Philadelphia Orchestra, Konzerthaus Berlin

Muhly, Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninov

Tonight the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin appeared at the Berlin Konzerthaus with a rather more-challenging program. The Berlin Konzerthaus is famous for its acoustics, but from tonight’s observation this praise is not deserved. Maybe it got this reputation only in comparison with the other concert hall in town, the Philharmonie, which I discovered last night is truly awful. It is also clear that the house management knows something is wrong with the acoustics, as plexiglass plates have been installed over the orchestra to deflect the sound (either that, or to keep unruly Berliners in the side balconies from spitting on the orchestra). Nine additional large plexiglass dishes hung near the ceiling to try to get the sound to do something (or were they UFOs hovering up there to hear the Philadelphians?). In short, the acoustics are not bad but nothing special and the house clearly knows this.

However, because the acoustics were more straightforward, I did get a better chance to hear Mixed Messages by Nico Muhly that I heard for the first time two nights ago. While the Orchestra did need that piece in Dresden to understand the acoustical bounces of that hall (which, as I noted, had better acoustics but the bounces off the walls took getting used to), tonight they could jump right in and it came across more clearly and somewhat less crazy than it sounded on Sunday. Nevertheless, although the piece changed its musical style, it did not go anywhere, and the common thread throughout could not sustain it for the full length. If Muhly edits it down to something shorter, it may stand.

Works by Schostakowitsch and Rachmaninov demostrated what composers with something to say can achieve despite wild rhythms and modern sounds – Muhly is not in their league.

From Schostakowitsch, we got the First Violin Concerto, with the solos played defiantly by Lisa Batiashvili. Batiashvili exhibited a warm, deep tone, while remaining crisp. The Schostakowitsch concerto allows for the violin to play along with the orchestra but periodically change its tune and go its own individual way, still hewing closely to the orchestra, as if to show that an individual can preserve an identity in the face of oppression and demands for conformity. But then, even those bets were off, as the violin solo turned into a full-out cadenzaof enormous complexity. Batiashvili made this into a real tour-de-force. Did Schostakowitsch (who wrote the piece for David Oistrakh) really expect human violinists could play this? Batiashvili did. And when the cadenza finished, the orchestra joined back in at a level unheard before. The violin individualist had freed the masses.

After a standing ovation, Nézet-Séguin sat down at the piano on the side of the stage, and Batiashvili joined him for a Tschaikowsky romance, that lowered the tension going into the break. But after the intermission, the gloves came off again for a crazy Rachmaninov Third Symphony. Although it got its premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra have decided to champion it, it really is not one of the composer’s better works. But if anyone can do it, then this orchestra will at least make the case. The concert ended with another encore designed to bring down the tension: Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, highlighting the violins and woodwinds. Wonderful playing.

Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonie

Petrassi, Strauss, Tschaikowsky

I went to hear the Berlin Philharmonic perform in its natural environment. What an awful concert hall they play in. I did not realize. Besides the fact that it is just plain ugly, and way too big, the most important issues concern acoustics. When a small number of instruments play, or more of them play quietly, then the sound travels cleanly. But if multiple instruments are playing, especially with any volume at all, the sound turns to sludge.

So with the caveat that I could not hear them cleanly due to their lousy home hall, they sounded a bit better than they did in Vienna earlier this month, at least playing with some sense of emotion.  Gianandrea Noseda, an Italian currently based in Turin, made his first appearance with the Berliners. Although not in his bio, he would seem to be a protege of Valery Gergiev, given his dates both as an assistant at the Mariinsky and as principal guest in Rotterdam. The audience gave him a warm welcome.

The concert opened with a strange 1932 piece by Goffredo Petrassi, his Partita for Orchestra. This work tried to say everything and in the end said nothing. It had too much going on, with no clear style, and no clear direction (although three movements tried to make their own ways). The music was not unpleasant, it just had no point. Not even at least a nice melody, on one hand, or a new concept of composition, on the other.

It did allow the orchestra to warm up ahead of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, with soloist Camilla Nylund (subbing for an indisposed Angela Denoke). Nylund clearly had not had the benefit of the Petrassi warm up, so it took her until the middle of the second song before she came into full voice. Until then, she warbled. The solos in the orchestra were outstanding, but the dry acoustics in the hall made the bigger sections lose their shine. Nylund projected out cleanly in the final two songs, but probably would also benefit from a better venue.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned with Tschaikowsky’s Fourth Symphony. Noseda knew how to draw out the emotion, the anguish and the angst. The woodwinds were especially exceptional, particularly in their third-movement dialogue with pizzicato strings. The larger parts got muddled, hitting the ear as a blur. Fine playing, but a poor hall (then again, when they performed in the Musikverein, they did not sound so good – also a muddle in a hall with excellent acoustics). I am being hard on them, because they claim to be so good. But could it really be that the orchestra, though indeed good, may be the most over-rated orchestra on the planet?

