Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna & Vienna Academic Wind Philharmonic, Musikverein

Brahms, Berlioz

Another amateur night in the Musikverein.

The Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, the Musikverein’s house amateur orchestra with the excessively-long name, performed Brahms’ Symphony #4 under Robert Zelzer for the first half of the program.  The playing was somewhat ragged, but they made it through reasonably well, considering they are not professional musicians.  As usual, Brahms wrote pleasant-sounding music but had nothing to say.  Occasionally an orchestra partly makes up for this by itself having something to say when playing Brahms, but not this orchestra and not tonight.

After the intermission, the Academic Wind Instrument Philharmonic – a student orchestra which grew out of the Vienna Technical University – got to do the original version of the rarely-heard Grand Funereal and Triumphal Symphony of Berlioz under the Danish conductor David Hojer.  The first movement – funeral music – emerged quite strikingly.  Perhaps I have spent too much time in Russia recently, but I almost heard antecedents of Schostakowitsch in some of Berlioz’ harmonies and rhythms.  A Russian orchestra, with its glaring winds, might take to this work.  The second and third movements settled in less convincingly as the orchestra tired and began to drag.  Berlioz himself later re-scored this piece to strengthen those two movements with a chorus, and perhaps this performance of the original version provided some indication of why he believed he needed to do that.  Indeed, when it looked like the orchestra was preparing to perform an encore, Hojer consulted with several of the musicians and then announced from the stage that they were too tired to play an encore.


Strauss, Salome

The Volksoper decided to put on a production of Salome by Richard Strauss – an opera far out of its normal repertory, although it had its Vienna premiere in this house in 1910 after the censors had prevented Mahler from giving its world premiere at the House on the Ring three years before.

Musically, the performance came off very balanced.  Roland Böer, the conductor, did a good job keeping the lid on, so as not to overpower the singers.  I was sitting near the back of the Parkett (row 17), and could hear the singers clearly.  The orchestra was also clear and sounded good as well.

The staging tonight was confused but did not distract from the music.  The director did not seem to have a particular concept in mind, and did not stick to any particular period or style.  I did not mind the generally minimalist staging, per se, but on the other hand it did not seem fully thought through.  I was watching a lot through my binoculars, and much of the interpretation depended more upon whether the singers had something in mind as opposed to whether the director did.  Fortunately, they did, but they gave very individual performances – a director with an overall concept might have brought this all together.

There were nice touches.  A full moon dominated the back of the stage for the first half, and the director used its light to set the appropriate moods (as expected from the book).  John the Baptist had wrapped himself in an extremely-long outer blood-red robe which Salome ripped off him at one point and later used for good effect (at one point representing the trail of blood from Narraboth’s corpse downstage to where Salome was standing).  But these intelligent touches were mixed, and did not come across as part of a greater design.  In this version, for example, Narraboth did not actually stab himself, but instead got strangled when entangled in the Baptist’s robe as Salome was ripping it away.  Salome’s dance for Herod contained very little dancing by Salome herself and more by the various male characters in the small roles.  Salome was not sensual at this point, but strangely disrobed only at the very end of the opera when she left the Baptist’s head on stage but went by herself into the cistern.  When Herod then ordered her to be killed, no soldiers followed her, but instead Herod himself collapsed on stage.

The voices were pleasant, but particularly Annemarie Kremer (Salome) and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Herod) took time to warm into their roles.  Kremer did her best acting after John the Baptist cursed her, when she went from simply depraved to fully deranged.  Morten Frank Larsen (John the Baptist) was excellent throughout – coming across as a somewhat other-worldly prophet – but I wish that the staging had allowed him to sing his lines from the cistern naturally instead of miked in from somewhere offstage.  That requires a huge voice, however, so not too many people can pull it off, and maybe he would not have done as well if it had been staged this way.

I have to say that it was a much more enjoyable production than the last time I saw it live in Zurich about ten years ago.  That was a horrible German-directed Regietheater staging that was frankly offensive, and the Zurich opera house orchestra is not as good as it thinks it is.  This was not a problem tonight.

