Gotham Chamber Opera, Lynch Theater (New York)

Milhaud, L’Enlèvement d’Europe
Toch, Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse
Hindemith, Hin und Zurück
Weil, Mahagonny Songspiel

I tried to digest tonight’s quadruple-bill at the Gotham Chamber Opera in New York: promising concept, lousy implementation.

A summer chamber music festival in Baden-Baden, Germany, in July 1927 under the artistic direction of Paul Hindemith saw the premiere of four operas: L’Enlèvement d’Europe by Darius MilhaudDie Prinzessin auf der Erbse by Ernst TochHin und Zurück by Hindemith himself, and the Mahagonny Songspiel by Kurt Weill.  Tonight’s production ostentatiously advertised itself as recreating this historic collection, transporting the audience back to that summer evening and what was, at the time, a cultural vanguard and capable still of remaining quite provocative today.

 

Although comic to varying degrees, this was not light entertainment.  The type of people who would choose to attend such an evening’s entertainment would all naturally be a rather informed and sophisticated public. Taking that into account, director Paul Curran failed miserably in his execution, dumbing the evening down to a level which obliterated the entire concept.  The originals were avant-garde for their time, and would still count as modern and even alternative.  To update them would be unnecessary – especially considering the announced intent to “recreate” the 1927 festival – but if Curran wanted to do some updating he would need to demonstrate the intelligence and wit of the originals to keep these operas as much in the forefront of theatrical and artistic development as they were during their 1927 joint premiere.  Instead, Curran demonstrated that he has the intelligence of a pea, much like the one placed beneath the matress of the princess in the Toch opera.

Despite claiming to be a “recreation” of that original 1927 event, it is probably safe for me to say (without having seen the original stagings) that tonight’s production bore no resemblance.  The use of a movie film crew following the characters around in the Toch piece and setting two-thirds of the Mahagonny Songspiel songs on treadmills borrowed from a gym were only the two most obvious indications that this was a 2013 production and not a 1927 one. Stage blockings were busy, particularly for the Toch (the film being shot in the movie camera was simultaneously projected in three places on stage while the action was going on, there were additional flashing lights, and even the supertitles contributed to the ceaseless distractions).  Before each opera, one of the singers was selected to introduce the piece – maybe not a bad idea if done seriously and in a scholarly way befitting the evening’s historical context, but instead hammed up to the fullest, with flat jokes, irrelevant asides, audience engagement and interaction reminiscent of elementary school, and with no serious insight whatsoever.  If they needed the breaks to do the scene changes between operas, then they should have flipped up the house lights and put an essay or two into the program (instead of downloading text from Wikipedia).

Overshadowed by the nonsense on stage was some very good, if seldom-heard, music.  The Mahagonny Songspiel, later expanded into a full-length opera by Weil (with texts by Berthold Brecht), is perhaps the only one of these four which gets performed with any regularity.  Musically, the Hindemith piece also had its rich moments.  The other two were worth hearing (and if staged right would be worth seeing).  The orchestra, under Neal Goren, handled these often-difficult pieces well, and that made up for some of the disappointment on the evening.  The cast was also acceptable individually, if not always singing well as an ensemble.  Helen Donath, once a favorite of Herbert von Karajan, took top billing, and although she was appropriate in this group, it is depressing to think how far she has fallen (is this what happens with washed-up singers years past their prime?).

The recent collapse of the New York City Opera has opened the potential for other companies to assert themselves in the New York market, especially taking on the sorts of productions the Metropolitan Opera would not do.  But if people want low-brow entertainment, there are plenty of cheaper (non-operatic) options in New York, whereas if people want an introduction to opera, the Met actually does that well and these four operas would anyway be an inappropriate introduction to opera.  The niche in this case is high-brow, alternative, intelligent, classical performance, and the Gotham Chamber Opera simply failed to fill it.

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Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Beethoven, Liszt, Respighi

In Philadelphia for a day, I popped into a Philadelphia Orchestra rehearsal led by guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.  Although I recognized this as a rehearsal and not a concert, it gave me a chance to hear how my hometown orchestra sounds these days, as well as to test out the acoustics of the hall from a new vantage point.  As for the former, the Philadelphians are back in form; as for the latter, I remain unconvinced.  I’ve tried the parterre before, as well as the lower boxes; today I tried the first row of the center balcony (which juts out from the upper balcony, so the sound does not get trapped).  The sound indeed came out pure, but still distant – something about this hall makes the Orchestra sound like it is playing behind a scrim or screen.  It’s an attractive new hall, but the acoustics do not work.

