurse shuts me in a dark room)
Schumann: Kinderszenen, Op. 15
Larcher: What becomes
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

As timing would have it, I've been listening to a lot of piano playing these days. After Lang Lang a week before and Jean-Yves Thibaudet one day before, last night I was at the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center for another critic and audience favorite in the person of Leif Ove Andsnes. And to spice things up, this was not going to be just another recital, but rather a multi-media experience titled Pictures Reframed and featuring Mussorgsky's famous masterpiece Pictures at an Exhibition along with a couple of other works. His collaborator is Berlin-based, South African native Robin Rhode, a visual artist well-known for his eagerness to work in multiple, occasionally cross-pollinating, artistic realms. All this sounded pretty intriguing, and I figured that even if the video component did not work for me, I'd still have Leif Ove and his reliably superb command of his instrument.

The concert opened with two very different childhood memories of Mussorgsky meticulously rendered by the piano: an affectionate melody while reminiscing of his beloved nurse, a harsher piece depicting the sheer terror he felt when she locked him in a closet as a punishment.
Schumann's ever-popular Kinderszenen ("Scenes from Childhood") are 13 short pieces, each of them pointedly conveying an emotional state to which children and adults alike can easily relate. Here again, Leif Ove Andnes effortless navigated the different moods with nuance and delicacy.
After two thoroughly classical works, Thomas Larcher's decidedly modern What becomes stood out even more with its odd rhythms and string plucking on a piano whose sounds had been altered by various objects placed on it. Some animations created by Robin Rhode accompanied the music and added to the sense of ever-changing flow.
Lastly, the much anticipated opening notes of the first Promenade resonated, finally taking us on the familiar journey to leisurely peruse the Pictures at an Exhibition. Written by Modest Mussorgsky upon visiting the exhibition he had helped organized as a tribute to his deceased friend, the painter Viktor Hartmann, it still is his most popular work. The musical performance was of course as polish as could be in its force, depth and subtlety, and I would have been more than happy to settle for just that. As for the images and videos that were projected over the piano, I found some of them interestingly appropriate, others endlessly puzzling, and the whole experience, all things considered, only mildly engaging. The score being strongly evocative itself, credit has to be given to Robin Rhode for not just imaging the various movements' titles, but doing his own thing. The result turned out to be more unsettling, but more stimulating as well, even if, ultimately, the pianist's beautifully heartfelt interpretation of the wildly inventive composition clearly and decisively trumped up the visual accompaniment.

Friday, November 20, 2009

BSO - Daugherty, Listz & Berlioz - 11/19/09

Conductor: Marin Alsop
Daugherty: "Red Cap Tango" from Metropolis Symphony
Liszt: Totentanz - Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14

Whoever thinks that classical music is a high-brow hobby for some stuck-up elite was obviously not at Strathmore last night where the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its audience had a field day with their “Demons, Drama and Dance” program, which included three works featuring the famous medieval funeral hymn “Dies Irae”. Hearing my fellow Lyonnais Jean-Yves Thibaudet is always a treat, and even though I had heard him tackle Liszt’s Totentanz a mere six months ago with the National Symphony Orchestra, there was no way I was going to miss a repeat performance of one of my favorite musical pieces by one of my favorite pianists. Berlioz’s ground-breaking Symphonie Fantastique has proven time and time again that its title is no unfulfilled promise but an accurate description of its core quality, so I went all the way to Strathmore full of anticipation on an appropriately miserable, rainy November evening.

Daugherty's "Red Cape Tango" was an eclectic mix of musical styles unified by the "Dies Irae". While I found all those darn recurring castanets quite grating after a short while, some of those variations were unusual and pleasant, if not unforgettable.
Probably one of the most thrilling musical rides I’ve ever been on, Totentanz ("Dance of Death”) was my first introduction to Franz Liszt and hooked me up right away with the ferocious virtuosity and the devilish fun it so brashly exudes. After a rhythmically suspenseful opening, the piano unleashes freely rushing flows of daring stylistic innovations totally befitting the Hungarian composer who was, let's not forget, the most accomplished pianist of his time, if not all times. Even in the quieter moments, diabolical intensity menacingly hangs in the air and never gives the listener a full break from ghoulish evocations of marching corpses and dancing skeletons. Apparently more than eager to jump right in, last night Jean-Yves Thibaudet stylishly mixed Catholicism, Romanticism and macabre in a wickedly delirious recipe, and the resulting dish was hot, hot, hot.
But no matter how satisfying Totentanz was, the high point of the evening had to be the Symphonie Fantastique, which also has its own Dies Irae-driven passage during the orgiastic witches' sabbath. One of the most important and highly regarded works of the early Romantic period, Berlioz's An episode in the life of an artist is still widely performed all over the world. The magnificent score and the story it accompanies are in fact based on the composer's originally unrequited love for the English actress Harriet Smithson and each movement has a descriptive title and clear purpose. As the plot and the music unfold, his beloved reappears sporadically as the idée fixe, driving him to despair and eventually to a bad opium-infused trip that will not end up well. But all was well indeed for the audience yesterday as Marin Alsop assuredly led the orchestra into Berlioz's sumptuous fantasy. The "Passions" were dreamily melodic, the "Ball" both festive and contemplative, the "Scene in the field" harmoniously impressionist, the "March to the Scaffold" grandly alarming and the "Dream of a Witch's Sabbath" frightfully grotesque. More than worth metro's uncooperative schedule and the thunderstorm pouring on me on my way home.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

NSO - Glinka, Beethoven, Weber and Prokofiev - 11/13/09

Conductor: Andrew Litton
Glinka: Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 1 in C Major, Op. 15 - Lang Lang
Weber: Overture to Euryanthe, Op. 81
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 3 in C Major, Op. 26 - Lang Lang

Friday the 13th is supposed to be, for better or worse, a special day, and we definitely got a mixed bag of luck yesterday with a rain that kept on obstinately falling for the third day in a row, but also "An Evening with Lang Lang" programmed by the National Symphony Orchestra and featuring the young piano virtuoso whose claims to world-wide fame include amazing technical skills, an incredible personal story and brazen, crowd-pleasing performances. Yesterday, he was in town for not just one but two very different concertos, respectively composed by a young Beethoven and a mature Prokofiev. Not surprisingly the sold-out audience definitely looked more eclectic than usual and was apparently as eager to have a look at the still hot musical phenomenon as to actually listen to whatever music he was going to play. But a full auditorium is always a welcome sight, regardless of the motivation, and then it is on with the show.