Philadelphia Orchestra, Semperoper (Dresden)

Muhly, Grieg, Chopin, Tschaikowsky

The last time I visited Dresden, the city consisted of big empty areas with periodic piles of rubble. Presumably, the communists had wanted to remind everyone of what British and American bombers had done to the city in the Second World War, quite ignoring the ravages that Russia had inflicted. The city center remained virutally empty (I couldn’t even find a hotel, so only stayed for a day from an early morning arrival by train to a night train back out). The wrecked core was surrounded by hideous apartment blocks. In the midst, the Semperoper building had been rebuilt, but (as I was told tonight) only the exterior.

Today, I arrived in Dresden to find it unrecognizable. First of all, there is a city here. Some neighborhoods have modern buildings, while the core of the center has been rebuilt to look like it did before the War. Tourists throng the streets. City residents bask on the grassy lawns and beaches which appeared on the river banks. And the Semperoper, too, has reopened.

The Philadelphia Orchestra tested the hall tonight. The acoustics were clear, if possibly too radiant. The sound not only approached me from the stage, but from behind as well. The Orchestra said they were not always sure how the music was bouncing off the walls and coming back to them, and which to play with. So they guessed.

Their guesses were good beyond belief. Is this one of the top twenty orchestras in the world? Top ten? Top five? They certainly made a case for themselves tonight.

The concert opened with Mixed Messages by Nico Muhly, which had its world premiere by this orchestra earlier in the month. He says he does not write in any particular style, just music he would enjoy listening too. He has peripatetic tastes, although the fact that he composes music to match his tastes and not to shock makes him a big improvement on many contemporary composers. I’m not sure what original he had to say – Charles Ives said many of these things much better 100 years ago. But I’ll have another chance to hear this work on Tuesday and maybe I’ll find something. In the meantime, it gave the orchestra a good warm-up and a chance to test the acoustics in the hall before the other works.

There followed a passionate reading of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with soloist Jan Lisiecki. The Canadian Lisiecki, all of 20 years old, had an obvious rapport with his countryman, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and together they crafted magic with the orchestra. Lisiecki gave us a encore, of a Chopin Nocturn – the posthumous one famously played by Wladislaw Szpilman live on Polish radio at the time the Germans invaded, a performance he was therefore unable to complete for six years and unfathomable hardship. Lisiecki’s reading was pensive, moving, and restrained.

If the Grieg concerto was passionate, Piotr Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #5 was orgasmic. Nézet-Séguin nourished the dialogue among the instruments (and it certainly helps when every instrument in the dialogue is world-class and able to ascribe new meanings to well-heard phrases), and with a lilt here, an abrupt tempo change there, and still another tense moment relieved by wildness, he took Tschaikowsky’s pent-up romanticism and set it loose in the hall. If this interpretation had become any more intense, Tschaikowsky’s music would have morphed into Scriabin. I think I now understand how Scriabin, who did not come to the Moscow Conservatory until long after Tschaikowsky had stopped teaching there, could emerge from the same music school. The Tschaikowsky Fifth is a warhorse, all too often performed, but tonight I heard something I have never heard before.

The Dresden audience gave the orchestra a standing ovation. They pounded the floor with their feet. Curtain call after curtain call ensued, until Nézet-Séguin silenced the crowd and said thank you. But an encore was not forthcoming. The orchestra looked exhausted – and an 8:00 p.m. start time had not helped (concert finished close to 10:30, even without the encore) for a long European tour. The other oddity, of course, with such a start time is that restaurants in Dresden were mostly closed or had stopped serving by the time the concert ended. Very odd to schedule a late start time in a city that does not stay open especially late.

Czech National Opera, Estates Theater

Mozart, Don Giovanni

I could not pass up an opportunity to see Mozart’Don Giovanni in Prague’s Estates Theater, where the opera had its premiere in 1787. It’s a nice little theater, and the Czech National Opera has used it in recent decades as an alternative venue, as this afternoon.

The very small orchestra pit meant that the poor orchestra got packed in (the trombones having to sit in the corridor where the conductor entered). But under the baton of Jan Chalupecký, they made a full sound, always sufficiently grand but never overwhelming the singers. In fact, Chalupecký ensured this was the singers’ production.