Stanislavsky Opera

Rubinstein, Demon

I suppose it was fitting to use Anton Rubinstein’Demon as my final performance in Russia: the opera is set in Georgia.  Also, Rubinstein was a Jewish pianist of international acclaim (even Liszt refused to take him as a student because he was too good and reminded people of Beethoven back when Beethoven had performed publicly on the piano), composer, and conductor whose greatest contribution to music was probably that he introduced higher musical education to Russia.  He founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and then sent his younger brother Nikolai to Moscow to open a branch there which later became the Moscow Conservatory.  The system he set up in St. Petersburg was copied all over the Russian Empire, and is directly responsible for the level of music education that has continued to this day (with periodic interruptions so the Russians could purge the over-representation of Jews in music).  This means that I owe to Rubinstein, more than to any other person, my enjoyment of the music scene here for the last two-plus years.

I actually saw this same production of the Demon at the Stanislavsky in October 2010.  However, that was a poor performance, so I went back to the Stanislavsky again tonight with a different cast.  I enjoy this opera (I also saw it at the Novaya Opera in 2009), but it is almost never performed outside Russia, so I figured it was worth hearing one last time even in a substandard production.  That said, tonight was a huge improvement on last year.  The problem then was a weak-voiced cast which required miking.  Tonight’s cast was full-throated.  Not only did this allow for better tone (and no feedback from the tinny loudspeakers), but it also meant that the cast did not have to constantly move to the front of the stage (where the microphones were last year) but instead could sing from further back.  The result of this was better acting.  The dark fairy-tale staging, which did not seem fully thought-through last year made more sense this year without the singers constantly coming forward for the mikes.  Although I am not sure this staging fully convinced me even now, it did make some more sense than it did last year and had a certain charm.

Aleksey Shishlyayev, whom I have seen perform an energetic Scarpia on this stage, gave the same amount of dark energy to the title role here tonight.  Mariya Lobanova was a sympathetic Princess Tamar.  The singers in the secondary roles also came across stronger than their counterparts last year, now both audible without miking and with pleasant voices.

Wolf Gorelik conducted again this year.  Like last year, I did not find his reading particularly idiomatic, missing the tension between good and evil that permeates this opera.  But with a better cast to work with this time, he did not get in their way at all.  While I might hope to see an even better performance sometime in my life, with a true A-list cast and a mystical conductor, this time through did mark an improvement and provided a satisfactory conclusion to my musical program in Russia.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Schubert, Adams, Lutosławski, Brahms, Britten, Bernstein

The Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra performed a Sunday afternoon light concert of symphonic dances under the baton of Dmitry Liss, which ran through a number of styles: Six German Dances by Franz Schubert (as orchestrated by Anton Webern), the Chairman’s Dance from Nixon in China by John Adams, Five Dance Preludes for Clarinet and Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski (with Vladimir Permyakov on Clarinet), Hungarian Dance Nr. 6 by Johannes Brahms, the Musical Evening Suite by Benjamin Britten (based on Rossini), and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein.

Liss kept the afternoon light and bouncy.  This worked best for the Brahms, with an almost-Hungarian lilt, and for the Bernstein, which Liss made sound like Bernstein had composed it under the influence of Stravinsky (maybe he did…?).  It worked less well for the Adams dance, which had a lot of movement and went absolutely nowhere, a typically poor effort by that ridiculously over-hyped composer.

After coffee and a sandwich, I migrated over to the Stanisklavsky.

Novaya Opera

Puccini, Gianni Schicchi
Offenbach, Mr. Cauliflower Remains at Home

Double-bill at the Novaya Opera tonight: Gianni Schicchi by Puccini and Mr. Cauliflower Remains at Home by Offenbach.

Both operas were staged as farces.  This worked better for the Offenbach piece than for the Puccini, which relies more on its clever text to provide the comedy.  Perhaps the director assumed that Russians who do not speak Italian would not understand the humor (although supertitles were provided) so decided to ham it up for a laugh.  But people were not laughing that much.  By contrast, the Offenbach opera was performed in Russian, and the audience was in hysterics.

