Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Stravinsky, Beethoven

I had a rare chance to hear my hometown orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, in concert tonight in its home in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center.  As a Philadelphian myself, I feel entitled to switch back into my hometown persona – Philadelphians expect top performances from their institutions and make sure to come out deeply critical of anything less.  For much of its existence, the Philadelphia Orchestra has made the city proud, and so the city can reasonably expect it to remain among the best in the world.  Whether it does or not depends on many factors, and we Philadelphians will certainly call them out.

Driven by its incompetent management into bankruptcy, at least the Orchestra still sounds excellent musically.  Of course, its incompetent management is also responsible for the lack of a decent music director for many years now.  The last time I heard the Philadelphians perform, the Orchestra’s previous Music Director Christoph Eschenbach dully kept time on the podium.  Tonight, the current Chief Conductor, the even-more-uninspiring Charles Dutoit (who obviously uses the same tailor for his hairpiece as he does for his tailcoat), waved the baton.  The Orchestra did not need him.

The concert opened with Stravinsky’Symphony of Psalms.  This is an odd piece, which might be understandable in the hands of a decent conductor but remained beyond my comprehension tonight.  Stravinsky alternated between ugly and mystical music, to set psalms which praised God – psalms whose very nature should take neither ugly nor mystical music.  The unorthodox instrumentation (no violins nor viole) added to the strangeness.  I’ll have to listen again some time, but not with Dutoit on the podium.

After the intermission came a dull reading of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  Neither strenuous nor fluid in his approach, Dutoit managed to give the piece absolutely no lilt.  His listless stick-waving resulted in missed cues and confused dynamics across the orchestra.  Dutoit also managed to make the third movement Adagio – one of my favorite movements from the entire symphonic repertory, and a notoriously difficult test of a conductor’s skill – both too fast and too long.  In his rush, he lost the harmonies and shattered the lines, and the fourth movement could not come soon enough.  “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” sang the bass solo in the fourth movement: “O Friends, not these tones” – indeed not those other tones either, unfortunately.

In isolation, the Orchestra played well under the circumstances.  The Philadelphia Singers Chorale enunciated emotionlessly.  The ensemble of soloists – Melanie DienerMary Phillips, Joseph Kaiser, and Nathan Berg – fulfilled its purpose.  Berg’s voice sounded dry, however – and indeed all four soloists were gulping from water bottles.

The acoustics in the Kimmel Center remain overrated.  The orchestra sounded like it was performing behind a screen, its tone somehow dulled.  For a contemporary hall, the Kimmel Center looks reasonable enough, with darker wood than what has become common elsewhere, but I have never bought the claims that its high-tech design produced anything remotely reaching the spectacular acoustics its fans claim.  This is simply a dull hall.

And Dutoit has to go (a new Music Director – young and little-tested but enthusiastic and well-regarded by the Orchestra – has been named beginning in Fall 2012, which cannot come soon enough).  So, too, the need to chuck from the Kimmel Center roof the entire inept management of what should be one of the greatest orchestras on the planet rather than a wreck plunged into bankruptcy.  It is not too late to save the Philadelphia Orchestra, but someone needs to do it before all of its fine musicians go elsewhere.

The audience leapt to its feet at the concert’s end, roaring approvingly in a massive standing ovation.  If this mediocre performance merited a standing ovation from a packed Philadelphia house (implying that this concert represented a much finer performance than what concert-goers have come to expect of it), then perhaps the Philadelphia Orchestra has already sunk into the depths.  What a tragedy.

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Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Hall

Ginestera, Diemecke, Sibelius

Tonight was Finno-Argentinian night at the Tschaikowsky Hall.  I figured that would be different enough to warrant a listen.

Enrique Diemecke, an Argentinian conductor and composer (born in Mexico of German parentage), led the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra.  The program opened with Alberto Ginestera’s Variations for Orchestra.  I cannot remember the last time I heard anything by Ginestera, or if indeed I have ever heard Ginestera’s music live.  This piece had plenty of pleasant moments, but no plot that I could discern.  The assorted variations allowed different instrumental soloists to showcase themselves, but even that concept (a concerto-for-orchestra idea) did not seem to form the logic of the work.  Each variation came disjointed.  Overall, the entire piece ran far too long, and never went anywhere.  A tortoise race, albeit with exotic tortoises, may have provided more excitement.

The second piece on the program was Diemecke’s own Marimba Concerto.  Diemecke’s music, like Ginestera’s, was pleasant enough, but forgettable.  The real highlight here was the marimba as a showcase.  I have never really thought about the marimba before, so this provided an opportunity to consider it.  I suppose I never realized just how large a marimba is, but it needs to be played standing up to allow the marimbist to get from end to end.  It is also played using four mallets, which takes quite some skill for the average two-handed human being.  Tonight’s soloist, a young Mexican Saúl Medina, was up to the challenge.  In fact, when the piece ended, he treated us to a solo encore, which required far more skill than the concerto solos.  Using the one huge marimba and four mallets at a time, he managed to fill the entire Tschaikowsky Hall with sound, as his feet danced behind the instrument.

The Finnish part of the concert came after the intermission, with the First Symphony by Sibelius.  Diemecke seemed to want to draw a connection between Sibelius and the Argentinian music by highlighting the syncopated lines, and especially the pizzicato sections.  He also gave enormous prominence to the harps, who of course always pluck their instruments.  I cannot think I have ever heard harps highlighted so prominently except outside Valhalla.  On the whole this did not work.  Sibelius’ music had no Latin antecedents, much less connections to Argentinian works composed after his death.  But the formidable Finn’s frosty fatalism overcame the frivolous faff.  Diemecke’s tendency to compartmentalize his music did allow for a finer understanding of the architecture of this symphony, in many ways the most Brucknerian of Sibelius’ symphonic works, with its stops, pivots, and soaring chorales.  And here Diemecke allowed the orchestra, which sounded in good health, to shine.

