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.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra - Puccini, Gluck, Haydn, Wagner & Brahms - 10/12/09

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Puccini: La cecchina - Una povera ragazza... - Wierdl Eszter
Gluck: La Clemenza di Tito - Se mai senti... - Wierdl Eszter
Haydn: Concerto for Cello in C Major - Steven Isserlis
Wagner: Overture to Lohengrin
Brahms: Symphony No 3 - Third movement
Wagner: Die Walküre - "The Ride of the Valkyries"
Brahms: Symphony No 2 - Third movement
Wagner: Parsifal - Wie dünkt mich doch die Aue heut so schön... (Good Friday)
Brahms: Symphony No 4 - Fourth movement

Finally! After weeks of careful planning and unrepressible giddiness, I was off to the Habsburg triumvirate of Budapest, Vienna and Prague, in addition to Berlin, with exciting plans of exploring the cities during the day and enjoying live performances at night. No phone, no Blackberry, no laptop, just me unreservedly indulging in as many visual and musical revelries as possible. Hungary's capital ended up being the starting point of this grand adventure because, well, after mulling things over long and hard, it just seemed to work better that way.
To kick things off in style without feeling totally out of place, what better company than Budapest's and the NSO's very own Ivan Fischer conducting his pride and joy: the Budapest Festival Orchestra? Hearing them last season at Carnegie Hall was such a treat that I couldn't resist repeating the experience on their home turf. Renowned cellist Steven Isserlis was to be the special guest for the 8th year of the popular "Bag of Surprises" concert for which, as its name indicates, no program is announced in advance. So on my second night in Budapest, I went to the brand new Palace of Arts, totally determined of not letting the newly arrived bitter cold and pouring rain dampen my fun. And fun was to be had, indeed, in the sleek and high-tech concert hall, which reminded me a lot of Strathmore. I can't say that I'm not particularly partial to modern architecture, especially when it come to performance venues, but at least the acoustics were flawless. Seeing Ivan Fischer again was, needless to say, a most welcome sight, even if I did not understand a darn thing he was saying. Luckily, my neighbor kindly filled me in on the explanations, and the music did the rest.

The first part of the program was a contest between two 18th century opera composers, Puccini and Gluck, each being played by one half of the orchestra. The soprano was Hungarian native Wierdl Eszter whose young, unaffected beauty was the perfect reflection of her appealingly articulate voice. She oozed sweetly demureness during Puccini and let her romantic juices flow freely with Gluck. An interesting pairing for a truly lovely singer.
Steven Isserlis was actually not a surprise, but the work he was going to play remained unknown until Ivan Fischer announced Haydn's rightfully popular cello concerto, which was in fact an excellent surprise. Although I'm not a die-hard Haydn fan, this particular piece never fails to hit the right spot with its delicate poetry and delightful playfulness. Both qualities were masterfully highlighted by an unflappable Steven Isserlis, who was backed by the orchestra in more than fine form. The audience was so appreciative that the soloist eventually came back for an ethereally beautiful encore whose languorous rhythm gently rose in a breath-holding silence. Less was more.
Then things really got cooking with a take-no-prisoner dual between, of all composers, Wagner and Brahms, the orchestra alternating the two opponents with unbridled enthusiasm and rigorousness until the very end. After Wagner's gorgeously romantic overture to Lohengrin filled the auditorium with unabashedly passionate sounds, the third movement from Brahms' third symphony was fun and care-free, lifting everybody's spirits. Wagner responded with a wild, mean "Ride of the Valkyries", which put some focused energy back in the game, and Brahms' third movement of his second symphony gave the audience, if not the orchestra, a welcome break with its characteristic lightness and serenity. No to be outdone, Wagner came back with Parsifal's "Good Friday" tune, which unfolded in all its meditative radiance before Brahms stroke again one last time with the last movement of his last symphony, concluding the battle with manifold grandiosity. Ivan Fischer kept everything under tight control with his customary unpromising involvement and unwavering energy, and the sold-out audience rewarded him with a rock star-worthy ovation. Köszönöm, maestro Fischer, and please come back to Washington soon!