The program opened with the King Stephen Overture by Beethoven, a work that the Orchestra indicated it was unfamiliar with and which almost none of the members had played before.  This may account for the tentativeness with which they approached the piece, with only the reeds appearing to grasp the Beethovenian idiom.  However, Frühbeck proved able, and the Orchestra warmed throughout.

Beethoven’s charming Eighth Symphony gets overlooked between its two popular neighbors. Nevertheless, Beethoven still wrote it, and Frühbeck got the Orchestra to capture Beethoven’s typical drama, augmented by the Philadelphians’ famous lush stringwork.   This work proved the highlight of the concert (or at least the rehearsal).

The young and dashing French pianist Lise de la Salle joined the Orchestra for the Liszt Second Piano Concerto, another piece showing off a composer in his typical idiom.  She instantly developed a good rapport with the Orchestra, and established a dialogue. The Orchestra held back maybe a little too much, but at the end they went back and rehearsed a few sections she had flagged, when the Orchestra realized it could pronounce its lines without overwhelming her energetic playing.

Respighi’Pini di Roma rounded off the program.  A warhorse in everyone’s music collection and a favorite over the radio, this piece is actually quite rarely performed (from my observation at least).  The Orchestra performed it with gusto.  Clearly they knew this one.

Soloists of the Vishnyevskaya Opera Center, Cadogan Hall (London)

Tschaikowsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Mascagni, Verdi

Russian oligarchs have adopted Sloan Square in London as one of their preferred neighborhoods to purchase real estate and hide outside Russia, which has somewhat ruined the quality around there.  Tonight, however, good Russians descended on the area: soloists of Moscow’s Vishnyevskaya Opera Center performed at Cadogan Hall.  The Opera Center, founded in 2002 as a training school by the great diva Galina Vishnyevskaya, who died last December, was one of seven opera venues I experienced during my Moscow years.  There, Vishnyevskaya taught the students the tricks of her trade: both the beautiful singing but equally importantly the acting, which made her – in my opinion – the greatest-ever dramatic soprano.

Tonight’s performance felt doubly disembodied: not only did they only perform brief excerpts, but they did so without an orchestra and only piano accompaniment, which removed much of the drama.  Nevertheless, these six young performers – Konstantin BrzhinskyLyubov MolinaAleksey TikhomirovSergey PolyakovYekaterina Mironicheva,and Karina Flores have learned well. They came across as much more comfortable in the Russian repertory (TschaikowskyRimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky) than in the Italian (Mascagni and Verdi), which is probably no surprise. Certainly the Russian selections made the biggest impression.  The giant bass-baritone Tikhomirov sang excerpts from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, a role I heard him perform live at the Opera Center’s theater in 2011.  The final scene of Tschaikowsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, performed by Mironicheva as Tatyana (a role I also saw her in at the Opera Center in 2011) and Brzhinsky as Onyegin, concluded the Russian-repertory part of the program as a particular highlight.

Soloists of the Vishnyevskaya Opera Center, Cadogan Hall (London)

Tschaikowsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Mascagni, Verdi

Russian oligarchs have adopted Sloan Square in London as one of their preferred neighborhoods to purchase real estate and hide outside Russia, which has somewhat ruined the quality around there.  Tonight, however, good Russians descended on the area: soloists of Moscow’s Vishnyevskaya Opera Center performed at Cadogan Hall.  The Opera Center, founded in 2002 as a training school by the great diva Galina Vishnyevskaya, who died last December, was one of seven opera venues I experienced during my Moscow years.  There, Vishnyevskaya taught the students the tricks of her trade: both the beautiful singing but equally importantly the acting, which made her – in my opinion – the greatest-ever dramatic soprano.

Tonight’s performance felt doubly disembodied: not only did they only perform brief excerpts, but they did so without an orchestra and only piano accompaniment, which removed much of the drama.  Nevertheless, these six young performers – Konstantin BrzhinskyLyubov MolinaAleksey TikhomirovSergey PolyakovYekaterina Mironicheva,and Karina Flores have learned well. They came across as much more comfortable in the Russian repertory (TschaikowskyRimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky) than in the Italian (Mascagni and Verdi), which is probably no surprise. Certainly the Russian selections made the biggest impression.  The giant bass-baritone Tikhomirov sang excerpts from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, a role I heard him perform live at the Opera Center’s theater in 2011.  The final scene of Tschaikowsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, performed by Mironicheva as Tatyana (a role I also saw her in at the Opera Center in 2011) and Brzhinsky as Onyegin, concluded the Russian-repertory part of the program as a particular highlight.