Aleš Jenis played a svelte and seductive Don Giovanni to head the cast. Although she missed a few notes, Jana Šrejma Kačírková, as Donna Anna, also provided a spirited performance, growing in her passionate hatred of Giovanni throughout.  Jaroslav Březina, as Don Ottavio, had a nice tenor that I would have liked to hear more of, however I do have questions about his staying power if we had heard more of him (which may be why they seem to have deleted one of Don Ottavio’s signature arie, “Dalla sua pace…”).  Jan Martiník also deserved a mention as Don Giovanni’s comic sidekick Leporello.

Where this production failed completely, however, was in its staging. It was directed by two young men, the Slovak Martin Kukučka and the Czech Lukáš Trpišovský, who apparently always work in tandem, also apparently with not a single good idea between the two of them. The production started off minimalist, the characters wearing timeless outfits, and using roses painted black (sometimes the red was still visible underneath) as a stylistic link in different capacities from scene to scene (not sure what the meaning was, exactly, but they were not hurting anything). All of this would have been fine, but then they decided to start ignoring the plot, with a lot going on that did not match the words coming out of the libretto. That’s not fine. They made cuts (including, as noted, “Dalla sua pace”), which I thought may have been down to wanting to stage the production in the version in which it had its premiere (“Dalla sua pace” was added later in Vienna), but they were not consistent with this, so the cuts seem to have been made for other reasons, sometimes losing the dramatic flow (for example, Leporello getting discovered disguised as the Don and having to explain his own role to his accusers – cut).

Perhaps the strangest plot twist was the addition of theater-style seats on the stage (starting with two but more being added throughout the performance). This permitted characters to sit on stage and watch scenes they were not in. The Commendatore (particularly after his death) did this a lot, and while wandering around stage he also bumped into Don Giovanni several times throughout, causing the Don more frights. But most characters did this. I had assumed that the idea derived from the original Prague performance which had been done (according to 18th-century conventions) as a morality play – not just the (fictional) story of Don Juan Tenorio, but a lesson for the viewers of the consequences of this behavior. This began to make sense during the banquet scene (which, in this strange staging, was completely missing a banquet, incidentally), when most of the characters and chorus took their places on theater seats to watch how it would all turn out. They added a child, dressed like Don Giovanni including the distinctive hair style, to this scene (he got a bowl of snacks – so at least someone was eating). The Commendatore shook hands not with Giovanni but with the child, who then went upstairs to his bedroom (which appeared in the back of the stage). After condemning Giovanni to hell, the Commendatore joined the child in the bedroom (creepy).

Then they cut out the final scene completely. I do not like the final scene, and indeed find the opera comes to a better dramatic conclusion with the final scene omitted, but in this case they had removed all of the drama from the banquet scene and were treating the opera as a morality play, so the final scene – where six characters sing of the moral of the story – would have been completely appropriate with this staging. The one thing I thought I understood about this staging I clearly did not. Bad staging. Bad.

Czech National Opera

Janáček, From the House of the Dead

The Czech National Opera performed Janáček’From the House of the Dead at the Czech National Theater this evening. Or at least the singers and orchestra did. I do not know what opera the stage director decided to stage at the same time.  Daniel Špinar’s biography does not indicate any connection to Germany – he is Czech and studied in Prague, but nevertheless managed to put German-style nonsense on stage, devoid of connection to the plot.

Janáček’s opera is difficult even under the best of circumstances. It is meant to be a dark psychodrama, without a lot of first-hand action (although there can be some visual reenacting of the plot descriptions sung by successive characters). Loosely based on Dostoyevsky, it takes place in a bleak prison in Omsk, Siberia. If left alone, the little action that does take place can simply allow thoughtful performers to use their lines to create images; however, there also remains room for intelligent direction.

On the musical side, the performers acquitted themselves as best they could under the circumstances. The orchestra sometimes sounded a bit thin, but conductor Robert Jindra kept the pace and shape. A cast composed of repertory singers had no standouts, and since there really is no lead character in this opera this was fine. They certainly did not disappoint. However, the staging proved too distracting to allow the cast to give full portrayals.

