Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Sibelius

Winter has finally come to Vienna this year, which seemed like an appropriate time for the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra to perform Sibelius in the Musikverein.  The orchestra, under the baton of its new chief conductor Hannu Lintu, gave appropriately idiomatic readings of the composer’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies (and some encores), with excellent, moody and brooding playing.  The great swell that is the Seventh Symphony, rising from delicate foundations into a bold Nordic chorale, with wonderfully edgy woodwinds and brash brass, marked the culmination of the concert and of the composer’s output.  Sibelius wrote very little for publication after these two symphonies – and in his depression consigned all known sketches of his Eighth Symphony, which had occupied him for many years, to an open fire in the dining room of his country hut.

The concert had opened with Beethoven’Leonore Overture #2, which the composer rejected for a number of reasons, but not because of the quality of the music.  Thankfully, Beethoven did not burn it.  The Finns performed this work almost as a precursor to Sibelius, starting off delicately, with a particularly cold and dark timbre to portray Florestan in his dungeon, and building into something bigger and more free.

Following the Beethoven before the intermission, pianist Alice Sara Ott joined the orchestra for Mendelssohn’First Piano Concerto.  Her playing was certainly dextrous and impassioned, but the music was out of place.  This is a light and lyrical youthful work from Mendelssohn, which fit uneasily in an otherwise sturdy and somber program.  Likewise, a similar solo encore also demonstrated her talent, but did not fit the mood, which made it rather tiresome.


Donizetti, L’Elisir d’Amore

To get to the Staatsoper tonight required crossing a line of riot police manning barricades.  Apparently this was not a good night to venture into the center of Vienna – the neo-Nazi “Akademiker Ball” was going on down the street, attracting thugs from all over Europe (and not just Hitler Youth, but equally-thuggish counter-demonstrators also looking for trouble).  The police locked down the entire section of Vienna from Schwarzenbergplatz to Heldenplatz, and we had to talk our way in (funneled through a passageway inside a building rather than being allowed to enter the closed-off area from the street – underground passages from the subway were also sealed off).

Probably better, then, that the Hitler Youth did not know that tonight’s lead tenor was black and the lead soprano was Israeli, or maybe they would not have left the opera house alone.

The Staatsoper presented a charmingly no-frills Otto Schenk-directed production of Donizetti’L’Elisir d’Amore that will never get old.  The staging, first produced in 1980, contained no gimmicks: it had just a single honest set and enough details to allow the characters to play up the comedy.  And this they did.

As Nemorino, Lawrence Brownlee provided an intelligent characterization of the dim-witted peasant, who is not so quick at understanding what is going on around him but ends up doing just fine for himself.  Brownlee’s beautiful voice also perfectly matched the role, more reminiscent of Tito Schipa than some of the bigger voices who often sing the part these days.  Still, his instrument was big enough to fill the hall – a little sotto voce in the first act to save up for the big arie in the second, but always audible and with perfect Italian diction.

The portrayal of Adina by Chen Reiss was frigid towards poor Nemorino, warming in the end.  There may have been a lack of chemistry between the two lead singers, although both were excellent in their own parts.  I do not know how often they may have performed together before, and this may have impacted their acting relationship.  Either that, or Reiss wanted to portray Adina as particularly cold (although it did not seem this way, since she did make the character somewhat flirtatious).

Alfred Šramek as Dulcamara and Mario Cassi as Belcore provided a humorous supporting cast.  Guillermo García Calvo kept the orchestra light and on cue.  From my seat, I could see that he had taken his mother’s name (Calvo, meaning “bald”) rather literally for someone in his mid-30s.


Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

Mussorgksy’s opera Boris Godunov exists in many versions, most with an inherent logic and which one production or another might legitimately favor for different reasons.  One version of the opera, however, should never be performed, except possibly as a curiosity: the original version, which was rejected by everyone including the composer himself for its complete lack of drama.  While the figure of Boris Godunov himself goes through a character development, everyone else is a stick figure, and this even makes it difficult for Boris to interact.

