Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Holzer, Brahms, Strauss, Prokofiev

I was afraid Austria might revoke my citizenship if I did not attend at least one musical event on this brief trip.  So off I went to the Musikverein to hear the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko.

Petrenko is a young conductor from St. Petersburg, who trained under Jansons, Temirkanov, and Salonen, and was already chief conductor of St. Petersburg’s second opera house, the Michailovsky, by the time he was 18 years old.  Since 2009 he has been based in Liverpool, where is gets great reviews and has become quite popular.  I can see why.  He has a very clear, precise yet emotional technique, and the orchestra knows what to do next.

No where better did this come out than in the second half of the concert: the Prokofiev Symphony #5, for which the odd harmonies and tempi were actually meant to be there.  I have never heard this piece performed the way Petrenko did it tonight.  Written during the Second World War, the music contains great tension, drama, and industrial mobilization, all of which Petrenko brought out of the orchestra.  Of course, this orchestra happens to specialize in 20th-Century Russian music, thanks to its former music director Vladimir Fedoseyev, and therefore it responded brilliantly to Petrenko’s idiomatic reading.  This may be about as definitive a version of this work as it gets – what a shame it was not recorded for posterity.

But before the second half came the first.  Tonight’s concert opened with the Austrian National Anthem (tomorrow is the national day), music by Johann Holzer.  A nice anthem, to be sure, but I’d still rather claim our old one back from Germany.

Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture followed.  Petrenko took it rather more quickly than usual – a raise the house sort of overture rather than a stately dignified one.  The orchestra responded well, and I suppose I saw the point, but I would stick with the slower tempo.

Soprano Christiane Oelze then came out to sing seven assorted songs by Richard Strauss.  Oelze has a beautiful round voice, projects it well, and can hit all the notes.  Unfortunately tonight she did not hit the right ones.  She seemed incapable of keeping either on pitch or on tempo.  As she got more frustrated she screeched.  A disaster of a night for her.  The orchestra provided nice background color, if only it had played without soloist.

All of this was worth it, however, for the Prokofiev after the intermission.

Albanian Radio-Television Orchestra, Tirana University of the Arts

Zoraqi, Tili, Zadeja, Laro, Kurti, Jakova, Gaci, Ibrahimi, Gaqi, LeGrand, Kushta, Deda

Tonight was an altogether different sort of celebration, as the Albanian Radio-Television Orchestra turned 50 (shortly before the modern Albanian state turns 100 next month) with a gala concert at the University of the Arts.  This is an altogether less dreary concert hall than the opera house where I have heard them perform before.

The program contained almost exclusively Albanian music by composers I have mostly never heard before and may never hear again.  But I remain open for new music, so enjoyed the experience.  I assume the selections were Albanian warhorses from the years of isolation, although I really know nothing about them.  The orchestra seemingly picked them in order to sound at its best.  Solo lines did not shine, but ensemble playing filled the room adequately.  Chief conductor Jetmir Barballushi opened and closed the concert, with a train of others taking the stage for a piece or two in between (and a young one popping up for the encore).

No programs were available (although I saw that a handful of people had clearly received them in advance and brought programs with them.  I’ve yet to find a website for this orchestra (nor any link even from the Albanian Radio-Television site).  So I tried to figure out the program as best I could from the announcer who came on stage every time they substituted conductors.

Most of the pieces sounded out of the romantic or post-romantic tradition.  At the end of the concert, they showed a film about the orchestra with interviews, and certainly it became clear that after the Second World War, until Albania broke with the Soviet Union, there was indeed a Russian influence in Albanian classical music.  This could as well be discerned from tonight’s selection, but so could a central European trend that had existed earlier and then again subsequent to the fall of Communism.

The concert opened with a rousing Festive Overture by Nikolla \Zoraqi.  Two Sketches for flute and orchestra by Spartak Tili followed, showing a somewhat eastern influence (the composer stood up and took a bow).  The suite from Çesk Zadeja’s ballet Deline added syncope to the mix.  The music returned to the normal with the overture to the film music from Liberty or Death by Kujtim Laro, a rather dramatic tone poem that worked even independently of a film.

Of course, nothing was truly independent of a film, because on the screen behind the orchestra, they kept playing the same 20-second clip over and over and over and over the whole concert, which mixed the RTSh logo with brief scenes from classic Albanian television films.  I have now seen Skanderbeg charge off on his horse against the Turks in the 15th century, and Ismail Qemali raise Skanderbeg’s banner as the flag of independent Albania in 1912 repeatedly to exasperation.

