Friday, December 24, 2021

Opera di Roma - Tosca - 12/12/22

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Librettist: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica 
Conductor: Paolo Arrivabeni 
Producer/Director: Alessandro Talevi 
Saioa Hernandez: Flora Tosca 
Vittorio Grigolo: Mario Caravadossi 
Roberto Frontali: Baron Scarpia 
Teatro dell’Opera di Roma Scuola di Canto Corale 

Tosca! The one and only. Needless to say that, if I was going to attend one opera during my stay in Rome, which I hope won’t be the case, it obviously had to be the one about that fateful day of June 17, 1800 in Rome. 
To begin with, Tosca was my first foray ever in the world of opera, and while I watched it in the less enjoyable format of television during the last class of an Italian language course decades ago, I fell quick and hard for the opera itself, and the art form as well. 
These days, as a permanent lover of opera with quite a few Toscas under her belt, and a temporary resident of Rome with now first-hand knowledge of the story’s three iconic locations, I simply had to go check out the production of it at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, where it also happened to have had its world première on January 14, 1900. 
Incidentally, for the past seven years, the Opera di Roma has been showing that very same original production, using meticulous replicas of the sets and costumes, and following the same stage directions that Puccini and other fortunate audience members got to appraise that evening. Talk about the full Tosca experience! 
But having been distracted by everything that Rome has to offer, I hadn’t seen time go and before I knew it, the run was almost over. Fortunately, sanity prevailed at last, and I did manage to grab an exorbitantly priced ticket in extremis for last Sunday’s sold-out matinee that started, in true Italian style, at 4:30 P.M., right after the sacrosanct Sunday combo of late lunch and siesta
And just like that, I ended up in a premium box with a quiet young couple apparently from Eastern Europe, a friendly older couple from San Diego, CA, on their 10th annual Roman holiday trip, global pandemic be damned, and an effusive young Italian clarinetist, who was attending his first opera ever and, I am happy to report, fell quick and hard for it too. 

The name of Giacomo Puccini’s possibly most popular opera cannot help but conjure up in many opera buffs’ mind and heart images of a battered city facing the fall of its Republic, the restoration of the Papal States, and a pending invasion by French troops, a dreadfully ill-fated love triangle, whose each protagonist will die their own violent death, and an intensely lyrical score that keeps the deliciously explosive combination of love, lust, politics, religion and art alive and well. And we just cannot get enough of it. 
The title role is by default a daunting challenge for any soprano, and on Sunday our Tosca was intrepid Spaniard Saioa Hernandez, who was making her debut in Rome in the ultimate Roman diva role. That, of course, meant that, if for any reason she was going to fail, she was going to do it all the way. 
As far as I am concerned, she did not fail, but she did not exactly hit a home run either. Her acting was adequate, and her voice was agile and commanding enough to make a lasting positive impression. She even passed the big test with flying colors with her masterfully controlled “Vissi d’arte”, which got her a well-deserved big round of applause. 
Thing is, the woman dutifully hit all the marks, but somehow her Tosca still felt more like solid professional work than fierce character ownership. She was missing the innate sensuality of the glamorous singer, and she did not have much chemistry with Grigolo, all of which contributed to making her performance good enough, but not memorable. 
On the other hand, “memorable” is an adjective that I would unhesitatingly use to describe Italian super-star tenor Vittorio’s Grigolo’s turn on Sunday, in which he was everything one could have hoped for and more in the role of the dashing revolutionary/artist Cavaradossi, which led me to me to marvel at what a difference three years had made. 
Back at the Met with Sonya Yoncheva in 2018, I remembered him as showing lots of talent and promise, but still kind of working his way into the character. Fast forward three years, and I could definitely tell that he had successfully matured into the part that nowadays fits him like a glove. His singing, in particular, has become more poised and nuanced, and if he still burst with youthful energy more often than not, we happily went along with it. 
Italian baritone Roberto Frontali clearly had a ball fulfilling Scarpia’s bad-ass shoes, complete with a bright yellow toupee that would have made Trump proud. His beautifully burnished voice was robust and expressive, and readily helped him not to fall into the trap of turning his quintessential villain into a mere caricature of evil. 
The members of the choirs were all masked, but that did not keep them from singing their hearts out during the truly hair-rising “Te Deum”, which gloriously brought together many powerful forces to celebrate the alleged defeat of Napoleon, and also to remind us all that Tosca’s musical high notes are not limited to the famous arias sung by the three headliners. 
Rome’s opera house is an eye-popping visual delight of opulent red-and-gold walls and a lovely ceiling fresco ; in short, the perfect setting for the perfect evening out. But those glitzy surroundings also make the contrast even starker when the sets are as understated, borderline drab, as the ones used for this Tosca, which can be summed up as trompe l’œil backdrops, a few accessories, and some pretty cool blue lighting in the last act. The costumes were nice, yet predictable, but then again, history cannot be rewritten. 
As for Puccini’s music, it sounded as vigorously dramatic, richly colorful and gorgeously melodic as ever. The house orchestra and maestro Paolo Arrivabeni could probably play the entire score in their sleep by now, but they thankfully did not, opting to steadily and splendidly supporting the relentless action instead. Even better, the house’s excellent acoustics guaranteed a totally satisfying musical experience for the audience, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. 

I knew that Tosca in Rome would be a special occasion for me not matter what. But little did I know that it was actually going to be even more special that I could have ever dreamed of. And lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened when, after Grigolo was done with his magnificent, literally show-stopping rendition of “E lucevan le stelle” and the ensuing thunderous ovation would not taper off, he eventually broke character, quickly consulted maestro Arrivabeni, got back into character, sang it again, broke character again, uttered an uncharacteristically sheepish “grazie”, got back into character again, and then moved on to his death scene. You gotta love the Italians! 
As much as I’d like to think that this totally unexpected but obviously thrilling encore was for my benefit, or the benefit of the opera neophyte sitting in front of me, I suspect it had more to do with the fact that this was the last performance of this Tosca run, or, even more probable, because, back in 1990, a 13-year-old Grigolo made his professional debut on that very same stage in that very same opera in the role of the shepherd boy, in the company of no less than Luciano Pavarotti as Cavaradossi. Turns out I got even more Tosca history than I had bargained for!

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Luminaria - Vallini, Britten & Rheinberger - 11/28/21

Simone Vallini: Ex Novo per Pianoforte 
Simone Vallini: Piano 
Benjamin Britten: Simple Symphony for String Orchestra, Op. 4 
Orchestra Nova Amadeus 
Gianluigi Dettori: Conductor 
Joseph Rheinberger: Organ Concerto No. 2, Op. 177 
Orchestra Nova Amadeus 
Gianluigi Dettori: Conductor 
Stefano Vasselli: Organ 

Thanksgiving week was a good week in Italy’s capital city, Gabriele Bonci’s fabulous pizzas making up more than efficiently for the absence of turkey and gravy in my life, and I was particularly thankful to whomever decided to inject some less predictable works into the music-by-candlelight Luminaria series at the American Episcopal Church of St. Paul's Within the Walls (A.K.A. chiesa di San Paolo entro le Mura to the locals) last Sunday evening. 
Checking both the “brand-new” and “local” boxes, the program was going to start with the world première (“Prima Execuzione Assoluta”. It sounds even better in Italian, doesn’t it?) of Simone Vallini’s Ex Novo per Pianoforte, which would be performed by the young but already multi-tasking and prize-winning Roman composer, pianist, teacher and singer himself. 
The other mysterious (to me) item on the playing list was the Organ Concerto by 19th-century German composer and organist Joseph Rheinberger, but since we would be fortunate enough to have the church’s very own music director and organist Stefano Vasselli starring in it, I was confident that I would get to discover it in optimal circumstances. 
Book-ended by those two unknown quantities was 20th-century English composer, conductor and pianist Benjamin Britten, whose name I am always happy to see in a program, more particularly when it relates to his secular output, like his Simple Symphony
I am not sure if this was due to the ubiquitous “Black Friday” sales still going strong or the holiday decorations springing up all over the city, or to the fact that Roman audiences may just not be into novelty to begin with, but the church ended up being about half-empty for the concert. While having a pew to myself and very few people behind me was a rather special treat, I also could not help but think that this was not bidding well for future more left-field endeavors (Sigh). 

After a quick introduction, Simone Vallini sat down at the piano and launched into his short and thoroughly engaging Ex Novo per Pianoforte, which started with pretty cascades of notes and ended with a rumbling thunder. There was a lot going on in between, including the hidden and not so hidden personally meaningful melody mentioned by Vallini, and we were eventually left still wanting for more. 
Britten’s Simple Symphony, which was performed in its string orchestra version, was also a youthful effort since the composer used melodies and other bits and pieces that he had written in his pre-teen years (as you would, I guess, when you have that kind of talent). Come to think of it, just the titles of the four movements kind of say it all: Boisterous Bourrée, Playful Pizzicato, Sentimentale Sarabande and Frolicsome Finale
On Sunday, maestro Gianluigi Dettori and the feisty Orchestra Nova Amadeus grabbed the whole set and turned it into 20 minutes of vibrant, carefree fun. The bourrée was irresistibly inviting, the famous pizzicati merrily kept on popping, the sarabande shamelessly pulled at the heartstrings, and the finale concluded the ride in terrifically high spirits. At the end, a grand old time had definitely been had by all indeed. 
Next, the pièce de résistance of the evening, Rheinberger’s Organ Concerto No. 2, called for a slightly larger orchestra and, of course, the mighty organ. I was very much looking forward to it as I find the organ to be an under-appreciated and under-estimated instrument. That said, when the time had come, the opening notes were so assertively ominous that I half-expected to see the Phantom of the Opera suddenly materialize before us. 
An all-around successful combination of organ and orchestra, the score contained plenty of exciting sounds and appealing ideas without any undue fuss or idiosyncrasy. The resounding anguish of the Grave was eventually tempered by the lushly lyrical Romantic waves of the Andante before the Con moto brought a powerful, borderline pompous, end to the totally satisfying journey. Seriously, why don’t we hear that type of music more often? 