I know the many versions of this opera well.  I have also seen this original version staged twice myself – once in Geneva in 2003 (that failed) and once in Moscow in 2011 (at the Vishnyevskaya Opera Center, which used it as a venue to display a particularly exceptional student in the title role rather than as a fully-staged developed version, and the Center’s emphasis on acting meant the supporting characters got the little details right).

Yet, in an era of financial crisis, it beggars belief why the Staatsoper would hire a director who chose to stage Mussorgsky’s original version, as they did in 2012 with director Yannis Kokkos.  The music remains wonderful, but Kokkos gave us nothing and the evening ended unfulfilled.  Born in Greece, Kokkos has worked his entire career in France, which may explain the utter lack of drama (a good Greek word, but clearly the French influence has rubbed off).

Costumes were contemporary (or maybe 1990s) Russian, which combined with the intentially dark lighting meant I had unpleasant flashbacks of walking the streets of Moscow, city of 18 million miserable wretches, during my time working for the Russians.  The sets had no discernable logic, mixing semi-abstract iconography (to represent the churches) with geometric colored shapes (representing nothing in particular), and an assortment of odd furniture (and a ladder) that looked like the Staatsoper ran out of money before they completed the staging (or Kokkos entrusted the money to the mafiosi who run the Bolshoi and they absconded with it).  Some of the scenes contained an enormous statue with its back to the audience, which looked like it could have been Lenin.  And Kokkos also installed subterranean cisterns (or something), so that characters could sometimes make their entrances from steps emerging in the middle of the stage.  At one point, so did a bloodied child, representing the murdered Dmitri Ivanovich walking the earth again (I suppose if Kokkos selected the only version of this opera that lacks drama, he had to invent some of his own).

Ferruccio Furlanetto strove mightily to portray the title role under these circumstances.  His voice began, like his reign, hopeful and almost sweet, and became more nuanced as his character slowly decayed.  Norbert Ernst as Shuisky contrived and plotted his way through the evening – the real evil character in this opera, who sets up Boris for mental ruin (did Kokkos give him a Lenin goatee for a reason, or does Ernst normally wear his facial hair that way?).  Pavel Kolgatin as the holy fool also shone in his small but critical role.  The rest of the cast just struggled to make something dramatic of this version and senseless staging.  Kurt Rydl especially disappointed as Pimen – a mainstay of the Staatsoper, he displayed his customary full lower bass, but missed every note in the upper half of his register, rasping instead of singing.

In the pit, the German conductor Michael Güttler also failed to inject drama.  He did nothing to augment the thin scoring of this early version, and he never managed to get the chorus (apparently imported from Slovakia, according to the program) to sing in time with the orchestra.  He did flail his arms a lot, so I suppose that was dramatic.

Meanwhile, the Staatsoper appeared in a hurry to get the whole production over with: an early start time (6:30 p.m. on a weeknight!?!?) combined with zero intermissions ensured we finished long before 9:00.  They must have sensed that they wasted their money on this production.  A better idea: since the Staatsoper has been digging out old successful stagings from their warehouse, maybe it is time to cancel the rest of this run and find some old Boris sets in storage from an intelligent director, and then stage any one of the possible versions of this opera except the correctly-rejected original version.

On the other hand, the music was beautiful if I ignored everything else.  For that, it was worth buying a ticket.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch, Dvořák

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra sounded both delicate and robust, in appropriate measures, as it navigated the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Tschaikowsky and the Ninth Symphony by Dvořák under the direction of Vassily Sinaiksy in the Konzerthaus this evening.  Sinaisky on the podium looked very much like the orchestra’s kind-hearted professor, engaging his orchestra fully, calling on individual instruments demonstratively, and peering studiously over the top of the reading spectacles perched upon the end of his nose, as he drew sound from the orchestra using his hands and without need of a baton.

Sinaisky, a conductor I had not previously heard of, was a stand-in for Neemi Järvi, who had taken ill.  It seems Sinaisky does not have any pressing engagements at the moment as he recently resigned as music director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater after a dispute with the new management (I suppose he could not have survived a few months longer for the management to completely change again).  The association with the Bolshoi, of course, sent up a red flag – there is probably no opera house in the world (outside Italy, of course) with so much political intrigue and thick mafia connections, surviving entirely on its reputation as having once been a world-class opera company.  In my time in Moscow, I discovered fully six opera venues in that city of superior quality to the once-proud and now farcical Bolshoi.

