Saturday, September 23, 2023

Teatro di San Carlo - Bruckner - 09/14/23

Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, WAB 104 (Romantic) 
Conductor: Dan Ettinger 

Spending part of summer in Northern Italy to get away from the South’s predicted overbearing summer heat sounded like a good idea at first, until I got there and realized that there was no escaping Mother Nature. Of course, Italy being Italy, there was plenty of historical, artistic and culinary delights to indulge in, but no live music to be heard anywhere, except for the occasional youngster trying to make a few bucks by belting out Italian pop songs with various levels of talent in Padova. 
The persistent bad timing started when I arrived in Trieste as a performance of Carmina Burana was getting underway in the courtyard of the hill-top Castle of San Giusto, and it literally all went downhill from there. Granted, Ferrara’s famous Buskers Festival could have kind of fit the bill, but I chickened out at the thought of dealing with huge crowds, loud music and lingering mugginess, so I prudently stayed in my air-conditioned temporary home plotting the following day’s sight-seeing schedule. 
After a return in Naples under pouring rain in late August, the summer heat curse lifted, and so did the no live music curse a few days later when I received an offer from the Teatro di San Carlo for discounted tickets to a performance of Anton Brucker’s monumental — and much revised — 4th symphony. So I signed up for it, grabbed my typically ready, willing and able friend Vittorio, and we were off to an Late Romanticism-filled evening in the city. 
Back in February, the plan to take my mom to an in-depth guided tour of the San Carlo with friends for her birthday kind of petered out when we realized that the whole place was undergoing renovations, but we still got to partake in a mini tour and watch some the workers painstakingly cleaning the ceiling’s magnificent fresco. On Thursday evening, after having enjoyed some delicious caprese al limone in the theater’s cool underground café, we were in for another real treat when we saw the eye-popping result, and for a second almost forgot about the music.

I am not a big fan of Bruckner, and I tend to prefer his later works, but hey, again, beggars cannot be choosers, and his fourth symphony is not his most popular one for no reason, so it was with some excitement that we eventually took our premium parterre seats in the well-filled auditorium and mentally prepared ourselves for a refreshing escapade in the countryside courtesy of the San Carlo’s supremely capable orchestra under the baton of its energetic music director and conductor Dan Ettinger. 
And sure enough, they handled the Romantic with élan and precision, expertly staying on top of the big sound waves and beautifully bringing out countless small details. The composition cannot claim to have the sweeping immensity of Wagner or the exacting complexity of Brahms, but it is grandiose enough, opening with barely-there tremolo strings and a glorious horn solo to usher a lyrical morning in a medieval city that includes a morning call, the opening of the gate, and the gallop of the knights’ horses. 
The orchestra kept the momentum going through the charmingly melodic serenade of the second movement, the unforgiving hare hunt of the third movement, and the kind of mysterious gathering of the last movement, all without overdoing it, even if the hunt quickly got outright rambunctious thanks to the mighty brass blasting at full power, and the whole performance ended up forming an organically harmonious as well as consistently entertaining whole for a very satisfying musical evening indeed.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Saoû Chante Mozart - Mozart & Weber - 07/22/23

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Andante in F Major arranged for Flute, Violin and Viola, KV. 616 
Carl Maria von Weber: Clarinet Quintet in B-flat Major, Opus 34 (Fantasia and Rondo) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Flute Quartet in A Major for Flute, Violin, Viola and Cello, K. 298 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Clarinet Quintet, K. 581 
Philippe Bernold: Flute 
Philippe Berrod: Clarinet 
Marc Coppey: Cello 
Mario Hossen: Violin 
Richard Schmoucler: Violin 
Grégoire Vecchioni: Viola 

From die-hard music lovers to mere music dilettantes, summer in Drôme provençale means at least one stop at the Saoû Chante Mozart festival, the highly regarded classical music feast whose popularity has never failed to increase in its 34 years of existence. Moreover, it got high praise, at least from my mom, when it managed to successfully put up some carefully organized outdoors concerts during the pandemic summers. Now, is that dedication or what? 
Unlike, my mom who dutifully went to most of the performances (Ah, to be retired in Southern France!), I have a more selective approach and a busier schedule, so I decided to save my time and energy for the one program I simply couldn’t do without, the concert featuring Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet at the Château d’Eurre, a smallish but stylish castle still standing in the lavender fields right outside the pretty village of Saoû and occupied by two very lucky families, last Saturday evening at the highly civilized time of 8 P.M. 
That also gave us the opportunity to take in a very pleasant ride on the nonchalantly winding road in the local countryside, and even indulge in yummy blackcurrant ice-cream in front of the castle, garden-party style, never mind that the lavender had already been harvested and the remains were definitely not attractive. It would have taken more than scrawny fields to kill the festive mood, and there was with a lot of giddiness when we sat down in the elegant courtyard to the unescapable sounds of the tireless crickets outside. 

Although he “hated that job and could not finish it”, Mozart eventually delivered a very nice work for Count von Deym’s cabinet of wax sculptures in Vienna just a few months before his death. On Saturday evening, it provided a delightful introduction to the concert as well as a not-to-be-missed chance to marvel at the sterling musicianship of Philippe Bernold, who is not only one of France’s top flutists, but the intrepid artistic director of the festival as well. 
The next piece was not by Mozart, but close enough since Carl Maria von Weber was one of his wife’s cousins, and his Clarinet Quintet was certainly dazzling enough to be featured in the program. We only got two movements of it, but what movements! While the closing Rondo was bright and high-spirited, it is the Fantasia that caught everybody’s attention and confidently kept it. Suffice to say, it has not been called “one of the most beautiful pieces ever written for the clarinet” for nothing. 
After a short intermission during which we did not even bother getting out, everybody was back for Mozart’s happy-go-lucky Flute Quartet in A Major for Flute, Violin, Viola and Cello, which turned out to be a nice, short and sweet treat that was almost as refreshing and tasty as the ice-cream we had enjoyed earlier. 
But the high point of the evening had to be Mozart’s glorious Clarinet Quintet, the first, and maybe still the best, major composition that perfectly incorporated the clarinet into the traditional string quartet. Tellingly enough, it was the only composition without a related blurb in the printed program, appearing only on the cover with one word: “sublime”. And what else is there to say, really? 
Although I am not a particular fan of the clarinet, I am a huge fan of that Clarinet Quartet and was thrilled at the prospect of experiencing it then and there. There was a lot of eminent musicians on the stage on Saturday night, but as far as I am concerned, having long-established clarinet virtuoso Philippe Berrod grace us with his superlative talent while clearly having a ball himself was the blazing highlight of the performance. 

