Ensemble Reconsil Wien, Schoenberg Center (Vienna)

Seierl, Amann, Karaew, Schoenberg

A young Swede, Christian Karlsen, conducted a concert at the Schoenberg Center tonight by the Ensemble Reconsil Wien, a chamber music ensemble specializing in contemporary composers.

The main work, and the only reason to attend, came after the intermission: Erwartung by Schoenberg, in an arrangement for chamber ensemble.  Schoenberg’s music may not qualify as beautiful, but it is intelligent and has a real sense of drama.  Cornelia Horak performed the soprano solo in keeping with the style.  It was, however, more than a little ironic that for this 12-tonal work she needed to hold a tuning fork to recalibrate her own pitch periodically.  The small auditorium may have been too small, though, even for this limited arrangement – apparently, they could have opened the room up to make it bigger, although this might also have augmented the realization that the audience was quite small.

Normally, concerts present music in vaguely chronological order, so the Schoenberg piece might have been expected before the intermission rather than after it.  However, by placing Erwartung after the intermission, its 12-tonal sounds sounded almost delightful in comparison with the dreadful works performed prior to the intermission.

The concert opened with the world premiere of Parent Parts by the Austrian composer Wolfgang Seierl.  After the conductor came out, the orchestra started tuning again – or so I thought, until I realized they had actually begun performing the work.  Seierl composed the piece in memory of his parents, who formed “two halves of the same brain” according to the program notes.  Obviously, he grew up in an extremely unharmonious house.

As bad as this was, it paled in comparison with the second work, another world premiere by an Austrian composer, this time the Embrace of the Branches for Trombone and Ensemble by Michael Amann.  As far as headaches go, I would rank this piece somewhere between a room full of crying babies and the Chinese water torture.  Before the piece began, the orchestra started un-tuning.  Amann distributed notes rather arbitrarily between the instruments, but every so often one instrument was allowed to play three or four notes together in a row, giving the audience hope that some music might break out, only to once again be interrupted by the reality that Amann was clearly not in the business of composing music.

The third and final piece in the pre-intermission set was the Austrian premiere of the Postludio #8 for piano, clarinet, and behind-the-scenes-string-quartet by the Azeri composer Faradsch Karaew.  This piece had all the charm of a leaking roof.  The first five minutes consisted of the pianist tapping high notes with long pauses between them.  Eventually, the clarinet started making noises that sounded like she drowned.  Finally, the string quartet off stage got to play a few bars of rather pretty chorale-like music, before the pianist put an end to that anomaly.

I’ve never been so excited to hear Schoenberg.

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Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

I managed to get the last ticket available for tonight’s concert of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons, performing Schostakowitsch’s 9th and Mahler’s 4th Symphonies.

This was an intelligent pairing.  Both symphonies are somewhat lighter than the rest of the composers’ respective symphonic output.  And although I have never seen it commented anywhere, I realized by listening to the two of them back-to-back this evening that Schostakowitsch (who anyway drew his symphonic influence from Mahler) must have had Mahler’s 4th in mind when he wrote his 9th, as it indeed sounded like a direct derivation.

The performance was fantastic.  Jansons is rightly extremely popular in Vienna, and regularly visits not only to conduct the Philharmonic, but also to bring the two world-class orchestras he leads (he is simultaneously in charge of Munich’s Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, here tonight, and Amsterdam’s Concertgegouw, whom he conducted the last time I saw him in the Musikverein).  Although the 9th is relatively light for Schostakowitsch, he managed to turn it into a fun showpiece.  The orchestra responded to his emotional conducting with precision.

The Mahler 4th, after the intermission, came out a little more ragged – I wonder if the first horn and some of the others might not have opened the Schnapps a little early during the break.  Still, Jansons can draw a bright reading out of anyone (probably helps that he started his career in the Soviet Union, and so must have gotten used to drunk musicians).  The young Swedish soprano Miah Persson performed the solo adequately (actually, I looked her up after the concert and she is older than I am, but seems to have only begun her singing career recently).  The concert master, as well as the principal flute, piccolo, clarinet, and bassoon, all deserved their several extra rounds each of applause.