This production of Gianni Schicchi began before the music: at a birthday party for Buoso Donati, at which his family accidentally kills him as part of the slapstick act.  This type of humor continues throughout, and at the very end, after the opera should be over, Donati suddenly comes back to life, aware of what has gone on, and chases Gianni Schicchi out of the house.  All of this extraneous action was wasted, since the humor of the opera is more subtle.  The cast at least understood that, and when singing their roles (in clear Italian) did convey the text properly.  Oleg Didenko (as Simone) and Galina Korolëva (as Lauretta) especially excelled, and Dimitry Volosnikov kept the music lively in the pit.

For the Offenbach, the farce worked.  My Russian was insufficient to keep up with the text, and it is not an opera I previously knew (I’ve only read the plot summary on the day of the opera), but the audience kept laughing steadily, so I suppose it worked.  I could follow the plot easily enough, and enjoy the slapstick, but not catch the nuances of the text.  But the setting clearly worked better for the second half of the double-bill than for the first.  Musically, the company gave a better performance for the Puccini, however.

Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Schostakowitsch, Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk

I heard Schostakowitsch’Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk tonight at the Gelikon Opera.  I will only say that I *heard* it, since I do not know what opera I saw.  The staging had less and less to do with the plot as the opera went on.  The director (Dmitry Bertman, the principal director of the Gelikon) clearly intended to stage something with a coherent plot, but whatever he staged it was not this opera.

Instead of being set at the Izmailov home in a village, the opera I saw took place in what appeared to be a factory basement.  Katerina’s room was a cage in the back.  Costumes were possibly 1950s-ish, maybe 1960s, with Katerina starting out dressed in a red velvet gown.  OK, I thought at first, this is just interpretation of a wild opera.  He’ll go somewhere with this.

But soon it became clear that, although he was going somewhere, it was not the same direction according to the book.  Various actions described in the text simply did not happen.  Other actions were bizarrely changed – for example, in this version Katerina gave her father-in-law a poisoned drink, even though both of them kept singing about mushrooms.  By the third act, the drunk had turned into a wedding singer, with the villagers dancing a bop to his description (crooned into microphone, with electric guitar accompaniment) of finding Katerina’s first husband’s body in the basement when he went looking for more alcohol.  By the final act, the director was not even trying anymore.  I could attempt to explain what was happening on stage, but I’m not sure I understood it (In which nightclub was this act set, and why weren’t the characters prisoners marching to Siberia as in the plot?  Why did the murdered father-in-law return to life as a camp guard?  What were the cook and priest from the village doing there?  Who were all the extras in latex?)

Schostakowitsch’s opera, with its sex and violence, was intended to shock.  This director did not shy away from that.  But, in short, there was very little he could do to shock anyone any more than the opera plot already did.  Therefore, maybe he got angry at Schostakowitsch for not allowing him freedom to shock on his own.  I really cannot begin to explain what was going on in the director’s head.  Again, it was not a random staging, nor German Regietheater, but clearly a staging of some plot line, just not the same plot the opera was about.

This was a huge shame.  Staging a different opera than the one being performed causes the attention to drift away from the music and on to trying to figure out what the hell is happening on stage.  Schostakowitsch’s music was fantastic.  And the performance… well, I was so distracted by the staging, I cannot be quite sure.  Certainly, everyone sounded reasonably good.  This was more remarkable, because I think the Gelikon Opera has been hit by a massive flu bug: of the fifteen cast members individually listed in the program, fully ten of them were indisposed and replaced by late substitutes (who were not even from the B or C casts).  The conductor was also a late substitute.  This may have lessened the drama on stage, and possibly caused some additional confusion, but clearly the understudies knew their way around enough so that the confused staging was not due to their substitution but rather was the staging itself.  As understudies, mostly rather young singers, they all acquitted themselves very well.  If I had not been distracted by the actions on stage, I might be able to give them even better reviews.  Certainly, they were not the problem tonight.

Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Berlioz, Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch

Now that it is safe to go hear the Russian State Symphony Orchestra again, after it has deposed Gorenstein, I have now heard it perform twice in six days.  Tonight it played in the Tschaikowsky Hall, with a program that included very different works by Berlioz, Tschaikowsky, and Schostakowitsch.  The orchestra handled all three idiomatically, switching styles with ease from one to the next.  That it did not shine as much as it did last Thursday I can attribute to the different acoustics of the hall – the Tschaikowsky Hall is simply not in the same league as the Conservatory.  However, this orchestra clearly enjoys life much more than it used to until recently, a joy that comes across in its playing.