The Bolshoi has never recovered from firing Boris Pokrovsky as its chief over thirty years ago (Pokrovsky, perhaps one of the most intelligent opera directors of all time, had lasted three decades as the boss in that house and had personally seen to the maintainance of the house’s quality and tradition – rumor is that he allowed the theater to employ too many Jews for the government’s liking, and was fired when he refused to purge them).  On the other hand, Sinaisky would not be the first decent artist to think he might be the one to fix that hopeless theater after Pokrovsky’s ouster.  But Sinaisky failed, just like everyone else in the last thirty years, and now sits unemployed waiting for people like Järvi to get sick.

Tonight, the Symphoniker looked glad to have him, and he looked glad to have them too (certainly a far better orchestra than the band that sits in the Bolshoi’s pit).

Also on the program, coming between the other two works, was the Cello Concerto #1 by Schostakowitsch, which the composer wrote for his friend and fellow dissident Mstislav Rostropovich.  Intermixing humor and other-worldliness, this concerto is not easy on the cellist, who must get a broad range of sounds out of the instrument while maintaining a dialogue with the orchestra.  The Franco-German soloist Nicolas Altstaedt somehow got through it all intact.  But Altstaedt is not Rostropovich, and his sound lacked fullness, while his playing was labored to the point that he became completely out of breath, his wheezing projecting over the sound of his instrument.  The orchestra did its part, and Sinaisky did well to keep everything together, but the young Altstaedt might be advised to stick to simpler works at this stage of his career.

Tonkünstlerorchester, Musikverein

Tschaikowsky, Petrovski, Schostakowitsch

After he survived the Siege of Leningrad, and after the Red Army turned back the Germans at Stalingrad, the Russian government sent Dmitri Schostakowitsch off somewhere quiet to compose a new symphony.  The Communist officials expected him to produce a triumphant work, and he gave them something triumphant – just not in the way that they meant.  The Eighth Symphony is dark and not quite optimistic, showing that although Schostakowitsch was pleased his county had turned the tide against the enemy, that triumph in reality only represented the victory of one evil empire over another.  The score came out heavily mechanized, but contains wonderful solo lines throughout the orchestra, often showing great humor (if too often crushed).  The triumph here was not that of the Red Army, but rather of the human soul, able somehow to survive under oppression.  Even the citizens of eternally-dismal Russia deserve freedom and a voice.  The regime responded by banning performances of this symphony for over a decade.


Orchestras sometimes get wrapped up the the industrial machine that churns out this symphony, but in a good performance they savor their lines and produce the little individual expressions of dissent that Schostakowitsch cherished.  The Tonkünstler Orchestra managed that today in the Musikverein, under the controlled direction of Michail Jurowski.  The elder Jurowski, who continues to age and looked extremely pale, no longer possesses the vigor he used to, but communicated to the orchestra with dextrous contortions of his baton and expressive fingers.  If I am around, I happily seek out his annual appearances in Vienna with this orchestra.


Speaking of expressive fingers, Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski mastered Tschaikowsky’Piano Concerto in the first half of the concert, establishing a spirited dialogue with the orchestra.  As an encore, Trpčeski and the Tonkünstler’s concertmaster Alexander Gheorghiu, and the twinkles in their eyes, joined forces for a charming work by Macedonian composer Soni Petrovski, which sounded like a cross between jazz and Balkan Gypsy music, with a bit of Stravinsky thrown in for good measure.  What fun.

Wiener Symphoniker, Musikverein

Dvořák, Honegger, Gershwin

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra remains in great sound.  On the podium tonight, Manfred Honeck, the Austrian-born conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, who previously played violin in the Vienna Philharmonic, made a triumphant return to the Musikverein.