The action moved to what looked like a broken-down music school in Soviet times (at least the prison guards were wearing Soviet uniforms, otherwise who knows?). During the overture, the prisoners came on stage in front of the scrim wearing white tie. As they started to mimic the conductor in front of the orchestra, an officer forced them to take prisoners numbers and have mug shots, before sending them each off dejected. When the curtain opened for the first two acts, they were in prison uniforms in the practice room, a smashed piano on the floor and music stands everwhere. In Act One, they all carried brooms; in Act Two, they had trash bags. The walls were grungy, the floor tiles were ripped up, and there was a lot of homosexual sex going on. A lot (yes, I get it, it is a prison, but is this really necessary?). When the plot called for the prisoners to tend to an eagle who had broken a wing and been adopted by them, they started fawning over the ruined piano. Periodically they gathered the music stands together and performed on their brooms or other objects.

When the curtain came up in Act Three, someone had repaired the piano, the floor, and the walls, and all the prisoners wore white tie again. A mostly-naked female dancer came on stage (representing a character in the story being told by one prisoner) and contorted herself uncomfortably all over the floor and literally climbed the walls. Why?, we may never know. When the story line called for the eagle, nursed back to health, being set free by the prisoners, a miniature upside-down piano flew off the top of the stage. (If the director wanted to represent the eagle, why not have an eagle instead of a upside-down flying miniature piano? The eagle is right there in the plot!) In all, the director thought he was clever by staging some other opera tonight to represent the one on the program, but it would be much more clever to actually stage the opera on the program.

I bought a ticket because I had wanted to see this rarely-performed opera. I still haven’t seen it.

Odessa National Opera

Tschaikowsky, Queen of Spades

Tschaikowsky’s psychodrama, the Queen of Spades, by design has more plot than action. That said, a lot happens inside the mind of the main character, Gyerman, and the opera provides a platform, when allowed, to generate much excitement. (Note to self: if about to see this opera, never again prepare by listening the night before to my 1960s live recording from Moscow – unfortunately only excerpts – with Zurab Anjaparidze and Galina Vishnyevskaya, the greatest dramatic tenor and dramatic soprano of all time singing Gyerman and Liza – as no one will likely ever come close).

Tonight’s production at the Odessa National Opera fell flat on stage. The director, Aleksandr Titel from Moscow’s relaible Stanislavsky Opera, did not replicate the successful production I saw at his theater five years ago (itself a 1976 production probably not by Titel), instead trying to mix up the reality that the characters, particularly Gyerman, experience. It is never quite clear what on stage is real (or real from the perspective of the plot) or imagined.

I assume the intention was to use this approach to augment the psychosis, but instead the blocking came out static, with even less action or potential to act out. The entire staging took place in what appeared to be the square in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg (including interior scenes which spilled into the square – so were those bedrooms and ballrooms, or were those hallucinations?). Two of Gyerman’s comrades doubled as gargoyles from the cathedral. Costumes were mostly of the right period, but there was a lack of attention to detail (baby carriages in the opening scene were modern, for example; Gyerman carried a flashlight instead of a candle lamp). The ballet scene, a staple in opera of that period, was even more detached from the plot than usual. In what should have been the most dramatic scene, Liza didn’t jump into the canal to commit suicide, but only walked off the back of the stage (and Gyerman had already departed the scene, not noticeably in a mad frenzy) – one longs for the days of Vishnyevskaya throwing herself from the parapet while Anjaparidze, eyes ablaze, cackled at his impending victory at cards.

If the staging added nothing, and indeed subtracted, what was left was to listen to the music. Aleksandru Samoila, the Moldovan guest conductor, gave a masterful reading (except for the ballet sequences, which did not fit – perhaps they were good in their own right, but so disconnected from the rest of his interpretation that they stood out negatively). Tension permeated. If Titel did not allow for proper psychoses on stage, then Samoila provided them from the pit. The drama did not happen on the stage but down below, and the quite fine orchestra twisted and turned with every nuance from the podium. It was worth closing my eyes and imagining what should have happened on stage.

The cast was adequate throughout. It is not clear whom I heard, since the program did not indicate any cast whatsoever (or much of anything – it was essentially just an essay by the theater’s boss about the theater’s various celebrations of the 175th anniversary of Tschaikowsky’s birth and connections with Odessa). The website showed which singers have which roles in their repertory this season, but not who was singing tonight (and it indicated about three singers per character, so I couldn’t begin to guess). The Gyerman had a tired-sounding voice – big enough to make it through the whole night in full form, but just a bit too dry – but the others, in variously smaller roles, got through sounding fine. If they had sung with the orchestra, then they might have provided more emotive performances; instead they appear to have sung with the stage directions, rather one-dimensionally. I suspect they could have done better.