Our effusive clapping did not get us an encore, but I easily got over it as I rewarded myself with a decadent gelato on my long but endlessly entertaining way home through the increasingly bedecked and festive city. Now that’s certainly one way to spend an enjoyable Sunday evening.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Rome Chamber Music Festival - Beethoven & Chausson - 11/21/21

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3 (Razumovsky) 
Lawrence Dutton: Viola 
Aubree Oliverson: Violin 
Sara Scanlon: Cello 
Augusta Schubert: Violin 
Ernest Chausson: Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet in D Major, Op. 21 
Anna Black: Violin 
Robert McDuffie: Violin 
Matous Peruska: Violin 
Daniele Valabrega: Viola 
Kristina Vocetkova: Cello 
Derek Wang: Piano 

The end of last week were gloriously sunny and warm here in the Eternal City, which prompted me to venture down the blissfully less trodden path to the fascinating neighborhoods of Aventino, Testaccio and Ostiense, the latter being where I connected my previous life to my current life with a supremely tasty focaccia in the world’s biggest Eataly location (Imagine that: Eating lunch at Eataly in Italy!). 
Eventually, an invitation to the exclusive opening night of the 18th edition of the Rome Chamber Music Festival at the Auditorium Conciliazione on Sunday evening unexpectedly fell on my lap, and I could not have imagined a better way to wrap up a fantastic weekend than in the company of promising young musicians who had been hand-picked from all over the world, including The Robert McDuffie Center for Strings of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, to participate in the prestigious De Simone & Partners Young Artist Program in Rome. 
The founder and artistic director of this terrific endeavor is no less than internationally renowned and incorrigibly adventurous violinist Robert McDuffie, who understandably fell in love with Rome while making his professional debut here 27 years ago, and has clearly found the perfect excuse to keep on coming back. I mean, why bother throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain if you can come up with your own annual festival? 

And just like that, after a short opening speech by the man himself and a short introduction to the opening number by violinist Aubree Oliverson, the five-day music feast was kicked off with Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartet, a stunningly big, bold and beautiful work that the composer paradoxically wrote when he was already showing signs of impending deafness. Whether or not this ordeal is what persuaded him not to hold anything back remains debatable, but the result is indisputably dazzling. 
On Sunday, the endlessly ambiguous Allegro vivace, the mournfully obsessive Andante con moto, the pleasantly light-footed Menuetto, and the no-holds-barred explosion of breathless speed races of the Allegro molto were all brought to life with plenty of brilliance, vigor and aplomb. With the additional advantage of the auditorium’s commendable acoustics, Beethoven’s music sounded as fresh and exciting as ever. 
And if the violist looked somewhat familiar to me, there was a good reason for that: He turned out to be Lawrence Dutton, a long-time member of the Emerson String Quartet, one of the most prominent ensembles of chamber music whose members are planning to disband next season after a four-decade career, a couple of personnel changes and a bunch of awards. With a coach like that, it is no wonder that the students brought their A game to the stage and kept it throughout the challenging 30-minute piece. 
Not to be outdone, the next ensemble wasted no time launching into a dynamite reading of Chausson’s extended, complex, and yet spontaneously engaging Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet. McDuffie himself kept busy fulfilling his double duty as coach and solo violin, but all those responsibilities did not prevent him from effortlessly matching the boundless enthusiasm of his young charges while continuously helping to bring out the best in them. 
Not that it was such a tall order to begin with as they all seemed more than ready, willing and able. And sure enough, they proved to be experts at voluptuously unfurling the gorgeous melodies, vividly highlighting the vibrant colors, and firmly mastering the mood changes, keeping the momentum briskly going while also making sure to give the music enough space to breathe. The première of what is considered Chausson’s first mature chamber work was allegedly a big success, and Sunday evening’s performance of it was definitely one too. 

After this exceptional musical evening, the return to reality was kind of eerie as I was walking towards St-Peter’s Square on my way back home, and passing by equally impressive numbers of homeless people setting up camp for the night, seagulls gorging on discarded food, tourists admiring the floodlit basilica, and police officers keeping a watchful eye over everybody. There really are no dull moments in Rome.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Luminaria - Franck & Fauré - 11/14/21

César Franck: Chorale No. 3 in A Minor 
César Franck: Panis Angelicus 
Gabriel Fauré: Requiem, Op. 48 
Saint-Paul’s Camerata 
Conductor: Antonio Rendina 
Coro Città di Roma 
Coro giovanile MusicaViva 
Paolo Ciavarelli: Baritone 
Carla Ferrari: Soprano 
Frederico Vallini: Organist 

Two weeks after enjoying a wonderful and packed performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the beautiful Episcopal Chiesa di San Paolo dentro le Mura, also known as St. Paul’s within the Walls, in Rome as part of the Sunday evening series Luminaria, I was back last Sunday evening for a slightly less packed performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, a shorter, and less dramatic, but just about as poignant masterpiece, which I was equally excited to hear underneath the church’s soberly starry ceiling, basking in the still rather inconspicuous, although more centrally placed, candlelight. 
Even better, as if to get audience and artists in a French Romantic—and ecclesiastic—mood, the concert was going to open with two church pieces by César Franck starring his (and Fauré’s) beloved organ, and therefore also provide us with the perfect occasion to become better acquainted with the many possibilities of the imposing and mysterious instrument. 
Due to—What else?—the relentless COVID-19 pandemic, this particular program had to be postponed not once but twice, and it apparently took no less than a small miracle, or at least a lot of dedication, for all the relevant parties to get together and be able to deliver before an audience. I, for one, could not help but feel grateful for the delays since they made it possible for me to attend, never mind that it meant going out on a miserably wet weekend evening. At least, I figured, I wouldn’t have to crash a stranger’s funeral this time.

A classic of the organ repertoire, Franck’s Chorale No. 3 is a complex 15-minute piece that requires no less than a certified virtuoso to pull it off. Luckily for us, we had him on Sunday in organist extraordinaire Federico Vallini, who also turned out to be the hardest working musician of the entire evening as he was featured in all three works on the program. 
Equally divinely inspired, but clocking in at barely four minutes, was Franck’s glorious Panis Angelicus, which benefitted in no small part from the winning combination of the instrumental trio of harp, cello, and organ, and soprano Carla Ferrari’s crystal-clear voice and heavenly singing. And just like that, the “bread of angels” became food for soul for the rest of us. 
When the time came for him to compose his own Requiem, Fauré resolutely chose to downsize the ostentatious pomp and circumstance usually expected from religious masses, and to focus on the wide range of human emotions and the perspective of eternal rest (requiem) instead, originally with a little help from a small orchestra, an organ, a mixed choir, and soprano and baritone soloists. 
Constituted of several well-balanced movements of genuinely transcendental music, the early score was given a most respectful and heartfelt, rightly more liturgical than operatic, performance on Sunday evening, during which musicians and singers proved time and time again why Fauré’s deceptively modest effort has remained one of the most popular requiems of them all. Seriously, I did not even miss a full-blown Dies Irae.
Unsurprisingly, the music was naturally gorgeous to begin with. And then, its uplifting quality was sporadically heightened by special moments such as the exquisite violin solo in Sanctus, which readily managed to convey sheer beauty instead of mere sentimentality, and the baritone and soprano arias, which were superbly sung by, respectively, Paolo Ciavarelli and Carla Ferrari. One could almost sense countless putti placidly fluttering about in, ironically enough, one of the few Roman churches that does not feature any. 

The thrilling performance was greeted by a well-deserved loud ovation, which prompted the powers that be to treat us to another splendid Libera me, doing again full justice to its epic yet intimate nature, before sending us off into the dark and rainy night, but with at least the gift of temporarily elevated spirits.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Luminaria - All-Mozart - 10/31/21

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Church Sonata in D Major, K.144 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Church Sonata in F Major, K. 244 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Church Sonata in D Major, K. 245 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem in D Minor, K. 626 
Orchestra Sinfonica Città di Roma 
Conductor: Alfonso Todisco 
Coro Radix Harmonica 
Artistic Director: Giuseppe Pecce
Ferruccio Finetti: Bass 
Natalia Pavlova: Soprano 
Maria Arcangela Tenace: Mezzo-soprano 
Raffaele Tassone: Tenor 

As my relentless search for live classical music in Rome is slowly but surely starting to bear some fruit, I have to tip my hat (or should it be my galea?) off to the Episcopal Chiesa di San Paolo dentro le Mura, also known as St. Paul’s within the Walls or the American Church in Rome, which also happens to be the first Protestant church to be built in Rome, for its Sunday evening series Luminaria, whose mission is to present popular classical music works performed by candlelight. 
Truth be told, the few candles standing outside the aisles last Sunday evening did not make a big difference in the already beautifully lit space, whose stunning mosaics and polychrome brick-and-stone design were a definitely unusual, yet genuinely engaging, feast for the eyes. But then again, the church being as young as the unified country of Italy itself, it should come as no surprise that it (prettily) distinguishes itself from most of the other places of worship in the city. 
The program that had caught my attention was Mozart’s magnificent Requiem, a work that I simply cannot stay away from, no matter how many times I’ve heard it before. Apparently, a lot of people could not either as the sizable space was eventually overflowing with extra chairs to keep up with the demand. Because, after all, there’s just nothing like wrapping up the weekend before All Saints’Day with a timeless mass for the dead being performed under a splendid mosaic of the Tree of Life in the Eternal City. 

As I was handed the program, I was happily surprised to see that we would start with three bonus tracks in the form of three short, but unsurprisingly all-around delightful, church sonatas by Mozart too. Even better, they not only provided me with the opportunity to get into a Mozartian mood (not that it is such a tall order), but also to find out with immense relief that the venue’s acoustics were pretty decent, at least from my premium spot. 
And then came the man’s ultimate masterpiece, which, although he did not get to finish it himself, never fails to display an extraordinary degree of maturity, coherence, and enduring emotional weight. Hearing it again after almost two years of global upheaval that has led to the new world we all live in now was both exciting and eerie; it clearly showed why classics will survive just about anything, and why we need them so badly as comfort food for the soul while we struggle through unpredictable and irrevocable changes. 
From the haunting first notes of Introitus to the heavenly conclusion of Lux Aeterna, the Orchestra Sinfonica Città di Roma and the Coro Radix Harmonica gave a solid reading of the always eventful 50-minute journey under the vibrant baton of the young maestro Alfonso Todisco. And if the overall intensity of the endeavor occasionally made the many moving parts sound like they were not always quite in perfect sync, those very few glitches were in fine too inconspicuous to really matter. Even the blaring sounds of extra security vehicles on via Nazionale (Evidently the G20 bigwigs couldn’t be bothered to finish in time to let us enjoy our concert in peace) were all taken in stride. 
Not to be outdone by the main forces there, the four soloists handled their parts with plenty of commitment and poise too, especially bass Ferruccio Finetti and tenor Raffaele Tassone, whose singing was impressively clear, bright and powerful. As for the ladies, soprano Natalia Pavlova and mezzo-soprano Maria Arcangela Tenace had unquestionably lovely voices that brought glistening touches of pure beauty to the whole experience. 

