Philharmonie Salzburg, Mozarteum

Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninov

They over-hyped tonight’s concert of the Philharmonie Salzburg in the Great Hall of the Mozarteum.  Or maybe I should not have gone to this concert so soon after returning from hearing both the Philharmoniker and the Symphoniker in Vienna this past weekend.  Still, the Philharmonie Salzburg sounds like a pretty good youth orchestra.

The announced conductor, Elisabeth Fuchs (the orchestra’s founder) did not appear (although she remains on the concert’s website, she was not in the program), and instead a 23-year-old cellist, Tobias Wögerer took the podium (after making his debut as a conductor in his native Linz earlier this year).  I suppose conductors have to start sometime and somewhere, so I will give him a pass.  He had a clear stick technique, but the orchestra did not always get it together.  In many respects, the orchestra did not blend as an orchestra, but rather each instrument and each line sounded exposed, a collection of musicians playing on stage at the same time (well, usually), but not necessarily together to form a coherent sound.  I do not know how much of this was attributable to Wögerer, how much to the mysteriously absent Fuchs who presumably rehearsed them, or how much to the youth of the musicians in the orchestra itself.  While an orchestra should be better than the sum of its parts, in this case the individual musicians were better and the orchestra was worse.

The concert opened with Tschaikowsky’Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, which Wögerer took at an unusually slow tempo, accentuating the drama.  While this worked for the opening sections, the orchestra did not hold together all the way through.

Russian pianist Nikolai Tokarev arrived on stage for Rachmaninov’Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  By the look of it, his luggage never arrived with him, as he did not dress for the concert, performing in jeans and an open-collared casual shirt.  Wögerer had the orchestra play everything staccato.  This had the interesting result of accentuating the natural staccato of the piano, but also made each attack more exposed if not everyone hit each note preceisely together (they did not).  Despite this attempt to play in a lively way, Tokarev lost interest somewhere along the way, and the entire piece became unusually dull.  Once the piece dragged on to its ultimate conclusion, Tokarev gave us for an encore a few more solo variations on the same Paganini theme, in a much more contemporary style.  I don’t know if some composer after Rachmaninov (but less talented) wrote these additional variations out, or if Tokarev simply improvised.  I suppose it did not matter.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned to perform Tschaikowsky’s  Symphony #6.  Again, it was rather unfortunate that whereas I bought tonight’s ticket a month ago, I got a last-minute ticket to hear the Philharmoniker perform this same work in the Musikverein last weekend.  Although I experienced the Philharmoniker from a seat in the midst of the percussion section, and therefore out of balance, these poor students tonight in no way could match the world’s best orchestra, and they did not.  As a youth orchestra, however, they were good – although, as noted earlier, they tended to perform individually as a group rather than always joining together for a common sound.  The audience was disproportionately young – the orchestra and Wögerer clearly invited all of their friends, so they got a rousing (deserved) applause.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Schubert, Schostakowitsch, Beethoven, Johann Strauß II

Woke up early on a Sunday for a wonderful concert by the Wiener Symphoniker in the Konzerthaus.  Philippe Jordan, in his first season as the orchestra’s official Chief Conductor (although long a fixture here, especially after the departure of Fabio Luisi), took the podium.  I first saw him conduct twelve years ago in Graz, and he has retained his ability to charm.

He opened the concert with Schubert’s Second Symphony, an early work which, though not yet mature and therefore not frequently performed, nevertheless exhibits Schubertian characteristics.  Jordan’s reading drew out the joyful spirit of the work, using a good control of dynamics to increase the drama.  The first movement, which opens slowly before jumping in head-first at breakneck speed, proved especially successful (Schubert developed this technique as he matured, and it influenced Bruckner who also deeply appreciated Schubert’s talent and originality).

