Tonkünstler Orchestra, Musikverein

Schubert, Saint-Saëns

Andrés Orozco-Estrada, a Vienna-trained Colombian who has actually been music director of the Tonkünstler Orchestra for the past three years (and in Vienna for several years prior to that) but whom I have somehow missed, tonight took the podium in the Musikverein at the head of his orchestra for a nice pre-Christmas concert.  On the program were two works that had nothing to do with Christmas, nor with each other for that matter.  But he made the orchestra sound full and in good spirit.

For the first half of the program, the orchestra performed Schubert’s Mass #5.  From this performance, it was easy to see how Schubert had inspired Bruckner – a full Catholic mass that retained its mystical spirituality while moving from the church into a concert hall.  Of course, it helps that the concert hall in question was the Musikverein, a cathedral of music.  The Wiener Singverein filled the space to the rafters with drama, mystery, and passion.  Schubert did not write much church music, and in his day it was forbidden to perform church music outside the church, but in this relatively late Schubert piece (written only two years before his death, albeit he died when he was only 31) the composer remained respectful of the religious origins of the mass while still augmenting it as a stand-alone musical piece.

It could serve either as church or concert music.  Although I am familiar with Schubert’s final mass, the even larger #6, I had not previously experienced this one, but would gladly do so again, especially with such a compelling performance as this.

The second half of the program featured the Symphony #3, with Organ, by Saint-Saëns.  Saint-Saëns lived for 86 years, but never before nor after wrote a piece quite like this.  Indeed, this piece is unique in musical literature, and demonstrates originality and talent.  One wonders why this composer, whose talents were well known and appreciated in his own lifetime, turned out so little music of lasting impact.  For whatever reason, he still managed to produce this symphony on a commission from the Royal Philharmonic in London, inspired by the tone poems of Ferenc Liszt and dedicated to the memory of the recently-deceased Hungarian master, including, at its high point, a thrilling major adaptation of the Dies Irae chant.  Once again, the Tonkünstler took up the challenge.  Orozco-Estrada kept the music pushing forward to its thrilling climaxes, never rushing but giving just enough drive and momentum to ensure that the piece got an honest and exciting reading.

I did not notice the extraneous high-pitched tone from the organ this time, which I had heard last time when the organist played from the stage-based organ consul instead of directly at the organ.  So either they fixed whatever the problem was, or I happened to be sitting in the wrong seat last time where the acoustics brought that extraneous pitch to my ear.

One problem I could not blame on the hall was the Japanese tourist sitting in the row in front of me, who could obviously afford to buy a ticket here from Japan but somehow could not afford a belt or underwear (let alone both).  Every time she popped up to take a photo (quite a few times throughout the evening), her pants fell down.


Sondheim, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Tragedy last Friday, comedy tonight… at the Volksoper.

A new production of Sondheim’A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum… in German.  I don’t have a problem with the language choice, since Sondheim reworked into English plots and characters from Plautus (which I read in the original Latin), who had in turn borrowed from Greek predecessors.  What’s important is that the cast can act and is having fun.  So it was indeed a fun production, headed by Robert Meyer as Pseudolus, with David Levi conducting.

That said, I’ve seen better.  I still remember a fun production at Exeter with my talented classmate Rob Bikel playing Pseudolus.  And, of course, there is the film starring Zero Mostel.  The acting tonight may have been better than the singing – the fact that they miked the cast was already suspicious, since the Volksoper is not an overly large house and there is no excuse for singers not to be able to project.  Miked music is always disconcerting.  My other gripe was the German they used, which was very… well, German.  Written German, as a spoken language, comes across as unattractive, arrogant, and humorless.  Perhaps Miles Gloriosus could speak that way, but the rest of the cast should have been performing in spoken dialect, or at least something softer.  Plautus himself used dialect in his original Latin farces, so this would have been more in character if they had kept to it.

But tonight was still a good evening’s entertainment, so I’m not complaining.  And after the travesty at the Volksoper with Madama Butterfly last Friday, the house had to redeem itself.


Puccini, Madama Butterfly

I’ve seen some awful stagings of operas over the years, but I do not remember the last time I was left as speechless as I was tonight at the Volksoper at the end of something pretending to be Puccini’Madama Butterfly.  Most bad stagings are just obviously bad right from the beginning.  This one came as more of a shock since this was not Regietheater.  It was not even particularly modern.  The photos of the production made it look reasonable.  For most of the opera, I just assumed the director did not understand the plot – it was a bad interpretation, with some very questionable elements on stage, but not atrocious.  However, then he completely changed the ending and it crossed every conceivable level of comprehension.

If anyone reading this ever has the chance to see a production staged by Norwegian director Stefan Herheim, shoot yourself first.

As I said, the production started out looking OK, as a period piece set in 1904 Nagasaki.  But the first sign that something was wrong was that the Japanese characters all wore westernized dress.  This remained so throughout the opera, with only Butterfly and Suzuki dressed in anything remotely Japanese.  Considering that this opera relates misunderstandings between cultures, placing Butterfly in the company of westernized Japanese removed that tension and the whole underlying context of the opera.