The overture to Russla and Ludmilla opened the festivities with full-blown exuberance, totally in tune with the fairy tale that inspired Glinka's popular opera.
The general mood remained lifted but toned down with Beethoven's first published piano concerto (although not the first he ever wrote), which Lang Lang played with an enchanting grace that I frankly did not expect from him. The composer and pianist not being exactly known for their, ahem, light touch, it was a wonderful surprise to hear the elegant intricacies of the first movement, the shimmering delicacy of the second one, and the enthusiastic brio of the rondo-finale, all gently emphasized by a mostly tasteful, if sporadically borderline nonchalant, treatment. Andrew Litton was holding back the orchestra just enough to let the piano daintily express itself and acquaint us with a brand new concept: Lang Lang the sensitive artist. Misplaced clapping from an obviously uncertain but deeply appreciative audience added a dash of endearing spontaneity to the proceedings, at least once you got past the instinctive annoyed feelings.
Weber's overture to Euryanthe opened the second half with a lot of lyricism from a lot of violins for an unabashedly melodic prologue. Not very subtle, but it sure got our blood pumping.
Prokofiev's relentlessly tricky third piano concerto was the perfect opportunity to reconnect with an altogether familiar image: Lang Lang the technical wizard. His fingers flying all over the keyboard with mercurial precision, he expertly negotiated the thankless minefield without losing his newly-found lightness. The score was unusual, yet well-balanced: even if moments of conventional lyricism showed a more content side of the composer, his enfant terrible persona was never far off and frequently resurfaced with exacting challenges of speed and dexterity for the pianist. The last movement was in fact so bursting with virtuosic sparks that I can't even remember getting up to join the fast-rising, unanimous and long-lasting standing ovation that more than made up for the earlier, unexpectedly aborted one.
Even better, it earned us a lovely encore, which sent us fully elated into another dark and wet night.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

NGA - Yakov Kasman - Bach, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Schumann & Stravinsky - 11/08/09

Bach: "Largo" from Sonata for Organ in C Major, BWV 529
Tchaikovsky: From The Seasons, Op. 37 - February (Carnival), May (Starlit Nights) & August (Harvest)
Prokofiev: Sonata No 2 in D Minor, Op. 14
Schumann: Humoreske, Op. 20
Stravinsky: Trois mouvements de Petrouchka - Danse Russe, Chez Petrouchka & La semaine grasse

To conclude this Eastern European-flavored week, the National Gallery of Art presented Russian native pianist Yakov Kasman in a Russian-centric recital featuring Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky alongside Bach and Schumann. It was not as crowded to the brims as last week for Viennese Till Fellner, but the line was still impressive enough to prove the popularity of the soloist and the program. Besides, how best to end a incredibly warm and sunny fall weekend than with a piano recital in a lush garden?

The first work had quite an unusual background as Bach took the three instruments normally associated with a Baroque trio sonata and had the organ handle them all. The movement performed for us was the “Largo” from Bach’s Sonata for Organ in C Major, BWV 529, which had been transcribed into a piano solo piece by Russian piano virtuoso and composer Samuel Feinberg, one of the most knowledgeable interpreters of Bach. It was very engaging self-contained prologue and asserted Yakov Kasman’s seemingly effortless mastery of his instrument.
Next in line was Tchaikovsky with three of the 12 short pieces he had written for each month of the year. I had never heard of them before, but quickly fell under the spell of the exuberant festivities of Mardi Gras in February, nature's irresistible rebirth in May and the endless summer fun in August. These three parts of a whole were spiritedly contrasted from one another while still being united in their melodic power.
After easy-on-the-ears Tchaikovksy it was time for Prokofiev's much more personal style, which was vividly displayed in a wild ride happily mixing traditionalism and modernism. This stimulating cocktail was expertly stirred by Yasman who smartly negotiated all the twists and turns of the whole work.
Referring to temperament and not light-heartedness, Schumann's Humoreske smartly evoked a full range of various moods that were changing rapidly and seamlessly. This festival of human emotions was totally engaging and a lot of fun too.
Based on his Petrouchka ballet score, Stravinsky's three transcriptions for the piano were in no means just cute little asides. They were independent works designed to stand on their own, and Kasman made sure that they brilliantly did just that, therefore ending this enchanting concert with virtuosic sparks.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Szymanowski Quartet - Haydn, Szymanowski & Mendelssohn - 11/06/09

Haydn: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No 3, "Emperor"
Szymanowski: String Quartet No 2, Op. 56
Mendelssohn: String Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No 1

After the Czechs, then came the Poles! On my second trip to the Library of Congress this week, I was getting ready to hear another much praised string quartet from Eastern Europe and very much looking forward to an eclectic program that included classical, contemporary and romantic music. It was Friday evening, on the eve of what presented itself as a finally kind of relaxing weekend, so life was good, and about to get better.

First performed on the actual birthday of Emperor Franz II on February 12, 1797 in all the theaters in Vienna and the provinces, Haydn's song "Gott erhalte Franz der Kaiser" soon became the very popular unofficial first national anthem of Austria. After the Austrians abandoned it (along with the monarchy) it became the tune of the official national anthem of Germany. Easy come, easy go. The composer was actually so fond of the melody that he used it later for one of his most remarkable string quartets, and the rest has been chamber music history. Listening to it played by a terrifically tight and talented ensemble, it was easy to detect its attractive qualities while its sunny, elegant intricacies were filling up the packed auditorium.
After such a feast of refined lilting, Szymanowski's dissonant, occasionally harsh outbursts sounded even more so. Although it had some beautifully lyrical lines for the violins, his string quartet also contained sudden moments of uneasiness that kept on jolting the audience at the most unexpected turns. A little bit of sweet Romanticism here and more robust folksiness there yielded an unusual but stimulating composition, which the musicians handled with much poise and gusto.
You know you can always count on Mendelssohn to freely dispense galores of cheerful melodies and all-around happiness. After the whole array of sounds we had just been through, his Opus 44, which has sometimes been deemed inferior to his previous works, rose shiny and bright, putting everybody in a buoyant mood just in time for the weekend. Conclusion: Don't listen to the naysayers. Opus 44 is about as luminous and pleasurable as anything the man wrote (and that is saying something).

But before we left, our enthusiastic standing ovation earned us an outstanding reward in the form of a gorgeous "Melody" by prolific and eclectic Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk. All those strings made beautiful music together, and we can only hope for another opportunity to hear them again very soon.

Friday, November 6, 2009

NSO - Brahms & Prokofiev - 11/05/09

Conductor: Alexander Vedernikov
Brahms: C0ncerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 77 - Vadim Repin
Prokofiev: Symphony No 5 in B-Flat Major, Op. 100

It seems like Brahms' commanding violin concerto is as popular today as it has ever been, and 10 days after hearing it in Berlin courtesy of Joshua Bell, Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic, I was no less eager to hear the Russian duo of Vadim Repin and Alexander Vedernikov take a stab at it with the National Symphony Orchestra on my first foray back in the Kennedy Center concert hall since my return. Brahms and Prokofiev seem to be a fashionable couple these days too, because the Russian composer whose Romeo and Juliet ballet score were the very last notes I heard in the Konzerthaus was on the NSO bill as well with his grand Symphony No 5. Not to mention that last season the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented the same Brahms' violin concerto with the same Vadim Repin right before... Prokofiev's 5th Symphony. The more programs change...