In fact, it was such an undisputed peak that the musicians decided not to extend the evening with an encore despite our long and loud request. So we left, walked through the all lit-up village square where plenty of festivities were still going strong, and took the nonchalantly winding road back to Dieulefit in total darkness but for the car’s lights this time, a spooky but relaxing way to end our Saturday night.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Journées Musicales de Dieulefit - Strauss & Schubert - 07/18/23

Richard Strauss: Sonata for Cello and Piano in F Major, Opus 6 
Franz Schubert: Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat Major for Piano, Violin, and Cello, D. 929 (Opus 100) 
François Daudet: Piano 
David Louwerse: Cello 
Virginie Robillard: Violin 

Twenty-four hours after indulging in a blazing performance of Baroque masterpieces on Monday, my mom and I were back in Dieulefit’s intimate and packed  ̶  which, of course, also meant sweltering  ̶  Église Saint-Pierre for the third and last concert of the village’s annual mini festival “Journées Musicales de Dieulefit”, this time to enjoy a Romantic evening with Richard Strauss and Franz Schubert courtesy of the mighty trio of François Daudet, David Louwerse and Virginie Robillard. As Daudet himself had pointed out to us earlier, this would be a less brainy, but still challenging endeavor. 
And that’s how on Tuesday evening we found ourselves in the same seats, after making sure to have the proper information this time, amidst apparently much of the same audience, at the same ungodly hour of 9:00 P.M. This time, however, we caught a glimpse of our friend Michèle, understandably only too happy to get a break from preparing her big moving-out sale, before meeting her for lunch the next day to compare notes. Great minds do think alike. 

Richard Strauss being one of my favorite composers, I was excited about checking out one of his works in the superior company of François Daudet and his long-time companion in music, cellist extraordinaire David Louwerse. Written when Strauss was still a teenager, his Sonata for Cello and Piano is a full and delectable immersion in Late Romanticism, freely overflowing with big emotions, intense lyricism and carefree exuberance. One is only young once! The three movements were masterly put together and just as masterly executed, but I must tip my hat off to the second one whose glowing beauty was simply magical. 
After the well-deserved intermission, during which we enjoyed peace and quiet and space inside while most people were outside, Virginie Robillard joined her two frequent partners for Schubert’s voluptuously sprawling Piano Trio No. 2, which the composer wrapped up shortly before his untimely death. Clocking in at roughly 50 minutes, the piece requires not only technical skills and emotional commitment, but plenty of stamina as well. On Tuesday night, our three musicians had it all, and readily delivered an exceptionally well-balanced and all-around gorgeous performance. 
That said, I will admit that the cello did stand out whenever the stunning main theme of the second movement, based on a Swedish folk song of all things, appeared. The haunting melody is in fact familiar to many unsuspecting people since, being a certified earworm, it has incidentally popped up countless times in popular culture over the decades, including in films as diverse as Barry Lindon, The Hunger and The Pianist. And sure enough, after hearing Louwerse’s magnificent take on it on Tuesday, never mind the stubbornly sticky strings he had to put up with, I had it stuck in my head for the rest of the week, with all my gratitude. 

As we were all basking in a heavenly romantic mood while vigorously asking for more, the musicians came back for a most appropriate encore: The slow movement of Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1, which concluded the concert, and the festival, on a truly lovely note.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Journées Musicales de Dieulefit - All-Bach - 07/17/23

Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata No. 1 in B Minor, BWV 1014 
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata No. 2 in A Major, BWV 1015 
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1016 
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata No. 4 in C Major, BWV 1017 
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata No. 5 in F Minor, BWV 1018 
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata No. 6 in G Major, BWV 1019
François Daudet: Piano 
Virginie Robillard: Violin

Even if it does not have the charming rusticity of Provence or the dazzling glamour of the French Riviera, I have to say the Drôme region has turned out to be a pretty happening place this summer. After all, this is where, after enjoying two wonderful concerts in the lovely Chapelle Saint Jean outside Crupie, my mom and I almost got to see the sold-out performance of Molière’s L’avare in the courtyard of the Madame de Sévigné’s famous castle in Grignan, if only Mother Nature hadn’t suddenly decided otherwise and unceremoniously threw an all too real show of thunder and lightning our way, effectively canceling a performance for only the second time this season. 
Things got better on Bastille Day though, thanks to a sweet, short and fun cello & viola concert by adventurous local artists Anne-Charlotte Dupas and Chloé Parisot, who contributed their own colorful bouquet of fireworks, including Rebecca Clark, George Handel, Witold Lutoslawski, Paul Hindemith, and my two favorites, a prelude by Shostakovich and Beethoven’s eyeglass duo, to a festive apéritif at the friendly cafe Le Bar & Vous in Dieulefit. 
Still in Dieulefit, the highly popular annual “Journées Musicales de Dieulefit” concert series organized by the Chemins de Pierre association got going last Sunday, and my mom and I decided to go check out the all-Bach program presented by old timers François Daudet and Virginie Robilliard in the cozy, crowded and hot, but still undisputedly welcoming, Église Saint Pierre on Monday evening. Even better, seeing our old friend Ginette in the crowded space and being able to catch up with her during intermission certainly made up for the frustrated confusion created by the fact that our long-ago purchased tickets for assigned seats did not actually have seat numbers on them (Le sigh). 

