Concertgebouw Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Mozart, Mahler

Precious few orchestras manage to staff themselves fully with players in every section who simultaneously exhibit individual virtuosity and blend into an orchestral whole. It is this which makes the Philadelphia Orchestra in its current incarnation rank high above all others in North America. But the Philadelphia has had its ups and downs over the years (including downs in very recent memory). The elite among the elite manage to maintain this level of excellence year-in-year-out, indeed decade-in-decade-out. Possibly only two orchestras on the planet meet this exalted standard: the Wiener Philharmoniker, which makes its home in the Musikverein, and the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam, which visited the Musikverein this morning.

They arrived with a guest conductor: Semyon Bychkov, a wise choice (they recently appointed the uninspiring Daniele Gatti as their music director – I suppose Gatti must rehearse well, but from my experience orchestras simply ignore him during concerts where he stays out of the way while the orchestra in front of him makes the music; but Gatti’s appointment marks a big drop off from their outgoing chief Mariss Jansons). Where the orchestra provided Bychkov with a palette of the most vibrant colors, it still required a painter to know how to blend those colors to create a masterwork. Bychkov knew what to do, making broad brush strokes where necessary but also showing attention to fine details. Controlled on one hand, Bychkov was passionate on the other. He is a conductor who continues to grow in stature every time I hear his concerts.

This morning’s concert led off with Mozart’s Piano Concerto #22, with Emanuel Ax at the keyboard. The interpretation put paid to the idiotic original instruments movement: here we had a full-sized orchestra with proper instruments, and Ax sitting at a piano (which had actually also not been invented yet when Mozart wrote this – the German title should really be translated as “Keyboard Concerto #22”). One wonders if this sound is not what Mozart really had inside his head when he wrote it, but the poorly-tuned instruments and insufficient resources of his era meant that he wrote not for his own inadequate time but for the future when it would finally become possible to perform the music properly. Just because music may have been performed badly at the time composers wrote is no justification (other than curiosity) to perform the music badly today. Ax, Bychkov, and the orchestra made a convincing case for Mozart as he might have been, in full sound but never overbearing. The details were all there, right down to Wolfgang Amadé’s sarcastic smile.

This was the second time I have heard Ax perform this work this year – he did it at the Salzburg Festival in August with the Vienna Philharmonic under Jansons, also for a morning concert.  It’s a perfect piece to start off a morning – not too heavy.  This morning’s performance was the more substatial of the two readings, without becoming too heavy, and set out the stronger case for this concerto.

After the intermission came Mahler’s Symphony #5 in all of its glory. This is actually the second time I have heard Bychkov conduct this symphony in 2016 – the last was in May with the orchestra of the Vienna conservatory. While the previous performance was good, this time with the Concertgebouw Orchestra Bychkov could take the piece to another level. He slowed down the first movement somewhat, even bringing the quieter sections down a notch, to produce an extra layer of foreboding as Mahler grappled with fate. This touch also allowed him to emphasize many of the musicians in the orchestra and their intricate lines – but, as I said above, their individual virtuosity was apparent for all to hear but never strayed from creating a whole sound. On the podium, Bychkov could build on this, moving up to the anticipated triumph of the truncated chorale at the end of the second movement (which later resolved in complete triumph with the full chorale at the end of the fifth movement). The dance melodies danced – in the forefront where appropriate and behind the scenes where suggestive, the scherzo hopped, and the juxtaposition of the adagio with the final movement (performed correctly without break) accentuated the victory.

Bright sunlight shone through the upper windows of the Musikverein (rarely happens as it requires a morning concert, a sunny day, and the right angle) and illuminated the Golden Hall in all of its glory, a perfect complement to the musicianship on the stage. Someone up there was smiling too.

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Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus

Mozart, Copland, Schubert

I went to see and hear for myself, as 27-year-old rapidly rising star Lahav Shani conducted the Vienna Symphony Orchestra at the Konzerthaus this evening.  About a year ago, he sprung in to conduct the Philharmonic when the scheduled conductor canceled on short notice due to illness, and the reviews were incredible.  This led to more bookings with the Philharmonic and other orchestras (including the Symphoniker tonight), and he will soon take over as music director in Rotterdam, often a stepping-stone to a star career.

This evening’s performance did not disappoint.  The opening work – the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart – enabled Shani to reveal often-hidden lines.  The strings drove the action forward, but the winds created tension, to set up the impending comedy.  Shani highlighted these juxtapositions, and the excellent Symphoniker responded just so.

Similarly, for the second half of the concert, Schubert‘s Great C Major Symphony capped off the concert.  Although I am not sure I heard any new nuances I did not alread know, this performance – clearly thought-through by Shani and expertly performed by the Symphoniker at the pinacle of the idiom – did provide a vivid reminder of just how majestic and exciting this symphony can be, and in many ways how visionary as well.  Shani will certainly grow further as his career takes off.