As one of the most daunting challenges in the répertoire, Brahms' violin concerto demands a wide range of skills from the soloist taking it on. Vadim Repin has never been lacking in technical skills or nuanced sensitivity, and those assets for sure give him a major advantage when tackling such a mighty Romantic composition. But yesterday while he definitely demonstrated sharp precision and exquisite finesse, I did not think that he gave the big sweeping passages the élan they needed to decisively rise and swell and carry us all away. Not being needlessly showy is of course a laudable decision, however, fire and intensity are also indispensable to breathe full life into a work begging for it, and there was just not enough of them last night to make this attractively refined performance a truly exciting one. I also have to say that after having experienced live music in many different venues lately, I suspect that the notorious acoustics of the Kennedy Center concert hall probably contributed in making the music occasionally sound lackluster despite the obvious commitment of everybody onstage. So that may also have had to do with the general feeling of having just witnessed a perfectly honorable achievement, yes, but not an all-around dazzling feat.
Things notably perked up with Prokofiev's richly emotional score which he dedicated to the spirit of Man. His Symphony No 5 was composed within a single month in 1944, and the long-coming fulfillment he was then experiencing personally and professionally certainly had a large influence on his more direct style that expertly combines darkness and tension with exuberance and happiness. The unabashedly joyous Finale aims at reiterating his faith in the human race, and in the right hands brilliantly concludes a thoroughly exceptional work. Accordingly, Alexander Vedernikov let the orchestra lose and even seemed to encourage them to splash around to their hearts' content, allowing for a rambunctious but highly enjoyable performance. Prokofiev would have been pleased.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Zemlinsky Quartet - Mozart, Kalabis & Zemlinsky - 11/03/09

Mozart: String Quartet in C Major, K. 465, "Dissonance"
Kalabis: String Quartet No 7, Op. 76
Zemlinsky: String Quartet No 1 in A Major, Op. 4

Yesterday evening I finally found my way back to the Library of Congress concert series for the first time since last June. While I fully enjoy the sweeping nature of symphonic performances, I have to say that some my most thrilling highs have happened in the Coolidge Auditorium, where quite often chamber music ensembles have forever broadened and deepened my appreciation for that more intimate but so engaging form of musical entertainment. A lot of them were totally unknown to me at the time and turned out to be true revelations, so I naturally keep going back for more. As a well-timed nod to my still vividly remembered four days in Prague, yesterday's program featured a young Czech quartet whose ever-growing trajectory was probably the reason why they've changed their name from the Penguin Quartet to the more dignified Zemlinsky Quartet.

The concert started off with a spirited quartet by Mozart, and I have to say that it was impossible for my non theoretically trained ears to find the justification for its surprising nickname: "Dissonance". A detailed technical explanation was provided in the program, of course, but what the heck. I fully enjoyed the progression of the music from original dark undertones to eventual soaring exuberance and as far as I'm concerned, the experts can debate all they want.
Then we somewhat predictably moved on to a Czech composer, the prolific and almost contemporary Viktor Kalabis. Just one movement, the work featured strong melodic currents and flew by in a flash.
I'm assuming that a little something by their namesake was in order, and we did get a prettily melodic piece that very nicely rounded up the evening.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Till Fellner - All-Beethoven - 11/01/09

Beethoven: Sonata No 25 in G Major, Op. 79
Beethoven: Sonata No 24 in F Sharp Major, Op. 78
Beethoven: Sonata No 15 in D Major, Op. 28 ("Pastoral")

Beethoven: Sonata No 27 in E Minor, Op. 90
Beethoven: Sonata No 4 in E-Flat Major, Op. 7

It is incredibly hard to believe that two weeks have already past since I heard Till Fellner's enchanting Beethoven recital in Vienna, almost as hard to believe that I've just come back from the same Beethoven program performed by the same Till Fellner, not looking one hour older than a fortnight ago, at the National Gallery of Art. Needless to say I was very surprised to hear that he was going to give a concert in such a small venue more generally associated with up-and-coming or lesser known musicians, but needless to say very happy too. Planning to get there waaaaaaayyyyyyy ahead of time turned out to be particularly good thinking because even with showing up over an hour before the starting time, the line was already exceptionally long and the ushers were quietly fretting about getting everybody in, which, to their credit, they did, even if the late-comers had to sit in the hall.

The atrium of the National Gallery of Art may be a really lovely place to relax, read, have a conversation or muse about all the priceless artworks around the corner, but the fact of the matter is it is not the most conducive space to hear a classical music concert. Tall, luxuriant plants and an imposing fountain supporting two lovely putti frolicking with a goose impede normal seating, and the music tends to lose some of itself in the wide openness, but never mind. The magic still fully operated and we got to enjoy a remarkably nuanced performance of Beethoven's sonatas from his early and middle periods. As usual, the pianist was fully focused and beautifully expressed the many qualities of the various pieces with clarity, poetry and aplomb. A nostalgic thought of my wonderful stay in Vienna naturally entered my mind... All that was missing was a hot chocolate and a pastry (Sigh).

Saturday, October 31, 2009

National Philharmonic - Bach, Brahms & Beethoven - 10/31/09

Conductor: Piotr Gajewski
Bach: Keyboard Concerto No 5 in F Minor, BWV 1056 - Brian Ganz
Brahms: Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra in A Minor, Op. 102 (Double Concerto) - Elena Urioste & Zuill Bailey
Beethoven: Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra in C Major, Ip. 56 (Triple Concerto) - Brian Ganz, Elena Urioste & Zuill Bailey

With my body safely back on US soil and my mind hopefully following soon, I decided that the best way to deal with the oh so abrupt return (but they always are, aren't they?) to reality was, what else, a little bit of music. As luck would have it, the National Philharmonic had just the perfect little pick–me-up for my sluggish spirits in "The Three Bs", a judiciously put together program featuring three German giants of classical music: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, each representing a distinct period and genre in classical music, in some cases informing one other. But regardless of the fascinating musicological study, I was mostly interested in hearing some engaging compositions back in my dear Strathmore, which, I have to say, looked a bit blah after the spectacular concert halls I had been visiting the past couple of weeks. Some uplifting music was, however, there.

And what better company to get things started than Bach and his novel-at-the-time, three-movement keyboard concerto, a form that had recently been imported from Italy? By turns vigorous and contemplative, it was a lively piece that was enhanced by the harmonious collaboration between orchestras and soloist. Pianist Bruno Ganz proved he could easily handle the task at hand, attractively vivacious during the Allegro and the Presto, quietly melodic in the Largo.
Second on the program while third in chronological order, Brahms’ Double Concerto was in fact his last orchestral work and turned out to be as complex and involving as any of his symphonies. Guest violinist Elena Urioste and cellist Zuill Bailey may be young in years, but they put their promising skills to good use, whether individually or together, and brought harmonious clarity to the uncommon composition.
Although it was written between Bach and Brahms, having Beethoven’s Triple Concerto performed at the end of the concert actually made complete sense because it required the three soloists to fully participate in various combinations, creating a truly rare but immensely enjoyable ensemble. That worked!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - Berlioz, Brahms & Prokofiev - 10/26/09

Conductor: Charles Dutoit
Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9
Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 77 - Joshua Bell
Prokofiev: Romeo et Juliet - Ballet Suite

The dreaded last day of the last leg of my fabulous tour had finally arrived, but at least I wouldn't attend just any final performance. I had been drooling outside Berlin's historical Konzerthaus every time I passed by harmoniously proportioned Gendarmenmarkt, and its October program was one of the first things I had checked once my travel plans had become more concrete. Apollo was obviously looking after me because there they were: the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Charles Dutoit and Joshua Bell, definitely sounding like the perfect company with whom to make it through the finish line. Of course, the fateful timing also meant that for the first time ever I found myself in the very odd position of only half-heartedly looking forward to a Joshua Bell performance, of no less than Brahms' formidable violin concerto in this case, but time's inexorable march could not be stopped, and at least the cup was half-way promisingly full.
Once there, the evening started on a slightly wrong note as I, along with many others, got (nicely) asked not to take pictures of the Konzerthaus' incredibly beautiful auditorium. After shooting to my heart's content everywhere I had gone during the past two weeks, it hadn't even occurred to me that it would be found objectionable on my very last stop. All the other venues apparently did not mind, maybe out of resignation (Can't beat the camera-toting masses), maybe out of common sense (Why resent free advertising?). This concert hall was probably the most spectacular I had seen so far, not so much for the opulence of its decorations than for the tasteful combination of its soothing colors, white statues and discreet ornaments, all anchored by an imposing silver organ looming over the stage. You felt your mind elevated by just being there.