Bach is generally considered one of the most remarkable composers who has ever lived, and his body of work reputedly contains some of the biggest challenges in classical music. Undaunted, pianist François Daudet, a much in-demand musician as well as the artistic director of the Chemins de Pierre association, and violinist Virginie Robilliard, who was praised for both her “impeccable technique” and her “soul” by our host for the evening, were there to tackle Bach’s six sonatas for piano and violin in one evening, and all I could say was: More power to them! 
The biggest surprise for me as I was listening to those indeed all-around brilliant works on Monday evening, was to notice some unsuspected qualities in them, such as the delicate lyricism of the slow movements and the infectious exuberance of the fast ones, kind of like Bach à litalienne. Although they cannot fail to impress for their relentless complexity, those perfectly balanced little miracles also proved that they have clear structures, gracious melodies, and just sheer beauty, which make them easily accessible to all. 
Of course, we were also lucky to have two prodigiously talented and fiercely committed musicians bringing them to life for us. Daudet and Robillard are used to playing together in Dieulefit every summer, and their long-standing professional relationship no doubt contributed to the blazing performance they delivered on Monday evening. As the violinist, Robillard stood by default in the foreground, where the force and grace she consistently displayed under pressure effortlessly held everybody’s attention. Right behind her, Daudet confidently held his own, making sure to nail his solo star turn when the time had come for it during the last, but not least, sonata. 

And then the question was: What can you play after Bach? Well, more Bach, of course. And that’s just what they did, with a repeat performance of the very first movement that kick-started our evening. And then it was time to leave the hopping church and venture into the real world on a pitch dark and eerily quiet village, energy savings oblige.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Association de la Chapelle Saint Jean - Berg, Fradet & Guénand - Handel, Shostakovich & Ducros - 07/09/23

George Frederick Handel: Sonata in G Minor, Op. 2, No. 8 
Dmitri Shostakovich: Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano 
Jérôme Ducros: Trio for Two Cellos and Piano 
Mylène Berg: Piano 
Anna Fradet: Cello 
Augustin Guénand: Cello 

Thoroughly enchanted by our bass & cello evening of the previous Sunday, my mom and I eagerly went back to the little chapel on the little hill outside the little village of Crupie last Sunday evening, this time for the equally unusual combination of two cellos and a piano, and a promising program featuring new versions of works by George Frederick Handel and Dmitri Shostakovich, as well as the wild card that would be local contemporary pianist and composer Jérôme Ducros. 
It had been an eventful week filled with business and pleasure, so we were looking forward to a relaxing Sunday evening despite the overbearing summer heat that had suddenly fallen upon us and was obviously there to stay. But we had to quickly adjust our expectations at the sight of countless cars already parked in the designated open field, and many people lining up for tickets. It sure seemed like the waves of tourists that had lately been invading Dieulefit and its surroundings had even made it as far as blissfully inconspicuous Crupie. On the other hand, who could blame them? 
Inevitably, the chapel filled up quickly, and just as inevitably, the air was already hot and muggy when the three young yet seasoned musicians took the stage, and not a moment too soon either, as the repeated sciatica story of the voluble Marseillais concert-goer behind me was really starting to get old. 

The first piece was an arrangement of Handel’s Sonata in G Minor, Op. 2, No. 8 for two violins and basso continuo, and while I had never heard the Baroque original, I was ready to bet that it could not have sounded much better than the genuinely attractive take on it performed in remarkable unison that we got to enjoy on Sunday. We were off to a good start. 
While I had always admired Shostakovich’s music for its stark darkness, uncompromising intensity and bold modernism, I had never thought of him as a Romantic. Well, I do now, after hearing his deeply lyrical and wonderfully refined Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano, which had been arranged for two cellos and piano, and included a prelude, a gavotte, an elegy, a waltz and a polka. These irresistibly cinematographic vignettes were handled with plenty of entrain and humor by the trio, which was clearly having a ball. They also accomplished something I thought impossible: Associating Shostakovich with fun. 
After those two terrific smaller pieces, the musicians had to take a few minutes to regroup and tune up again as the humidity was playing tricks on their constitutions and their strings, before tackling the mystère du jour: Jérôme Ducros’ Trio for Two Cellos and Piano, which turned out to be an ambitious and sprawling work in three movements that confidently unfolded with big, splashy Romantic waves, highly agitated spells and delicately crafted rêveries à la Brahms or Rachmaninov, neatly combining beloved traditions and exciting innovation in the process. 
In fact, the wild roller-coaster that was the first movement was so engrossing that the audience spontaneously broke into frenetic clapping at the end of it, providing an unexpected break to the over-heating musicians, who actually looked grateful for it. Concert etiquette be damn! And then they valiantly resumed their marathon, which they vigorously carried on all the way to the finish line. They may have broken a sweat, but it all paid off in the end. 

After the official program was over, it is probably fair to say that we were all dying as much for fresh air as for more musical treats. Fortunately, the trio decided to soldier on for one encore, a truly delightful instrumental version of the Barcarolle from Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman. Although invited to sing along, we thankfully abstained for the most part, except for the woman sitting at my right, whose not particularly in tune but admittedly discreet humming did not even manage to spoil the pure magic of the moment.