After the applause, Diemecke made an announcement in which he thanked the Russian public for supporting classical music, without which there was no reason to live.  Indeed, this may be the one thing the Russians do well.

Galina Vishnyevskaya Opera Center

Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

I have now tried my seventh different venue for an opera in Moscow: the Galina Vishnyevskaya Opera Center, named for its director, the legendary Galina Vishnyevskaya, perhaps one of the greatest dramatic sopranos of all time and the widow of the dissident cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.  The center is one of Russia’s foremost training grounds for opera singers.

Inside the building sits a charming miniature theater, designed to look like a full-size opera house (complete with four levels of seating) but with only about 250 total seats.  Vishnyevskaya herself adorned the royal box, and the audience gave her an applause when she took her seat before the opera began and a standing ovation after the final curtain call.  The orchestra pit has been built directly underneath the stage, with only a small amount sticking out so that the cast can see the conductor.  The acoustics in the hall allow for the orchestra to be heard well without overwhelming the signers in the close quarters.  The stage is not large, but conducive to a suggestive staging.

On the program was something billed as Boris Godunov by Mussorgsky.  Unfortunately, the version they chose to stage was the so-called “original” version, which is to say Mussorgsky’s rejected sketch version, which was rejected for good reason and dug up again about 15 years ago as a curiosity, after which it has, quite peculiarly and undeservedly, become part of the international repertory.  While there is a healthy debate about which performing version of Boris is best (and there are several alternative versions), I can see no argument at all to favor this one.

That said, if someone is going to perform this version, than it might as well be the Vishnyevskaya Center.  So, while I normally avoid this version, I decided tonight would be worth attending, and the Vishnyevskaya Center did not let me down.

This rejected version lacks drama – the only character with any development is Boris.  Since the other characters are so thin, this also impacts the developed character of Boris, because he has no context to operate in.  As could be expected from an opera center led by Vishyevskaya, the cast put a large emphasis on dramatic interpretation, and so the intelligent acting went a certain way towards filling in the weakness of this early sketch.  The stage direction also provided intelligence, with small touches of masterful detail (Shuisky sneaking onto Boris’ throne, Fyodor moving his nanny’s feet out of the way so he could expand the map of the Russian Empire across the floor, Boris getting progressively greyer hair as the opera went on), and dramatic lighting.

In this production, the Boris, Aleksey Tikhomirov, was a massive human being – even when he knelt, he was taller than other cast members, and he had to keep ducking to get under parts of the scenery.  His voice resonated accordingly, and had a warm quality that was most sympathetic when he was with his children.  The small confines of the auditorium meant he did not have to project much during the more dramatic scenes, so he could concentrate on singing-acting.  Presumably, with his size, he can project in a large theater when he needs to.

The other characters simply are not sufficiently developed in this version of the opera.  The cast made a good go of it though.  The best scene, in this respect, came in the Inn, where Anna Fatyeyeva made a rousing innkeeper and Yevgyeny Plekhanov a jovial and debauched Varlaam.

The pit orchestra was ragged, but reasonably good for what is not a regular orchestra.  I do not know where those musicians come from, whether they are professionals or not, and what their status is with the Vishnyevskaya Center, which does not have a regular performance schedule.  The Lithuanian conductor Gintaras Rinkevičius, whom I have heard give dramatic readings elsewhere before, certainly came through this evening as well, with good pacing and balance.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus (St. Petersburg), Tschaikowsky Hall (Moscow)

Kruglikov, Verdi

Tonight’s special concert of Verdi’Requiem with the Mariinsky under Valery Gergiev was for the benefit of victims of the disaster in Japan.

This was an extremely dramatic operatic reading of the Requiem.  This piece is already rather operatic, but tonight it was so expressive that the Mariinsky almost acted it out.  The Tschaikowsky Hall was absolutely packed, standing room only, but the orchestra’s sound managed to fill the hall.  I suppose that since they are used to playing in an orchestra pit, they know how to project up and out.  What I liked about this performance, however, was the way in which Gergiev drew out the woodwinds, who have some fascinating and dramatic parts that often get obscured by the strings and brass.  Tonight, I could clearly hear these interior lines.

The soloists all came from the Mariinsky roster.  Of them, only Olga Borodina (alto) is internationally known.  The other three were the sort of relatively young singers that Gergiev likes to showcase.  In terms of drama, stage presence, and beauty of voice, they all matched up to Borodina, particularly Viktoriya Yastrebova (soprano) and Ildar Abdrazakov (bass).  The fourth soloist, Sergey Semishkur (tenor) had a very beautiful voice, but came from the Russian school of dramatic tenors that I don’t personally like.  In Russia, dramatic tenors tend to have lighter (although not weaker) voices that tend towards the counter-tenor range rather than with supportive lower registers like European dramatic tenors.  This is purely a stylistic issue, and he certainly sang beautifully and dramatically.  All four easily projected over the orchestra and chorus.

The concert opened with the world premiere of Mourning Music by Feliks Kruglikov, a Russian who defected to the US in 1979 and became Zubin Mehta’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic.  The piece was sort of post-Schostakowitschian, although it did not really say anything.  Not unpleasant, just uninteresting: had Schostakowitsch lived longer, he would have had something to say.