Friday, October 9, 2009

NSO - Martinu, Tchaikovsky & Brahms - 10/08/09

Conductor: Ludovic Morlot
Martinu: The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca
Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32
Brahms: Piano Concerto No 1 in D Minor, Op. 15 - Markus Groh

As I'm busy packing for my flight tomorrow, I've promised myself to wrap this last post on US soil for a while so I can leave with at least a sense of (temporary) completion. Last night, the big attraction of the program was naturally eminent Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire scheduled to perform Brahms' majestic first piano concerto. A few days ago though an e-mail informed me that swine flu-related travel restrictions would keep him from flying to Washington and that younger but already much talked-about Markus Groh would be filling in for him. So let's look at the cup as half-full and go check him out. A Czech piece seemed particularly well-timed before a visit to Prague, and Tchaikovsky is of course always welcome. French conductor Ludovic Morlot was going to make his first appearance with the National Symphony Orchestra after extensive work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, among others, and the whole evening sounded pretty promising.

Inspired by The Legend of the True Cross among Piero's frescoes in the central Italian town of Arezzo, Martinu's composition was delightfully melodic and featured an especially beautiful second movement, the one dedicated to Constantine's Dream. The viola solo was clear and eloquent, and certainly a breath-holding moment for the audience.
After the serenity of the Frescoes, we were off to furiously loud Sturm and Drang in Tchaikovsky's version of Dante's Inferno with unabashedly resonating brass and stirringly present strings. The tragic story of Francesca and Paolo gave the orchestra no rest, but its conductor managed to keep everything under control.
Last, but by no means least, came... the concerto. Its last place on the program may seem odd until one notices its gloriously symphonic proportions and realizes that it would be a dreadfully tough act to follow indeed. Typical of the relentless perfectionist that Brahms was, this concerto went through a lot of changes and rewrites, which did not prevent a disastrous first introduction to the public. But the world eventually came to its senses and nowadays regularly gets to relish its Beethovian scope and Schumannian poetry. Yesterday evening, after a stormy, immense opening, Markus Groh gently took charge of the solo part and pretty much remained on top of it until the very end. The composition is so rich and involving in its unrestrained romanticism that it is hard to take it all in in one sitting, but it was also a real joy to hear it play with such assertiveness and grace. He did not make us forget Nelson Freire, but he sure make an excellent case for himself.

So this is it for now. Tomorrow I'm leaving for a trip to some of Eastern Europe's most captivating cities to attend hopefully just as captivating performances and shall return in a couple of weeks. To be continued...

Saturday, October 3, 2009

NSO - Beethoven & Bartok - 10/02/09

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Beethoven: Symphony No 6 in F Major, Op. 68, "Pastorale"
Bartok: The Wooden Prince

When the going gets tough, the tough keep going, and that's just what I did yesterday, returning to the Kennedy Center for my second National Symphony Orchestra performance of the season, and incidentally my second Bartok piece in two days. Moreover, as if to make the deal even more enticing, The Wooden Prince and the Pastorale were going to be conducted by the NSO's too rarely seen principal conductor and Bartok's fellow Magyar national, Ivan Fischer. While this incredibly timed double taste of the Hungarian composer's oeuvre a week before my departure for Budapest represents of course serendipity at his best, the opportunity to hear Beethoven's beautifully lyrical homage to Nature would have certainly been enough reason for me to go anyway. After a season opening concert filled with agreeable but rather light-hearted crowd-pleasers, it was time for the NSO to get down to real business and offer two blissfully string-driven, thoroughly appealing works everybody could sink their teeth into. And we did.

But first things first, and before taking us through Beethoven's bucolic landscape, Ivan Fischer led the whole orchestra in a rousing rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, probably to mark the actual beginning of the concert season.
Then the time had finally come to spend a day in the countryside, and it was a very good day indeed. For that symphony, Beethoven had obviously gotten in touch with the dedicated Rousseauist in him and fully used his remarkable pictorialism skills and keen sensitivity to convey nature's own musicality as well as its transcendent quality. Far from merely reproducing easily identifiable sounds, his sixth symphony focuses mostly on the various states of mind inspired by his numerous hours happily spent in natural settings. Therefore, what could have just been a straightforward depictive walk in the woods turns into an involving journey into the composer's psyche. The circumstances of each movement are specified with descriptive titles, and yet the intricately textured music is most striking when it conjures a mood or a feeling. Last night, in the hands of a conductor as precise and engaged as Ivan Fischer, the naturally beautiful score rose to an even higher ground and literally took us beyond the space of the concert hall, all lost in romantic contemplation.
It is romanticism of a different kind that permeated the second offering on the program, Bartok's ballet score for The Wooden Prince. As Fischer himself explained, the story was a simple fairy tale with "a prince, a princess, and a fairy, thank you very much". Beside that cutely dead-pan insight, some surtitles were also projected above the stage to enable the audience to follow the plot, which ended up being quite useful when the music was directly reinforcing a specific action. After the wide-ranging eclecticism of his Concerto for Orchestra the night before, it was very interesting, amusing even, to discover the Romantic Bartok, although his folk roots were never far away whether in the music or in the tale. The full orchestra gamely played along with whole-hearted commitment (the string players sure earned their paycheck yesterday) and their conductor was obviously having a ball bringing to life this tiny but immensely enjoyable part of his cultural heritage. And yes, we all unconditionally rejoiced at the happy ending, even if it also meant the ending of a pretty much flawless concert.