I could see from my seat that the orchestra had sheet music for some Dvorak piece waiting on their stands (I could not read what piece it was, though), but despite the loud and very prolonged applause, we got no encores.  After the orchestra eventually left the stage but the applause still would not stop, Jansons himself came back out for a solo bow – but a conductor solo does not an encore produce.  I suppose he could have waved his baton at the audience and commanded us to sing something, but we left.

Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, Musikverein

Mendelssohn, Elgar, Bruckner

Tonight was amateur night at the Musikverein.  However, in this case we are talking about Vienna, and the amateur group is the Orchestral Society of the Vienna Association of Friends of Music – in other words, the concert hall’s own house orchestra founded in 1859.  Robert Zelzer took the podium, and Othmar Müller (OK, he’s a professional) brought his cello (made in 1573).

On the program were Mendelssohn’Ruy Blas Overture, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and Bruckner’s Symphony #4.  The orchestra was enthusiastic but not accurate.  This generally carried the Mendelssohn and most of the Bruckner, but not so well the somber Elgar and the exposed Adagio movement of Bruckner’s symphony.  In the case of the Elgar, however, Müller managed to hold the entire work together through his thoughtful playing.  Not much could be done with the Bruckner adagio except to wait for the scherzo.

Someone (although I do not remember who) once described Bruckner as not so much a composer of music but rather as a man who captured music that already existed in the aether, so that human listeners could hear the sound of heaven.  Certainly, enough Brucknerian aetherial sounds have established permanent residence in the rafters of the Musikverein Hall, so even an amateur orchestra could pull them down.  These are amateurs who give only three concerts a year and their performance, even if rough, was to be appreciated.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Beethoven, Brahms

The Armenian Philharmonic, conducted by Ruben Asatryan, gave a concert tonight that I probably should have skipped.  Workmanlike, but dull.

Marine Abrahamyan performed as soloist in Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto.  She hit all the notes.  The old Steinway piano, though in tune, sounded like it had gone past its use-by date, since it had an excessively sour tone.  Apparently they have a new concert piano at the Khachaturian Hall, but Abrahamyan prefers this one because the keys are broken in and easier to play.  After the applause, she subjected us to a series of encores.  Every time we thought she had finished and the orchestra started to sneak off the stage, she reappeared and started playing again.  Maybe with a better-sounding instrument she might have achieved something (although one of her encores was an ugly modern piece by an Armenian composer which probably sounds better on a bad piano).  Eventually her annoying behavior stopped and we got to take a walk about for intermission.

After the intermission came Brahms’ First Symphony.  Convinced that there was nothing new to say after Beethoven, Brahms only put notes on paper cautiously.  Although some of his works can be pleasant enough, no one can consider Brahms original.  It therefore takes charismatic performers to add excitement to Brahms, something that may have been too much for tonight’s band to provide.  The Armenian Philharmonic’s winds were once again good, particularly the woodwinds, and overall the orchestra made it through the piece without problem but also without providing any enlightenment.

Armenian National Opera

Harutiunian, Sayat-Nova

Tried out the Armenian National Opera this evening.

On tap was a new production of Sayat-Nova by Alexander Harutiunian, an opera which originally opened in 1969, ran for several years, and then vanished until now.  A colleague warned me that Harutiunian’s music is ugly, but this opera was still worth hearing for two reasons: first, because I could confirm my colleague’s opinion, and now I will never have to go hear music by Harutiunian again; and second, because my curiosity caused me to do some research into the real-life historical character of Sayat-Nova, upon whom Harutiunian based the opera.

The real Sayat-Nova was an 18th-century poet and composer, ethnic Armenian, born in Tbilisi, who composed mostly in Azeri Turkish written in Georgian script.  Born “Harutyun Sayatyan,” he adopted the name “Sayat-Nova,” meaning “King of Songs” in Persian.

The opera’s composer, Harutiunian, was a Soviet apparatchik (apparently still alive) who did his share of propaganda compositions back in the day.  His music, of which I am told this opera represents a typical example, I just consider dissonant – if I did not hear the instruments tune before each act, then I would swear they forgot to tune.  It was obvious, though, that the instruments were not playing out of tune but rather this was how the music was written.  In this opera, Harutiunian mixed in some actual music by the real Sayat-Nova, and that music – rather than Harutiunian’s own original stuff – was the best part of the opera.  I wish he had used more Sayat-Nova material and less of his own.