Such a stunning place deserved stunning music, and everybody on that stage contributed to deliver just that. The first number by Berlioz, especially composed as a concert opener, fulfilled its purpose with brio. Starting slowly but then picking up pace, it quickly created a festive atmosphere.
It may never take the prime spot securely held by Tchaikovsky's in my heart, but Brahms' majestic violin concerto comes an extremely close second. One of the most popular and regularly performed works in classical music, it is also one of those timeless masterpieces that make the pulse of even non music lovers irresistibly go faster. Monday night, we were blessed to have Joshua Bell take full command of it and flawlessly work his way through the relentlessly challenging score, fiercely intense in the more dramatic moments, soaringly lyrical in the more introspective ones, completely freaking out the young, wide-eyed Italian violin student sitting next to me in the process. Bottom line is, if we cannot get Joseph Joachim to channel Brahms anymore, Joshua Bell will do just fine. Even more than fine, actually. One of the many highlights of the performance was a particularly moving Adagio whose ethereally graceful opening melody was eloquently carried out by the oboe before the violin made its subdued, dreamy entrance, taking us all on a short, but deeply thoughtful journey. Quickly shifting gears, the third movement provided spirited fireworks reminiscent of the joyful exuberance of Hungarian folk music and concluding this brilliant tour de force with flash and substance.
After extended and rapturous applause, Joshua Bell came back with something "a little silly" (As he rightfully pointed out, what can you play after Brahms?), but also full of fun and virtuosity: Souvenirs d'Amérique by Belgian violinist Henri Vieuxtemps, which, beside dazzling the audience with its smart, crafty variations on Yankee Doodle, was also a nice nod to my imminent return to the good old US of A.
Full-blown Romanticism was still in the air when the orchestra and its conductor came back for a lively assortment of excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Striking the perfect balance between technical precision and heart-felt sentimentality, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Charles Dutoit kept this beloved ballet score going seamlessly despite playing only chosen parts of it. The superb string sections made sure that the famously gorgeous melodic lines rose and expanded in all their lusciousness, giving the music a true symphonic grandeur. Quite a way to end an evening, and my own Eastern European musical journey.

Mission accomplished! After mentally extending my most grateful thanks to Joshua, Charles and Co for totally rocking my last night out, I had to psychologically prepare myself to abandon this shamelessly self-indulgent dolce vita of feasts for the eye by day and feasts for the ear by night (not to forget those divine hot chocolate and pastry breaks!) and reluctantly fly back to Washington and the real world. The party is over for now, but while I am catching my breath (and paying my bills) on the other side of the pond, I am also making plans for my next expedition. So much music, so little time.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Komische Oper Berlin - La Bohème - 10/25/09

Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Carl Sr Clair
Director: Andreas Homoki
Mimi: Brigitte Geller
Rodolphe: Timothy Richards
Musetta: Mirka Wagner
Marcello: Tom Erik Lie

The last opera on the program as my fantastic trip is slowly coming to an end, La Bohème was another must-see not only for the sheer pleasure of hearing Puccini's beautifully melodic music, but also to check out Berlin's famous Komische Oper. As I had heard that its ugly bunker-like modern facade hid a grandly decorated interior, I of course had to go check it out for myself. I was also aware that it specializes in German works, and that all performances taking place on that stage had to be in German. Needless to say I was curious to see how Puccini and the German language would mix (or not) and figured that I might also witness this enduring classic among operas get a contemporary treatment too, which made the adventure even more intriguing.
As I was stepping in the richly, but not ostentatiously, decorated auditorium, I did notice that the stage promised a modern production indeed. Bare, except for a grey wall covering the background, it had absolutely nothing to do with a Parisian artist's garret, but I decided to roll with it.

The story got underway with the four destitute buddies trying to generate some heat and escape the landlord on Christmas' Eve, and the familiarity with the action and music sure helped deal with, if not get over, the weirdness of hearing the well-known score sung in German. As the plot was predictably unfolding, that language thing just wouldn't go away, especially when Mimi turned up with her extinguished candle and the much loved arias "Che gelida manina" and "Mi chiamano Mimi", which are so essential in establishing the two main characters, rose competently, yes, but not as enchantingly as in Italian, that's for sure. The German language's inherent harshness was truly an odd match to Puccini's gloriously lyrical composition, and that did not quite compute for me.
That, of course, does not mean that the singing was not praise-worthy. Looking eerily like a young Jeff Daniels, Timothy Richards' Rodolfo was most of the time as endearingly immature as can be and did carry his love for Mimi across loudly, if not always subtly. Poor sweet Mimi was wonderfully impersonated by Brigitte Geller whose light but powerful voice enhanced her vulnerability. As Musetta, Mirka Wagner first appeared as a vulgar high-priced hooker, but eventually redeemed herself at Mimi's deathbed, and as her sometimes paramour, Tom Erik Lie was a reliable Marcello.
The production had made cool choices, such as bringing a huge Christmas tree and laying on the side on the stage during the first act, having it stand up and decorated by the chorus during the second act, and setting up a dreamy half-prepared banquet during the final act, all revelatory hints to quickly situate the action, but discreet enough not to be distracting. The snow, for example, which had actually started falling before the start of the performance and would do so sporadically as the story was unfolding, may be an easy effect, but it is always a winner: pretty-looking and unmistakeably evocative of cold and winter. The well-coordinated chorus tended to appear even when not called for, making the stage much more crowded than it needed to be, but also adding a Bretchian distance to the proceedings as they were watching the main characters interact.
The best decision though, was to have the opera performed without intermission, therefore making the evening fly by and wrapping things up in less than two hours. Another proof that this can be done successfully, and should in fact be done more often, especially for the less strenuous operas where breaks amount to little more than a waste of time for the audience (but probably a gain for the concession stands).

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Staatsoper Unter den Linden - Salome - 10/23/09

Composer: Richard Strauss
Conductor: Pedro Halffter
Director: Harry Kupfer
Salome: Angela Denoke
Jokanaan: James Rutherford
Herodes: Reiner Goldberg
Herodias: Daniela Denschlag

Berlin was a particularly bitter-sweet last stop on my whirlwind Eastern European tour because while it is a place whose endless possibilities I've always enjoyed exploring, my dear friend Nyla would not be there to join me on either my sightseeing expeditions or cultural outings. Her spacious apartment hadn't changed though, and sure felt like a five-star palace after my ever-shrinking lodgings in the previous cities. Moreover, being on somewhat familiar territory at last allowed for less running around and more relaxation, even if it negated the potent thrill of making brand new discoveries at every corner.
The first opera on my program was Richard Strauss' Salome. After Tosca and Carmen, here came yet another remarkably complicated and powerful female character, one who could actually teach a thing or two about getting what they want to her older fellow opera heroines. Oscar Wilde's play, which was interestingly written in French before being translated into English by the author himself, unsurprisingly did not have an easy time getting produced when it first came out, but has since become a classic. Unfolding in a single act and clocking in under two hours, Richard Strauss' operatic version of it remains faithful to the original explosive mix of biblical, erotic and murderous themes and was going to start my Berlin stay with a fully-loaded punch, back in the Deutsche Staatsoper where last year I saw... Tosca.

