Orchestra Giovanile di Greve in Chianti Toscana, Schloß Leopoldskron (Salzburg)

Elgar, Mendelssohn, Piazzola


The Youth Orchestra of Greve in Chianti made its second-annual appearance for a lunchtime concert at my office in Schloß Leopoldskron under its director Luca Rinaldi.  This is becoming a wonderful little tradition.

This year they decided to have most of the musicians (not the celli and bases) play standing up.  This succeeded in opening up the sound, especially as the Great Hall usually hosts smaller chamber groups but can be overwhelmed by orchestras of this size.  In this case, standing up it worked – and also made the performance even more lively.

The program included the Seranade for Strings by Edward Elgar, dipped back chronologically to  Felix Mendelssohn‘s Symphony for Strings #10, and then concluded with Astor Piazzolla‘s Libertango.  That last piece may have had a swing to it, but musically paled compared to the other two works.  Indeed, these kids captured the sophistication but light-hearted Elgar and Mendelssohn nicely.

I had not thought to review last year’s performance on this blog (we do host a lot of informal chamber concerts, and it does not make sense to comment on them all), but this year’s rose to a standard worthy of a flag.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Chausson, Wagner

Guest conductor Marc Minkowski came to the front of the stage to personally introduce this morning’s Wagner matinée a la française with the Mozarteum Orchestra.  An introduction was in order, as he had changed the concert program recently, and after this concert (part of a subscription series) was originally announced.

Minkowski explained that Wagner did not write symphonies (except for one particularly poor one that is never performed for good reason).  So, he asked, who wrote Wagner’s unwritten symphonies?  French composers, inspired by pilgrimages to Bayreuth.  Or so Minkowski said.  I won’t deny that some French composers did indeed frequent Bayreuth, but they had to keep their heads down when they got home because of the negative perception of Wagner’s music in France.

One composer Minkowski did not mention was Massenet, who did write (generally exceedingly dull) operas.  Other Fench opera composers who admired Wagner, such as Meyerbeer (who was actually not at all French, but an Italian-trained German Jew whose music owed nothing to France although it was adopted there), found that they could not convince French tastes to accept Wagner no matter how much they championed him.

But Minkowski persisted, and the first half of the concert contained one of the French symphonies Wagner never wrote: the Symphony #1 by Ernest Chausson.  Chausson, a student of Massenet, is largely forgotten today (he died in 1899, aged only 44, in a bicycle accident).  Minkowski is championing his work, but from this morning’s concert it seems the music was rightly forgotten, other than as a curiosity.  The symphony was pleasant but meaningless.  It was Wagnerian in scale, but not in drama.  Wagner’s failure to write symphonic music is directly tied to his own sense of drama – and for him, this required the Gesamtkunstwerk, and not just an orchestral component.  Chausson’s symphony did have some beautiful passages, but they never went anywhere, nor did they seem to connect to each other effectively.  In the end, it was this lack of any sense of meaning that made the work, even if Wagner-inspired, typically French.

After the intermission came Wagner himself.  I don’t actually hear enough Wagner.  His operas are hard to stage (and cast), which limits what opera houses can handle them.  And too many places that do stage Wagner bring in self-important and utterly terrible German opera directors that make attending Wagner operas unwatchable and unbearable.  So I get Wagner, if at all, mostly in concert performances (or recordings).  One of the reasons I liked the original program this morning was that it had extended excerpts rather than short extracts, but the changed program went back to the short extracts.

Two of these had connections to Paris.  First came Senta’s ballad from the Flying Dutchman in its original version (written by Wagner in a proposal to the Paris Opera, which the Paris Opera rejected – Wagner later wrote the full opera for Dresden). Swedish soprano Ingela Brimberg, only recently branching into Wagner, captured the inner passion of Senta in a thrilling and emotional reading.

There followed the Overture to Tannhäuser in the version Wagner reworked and extended for the Paris Opera to include a bacchanal. This is the only ballet music Wagner wrote, and it fails as a concert work (it is even debatable if it succeeds dramatically on stage – in general, the French practice of inserting ballets into operas was a really bad idea – but the right choreographer would make a difference).  So the thrilling stage-setting that comes from the original opening of the overture devolves quickly in the unstaged ballet music.

Brimberg returned for the final extract, which Minkowski explained had no French connection but which they just wanted to perform: Brünnhilde’s immolation from Götterdämmerung. Although Brimberg’s voice may not be big enough (yet) to perform the entire role, she does have the right sense of drama to carry off this scene.  Despite her defiance, Brünnhilde’s final scene is actually sad, and Brimberg understood the tragedy.

The Mozarteum Orchestra, today with heavily-augmented winds, sounded fine. My understanding is that one of Minkowski’s assistants actually rehearsed the orchestra for this concert and Minkowski just showed up at the end. If so, the orchestra was clearly well-rehearsed. Minkowski, not known for his Wagner (although it is apparently his current interest), carefully crafted the drama, with good pacing and modulation, but having the orchestra in good form certainly helped.

Salzburger Landestheater

Rossini, Il Turco in Italia

A new production of Rossini‘s Il Turco in Italia came to the Salzburg Landestheater last week, with the second performance tonight.  The cast and orchestra looked quite pleased with themselves, as they should have been, so the musical side of the performance would have worked out any kinks from opening night.

This was a musically-idiomatic Rossini, led by Adrian Kelly from the harpsichord, with the right amount of humor.  The mostly-young cast matched this element from the stage, headed by Pietro Di Bianco as Selim, the title role, and Hannah Bradbury as Fiorilla and well-supported in particular by Sergio Foresti as Geronio and Simon Schnorr as Prosdocimo.  I’d like to comment on their sense of nuance, as they build their careers, but I kept getting too distracted by the goings-on on stage to fully appreciate their apparent talent; I hope to hear them again in a more sensible setting.