Friday, July 7, 2023

Association de la Chapelle Saint Jean - Hors des sentiers battus - Pasa Calle - 07/02/23

Jean-Baptiste Morel & Marion Picot: Preamble according to Bach choral music 
Nassam alayna el hawa (Traditional Lebanese song) 
Giuseppe Maria Jacchini: Sonata in A Minor for Cello and Basso Continuo 
Uskudar’a gider iken (Traditional Istanbul song) 
Bela Bartok: String Quartet No. 6 – Third Movement 
Cholzony od Jozefa (Traditional Polish song) 
Mordechai Gebirtig: Yankele
Maritime improvisations 
André Klénès: La rose des vents 
Eduardo Arolas: La cachila 
Jean-Baptiste Morel & Marion Picot: Inukjuak
Jean-Baptiste Morel: Bass
Marion Picot: Cello

Time has been flying as I have been having fun (and a few passing frustrations) traveling through Italy and France for the past couple of months. But while touring various cities, towns and villages have been richly rewarding in terms of visual and gastronomical pleasures, live music has been sorely missing in my life, essentially due to limited offerings, bad timing, as well as professional and personal obligations. 
Finally back in Dieulefit for a while, and just as the summer concert season was shifting into high gear too, the time had come to get down to business. Hence, my mom and I spent quality time carefully reviewing local cultural programs, occasionally lamenting the conflicting schedules of equally attractive events, and eventually coming up with a few alluring prospects. 
Last Sunday was one of those days where three tempting musical happenings were scheduled at 6:00 PM in three different locations. Our choice, however, quickly turned to Pasa Calle and its promise of a special journey from Europe to the New World and beyond, courtesy of bassist Jean-Baptiste Morel and cellist Marion Picot, AKA Hors des sentiers battus (Off the Beaten Track), in the endearingly petite and exquisitely restored Chapelle Saint Jean, standing proudly on its wind-swept little hill outside Crupie, a tiny community that makes Dieulefit look like a hectic metropolis. 
We could hardly think of a better way to spend our Sunday evening, and apparently neither did the rest of the small but dedicated crowd, which counted about as many Dutch nationals as French locals. The bucolic setting, the gorgeous weather, the light-filled chapel, the respectful audience, and the promising program, all contributed in making us feel that we had made the right choice. 
The actual playlist, which had not been available until we got there as if to test our spirit of adventure, contained a highly unusual mix of original and reworked compositions from a wide range of times and places—the repertoire for bass and cello being rather limited—and would be accompanied throughout the performance by insightful introductions provided by Morel. So we all buckled up and got ready to enjoy the ride.
We took off with a piece written by Hors des sentiers battus based on Bach’s choral music, and sure enough, the duo wasted no time proving not only their compositional skills, but also their musical chops, as well as the excellent acoustics of the intimate space. The combination of cello and bass sounded even more exciting live than it had on paper, the vibrant spirit of the former counterbalancing brilliantly the darker hues of the latter. 
Just when we thought it could not get any better, the two musicians transitioned seamlessly into “Nassam alayna el hawa” (The breeze blew upon us), a popular traditional Lebanese song whose best-known version is probably the one by superstar singer Fairouz. Moving from German rigorous exactness to middle-eastern exotic entrain cannot be an easy task, but on Sunday evening it was effortlessly accomplished. 
Next, we jumped to Bologna, Italy, with Giuseppe Maria Jacchini, eminent Baroque cellist and composer, who tirelessly promoted the use of the cello as solo instrument (Bless his heart!). Vaguely reminiscent of Vivaldi’s infectious joie de vivre yet resolutely standing on its own, the sonata made smart and truly persuasive use of the instrumental combination. 
From late 17th-century Italy we moved to 16th-century Vienna, Austria, as the Ottoman empire was indefatigably trying to take over the city, and the Turkish army was routinely launching into a türkü through which they expressed their ever-present desire to “go to Uskudar” (Uskudar’a gider iken), a district of Istanbul, their longed-for hometown where East meets West. Since then, the catchy tune has been famously adapted throughout the world, including the superbly soulful version we heard on Sunday. 
Although he was not mentioned in the printed program, 19th-century Hungarian composer Bela Bartok made a surprise appearance with the “Burlesque” movement of his sixth (and last) string quartet. Updated for cello and bass, his trademark Gypsy-flavored music did not lose any of its rusticity or vivaciousness. 
Sticking to Eastern Europe, we then got to happily indulge in a traditional Polish song with “Cholzony od Jozefa”, the kind of happy-go-lucky music played at wedding celebrations, as well as a Yiddish foray into the boundless imagination of Polish poet and songwriter, and holocaust martyr, Mordechai Gebirtig. 
After barely a pause, we went on a search for more exotic fare, sailing away to the sounds of some deceitfully hypnotic maritime improvisations, before Belgian contemporary composer and bass player André Klénès provided the impressionistic touch of the evening with his delightful “Rose des vents”. 
We eventually made it to Argentina for—What else?—some hot tango courtesy of Eduardo Arolas and his “Cachila”, “small bird” in high-brow language and “old car” in low-brow language. Regardless of the intended meaning, Morel and Picot’s version stood out for originality and appeal. 
From South America we flew all the way up to the Canadian Artic with Hors des sentiers battus’s “Inukjuak”. Based on the 1922 Franco-American silent film Nanook from the North by Robert Flaherty, cello and bass made truly beautiful music together evoking the stark beauty and unforgiving harshness of the Nordic landscape. 

Ralph Emerson once said that the voyage is the destination, and on Sunday evening, the audience got to experience a fabulously eclectic voyage thanks to our endlessly resourceful and virtuosic guides. As for the parting gift, the fearless duo evoked sunny and warm Algeria with the tango-infused chaabi song “Ana el warka” (I am a leaf), which concluded the concert on a dazzling and uplifting note.

Monday, April 24, 2023

I Concerti dell'Aula Magna - Natalie Dessay & Philippe Cassard - Paroles de Femmes - 07/15/23

Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn: Dämmerung senkte sich von oben (Goethe) 
Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn: Vorwurf (Lenau) 
Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn: Suleika (Willemer) 
Clara Schumann: Liebst du um Schönheit 
Clara Schumann: Sie liebten sich beide 
Clara Schumann: Warum willst du and’re fragen 
Clara Schumann: Er ist gekommen 
Clara Schumann: Romance A Minor, Op. 21, No. 1 
Alma Mahler: Bei dir ist es traut (Rilke) 
Alma Mahler: Laue Sommernacht (Falke) 
Alma Mahler: In meinem Vater’s Garten (Hartleben) 
Ernest Chausson: La Chanson perpétuelle 
Francis Poulenc: La Dame de Monte Carlo (texte de Jean Cocteau) 
Claude Debussy: Mes longs cheveux descendent (Pelléas et Mélisande) 
Jules Massenet: Élégie pour piano 
Jules Massenet: Pleurez, pleurez, mes yeux (Le Cid) 
Charles Gounod: Ah, je ris de me voir si belle (Faust) 