As the capricious and iron-willed (always a scary combination) princess, Angela Denoke proved what a formidable force of nature she was under her unassuming small frame. She did not bother trying to make her Salome even remotely sympathetic, but fiercely emphasized the rapidly maturing adolescent's idée fixe of "kissing Jokanaan's mouth". Her incredibly strong, wide-ranging voice accomplished the no small feat of rising above the orchestra and had enough staying power to flawlessly match Strauss' luxuriantly complex score. She perfectly embodied the childish stubbornness and womanly lust that are Salome's calling card, and her last monologue was a truly frightening display of consuming decadence. As for the famed Orient-inspired "Dance of the Seven Veils", probably the most graphically sensual eight minutes in the history of opera, it was as unabashedly suggestive as can be, if not classically graceful, although Angela Denoke did keep a skin-colored body stocking on.
She was more than aptly surrounded by her male partners: James Rutherford, who as the prophet Jokanaan was as charismatic as they come with his powerful presence and stirring voice, and Reiner Goldberg, who fully embodied a pitifully lascivious and feeble-minded Herodes, looking more like a laughable clown than a capable monarch. The only weak link there was Daniela Dengschlag, who in the smaller role of Herodias did not project enough as a singer or an actress to be on a par with her more attention-grabbing partners.
Salome and her dreadfully dysfunctional family are definitely not refined fare, but the opera's sheer madness and glorious crassness are also deliciously beguiling. This production made good use of the composition's strengths by keeping the set grimly simple and focusing on the out-standing music and singing, which is, after all, what opera is primarily about.

The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra - Martinu, Tchaikovsky & Dvorak - 10/22/09

Conductor: Jakub Hrusa
Martinu: Estampes for Orchestra, H 369
Tchaikovsky: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 35 - Nicola Benedetti
Dvorak: Symphony No 7 in D Minor, Op. 70

After the short chamber music concert in the Church of Saint Nicholas, it was time to tackle the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in their home, the Rudolfinum, for an appropriately Czech composers-centered program featuring Martinu and Dvorak. But truth be told, my main reason to be there was rising Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti who was going to play my beloved Tchaikovsky violin concerto. The venue turned out to be welcoming but visually low-key, except for the mighty Greek columns surrounding the balcony, seemingly ready to sustain any kind of seismic event. The no less impressive chandelier was eye-popping too, but compared to the richly elaborated places to which I had been previously, this was definitely understated.

But the music was worth concentrating on. Martinu's piece was a good warm-up, with a lot of rhythm changes that made the listener pay attention. I was not sure where it was going or what it was trying to say (if anything), but it was pleasant to the ear.
Next, Nicola Benedetti appeared on the stage in a pale dress that was wrapping her sculptural figure so tightly I was afraid it would break apart as soon as she would take a deep breath, let alone play Tchaikovsky's demanding composition. But she and the dress managed all right, even if her energy-filled playing did not always convey the many subtleties of the magnificent score. In fact, she tore through it with such ferociousness that it actually made me wonder if she had some issues to settle with her violin... or Tchaikovsky. Even though she did slow down for the island of melancholy that is the Canzonetta, her touch was by no means light enough to make this precious little jewel fully shine. Too much agitation and too little finesse made her performance noticeable mostly for its loud flamboyance, and while the razzle-dazzle was impressive in its sheer virtuosity, all the delicate nuances that make this intrinsically lyrical concerto so special were sorely missing. Although it is hard for me to believe they had never heard it played better before, the audience gobbled it all up and rewarded her with long, rapturous applause.
After catching our breath during intermission, it was time for Dvorak's Symphony No 7. I really can't say that I would go out of my way for Dvorak in general (his cello concerto and his symphony No 9 being the exceptions. Duh!), but when I get a chance to hear one of his works, I often find myself surprised at how much I do enjoy them. This symphony did the trick again, and I happily got caught up in its attractive, dark melodies. Quite a fitting good-bye to Prague before moving on to Berlin for the final leg of my tour.

Czech String Trio - Beethoven & Mozart - 10/22/09

Beethoven: Serenade in D Major, Op. 8
Mozart: Divertimento in E Flat Major, K. 563

On my last day in Prague, good timing gave me the opportunity to indulge not once, but twice in live classical music. The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra had been planned for a while, but the city had turned out to be an endless source of concerts in churches and other informal venues, and the Beethoven-Mozart double bill presented by a local string trio in the historical Church of Saint Nicholas on the Old Town Square was just too good to pass. The setting was just lovely, all white walls with discreet black ironwork and gilded decorations, the colorful paintings being relegated to the ceiling. The concert's organizers were obviously taking the audience's enjoyment seriously because at starting time, the doors were closed and nobody else was allowed in, thus preventing any disturbances by casual visitors or late-comers.

Beethoven's serenade, by turns playful and romantic, rose beautifully in the serene environment. It was such a pleasure to finally be able to hear truly inspiring music in such optimum conditions! A nostalgic whiff of my recent wonderful stay in the Austrian capital came and stayed as the musicians did wonders channeling the Viennese master.
Not to be outdone, Mozart's divertimento was Prague's adopted son at his finest, all intricate melodies and refined entertainement. My busy schedule may not have allowed me to see the famous puppet show of Don Giovanni, but at least I got to enjoy a full-scale work by its composer, and I was happy to settle for that.

The National Theater - Carmen - 10/21/09

Director: Josef Bednarik
Conductor: Zbynek Muller
Carmen: Jolana Fogasova
Don Jose: Valentin Prolat
Escamillo: Martin Barta
Michaela: Dana Buresova

After a dreadfully drawn-out Rinaldo, what better way to renew my love for the fascinating art of opera than with everybody's favorite gypsy: Carmen? Boasting an irresistible heroine, infectious melodies and a plot involving love, jealousy and the ill-fated collision of two opposite worlds, Bizet's masterpiece has kept audiences enthralled for well over a century now and is not likely to disappear into obscurity anytime soon. This was also the perfect opportunity for me to check out Prague's National Theater whose imposing structure stands on the eastern end of the Legil Bridge.
While the exterior is dark, probably because of the heavy traffic in the area, the entrance was pleasant and the auditorium featured attractive gilded Greek columns and ornaments standing out against a dark red background. The sold-out crowd was again an even mix or Praguers and foreigners, the latter probably there as much to enjoy the actual performance as to have a look at the venue (Nobody will have me believe that there were many die-hard Rinaldo fans at the Estates Theater the night before).

The first vision of the opera was on grim prison walls that would come back at the beginning of each act, eventually opening on each set. The various décors were rather sober, but costumes and accessories would add brightly colorful touches here and there. After the minimalist off-white tones of the first act, the second one was a vivid explosion of red and black Spanish outfits for the rambunctious tavern scene. When hiding on the mountains, it was back to sobriety with dark hats and leather coats (and a bicycle for Carmen), and the finale was back to basic black and white. Visually and thematically, it definitely worked.
But no matter how well the various elements came together, all eyes and ears were predictably on the reckless femme fatale, and Jolana Fogasona for sure displayed enough blatantly carefree demeanor and soaring vocal power to steadily carry the demanding role on her robust shoulders. Although she first appeared in a virginal flowing white dress, her sensuous moves and shameless flirting quickly made it abundantly clear that there was absolutely nothing even remotely chaste or subdued about her. She sang with fully controlled force and virtuosity, intensely asserting her fiercely independent spirit and ferociously pacing the stage when things were not going her way. As Don Jose, Valentin Prolat was effectively expressing how deeply shocked he was at being led astray and utterly unable to do anything about it. His rival for Carmen's affections, Martin Barta exuded all the insufferable narcissism traditionally associated with the bullfighter Escamillo. But the star the evening turned out to be Dana Buresova, who as sweet Michaela brought down the house with just a couple of impeccably high-flying arias.
Some of the production's choices were particularly welcome, such as getting rid of the spoken parts. It made the story flow more seamlessly, did not deprive the audience of any information, and we all saved time. Hurray! Others, however, were less judicious: I'm not sure why there was so much smoke blowing so often, and the insertions of the ballets routines were for the most part perplexing. But it was all in all a thoroughly enjoyable evening, which even ended surprisingly when, after a bit of water-boarding and the fatal stab, Carmen's dead body ended up in... a fountain, making for an unexpected but literally splashing finale.