The conductor of Palokë Kurti’s fantasy “Unification of Albania” introduced the composer as a great patriot for Albanian independence who died in 1920.  For someone trying to create a hymn for his new country, he did not seem to include any recognizably Albanian style.  Indeed, the piece could have been written by Verdi, scored for marching band.

An aria from Prenk Jakova’s opera Skanderbeg followed, sung inexpertly by a woman whose name I did not catch.  I had enjoyed this opera complete in June.

The following pieces all seemed derivative of something.  Pjetër Gaci’s violin concerto started off like a lesser version of Bruch’s and moved into territory of Schostakowitsch and Dvorak.  Feim Ibrahimi’s suite from the ballet Gjergj Elez Alia began like Stravinsky morphing into Tshaikowsky before turning into a strange blend of Prokofiev and Paliashvili.  Thoma Gaqi’s Symphonic Dance #2 sounded like it took a theme from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and ran it through Ravel’s Bolero, with the result being not as original as the former but far more exciting than the latter.

One non-Albanian piece graced the program: a somewhat dull work by Michael LeGrand, whom I have also never heard of, but appears to have been a foreign film composer.  This was a piece for cello and orchestra apparently taken from a film called Papa Can You Hear Me? of which I know nothing.  I have no idea why this piece made it into the program, except maybe to showcase the solo cellist, who was not bad but who could have selected an Albanian work to perform instead.

The finale was the symphonic poem Let’s Go by Shpëtim Kushta, which brought things back to where they should be.  An encore, written by the orchestra’s longtime conductor Ferdinand Deda, would have been anti-climactic, except that it made a good segue into the film on the history of the orchestra.

In the film, the orchestra’s current general manager stated in an interview that the purpose of a house radio-television orchestra is to educate the general public.  The orchestra accomplished that goal tonight.

Color Trio, Jordan Misja School of Art (Tirana)

Haydn, Mozart, Gürkan, Mendelssohn, Léhar, Stolz, Strauß II, Strauß I

Starved for live music, I went to a concert that might not normally have been on my radar.  A group from Vienna, the Color Trio (a piano trio plus soprano) was being heavily promoted by the Austrian Embassy as part of a cultural exchange.  The program looked nice, actually, so off I went.

Oddly, I think I was the only foreigner in the hall (the concert hall of a music middle school not far from my office).  They also performed only about half of the advertised program (no, I did not leave at intermission, they handed out revised programs which contained half of the works from the first half of the advertised program and half from the second, all over in a bit more than an hour).  In all, compared to the Austrian Embassy’s hype, this experience was a bit of a let down.  The musicians had no special quality, although hearing reasonable live music in Tirana added something.

The concert opened with Haydn’Gypsy Trio, which got its name from the themes used in the third movement.  It took until that movement for the musicians to fully warm up.  Then followed an aria from Mozart’s Figaro, sung in Germanic Italian by the soprano Petra Halper-König.  The trio’s violinist, Serkan Gürkan, then performed one of his own compositions, “Mein Wien,” accompanied by the pianist Ilse Schumann – a work which started and ended with music reminiscent of a melancholy rain and danced around a little in the middle section, so I suppose indeed the composer’s impression of Vienna.  Cellist Irene Frank then returned to join Gürkan and Schumann for the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio #1, a much more robust work that allowed the musicians to fill the hall with sound.  This Mendelssohn piece was certainly the highlight of the evening.

A selection of other Austrian pieces were supposed to round out the concert’s first half, but vanished from the program.  The original second half of the program was to contain a selection of Viennese dance and operetta music arranged for trio (with soprano, as necessary).  In the end, only five works remained: Ferenc Lehar’s Gold and Silver Waltz, an operetta aria by Robert Stolz (“Spiel auf deiner Geige” from Venus in Seide), the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka and Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauß the son, and as an encore the Radetzky March by Johann Strauß the father.  These works were performed altogether too quickly.  I suppose the sonorities do not work as well with only a trio performing, so these arrangements probably work either as background music or for actual dancing at an event but less so for a concert performance, and performing at speed at least cuts out the opportunities for thin sonorities in these arrangements.  The waltzes would have been fast enough, but someone might have died trying to keep up dancing to that polka.  As for the march, we clapped and left.