 As a dedicated opera buff for many years, I have never felt the same kind of passion for song recitals, even if they typically provide an always welcome more intimate experience. But then again, there are exceptions to the rule. And one of them took place last Saturday afternoon at La Sapienza University’s Aula Magna, where the Istituzione Universitaria dei Concerti was presenting French soprano Natalie Dessay, one of the biggest names in the opera world for the past few decades, accompanied by her long-time partner in music Philippe Cassard in their woman-centered program “Paroles de femmes” (Women’s Words). 
The occasion was all the more special because, having retired from opera performances in 2013, Dessay is currently on her farewell tour as a singer, making the opportunity to catch her singing while we still can even more urgent. Not that the prospect of having to contend ourselves with her prodigious acting talent in the future is all bad, but let’s face it, things will likely never be quite the same. 
So on Saturday afternoon, I put work in the back-burner, braved the miserable weather, and eagerly sat into my perfectly located seat in the reasonably filled concert hall. A few minutes later, the ovation greeting the artists’ entrance was unusually long and warm, to the point where Dessay herself, smartly dressed with black pants and a tastefully glittery shirt under cascading blond hair, looked genuinely puzzled. 

The first half of the program revolved around Germanic female composers living at the wrong time to get the fame and fortune that they deserved. Kicking things off with three lieders by Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn, whose gift for melody was clearly as tremendous as her more celebrated brother’s, Dessay brought her radiant voice and confident technique to the richly lyrical compositions and easily nailed the engaging mini set. 
A household name as a child prodigy and pianist, and later teacher, Clara Schumann was not as widely recognized as a composer, but compose she did, and very well too, as the four pieces of hers selected by Dessay and Cassard proved. Even better, during the three lieders, Dessay’s sharp pronunciation and my feeble left-over German skills allowed me to catch a few words as an added bonus to the much-enjoyed Romantic episode. After a wonderful piano-only interlude with Cassard taking on Schumann’s Romance in A Minor, Op. 21, No. 1, we smoothly transitioned from early 19th-century Germany for late 19th-century Austria. 
Her musical talent originally stifled by her older and high-profile husband, Alma Maher did not get around to nurturing it properly until later in life, but she still managed to eventually come up with plenty of commendable lieders. Dessay and Cassard treated us to delightful interpretations of three of them, and we all happily indulged in the romantic atmosphere of “Laue Sommernacht” and the sweet dreams of “In meinem Vater’s Garten”. 
After the intermission, the duo came back to tackle the more familiar French half of the program. It started with Ernst Chausson’s “Chanson perpétuelle”, during which a woman suffers abandonment from her lover and broods endlessly about it until, well, she ends it. Fully grabbing the ill-fated heroine’s sweeping emotional arc, consisting essentially in the bliss of the past, the distress of the present and the suicide of the future, Dessay expertly moved from understated lament to the kind of explosive finale that made me wonder how such hair-raising vocal power could come out of such a petite person. 
Suicide by drowning was also in the air in the second French piece, “La Dame de Monte Carlo”, a work composed by Francis Poulenc from a poem by Jean Cocteau. Describing in telling details and vivid colors the downward spiral of an aging woman addicted to gambling in the glamorous French Rivera town, the work provided Dessay with plenty of opportunities to use her superlative interpretative skills, which she did with obvious relish, all the way to her last high-flying pirouette, when she came forward and, standing at the edge of the stage with her arms crossed, expressed her utter desperation by unflappably holding the decrescendo on the last high note for what seemed like forever. And then came the implacable piano chord of the fatal splash. Fun times. 
Less blazingly virtuosic, but oh so lovely, was “Mes long cheveux descendent” from Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande. The part of Mélisande is a daunting challenge for a confirmed lyrical soprano like Dessay, but she is not the type of artist who would let doubt or fear get in the way of her adventurous spirit, and on Saturday she handled it with much refined elegance, and came out a total winner. 
After letting Cassard occupy the spotlight for a heart-felt “Élégie pour piano” by Jules Massenet, Dessay seamlessly moved into “Pleurez, pleurez, mes yeux”, from Massenet’s Le Cid. Highly dramatic, voluptuously lush, and yet exquisitely subtle, the aria requires rock-solid technique and full emotional commitment, which it certainly got as Dessay used the full force and range of her voice to convey Chimène’s profound agony at the thought of having to choose between her father and her lover. 
But then things perked up with the third and last opera aria on the program, “Ah, je ris de me voir si belle” from Charles Gounod’s Faust, a delightfully uplifting tune that spontaneously brought smiles to everybody’s faces. Marguerite is young, pretty and ecstatically happy, and she want the entire world to know it, even if the sparkling jewels she’s so excited about will eventually lead her to a tragic end. 

The Franco-German program was for sure cleverly put together, but maybe because we were in the capital of the country that gave birth to the opera form, Dessay had decided to throw in an Italian aria as an encore, and not just any aria either, as it turned out to be the lovelorn countess’ heart-breaking confession “Porgi amor qualche ristoro” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Bringing just the right amount of natural luminosity to the character’s desperation, Dessay wrapped up the concert on a truly memorable high note, eventually responding to our sustained applause and standing ovation, a rare occurrence by European standards, by pointing out that nothing could really be sung after such a flawless gem. And rightly so.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Teatro di San Carlo - Macbeth - 03/12/23

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi 
Librettists: Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei 
Conductor: Marco Armiliato 
Macbeth: George Gagnidze 
Lady Macbeth: Daniela Schillaci 
Banquo: Alexander Vinogradov 
Macduff: Giulio Pelligra 