The Estates Theater - Rinaldo - 10/20/09

Composer: Georg Friedrich Handel
Conductor: Valclav Luks
Director: Louise Moaty
Rinaldo: Mariana Rewerski
Almirena: Katerina Knezikova
Argante: Adam Plachetka
Armida: Marie Fajtova

After the lovely little concert the day before, it was time to focus on one of my main reasons to come to Prague in the first place: a visit to the historical Estates Theater, where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni and which has since become an obligatory stop on every music lover's European tour. Baroque operas have never my cup of tea with their static postures, affected gestures, women in trousers and, worst of all, endless repetitions, but, hey, Mozart rules. After a quick homework, I figured that at least the story line revolving around the fight between the Crusaders and the Sacasens for Jerusalem, with of course some relationship issues and a few magical tricks thrown in for good measure, wouldn't be hard to follow, if not overly exciting.
After the gasp-inducing extravagance of Budapest and the underwhelming minimalism of Vienna, the Estates Theater auditorium was nicely dominated by a soothing blue punctuated by white putti and gilded ornaments. This is only one of three opera venues in the Czech capital, but as far as I was concerned, it was of course the most special one, and stepping into it was already a dream come true regardless of the actual performance.

And the performance in fact was not half-bad after all, just twice as long as it should have been, but we'll blame the score for that. All what can make a baroque opera unappealing was there, and we even go a couple of unnecessary ballet routines. The mezzo sopranos adequately filled their male roles, even if I can't help but find there is something inherently wrong in having women play men's roles as they tend to make them look and sound, well, effeminate. Giving these parts to counter-tenors, as it is frequently done nowadays, would have been a smart move, but that didn't happen.
On the other hand, the two female parts were powerfully sung, with a special nod to Marie Fajtova, who was a most beguiling enchantress. Her first appearance descending from the sky on her golden dragon-drawn carriage was as mesmerizing as her alluring voice and brought a welcome splash of earthy sexiness to the agonizingly refined on-going proceedings. In sharp contrast to Almirena's unbounded fierceness, her rival Armida was the perfect picture of sweetness and virtue. Argante was a welcome bass among all the higher notes and a well-suited counterpart to his scheming mistress.
The set was simply but efficiently designed, and the warm candle-light glow in which it would bathe all evening created some really arresting tableaux such as the golden birds flying down to the sound of the flute or an ocean conjured up by undulating pieces of blue fabric. The tall tree trunks that were occasionally moved around discreetly served their purposes and the nicely detailed costumes added to the attractive visual effects.
But let's face it, three and a half hours to come to the conclusion that "vile envy is defeated only by virtuous emotions" is way too long, especially when the same sentence is sung ad infinitum. The Spanish-speaking couple sitting next to me smartly left during the second intermission, along with quite a few others, and I ended up envying them (Speaking of envy...). The conductor Valclav Luks kept the capable orchestra going at a good pace, but couldn't accomplish any miracle in terms of duration. Never mind. It was still a total thrill to finally be in a venue forever associated with Mozart and his operatic masterpiece, and one more name to cross off my list of places to see before I die.

Musica Pragensis - Mozart, Pachelbel, Bach, Handel, Bach-Gounod, Schubert & Vivaldi - 10/19/09

Musica Pragensis
Mozart: Ave Verum
Pachelbel: Kanon
Bach: Air
Handel: Allegro - Passacaglia
Bach-Gounod: Ave Maria
Mozart: Church Sonatas A & F Major
Schubert: Ave Maria
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons - "Spring" & "Summer"

After getting over the stunning sight that is Prague's Old Town Square, and a few minutes later the no less stunning sight that is the Charles Bridge, I found myself in front of the Church of San Salvadore, right at the eastern end of the bridge, and noticed a program outside advertising Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Because it had started 10 minutes earlier, I quickly bought a ticket from the more than willing vendor outside and stepped into a richly decorated interior where some delicate music welcomed me.

As I was quietly getting myself together and trying to figure out what season we were in, I was surprised (and worried!) not to be able to place it. A few more minutes led me to the conclusion that they were not playing the Four Seasons at all, but rather some liturgical arias with among them (Surprise!) the two perennial Ave Maria by Gounod and Schubert. Eventually, we did get to hear Vivaldi's "Spring" and "Summer", the latter ending the performance with a fierce, mean storm. Although the string quartet was evidently of the competent kind, I couldn't help but find that the sound left quite a bit to be desired, not meshing well together and/or getting lost in the space. I suspect, however, that my seat in the back corner had a lot to do with that, but I guess that was the punishment for being late.

As I grabbed a flyer on my way out, I realized that the program we had just heard was in fact the one announced, with The Four Seasons more prominently displayed than the other numbers. In my eagerness not to waste another minute, I hadn't carefully reviewed the poster, but all was well that ended well as this had been a rather enjoyable introduction to Prague's classical music scene.

Till Fellner - All-Beethoven - 10/18/09

Beethoven: Sonata No 25 in G Major, Op. 79
Beethoven: Sonata No 24 in F Sharp Major, Op. 78
Beethoven: Sonata No 15 in D Major, Op. 28 ("Pastoral")

Beethoven: Sonata No 27 in E Minor, Op. 90
Beethoven: Sonata No 4 in E-Flat Major, Op. 7

As I was getting mentally prepared to abandon Vienna and its incredible abundance of art museums, musical performances and, yum, pastries, I had decided that my last night in the Austrian capital would be a 100% Viennese evening, and it sounded like a Beethoven recital by homeboy-who-did-good Till Fellner at the Konzerthaus would just about fit the bill. A Viennese musical marathon started with a light-hearted concert aimed at unsuspecting tourists was going to finish with a die-hard purist's dream as I had been watching with interest the visitors/locals ratio of the various audiences slowly but surely switch from one extreme to the other. Once on site, the Art Nouveau Mozart Saal looked downright minimalist after the gilded splendors of other venues and perfectly appropriate for the more intimate format of a recital. More importantly, not a single camera came out and the entire audience looked made of Vienna residents exclusively. Full immersion at last!

As a true-blue Viennese citizen and a keenly sensitive musician, Fellner had no problem taking us on an enlightening journey into Beethovensland, from the relatively "uncomplicated" (at least according to Mozart) Sonata No 25 to the longer, overtly ambitious Sonata No 4. I had lucked out with my seat, and my unobstructed view on his fingers allowed me to become the mesmerized witness of their stunning dexterity, barely touching the keys during the more introspective passages, authoritatively asserting their power at the peak of intensity. Once securely positioned at the keyboard, Till Fellner's boyish demeanor gave way to a talent as mature as it was genuine, and the whole performance paid a very moving tribute to Beethoven's compositional genius.

