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.