Saturday, December 23, 2023

Teatro di San Carlo - Turandot - 12/17/23

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Librettists: Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni 
Director: Vasily Barkhatov 
Conductor: Dan Ettinger 
Princess Turandot: Sondra Radvanovsky 
Calaf: Yusif Eyvazov 
Liu: Rosa Feola 
Timur: Alexander Tsymbalyuk 
Emperor Altoum: Nicola Martinucci 
Ping: Roberto de Candia 
Pang: Gregory Bonfatti 
Pong: Francesco Pittari 

Here she was, at last! After having stood us up last spring in Macbeth, American and Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, one of the world’s top lyrical singers of our times, was in front of my friend Vittorio and me, and the rest of the captive audience, on the stage of Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo last Sunday. Granted, I had been much keener to watch her as deliciously machiavellian Lady Macbeth than as cold-hearted princess Turandot, but beggars cannot be choosers, and I felt privileged enough to be getting what we were getting. 
I was all the more hoping that she would show up and make the notoriously unbending princess come compellingly alive like only she could because those tickets were a belated birthday present to my wonderful Neapolitan host Vittorio (Hey, it is not my fault if the San Carlo did not have anything on their schedule on October 24), and while the opera itself is no masterpiece, her mere presence automatically upgraded this run of performances to “special occasion” status. 
The road to the San Carlo, however, proved to be trickier than usual this time because I had unwittingly planned my trip on a day of national strike in public transportation. To add insult to injury, I also ended up in a, let’s say, highly spirited discussion with my grumpy but admittedly efficient Neapolitan cab driver about my lack of respect for law and order (in Naples!!!) because I had let the family of four plus heaps of luggage behind me at Napoli Centrale’s taxi stand go ahead and take the spacious van that was supposed to be my ride, therefore depriving him and his regular-sized car of a few euros in fare. “The customer is always right” has apparently not made it to the Parthenopean City yet. 
Things substantially improved on Sunday, however, a splendid winter day with the perfect balance of invigorating cold and radiant sunshine. Late morning, we got to hear a couple of Neapolitan songs and The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night”, of all things, performed by the highly competent amateur winds and percussion band to which Vittorio’s nephew Francesco belongs, although he was not there that time. And then, after a yummy lunch at our favorite pizzeria, a smooth subway ride and a leisurely spin around Piazza del Plebiscito, we excitingly took our premium orchestra seats in the San Carlo for the main event of the day. 

Until last Sunday, I had seen Turandot twice, and neither experience had been totally satisfying for various reasons, including uneven singing talents. Plus, the plot is kind of silly, even by opera standards, although we must take into account that Puccini died before completing the last act, and therefore can always blame Franco Albano for the cheesy “His name is love” happy ending. In any case, I figured that I did not have a lot to lose giving it a try a third time, and that it may just be the charm. 
Having Sondra Radvanovsky, a superlative singer well-known for her expertise in 19th-century Italian opera, starring as Turandot was an iron-clad guarantee of high quality to begin with, and needless to say, the woman delivered in spades, from unshakable imperviousness to progressive softening to full emotional awareness. Blessed with prodigious acting and singing skills, as well as a naturally charismatic presence, Radvanovsky handled her challenging part with utter conviction and treated us to impeccably controlled musical feats. Her character was certainly not the most spontaneously likable of the repertoire, but she managed to make her a complex woman one could almost care about, which represents quite a tour de force
A truly engaging performance was also delivered by Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov as Calaf, the besotted former prince determined to break the resilience of the strong-willed princess who wants nothing to do with him, or anybody else for that matter. His singing was ardent, generous and muscular, and he left no doubt about the intensity of his feelings. Last, but not least, I will forever be grateful to him for finally allowing me to hear a glorious interpretation of the score’s big hit “Nessun dorma.” In this case, the third time was the charm indeed. 
Not to be outdone at the applause meter, local soprano Rosa Feola, a certified bel canto expert with a remarkably clear and attractive voice, sensitively portrayed the slave girl Liu whose unrequited and selfless love for Calaf, who once smiled at her, will be her doom. Achingly vulnerable at first, but eventually displaying an impressive resolve even in the direst of circumstances, she just knew how to exquisitely unfold her delicate lines and soft pianissimos, and broke everybody’s heart in the process. On Sunday, Liu loved, Liu lost, but Feola won. 

In smaller but still significant roles, we had Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk, who brought quiet dignity to the fallen King Timur, and 82-year-old Italian tenor Nicola Martinucci, whose couple of cameos as Emperor Altoum were all but impossible to miss due to his unforgivingly sparkly outfit and poignant sense of weariness, which is not surprising when you’re stuck in a crystal coffin and just let out to sing a couple of songs. And the trio of court ministers Ping (Roverto de Candia), Pang (Gregory Bonfatti) and Pong (Francesco Pittari) provided welcome touches of light-heartedness with their comic antics à la commedia del’arte
One of the Teatro di San Carlo’s most valuable assets, its chorus proved to be as well-prepared and capable as ever, whether their voices were singing in powerful unison or in meticulously organized layers. They shared choral duties with the Coro di Voci Bianche, the children’s chorus of the San Carlo, whose endearing voices added a welcome breath of freshness and exoticism to the proceedings. 
Puccini’s score for Turandot may not be his proudest achievement — again, the poor guy did not get a chance to fine-tune it either — but it provides many opportunities for musical thrills, which the orchestra consistently grabbed and efficiently carried out. Every time I see the San Carlo’s musical director Dan Ettinger conduct, I am reminded a little bit more of Yannick Nézet-Seguin, and not just because of his short bleached blond hair, but also because he has always proved to be a deeply informed and genuinely enthusiast leader. And even if there were a couple of slight balance issues on Sunday, the music from the pit occasionally covering the singers’ voices during highly dramatic peaks, the orchestra’s performance was terrific. 

Then there was the modern production by emerging Russian director Vasily Barkhatov, who was making his Italian debut with this Turandot. And I must say that, while I am always open to new take on the classics, I also expect the final result to present a unified vision that makes some sort of sense. In that regard, the production we watched on Sunday evening looked like an overflowing hodgepodge of half-baked ideas, obscure references, and elusive concepts, and I found my frequent attempts to navigate this holy mess to be an exhausting, frustrating, and ultimately unrewarding. 
First of all, having black and white movie sequences adding a present-time context, and then presenting the actual opera as delirium experienced by Calaf and later Turandot, was probably doomed from the start, not to mention that Radvanovsky was atrociously dubbed in Italian. During the actual opera performance, the combination of the present, which usually appeared as the operating theater in which the Calaf or Turandot was being treated repeatedly descending from the ceiling, and the phantasmagorical visions, which were pretty much the rest of the not-so-organized chaos happening on the stage, was often overwhelming. 
I am not a big fan of extra visual media in stage productions in the first place, but I’ll admit that the black and white sequences had an appealing film noir atmosphere to them, and the inclusion of Naples’ Basilica di San Lorenzo Maggiore in them was a nice touch. On the other hand, the large projections of Calaf’s and Turnadot’s faces getting progressively younger through the magic of modern technology seemed to come out of nowhere and accomplished exactly nothing. And the recurring close-ups of Liu cutting her veins were essentially gratuitous (Yes, I get it that Liu had mental issues and that “blood” is the answer to the second riddle, but beating us over the head with the gory details quickly got on my nerves). 
On the bright side, there was the occasional proof of sure-footed taste, such eye-popping costumes and smart lighting, as well as the use the timeless silhouette of the Abbey of San Galgano in Tuscany as part of the decor. Alas, red and pink neon signs displaying the answers to the three riddles, and the car involved in the accident, would at different points unceremoniously drop in front of it and effectively kill the mood. Fact is, the most memorable tableaux were the simplest ones, like the rowing boats containing the bodies of Liu and Timur gently sailing upwards over the dark background, and the most memorable moments were the quietest ones, such as Liu movingly joining Calaf’s and Turandot’s hands. 