Darian Trio, Deutschordenshaus in Wien

Beethoven, Rihm, Dohnányi, Piazzola

A friend invited me to a chamber concert she was giving, which she thought I’d enjoy.  She was mostly right.

The program by the Darian Trio opened with Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Trio op. 9, no. 3, a youthful work that nevertheless showed his genius to come. The second half of the concert had Ernö von Dohnányi’s Serenade, op. 10.  The trio took advantage of the acoustics in an intimate little stone room inside the House of the German Order (i.e., the Teutonic Knights, whose cross was used as the highest decoration of the Nazi Party – maybe an appropriate venue considering Dohnányi’s infamous Nazi sympathies; hard to believe Ernö’s Vienna-born son Hans, father of the conductor Christoph, was executed by the Nazis for his resistance to the regime and involvement in various failed plots to assassinate Hitler, and was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations for helping Jews escape from Germany to Switzerland, all of which I’m sure made father Ernö deeply disappointed). Sound was full and enveloping, but it also meant we intimately experienced the trio’s breathing and heard the not-always clean and crisp release of the notes.

Unfortunately, in between these two works, the trio subjected us to the String Trio #2 by Wolfgang Rihm, who aurally assaulted the audience.  I can take modern, and I can take dissonance, but Rihm’s music seemed designed to torture the eardrums with wild shrieking. Considerations of whether to bring assault charges against Rihm went through my throbbing head.  A short work by Astor Piazzola, from “Spring” in his The Seasons, helped relax the atmosphere as an encore at the end, although frankly the Beethoven and Dohnányi pieces were more showy and inspiring.B

London Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Bruckner, Wagner

Next week I will go to London.  This week the London Philharmonic came to me.  The orchestra, under its cool and talented chief conductor Vladimir Jurowski, performed in the Musikverein.

I have not heard this orchestra in many years, and although its reputation waned for a while, it sounded like the London Philharmonic of old that I remembered from its days under Klaus Tennstedt.  The opening showpiece demonstrated why: although Rimsky-Korsakov’Great Russian Easter Overture sounds different performed by Russians, with their distinctive sound, the lush London Philharmonic playing completed Rimsky’s rich orchestration, and the sonorities filled the hall.

The young violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, born in Moldova, educated in Austria and Switzerland, came out for the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto looking like she had just snuck out of her own wedding – wearing a long fluffy white dress and barefoot (presumably from dancing, since she also danced the whole time she played).  She and the orchestra stayed in idiom for Prokofiev’s playful 1930s modernized re-telling of a classical model: quite a fun work, performed with great humor.  Her sound, though not large, blended perfectly with the orchestra.  As an encore, Kopatchinskaja and the orchestra’s concert master, South African Pieter Schoeman (whose solos in the earlier Rimsky-Korsakov had shone), performed a Prokofiev sonata for two violins with equal banter.

Bruckner’s Symphony #1, performed here in its original Linz version, must have sounded as innovative in the 1860s as Prokofiev’s concerto did in the 1930s, both taking strictly classical forms in new directions.  This was young Bruckner (relatively – he wrote the first symphony in his 40s), and showed his lack of experience with orchestral music at that time.  But it marks a contrast with the first symphony by Brahms, who also waited into his 40s before writing a symphony.  Both Bruckner and Brahms found approaching symphonies hard after Beethoven. But when they were finally ready to do so, Brahms produced the more sophisticated and polished work which said nothing new and simply imitated Beethoven, while Bruckner advanced the art with a rough but new Beethoven-inspired construction.  Ultimately, this work paved the way not only for Bruckner’s own future development, but also for great symphonies to come, including those of Mahler, Sibelius, and Schostakowitsch.  Setting this classical-derivative work, with its raw dissonances and soaring organ-inspired chorales inexpertly mixed throughout, after Prokofiev’s concerto emphasized just how new and important this symphony could sound.  The London Philharmonic and Jurowski put it in context, with resounding orchestral color.

The prelude to the third act of Wagner’Meistersinger served as a final encore, as the orchestral chorale that Wagner based on the hymn “Wacht Auf” (sung by the chorus later in the opera) by the historic Hans Sachs wafted the audience out of the hall, another for-its-time modernized setting of an older form.