The Romanian conductor Ion Marin took the podium with equal excitement.  The concert opened with a cheerful rendition of the Roman Carnival Overture by Berlioz.  The mood switched from upbeat to pensive for Tschaikowsky’s Variations on a Rococo theme, with Ivan Karizna as the cello soloist.  Karizna is a 19-year-old Byelorussian, student at the Moscow Conservatory.  Oddly, from my vantage point, he looked a bit like Marin, and could have passed as the conductor’s illegitimate son.

Karizna produced a pleasant sound, and his agile fingers handled all the variations well from a technical perspective.  But he missed something, as his playing lacked depth.  At 19, he has plenty of time to mature.  He returned to the stage for an encore – a solo cello piece I did not recognize, that required additional showmanship.  Again, he could perform it technically very well, but still lacked something.  I also think his cello caught a cold between the Tschaikowsky and the encore, as it rasped a bit too much during the encore, a tone that was only rarely present during the Tschaikowsky and which was not required to interpret the encore.

After the intermission came Schostakowitsch’s 6th Symphony.  This is a strange work, which Schostakowitsch described as showing “spring, joy, and youth,” but which instead has Schostakowitsch’s typically bitter and foreboding tones.  Employing another musical language from Berlioz and Tschaikowsky, the orchestra spoke Schostakowitsch fluently as well.

Russian National Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall


As a rarity, the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnëv performed the complete music to Grieg’Peer Gynt in the Tschaikowsky Hall tonight.

For this concert, we not only got the complete music, but also a literary reading.  Aleksey Bruni crafted Ibsen’s story into Russian poetry, and did a reading, accompanied by the music.  The portions of Ibsen’s original text that Grieg set to music (but which are normally performed these days – if at all – transcribed for instruments instead of sung) were restored to chorus and soloists.

Some of Grieg’s Peer Gynt music is well-known from the two suites that he prepared and which get performed frequently enough.  Normally, the music, while pleasant, comes across disembodied and not necessarily dramatic.  But putting the music back into a literary context, the music regains the drama it loses in the suites.  The Russian National Orchestra, full of splendid musicians, captured the drama to the fullest.  Bruni provided a lively and enthusiastic reading.  The soloists, two young singers Anastasiya Byelukova (soprano) and Igor Golovatyenko (baritone), had large, clear, and pleasant voices which filled the hall nicely.  And the chorus, from the Popov Academy of Choral Arts, also managed its way well through the Norwegian texts, blending its sound and boldness with the orchestra’s.

I probably would have appreciated this performance more if my Russian were good enough to fully understand more of the poetry.  But I got the sense of the performance.  I’m not convinced Grieg’s score is first-rate music drama, but hearing it in this context – more like its natural environment as incidental music to a drama rather than as isolated numbers in an orchestral suite – certainly added an extra dimension.

Considering the recent child-sex scandal at Penn State, I wondered whether I should patronize a concert conducted by Pletnëv.  The Thai authorities dropped all charges against him, but there has still never been an explanation for what those young boys were doing at his home in Thailand (about which he claims ignorance).  In the end I went to the concert, but Pletnëv still comes across as a seedy character.

Moscow Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Mozart, Beethoven

My final concert in the Moscow Conservatory.  I tried desperately to get tickets for another concert a week later, but those were impossible to come by in a typically Russian sort of way (officially they had been on sale for a month, but the box office claimed to know nothing and calling “upstairs” also produced no information).  So this was it.

This concert was a bait-and-switch.  It was supposed to conclude with Mahler’s 5th, but a couple of days ago new posters went up showing Beethoven’s 6th.  The pre-printed programs still indicated Mahler.  No idea what caused the late change and will not speculate.

The concert opened with Mozart, in the form of the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro and the Piano Concerto #20.  The Moscow Symphony Orchestra under the Dutchman Arthur Arnold, the Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, kept things light.  At the keyboard, Nikita Mndoyants, a 22-year-old recent graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, showed proficiency.  In this hall, it is easy to let the notes waft out over the audience.  Of course, it is also easy to hear any errors.  What we got was a solid performance, with a nice blend of orchestra and piano.  While nothing special, the performance was clean and clear.