Friday, October 2, 2009

BSO - Traditional Eastern European Music, Bartok & Tchaikovsky - 10/01/09

Conductor: Marin Alsop
Traditional Eastern Eastern European Music - Harmonia
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra
Tchaikovsky: Concerto for Violin in D Major, Op. 35 - James Ehnes

As I am going down the list of my season opening concerts, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s performance last night was obviously a much anticipated one. Although it was not technically their official season opening concert, which took place in Baltimore last week, it was the first time I was going to hear them since last July, eons away. I was all the more looking forward to it that the program smartly associated Bartok and Tchaikovsky in a back-to-the-folk-roots performance introduced by Harmonia, an eclectic group focusing on the musical traditions to be found in the region spanning from the Danube to the Carpathians. Since I am getting ready for my first extended trip to Eastern Europe, I am especially grateful for the perfectly timed double treat of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra last night and Bartok’s The Wooden Prince with the NSO tonight. That should fully prepare me for Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle in Budapest later this month. But beside the fortuitous Bartok prep work, my main goal was without a doubt to hear yet one more time Tchaikovsky’s dazzling violin concerto, the one that introduced me to both the virtuosic composing talent of Tchaikovsky and the magical possibilities of the violin.

To get everybody in the right frame of mind, the five instrumentalists of Harmonia played three suites of pieces, brilliantly highlighting the vigorous earthiness, infectious rhythms and wistful melancholy of traditional Eastern European folk music. Short, but efficient.
Bartok’s concerto turned out to be a multi-faceted, engaging piece of work, starting with an understated, suspenseful landscape that was eventually followed by a whimsical “Game of Pairs” during which some wind instruments were vibrantly, if not quite as goofily as maestra Alsop had hoped, paired to similar ones in the orchestra. This unique brand of fun was a big step from the eerie Elegia, and then the agitated Intermezzo, but all ended well with the life-asserting, jubilant grand finale. With this concerto that he composed in a couple of months in the Adirondacks towards the end of his life, Bartok achieved the no small feat of successfully combining the immediate appeal of his native folk music and the more subtle attractiveness of classical music. The whole orchestra beautifully rose up to the challenge with a richly nuanced interpretation, and that has certainly helped deepen my appreciation for the Hungarian composer.
Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto was smartly scheduled last on the program; no doubt to make sure nobody would escape during intermission. Another one of those perennial favorites that keep the crowds coming back for more, it has never lost the power to stun its audience after its famously rocky start. While its first notes are not quite as authoritatively attention-grabbing as the Mendelssohn’s, their unassuming yet intriguing nonchalance remains an unsurpassed way to ease the listener into the amazing crescendo that is to follow. And it only gets better, much better. Yesterday evening, the soloist was fast-rising, Canadian-born James Ehnes, who thoroughly succeeded in steadily expressing the various moods of the work. After a minimalist Brahms concerto in New York last week, I got to experience the same kind of pared-down approach to the Tchaikovsky last night, making me wonder if this is just a mere coincidence or a new trend. Whatever it is, I made sure to fully savor the poised elegance of Ehnes’ interpretation, especially in the delicate Canzonetta, one of Tchaikovsky’s most touching creations. Impressive displays of technical wizardry abounded too, of course, and with the orchestra clearly in their comfort zone and relishing every minute of it, the last piece on the program was for sure as immediately satisfying as the first time I heard it, which says a lot indeed.