This new production was originally planned for 2006, but with cost overruns and political delays took five years to finally come out.  Since I do not read Armenian, I do not know exactly what the problem was that caused the delays – staging was hardly elaborate, and the cast was all local, so nothing jumped out.

The production had no stand-out performances from anyone: a purely adequate cast.

The first act took place in Tbilisi’s Maidan Square – or in this case with a few prop houses made to look like traditional Tbilisi architecture but not really resembling 18th-century Maidani.  Sayat-Nova fell in love with the Georgian princess Anna (in the opera, she was the sister of King Irakli II, although in reality she was his daughter).

The second act took place in what was supposed to be King Irakli’s court, although this was clear only from context and not from the stylized set (consisting of large columns, with the set from the first act still visible as a backdrop).  Princess Anna was engaged to be married, but when Sayat-Nova, now the court composer (in real life he was not only the court composer but also a leading diplomat), was requested by Irakli to serenade the new couple, the love affair between Sayat-Nova and Anna emerged.  In real life, Sayat-Nova was expelled from the court at this point – in the opera version, Anna tried to convince him to accept promotion to nobility in order to be eligible to marry her, but he refused.

By the third act, which would seem to be shortly thereafter in the opera but which actual history would correctly place when Sayat-Nova was 83 years old (the opera skipped quite a bit of his life), Sayat-Nova was living out his life in the seclusion of Haghpat Monastery (located in Armenia near the Georgian border – I have been there, and found one of the chapels to have spectacular acoustics).  Sayat-Nova hallucinated about Anna, whose ghost appeared.  Then the monks ran in to announce that the Persian Shah had burned Tbilisi to the ground and was heading south towards the monastery.  Sayat-Nova’s death was then alluded to (in reality, he was indeed killed by the army of the Shah of Persia, who sacked the monastery after destroying Tbilisi in 1795 – the real-life Shah was angry, because Tbilisi’s famous sulfur baths did not cure the fact that he was a eunuch).  The staging for the third act was peculiar – meant to look like a disemboweled monastery, with Sayat-Nova dressed in monks’ robes which appeared to be made out of shiny black rubber for some reason (the other monks were wearing something closer to normal robes).  Conceptually, the third act staging had no obvious stylistic relationship with the first two acts.

The whole opera was pretty simple, and the staging was simple, so I have no idea why the production was five years late.  Nothing at all special.

The opera house itself is a curious building.  It actually shares a physical concrete structure with the concert hall – an enormous round Soviet building with one entrance on each side, respectively for the concert hall and opera house.  Both halls are horribly Soviet, but the opera side seems more so.  I was wondering why few people got up during the intermission to walk around the lobbies, but when I did so the reason became obvious.  More than half the chandeliers in the lobby and corridors were turned off, giving it a gloomy feel.  Smoking is permitted.  The heating system sounds like an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner.  And somewhere, although walking around I could not tell from where, something was causing the lobby area to shake like the entrance to a discotheque with throbbing, pulsating bass (I’m not really sure that is what I heard, but it certainly felt that way – I just could not locate the origin of the throbbing beat).  When I left the building, the pulsating sounds were not audible outside, so I imagine it must have been coming from somewhere inside the building, or maybe it was the machine in the basement keeping the industrial heaters going.  In this sense, it reminded me of the much-praised but probably over-rated Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, which has a nightclub in its lobby which pounds out music that is extremely disconcerting when leaving the concert hall, although the Kimmel Center disco is worse and completely inappropriate where it is (the least they could have done in Philadelphia would have been to enclose it and sound-proof it, since the Kimmel Center is supposed to primarily be a concert hall).  At least in the Kimmel Center, though, the source of the throbbing is readily identifiable.

The stage inside the theater was also unusual, in that it was actually three stages forming a triptych.  The main stage was where I would expect it – directly in front of the audience –  but there were two smaller stages angled to the left and right of the audience.  During the first act, all three curtains opened together, so we got surrounded by what was supposed to be downtown Tbilisi in the mid-1700s.  It was actually sensory overkill.  For later acts, some brief small scenes appeared on one of the side stages (allowing the main stage to remain but letting the characters retire to another room, for example).  This is how the theater is actually constructed, so not a ploy for this particular production.  Very peculiar.