Schostakowitsch’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra followed.  The composer wrote this sarcastic piece in 1933 to cheer himself up during one of the darkest periods in Russian history (which, sadly, has no lack of dark periods – indeed, it’s mostly dark, but the 1930s were especially dark).  Khatia Buniatishvili, the young Georgian star, took on the challenge, and in contrast to the Schostakowitsch piano concerto I heard yesterday in this case she dominated the stage.  The Symphoniker’s first trumpet, Rainer Küblböck, performed the trumpet solos, and nimbly switched from the somewhat sad muted lines to the boisterous and bright unmuted sections.  At the end, Buniatishvili came back out and gave us two encores (neither identified, and I do not know the repertory well enough to place them).  The first (clearly 20th-century, maybe Schostakowitsch?) nearly blew the roof off the hall – I did not believe a piano could produce that much sound, rivaling some orchestras in might.  The second (sounded like something one of the Scarlatti family might have written, but could have been a neo-classical throwback) had a wonderful song-like character, and Buniatishvili’s keyboard did everything except produce the words.

After the intermission, the orchestra stormed through Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  Jordan took this at a faster clip than I normally would prefer (he probably followed Beethoven’s own erroneous metronome markings, which current theories suggest come from a broken metronome which displayed the wrong beat numbers), but got the orchestra to produce all the swinging excitement while gasping for breath.  Again, he utilized dynamics to underscore this dramatics of the piece.  He performed the first two movements without a break, going right from the initial Vivace into the slow movement, for maximum (and effective) contrast.  The final movement especially tied the concert neatly together, as it echoed the first movement of the Schubert symphony in the frenetic strings.  Although Schubert’s Second Symphony predated Beethoven’s Seventh by a full year, Beethoven was the older and more mature composer (and it would seem unlikely that Beethoven even knew Schubert’s symphony, as much of Schubert’s work in that period was developmental and not performed publicly or published until many decades after his death).

Jordan gave the enthusiastically-applauding audience another encore:  Künstlerleben by Johann Strauß II.  The Symphoniker lilted, and the audience danced out of the hall.  This orchestra sounds like it will maintain the level of quality it has built over the previous years under Luisi, almost to the point of rivaling its colleague down the street, the world’s best Wiener Philharmoniker (which sounds better when I am not sitting in the middle of its percussion section like yesterday).

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Glinka, Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky

Sometimes tickets come available late for the subscription-only concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic.  I got one such ticket this afternoon, giving me a seat in the percussion section between the cymbals and the bass drum.  No kidding.  At least no Mahler was on the program, although my ears are still ringing a bit.

Semyon Bychkov took the podium for an all-Russian concert.  The chronically-ill Mikhail Glinka spent a Summer in Vienna, where he came for medical advice and to take the cure in Baden.  During his stay he met Johann Strauß (the father) and Joseph Lanner, who inspired him a few years later to try his hand at a waltz.  In a sense, Bychkov brought the Waltz-Fantasie home by having the Philharmoniker (not only the world’s best orchestra, but the world’s best waltz orchestra), perform it.

Kirill Gerstein joined the orchestra for the second piano concerto of Dmitri Schostakowitsch.  This is a tuneful work with a degree of charm, but written by Schostakowitsch during one of the many periods in his life when he was subject to artistic persecution.  While recognizably music by Schostakowitsch, it is perhaps less daring than it should be.  From my seat in the back of the orchestra, I also did not experience it as much of a concerto – the piano part seemed somewhat under-written and blended into the orchestral tones.  Gerstein gave a long solo encore to demonstrate his agility (I could not hear his announcement of what he played – it was not a showy piece, instead rather melancholic, but it did allow him to demonstrate versatility).

After the intermission came Pyotr Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #6.  Bychkov captured the composer’s depression.  While the orchestra carried off a flawless performace, I did not get the sense that I learned anything new from this reading.  However, I did learn some new things about cymbal technique.

Stuttgarter Philharmoniker, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Richard Strauss

I had a hike through the Alps this evening without leaving my seat, as the Stuttgart Philharmonic and Swiss conductor Stefan Blunier came to Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  During the performance of An Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss, a sequence of photos by German cellist-photographer Tobias Melle projected onto the screen behind the stage.