Some members of the rapt audience burst into applause as soon as the last notes were reached, depriving the rest of us of those precious few suspended seconds necessary to make the switch back to reality, but then again, such is life. 
At least we were treated to another explosive Dies Irae by orchestra and chorus, and I ended my evening enjoying not one, but two gelati (Hey, my walk home was over one hour and I hadn’t had any dinner), as well as a few cross-generational Halloween-themed sightings, as I was making my merry way through the flood-lit, boisterous city.

Monday, October 25, 2021

armonie della sera - DANTE 700° - Liszt - 10/23/21

Franz Liszt: A Symphony to Dante's Divine Comedy, S.109 
Salvatore Barbatano: Piano 
Marco Sollini: Piano 
Coro orazio vecchi di Roma 

When in Rome, do as the Romans do, they say, but the problem is, I am not quite sure what the Romans do when they want to hear classical music performed live as there does not seem to be a central directory of the all the various concerts happening around town, except for the major venues that need no introduction. 
But I am not giving up, and after roaming many streets for the past three weeks, I am happy to report that some progress has been made as I came across a couple of churches announcing upcoming programs that included for the most part the greatest Italian opera hits and sacred music. The range is clearly not wide, or remotely adventurous for that matter, but hey, beggars cannot be choosers. 
And then, last Saturday night I found myself in the Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio, a stunning Jesuit church that is as famous for its eye-popping trompe l’œil dome and ceiling fresco as for the attractive Rococo Piazza di Sant’Ignazio it stands in. Even better, I got to enjoy the Eternal City by night during the lovely walk from my temporary Vatican home to the historic center; and the performance was free. 
As for the occasion, it was no less than the 700th anniversary of the death of Italy’s sommo poeta, its Supreme Poet Dante Alighieri. It would be celebrated by the eminent Sollini-Barbattono Duo and the local Coro orazio vecchi di Roma, who would be joining forces for a two-piano-plus-female-chorus version of Listz’s Dante Symphony, which is actually more like two symphonic poems inspired by—What else?—La Divina Commedia
And so what, if my first concert in Rome revolved around the legacy of a Florentine by way of a Hungarian? At least the organizers and artists were Italian, which was more than could be said of the audience in my immediate surroundings, which included two enthralled elderly French couples and a bunch of bored American teenagers. 

The latter’s lack of interest was all the more difficult to explain as the 50-minute performance proved to be effortlessly engaging, even if, alas, the acoustics of the vast space were not always kind to the music, occasionally dulling its colors and blurring its subtleties. And granted, the two-piano version was by default more subdued that the original orchestral version would have been, but there was still plenty of highly Romantic drama to be had, previous knowledge of La Divina Commedia not being required. 
It of course all started at the Gates of Hell, that notorious place where we were all supposed to “abandon all hope” to the sound of the starkly ominous opening chords. Terror and despair only increased as flamboyant fire, turbulent winds, unforgiving ice and other similarly unsavory challenges were mercilessly thrown upon us during our descent through the nine circles of the Inferno. Even the love theme of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo did not provide much respite. On the other hand, hell had rarely been that exhilarating. 
And then, everything calmed down with the Purgatorio, which started almost too suspiciously tranquil to even prompt a bit of soul-searching, until some restlessness brought more pain and suffering, before reaching the liberating grand finale. For all its imagination and craftiness, not to mention the undeniable commitment of the two pianists, the Purgatorio was not as exciting as the Inferno, but then again, very few things are. 
As for the Paradiso, on Wagner’s advice, Liszt decided to represent it by a Magnificat for female chorus instead of a more logical third instrumental movement. Although it is a defensible choice, it cannot help but throw off the overall balance of the composition. That said, the chorus that we had on Saturday night did a reliable job concluding the eventful journey with beauty and joy. 

After a few words on the theme “Dante inspirator of the arts” by Andrea Lonardo, Director of the Cultural Office on the Università della Diocesi di Roma, the two pianists came back for an ethereally beautiful encore by Bach (Surprise!), which wrapped up my first musical evening in Rome on a most satisfying and hopeful note.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Musique dans la Rue - Alicia Abensour - Harris, Fauré, Debussy & Ravel - 08/28/21

E. Harris: Seascapes, Op. 4 
Gabriel Fauré: Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat Major, Op. 63 
Claude Debussy: Reflets dans l’eau (from Images I) 
Maurice Ravel: Jeux d’eau 
Maurice Ravel: Ondine (from Gaspard de la nuit) 
Alicia Abensour: Piano

As hard to believe as it was, last Saturday was the eighth and last day of Aix-en-Provence’s tremendously popular Musique dans la Rue (Music in the Streets) festival, just as I was getting really used to my unfailingly uplifting, daily happy half-hour of terrific free performances in the nearby Chapelle des Oblats’ spacious cloister after having patiently waited for about another half an hour in line among my fellow music-loving Aixois and a few visitors. My only regret is not having been able to do more, but then again, such is life. 
For that grand finale, the concert I picked did not feature only one composer, as it had been the case for all the previous ones, but not fewer than four, three of whom being among the very best in French classical music history. Even better, all the works apparently had in common the theme of water, which was particularly appropriate since Aix-en-Provence is famous for being a “city of art and of water” due to its vibrant cultural scene and its countless historic fountains. Good choice, Miss Abensour! 

An alumnus of the Conservatoire d’Aix-en-Provence and a current professor at the École Internationale de Genève, young and already very busy pianist Alicia Abensour kicked off the concert with the one unknown quantity on the list, E. Harris’ Seascapes, Op. 4. And I am glad to report that from the very first note, we vicariously were there, right on the sea shores in front of the immense, ever-changing sea, which is in fact a welcome feeling on a late summer afternoon in Provence. 
Gabriel Fauré’s resolutely modern Nocturne No. 6 was next and, although the connection to water was not quite as clear, we were soon all happily indulging in its graceful melodies, its original tranquil pace, and its multi-faceted emotional weight, which was definitely palpable, but remained uncompromisingly dignified, even at its most turbulent (The man was French, after all) courtesy of Abensour’s subtly expressive take on it. 
Quite logically, after Fauré came Debussy, another French composer who knew how to sound good even as he was unceremoniously breaking new musical ground. The short but determinedly bold Reflets dans l’eau, from his Book of Images I, being the perfect case in point, with its unusual yet fascinating textures and harmonies delicately evoking the magical colors of light reflecting on water. 
And then, after Debussy and his fleeting reflections came Ravel and his wide assortment of water sounds inspired by fountains, cascades, rivers and such in his Jeux d’eau, which was not just a little inspired by Franz Liszt’s Les jeux d’eau à la villa d’Este and dedicated to his teacher, Gabriel Fauré (Hello again!). Abensour’s highly competent fingers let the water freely flow, fall, splash, sparkle, and created so many other incredible sounds that they could only have been concocted in Ravel’s brilliant mind. 
The last piece of the concert, and of my personal festival programming, was Ondine, from Ravel’s three-poem suite Gaspard de la nuit. Based on the poem by the same name, about a water nymph who sings to entice the listener into visiting her kingdom deep at the bottom of a lake, it is less cacophonic that his Jeux d’eaux, focusing instead on the melodies’ lyricism and the harmonies’ shimmers, which Abensour’s virtuosic performance beautifully conveyed. So much water, so little time.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Musique dans la Rue - Patrick Zygmanowski - Chopin - 08/27/21

Frédéric Chopin: Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66 
Frédéric Chopin: Balade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23 
Frédéric Chopin: Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 31 
Patrick Zygmanowski: Piano

The end of August is truly an even more fantastic time than usual to be in Aix-en-Provence, with heat and tourists blissfully—not quite rapidly enough though, if you ask me—receding and, maybe best of all, the Musique dans la rue (Music in the Streets) festival happening with multiple free 30-minute concerts performed by professors of the local conservatoire and other equally qualified musicians popping up all over town every evening for eight straight days. Seriously, what’s not to love? 
After attending more or less randomly four fabulous concerts featuring respectively Mendelssohn, Brahms, Borodin and Schumann, I decided that Frédéric Chopin would be the guy I would spend quality time with on Friday evening, still at the Chapelle des Oblats’ reliable cloister, which has slowly, but surely, and kind of oddly, been becoming my regular hang-out those past few evenings. 
The perspective was all the more exciting since three of his biggest hits would be played by one of the biggest (and probably the most complicated) names of the festival in Patrick Zygmanowski, a French pianist in high demand all over the world as well as a regular professor at the Conservatoire d’Aix-en-Provence and… in Japan (Sure sounds like a hell of a commute!). As expected, the line formed earlier and grew faster than usual at the top of cours Mirabeau, but we all knew it would be worth the wait. 

Our wait was richly rewarded indeed, first with Chopin’s enduringly popular Fantaisie-Impromptu, a gift to the lucky Baroness d’Este that he had decided not to publish. Although it was eventually published posthumously and, it must be said, against his wishes, it would be a damn shame if the rest of us weren’t able to enjoy it as well. Highly melodic and irrepressibly bubbly, it typically sounds just like the spontaneous and spirited ode to freedom that its name suggests. And the effortlessly virtuosic reading of it by Zygmanowski, as we were all basking in the glow of the Provençal golden hour, made it sparkle even brighter. 
Then we switched to a more introspective mood with the Ballade No. 1, which he dedicated to Baron Nathaniel von Stockhausen. A favorite of Robert Schumann and of the composer himself, it has also found a secure spot in popular culture, most notably in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, as well as in concert halls all over the world. On Thursday evening, in our comfy outdoor space, Zygmanowski immediately struck the right balance between grandeur and refinement in its well-paced, open lyrical, beautifully nuanced performance. 
To wrap up this Romantic interlude on an upbeat note, we moved on to the all-around Scherzo No. 2, which Chopin dedicated to Countess Adèle Fürstenstein (The man clearly knew people in high places!). Its famously dramatic, highly contrasted opening holds many promises of creativity and entertainment, and sure enough, they were all gloriously kept by Zygmanowski as he gave Chopin’s most celebrated scherzo the big, bold and colorful life it was written for. Even better, he also knew how to let go of all the infectious impetuosity to make way for the more delicate moments of pure poetry before having some rambunctious fun again. Who said that Chopin was the subdued type?

