Friday, July 29, 2022

Società dei Concerti di Trieste - Progetto Beethoven - 07/24/22

Ludwig von Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3 
Ludwig von Beethoven: Fantasy for piano, vocal soloists, mixed chorus, and orchestra, Op. 80 (Choral Fantasy) 
Ludwig von Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Verdi 
LaFil - Filarmonica di Milano 
Conductor: Marco Seco 
Alessandro Taverna: Piano 

With my multi-stop Italo-French trek wrapped up and my social calendar pretty much cleared, I settled happily for an entire month in the unusually multi-cultural and serenely beautiful city of Trieste, blissfully tucked away from suffocating temperatures and even more suffocating mass tourism, except for the occasional mammoth cruise ship. And while the capital of the autonomous region of Friuli Venezia Giulia may not have the same endless supply of cultural sights, institutions and events as larger cosmopolitan cities, its extraordinary past and dynamic present have no problem keeping locals and visitors busy. 
Fact is, my summer here has already been quite eventful since last week we experienced the effects of the wildfires that were raging in the nearby Corsa Mountains as they brought the Internet down for several hours one evening, caused power outages, and reduced the air quality to “extremely poor” for a couple of days. And then, just as life was getting back to normal, fierce thunderstorms made hot water unavailable for a few hours one morning. 
Among all these climate change-related challenges, I was cheered up by a short visit from my Neapolitan friend Vittorio, who is prospecting Trieste as a possibility for retirement, and the closing concert of the Società dei Concerti di Trieste’s Progetto Beethoven summer series, whose serendipitously timing would bring us together at the iconic Teatro Verdi. On top of it, the program featured the 7th symphony, whose heart-melting Allegretto has always been a favorite of mine. 
And then, last Sunday evening, after yet another decadent meal at the Caffè degli Specchi, which has rapidly become my go-to spot in town, and a quick look at the dazzling sunset over the Adriatic at the end of the stunning Piazza Unità d’Italia, we were making our way to the opera house when we momentarily found ourselves in the middle of an admittedly rather civilized anti-vax protest on Piazza Verdi. Did I mention that there is never a dull moment in Trieste? 
Once inside the intimate and attractive space though, we quickly forgot the outside agitators and reveled in the good fortune of having a premium box all to ourselves instead. Although the theater was surprisingly far from being full—Apparently people had better things to do on a sultry Sunday evening—the mood was festive, and the couple of opening speeches by officials, who kept on effusively thanking everyone they could think of, went well. 

When show-time finally arrived, the Filarmonica di Milano’s musicians joined forces with the Teatro Verdi’s musicians for Beethoven’s glorious Leonore Overture No. 3. The composer spent an inordinate amount of time writing no fewer than four overtures for his one and only opera, Fidelio, and he allegedly rejected the third one because he found it too grand. Luckily for the rest of us, it was rescued from oblivion and is now part of Beethoven’s legacy. Efficiently condensed at roughly a quarter of an hour, the Leonore Overture No. 3 may for all purposes be considered a well-rounded CliffNotes version of the opera, and the orchestra gamely went through the plot’s dramatic twists and turns all the way to the happy ending. 
It is always fun to discover unsuspected works by familiar composers, and that’s what Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy was to me when I first saw it on the program. Later on, as the orchestra was playing it with precision and fervor, and more than a little help from the Teatro Verdi’s choir and a handful of soloists, I could not help but think of the universally popular Ode to Joy of his 9th symphony. The big difference, however, was the ubiquitous presence of a piano soloist on Sunday evening, an essential and demanding part of the composition that, for the occasion, was assertively fulfilled by the brilliant Alessandro Taverna. 
Even better, he responded to our enthusiastic applause with another superb performance of some variations by Max Reger on a theme by Telemann this time, which made our jaws drop even lower. This young virtuoso is already in high demand in Europe, and if he keeps it up, the world will no doubt be next. 
After the intermission, we were more than ready for Beethoven’s 7th symphony, and I was thrilled that after having reconnected with the joys of opera and recitals lately, I was finally getting an opportunity to dive into a big, lush and exhilarating symphony, which has also incidentally found its place in music history for leveraging the best of the Classical past while resolutely looking toward the Romantic future. Maestro Marco Seco, who also happens to be the artistic director of the Società dei Concerti di Trieste, led the musicians into a spontaneously engaging performance that superbly highlighted the many facets, from joyful dances to solemn marches to the high-speed Finale, of the action-packed journey. There is never a dull moment with Beethoven either.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Saoû chante Mozart - Inspirations Mozartiennes - 07/08/22 - 9:00 PM

