Monday, January 30, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 26, 2023

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

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

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

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