I typically do not pay much attention to the systematic panning of modern productions, always strive to keep an open mind, and appreciate the boldness it takes to make unconventional and therefore potentially controversial choices, but this probably sincere yet definitively overblown effort did not bear its fruit as far as I am concerned. That said, I also think that if this young, apparently talented, and unquestionably ambitious enfant terrible learns to channel his clearly existing creative juices with rigor and purpose, things may just work out for him. And for us.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Mahler & Brahms - 12/10/23

Gustav Mahler: Adagio from Symphony No. 10 
Johannes Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem 
Conductor: Philippe Jordan 
Soprano: Louise Alder 
Baritone: Gerald Finley 

As Rome is steadily moving into holiday season, fancy light designs, countless Christmas trees, and the smell of roasted chestnuts are everywhere, which admittedly creates a nice atmosphere. On the other hand, the equally perky and pesky holiday music relentlessly playing in stores is making my errands even more vexing than usual, and I am not even a big shopper. But a girl’s gotta eat, so I have soldiered on, even if I have had to put up with a particularly upbeat version of Jingle Bells during the five (5) minutes I had to spend at my supermarket last week. 
Mercifully, between Handel’s Messiah and other seasonal fare, the Parco della Musica had programmed a masterpiece that fills my heart with joy anytime of the year: My beloved Johannes Brahms’s stunning deutsches Requiem, featuring no less than my beloved Gerald Finley as one of the soloists, which naturally led me to think that there might be a God after all. Even better, that already fabulous gift was neatly supplemented with the Adagio from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 10. Thank you, thank you very much! 
So on Sunday evening, after a gloriously sunny and crisp weekend, during which quality time in Villa Borghese included an ethereal harp version of Wham!’s Last Christmas by the lake, a laid-back saxophone take on My Way by the gallery, and the grating rackets coming from the seasonal amusement park Christmas World, I was more than ready for indoors live music in the comfy Sala Santa Cecilia of the Auditorium Parco della Musica Ennio Morricone at the even earlier than usual time of 6:00 PM. No complaints here. 
Having grabbed my ticket during the Black Friday half-price sale, the choice of seats was limited, and I ended up in the fourth row of the orchestra section. Although it was by no means an optimal spot, it turned out to be not as bad as it sounds, except for the fact that I found myself surrounded by audience members exuding an insane range of colognes and perfumes that made me regret my usual perch. But then again, I eventually got to watch (and hear!) Gerald Finley superbly ply his art a few feet from me, and all was well in the world again. 

After seeing the Visconti’s sumptuous Death in Venice, I immediately decided that the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 would be my favorite Mahler work ever. But then I heard the sublime first movement of his Symphony No. 10, which incidentally is the last composition he completed, and I had to switch my preference. Listening to the Adagio again as it was confidently conducted by Swiss guest maestro Philippe Jordan and magnificently performed by the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia last Sunday, I felt totally comforted in my choice. 
Composed when Mahler was painfully aware that he had been betrayed by his wife and that he was terminally ill (a horrifying double whammy if there ever was one), the roughly 30-minute Adagio intensely expresses the profound sadness and utter despair that he must have felt in those final months. Masterly using chromatic dissonance for inner turmoil and transcendental beauty for his farewell to the world, Mahler came up with a musical statement that still resonates today, and on Sunday evening brought a welcome sense of contemplation to the madness of the holiday season. 

while I thoroughly enjoyed Mahler’s Adagio, my main reason for being in the auditorium was to hear Brahms’ deutsches Requiem, one of my favorite pieces by possibly my favorite composer. Inspired by the German Luther Bible, the death of his mentor and friend Robert Schumann and then of his mother, and his own creative genius, Brahms wrote a Requiem that resolutely, and most unusually, focuses on humanity rather than on any kind of deity. In the end, thanks to the perfectionist composer’s deliberate choice and brilliant craftmanship, the emotionally gripping composition not only impressed his sophisticated peers, but was also understood and appreciated by Germans from all walks of life. 
On Sunday evening, beside the sure musical values of the orchestra and the chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, as well as upcoming English soprano Louise Alder and established Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, the Italian and English translations of the German text were provided on a large screen for a more complete experience, and I found it very useful. That said, the experience would have been extremely satisfying regardless, the chorus in particular being consistently excellent in conveying the quiet sadness of mourning and its fierce resolve when defying death. Seriously, that ferociously dramatic sixth movement has to be one of the most exhilarating choral numbers for performers and listeners alike. In their smaller parts, Findley was as flawless as usual, and Alder was a truly wonderful discovery. 
Not a work for the faint-hearted, Ein deutsches Requiem stretches over an eventful hour, which can become a problem for some (During the last movement, the first violin had to discreetly but firmly gesture a fidgety young boy in the first row to calm down already). But its bold message of hope was not lost to any of us, especially as the year is ending with more pain and suffering than our so-called civilized world should find acceptable. But then again, there is next year, and hope springs eternal.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Accademia Filarmonica Romana - Quartetto Noûs - Beethoven & Bartok - 12/03/23

Ludwig van Beethoven: Grosse Fuge, Opus 133 
Bela Bartok: String Quartet No. 5 in B flat Major, Sz. 102, BB 110 
Tiziano Baviera: Violin 
Sara Dambruoso: Viola 
Alberto Franchin: Violin 
Tommaso Tesini: Cello 
Giovanni Bietti: Host 

A couple of weeks ago, when I got to Sala Casella for the last music lesson of the four-lesson series organized by the Accademia Filarmonica Romana and Rai Radio 3, I was informed by a very apologetic staff member that the session had been cancelled because one of the musicians had come down with COVID. Having just gotten over it myself, I could relate, and for a brief moment I even bonded with the bearer of bad news who had wrestled with it himself the previous month. Not all the news was bad though, as he told me that the lesson was tentatively rescheduled for December 3. 
Fast forward two weeks, and last Sunday I was back in Sala Casella more determined than ever to make the most of my last lesson featuring Ludwig van Beethoven, representing the classical Viennese school, and Bela Bartok, representing the early 20th-century contemporary music, a couple that, come to think of it, may not look as odd as the previous ones in the series due to the obvious ground-breaking nature of their respective œuvre. Either that or I have finally gotten good at figuring out the link between the composers featured in the programs. 
 One thing I had not figured out though, was what “Noûs” in the name Quartetto Noûs meant, but a quick look at the well-established chamber ensemble’s website quickly informed me that it is the Greek word for “mind”, and can therefore be interpreted as “rationality” or “creativity”, both of which being evidently befitting when it comes to music. In any case, any musician willing to tackle the Grosse Fuge is a certified hero in my book, and I was very excited about being able to witness it first-hand, especially after having patiently waited two extra weeks for it. 