St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Sibelius, Paganini, Schostakowitsch, Elgar

I returned to the Golden Hall of the Musikverein for another visiting orchestra, this time the best one from Russia: the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under the baton of its music director Yuri Temirkanov. It did not disappoint. In contrast to the Berliners on Sunday, the St. Petersburgers played with a passion, if not always the precision. But they still managed even better clarity than the Berliners in the wonderful Golden Hall (could this be perhaps that their own hall in St. Petersburg is better than the Phiharmonie in Berlin, which is supposedly cavernous? I guess I will find out when I hear the Berliners in their home later this month).

German violinist Julia Fischer joined the orchestra for the Sibelius violin concerto. The simmering strings at the work’s introduction cooled off the hall on an unseasonably humid night, and then Fischer waded into the icy waters. She entered with caution at first, but her sound grew with the development of the piece, and a full robust tone rose from the deepest notes in her register. The performance had just the right amount of melancholy, drawing its power from its lyrics. The orchestral accompaniment grumbled menacingly during the final movement.

To add some excitement, Fischer returned with an encore: Paganini’s Capriccio #24, which though seldom performed itself is well-known as the subject for Rachmaninov’s famous rhapsody. On the violin it requires more dexterity than on Rachmaninov’s keyboard, and jumps around in its styles including an impossible (but possible for Fischer) pizzicato.

After the intermission, Temirkanov led the orchestra in a soul-crushing interpretation of Schostakowitsch’s Fifth Symphony, probably close to how the composer heard the work inside his own head. Schostakowitsch is on record as saying that Yevgeny Mravinsky, who premiered this work with this same orchestra, was not smart enough to understand it, and Mravinsky’s interpretation came across as triumphant when Schostakowitsch meant it to be tragic. Of course, had he performed it in 1937 the way Temirkanov did tonight, then possibly the composer, conductor, and entire orchestra would have been carted off for execution – and this is exactly why it was so tragic. However, the work was designed to be mock-triumphant, which is what produces its inherent tensions. Tonight, Temirkanov took the whole work at slower-than-normal tempi, with no mock triumph in sight – but this also deprived the work of the little message of hope Schostakowitsch embedded in it – that the soul could somehow survive the oppressive regime. The accentuated timpani blows carried out the execution of that hope tonight, leaving little doubt that there is no room for resistance.

Roaring applause called for an encore. And they delivered a lush version of “Nimrod” from Elgar’Enigma Variations. However it now seems like I hear an orchestra use this excerpt as an encore almost every month. Wonderful piece, but why has it suddenly become the encore everyone plays?

This orchestra and conductor have, as far as I am aware, stayed out of Russian and geo-politics, in contrast the the opera orchestra and conductor (and one-time Temirkanov protege) on the other side of their city. Schostakowitsch may be inherently political, a voice for justice from within an evil empire, but Temirkanov and his orchestra should be commended for making music as it was meant to be.

Berlin Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Janáček, Bruckner

Somehow I had never seen Simon Rattle nor heard the Berlin Philharmonic live until they visited the Musikverein tonight. They were very good, but not as good as anticipated, which made for a disappointing first listen.

The concert opened with Leoš Janáček’Sinfonietta – or a muddle pretending to be that work. The trumpet choir on the Musikverein organ balcony behind the orchestra looked lost and unprepared. Perhaps they have practiced in a semi-circle and not a line where they cannot see each other (although they had an unobstructed view of Rattle). I can be sympathetic if this is the case, as it happened to me in a brass quartet during my senior year at Exeter, but I would hope there is a big difference in preparation time and quality between an amateur high school brass quartet and the Berlin Philharmonic. The rest of the orchestra tried to recover somewhat, but this is a difficult syncopated piece, and they never quite sounded like they got it together. As the Sinfonietta raced to its finale, the musicians held on for dear life, hoping to get all of the notes out at some point, no matter if at the right point.

After the intermission, the orchestra regrouped for Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. This one they got together for, and produced very fine sounds. But Bruckner is meant to be emotion-shattering, allowing a glimpse of heaven – whereas tonight’s performance, though technically flawless, provided no such thing. Where the first movement should wash the audience in great waves of sound, this performance just had sound, fluctuating tensely. The funeral movement – composed when Bruckner learned of the death of Richard Wagner, whose musical advances freed him to conceive of another world of possibilities – should reduce the audience to the tears Bruckner had in his eyes when he wrote it, but tonight’s version showed no emotion. This was not the blockish interpretation of Bruckner standard from such Prussian oompahs as Christian Thielemann, rather indeed a fuller and better attempt, but nevertheless missing a soul.

The audience gave a loud applause, but I heard a lot of German accents in the crowd. The Austrians headed for the doors.