I immediately got excited about the Macbeth programmed at the Teatro di San Carlo when I heard that fabulous American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky would appear as Lady Macbeth for the occasion, so I got tickets for the Sunday matinee right away for my Neapolitan friend Vittorio and me, figuring out that this would kind of make up for having missed her reportedly blazing turn as Medea at the Met earlier this season, not to mention make a good excuse for a little trip to Naples as well. 
And then, it all went downhill from there. 
My euphoria started to wane when I realized that this Macbeth would be presented in concert form, but I quickly got over it because, let’s face it, some productions are so unsatisfying that a good old distraction-free, music-centric concert would have been a better choice. 
Then it occurred to me that, the San Carlo undergoing extensive restoration work, this Macbeth would take place in the by default less prestigious, less glamorous and harder to reach Teatro Politeama. On the other hand, I thought that a smaller space would allow for a more intimate experience, and got on board with it. 
However, the coup de grâce happened when, on that Sunday morning, I read that the role of Lady Macbeth would be interpreted not by Sondra Radvanovsky, who was indisposed and would apparently only be in town the following week, but by Sicilian soprano Daniela Schillaci. To add insult to injury, Luca Salsi, a Verdian expert I was looking forward to checking out in the title role, had just come down with bronchitis and would be replaced by Georgian baritone George Gagnidze on Sunday. Seriously?
But since one cannot fight fate, I decided not to let that string of bitter disappointments get the best of me and to follow the example of Vittorio and his ever-positive attitude (Of course, it helped that he had no idea who Sondra Radvanovsky or Luca Salsi were). So we soldiered on, even making the most of the gorgeous early spring weather to walk down to the Quartieri Spagnoli and the Teatro Politeama, which turned out to be a tired-looking burgundy space with decent acoustics. 

As if to make up for all my frustrations, we enjoyed a temporary little treat as the usher unwittingly directed us to the wrong seats, and as a result, we got to spend the first half of the show at a premium location near the stage, the two legitimate occupiers of those seats arriving too late to make any change possible. Alas, that perfect spot also made the absence of the expected stars even more aggravating (Sigh). 
The name of the play and the opera may be Macbeth, but everybody familiar with the plot would probably agree that the main protagonist, and therefore the juiciest part, is indisputably Lady Macbeth. On Sunday evening, not only nonplussed, but seemingly totally fired up by the daunting challenge ahead, Daniela Schillaci took it on with remarkable poise and a palpable thirst to conquer worthy of Lady Macbeth herself. 
An impossibly stylish, black-clad icy blonde that Hitchcock would have loved, Schillaci was a superb schemer who coolly used her hapless husband to fulfill her own ambitions. Even better, she also knew how to adroitly tone it down and show an unexpected, almost eerie, fragility during the sleepwalking scene. Her voice may not be particularly pretty, but it has extraordinary range and flexibility, which she used with highly refined precision. Brava
Taking over from a highly popular artist at the last minute has to be a dreadful proposition, but George Gagnidze, an obviously capable singer who specializes in the Italian repertoire, was game, with a little help from sheet music. His Macbeth was, if not transcendental, at least solid, his voice diligently digging into the dark depths of his weak mind: His commending the murder of Macduff’s family was convincingly motivated by greed and desperation, his seeing Banquo’s ghost at the banquet was all horror and confusion. You almost felt bad for the man.
As Banquo, Macbeth’s brave and noble friend, who will nevertheless be murdered on his orders (With friends like that…), Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov was the first character the audience heard, and his tranquil confidence, magnetic voice, impeccable enunciation, and elegantly ominous tone made an excellent first impression. As the action unfolded, he effortlessly maintained the high quality of his acting and singing, like the artless artist that he evidently is. 
Italian lyric tenor Giulio Pelligra was a reliable MacDuff, the loyal thane in Duncan's service. His physical presence was less conspicuous and his part distinctively smaller, but he got to sing what is arguably the most memorable aria of the entire score, and one of the most poignant of the entire opera repertoire. And I am pleased to say that his rendition of “Ah, la paterna mano” was secure and heartfelt, eloquently conveying the profound agony of a man who had not been able to save his family from unspeakable tragedy. 
The San Carlo’s splendid chorus got quite a few opportunities to shine and grabbed them with relish. My personal highlight was the deliciously wicked aria during which the women diabolically worked on their witches’ brew at the beginning of Act III. But the audience thought otherwise, and requested an encore of the admittedly engaging aria of the Scottish refugees bemoaning the plight of their country under Macbeth’s ruthless rule at the beginning of Act IV, and got it. 
The San Carlo orchestra was in fine form as well, and it was neat to be able to see them. It was also very nice—and nostalgia-inducing—to see maestro Marco Armiliato, a familiar face from my Met days, and a gifted conductor who still brought the same unadulterated warmth and infectious enthusiasm to the proceedings, and obtained the same richly rewarding results. Under his buoyant but firm baton, the musicians did not spare any effort and did full justice to Verdi’s magnificent score, and significantly contributed to turning this performance that, at some point, did not have much going for it into a real winner.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

I Concerti dell'Aula Magna - Nelson Goerner - 03/04/23

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101 
Robert Schumann: Carnaval, Op. 9 
Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in B Minor, S.178 

After last month’s memorable recital by globally acclaimed virtuoso Eugene Kissin at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, I was definitely in the mood for more piano music when, lo and behold, about a week later, I got an email from La Sapienza University’s Istituzione Universitaria dei Concerti letting me know that the following Saturday afternoon, less prominent but still highly respected Argentine pianist Nelson Goerner would be giving his first-ever recital in Rome at the much more convenient location of La Sapienza’s Aula Magna Hall at the much more convenient time of 5:30 PM. 
So I decided to take advantage of the promising concert to get a welcome break from work and of the wonderful spring-like weather to happily walked there, never mind that I ended up in a corner of the auditorium where the few people there seemed addicted to their smartphone, even if they had presumably bought a ticket and taken time out of their day to come hear some live music. (I’ll give a pass to the older gentleman who was discreetly following the sheet music of the first two pieces on his dimmed screen.) 