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Musique dans la Rue - Olivier Lechardeur & Laurence Monti - Schumann - 08/26/21

Clara Schumann: Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22 
Robert Schumann: Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 105 
Olivier Lechardeur: Piano 
Laurence Monti: Violin 

Another beautiful late-summer evening in Aix-en-Provence, another exciting program in the Chapelle des Oblats’ cloister as part of the annual Musique dans la Rue (Music in the Streets) festival, which is apparently becoming more and more popular over time. Thing is, it is pretty hard not to notice the ubiquitous blue signs all over town, not to mention the barriers trying to contain the mix of dedicated followers and curious passersby in line to get in. And I can certainly attest that it is nearly impossible to turn down the promise of free, high-quality 30-minute performances even when one is swamped with work. 
On Thursday, as I was going through the frustrating embarrassment of riches that is the program, my attention was caught by the double bill of the Schumanns, namely Robert and Clara. I figured that not only would it be really neat to hear his wonderful Violin Sonata No. 1 again, but that it would also be the perfect opportunity to become better acquainted with her œuvre since back in their time the considerably thicker and higher glass ceiling did not allow her to get the broad recognition she so deserved. So I found myself in line at the Oblats again. 

Although in the official program Robert’s sonata appeared first, on Thursday evening, it was Clara’s three romances that took over the first half of the concert. And everybody was thrilled to hear those three little gems that certainly know how to convey a wide range of moods, including the spontaneous liveliness of the first one, the combination of pensive and extroverted lyricism of the second one, and the steady melodic power of the more substantial third one. 
An alumnus of the Conservatoire of Lyon enjoying an outstanding career, Laurence Monti seemed to seamlessly channeled Clara’s prodigious talent as she adroitly unfolded the attractive melodic lines, even when unceremonious gusts of mistral had her make unplanned acrobatics to keep her sheet music in place. Equally eminent pianist Oliver Lechardeur had an easier time managing his score thanks to his little page turner, and proved to be quite the expert at working his way through the complex piano parts. 
Not to be outdone, Robert Schumann’s popular Violin Sonata No. 1 proved again what a superior craftsman Clara's husband was. In true Schumann fashion, the intimate composition has a lot going on what with its fair share of passionate emotions, but also moments of understated serenity, flashes of colorful exuberance, as well as a fleeting touch of darkness. Treated as equal partners on paper, both musicians delivered a perfectly balanced, powerfully expressive performance of the concise yet strongly evocative work. All in all, I am happy to report that Robert sounded worthy of Clara.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Musique dans la Rue - Sextuor Mirabeau - Brahms - 08/25/21

Johannes Brahms: String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18 
Yannick Callier: Cello 
Michel Durand-Mabire: Violin 
Marie-Anne Hovasse: Viola 
Frédéric Lagarde: Cello 
Nicolas Patris de Breuil: Viola 
Marie-Laurence Rocca: Violin 

As the eight-day Musique dans la Rue (Music in the Streets) festival carries on all over the town of Aix-en-Provence, making it even livelier than usual, I have been desperately combing through the ruthlessly exciting program to try to fit in as many as possible of its free 30-minute performances, to which I have to add a 30-minute wait, into my packed schedule. Fact is, quite a few of them simply looked too intriguing to pass on, regardless of circumstances. 
And that’s exactly how I felt about Johannes Brahms’ first sextet that was going to be performed by six professors of the Conservatoire d’Aix-en-Provence, Sextuor Mirabeau, which sounded just about one notch above the performance of Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 by four professors last Sunday. But hey, the more, the merrier, and since our monthly summer storm thankfully decided to happen on Tuesday, I found myself in the Chapelle des Oblats’ packed cloister again yesterday for another short, but oh so rewarding, musical evening. 

Turns out that this concert was originally scheduled in the conservatoire’s regular programming this past season, but had to be cancelled for obvious reasons. I am not sure if the musicians took advantage of the extra time to practice more, but they all sounded mighty fine yesterday as they were creating the less commonly heard textures and colors of Brahms’ String Sextet No. 1. 
That said, although his sextets may not be as popular as some of his other pieces (Let's face it, the competition is pretty daunting), it has to be pointed out that the wonderful Andante has kind of developed a life of its own with occasional appearances in pop culture, including in the Stark Trek: The Next Generation series as well as the films Les Amants and The Piano Teacher. So there.
But it was back to the basics, i.e. six musicians playing together on a stage before an audience, yesterday, and they certainly excelled at bringing out the rich complexity, gorgeous lyricism and overall warmth of the composition. Opening with a gentle theme exquisitely played by the two cellos and one of the violas, the first movement was immediately engaging and superbly expansive. But then again, the entire performance turned out to be a true feast for afficionados of richly burnished, lusciously dark sonorities, the type that one can hear when two cellos and two violas hold their own against the two violins that are used to running the show. In the end, everybody, including the ecstatic audience, won.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Musique dans la Rue - Quatuor Darius - Borodin - 08/22/21

Alexander Borodin: String Quartet No. 2 in D Major 
Marie-Anne Hovasse: Viola 
Frédéric Lagarde: Cello 
Anne Meunier: Violin 
Marie-Laurence Rocca: Violin 

Just about 23 hours after having waited for 30 minutes to enjoy 30 minutes of Mendelssohn in the Chapelle des Oblats’ cloister, which has the double advantage of not only being a naturally welcoming space with its warm-colored walls, stone fountain and olive trees, but also of being conveniently located not far from my apartment, I was back in line for another 30-minute wait before another free 30-minute performance as part of Aix-en-Provence’s Musique dans la Rue (Music in the Streets) festival, but for Alexander Borodin’s ever-popular String Quartet No.2 this time. 
Making my way through the late-afternoon crowd on Sunday was not quite as challenging as it had been on Saturday, but the line of dedicated music lovers was about just as long. Not that it really mattered. I eventually got the opportunity to make a beeline for the exact same premium seat, and readied myself for a performance sans outside noise pollution, but with the expertise of four professors of the Conservatoire d’Aix-en-Provence. This could only be good. 

And it was. Dedicated to Borodin’s wife to allegedly celebrate their 20 years together, his String Quartet No.2 is a superbly crafted work that openly exudes uncomplicated warmth and happiness, with just a touch of orientalism to make it even more appealing. I am not sure how good at his daytime job of chemist Borodin was—His significant contributions to the field speak well for him— but I can tell that he definitely knew how to make magic happen in the music realm. 
Since they’ve been teaching and playing together for a while now, it came as no surprise that the four members of the Quatuor Darius delivered a commendably tight and committed performance. The delightful journey started when they opened Borodin’s treasure trove of luxuriant melodies, and went on as they brought them all to glorious life. The unabashedly luminous Notturno was as enchanting as ever, but in the end, it was only one more component of another deeply fulfilling musical experience on another beautiful late-summer evening in Aix.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Musique dans la Rue - Mélanie Bracale & Frédéric Lagarde - Mendelssohn - 08/21/21

Felix Mendelssohn: Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 58 
Mélanie Bracale: Piano 
Frédéric Lagarde: Cello 

As summer is slowly but surely coming to an end, the time has come for Aix-en-Provence’s 48th Musique dans la Rue (Music in the Streets) festival, which means that from August 20 through 28, a wide range of free 30-minute performances, from chamber music and jazz to world music and marching bands, not to mention sing-alongs of all kinds, among others, are going to spring up in various venues around town for everybody to enjoy. 
I got my first taste of it last Saturday when, after spending pretty much all day slaving in front of my computer, I decided to treat myself to Felix Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in the cloister of the 17th-century Chapelle des Oblats, the former Carmelite convent at the top of cours Mirabeau. And that’s how, after having carefully walked through the proselytizing hallway, I quickly found an excellent seat in the lovely open space, which was filling up fast with music lovers and a cool breeze. 
The two musicians were cellist Frédéric Lagarde, whose impressive résumé ends for now with his current teaching job at the Conservatoire d’Aix-en-Provence, and his frequent musical partner Mélanie Bracale, whose shorter but already notable résumé is about to expand with a stint at no less than the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris. This sterling company, along with the sure value that is Mendelssohn, was promising a short but memorable musical evening, never mind the loud rock music that was coming out from a window nearby. It eventually had to surrender to Mendelssohn’s relentless counter-assault. 

Mendelssohn’s second sonata is everything one would expect from the Classical-Romantic German composer, including a remarkable balance between the two instruments, intense lyricism, beautiful colors, long singing lines and light-hearted sparks. The allegedly Bach-inspired Adagio, in particular, is a major feat of contrasts by superbly combining the streams of choral-like arpeggios of the piano and the dramatic star turn of the cello to eventually reach a truly happy ending. 
Remaining staunchly focused on the task and impervious to outside distractions, both musicians effortlessly joined their expert forces not only to do justice to the naturally engaging score, but also to share the pure pleasure of playing it with the rest of us, all the way to the infectiously exuberant finale. Suffice it to say, they mightily succeeded.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Nuits Pianistiques - Brahms and Fauré - 08/11/21

Johannes Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25 
Gabriel Fauré: Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 15 
Da-Min Kim: Violin 
Marie-Anne Hovasse: Viola 
Frédéric Lagarde: Cello 
Olivier Lechardeur: Piano 

Back in Aix-en-Provence again, and staying in town this time, I had no trouble finding some more high-quality live music to enjoy with the 29th Nuits Pianistiques that, contrary to what their name could lead to believe, do not feature only piano recitals, but also all kinds of chamber music. Moreover, while the performances do not take place outdoors, the event organizers have chosen the next best thing: The Compras auditorium of the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud, a space with such incredible acoustics that violinist and Festival de Pâques’ co-founder and artistic director Renaud Capuçon decided to record his album of Bach concertos there. And what is good enough for Bach and Capuçon is good enough for me. 
Since those Nuits Pianistiques were created by the Musique-Échanges association with intergenerational playing and community outreach in mind, they stretch far and wide in terms of musicians and repertoire, but never too thin. On Wednesday night, the program may not have been ground-breaking, but the prospect of indulging in two meaty quartets with piano from Brahms and Fauré—Not to mention a couple of hours in a perfectly calibrated air-conditioned space—was simply too exciting to pass on. 