Honeck flipped the order of the pieces around from the traditional concert design, starting with the symphony, then a concerto, and concluding with a shorter rousing work, placing the three works in strict chronological order of composition. Dvořák’s Symphony #8 opened the program, Honeck giving it an especially dramatic reading, nursing the melodic lines while bringing out quite a bit more tension than normal while contrasting those lines against each other.  The orchestra responded with lush resonances, but although they clearly understood what he wanted they must not have rehearsed fully with him (this despite having performed the same program at a concert last night), as evidenced by a number of missed cues or failures to release notes together.  Honeck is a very diminutive person, and so it also could be that they simply had trouble seeing him, although he did wave his arms around above his head as if to signal “I’m over here!!!”

The concert’s mood changed completely after the break.  Indeed, I heard no connection at all between the two halves.  Honegger’Cello Concerto and Gershwin’American in Paris clearly went together – works conceived in Paris by a Swiss and an American, respectively (although Gershwin apparently finished writing his work in Vienna) but having little thematically to do with Dvořák’s Czech folksong-inspired symphony.  Honegger’s concerto married the Swiss composer’s interest in baroque and classical-era composers with the 1920s Parisian jazz idiom, especially catchy in the first movement’s variation on what sounded quite familiar – indeed, although the program notes did not identify it, it sounded peculiarly like a work by Weber better known through variations in a different style later written by Hindemith.  The young German cellist Maximilian Hornung carried off these lively and invocative juxtapositions well, blending back into the orchestra where necessary and then emerging with the next thoughtful phrase.

Gershwin’s American in Paris brought the concert to a triumphant conclusion, the audience absorbed by its humorous orchestration.  The 1930s car horns especially provoked broad smiles, not only from the public but from the percussionists tasked with bringing the city to life. They clearly had fun with this.  During the applause, Honeck awarded them a sectional bow, but they did not see him waving at them, so he climbed up onto a higher platform and waved again, still without success.  The brass passed along the message and they got their bow in the end.  Poor Honeck, who conducted well, clearly needs a much higher conducting platform to remain in the orchestra’s line of vision.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Sibelius, Bruckner

I cheated: I attended yesterday’s rehearsal, so I knew in advance how today’s concert would turn out.

Tickets for Vienna Philharmonic concerts are hard to come by these days without buying a yearly cycle.  So it made sense to start with the more-easily obtainable rehearsal ticket, sitting on the balcony, before a late concert ticket became available on Thursday in the middle of the night.  Although the Musikverein is justly famous for its acoustics, the last rows of the Parterre are relatively dull and lifeless – maybe better than some halls, but nevertheless disappoining here.  So I heard the rehearsal – very much a working rehearsal, with breaks, cuts, and discussions on interpretations – in much better sound than the full play-through at the concert.

This stood out right from the first work, Sibelius’ Finlandia, a staple of the repertory for which conductor Riccardo Chailly only needed to emphasize some of the thick and lush chorales in the woodwinds during the rehearsal, and which sounded much brighter during the rehearsal than from my downstairs seat in the concert.

Leonidas Kavakos joined in for the Sibelius Violin Concerto.  His tone is delicate and pure, which works for Sibelius’ icy music, and the Philharmoniker knew not to overwhelm him, matching the style.  However, the rehearsal had its fits and starts, as the soloist and the orchestra often appeared to have difficulty establishing a good rapport. This prompted much discussion on stage, and Kavakos also turned to rehearse facing the orchestra, to assist in melding their approaches.  Although I left the rehearsal convinced they had reached an understanding, at the concert it did not seem too clear.  Sometimes it worked, particularly at the opening, but sometimes they played against each other.  Fine playing all around, just not always compatible, and as a result often too tentative.  Soloist and orchestra looked sympathetic to each other, but this look did not translate in the sound.

Bruckner’Sixth Symphony concluded the program.  The least performed of Bruckner’s symphonies, and often under-valued, this work was actually my favorite Bruckner symphony when I was a child (overtaken by the Eighth when I became a teenager and learned to appreciate the architecture of that large cathedral of sound, and later falling below others on the list as well), much as a result of the accessible galloping theme in the first movement (later reprised).  Chailly took this at a faster gallop than usual, while maintaining the soaring chorales, which tied the work back to the Sibelius works in the concert’s first half, demonstrating how much Sibelius’s style owed to Bruckner.