Not to mention that the music was worth-listening to as well. Although it is not one of Beethoven’s most iconic pieces, his Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major is widely considered a true masterpiece marking the inconspicuous beginning of his late period, when he was at the top of his compositional game. The change was in fact immediately apparent with the first movement, whose nonchalant melody and dreamy mood make it oscillates between serenity and sadness. Things got perkier, quicker, louder, and generally more complex as the work was unfolding and Goerner was dutifully making his way through the exciting minefield. 
From Beethoven’s less-known piece we readily jumped to one of Schumann’s all-time favorites with his Carnaval, Op. 9, also known as Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes (Cute Scenes on Four Notes). Powering through 21 fiendishly difficult, enchantingly colorful and cleverly evocative vignettes featuring a bunch of masked revelers at an Italian carnival for 30 minutes is not for the faint-of-heart, but then again, Goerner sounded like he had the will, the chops and the momentum to handle it, and sure enough, he successfully made it to the end unscathed. 
After the intermission during which the tuner worked tirelessly on the still heroically standing piano, we all returned for Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor, which he incidentally dedicated to the aforementioned Schumann. Its ground-breaking nature along with its technical challenges kept it from being unanimously popular when it first came out, but hey, what else do you need when you have Wagner’s unconditional approval? Moreover, it is now rightfully recognized as the major work of the piano repertoire that it is, and on Saturday afternoon, Goerner treated it with the respect, commitment and energy it deserved. 

Is a piano recital really complete without Chopin? Well, we did not find out last weekend as Goerner responded to our enthusiastic ovation with a beautiful take on the universally beloved Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor. His second, less famous, but no less gratifying, encore was a deliciously high-spirited Arabesques by Andrei Schulz-Evler on themes from Johannes Strauss II' classic Blue Danube Waltz, and concluded the concert with a vigorous splash of virtuosity and fun.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Eugene Kissin - Bach, Mozart, Chopin and Rachmaninoff - 02/22/23

Johann Sebastian Bach: Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 903 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 9, K. 311 
Frédéric Chopin: Scherzo for piano No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 31 
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Lilacs 
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude Op. 32, No. 8 
 Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude Op 23, No. 10 
 Sergei Rachmaninoff: Études-Tableaux Op. 39 (No. 1, 2, 4, 5 and 9) 

In all my years as a frequent concert-goer in Washington, DC and New York City, one of the hardest musician to get to was, unsurprisingly, Russian pianist extraordinaire and international superstar Eugene Kissin, mostly because the meteoric ascent of his popularity coincided with my last few years in DC and then my decade in New York, where the unusually large and extremely loyal Russian community used to grab all the reasonably priced tickets before I got a chance to make a move. 
These days, the main challenge with my winter base of Rome when it comes to classical music concerts is that the city’s main concert venue, the futuristic-looking Auditorium Parco della Musica Ennio Morricone complex, is located outside the city walls and, even worse, nowhere near a subway station, and who wants to wait for the bus or tram when it is cold, dark, and possibly raining? So I kept on postponing my first foray into it while nevertheless keeping a watchful eye on the generally appealing programming. 
And then, a few months ago, I saw that Eugene Kissin would be there on February 22, which happens to be my Name Day in France, for a recital featuring Bach, Mozart, Chopin and Rachmaninoff, and I decided that I should just stop fussing and go already. Moreover, since the Russian community of Rome does not even come close to the New York one in terms of number or fanaticism, I had no problem getting a reasonably priced tickets for a very good seat. 
And that’s how, almost 10 years after having witnessed Kissin’s undeniable magic in Carnegie Hall’s grand Stern Auditorium in the Big Apple for the first time, I finally went for another experience in the Parco della Musica’s modern Sala Santa Cecilia in the Eternal City. 

And sure enough, here he was, with the same wild hair and cherubic face he had a decade ago (How on earth does he do it?). He resolutely crossed the stage, quickly sat down at the splendid Steinway piano and dove right into Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, a much admired and slightly mysterious work, of which no less than 16 copies—but no original—still exist. Originally composed for the harpsicord, it unsurprisingly reveals a serious penchant for exactness and complexity, but also, more unexpectedly, a healthy dose of lush lyricism, which were all the most enjoyed thanks to the musician’s terrific performance and the space’s flawless acoustics. 
After Bach’s surprise cocktail of Baroque and Romanticism, we moved on to the leader of the classical movement with Mozart and his Piano Sonata No. 9, K. 311. Although it does not often appear on concert programs, it is an irresistibly engaging composition, which is brilliantly packed with the Viennese master’s trademark elegance, wit, and ingenuity. Kissin’s light-footed interpretation was a true delight to the ear as well as a potential mood enhancer for all those who might have needed one. 
Chopin is always a daunting but necessary challenge for pianists, and while it goes without saying that a musician of Kissin’s caliber is able to handle it, the question remained, how well? And on Thursday night the answer was, very well indeed. His was probably the most fiercely virtuosic take on Chopin’s implacably bold and intensely dramatic Scherzo No. 2 I had ever heard, and it understandably earned him the biggest ovation of the evening. That was the last piece before intermission, and it in fact felt like we were being treated to a let's-not-save-anything, end-of-the-night grand finale
Fortunately for us, Kissin came back after the break, and dedicated the second half of the program to Rachmaninoff with an exciting assortment of Romance, Preludes and Études-Tableaux that covered an incredibly wide range of moods and colors for us to indulge in. And that we did, and very happily too, while he was obligingly churning out one wonderful little gem after another until he victoriously made it through the finish line, probably exhausted, but definitely still standing and smiling. 

But then, it turned out that the Rachmaninoff festival was not over. As the mesmerized audience loudly begged for more, Kissin came back with three more priceless gifts, including the Mélodie and the Serenade from his Morceaux de fantaisie and, last but not least, the ever-popular Prelude in C-sharp Minor. Because one can never hear too much Rachmaninoff… or Kissin.