Johannes Brahms was still a young man when he came up with his Piano Quartet No. 1, and yet, it is as stunningly accomplished, both rigorously written and opulently lyrical, as one would expect from the ultimate perfectionist he always was. Moreover, some freshness and insouciance are quite palpable in there too, or is it just the irresistibly high-flying rondo alla zingarese that gives this overall impression? In any case, this last movement certainly gave the entire work lasting recognition. And the sizable audience was more than eager to undertake the magnificent 40-minute journey on Wednesday night. 
The four musicians on the stage were definitely up to the task, and expertly handled the challenging and rewarding score. From the deceptively simple opening to the no-holds-barred dazzling finale, they played with technical brilliance, tremendous passion and, maybe most importantly, perfect harmony. Each of them intrinsically knew how to make the most of their part while always fitting in, and the result was a fiercely vibrant performance. 

After the intermission, we stayed in the mid-19th century but left Romanticism à l’allemande for Romanticism à la française with Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1, which he wrote when he was a young man as well, and about to be dumped by an apparently reluctant fiancée he deeply loved at that. That said, although it has its moments of emotional turmoil, the music is not as depressing as the composer’s distressing and no doubt frustrating situation at the time could have led us to expect. 
The allegro molto moderato is beautifully melodic, the scherzo is brilliantly playful, the adagio does betray heartbreaking sadness, but always with a sense of restraint, and the allegro molto concludes the piece with plenty of lively energy. Never one to wear his heart on his sleeve, Fauré nevertheless manages to express deep feelings—and display formidable compositional skills too—with sincerity and unfussiness. Readily switching from Brahms’ intense passion to Fauré’s subtle elegance, the quartet beautifully conveyed the work’s sense of airiness, refinement and nuances for an instinctively intimate and yet effortlessly communicative experience. 

And then the mood shifted into high gear again when, as an encore, the musicians played the last couple of minutes of Brahms’ rondo alla zingarese again, just for the fun of it. And it sure was.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Festival international de piano de La Roque d'Anthéron - Kathia Buniatishvili - 08/05/21

Eric Satie: Gymnopédie No. 1 
Frederic Chopin: Prelude Op. 28, No. 4 
Frederic Chopin: Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39 
Johann Sebastian Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068 (Air on the G String) 
Franz Schubert: Impromptu No. 3, Op. 90 
Franz Schubert: Ständchen D. 957 
Frederic Chopin: Heroic Polonaise, Op. 53 
Frederic Chopin: Mazurka Op 17, No. 4 
François Couperin: Les barricades mystérieuses (The mysterious barricades) 
Johann Sebastian Bach/Franz Liszt: Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 
Franz Liszt: Consolation No. 3 
Franz Liszt/Vladimir Horowitz: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 

Last Thursday evening, after the enlightening afternoon recital by Franco-Haitian, and rightfully proud of it, pianist Célimène Daudet, a leisurely walk around La Roque d’Anthéron, and salads that took 45 minutes to arrive (Maybe we should have stuck to the fabulous ice-creams next door), we were back in the Château de Florans’ magnificent park for one of the biggest draws, if not the biggest draw, of this year’s international piano festival, namely Georgian-born and French-naturalized Khatia Buniatishvili, whose prodigious technique has been as much discussed as her glamorous looks. 
But you gotta give it to the woman: She is a tireless advocate for classical music who does not hesitate to use her rock-star status to relentlessly promote it in all five languages that she speaks. Although I had been keeping an eye out for her, I never got a chance to hear her perform live in the U.S., maybe because she is so much in demand in Europe. But hey, if Khatia Buniatishvili won't come to me, then I must go to Khatia Buniatishvili, and that’s just what I did when my mom and I took our seats in front of the park’s high-tech outdoor concert shell that offered the double advantage of stunning aesthetics and excellent acoustics. 

The cicadas were still out in full force at the beginning of the concert, which made the choice of Eric Satie’s ethereally impressionistic, resolutely minimalist Gymnopédie No. 1 as the opening number kind of unfortunate. The struggle was worth it though, as the subtleness of Satie’s composition was well brought out by the pianist who is not exactly known for her subtleness. 
And then, without missing a beat, Buniatishvili smoothly transitioned into Frederic Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28, No. 4. Maybe because so much emotional baggage is packed in its tiny size, the prelude has often popped up in popular culture, especially when aching sadness with yet a glimmer of hope is needed. On Thursday night, it unfolded with a lot of restraint and earnestness. 
Until, that is, after some drastic gear shifting, Chopin’s short and snappy Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39 made itself heard loud and clear with its tight structure and caustic mood, and proved that the composer was not just all Romanticism all the time. 
As daylight was fading and the cicadas were slowly but surely deciding to call it a night, we moved on to Johann Sebastian Bach’s beloved “Air on the G String”. Having heard it played on the violin countless times, I was thrilled to discover the piano version, although I suspect that Buniatishvili’s Chopinesque treatment of it would have surprised its maker. 
Back into the Romantic genre, she gently emphasized Schubert's gift for melody-making with his radiantly lyrical Impromptu No. 3, Op. 90 and his delicately elegiac “Ständchen” D. 957. As I was listening to such exquisite miniatures in a finally quiet environment under the stars I really felt like we were all living a magical moment suspended in time. 
The first energy-filled notes of Chopin’s “Heroic Polonaise” brought me right back to reality though, and very happily so. Looking totally swept up by the power of the music while remaining fully in control of her skills, Buniatishvili delivered a gorgeously flamboyant, effortlessly virtuosic performance of the formidable masterpiece. 
She radically changed register again for his Mazurka Op 17, No. 4, another crowd favorite of Chopin’s that was all understated and unrushed dreaminess, with just one quick obsessive bout in the middle of it. 
Originally composed for the harpsichord, François Couperin’s “Les barricades mystérieuses” (The mysterious barricades) may or may not refer to specific barricades, but in any case, it is an appealing work, endlessly complex without being intimidating, which probably explains why it has become such an inspiration for all kinds of modern musical endeavors, and was such a satisfying treat on Thursday night. 
Originally composed for the organ, Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor in all likelihood lost of its solemnity during its conversion for the piano by Liszt, just as it certainly lost some of its sternness during Buniatishvili’s openly emotional performance of it on Thursday night. The Romantic take on the Baroque composition may have been unusual, but a lot of us dug it. 
Chopin kind of remained in the air through his friendly rival Franz Liszt’s Consolation No. 3, but the similarity to his famed Nocturnes was always intended. An all-around favorite encore, it was nice to hear it as part of an official playlist, especially since it was played so eloquently. 
Liszt’s irresistible Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 closed the program. Although he wrote no fewer than 19 Hungarian rhapsodies, he could very well have stopped at his second one as it has been by far the most popular of them all. A ubiquitous presence in animated cartoons and popular media, not to mention concert halls around the world, it also is a Himalaya to climb for any pianist who dares to consider it. On Thursday evening, Buniatishvili channeled her inner tempestuous gypsy and handled the entire piece, including Horowitz’s cadenza, with her signature electrifying fervor, and we all loved her for it. 

The sold-out audience was so effusive in their approval of their musical evening that she came back for a graceful adagio of the Concerto in D Minor BWV 947 by Bach/Marcello, followed by one last greatest hit of classical music with a vividly contrasted “Clair de lune” from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, which we gratefully savored to the very last note under a beautiful moonlight.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Festival international de piano de La Roque d'Anthéron - Célimène Daudet - 08/05/21

Justin Elie: Chants de la montagne No. 1 (Echo-isma o) 
Justin Elie: Chants de la montagne No. 2 (Nostalgie) 
Ludovic Lamothe: Feuillet d’album No. 1 
Ludovic Lamothe: Feuillet d’album No. 2 
Franz Liszt: Three transcriptions of six of Chopin's Polish songs 
 2. Spring 
3. The Ring 
4. Drinking Song 
Franz Liszt: La Notte 
Edmond Saintonge: Élégie-Méringue (Elegy-Merengue) 
Justin Elie: Three popular Haitian Meringues 
Ludovic Lamothe: Loco, excerpts of voodoo icons 
Danza No. 1 (Habanera) 
Danza No. 2 
 Danza No. 3 

Back in Aix-en-Provence after my short week in Dieulefit, I was determined not to let summer heat and tourist invasion get to me, so last Thursday, my mom and I headed to La Roque d’Anthéron for two concerts of its prestigious international piano festival that has never let anything, not even the never-ending pandemic, bring it to a stop for the past 40 years. 
On the other hand,  La Roque d’Anthéron for all its loveliness has few distractions, except for an incredible ice-cream parlor with a shaded terrace and a gargantuan menu in town as well as the impressive Cistercian Abbey of Silvacane nearby, but hey, the holy trinity of food, history and music is not a bad way to fill a beautiful summer day. 
Needless to say, our main goal was the music, and we were dearly hoping that the streak of good luck we had been enjoying would carry on a little longer, so that after a piano recital in Dieulefit’s local park and a piano recital in Saoû’s dense forest the previous week, we could end our season in grand style with two last piano recitals al fresco in the magnificent park of La Roque d’Anthéron’s 16th-century Château de Florans. 
The 5 PM recital would feature Franco-Haitian pianist Célimène Daudet, a young, bold and already much in-demand pianist who had concocted a playlist heavily influenced by her Haitian roots with three Haitian composers and pianists who had trained at the Paris Conservatory in the early 20th century… and Franz Liszt. 
The intimate Espace Florans, in which she was going to perform, consisted of a piano standing on a small stage placed on top of a stunning alley of plane trees in front of a small audience—That would be us—who got there via a narrow path in the woods. In short, everything was lined up for a rather unusual and very exciting experience. 