Back in a well-filled Sala Casella that, for the first time, was bathing in a wonderful golden glow, eminent musicologist and genial host Giovanni Bietti started imparting a small portion of his vast knowledge of the Grosse Fuge (His book on the subject has just come out) to us, and the lesson was quite fascinating. Originally composed as the final movement of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 13, Op. 130, the Fugue did not meet the approval of the sophisticated audience of the Viennese salons, who promptly called it “Chinese music”, and not in a good way. A Russian critic even went as far as opining that Beethoven had lost not only his hearing, but also part of his mind. And the piece pretty much disappeared for over a century. 
And then, starting in the early 20th century, with a little help from Glenn Gould, who considered it the most astounding work of the entire repertoire, and Igor Stravinsky, who regarded it as a forever contemporary marvel, the Grosse Fuge no longer aroused only incomprehension, but also wonder. After Bietti pointed out, and the Quartetto Noûs demonstrated, how Beethoven relentlessly played with theme versions, inversions, and tempos, we could only be on the team wonder. Eventually, a fierce performance of the entire movement only confirmed what Stravinsky always knew: The Grosse Fuge is indeed timeless, and its boldly experimental nature feels totally at home with the equally challenging music of Schoenberg, Berg, and… Bartok. 

The transition was simply too good to pass, so we dived right into Bartok’s String Quartet No. 5, whose première took place in Washington, DC as part of a program also featuring – Surprise! – Beethoven’s Quartet No. 13, Op. 130 with the Grosse Fuge. Fact is, while Bartok’s quartet presented fancy theme inversions and mirror games between movements and within movements that clearly owed a lot to the Grosse Fuge, it also had quite a few tricks in its own sleeve. And that’s why, beside the nifty arrangement of the four outer movements around the central scherzo, the highly rhythmical composition, including some particularly infectious Bulgarian folk tunes, proved to be irresistibly clever and irresistible fun in the expert hands of the Quartetto Noûs on Sunday evening. and it concluded our lesson, and the lesson series, with a cool and memorable punch.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Rachmaninoff & Tchaikovsky - 11/30/23

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Opus 30 
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 13 (Winter Daydreams) 
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda 
Piano: Eugene Kissin 

My long-overdue first foray into Rome’s premier classical music venue, namely the Auditorium Parco della Musica Ennio Morricone, was for a recital by Eugene Kissin back in February. I was totally ecstatic at the thought of hearing this extraordinary pianist, not to mention composer, writer, poet, translator, and human rights advocate, after years of complaining about how hard it was to get tickets for his concerts in New York City, but I was significantly less ecstatic about the hassle of getting there. The foray and the recital having been highly successful, I decided to move closer to be able to attend more live musical experiences of a similar caliber, which I have. 
And then the man came back last week, not for a recital this time, but for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, also known as the Himalaya of piano playing. I have had the privilege of hearing it interpreted by some of the world’s top pianists in the past, and it was high time I got around to hearing Kissin as well. And I did just that last Thursday evening at the ungodly hour of 7:30 PM, which felt like a shocking departure from the usual 6:30 PM starting time of the Saturday evening concerts. But hey, anything for Eugene and Rach 3. 

If anybody still had any doubt about Eugene Kissin’s sky-high popularity in Rome, stepping into the packed and buzzing Sala Santa Cecilia of the Parco della Musica complex would have put their mind at ease. Although getting a ticket to the concert in the Eternal City was not quite the mission impossible it had often been in the Big Apple, there were very few empty seats on Thursday evening, the second of three evenings, and three big cameras were around to capture every minute of the occasion. Needless to say, having one of the most iconic works for piano and orchestra on the program obviously had not hurt ticket sales either, and there we all were. 
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 has been packing in eager audiences for over a century now not only because it is such a wild beast to tame and it is so much fun to watch somebody good enough and bold enough to give it a try actually do it, but also because it is roughly 45 minutes of consistently gorgeous take-no-prisoner music that undiscrimatingly sweeps everything and everyone in its glorious path, occasionally even converting classical music neophytes into die-hard afficionados. Having one of the world’s most admired pianists perform it had to be, and indeed was, a totally thrilling experience. 
Whether commandingly riding the big lyrical waves or pointedly shedding light on countless tiny details of this most technically challenging piece of the piano repertoire, the still endearingly cherubic Kissin proved that the impressive virtuosic skills he already displayed as a child prodigy have only gotten better with age. Add to that a healthy dose of emotional maturity, and you get a middle-aged artist at the top of his game, who can probably handle anything thrown at him with heart, poise and gusto, just like he did on Thursday evening. 
Well-known and well-liked for his bottomless generosity when it comes to encores, Kissin treated us not to one or two, but to three wonderful little nuggets as we kept asking for more. In the end, the much-appreciated parting gifts included an upbeat little number by Tchaikovsky, a soulful ballad by Chopin and an exquisite intermezzo by Brahms, as if to extend the Romantic mood we were all happily basking in. 

After the welcome intermission (There’s only so much excitement one can really take at a time), we moved back to Russian territory with the refreshingly artless and tentatively innovative first symphony written by a young Tchaikovsky who had just gotten a job at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory. Whether it is true or not that this first composition of his is the one that gave him the most sleepless nights in his entire career, it is undeniable that this early effort turned out to be one of the most accomplished works produced by a composer still in his mid-twenties. 
With the perfect balance of sharpness and enthusiasm, Milan-born and educated maestro Gianandrea Noseda led the always reliable orchestra in a warm and informed reading of the readily engaging piece. I confess to having a soft spot for the endlessly melodic and delicately melancholic second movement, “Land of gloom, land of mists”, and I enjoyed it even more than usual on Thursday as the focus turned to its elegiac beauty rather than its potentially depressing nature. That said, the whole symphony was pure joy to the ears, all the way to the final exuberant bouquet of Russian folk tunes that surely lifted everybody’s spirits for the rest of the week and some.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Berg & Berlioz - 11/18/23

Alan Berg: Violin Concerto (To the memory of an angel) 
Hector Berlioz: La symphonie fantastique 
Conductor: Kazuki Yamada 
Vilde Frang: Violin 

I had occasionally wondered over the past three years or so how come I had, as far as I could tell, been spared by the coronavirus and the dreaded disruption it leaves in its wake, despite my regular traveling and mingling with other people. And then I stopped wondering a couple of weeks ago, when my luck ran out abruptly, but at least conveniently enough just as I had a little lull in my cultural calendar. One has to be thankful for the small favors sometimes. 
Eventually, once the worst of my COVID episode as well as the risk of infection were over, and I was slowly regaining my physical strength and mental acumen, not to mention my sense of taste, which is without a doubt the most terrible thing to lose in Italy, I figured that it was high time to treat myself to the ultimate pick-me-up to fully get back on my feet: a healthy dose of live music. 
As luck would have it, last week the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia seemed to have just what the doctor ordered with a program featuring Alan Berg’s violin concerto, a work I had never gotten around to hearing before, but which had been on top of my list of priorities for years. The second part of the program, on the other hand, was an old friend, but I was still very excited at the prospect of hearing Hector Berlioz’s La symphonie fantastique one more time because, really, why wouldn’t I be? 
And that’s how last Saturday I resumed my sporadic new Saturday evening routine consisting of heading to the Auditorium Parco della Musica Ennio Morricone around 5:30 PM for the 6:00 PM concert, after enjoying one of those gorgeous fall days in Rome that made me beyond grateful for being able to safely step outside again. 