For the Beethoven, Arnold took a more robust approach.  The strings may have taken it too far, producing a strong tone but lacking in fluidity.  On the other hand, the woodwinds, given the opportunity by Beethoven to imitate birds, soared.  The music swelled into the storm movement, and the finale emerged triumphant.

In all, a worthwhile evening spent in a wonderful hall with solid performances of beautiful music.  I would not have minded staying another hour to hear the Mahler, although perhaps it was too much to ask of the orchestra.

Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Stravinsky, Chausson, Ravel, Rachmaninov

I attended an unplanned concert at the Moscow Conservatory – the 75th Anniversary Concert of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra.  When I was deciding what concerts interested me this month, this concert had a different program and conductor, and so I had marked it off the list.  But it seems that all that changed while I was away from Moscow.  I swung by the afternoon before the concert to see if any tickets would be available, and there were a few left up in the top level of the second balcony (but the hall has great acoustics, so this only meant it was hard to see the orchestra, but I could hear just fine).

This is the orchestra Yevgeny Svetlanov led for 35 years before he was fired in 2000 (after Putin came in), when the Ministry of Culture suddenly questioned his patriotism.  Mark Gorenstein, an impossibly dull Soviet wand-waver, was appointed to replace him.  The Orchestra musicians have been miserable ever since (but stay because the orchestra pays relatively very well for Russia).  Finally this Summer the musicians got up the courage to demand that Gorenstein be fired.  When this did not happen, they simply refused to show up for rehearsals this Fall, and all of their concerts this season have been canceled one-by-one as a result.  Two weeks ago, while I was away, Gorenstein got the axe and the young and dynamic Vladimir Jurowski was appointed in his place effective immediately.  Today was Jurowski’s first appearance with the orchestra in his new position.

The program opened with Stravinsky’Firebird Suite.  This is still the most Russian-sounding of orchestras, and the flagship of the state orchestra system, so it was fitting to open the anniversary concert with a showpiece.  Jurowski made the most of it, generating excitement with each scene in the suite.  If he had added the entire ballet as an encore, no one in this audience (nor in the orchestra) would have objected.  I have a soft-spot for this piece, since I think it was the first recording I ever owned as a child (with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra – a birthday present from my sister).  Hearing it fresh tonight, with a fully-charged orchestra and conductor happy to be there, made me remember the joy and excitement of putting on that record for the first time way back in my childhood.

After this thrilling start, the concert unfortunately shifted to French composers.  The choice for the next two pieces was curious, since they certainly do not figure in the core repertory for this orchestra, nor should they figure in the core repertory for any orchestra.  While, starting in the mid-19th Century, Russia discovered classical music and has since produced enormous quantities of exciting material (possibly the only civilized thing the Russians do produce), France has inexplicably seemed incapable of having any composer other than Berlioz (whom the French ridiculed for his admiration of Beethoven) capable of consistently producing music of any reasonable quality.  The French never cease to amaze me just how dull the music is that they write – and I keep listening to new pieces just hoping something will come along to break the monotony, but it never does.

So tonight we had two pieces for violin and orchestra: the Poem for Violin and Orchestra by Ernest Chausson and the Gypsy Concert Rhapsody by Maurice Ravel.  Julia Fischer was the soloist.  Try as she, Jurowski, and the orchestra might, nothing they could do could bring these works to life.  And boy did they try.  Technically, they all played very well.  Fischer proved very adept.  The audience dozed, and awoke at the end of each piece to give a polite golf-tournament-style applause most notable for its contrast with the roaring applause which had greeted the Stravinsky.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned to Russian music with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  These are less dance music and more somewhat-eccentric post-Scriabin-esque studies in orchestral color that Rachmaninov wrote shortly before he died.  Jurowski and the orchestra kept the movements moving along, exploring their tones and rhythms until the end of the third dance, which sounded like it represented the composer taking a hop, skip, and a jump into the grave.  Never has the Dies Irae sounded so whimsical.  Jurowski applauded his new orchestra, the orchestra applauded Jurowski, and the audience applauded both.  This applause went on for a while.