The concert started on a subtle note with two “Chants de la montagne” (Mountain songs) from Justin Elie, so subtle in fact that hearing the piano over the hordes of cicadas adding their own loud soundtrack to the original score was often challenging. But, with a little effort, we were able to connect with the delicate rêverie, the deep love for the homeland, which Daudet valiantly expressed despite all the unceremonious ruckus going on relentlessly around her. 
Ludovic Lamothe was nicknamed the “black Chopin”, partly for his undivided devotion for Chopin’s œuvre, which he frequently performed in concerts, but also for the influence Chopin had in his compositions. In case anyone had any doubts, one listen of his two “Feuillet d’albums” (Photo album pages) definitely cleared that up. Full of lyricism and tenderness, and let’s not forget nostalgia, those inconspicuous yet deeply affecting little gems would have surely pleased the role model himself. 
Three of Liszt’s versions of Polish songs by Chopin brought us back to the Old Continent, still in full Romantic mood, and quite entertained us with their own personalities. “The Spring” enchanted, “The Ring” sparkled, and “The Drinking Song” exploded with raucousness. Through it all, Daudet demonstrated a solid command of her craft while paying meticulous attention to detail. 
“La Notte”, which Liszt wrote after the death of his eldest daughter Blandine and wished to have played at his funeral, is as thoughtful as the name of the work on which it is based: “Il Penseroso” from the Années de Pelerinage suites. Despite the depressing subject matter, Daudet cleverly kept sentimentality and gloominess at bay to focus instead on the melancholy and wistfulness of the composition. 
Next, “Élégie-Méringue” by Edmond Saintonge cheered everybody up with the first appearance of the popular méringue music and its sensual Afro-Caribbean rhythms of the afternoon. Fortunately for us, it would not be the last. 
Justin Elie’s three popular Haitian méringues picked up this new theme and expanded the festive mood with three other examples of the engaging music that has come to represent Haitian culture and values, the last piece being especially remarkable with its strong, ominous dark undertones, and the implacable virtuosity with which Daudet handled them. 
Ludovic Lamothe was back to wrap up the program with three méringue dances, starting with the “Habanera” during which, as I looked up, I could watch the surrounding tree tops far up in the sky seemingly swaying to the infectious, vaguely devilish rhythms coming up from the piano. A winning combination of classical exactness and Caribbean spontaneity with a touch of Haitian voodooism, those three danzas were an uplifting ending to an immensely satisfying concert. 

Before we parted way though, Daudet generously treated us to two encores, back on the Old Continent, with Scriabin’s poignant Étude pour piano, Op. 2, No. 1, which he wrote when he was only 16 years old, and Liszt’s restless “Schlaflos! Frag und Antwort” (Insomnia: Question and Answer), which he wrote presumably when he could not sleep. They both proved, as if it were still necessary, that Daudet’s prodigious skills transcend time, space and genre.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Saoû chante Mozart - Jean-Francois Zygel - Mon Mozart à moi (concert-fantaisie) - 07/26/21

Orchestre des pays de Savoie 
Conductor: Nicolas Chalvin 
Jean-Francois Zygel: Piano 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 29 in A Major (First movement) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik (First movement) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-Flat Major (Second movement) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, K. 478 (First movement) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor (First movement) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Musical Joke, K. 522 (Fourth movement) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major (Second movement) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor (Fourth movement) 

After Alexandre Tharaud’s terrific piano recital in Dieulefit on Saturday night, I happily took Sunday off from supporting cultural institutions, although anybody fortunate enough to have become acquainted with the homemade ice-creams of Dieulefit’s chocolatier extraordinaire Jean Da may argued that they are total works of art, and they would not be wrong. They are certainly one of the major incentives that keep me coming back to Dieulefit, and they certainly made my Sunday. 
But then some live music still had to be heard, so on Monday afternoon, my mom, our friend Jacqueline and I took off to the forest of Saoû, which is located, logically enough, right outside the lovely village of Saoû, for the final, all-Mozart concert of the annual Saoû chante Mozart (Saoû sings Mozart) festival, featuring another French multi-talented pianist in Jean-Francois Zygel, on what promised to be an absolutely gorgeous summer evening in the woods starting at… 7 PM! 
At least that’s what the program promised, not out of consideration for all the sleep I had been missing for various, personally uncontrollable, reasons, mind you, but rather, more prosaically, because of the lack of lighting. And if it had sounded almost too good to be true, it turned out that it actually was: While the seating area under the glamorous canopy of sky-scraping trees was filled to capacity well before 7 PM, the concert actually started at 7:30 PM due to late-comers whose presence was apparently indispensable, and then the unavoidable rambling speeches by various officials. And then, the music finally began. 

As soon as the engaging notes of Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 starting filling our bucolic setting, I decided to stop bitching about wasted time and to start embracing our evening with the Viennese master, which was really no that tall of an order as this first movement was predictably light, graceful and vivacious… but standing by itself. As a rule I resent when just one movement of a composition is played because that’s obviously not the way they are supposed to be heard, and I did feel an inevitable ting of frustration when the orchestra did not go on, but then I remembered how many months I had just spent without live music, and decided to count my blessings instead. 
Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 may be fairly well-known, but the exquisite little gem that is Eine kleine Nachtmusik is downright world-famous, although for some reason I’ve never heard it performed frequently during concerts. I was therefore ecstatically happy to get another chance to enjoy it, even if, again, only the first movement was on the program. Considering the frisson of excitement that went through the audience as the Mannheim rocket theme started its ascension, I knew that I was not alone. 
As an additional treat, once the movement over, Jean-Francois Zygel treated us to his own version, which was as inspired and entertaining as one could have expected from an inquisitive musician and natural communicator like him. The man even managed to gamely play along the singing of a nearby bird that would not shut up. 
Apparently, Mozart himself considered his Quintet for Piano and Winds “the best thing I have written in my life” at the time of its release, and many music lovers concur. I am not a big fan of wind instruments in general, but I did remain in awe of the imaginative writing, the delicately nonchalant mood, and the perfect balance among all the parties during the second movement we heard on Monday evening. 
Right after the winds came the strings with the first movement of his Piano Quartet No. 1, incidentally a milestone in the chamber music repertoire as it is considered to be the first bona fide piano quartet ever composed, even if it was just labelled “difficult music” at the time. On Monday evening, the four musicians proved that no matter how difficult the score was, they could handle it. Not one to miss the party, Zygler did his own solo improvision on it once the quartet was over, and brilliantly too. 
Back to Mozart’s greatest hits, Zygler pointed out that the famed motif of his Symphony No. 40 has been one of the most downloaded classical music ringtones ever. Come to think of it though, it is not that surprising that those stubbornly recurring three notes, equally inviting and mysterious, turned into a ubiquitous earworm. And their power was just made plain obvious when Zygler performed his own take of it, starting by plucking away at the piano cords, before the orchestra eventually took over and delightfully performed the infectious original. 
Mozart reputedly loved nothing more than a good joke, and he put this trait of his to good use with his Musical Joke, never mind that the English title does not reflect well the original German Ein musikalischer Spaß, as even my currently feeble German skills can confirm that “Spaß” means “fun” and not “joke”. And sure enough, as we were listening to the fourth movement of it, we could hear him poke clever fun at his less talented colleagues with excessive repetitions, rhythmic imbalance, general clumsiness and a totally out-of-control ending that even included a bit of polytonality because, why not? 
Beside being an unusually talented composer, Mozart was also a gifted piano man and wrote many stunning pieces for the instrument, which in turn helped increase the popularity of the piano concerto. His most beloved is probably his Piano Concerto No. 23, whose second movement contains some of the most sublime music ever written, and not just by him, and thus gives it an indisputable spot among his greatest hits. Both versions we heard on Monday night, by Zygler solo and then with the orchestra, were ingeniously complementary. 
To conclude our Mozartian feast, and this year's festival, Zygler had selected the last movement of the Symphony No. 40 because of the comprehensive recap of Mozart’s œuvre it represents, including the fading Baroque genre, the then-current galant and classical styles, and the looming Romanticism trend. The orchestra acquitted itself in this last task of the evening with plenty of verve and warmth under the baton of Nicolas Chalvin. 

Maybe were they all a bit verklempt too as it was the maestro’s last performance in a symphonic concert as the Orchestre des pays de Savoie’s musical director, an occasion that Zygler simply had to mark with one last, beautifully heart-felt, improvisation as daylight was finally slowly fading away.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Saoû chante Mozart - Artiste sur l'herbe : consécration ! - Alexander Tharaud - 07/24/21

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Modulierendes Präludium, KV 624 (626b) 
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin 
Allemande – Sarabande – Fanfarinette - Gavotte avec les Doubles de la Gavotte 
Sergei Rachmaninov: Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3 
Franz Schubert: Impromptus, Op. 90 

Although last Friday I took the evening off from concert duties (Sorry, mom!), little did I know that on Saturday morning I would not be as refreshed as I was hoping due to a night plagued by, in no particular order, little critters running around in the attic above me, cats fighting underneath my window, not to mention some mosquitoes in the actual bedroom. So much for the peace and quiet of the countryside. 
On the other hand, I figured that if I was not going to get good sleep in Dieulefit, at least I should get good music, and that’s what I did on Saturday night with my mom and our friend Jacqueline at the piano recital al fresco by French "artist on the grass" Alexandre Tharaud, which took place in the local parc de la Baume at 9:30 PM, but who’s counting anymore? At least we had time to have a lovely dinner al fresco too. 
The occasion was the 32nd Saoû chante Mozart (Saoû sings Mozart) festival, which, according to the program notes, this year offered 12 dates, 15 locations, 19 concerts and 120 artists. Take that, Mostly Mozart Festival, which is not even happening (again). At least this year I am on the right side of the pond. 

Although the festival has been including other composers over the years, Mozart still understandably manages to creep into most, if not all, playlists, which is not that difficult considering the incredible range of his œuvre. On Saturday night, as the night was falling, gray clouds were gathering, the opening speeches by local officials were finally over and the last valiant cicada was about to give up, Tharaud started his concert with Mozart’s Modulierendes Präludium, KV 624 (626b), a seemingly short and inconspicuous, yet delightfully lively prelude, which the composer used to play to check his piano and warm up his fingers. Before we knew it, it had gone by fleetingly, just like the summer breeze that was keeping us cool. 
Remaining roughly in the same time period, we moved on to Rameau, whose works for harpsichord are still as popular with contemporary musicians as they were with Mozart himself. I, however, am not really a big fan of the admittedly estimable French composer, and apparently neither is Mother Nature as it started raining in the middle of the Sarabande, and the performance had to be interrupted not only for the comfort of the musician, but also for the safety of the magnificent Steinway, which got its own cover AND canopy. Talk about special treatment! 
The shower dissipated quickly, and Tharaub came back and resumed playing, undisturbed by the fact that the canopy was covering the piano but not him, and gamely delivered a wonderfully heart-felt performance that even increased my appreciation of Rameau, which is no small feat. 
Moving boldly from French Late Baroque to Russian Romanticism, we next got to enjoy the five vignettes of Rachmaninov’s Morceaux de fantaisie. Since they first came out, the second one, the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, has had its own life as a ubiquitous concert encore and semi-regular presence in movie soundtracks. Unlike the composer and some snooty critics, I am always happy to hear it, with its solemnly resounding bells, rapid-fire middle section, and ever-mysterious finale, all in less than four minutes. Not bad for a 19-year-old barely out of the conservatory! Oh, and yes, the other four pieces are not bad either, as Tharaud convincingly reminded us on Saturday night. 
After Rachmaninov’s permanently depressive state, we moved on to Schubert’s intermittently depressive state with his four Impromptus, Op. 90. The Allegro molto moderato felt both warm and chilly, and never completely fulfilled, but then again, such is life. As we were settling into the melodic rêverie of the Allegro, we got jolted back to reality as some raindrops made the music stop again. The upside was that Tharaud eventually took it back up from the top, which means we got to hear the beginning again. The last two impromptus went on without any further external challenges, but plenty of dark overtones, a little desperation, and the occasional flicker of peacefulness. 