The next obvious interpretive problem was an extra character on stage.  Some Westerner (not Japanese) in a brown period suit was clearly meant to be obvious.  This man appeared in every scene, if not watching intently and scribbling notes to himself, then directly interacting with the other characters.  Pinkerton offered the whiskey to him (not to Sharpless).  Butterfly addressed her thoughts not to herself or even to Suzuki but instead to him.  Goro was shadowed in his work by this stranger.  And, amazingly, this character even took part in the love scene between Butterfly and Pinkerton.  In the Second Act, his identity finally became known: he was Yamadori, the wealthy Japanese suitor she rejects.  Clearly, this Yamadori had become so westernized as to become a white man.  And, by the way he was behaving, he was less mysterious and more a somewhat nasty stalker.  More on him later, unfortunately.

The third interpretive problem which appeared early on was the portrayal of Sharpless, the US Consul in Nagasaki, who came across as a befuddled clown.  Of course, in this opera as Puccini wrote it, Sharpless was the only one who saw the potential tragedy in this clash of cultures, and tried his best to convince everyone else that the whole affair would end badly.  But in this version, no one would listen to a fool, and his message was lost.

The opera continued along these lines until the second half of the second act (they staged the original version of the opera, which was not much different from the final version, but the material that would become Acts 2 and 3 was combined into a single act – indeed, I think the two act version works better dramatically).  During this final part of the opera, roughly corresponding to the third act of the revised version, Yamadori had thankfully stopped stalking Butterfly.  Pinkerton arrived not just with Kate and Sharpless, but also with a boatload of American tourists in modern dress, who started wandering around the set like it was a museum.  Indeed, banners showing old theater posters of Madama Butterfly and of Puccini adorned the stage, and many of the props from previous scenes now appeared inside display cases.  The tourists did not leave as the action tried to progress, but were obviously paying close attention (while examining Butterfly’s Japanese house).

All of this nonsense would have remained just nonsense.  However, nothing prepared me for the new ending.

Just as Butterfly was about to commit suicide (seemingly by slitting her throat), the American tourists rushed over to disarm and save her.  A happy ending perhaps?  What to do about Kate?  This dilemma was quickly resolved.

In the real plot, Pinkerton and Sharpless arrive too late – Butterfly has already committed suicide and the opera ends with Pinkerton calling out her name.  Not tonight.

Tonight, Pinkerton, Sharpless, and Kate re-joined the crowd of tourists as they disarmed and restrained Butterfly.  Yamadori then made an unexpected return right at this moment, and the shouts of “Butterfly!  Butterfly!” which Pinkerton was supposed to sing were instead transposed to this Yamadori character, who pointed at her menacingly.  And then, on a further hand-signal order from Yamadori, the American tourists took their turns stabbing Butterfly to death in a brutal murder and to Yamadori’s obvious delight.

Needless to say, this left the audience gasping in shock.  No one applauded.  Some boos rang out.  Then as the cast began to take its curtain calls in silence, I think most people realized that this travesty was not the cast’s fault, and the cast started to get polite applause (which swelled when Butterfly took her bow).  The applause ended immediately after the conductor motioned to the orchestra, and everyone just walked out as quickly as they could.

Melba Ramos, as Butterfly, had a pleasant voice which carried off her emotions.  Morten Frank Larsen, as Sharpless (and Jochanaan in Salome two weeks ago), had a dramatic voice, which somehow carried him through the absurd portrayal of Sharpless that director Herheim set out.  Adrineh Simonian as Suzuki was fine.  Jenk Bieck as Pinkerton was less so, but he clearly had a cold and was coughing throughout the performance.  Tetsuro Ban created nice orchestral tones in the pit – the orchestra deserved its applause.

Now, as for Herheim…

Tonkünstler Orchestra, Musikverein

Grieg, Martinsson, Sibelius

Back-to-back concerts today at the Musikverein (they still make you check your coat separately for each concert, though).

First up was the Tonkünstler performing an all-Scandinavian concert under John Storgårds.  They opened with Grieg’s From Holberg’s Time.  An all-string piece, the Tonkünstler strings produced a very sweet sound with a pleasant lilt.  Because four of the five movements actually derived from dances, this interpretation stressed the rhythms quite nicely, providing an extra layer of charm on these miniatures.