When distinguished American violinist Louis Krasner first approached him to write a violin concerto using the 12-tone technique, one-track-minded Berg was focusing his undivided attention on his opera Lulu and turned him down. But then Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler, widow of Gustav Mahler, and Walter Gropius, died of polio at the young age of 18, and the tragedy spurred him to feverishly compose what would be his one and only violin concerto in over just a few months and dedicate it to “the memory of an angel”. And then he died too.
On Saturday evening, ever-rising Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang made her Rome debut with Berg’s poignant tribute to his young friend, which he incidentally never got the opportunity to hear live. If he had been in the auditorium with us though, chances are he would have been as impressed as we all were by Frang’s technical and emotional command over his piece. In less than half an hour, she eloquently evoked life in all its innocence, fun and seemingly irrepressible force, the inescapable nature of death through an ominous macabre dance, and the transcendental beauty that comes with eternal peace. 
A lovely picture of youth herself in a simple pale-yellow dress, Frang proved to be a particularly nimble musician too. Exuding grace and lightness during the first two movements, she seamlessly switched to a much darker mood as she was battling the fatal illness in the unforgivingly intense third movement, before reaching the radiant light of transfiguration in the final one. Although the auditorium kind of felt too vast for such an intimate composition, Frang’s riveting performance, solidly backed-up by the orchestra, certainly made up for it. 
There was an inexplicably high number of empty seats in the audience, but that did not keep us from making sure to express our bottomless admiration loud and clear, which earned us a mysterious encore that ended up extending the blissful after-life state of grace we were all in.

After intermission, the orchestra and visiting conductor Kazuki Yamada finally grabbed the spotlight for Berlioz’s La symphonie fantastique, efficiently taking us through the highly dramatic epic with infectious enthusiasm and razor-sharp precision. A few moments inevitably had to stand out, such as the hypnotic waltz during the ball and the exquisite pastoral duet, with the oboist playing from the top row of the audience, but the whole performance was generally well-paced and constantly engaging, so much so in fact that a few people felt the urge to clap at the end of the second movement. But even that small interruption did not manage to break the spell of our evening.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Accademia Filarmonica Romana - Quartetto Leonardo - Haydn & Ravel - 11/05/23

Joseph Haydn: Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 2 (The Joke) 
Maurice Ravel: String Quartet in F Major 
Salvatore Emanuel Borrelli: Viola 
Fausto Cigarini: Violin 
Lorenzo Cosi: Cello 
Sara Pastine: Violin 
Giovanni Bietti: Host 

Another Sunday evening in Rome, another music lesson organized by l’Accademia Filarmonica Romana and Rai Radio 3, and recorded for posterity for those who couldn’t be in sala Casella, during which eminent local composer, pianist, musicologist and advisor Giovanni Bietti extensively explained in layman’s terms the connections between some of the string quartets composed at the end of 17th century and beginning of the 18th century in Vienna and some that were written about a century later in locales as varied as Paris, Prague and Budapest, and Vienna. 
Last Sunday, our third and penultimate music lesson featured Joseph Haydn and Maurice Ravel, who both showed a keen interest in and prodigious skills at using music as spoken language. And while that connection did sound a bit more abstract than what we had been studying until then, that also sounded like a very exciting topic to dig in. Moreover, to assist us on our path to enlightenment, we would have the young but already much experienced Quartetto Leonardo, who stood out from their predecessors by playing standing up, except for their cellist, and by still using paper sheet music. 
As the session was about to start, I was noticing that the concert space was not quite as crowded as it had been in the past, but far from seeing it as a sign of decreasing interest in the program, I saw it more as a sign of increasing interest in the fate of the AS Roma soccer team who was playing at the same time at the nearby Olympic Stadium. (The endless stream of excited people wearing red and yellow jerseys I found myself walking against on my way to sala Casella left little doubt about what the top priority in Rome was last Sunday.) 

For the rest of us in the concert hall, the lesson got underway with Haydn, which was the logical thing to do not only because he preceded Ravel chronologically, but also because he was by all accounts the official father of the string quartet, giving the genre its final form and complete legitimacy, and composing many elegant and witty ground-breaking works in the process. Mozart, his most direct heir, may be more famous, and for good reasons too, but there is no doubt that when it comes to the string quartet as we know it and love it, Joseph Haydn was the real OG. 
As undisputed proof, we had his Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 2, which the Quartetto Leonardo, after having teased us with short tidbits to illustrate Bietti’s numerous points, played with much finesse and spirit, in pure Haydn fashion. The various motive transformations and other compositional tricks are so smartly crafted, and the musicians were so good at deciphering them, that the whole performance was a graceful and scintillating experience all the way to the final joke, an unexpected series of false endings that surely couldn’t help but bring a smile to even the least receptive audience. 

Bietti having determined that scheduling an intermission to avoid having nearby church bells included in the recording was useless due to the unpredictability of said bells, we moved right from Haydn to Ravel, himself a huge fan of Haydn’s œuvre in general, and his symphonies more particularly. Considered by many to be France’s all-time most gifted composer, he had an extraordinary roller-coaster of a professional journey, from his unconventional ideas getting him into trouble at the Paris Conservatory to his relentless intellectual curiosity expanding the language of music. In short, there is hardly a dull moment when it comes to his body of work. 
And in fact, the superb performance we heard of his one and only string quartet by the Quartetto Leonardo on Sunday eloquently highlighted the profuse inventiveness to be found in the solidly classical structure. Quirky elements, such as the delightful pizzicatos, the hot flamenco rhythms and the sensual Andalusian melody reminded us that Spain was all the rage in France back then, the Prussian war having spoiled the French’s relations with their neighbors to the East. But then again, even politics could not completely trump (Ha!) the higher power of music, and a fleeting hint of a Viennese waltz could indeed be detected when you least expected it. 
And that was not all. As if to make the evening a complete success, the predictably unpredictable church bells tolled during a pause between two movements. And AS Roma won.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Cherubini, Beethoven, Sibelius & Strauss - 11/04/23

Luigi Cherubini: Overture to Anacréon 
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 
Jean Sibelius: En Saga 
Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel 
Antonio Pappano: Conductor 
Igor Levit: Piano 

When most of the world came to a stop in the spring 2020, all my tickets for the remainder of the concert season in my then home base of New York City obviously became useless. Among all the missed performances, the one that crushed me the most was without a doubt Igor Levit’s recital at Zankel Hall. The young Russian-German pianist, educator and political activist, had rapidly become one of the hottest names in classical music, and I wanted to grab my chance to hear him in Carnegie Hall’s wonderfully intimate concert hall before he moved on to bigger spaces. Alas, the COVID pandemic decided otherwise, and three years later, the man now plays the prestigious but vast Stern Auditorium. 
But then, as I was checking the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia’s 2023-2024 season calendar, I noticed that he was scheduled to perform in the Auditorium Parco della Musica Ennio Morricone in November. Granted, he would only be there for one piece, Beethoven’s pivotal third piano concerto, and the concert hall is probably as vast as the Stern Auditorium, but hey, beggars cannot be choosers. Igor was in town, and there was no way I was going to miss that. 