We had made it to the end almost intact, if a bit damp, and most grateful that the man had not given up on us. As if to celebrate the completion of the program and wrap things up as soon as possible, just in case, Tharaud, who had been chatty in between works, moved right on to a resolutely uplifting, highly virtuosic piece that, in my non-expert opinion, may very well have been by Scarlatti. In any case, it was a fun ending for a memorable Saturday night in the park with Alexandre.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Journées Musicales de Dieulefit - Grandes Sonatas pour Cordes et Piano - 07/22/21

César Franck: Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano 
François Daudet: Piano
Virginie Robilliard: Violin  
Maurice Ravel: Tzigane 
François Daudet: Piano 
Virginie Robilliard: Violin 
Sergei Rachmaninov: Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 19 
François Daudet: Piano 
David Louwerse: Cello 

Last Thursday morning, my mom and I made it to Dieulefit one day later than expected, having spent part of the previous night with Rimski-Korsakov’s unpredictable but so exciting Golden Cockerel in Aix, but ready to take on more summer musical treats, of the chamber music kind this time, starting that very evening with the “Grandes Sonates pour Cordes et Piano” (Big Sonatas for Strings and Piano) concert of the Journées musicales de Dieulefit, a decades-old musical event (“festival” would be too big of a word) which consists of four concerts spread out on two “Musical Days in Dieulefit” and the surrounding areas. 
My mom being a recent volunteer with the small organization, not only had she been tapped to help out, but she had also signed me up for that evening, probably figuring out that it would be a productive way for me to earn my stay. So I found myself directing countless confused concert-goers, who apparently could neither remember the alphabet nor count until 12, to their seats inside the tiny and eventually packed Saint-Pierre Church as I was feeling the lack of sleep slowly but surely getting a hold on me. But hey, after the recent string of late-night performances I had to put up with, I knew I could handle it. 

And I could all the more handle it as our seats were just a few feet away from the “stage”, which allowed us to enjoy a full-immersion experience of what was going on there. As luck would have it, the music, starting with César Franck’s unabashedly luminous Sonata for Violin and Piano, was awfully enjoyable. One of the most popular sonatas in the repertoire, Franck’s little masterpiece simply never ceases to seduce the listener with its gorgeous melodies, rich lyricism, and a general feeling of uncomplicated happiness, even during the turbulences of the allegro. Pianist François Daudet, who also happens to wear the hat of music director, provided a solid background that let regular violinist Virginie Robilliard brightly shine through. 
The second goodie on the program was Maurice Ravel’s wild-at-heart with a French twist Tzigane, a true challenge for any violin player, and a true feast for any violin lover. Robilliard dedicated her performance of it to “freedom”, and sure enough, while she was clearly pulling all the strings (No pun intended) of her blazing performance, there was also an imperceptible sense of freedom in the air, the kind of freedom that an artist in full command of her craft can leverage and share. Not to be outdone by its brief part toward the end, Daudet got into the final race full speed ahead for a hell-raising grand finale
After virtuosic freedom came heart-warming love, as Robilliard decided to take it down a notch and reward our ecstatic ovation with a lovely rendition of Elgar’s “Salut d’amour”. 
Moving on without intermission, long-time regular David Louwerse and his cello took over strings duty for Sergei Rachmaninov’s Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, while the indefatigable François Daudet stayed at the keyboard. Not as widely known as the previous two pieces, our Russian portion of the evening nevertheless contained just about the same generous amount of compelling lyricism, as well as, in true Rachmaninov fashion, bell-like sonorities, bouts of mental anguish and overall mysticism. Giving equal importance to both instruments, the openly Romantic composition assigned each musician a daunting set of technical challenges, which they winningly overcame for a truly beautiful performance. 
So beautiful, in fact, that they decided to repeat the andante as an encore, and therefore concluded the concert on a seriously soulful note.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Festival international d'art lyrique - The Golden Cockerel (Final Dress Rehearsal) - 07/21/21

Composer: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov 
Librettist: Vladimir Belsky 
Director/Producer: Barrie Kosky
Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon
Tsar Dodon: Dimitry Ulyanov 
Shemakha Queen: Nina Minasyan 
Astrologist: Vasily Efimov 
Aphron: Adrey Zhilikhovsky 
Gvidon: Vasily Efimov 
Polkan: Mischa Schelomianski 
Amlefa: Margarita Nebrasova 
Voice of the golden cockerel: Maria Nazarova
Body of the golden cockerel: Wilfried Gonon
Chorus: Chœur de l'Opéra de Lyon

“Never say never”, that’s what I was thinking as I was sitting down next to my mom in the Théâtre de l’Archevêché last Wednesday night at the personally unthinkable hour of… 10 PM, after two invitations to the final dress rehearsal of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel had unexpectedly fallen on my lap, and who was I to say no? So I said yes. And that’s how, after some last-minute schedule adjustment, a tentative disco nap and a substantial dinner, we were ready for what would be, this time for sure, the last opera of my first Festival international d’art lyrique d'Aix-en-Provence since the month-long event ended on Sunday. 
I did not know anything about The Golden Cockerel until it appeared on the festival’s program this year, and while I am a big fan of Russian music and always open to discovering new works, it did not feel like an absolute priority, until I was made an offer I simply could not refuse, that is. Moreover, my subsequent quick and totally informal survey taught me that while the opera is not very well-known, it is apparently worth-knowing. As an additional bonus, my inquiries also landed some interesting findings, such as a former Russian colleague having read the story as a child but having never heard of the opera, and my dad being given a recording of it by his mom when he was a teenager, and still remembering most of it. The man will never cease to surprise me! 

My first piece of intel about The Golden Cockerel informed me that it is based on a fairy tale in verse by Alexander Pushkin, which Rimsky-Korsakov turned into a sharp satire of Russian imperialism. That certainly sounded like an intriguing enough combination, which on top of it would probably open the door to all kinds of possibilities when it comes to staging it. Plus, an intermission-free two-hour performance would enable the show to briskly go on, and us to go back home at a semi-reasonable hour for opera buffs in summer (since apparently nobody in summer opera audiences have to go to work the next morning). 
Although the golden cockerel of the title has a pivotal role in the story, the opera’s main character is the hapless Tsar Dodon, whose laziness and sloppiness were made obvious as soon as the opera began by the quite disgusting ragtag outfits he was wearing. But while Russian bass Dimitry Ulyanov did not shy away from the Tsar’s unkemptness, his singing, all deep shades and emotional weight, was almost too magnificent for the part. Faced with what was essentially a daunting one-man show, he nevertheless went the whole distance with remarkable stamina and steadiness. 
The biggest distraction in his life was indisputably his encounter with the spell-binding and yet resolutely unattainable Shemakha Queen, to whom Armenian coloratura soprano Nina Minasyan gave dazzling vocal and physical life. Clad in a form-fitting sparkly dress and a high-feathered headdress, she looked like she was coming straight out of a Folies Bergères revue. Only that instead of the brash appeal of a showgirl, her artlessly luminous voice and discreetly tantalizing dance moves, not to mention her leg coquettishly sticking out as she was sitting down, couldn’t help but bring to mind the elusive eroticism of Scheherazade, this other powerfully seductive heroine of Rimsky-Korsakov. 
We regretfully did not get the planned astrologist, Russian tenor Andrei Popov, due to the latest COVID-related restrictions, so we ended up with Russian tenor Vasily Efimov singing the part from the wings while a stand-in was going through the character’s motions on the stage. But hey, that’s what you get when you attend a work-in-progress during a never-ending pandemic. 
The same Vasily Efimov was just as resourceful in his official role of Tsarevich Gvidon, one of the tsar’s two constantly-fighting-till-death-did-them-apart sons (Abel and Cain anyone?), AKA the nice one; Moldavian baryton Andrey Zhilikhovsky was equally efficient as his feistier sibling, Tsarevich Aphron. we quickly figured out that nothing good could come out of those two, but little did we know...
Russian talents were decidedly in full force in smaller parts with Russian bass Mischa Schelomianski’s general Polkan and Russian contralto Margarita Nekrasova’s housekeeper Amelfa. Both made the most of their characters with impressive vocal skills and strong stage presence. 
And what about the famous golden cockerel? Well, maybe because it was carrying such heavy responsibilities as not only the title role, but also as the foreseer of troubles to come, it took no less than two people to bring him to resounding life: Russian soprano Maria Nazarova provided remarkably loud and clear crowing, whose force only equaled its precision, from the wings. On the stage, the young and limber French actor Wilfried Gonon impersonated a cockerel as fascinating as foreboding, with few but well-calibrated moves, a de rigueur golden crest, and a lot of body paint. 
Beautifully contributing to the performance was the fantastic chorus, whose singers appeared as horses of a chess board for the men, as attractive ladies-in-waiting for the women, before they all cavorted in carnivalesque costumes as the kingdom’s people, and eventually stood in sober outfits for the equally sober epilogue, always impeccably fitting in. 