Monday, January 30, 2023

I Concerti dell'Aula Magna - Absolute Brahms - 01/28/23

Johannes Brahms: Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor, Op. 25 
Johannes Brahms: Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 
Giorgia Tomassi: Piano 
Gabriele Pieranunzi: Violin 
Fabrizio Falasca: Violin 
Francesco Fiore: Viola 
Danilo Squitieri: Cello 

A couple of days after my return from Venice, and one day before my mom’s arrival, I was keeping busy trying to fall back into my routine, get things ready for her visit, and keep up with a demanding work load, so I was not sure that going to an all-Brahms concert at La Sapienza’s Aula Magna was such a good idea. But then again, since when hearing the music of my beloved Brahms live could be a bad idea? It might even be the break that I needed for all I knew, so I decided to go. 
The concert revolved around Giorgia Tomassi, eminent pianist and professor at the Conservatorio di musica L. Perosi in nearby Campobasso, and a few musician friends of hers who were getting together for an exciting program officially named Absolute Brahms. Needless to say, that immediately picked my interest and quickly won me over. 
Even better, her academic position, and probably the fact that it was an atypical gray and cold winter afternoon in Rome, clearly helped fill up the auditorium with not only the music-loving regulars, but also plenty of students accompanied by their friends and families. And that made for a warm atmosphere, and an encouraging sight, indeed. 

The first work of the program was Brahms’ Piano Quartet No.1, which incidentally was premièred in Hamburg in 1861 with no less than prodigious pianist and close friend Clara Schumann. Steadily unfolding over 40 minutes, it is an intrinsically complex and yet naturally accessible composition, which was expertly performed by the ensemble and eagerly taken in by the audience. 
Of note, the musicians made a point of keeping the always tricky balance between the various instruments throughout the entire piece, all the way to the famous, and famously difficult, Rondo alla zingarese, which in their highly capable hands became a memorable feat of dare-devil speed, exacting precision, and pure, boundless exhilaration. 
After the well-deserved intermission, we fearlessly moved on to Brahms’ even more ambitious Piano Quintet in F Minor, a bona fide masterpiece that many consider the crown achievement of his chamber music œuvre. After hearing it performed by such dedicated musicians, I certainly could not disagree. 
Ever the punctilious perfectionist, Brahms toiled long and hard on the composition, which originally took the form of a string quartet and then a two-piano sonata, before finalizing it. And the wait and the efforts were all justified when the end result turned out to be nothing short of miraculous in scope, brilliance, poise, and sheer beauty, as was superbly demonstrated to us on Saturday afternoon. 

Once the official performance was over and we were loudly asking for an encore, I was wondering what the extra treat would be at a Brahms concert. Well, a movement from a quintet by Robert Schumann, of course, and not just any movement, but the achingly gorgeous funeral march of his Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, which ended the concert on a delicately melancholic but also somehow peaceful note.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Gran Teatro La Fenice - La Dame aux Camélias - 01/22/23

Hamburg Ballet 
Choreography: John Neumeier 
Marguerite Gautier: Alina Cojocaru 
Armanda Duval: Alexandr Trusch 
Composer: Frédéric Chopin 
Conductor: Markus Lehtinen 
Piano: Michal Bialk 

An exciting plan that had been long delayed for a wide range of reasons, my first visit to Venice was in the end totally worth the wait despite random crappy weather (But hey, at least I got to experience first-hand the acqua alta phenomenon), unsightly restoration work going on all over the place (As they say, no pain no gain) and places on my list of top priorities that were closed for winter (If you thought, like I did, that French tycoon Francois Pinault could afford keeping his Punta della Dogana exhibit space open all year round, well, think again). 
One stop that I did make though was the Gran Teatro La Fenice, whose almost 300 years of life has famously been punctuated by vertiginous highs, such as world premières of works by Rossini, Verdi, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Britten, and heart-breaking lows, including no less than three devastating fires. But just like its mythological namesake, the performance venue has kept rising from its ashes undeterred, its current putti-filled space being a welcome break from the eye-popping but conventional red and gold splendor of many other European opera houses. 
Although La Fenice is Venice’s opera house, unfortunately the timing of my trip did not coincide with any opera performances, and a ballet performance of La Dame aux Camélias was my only opportunity to see the space come alive. Since beggars cannot be choosers, a guided tour wouldn’t do, the score was after all by Frédéric Chopin, and there was that direct opera connection to La Traviata, I sucked it up and bought exorbitantly priced tickets for my visiting friend Vittorio and me. 
That’s how we planned our Sunday in Venice around the matinee performance, making sure to leave plenty of time to find our way in the awfully confusing labyrinth that is the sestiere San Marco and to fit in yet another amazing lunch at a prudently short distance. And then, just as we were settling in our box in the company of two lovely women, an older local ballet buff and a younger Brazilian expat, I was thinking that life was not that bad when one decides to roll with the punches. 

My interest in the show being mostly musical, I was looking forward to enjoying an extended Chopin marathon, regardless of the action unfolding on the stage. That said, given that the production has been around since 1978, I figured that it must be doing something right too. And in fact, the choreography, with a little help from the costumes, turned out to be generally smart and eloquent, if a bit traditional and repetitive, and made often ingenious use of Chopin’s deeply romantic, highly lyrical and delicately nuanced music. 
My personal highlight was hands down the chance reunion of Armand and Marguerite, when their red-hot passion quickly reignited to the fervent élans of the Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23, which also happens to be one of my favorite piano pieces ever. The honeymoon would be short though, and followed by another gripping scene, in which Armand publicly humiliated Marguerite by throwing money at her while the Grande Polonaise Brilliante in E-flat Major, Op. 22 was intensifying the relentless drama. 
The daunting task of making Chopin’s complex music come to life for close to three hours fell on the shoulders (and hands) of eminently capable Polish pianist Michal Bialk, who was at times joined by a small orchestra. The score was not composed specifically for the ballet, but it suits the story remarkably well, and it is to Neumeier’s credit that he picked the right works from the composer’s prolific œuvre and adjusted his choreography accordingly to create an engaging narrative. Add a couple of visually dazzling tableaux, like the elegantly stylish ball scene that celebrated Marguerite’s return to her former life, and this Dame aux Camélias ended up being a rewarding introduction to La Fenice and a good start to our Sunday evening.