The concert started at the highly civilized time of 6:00 PM in the crowded auditorium with Luigi Cherubini’s high-spirited overture to his 1803 opera Anacréon, which would provide the Italian touch for the evening. Under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano, the Orchestra di Santa Cecilia’s current music director, the musicians vividly highlighted the little gem’s famous crescendos as well as its prodigious ambition in scope and complexity, on which a fellow composer would soon build on. 
Enters Ludwig van Beethoven, a huge fan of Cherubini’s, and his piano concerto No 3 of 1803 (What a year!), the one in which he found his own voice and contributed to ushering in the Romantic era. In other words, a milestone. This was also about the time he realized he had started losing his hearing, which had in all likelihood brought overwhelming feelings of devastation and hopelessness to the then 30-year-old composer and musician who was hitting his stride big time. 
After being greeted with an excited round of applaud, Igor Levit parked his endearingly nerdy silhouette at the piano and, as the orchestra began to play, patiently waited with the rest of us for the agonizingly long-delayed second exposition to make his entrance, occasionally putting the fingers on the keyboard in preparation for what was to come. Well, Germans say that anticipation is half the fun, don’t they? 
As soon as he started playing, my three year-long wait finally came to an end last Saturday evening in Rome, and I am happy to say that Levit’s quietly illuminating performance left no doubt about his prodigious talent and commitment. He is well-known for focusing on Beethoven, among others, and all that relentless dedication is clearly paying off in spades. Beside the expected flawless technique, his gift for bringing out the delicate poetry (weren’t these lilting arpeggios just heavenly?), the gorgeous lyricism, the intense drama and the bold virtuosity of the work resulted in a captivating interpretation that managed to neatly combine grandeur and intimacy. 
Even better, in response to our extended and delirious ovation, he came back with an unidentified, ethereally dreamlike piece (More Beethoven?) that made me even more grateful for being there, while still feeling a tiny pang in my heart about the lost opportunity back in New York. 

After intermission, in a decidedly less crowded auditorium, we jumped from the early to the late 19th century with Jean Sibelius and Richard Strauss. For the occasion, Pappano, who seems to enjoy an exceptionally warm rapport with the Roman audience, took the mike to explain to us that, although the title of the Sibelius piece meant “A legend”, the composer left no clue about its meaning, except that it was “an expression of a state of mind”. 
It contains some melodies from Finnish folk tunes though, and Pappano couldn’t resist having the audience try to tackle some of them during an impromptu sing-along session. Although he eventually declared himself kind of satisfied, he pointed out that we were worse than the Friday audience, who were worse than the Thursday audience. I guess that grade inflation and positive reinforcement haven’t made it to this side of the pond yet. 
Sibelus being one of my favorite composers, I was eager to discover a major work of his that I had never heard before. And I was thrilled when the piece turned out to be a resolutely modern, wonderfully atmospheric yet firmly down-to-earth, symphonic poem that was, to my ears at least, subtly evocative of the stark landscapes of his native country. The orchestra did not let the lack of clues throw them off and delivered a self-confident take on the enigmatic composition. 
Richard Strauss being another of my favorite composers, I was just about as eager to discover a major work of his that I had never heard before in Till Eulenspiegel, which, far from having mysterious origins, was inspired by the adventures of the medieval German peasant folk hero or trickster, depending on your tolerance of practical jokes. 
The piece turned out to be an unforgivingly vivacious symphonic poem that drew out a particularly colorful narration from the orchestra. Although it won't be one of my favorite works by Strauss, I did appreciate its relentless inventiveness, sheer entertainment value, and its smart conclusion emphasizing the irrepressible nature of the spirit of rebellion, which wrapped up the evening on a refreshingly upbeat note.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Accademia Filarmonica Romana - Quartetto Guadagnini - Mozart & Janacek - 10/29/23

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: String Quartet No. 23 in F Major, K. 590 (Prussian 3) 
Leos Janacek: String Quartet No. 2 (Intimate Letters) 
Alessandra Cefaliello: Cello 
Cristina Papini: Violin 
Matteo Rocchi: Viola 
Fabrizio Zoffoli: Violin 
Giovanni Bietti: Host 

Although rejoicing over other people’s misery is not nice, you gotta admit that sometimes things turn out for the best for you because they’ve turned out badly for someone else. In my case, two weeks ago I was feeling sorry for myself for not being able to attend the second of the four music lessons organized by the Accademia Filarmonica Romana and Rai Radio 3 in my new neighborhood of Flaminio because I had to go to Naples for a few days to help my friend Vittorio celebrate his birthday. Life can be so cruel sometimes. 
Upon my return, however, while walking by the sala Casella gate, I noticed a poster advertising that same concert for the upcoming Sunday. Once home, I checked their website and saw that the concert had to be postponed because a member of the Quartetto Guadagnini that had been expected to perform had been taken ill. While I sincerely hoped that the poor thing had recovered quickly and fully, I also could not help but also be secretly grateful for the unexpected turn of events. 
And so last Sunday, after having enjoyed one more hour of sleep and a surprise encounter with my salumeria guys as they were running down via Flaminia in the morning, I walked down the by now familiar streets to the sala Casella late afternoon as daylight was already fading away (a small price to pay for brighter mornings), as I was getting mentally prepared for another illuminating music lesson from educator extraordinaire Giovanni Bietti. 
 This one would focus on another intriguing pairing consisting of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Leos Janacek, and I have to confess that while I was looking forward to learning more about those two major classical music figures and the mystery link between them, I was even more thrilled at the thought of finally getting another opportunity to hear Janacek’s almost too hot to handle Intimate Letters. No offence intended to Herr Mozart and his wonderful, more civilized, quartet, of course. 

The session started by diving right into the heart of the matter and lifting the suspense that was killing all of us with a kind of obvious answer: Mozart and Janacek were both brilliant opera composers, their impressive respective œuvres having been to various degrees inspired by the endless possibilities of the voice. Duh! Additionally, as any self-respecting Czech national, Janacek idolized Mozart, especially his magnificent opera Don Giovanni, which incidentally makes it something that he and I would have in common. 
Proceeding in chronological order this time, we started with Mozart’s String Quartet No. 23, which ended up being his last due to his untimely death. The Prussian 3 was the third of the six string quartets commissioned by cello-loving King Frederick William II of Prussia and therefore contains prominent parts for the instrument, which kept fearless cellist Alessandra Cefaliello extremely busy, and totally unfazed. The other three stringers were by no means neglected in that neatly rounded composition, and the entire ensemble performed with the same kind of infectious gusto as the one they displayed on the poster advertising the concert. 
No matter what ailment had derailed the Quartetto Guadagnini’s plans the previous weekend, its members were all in decidedly fine form on Sunday evening indeed. Thanks to the musicians’ superior skills and Bietti’s insightful pointers we got to discern the Allegro moderato’s witty jokes, the Andante’s unusual beats, the Minuetto’s countless loops, and the Allegro’s wide-ranging complexity. We also got to simply sit back, relax and marvel at the piece’s intricate structure, refined elegance and emotional expressiveness because sometimes that’s all you want to do. 