Although the original tale was unfolding in a quintessentially Russian context, Australian director Barrie Kosky judiciously decided to focus on its universality by coming up with a slightly surreal set à la Tim Burton, consisting of a landscape featuring a steep slope, countless bamboos and a dead tree, that looked in fact rather drab until soulful lighting made creative promises come true. As time went on, abstract and real, poetic and burlesque, humans and animals, all regularly interacted in a scenery where anything could happen, and pretty much did. 
Never hesitating to go the extra mile without ever going too far, as Kosky added some visually eye-popping touches such as the four Nijinsky-like dancers who sporadically showed up and did their thing in various, err, interesting outfits, including skimpy shimmering loincloths and not much else, or deliciously macabre scenes like the Tsar Dodon having a Hamlet lite moment when playing with his sons’ severed heads while their bodies were hanging upside down from the dead tree nearby. All those uncanny details were not only a feast for the eyes, but also winningly brought out the most unusual aspects of the score. 
Faithful to its composer’s mission of mixing illusion and reality, the abundantly lyrical music was full of contrasts, among which stood out, at least to my ears, the earthiness and exoticism of, respectively, western and eastern sounds, as well as the occasional bout of dark humor. In the pit, young and fearless Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni kept everything under control, even during the most challenging passages where the characters could have easily slipped into gross caricatures, and led the orchestra in a confident performance that effortlessly brought out the wild inventiveness of the whole enterprise. 

Cocorico to all indeed! Even better, it was all over at the stroke of midnight, and we were able to get some rest before moving on to new adventures.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Festival international d'art lyrique - Tempest and Passion - 07/17/21

Balthasar Neumann Ensemble 
Conductor: Thomas Hengelbrook 
Mozart: Symphony No. 39 in E-Flat Major 
Mozart: “Ruhe sanft, mein holders Leven” (Zaide
Mozart: “Et incarnatus est” (Mass in C Minor, K. 427) 
Mozart: “Alleluia” (Exsultate, jubilate) 
Soprano: Alexandra Flood 
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K 551 (Jupiter

As its name indicates, Aix-en-Provence’s prestigious Festival international d’art lyrique focuses on the many-faced art of the voice, and therefore mostly presents operas. But its original mission having broaden over the last few decades, nowadays it also offers a sizable choice of other events, among which are orchestral concerts that cover a wide range of works going from staunchly traditional to boldly adventurous. 
As my first opera at the festival, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, had been expertly performed by the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, I figured that I might as well stick to the same composer and musicians for my first foray onto orchestral territory too. Another decisive selling point was a never-to-be-missed opportunity to hear the almighty Jupiter. Plus, his popular Symphony No. 39 was there too, as well as Mendelssohn’s "Infelice" for soprano and orchestra, providing just enough of a reminder that we were still at a lyrical art festival. 
The “Tempest and Passion” program may have been kind of predicable, but my well-planned evening had some surprises in store for me, starting when my cheap but very satisfactory nose-bleed seat in the Grand Théâtre de Provence was suddenly turned into an orchestra seat of my choosing right before the start of the concert. 
My stroke of luck, however, seemed to end just as quickly when, after I had strategically picked a seat in the middle of the partly filled last row for optimal view, acoustics and tranquility, a woman sitting nearby started to energetically fan herself, clearly not realizing that just the effort she was putting into it was probably making her even hotter. 
My luck quickly returned, however, when she got tired of it even before I did, and my enjoyment of Mozart’s 39th symphony was barely affected. Whew! 

And there was a lot to be enjoyed indeed! Although nobody can tell for sure if Mozart ever got to attend a performance of it, it can be assumed that he would have been pleased with the one by the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble on Saturday. The first of his last three symphonies has a lot going for it, what with an expansive adagio, a lovely andante, an attractive menuetto and trio, and a constantly surprising finale. All of those qualities and more were on full display on Saturday evening as the ensemble played with much commitment and vitality. 
Due to an illness, the promised Mendelsohn’s piece had been replaced by three arias by Mozart at the last minute, but young and endlessly versatile Australian soprano Alexandra Flood was unfazed, even if she needed her sheet music for the last two works. She handled them all with plenty of confidence and grace. 
Another surprise was that the intermission scheduled in the program did not happen in real life, but hey, who am I to complain about a well-paced evening? So we did not waste any time to move on to Mozart’s 41st and last symphony, which apparently was nicknamed “Jupiter” about a century after its composer had passed. 
Fact is though, rarely has a name been more fitting. With its Olympian perfection, its towering and yet accessible grandeur, its beautiful melodies and delightful surprises, it is the ultimate Mozartian gift that keeps on giving. Continuously digging out the little details while keeping the energetic pace that had adopted right at the famously attention-grabbing opening, the ensemble sounded like they were having as much fun as we were. 

But the concert that was not all-Mozart before becoming all-Mozart turned out not to be all-Mozart after all with a last, but definitely not least, surprise that included a couple of special guests from the Cuban-European Youth Academy (CuE), an innovative exchange program meant to help young Cuban and European musicians pursue the study of their craft. 
And that's how, on Saturday night, fabulous composer-first violin Jenny Peña Campo led the whole orchestra into an irresistibly sexy and infectious Latin-flavored encore of her own writing, which she eventually enhanced with hot dance moves with the equally talented maracas player. And just like that, this ultimate, totally unexpected treat of the evening got what even the Viennese master had not: a spontaneous long, roaring and standing ovation.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Festival international d'art lyrique - Innocence - 07/10/21

Composer: Kaija Saariaho 
London Symphony Orchestra 
Librettist: Sofi Oksanen/Aleksi Barrière 
Conductor: Susanna Mälkki 
Producer/Director: Simon Stone 
Waitress: Magdalena Kožená 
Mother-in-Law: Sandrine Piau 
Father-in-Law: Tuomas Pursio 
Bride: Lilian Farahani 
Groom: Markus Nykänen 
Priest: Jukka Rasilainen 
Teacher: Lucy Shelton 
Markéta: Vilma Jää 
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir 

Since my first, long-overdue experience of Aix-en-Provence’s Festival international d’art lyrique was the oldest opera on this year’s program with Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, I figured that my second one might as well be the most recent opera on this year’s program, so recent in fact that it had its world première just one week before the performance I would attend, mine being technically the troisième of Kaija Saariaho’s much anticipated Innocence
I had been intrigued by her L’amour de loin when I saw at the Met back in 2016, and I consequently was very curious to see what the arguably most exciting contemporary opera composer has come up with lately. Truth be told, I was almost grateful for the pandemic since it had postponed the première of Innocence by a year, just in time for me to be in Aix to check it out. 
Even better, after having enjoyed two very different and equally rewarding outdoors performances so far this summer, I have to admit that I was shamelessly relishing the modern comfort of the deliciously plush seats and perfectly calibrated A/C of Aix’s Grand Théâtre de Provence, where I happily plopped myself down between a young Asian woman and an elderly German couple at the totally civilized time of 8:00 PM last Saturday evening. 

I knew very little about Innocence before committing to it, except that it was inspired by the 13 characters of The Last Supper, that its duration would be about 110 blissfully uninterrupted minutes, and that it would be sung and spoken in English, Finnish, Czech, Romanian, French, Swedish, German, Spanish and Greek, which of course did not fail to tickle the linguist in me. Once in the auditorium, there was no turning back as the compact Rubik’s Cube-like décor and the ominously dark first notes set the tone for a riveting evening. 
Although her first appearance was rather inconspicuous, there was soon little doubt that superb Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená would be the link between the joyful wedding and the tragic shooting that were happening 10 years apart in the expertly organized vignettes. And we could have hardly wished for a better one: She carried her visceral pain with painful dignity and thrilling vocal power. 
French soprano Sandrine Piau may be a Baroque specialist, but on Saturday night she brilliantly demonstrated that she’s just as comfortable with challenging contemporary music as the mother of the groom who just can’t let go of the past no matter how much denial she’s desperately trying to be in. 
Her husband did not fare much better in terms of dealing with upsetting ghosts and an uncertain future, and this was made perfectly clear by stern Finnish bass-baritone Tuomas Pursio, who was nevertheless still trying and failing to bring some normalcy into a situation that was anything but. 
Irano-Dutch soprano Lilian Farahani was achingly efficient as the young bride merrily celebrating her new life and her new family before the harsh truth brutally and irrevocably crushes her happy ending. 
As for her new husband, baby-faced but powerful-voiced Finnish tenor Markus Nykänen confidently went from unabashedly looking forward to the future to torn by unbearable guilt and despair. 
Germano-Finnish bass-baritone Jukka Rasilainen was terrific as the heart-breaking priest who had lost his faith, but nevertheless remained the only friend and significant support of the ill-fated family. 
American soprano Lucy Shelton was deeply moving as the teacher who did not realize what was going on until it was too late, and subsequently had to renounce teaching out of excruciating guilt. 
The six young artists impersonating the international students all did an excellent job, whether they were acting, speaking or singing, but a special mention has to be made of young Czech folk singer Vilma Jää who, with her crystalline voice and otherworldly presence, was a truly outstanding Markéta. 
Although they were not visible, the members of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir provided a subtle touch of hauntingness to the performance. 

The homogenous cast was in fine form indeed, but the whole enterprise would not have succeeded so well if they had not benefitted from really ingenious staging. As it was, the various rooms distributed on the two levels of the continuously rotating, labyrinthic set allowed for seamless transitioning of past and present scenes as time inexorably went on. While such a concept could have easily brought confusion, in this case it was cleverly putting all the pieces of the puzzle together one by one like clockwork. 
By converting and emptying the various spaces until only a few symbolic touches remained (empty walls, dispersed corpses, blood stains), the Australian director Simon Stone helped the story steadily progress from the boisterous wedding party to the timidly hopeful conclusion, peppering it with memorable scenes such as Markéta’s first eerie appearance to her mother, or the quiet horror of the school shooting slowly unfolding with neither gun shots nor shooter, or the many consequence-heavy confrontations that left nobody intact. 
The ambitious score was both predictable and surprising in its boldly unusual and highly successful combination of textures, harmonies and colors that were conveyed by a wide range of techniques. Saariaho’s ever-inquisitive mind had obviously been at work again, and the result was fascinating. Throughout the evening, the story peeled off its many different layers, the characters revealed uncomfortable truths, and universal questions about innocence and guilt were raised. 
A staunch contemporary music advocate, and also Saariaho’s long-time partner in wild adventures, prominent Finnish maestra Susanna Mälkki led the reliably fabulous London Symphony Orchestra in a performance that was as pointedly multi-faceted and vividly human as the work itself. It can't have been an easy feat to keep the remarkably complex, dense-in-its-transparency music going for almost two hours, but they handled it like the true pros they are. 

The ovation was deservedly long and loud, and went up a few notches when pretty much everybody got up to greet a frail but smiling Kaija Saariaho as she was wheeled on the stage by Vilma Jää. By all accounts, she had done it again.