A resounding and prolonged ovation earned us a remarkable encore, Sonata No 1, Op. 49, as fully accomplished as any of the previous pieces, and I was deeply grateful to the shyly beaming young virtuoso for such an elating finale in his hometown.

Vienna Philharmonic - R. Strauss & Beethoven - 10/18/09

Conductor: Ceorges Prêtre
R. Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40
Beethoven: Symphony No 3 in E-Flat Major, Eroica

Sunday was my last day in Vienna, and I was finally reaching the highest level of music appreciation with a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein in the morning and a recital by Till Fellner at the Konzerthaus in the evening. If not here and now, then where and when? One of the most prestigious orchestras in the world and composed uniquely of carefully selected members of the Vienna State Opera orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic has also come under fierce criticism for its deep-rooted reluctance to hire women and minorities in order to preserve its prized homogeneity. Even so, the self-administered body does not have to make any effort to sell tickets: there's a waiting list to buy subscriptions (13 years for weekends, 6 years for week nights) and single tickets are notoriously hard to come by. I had managed to get a standing room one right after my arrival in Vienna and that had been so far the most elating moment of this trip. On Sunday morning, as soon as I got into the downright stunning Golden Hall of the Musikverein, I quickly realized that I would be standing among not only fellow out-of-towners, but also down-on-their-luck members of the crème de la crème of Viennese society stuck with the rest of us, all united in deep gratefulness for the opportunity to stand with an obstructed view for a couple of hours.

The thème du jour was obviously heroism as the works on the program were titled Ein Heldenleben (A hero's life) and Eroica, and the whole performance proved to be truly heroic indeed. Strauss' pictorialist portrait of the hero's struggles, victories and musing was my first live introduction to the famous Vienna Philharmonic's sound, and its impeccable clarity and flawless cohesion were as remarkable in the thundering moments as in the quieter ones. The composition's unusual format is basically a 30-minute symphonic poem featuring a 15-minute violin concerto, and the result was a fluid, robust, brilliant performance under the eminent control of George Prêtre.
Beethoven's Eroica has never been one of my favorites among his oeuvre, but I of course had never heard it played like that before. Even if I still find the military passages overly pompous from my taste, I'll be the first to admit that the solemn, gripping darkness of the funeral march was unrepressingly hair-raising. But the strings were the indisputable winners every time the violins let their concentrated lush sound soar as one, not to mention the violin solos magnificently brought to life by the dreadfully young and talented concertmistress. Another sign of being blessed by divine grace were a couple of shy but distinct sun rays coming through the upper windows and naturally brightening the artificially lit auditorium, gently bringing some celestial light and beauty to a mostly grey and cold Viennese Sunday.

Vienna State Opera - Tosca - 10/17/09

Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Keri-Lynn Wilson
Director: Margarethe Wallmann
Tosca: Daniela Dessi
Cavaradossi: Fabio Armiliato
Scarpia: Egils Silins

Although it would have been more appropriate to see an opera in German in the Austrian capital, my beloved Tosca was scheduled at the Vienna State Opera during my stay around the corner, and there was no way I was going to miss that. This was my first opera, and its easy-to-follow story of love, lust, jealousy, politics and death dramatically carried out by three explosive characters singing riveting melodies is still my "comfort opera" despite its rather gruesome ending. Originally a French play by Victorien Sardou deemed by some as too violent, Puccini decided to turn it into an opera after seeing Sarah Berhardt perform it, and after a difficult gestation the rest has been history. As I am patiently waiting to go appraise the Met's controversial new production of it in January, I figured a refresher in Vienna couldn't hurt and was the perfect occasion to check out this legendary venue as well. The imposing Neo-Rennaissance building had fittingly quite a high-drama beginning when one of its architects, Eduard van der Null, committed suicide after the emperor Franz Joseph expressed his dislike of the new creation by calling it a "railway station". Less than a century later, it was almost completely destroyed by WW II bombings and eventually reopened in 1955 with Don Giovanni, bringing a new breath of fresh musical air to the still recovering city.
In line with its majestic exterior, the grand marble staircase was definitely, well, grand. Richly decorated with frescoes, mirrors, chandeliers and statues representing the seven arts, the entrance was truly an arresting sight. Even the tea salon was mesmerizing in its shameless opulence. Therefore, I was all the more surprised at how underwhelming the auditorium was. The dominant color was an attractive dark red, but the space was paradoxically low-key, if pleasant, eons away from the free-flowing explosion of red and gold of its Budapest rival. Here again, size is not everything.

The Vienna State Opera keeps on attracting music lovers from all over the world with the quality of it productions, and in that regard, Tosca was another case in point. Once the plot got going, the three main protagonists were fiercely interacting the old-fashioned way, building up dramatic tensions and ruthlessly fighting tooth and nails to reach their own goals. In this rather traditional production, which nevertheless yielded beautifully composed tableaux, they essentially let their singing do the work, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with that.
As the hot-blooded diva, Daniela Dessi was as incandescently hot as the scarlet dress in which she first appeared. Deeply passionate about every aspect of her life, from her love for Cavadarossi to her singing career and religious beliefs, she intensely lived and breathed her conflicted emotions, effectively expressing them with her high-flying, wide-ranging voice. Her equally ardent lover, Fabio Armiliato, had the unmistakable romantic look and demeanor of the artist/revolutionary Cavaradossi, which combined with its solid, warm voice made him the perfect ill-fated hero. As the big bad villain everybody loves to hate, Egils Silins' Scarpia was all evil deep down inside behind the suave facade and the aristocratic restraint, his rich, dark voice and authoritative tone strongly asserting who was really running the show, at least until he received Tosca's fatal "kiss".
If the singing was relentlessly soaring all evening, the conducting was exceptionally muscular as well, actually up to a fault. The young American conductor Kerri-Lynn Wilson was obviously taking her task much to heart, but may not have always been in control of the intensity of the playing. Tosca being such an "all-fire-no-ice" opera, it is easy to be carried away by its high-octave drama, but it becomes a real problem when the singers cannot be heard. Even if it is to some degree unavoidable, it did happen too often in this case, occasionally causing some major frustration.

But this long sold-out Tosca was still very well put together, and received a delirious ovation from the extremely eclectic audience. As for myself, I was only too happy to have broken the no-going-out-on-Saturday-night rule for such a regal, if not ground-breaking, performance.

Wiener Imperial Orchester Wien - Mozart & Strauss - 10/16/09

Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro - Voi che sapete...
Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik
Beethoven: Romance in Vienna
Don Giovanni - La ci darem la mano...
Haydn: Vogel Quartet
Schubert: Military March
Mozart: Turkish March
Lumbye: Champagne Galop
J. Strauss: Overture to Der Fledermaus
J. Strauss: Voices of Spring
J. Strauss: Persian March
Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen
J. Strauss: On the Blue Danube
J. Strauss: Wiener Blut

So long Budapest and hello Vienna, self-appointed (and not yet proven wrong) musical capital of the world, a city so intrinsically linked to music that the only two problems likely to face the music fan there is the incredible number of options and the occasional difficulty in getting a ticket. After having secured one for Tosca at the State Opera months beforehand and grabbed a standing room one for the Vienna Philharmonic as soon I had gotten there (Theirs are not available on the Internet) I started to check out what was going on during the rest of my stay since until then everything had depended on the Holy Grail: the availability of the Vienna Philharmonic. The Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra with Dudamel was of course sold out, and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra couldn't be bad, except that I hadn't come all this way to listen to the Russian music they were playing that week. I was going to get my fill of Beethoven on Sunday, but what about Vienna's other famous son, Mozart? I eventually came across the Wiener Imperial Orchester, and although its program definitely sounded like "Viennese Composers 101", I figured it would be an appropriate first outing before the more high-brow fare to come later.
The first surprise was that the concert was going to take place in a school, but quite a school. An old red-brick building featuring a fancily decorated arched hallway, this was a decidedly informal setting for a decidedly informal audience obviously composed of international visitors for whom this was just another cultural stop between an art museum and a pastry shop. The only language NOT spoken was German. However, if the attendees were all foreigners, the orchestra was bona fide Viennese and included members of big name ensembles. So we seemed to be in good hands.