The photos reminded me of scenes from the good CIBA-Geigy calendars of yore, back when they only had scenes of Switzerland.  Although the photographs were often spectacular, this work actually requires no photos, since Strauss described a day’s hike through the Alps so well in his music.  So, to a degree, they even distracted attention from the music.  The question became not so much what image did Strauss portray, but did the music match a specific photo (no, actually, since we have the program subtitles by Strauss himself).  But in accompanying the photos, the Stuttgart Philharmonic did its job – it clearly did not intend to sit at the center of audience attention tonight.

The program opened with a technically-sound Symphony #39 by Mozart.  Nice woodwinds.  The strings could have lilted more, however.

Salzburger Landestheater, Haus für Mozart

Verdi, Rigoletto 

The Salzburg Landestheater put on a musically-excellent performance of Verdi‘s Rigolettoin the Haus für Mozart, for a rare Sunday afternoon show.  The production showcased two young stars, Ramë Lahaj (from Kosovo) as the Duke, and Eri Nakamura (from Japan) as Gilda.  Lahaj’s voice was big and lyrical, as he inhabited his role.  Nakamura’s voice, large enough to fill the hall, nevertheless came across innocent and almost delicate.  The Italian Ivan Inverardi’s experienced Rigoletto nuanced but bold baritone portrayed a tragic court jester, despite having to act around some atrocious staging (more on which below).

Young British conductor Adrian Kelly drove the orchestra along to depict the dark tragedy of this opera, setting the mood right from the overwhelming introduction.  In the draft, Verdi had originally titled this opera “The Curse” before settling on naming it after the court fool, but despite the opera’s lighter tuneful moments, it remains dark, permeated by evil.  Kelly’s musical direction never let this concept slip.

Unfortunately, the Landestheater contracted a German director to stage this production.  Nothing good ever comes from German (or German-trained) opera directors in the last half century, and today’s production was no exception.  Amélie Niermeyer explained in the program notes that since the censor forced Verdi to change the setting of the opera (based on a real-life jester and his king from early 16th Century France) to a fictionalized Italian town which could have been anywhere (in this case, Verdi chose Mantua), she saw no reason not to make this an opera about anti-Fascism, and move the setting to the 1940s and Salò, Italy (capital of the Italian Social Republic, a puppet state established in German-occupied northern Italy from 1943-1945).

Niermeyer set the action on the elevator landings of different floors in an apartment building.  It is unclear who the Duke was supposed to be – the program notes suggested he might be the building’s owner.  At any rate, the setting was impossible to pull off with the plot.  There was no “outside” and characters had to remain on the landing where they were on set with action they should not have been in the same room for.  This made some scenes especially difficult, which the director resolved in strange ways (such as having Gilda, and then Rigoletto after her, get into the middle of the Duke’s love scene with Maddalena; or even the abduction scene where Rigoletto somehow does not realize he is in his own apartment – or at least the elevator landing where he sleeps with Gilda – and yes, there was a suggestion that maybe he does sleep with his daughter).  The final scene took place on the roof, with the Duke sleeping in a deck chair while the rest of the action took place (and somehow he never got wet in the storm), exiting via the elevator after patting Rigoletto on the shoulder.

None of this made much sense, but it also destroyed the tragic character of Rigoletto, who is very much the product of his time in history.  Put him into the Salò Republic and he becomes a willing accomplice of the Duke and really rather despicable.  His tragedy is that he is stuck as a court jester who knows too much and tries to stay alive and protect his daughter from an evil world, an unenviable situation.  This Rigoletto was just ridiculous, and a caricature of a bad man.  Inverardi was brave to try to give him back some of his character development.

However, this was not the worst of the staging.  During the first scene, in order to demonstrate the depravity of the Duke, Niermeyer populated the stage with prepubescent boys and girls in various stages of undress.  This was not artistic license.  This was child pornography.  Normally I favor deporting German opera directors; this time I’d suggest arresting her.