Indeed, if I had kept my eyes closed, I would have enjoyed the performance more.  The opera is a Rossinian farce with a convoluted plot, which leaves the opera director much room to have fun.  But there is a plot, and to stage something else in no way helps the audience understand the bizarre twists in the story.  Tonight’s setting, moving the scene to the Costa Concordia cruise ship that sank off the Italian coast in 2012, with Geronio as the ship’s captain, was nonsense.  To even try to make this work proved distracting from the opera the cast was gallantly trying to perform.  The German (of course) director, Marco Dott, at least did not seem to try to offend the audience, so I suppose he could have done far worse.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Mendelssohn, Schubert

A somewhat relaxed concert in Salzburg’s Great Festival House this evening, with the Mozarteum Orchestra under guest conductor Trevor Pinnock, with music by Mendelssohn and Schubert, provided big works in contained boxes.

Isabelle Faust came on as soloist for the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, looking effortless as she produced a very pretty and idiomatic, if not especially large, sound.  Pinnock kept the balance in the orchestra, at least for most of the concerto, never overwhelming her, and letting her read the nuances.  As nice as it came across, they could have used a larger sound to fill this hall (big, but not cavernous, and it still has good acoustics).  Faust gave an encore which sounded like a Bach partita – I did not recognize it, nor would I care to hear it again, as it was not one of his better or more interesting works and made a strange encore as it showcased nothing (neither versatility nor mood).  She does have a wonderful tone and understanding for music, but, hearing her for the first time, I sensed something was missing.

After the intermission came Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony, his Ninth (according to the standard numbering), or his Eighth (according to reality, and as numbered in tonight’s program book), or his Seventh (according to the original publication).  This is a big symphony, but Pinnock did not necessarily treat it as such.  Rather than having the horns stride out with the bold opening theme, he restrained them (and they nearly swallowed their mouthpieces – this opening theme was never meant to be restrained).  Pinnock’s concept seemed to be to perform much of this symphony piano to build tension and then unleash the tension in large brass forte sections.  Sometimes this worked, sometimes it did not, leaving the strings especially sounding thin, with bits that dragged waiting for him to get to the point.  He also employed a bit too much staccato, not always letting the orchestra draw out the gorgeous long Schubertian lines.

On the whole, I understood Pinnock’s concept, but I wavered from section to section as to whether I liked it.  I think I may have preferred a larger and fuller use of the orchestral palette, employing Pinnock’s contrasting dynamics more selectively for emphasis and drama where most effective rather than constantly.

Pinnock used a similar idea for an extended encore: Entreacte #3 from Schubert’s music for Rosamunde, with the same result.  Wonderful playing by the woodwinds especially tonight.


Borodin, Prince Igor

Back at the Volksoper this evening for something a little heavier: Aleksandr Borodin‘s Prince Igor.  This wonderful epic opera, not performed often enough outside Russia, may unfortunately have been a little too heavy for the Volksoper to lift.

There is no definitive version of this opera, as Borodin left the whole thing – sketches of music and plot – in a mess when he died, that his friends Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Aleksandr Glazunov had to sort out (Glazunov likely ghost-wrote much of the music himself, but insisted he did it from memory after having heard Borodin play as-yet-unwritten music on the piano).  As a result, theaters have great flexibility at determining which music they wish to perform, and in what order (not only order of the scenes, but even where within scenes music will fall).  

The Volksoper took advantage of this to construct an intelligent performing version with a reasonably logical plot sequence.  The problem came with every other aspect of the production, resulting in a performance that dragged and somehow missed the drama.  The staging was confused, to say the least, and it is unclear to me if the director (Thomas Schulte-Michels, a German – need I have guessed?) even had any particular concept in mind (seriously, what is up with that country that it produces so many horrible opera directors).  It seems that he used oversized sunflowers to represent the Polovtsians – their camp was a big field of the flowers, and after they destroyed the city of Putivl, it had also succombed to the infestation of oversized sunflowers.  Constumes were from no particular period or style.  Putivl itself seemed to have been constructed of mirrors that reflected the audience.  Minimal props also had no particular logic.  In all, the staging added nothing to understanding the opera, and indeed detracted because it also did not allow the singers to interact sensibly.

The singers themselves also lacked a sense of drama that did not just derive from the unclear staging.  They sang their lines with various degrees of proficiency, but no more.  In order of strength, starting with the strongest, Andreas Mitschky as Khan Kontchak, Alik Abdukayumov as Prince Igor, Morten Frank Larsen as Prince Galitzky, Mehrzad Montazeri as Igor’s son Vladimir, and Jeffrey Treganza as the baptized Polvtsian Owlur all accomplished their lines to the right music.  The two main female characters, Melba Ramos as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna and Annely Peebo as Kontschak’s daughter Kontchakovna, did not – often off-pitch and sometimes shreiking.  Yasushi Hirano as the drunkard Skula may have stolen the show in his scenes, but got dragged down by his partner David Sitka as fellow-drunk Yeroshka, who simply could neither hit the notes nor sing in time with the music.

In the pit, conductor Lorenz Aichner did not make an impression.  The performance lacked drive.  The German singing-translation sounded clunky – however, I do not dismiss hearing this opera in German, as one of my recordings of this opera is in German (using a similar scene order and maybe even the same translation) from a 1969 Staatsoper production, with an outstanding cast that does not sound clunky in German.  So it works if it has the right design.  Tonight’s performance seemed ill-conceived and the cast over-matched.