And the first part of the performance was indeed a quick and enjoyable review of Mozart's greatest hits, with Beethoven, Schubert and birthday boy Haydn thrown in for good measure. The musicianship was uniformly impressive, bur the poor singers had sometimes trouble being heard in "La ci darem la mano", which was regrettable because they were a strong and well-matched duo. The same issue surfaced again when the piano was not discernible during The Turkish March, but I guess one cannot expect top-notch acoustics from a space not designed for live performances.
I have to confess of letting my attention waver during much of the second part of the evening, which was mostly dedicated to Johann Strauss. I'll be the first one to admit that once in a while, On the Blue Danube makes a nice encore, but I am generally not too fond of waltzes or operettas, so it was quickly getting painful. Even the competent dancers who showed up for a couple of numbers couldn't save me from the slumber I was inexorably falling in. But suddenly our young and amiable master of ceremony unexpectedly treated us to a sharp Zigeunerweisen, interrupted a couple of times for unnecessary crowd-pleasing interplay with the pianist, and that luckily injected some virtuosic fun into the proceedings.

So it was not a completely wasted evening, for sure, just a bit too light and too obviously oriented towards beginners for my taste. Hearing Eine kleine Nachtmusik live is always a pleasure, of course, and it actually does not happen very often, so that certainly was one of the highlights, but it was high time to move on to more substantial offerings.

The Budapest Opera - Bluebeard's Castle - 10/14/09

Composer: Bela Bartok
Director: Schorghofer Hartmut
Conductor: Adam Fischer
Bluebeard: Balint Szabo
Judith: Viktoria Vizin

If the Saint Stephen's Basilica's outing had been a much appreciated short walk, the opera house was basically next door to my colorful funky little studio. According to an (apocryphal?) story, when the Hungarians asked their Austrian rulers the permission to build their own opera house, it was granted on the condition that it were smaller than the one in Vienna. Undaunted, they agreed and just made it more beautiful instead. World-famous as much for its stunning interior as for the quality of its productions, I guess I couldn't have found a more appropriate venue to experience a brand new production of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, the only Hungarian opera performed worldwide on a regular basis. The prospect of attending anything related to the legend of Bluebeard had never picked my interest before, but curiosity about the music and the venue won.
Even the most accurate photos or descriptions couldn't convey the jaw-dropping red and gold splendor of the opera's auditorium, and I sure felt like I had stepped into another time and place. If nothing else, this incredible sight was most definitely worth the price of admission. As for the opera itself, this new production presented two versions of it back to back from each protagonist's point of view. The original work lasting just over an hour, that sounded like an intriguing and time-manageable adventure.

Unlike its richly decorated surroundings, the set was drastically bare with only two huge panels that were going to be used as walls, doors and projection screens, a red couch and a white veil. Featuring Bluebeard as a cold-hearted, modern businessman and Judith as his demure, insecure new wife, the first version was mostly a straightforward interpretation of the original story. Projected films were ranging from plainly descriptive (a bucolic scenery) to gore (bloody hands), Daliesque (an eye on which water was dripping) and frankly chauvinistic (former wives as cockroaches).
As captivating as these images were though, the singers remained the main focus point, and they both assuredly mastered a score notoriously demanding as much in terms of technical skills as of pure stamina. Balint Szabo was a solid, powerful Bluebeard and Viktoria Vizin was a young, wide-eyed Judith. However, no matter how undeniably brilliant the singing, I found it hard to really care for these people partly because they were not particularly sympathetic characters, partly because all the symbolism wore thin after a (short) while.
The music itself was interestingly unsettling, apparently unable to find the right balance between traditional coherence and disturbing dissonances, therefore very efficiently following the increasingly dark and torturous plot.
The second version had a more psycho-analytical approach to it, the first hint of which being Judith in a hot red dress and without anything even remotely innocent about her anymore. On the other hand, her new husband appeared as a misunderstood weakling, and the chemistry between them quickly heated up with her leading the dance as the hot-blooded Type A. In fact, things got so steamy that the young man next to me had to take off his jacket. This time, the projections were of a much more personal nature, if sometimes incomprehensible. Far from the cold, detached first interpretation, this was vibrantly alive and ferociously kicking.

Although I did find some aspects of each version puzzling and Bartok's music exceptionally unyielding, the opportunity to check out two reasonably different takes on the old tale in such an incredible venue was priceless, fittingly making my last evening in Budapest a fully Hungarian one before moving on to Vienna and more musical offerings.

Concert in St Stephen's Basilica - Bach, Handel, Albinoni, Vivaldi, Gounod, Dvorak, Liszt, Franck, Massenet, Schubert & Mozart - 10/13/09

Organ: Gyula Pfeifer
Violin: Eva Dulfalvy
Trumpet: Gyorgy Geiger
Tenor: Laszlo Honinger
Soprano: Susanna Askoff
Bach: Toccata & Air
Handel: Oratio Messiah - Rejoice
Albinoni: Sonata di chiesa
Handel: Xerxes - Largo
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons - Largo from "Winter"
Gounod: Ave Maria
Dvorak: Biblical Songs No 5, 10
Liszt: Ave Maria Stella
Albinoni: Adagio
Franck: Panis Angelicus
Massenet: Thais - "Meditation"
Schubert: Ave Maria
Mozart: Exsultate, Jubilate - Alleluja

Between the long scheduled Budapest Festival Orchestra's concert and Bluebeard's Castle at the opera house, I had a night off, which I intended to spend, well, relaxing. But upon my reaching the top of the steps leading to the stunning Neo-Renaissance Saint Stephen's Basilica I noticed a poster advertising a concert to be performed in the basilica on that very night. What's a music lover to do? Being a five-minute walk away from my temporary digs was an additional incentive, and without further pondering, I got myself a ticket. So it was on another cold and blustery night (no worries, I had decent weather too) that I ventured outside to hear an attractive range of musical works that included religious compositions such as Bach's Toccata and Ave Maria from both Gounod and Schubert along more secular fare like the Largo of "Winter" from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and "Méditation" from Massenet's Thais.

The beauty of the music combined with the beauty of the setting turned what could have been just another concert put together for the tourists into a very special evening. The clear and generous acoustics allowed the instruments and voices to divinely express themselves and grandly fill the immense space. All the numbers in the one-hour program featured the famed organ, which these days comprises no less than 5,898 pipes. I've never been big on organ music, but this performance proved one more time the importance of keeping an open mind. I did not leave a convert, but certainly a fulfilled, happy soul, and that is a lot.