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonata No.17 in B-flat Major, K.570 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata for Keyboard and Violin No. 35 in A Major, K. 526 
Nathanaël Gouin: Piano 
Sayaka Shoji: Violin 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Improvisations 
Thomas Ehnco: Piano 

The first concert of the Saoû chante Mozart festival over, we took advantage of the wonderful estate just outside the castle to have a very French picnic—I would seriously attend any kind of festival if it comes with the opportunity to eat pâté en croûte among lavender fields during the golden hour—and compare notes, which were all overwhelmingly enthusiastic. After also pondering why the rest of the audience had apparently gone into the village of Saoû instead of taking advantage of the gorgeous setting and how the couple of small local restaurants would be able to manage the onslaught, we turned our attention to the second concert. 
Although everything would revolve around Mozart, there would a twist to it, which was that the second part would be all improvisations inspired by some of Mozart’s biggest hits as well as hidden gems. Moreover, a second twist had been added to it a couple of days before when Yvan Cassar, the pianist who had been tapped for that second half, had suddenly become indisposed and young, but already tireless globe-trotter and Saoû chante Mozart veteran, Thomas Ehnco was called to save the night. From what we could overhear among the connoisseurs, this was actually not a bad deal at all. And at least one thing was for sure: After a late opening of the doors and a subsequent chaotic settling by the audience, I found myself in an amazing seat, and definitely in the mood for more Mozart. 

Originally written for piano and violin, the Piano Sonata No. 17 in B-flat Major eventually would be performed only on piano, and while it may not be one of Mozart’s most dazzling works—Lets’ face it, the competition is dreadfully fierce—, it still has enough solid qualities, especially in the deliciously bubbly Allegretto, to have a legitimate place on concert programs. On top of it, when a musician as prepared and capable as Nathanaël Gouin takes a hold of it, it brings it to a whole other level, and that’s just what happened on Friday night. 
On the other hand, a composition of Mozart’s for piano and violin that stayed that way is Mozart’s Sonata for Keyboard and Violin No. 35 in A Major, for which Gouin was joined by violinist Sayaka Shoji. This is the last sonata the composer would ever write, but then again, once you have come up with such a well-rounded masterwork, there’s pretty much nowhere else to go. Book-ending the serene Andante with two unabashedly sunny movements, Mozart took pains to focus equally on the two instruments. Accordingly, the two musicians got equal share of the spotlight, even if the piano at times sounded ready to take over the violin. 

Mozart was still very much on our minds and in our ears when a seemingly energy-filled Thomas Ehnco climbed up onto the stage, sat at the piano, and started playing a spontaneous-sounding mix of classical and jazz and whatnots with the effortless skills, knowledge and aplomb of a true virtuoso. By then darkness had slowly but surely descended upon our surroundings, discreet mood-setting lights had appeared, and everything was in place for a magical summer night under the stars. 
After taking a quick break to catch his breath, acknowledge our thunderous applause and introduce himself, Ehnco was back digging into the bottomless treasure chest that is Mozart’s œuvre and repeatedly came up with special treats in a wide range of different flavors. As the night went on, we got to enjoy truly exciting, multifold variations of The Requiem’s Lacrimosa, Ehnco limiting himself to the eight bars that are indisputably Mozart’s, Don Giovanni’s ever-popular “La ci darem la mano”, which he played with septuple rhythms, the all-time favorite Eine kleine Nachtmusik, the 40th symphony’s formard-looking Finale, and the unusual dissonances of the String Quartet No. 19. And those were just the most well-known excerpts. 

And just like that, I was already done with the Saoû chante Mozart festival for this year, and I could not have ended it on a higher note.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Saoû chante Mozart - Contrastes - 07/08/22 - 6:30 PM

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Suite in C Major, KV. 399 
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Fantasia in F-sharp Minor H 300, Wq 67 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major, K. 54 (Sonata facile or Sonata semplice) 
Justin Taylor: Piano 

Claude Debussy: Menuet, from Suite Bergamasque 
Maurice Ravel: Menuet, from Le tombeau de Couperin 
César Franck: Prelude, Choral and Fugue 
Philippe Cassard: Piano 

Since I had to make a two-day stop-over at my mom’s in Dieulefit between the International festival d’art lyrique in Aix-en-Provence and my half-sister’s wedding in Lyon, I was pondering how sensible it would be to attend not one but two concerts in a row with my mom and our friend Jacqueline in nearby Saoû, which meant a return home roughly by midnight, on the eve of the big event. Shouldn’t I be planning on getting a good night’s rest instead? On the other hand, The Saoû chante Mozart festival had never failed me or anybody else, and after being deprived of live music for so long, the temptation was just too hard to resist. 
So in the end, last Friday evening, I found myself in the intimate courtyard of the château d’Eurre, a lovely 14th-century castle surrounded by lavender fields whose private owners are kind enough to open every year for the festival. Since my tickets were acquired later, I did not seat next to my mom and Jacqueline, who had premium seats, but in the middle of the first row house right, which essentially meant that for the entire time I would be staring at the shoes of the two pianists featured in the 6:30 PM performance. But hey, beggars cannot be choosers, and I felt lucky to be there, on a beautiful summer evening, as the small space was packed to the rims, or at least to the top of the staircases. 