“Bridge”- a trumpet concerto by Rolf Martinsson, a contemporary Swedish composer (who may have been in the audience – the trumpeter motioned very clearly to someone during the applause, but that person did not stand up or bow) followed.  I have not decided if I liked the piece or not, but at least the composer had something intelligent to say.  Martinsson seemed unsure if he intended to be post-romantic or post-atonal, alternating between the styles, but he did clearly intend to put in place a foundation to allow the trumpeter to be a virtuoso.  He had indicated that so few trumpet concerti had been written in the last couple of centuries because of the nature of the instrument and the developments in music, and therefore he intended to provide a modern piece that would work for virtuoso trumpet.  In this he succeeded, with the help of trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger (for whom he originally wrote the piece in 1998).  Hardenberger had a bright and clear tone, and the skill to jump around the range.  In general, the orchestra would set a post-romantic mood, and then interrupt it with some atonality (or mild tonality), where the trumpet would jump in.  Perhaps the one section that did not work was when the score called for the solo trumpet to be muted, as dampening the sound of the solo instrument defeated some of the purpose of a trumpet concerto.  On the whole, however, I am always glad to hear intelligent modern music that still qualifies as music.

After the intermission, Storgårds treated us to an unusual interpretation of Sibelius’ Second Symphony.  At first, I did not understand what he was trying to achieve, but it slowly grew on me.  Having heard the strings sounding so sweet for the Grieg at the start of the concert, I was initially concerned when they opened the Sibelius sounding bitter.  The winds entered, also not sounding completely smooth.  But Storgårds plugged away at a deliberate slow pace, and the tonalities emerged.  The strings provided the base mood, upon which the wind instruments could construct their chorales.  This was a little bit of Bruckner – Sibelius’ favorite living composer when he studied in Vienna – emerging.  As the symphony went on, the emotion grew, right up to the final drawn-out chorale.  A successful performance of Sibelius must come across cold and dark, so that the listener considers drowning himself in the nearest frozen lake, but does not actually commit suicide because of the realization that, once dead, he will never again be able to hear the music of Sibelius.  I’d say Storgårds accomplished that feeling for this audience.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Hindemith, Strauss

A quick coffee and a Topfenstrudel at the Schwarzenberg later, I was back in my seat for the Vienna Symphony under Fabio Luisi.  This is a better class of orchestra than the Tonkünstler, and sounded fantastic all around.  I’m not sure about Luisi, though.  I don’t think I have ever had a problem with his conducting, but he also never seems to bring an orchestra over the top emotionally.  He’s been a stalwart in Vienna for a while – principal conductor of the Symphoniker since 2005, and of the Tonkünstler before that.  He knows his way around, and manages the orchestra just fine.  But he does not seem to find the extra level.  Strange.  I wonder how he does in the opera pit, especially now that he is the principal conductor at the Metropolitan Opera.

Tonight’s concert opened with Hindemith’s Organ Concerto, written in the last year of the composer’s life.  This was an odd piece for Hindemith, coming across rather modern in comparison with his more typical earlier work, but at the same time not fully modern and remaining baroque-inspired.  A bit like the trumpet concerto in the previous concert, I think he had something to say, but I am not sure if I liked it.  Perhaps Hindemith’s most convincing movement was the fourth and final one, when he provided a “free and broad” fantasy on Veni Creator Spiritus – a 9th century hymn that also inspired the second part of Mahler’s eighth symphony.  This particular mix of ancient and modern music showed Hindemith at his best.

Martin Haselböck played an excellent organ.  However, there was something disconcerting about the set-up.  The Musikverein has a brand new organ this year, and this was the first I have heard it.  It sounded impressive (Haselböck himself was one of the consultants).  The keyboard is up on the balcony directly behind the orchestra over the stage, but Haselböck sat at another keyboard that was rolled out and placed on the stage between the conductor and the woodwinds.  I have no idea how this worked technically, but clearly the sound was coming out of the pipes up above.  However, at the organ’s real keyboard, a little television screen was turned on to allow the organist to follow the conductor – even though no one was sitting there, which made it all look rather uneasy and disembodied.  Furthermore, I sensed a high-pitched tone that should not have been there – a tone which was still audible during the pauses between movements, but was not audible before or after the piece, nor when Haselböck used the damper pedal, nor in the second piece of the concert after the intermission when an organist sat at the main keyboard.  This made me suspect that something in the wiring – or whatever (I have no idea how this works) – between the portable keyboard on stage and the organ up above was causing one of the high-pitched pipes to whine, and this pipe did not make the noise when the connection was turned off (or the damper was pressed).  I have no idea, so am just guessing.  Still, the tone should not have been there.

Haselböck performed an encore for solo organ.  Not sure what it was, but it sounded like a modern fantasy based on a Bach-like chorale, designed to show off the versatility of an organ.  Haselböck made the most of this.

After the intermission, for the final work of the day, came Richard StraussAlpensymphonie.  This is one of my favorite symphonic poems, maybe even my favorite one.  Again, I may have heard more exciting interpretations than what Luisi was able to craft tonight, but Luisi certainly allowed the orchestra to show off.  Strauss indicated that it was not until he wrote this piece – well into the second half of his career – that he truly learned orchestration.  In this case, he explained that he had learned orchestration from Mother Nature, trying to get an orchestra to mimic a wide variety of natural sounds.  As a result, this is a piece capable of showcasing the talents of an orchestra, and this orchestra demonstrated its skill tonight.