After intermission, we moved on to Janacek, the late 19th century Moravia-born composer, as well as musical theorist, folklorist, publicist, and teacher, who probably could be considered the ultimate late bloomer of classical music as he was already in his sixties when he achieved significant success, and also fell in deep and unrequited love with a married woman almost four decades younger than him, who would inspire his Intimate Letters quartet (Love letters would clearly have been too explicit). 
With his knack for vesting tremendous emotional power into each and every note he used and firmly disregarding any superfluous fussiness, an M.O. that led no less than Milan Kundera to call his music “a polyphony of emotions”, Janacek wrote unfailingly intense and unforgivingly challenging works that still resonate as profoundly today as they did when they first came out. 
And we all got a terrific demonstration of this particular talent of his on Sunday evening as we were listening to the quartet’s riveting performance of his unabashedly passionate “manifesto on love”. A special mention should also be made of violist Matteo Rocchi, who handled the thorny task of representing Janacek’s voice with an impeccable technique and an emotional commitment that would have certainly pleased the composer, and possibly even helped him conquer the object of his desire too. Who knows.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Accademia Filarmonica Romana - Quartetto Indaco - Schubert & Webern - 10/22/23

Anton Webern: Five Movements for Quartet, Opus 5 
Franz Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D 810 (Death and the Maiden) 
Cosimo Carovani: Cello
Ida Di Vita: Violin
Eleonora Matsuno: Violin
Jamiang Santi: Viola
Giovanni Bietti: Host

My carefully planned move to the quieter and greener neighborhood of Flaminio in Rome has first and foremost put me at a fantastically short distance from the Parco della Musica, which will allow me to attend plenty of concerts and other exciting cultural events there, hopefully of the same caliber as the terrific performance that the Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia delivered last Saturday under the baton of Ivan Fischer. 
What I had not anticipated though, was that it would put me at a slightly longer but still walkable distance from another, much more low-key but still very promising, music venue, the Sala Casella, which turned out to be one of the performance spaces, as well as the headquarters, of the Accademia Filarmonica Romana, AKA the other major source of high-quality live classical music in Rome. Talk about killing two birds with one stone, or rather hitting two places with one move. 
So, without further ado, I got a ticket for the first of four music lessons dedicated to the string quartet, in general, and the links between the classical tradition of late 17th-early 18th century Vienna and the modern trends of the early 20th century, in particular. This fifth collaboration between the Accademia Filarmonica Romana and Rai Radio 3 sounded like the perfect opportunity to go check out the place and indulge in some more live music last Sunday. 
The prospect was all the more compelling as the program would feature the odd couple of Franz Schubert and Anton Webern, would be performed by the young but already much in demand Quartetto Indaco, fresh from winning no less than the first prize at the prestigious Osaka International Chamber Music Competition, and would be hosted by eminent composer, pianist and musicologist, as well as Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia di Roma’s artistic consultant, Giovanni Bietti. 
So I walked down to the lovely estate, made friends with the originally suspicious house cat, and grabbed a seat in the smallish, unadorned and welcoming space, which quickly filled up to near capacity with an apparent mix of regulars and first-timers, and everything in between. 

Although it seemed more logical to hear Schubert first, Bietti had decided to do it the other way around, saving the significantly bigger piece for last, and it actually worked out very well. Thanks to his copious and insightful comments, which were all individually illustrated by the quartet before they played the entire composition (all 11 minutes of it) in one go, we got to appreciate the high concentration and meticulous composition of Webern’s Five Movements for Quartet, Opus 5, at a whole other level. 
Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet, which frequently appears in chamber music programs, and occasionally in pop culture too, all over the world, was neatly deconstructed with the same bottomless knowledge and communicative enthusiasm, and enabled the neophytes among us to more easily discern the wide range of the themes, the stark contrast between darkness and light, and the hypnotic rhythmical repetitions. Last, but not least, our enlightened selves got to marvel at the final 16-note bouquet in all its dazzling splendor. 
And what about the mystery link between the two rather different composers? Well, minimalism, of course. Although that concept is much spontaneously associated with Webern and other composers who built on his lead, it is in fact present in Schubert’s œuvre too since, as Bietti pointed out, the man had composed over 1,000 pieces by the time he died at the young age of 31. Even with an early start and uncompromising industriousness, he had to reduce some compositions to come up with that kind of abundant output. 
Granted, Death and the Maiden may not be the most obvious example of it, but hearing it perform so superbly made us all forget about music theory anyway. The expansive first movement had to be played separately from the rest of the work in order to spread all the information about the quartet more evenly, and to avoid having the tolling bells of a nearby church included in the session recording. But I thoroughly enjoyed the total of 40 minutes of pure musical bliss regardless, and am looking forward to coming back for more.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Respighi & Liszt - 10/14/23

Ottorino Respighi: Pines of Rome 
Franz Liszt: O Roma nobilis 
Ottorino Respighi: Fountains of Rome 
Franz Liszt: Dall’alma Roma 
Ottorino Respighi: Roman Festivals 
Conductor: Ivan Fischer 
Video artist: Yuri Ancarani 

Since I’ve been spending quality time in Rome those last couple of years, my one and only foray into its fancy Parco della Musica, a de rigueur stop for anybody with even just the slightest interest in classical music or modern architecture, was wildly successful in terms of musical experience — It was a recital by Eugene Kissin. Nuff said. — but a bit frustrating in terms of the journey to get there (and back) from San Giovanni. So I did what any normal music lover would have done: I looked for and found an apartment within walking distance of it. Et voilà ! If the mountain would not come to Mohammed, Mohammed went to the mountain, or, in my case, to Flaminio. 
And that’s why, after a few weeks filled with unparalleled sunshine, food, history, cappuccinos and music in Naples, I moved to my new neighborhood and got busy exploring my new surroundings, becoming acquainted with my new washing machine, returning to favorite places, hanging out with dear friends, taking care of that pesky thing called work, and indulging in locally developed addictions (So glad I made it back in time for the short puntarelle window!). 
And then serendipity struck. As I was trying to plan my highly anticipated return to the Parco della Musica as a new and proud local, I noticed that its prestigious residents, the consistently fabulous Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, had been tapped for a particularly appropriate program, as if to welcome me back to the Eternal City and thank me for moving significantly closer, or at least that’s what I like to think. 
Therefore, last Saturday afternoon, I was getting mentally prepared for five short pieces about Rome by Ottorino Respighi and Franz Liszt as well as the documentary especially created for the occasion by Italian video artist Yuri Ancarani. And the cherry on top: The concert would be conducted by one of my favorite maestros ever since our National Symphony Orchestra days back in Washington, DC, the brilliant artist and wonderful human being Ivan Fischer. Stars had finally aligned. 