The first pianist was Justin Taylor, a very nice young man who is also, according to his short bio, one of those multi-talented prodigies whose fortes span from Baroque to jazz. But even more than that is sometimes required when you play outdoors. Although he was obviously ready to handle anything musically, his biggest challenge on Friday evening turned out to be a strong and facetious wind that was apparently determined to mess his sheet music up. But not to worry, plenty of good humor and a pro-active page turner eventually allowed the performance to proceed without a hitch. 
Once everything was more or less settled, he wasted no time flexing his pianistic muscles on nothing less than the faithful replica of a 18th-century pianoforte, because bringing the real thing would have been way too risky. For the occasion, he had chosen Mozart’s Baroque-influenced Suite in C Major, KV. 399, a lesser-known but, needless to say, impeccably put-together piece that exuded the Viennese master’s trademark elegance and vivacity. 
Next, we stayed in the Baroque realm with one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s numerous sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and his exquisitely contrasted Fantasia in F-sharp Minor, Wq 67. While some may have taken it for a particularly inspired improvisation, it had a sharp structure that seemed to prove otherwise. In any case, it remained firmly under Taylor’s tight and informed control. 
We went back to Mozart—It is his festival, after all—in a more classical form this time, with his popular Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major. Thing is, while the work has been nicknamed “Easy Sonata” or “Simple Sonata”, and as such invariably shows up on the playlist of every piano student, it still takes a lot of commitment and practice to make it sound as spontaneously scintillating as Taylor did on Friday night. 

After this first part of the program was over, and almost without missing a beat, which was quite a remarkable feat considering the little space the crew had to maneuver, the old-fashioned pianoforte was replaced by a more modern Steinway, and the second part of the concert was underway without any further ado, this time in the company of solidly established pianist Philippe Cassard and his tantalizing 19th-century-French program. 

Music resumed with the Menuet from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, the impressionist composer’s dazzling tribute to the French Baroque harpsichordists. And if nothing of the traditional minuet could be found in this new take on it, there was hardly any reason to complain as we were all thoroughly enjoying the enchanting river of notes, overflowing with light rhythms and pretty melodies, that Cassard steadily produced. 
The second menuet du jour was from Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, a moving six-movement tribute to six of his friends who died in World War I. In fifth position, the Menuet came out as an uncomplicated, peaceful, borderline nonchalant, homage to Jean Dreyfus, with one brief moment of tension, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared, as if to remind us all of the tragedy that inspired the composition in the first place. 
The pièce de résistance of this concert had been saved for last, but it was certainly worth waiting for. Franck’s extended and complex Prelude, Choral and Fugue, in which darkness always seems about to overpower light before the long, tormented and thoroughly magnificent journey ends in a transcendent ecstatic finale, is no fare for the faint-hearted. Thanks to Cassard’s magistral performance of it, we too were all transported by the composer’s compelling narrative, and came out all the better for it. 

One down, one more to go.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Festival international d'art lyrique - Salome - 07/05/22

Composer: Richard Strauss 
Librettist: Richard Strauss 
Orchestre de Paris 
Conductor: Ingo Metzmacher 
Producer/Director: Andrea Breth 
Elsa Dreisig: Salome 
Gábor Bretz: Jonathan 
John Daszak: Herodes 
Angela Denoke: Heradias 

Since it is always best to consider the cup half-full, I decided to make the most of my half-sister’s wedding as soon as it was made clear to me that there was no escaping it. So if I had to be in Lyon on July 9, I figured that I might as well stop in Aix-en-Provence to meet with my mom and at least enjoy one event of its prestigious annual Festival international d’art lyrique (International Festival of Lyrical Art), which this year happened to kick off on July 4, right after having treated myself to an extended Italo-French trip to get there because, why not? 
Back in the lovely Provençal town that was my temporary home last year, although in a different apartment, having learned the hard way last summer that, without the benefit of a lockdown, the historic center is not exactly conducive to a restful stay, I happily reconnected with beloved places and people, never mind that the temperatures were slowly but surely climbing to decidedly uncomfortable heights. 
All the more reason to feel fortunate that the performance of Salome would take place in the blissfully air-conditioned and acoustically satisfying Grand Théâtre de Provence, or “GTP” for the locals. Even better, it would start at the totally civilized time of 8:30 PM and, thanks to Strauss’ compact and intermission-free score, and would end a mere 100 minutes later, all but guaranteeing an evening of exciting musical revelry and still enough beauty sleep. 

 Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s French play by the same name, which involved a virtuous prophet, a horny teenager and a hornier king in biblical times, boasting Hedwig Lachmann’s faithful German translation and Richard Strauss’ formidable musical score, Salome the opera needs no introduction. Instantly igniting scandals, as well as huge popular successes, wherever it was performed, when it was not outright banned, the story’s tantalizing mix of eroticism, religion and death has always proven hard to resist, so these days most of us don’t, as the almost sold-out audience on Wednesday night could attest. 
Salome being a complex character for whom Strauss composed a particularly daunting part, one of the main challenges of any production is by default to find a singer with an unusual amount of singing and acting skills, not to mention power and resilience. Enter Elsa Dreisig, a young but already highly regarded French-Danish soprano, who at first may have seemed like a puzzling choice to many connoisseurs since her background is more Mozartian than Wagnerian. 
But that’s the thing: Her incredibly agile and deeply lyrical voice, combined with her angelic blond hair and a virginal white slip dress, turned out to be the perfect fit for the young, innocent, unwittingly seductive and quickly overwhelmed teenager she is actually supposed to be. And if you assumed she was too unexperimented to handle the role, just go and watch her tear through the last monologue. Suffice to say, Oscar Wilde would have been mightily pleased. And so would Richard Strauss. 
The object of her obsession, the striking and unattainable prophet Jochanaan, was winningly interpreted by physically and vocally blessed Hungarian bass Gábor Bretz, whose magnetic presence and commanding singing easily overcame the limitations of his main stations, which essentially consisted in being half-way buried in the cracked ground or beheaded on the banquet table à la Da Vinci’s Last Supper meets Magritte. 
British tenor John Daszak was in charge of the other man in Salome’s life, her lecherous and spineless step-father Herodes, and he did not hesitate to go the extra mile to come up with a memorable king in no small part owing to his natural poise and flawless diction. 
Not to be outdone, German soprano Angela Denoke, a former Salome herself, was a resolutely determined Herodias, Herodes’ unapologetic sister-in-law and then wife, whose dark looks and venomous singing brought another bit of ominousness to the already unsavory proceedings. 
The uniformly impressive cast was completed by a wide-ranging cohort of highly competent singers, who all immensely contributed to the high quality of the musical output. 

As for the visual output, German director Andrea Breth had clearly rejected any possible hint of orientalism and boldly gone German expressionism instead, and I got to admit that her rigorously black-and-white, cleverly surrealist vision, which included a magnificent moon, refined costumes, stunning lighting effects, as well as stylized gestures straight out of silent movies and old photographs, had a lot going for it. Quite a few of those tableaux were in fact downright arresting in their genuine inventiveness when depicting the hopelessly decadent milieu and the awfully thorny relationships. 
The devil, however, is often in the details, and some of them were just not up to par. Call me old-fashioned if you want, but to me, the main issue was the dance of the seven veils or, more precisely, the lack of it. While Breth should be commended for trying something different, her four ersatz Salomes engaged in various encounters with Jochanaan or Narraboth while the real Salome was lying on the banquet table were more mystifying than enlightening. And while a white-tiled bathroom kind of makes sense when a cold environment is called for, I found it much too aseptic for the highly dramatic last scene. On the other hand, Jochanaan’s head stayed in its bucket for the occasion, a little favor I was most grateful for. 
Richard Strauss’ Salome is famous not only for its sordid plot, but also for its sumptuous score and the huge orchestra it takes to bring it to life. That did not seem to be a problem for the Orchestre de Paris though, as they sounded in splendid form and happy to tackle a masterful serving of unapologetically opulent late Romanticism. They were confidently conducted by German maestro Ingo Metzmacher, who brilliantly managed to convey the composition’s relentless intensity while still bringing out its subtle colors and organic beauty, making sure to always support and not overwhelm Dreisig’s lighter voice. 

When all had been said and done, the curtain rose again to give Dreisig her moment in the spotlight, and the entire audience spontaneously joined in to give her the thunderous ovation she so rightfully deserved. The production team received less unanimously positive feedback, but the mood remained festive regardless. Even better, we had an enjoyable walk back to our temporary home in an Aix that was not even close to being ready to go to sleep yet.