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.

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