It all started in the foyer of the Santa Cecilia concert hall, where a few enlarged stills from the film were displayed featuring, of all things, a cowboy and his horse among archaeological ruins, possibly as an homage to Sergio Leone’s popular spaghetti westerns? Regardless, I was intrigued. Then, upon stepping into the huge auditorium, I was greeted by an image of white clouds in a blue sky on the large screen above the stage. M’kay. Not exactly ground-breaking art, but on the other hand, the performance had not technically started so no judgment should be passed. 
Once music and video got underway, it soon became clear that the visual part of our evening would focus on Rome’s legendary movie studios Cinecittà, first with historic black and white footage showing how the magic of movie-making has been materializing there since 1937, from seriously over-the-top peplums to opaque existentialist films, from blue-collar workers making humongous and complex sets with their bare hands to major movie stars making fleeting, unscripted, and oh so fun cameos. 
Here were Anthony Quinn, Jack Palance and Silvana Mangano in the biblical epic Barabbas, there Chalton Heston as almighty Ben-Hur riding his chariot, here a juvenile Gina Lollobrigida, there a radiant Sophia Loren, here a bored Monica Vitti, there Fellini, here Antonioni, and of course our beloved Marcello Mastroianni casually chatting while holding a cigarette. Needless to say, the life-long movie buff in me was totally thrilled by this unexpected look behind the scenes during the heyday of Italian cinema, even if I could not really figure out the connection to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” piece. 
But wait, the choral song that followed, Franz Liszt’s musical version of the medieval paean poem “O Roma nobilis”, in fact was accompanied by a slideshow of Rome’s vertiginous pine trees reaching for impeccable blue skies. Since the superb chorus was nowhere to be seen, just heard, those perfectly nice, but here again not exactly ground-breaking, images got all our attention, and we were able check the Roman pines off our list. 
Next, Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome” did get some footage of water in various natural settings, although thankfully Ancarani did not go for the obvious and refrained from including the Trevi Fountain, or any other fountains for that matter, at that point. It is during that piece though, that the relatively good-looking cowboy and his extremely good-looking horse appeared and started wandering kind of aimlessly among what seemed to be ancient Roman ruins from movie sets. And so did we. 
The second and last choral piece of the program, Liszt’s “Dall’alma Roma”, was again performed by the chorus standing right outside the auditorium, and was heard perfectly well inside, which incidentally further highlighted the space’s genuinely impressive acoustics. Since the screen filled up with more images of white clouds in impeccable blue skies, I turned my undivided attention to the ethereally beautiful music and enjoyed every second of it. 
For Respighi’s last composition of his trilogy, “Roman Festivals”, the cowboy and his horse came back, hung out with another dude for a little while, and then, without any warning, we found ourselves facing the closed gates of Cinecittà Street, the entrance of the amusement park Cinecittà World, from the inside. Once those opened, smartphone-toting visitors started eagerly streaming in toward us, and that was kind of scary. More light-hearted was the series of youngsters dressed in vibrant colors videoing one another frenetically dancing in front of some of Rome’s best-known landmarks. 
Thing is, these days there’s really no need to go to a concert hall to feel invaded by countless hordes of unruly, clueless, self-absorbed and social media-obsessed tourists, just trying to cross the historic center will do the trick. But then again, Rome and Cinecittà have survived worse. 

And what about the music in all of this, you may ask? Well, considering the vast amount of talent on and off the stage, it came as no surprise that the entire performance was remarkably colorful, naturally dynamic and totally engaging. Of course, one might think that, since the first two symphonic poems of Respighi’s trilogy were written especially for their orchestra, the musicians of Santa Cecilia had a vested interest in doing an exceptional job at bringing them to life, and it may be so. In my view, they’re simply excellent musicians happy to play exciting compositions. 
The performance’s big challenge though, was that the sounds occasionally had a hard time competing for attention against the visuals, mostly because the large screen was showing a bright, evolving journey while the hard-working orchestra below was dimly lit. However, I can say from personal experience that any effort to focus on the music was richly rewarded — everything from the evocative poetry and compelling sensuality to the infectious playfulness and fierce intensity of the various tableaux reminding me why Rome is the Eternal City — and considerably contributed to the overall success of the unusual endeavor. 

Even better: With a 15-minute walk each way, a 6:00 PM starting time, a 90-minute running time and no intermission, I was home for dinner.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Teatro di San Carlo - Madama Butterfly - 09/27/23

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Librettists: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa 
Director: Ferzan Özpetek 
Conductor: Dan Ettinger 
Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly): Ailyn Perez 
Pinkerton: Saimir Pirgu 
Suzuki: Marina Comparato 
Sharpless: Ernesto Petti 
Goro: Paolo Antognetti 

As my friend Vittorio and I were patiently waiting for the concert of Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda to start at the San Carlo a couple of weeks ago, I was also doing my very best to eavesdrop on the animated conversation among three San Carlo regulars sitting nearby who had attended a performance of Madama Butterfly, the San Carlo’s official season-opening opera, earlier in the week. Although the distance made it difficult to hear their complete take on it, I was still able to figure out that the soprano was “extraordinary” and the production “all wrong”. So there. 
Since the soprano was Ailyn Perez, the first statement was no surprise, and since the ladies reminded me of my mom, which means the type of opera buff who hates everything nontraditional, I did not worry about it either. Moreover, since I had bought our tickets as soon as they went on sale months ago — You simply cannot dillydally too long when it comes to warhorses at the San Carlo — we were going regardless of what the buzz on the street (and in the house) was. And frankly, after a symphonic concert and an opera concert, it was high time we hit the San Carlo for what it was originally designed for: a full-fledged opera. 
That said, our first night at the opera of the new season came at a weird time for us, as we were both reeling about the recent passing of (totally unrelated) dear friends of ours, and I had been awake since 3:35 AM, at which time an earthquake in the Campi Flegrei neighborhood unceremoniously rocked Naples and the Napolitans. 
Fortunately, the performance would start at 6:00 PM, which meant that not only we would be home at a decent hour, but also that we could stop at the Gambrinus for a substantial snack — I had rightly figured that a delizia al limone and a caffè del nonno would carry me through the evening — before heading to our fancy box in the packed opera house. 

I had really enjoyed by then already well-established American soprano Ailyn Perez in Don Carlo last year, and I was looking forward to hearing her in Madama Butterfly, a character that is as magnificent as it is challenging, and kind of different from her usual repertoire. Blessed with a naturally beautiful, limpid and elegant voice that she seems able to control at will, Perez did not rest on her laurels, and threw herself whole-heartedly into the tough assignment of bringing to life one of opera’s most beloved heroines. 
In the end, her Cio-Cio-San may have sounded a bit demurer than expected at first, but then again, we’re talking about a wide-eyed 15-year-old Japanese girl who willingly gives up everything she’s ever known to marry her American officer. Three years later, her husband gone, she has grown emotionally and vocally while still clinging to the hope that he will return, as it is made clear in the show-stopping aria “Un bel dì, vedremo”, a blazing example of wishful thinking that Perez nailed with heart-breaking grace and laser-focused intensity and that, as a matter of fact, stopped the show for a well-deserved thunderous ovation. 
As the opera gained popularity and has remained a reliable staple in opera houses all over the world, B.F. Pinkerton has unsurprisingly become synonymous with “cad”. Although he could not escape the unsavory label on Wednesday evening either, Albanian-born Italian tenor Saimir Pirgu turned his character into an engagingly complex human being, from shamelessly cynical libertine to genuinely remorseful man, with gloriously ringing top notes, dazzling timbre, impeccable phrasing and, let’s not forget, classical good looks and dazzling charisma. No to big outdone when it comes to the opera’s big hits, his thrilling “Addio, fiorito asil” brought down the house as well. 
Veteran Italian mezzo-soprano Marina Comparato was a wonderfully assertive Suzuki, a secondary character that is sometimes considered an after-thought and treated accordingly. This was, however, definitely not the case in this production, which made full use of Comparato’s wide-ranging singing and acting experience. Whether she railed against Goro or gently gathered flowers with Cio-Cio-San, her Suzuki was an excellent contribution to the action. 
Another smaller but crucial part in the opera is Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki, and here also, Italian baritone Ernesto Petti was given plenty of opportunities to shine, which he did with laudable no-fuss proficiency. A loyal friend to Pinkerton while keeping his distance from his moral deficiencies, this Sharpless benefitted immensely from Petti’s classy voice, which in particular displayed the right amount of sincere compassion in the final act. 

The main reason for which I hadn’t seen Madama Butterfly for over a decade is because I had been so taken by Anthony Minghella's striking production of it at the Met that I could not bring myself to checking out another one and most likely end up disappointed. Turkish-Italian director Ferzan Özpetek’s modern effort will not make me forget Minghella’s, but it certainly was not “all wrong” either. Resolutely minimalist with a hint of brutalist style, the set included a gray stormy sea in the background, colorfully lit Japanese houses in Act 1, and two massive side walls that would later on slowly but surely close in completely, building an insidious claustrophobic feeling and a stark separation between the two worlds in the process. 
Among the relatively original, albeit not boldly innovative, ideas were four silent red-clad geishas wandering among the audience as the performance was getting underway, and a video of Ailyn Perez starting with a close-up and progressively zooming out until we saw her waiting for her man by the shore at the end of Act 2. More puzzling was Pinkerton rhapsodizing about how lovely Cio-Cio-San looked all “dressed in lily” and “white veils” while she was right in front of him dressed in a stunning red outfit in Act 1. But hey, at least his compliments did not fall on deaf ears as she was wearing white in Acts 2 and 3. 
On the other hand, some choices did stand out positively. Being greeted by the light sound of waves nonchalantly crashing on a shore as we entered the theater was a nice transitional touch, and if the first night together of the newlywed couple was more gentle eroticism than hard-core sex on the beach, their extended love duet was pure enchantment to the ears and, come to think of it, the perfect incentive to in fact get in the mood. As for Cio-Cio-San’s tragic ending, her hara-kiri was a culturally correct, and just as efficient, slicing of the throat. 

Puccini’s score for Madama Butterfly is both gorgeous musical journey and treacherous obstacle course, but our maestro for the evening, the San Carlo’s young and dynamic music director Dan Ettinger, made a point of keeping everything in check, from the delicate balance between the various parties on and off stage to the sustained pace of the narrative. While the opera itself may feel a bit static at times, on Wednesday evening the music kept everything going briskly and splendidly, with ravishing colors, intense lyricism and dazzling melodies. And seriously, what more could we have wanted for our night at the opera? Absolutely nothing.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Teatro di San Carlo - Beatrice di Tenda - 09/23/23

Composer: Vincenzo Bellini 
Librettist: Felice Romani 
Conductor: Giacomo Sagripanti 
Beatrice: Jessica Pratt 
Filippo: Andrzej Filonczyk 
Orombello: Matthew Polenzani 
Agnese: Chiara Polese 

Just as I was getting ready to go to the Teatro di San Carlo with my friend Vittorio for a symphonic concert earlier this month, another offer for discounted tickets from them popped up in my inbox, this time for a concert version of Vincenzo Bellini’s not-so-well-known-but-apparently-worth-knowing Beatrice di Tenda later in September. Needless to say, after enjoying a very satisfying concert featuring Bruckner’s 4th symphony in the newly refreshed space, we were more than happy to sign up for another concert, especially one of an Italian opera this time. 
Last Saturday was Naples’ first day of rain in a long time, but the perspective of discovering another work by the “Swan of Catania”, who happened to have studied at the prestigious conservatorio di San Sebastiano and gotten his first taste of success in the Parthenopean city, was enough to keep us in high spirits. Even better, a closer look at the cast made me realize that it included crowd (and personal) favorite Matthew Polenzani, who was a first-rate Don Carlo within those same walls last January. So nice to see him back so soon! 
Inspired by an actual historical fact and completed despite many difficulties, Beatrice di Tenda unsurprisingly relies on an intricate entanglement between politics, love and cruelty, all vividly related via myriads of highly emotional and irresistibly melodic twists and turns, to keep the audience on their feet. And really, what more could we ask for in our first opera of the season? 
Well, being able to enjoy it in peace would have been nice, but it was not quite meant to be, as our premium parterre seats quickly turned out to be less premium than expected when one the otherwise well-behaved teenagers behind us started to repeatedly (and loudly) blow his nose, although he admittedly at least had the courtesy to wait for the louder passages. One has to be grateful for the little things sometimes. 

A well-known expert of the bel canto repertoire, Australian coloratura soprano Jessica Pratt sounded like the ideal interpreter for Beatrice di Tenda, Duchess of Milan, on paper. After hearing her handle Bellini’s impossibly long lines and challenging acrobatics with stupefying ease and delectation, I am happy to confirm that she is a natural in person as well. And the packed audience clearly agreed with me as it spontaneously burst into frenetic applause after her first two back-to-back arias, during which she displayed a wide range of her prodigious skills from sotto voce to full volume. And she was just getting started. 
A charismatic presence appearing first in a sumptuous turquoise taffeta dress complete with floor-reaching long sleeves and a long train, which would be replaced by a dark one after intermission as she courageously faced her trial and death sentence, Pratt exuded both delicate refinement and unwavering strength, her much put-upon Beatrice always sticking to the high road with full command of her voice, if not of her fate. She also incidentally demonstrated why a woman should never marry a younger man who is beneath her in terms of financial, territorial and military, not to mention moral, power simply out of grief over the death of her first husband. 
As Beatrice’s husband Filippo, Duke of Milan, appropriately young and already poised beyond his years Polish baritone Andrzej Filonczyk confidently made his mark on Saturday night. His singing had the firm tone, cool phrasing and ominous dark shades necessary to suggest the ungrateful man’s ruthlessness and willingness to believe the unbelievable to advance his own cause. Filonczyk also did an excellent job at showing the Duke’s temporarily vacillating resolve that gave him a chance to become more than a one-dimensional bad guy character, but alas for Beatrice, those flashes of decency did not last long. 
The good guy of the story, Orombello, Lord of Ventimiglia, was winningly interpreted by a long-time veteran of the genre in ever-reliable American tenor Matthew Polenzani. A hapless, and therefore endearing, victim of unrequited love, unbridled jealousy and, to add insult to injury, unspeakable tortures, his good guy was having a really bad night indeed on Saturday, and all those misfortunes were conveyed with such vocal and emotional commitment that it was impossible not to feel his excruciating mental and physical pain. 
As Agnese del Maino, the young woman whom Filippo loves, but who loves Orombello, who loves Beatrice, who is too depressed to love anybody (one can already smell trouble ahead), and the trigger of the whole tragic chain of events, emerging local mezzo-soprano Chiara Polese did not let herself be intimidated by the more confirmed talents next to her on the stage and proved that she could easily compete with the best of them. An effortlessly engaging singer and actor who has obviously figured out how to create a memorable character, she was particularly terrific in the final scene with Pratt, which was an undisputed highlight of the performance. 
Another star turn came from the San Carlo’s stupendous chorus, which seems to sound better every time I get to hear them, and I’d like to especially tip my hat to its uniformly splendid men section. This Beatrice di Tenda provided them all with a lot of opportunities to do their thing in various combinations, and no matter what was requested of them, they fulfilled their part with laudable fervor and increased sharpness as the evening went on. 
Bellini’s magnificent score is peppered with sweeping dramatic peaks as well as exquisite introspective musings that keep the deliciously over-the-top plot moving, and it is to maestro Sagripanti’s credit that he kept things running relatively smoothly, even if an extra round of tweaking would have probably turned this very good performance into an excellent one. That said, it is hard to complain about a conductor being over-enthusiastic about the music, especially when the extra layer of excitement was readily perceived by the audience, who happily lapped it all up all the way to Beatrice’s final “Addio”. 

Once the performance at the San Carlo was over and we stepped outside, we quickly realized that our entertainment for the evening was not over, and that finding ourselves in the hot part of town on a Saturday night — which would have never happened if we had been able to choose another date — would turn out to be an, err, interesting anthropological experience: As we were making our way home by foot and subway, we regularly came across countless hordes of often half-naked (No wonder they catch colds) and occasionally tarted-up, carefree and restless, youngsters whose night on the town was evidently just getting started and would probably be a long one. Oh, to be young again. Then again, maybe not.

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.