In between these two standard pieces came Aaron Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto, with soloist Sabine Meyer.  The first movement arrived full of melancholy, which led into a cadenza-only movement that began to awaken the instrument before jumping into a somewhat more flamboyant finale.  Copland wrote the work on commission for jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman.  There is jazz-like syncopation, requiring versatility, but this is not jazz and falls cleanly within a classical paradigm, if tending to something new.  Meyer, dextrous of tongue, danced to the music as she played.  Her unidentified encore was in the same style as the cadenza, but considerably faster.

Bühne Baden, Stadttheater Baden

Lehár, Graf von Luxemburg

I had never actually ever been inside the Stadttheater in Baden (visible across the square from my father’s childhood bedroom).  So I used that as an excuse to go out to Baden this afternoon and take in the evening performance of the Graf von Luxemburg by Ferenc Lehár by the team from Bühne Baden (when I have seen them before, it has only been in the Sommerarena in the Kurpark).  It’s a provincial theater of no great importance (Max Reinhardt, born in Baden, had his first theatrical experiences here… albeit in an earlier theater building), but runs a full season to entertain those coming to the town for their cure.

The opera itself is simply a venue for some wonderful music Lehár threw together in about three weeks.  The plot is a rather simple farce, with even less development than usual, which mostly serves as a venue for the tunes.  In that respect, tonight’s performance did not disappoint.  The perfectly acceptable cast (several of whom I have heard at the Volksoper) performed idiomatically, led by Mehrzad Montazeri in the title role.  Oliver Ostermann kept beat, more or less, in the pit – but at least it was light and fun if not always lilting at the right time.

The staging added nothing.  The chorus and extras were distracting – the plot is already silly, but making it sillier does not help it along.  The setting was updated from its 1909 premiere (actually the same year this theater’s current building opened) to the 1920s, which did not help nor necessarily hurt.  However, it did make me appreciate more the only other version of this opera I have seen live, a production at the Volksoper in 2005, where a clever director kept all of the music and much of the dialogue but elaborated on the whole plot in order to make a substantial, sensible, and uproariously funny new version that Lehár himself would have approved of (as it was, Lehár never really thought this operetta worked despite his music – and unfortunately the Baden performance tonight simply verified Lehár’s own assessment even as everyone left the theater humming the tunes).

Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Méjico, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Moncayo, Oscher, Piazzolla, Chávez, Revueltas

When I got the ticket for tonight’s concert in Salzburg’s Great Festival House with the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, I obviously had not expected this might be the last time they can travel before getting walled in by President Trump.  But there we go.

The program tonight provided a selection of Latin American classical music – mostly little-known curiosities.  At the centerpiece stood Pacho Flores, the talented young Venzuelan trumpeter, who joined the orchestra for Mestizo, a trumpet concerto written six years ago by the Uruguayan Efrain Oscher stringing together typical Latin American rhythms, and a somewhat more moody setting for trumpet and orchestra of “Winter” from Four Seasons in Buenos Aires and Oblivion by the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla (plus an unidentified solo encore).  Flores had two trumpets and a flugelhorn on stage with him – and though he only played one instrument at a time, he sometimes sounded like he was covering for multiple instruments, producing a round bold tone that was also warm and sweet.

Mexican music made up the rest of the concert.  The evening had opened with the short Huapango dance piece by José Pablo Moncayo.  After Flores and the intermission came the Sinfonía India by this orchestra’s founder, Carlos Chávez – really a Coplandesque symphony in miniature that moved from theme to theme nicely for ten minutes but easily could (and should) have been longer.

This Chávez piece, and the following one – and the longest work of the evening – a suite of music by Silvestre Revueltas from the 1930s film La Noche de los Mayas, showcased indigenous Mexican instruments predating the Spanish conquest.  Apparently the pre-Spanish society was heavily into percussion, and the augmented percussion session had a range of fanciful additions, including hollowed gourds floating in water (the final movement of the Revueltas also included conch shell horns).  This Revueltas music lost something in the plot when detatched from its film, but still showed the vitality and raw pulse of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  Another unidentified (but presumably Mexican from a violinist’s shout of ¡Viva Méjico!) work jumped out as an encore.

The orchestra, under its principal conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto performed passionately and with a happy tone.  They clearly relish being ambassadors for their country.  The audience cheered back at them enthusiastically.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Stravinsky, Schwertsik, Lindberg, Gruber

This month’s Sunday morning subscription concert of the Mozarteum Orchestra featured a decidedly contemporary selection.  The composer HK Gruber conducted and introduced each work – a guided tour of the scores, as it were.

The concert opened with something relatively traditional: Four Norwegian Impressions by Igor Stravinsky, written for a film to portray the German occupation of Norway during the Second World War. As Gruber pointed out, the music was not especially martial nor really Norwegian – mostly it was Stravinsky.  These short little-heard pieces were fine music if nothing special – from Stravinsky’s “weak period,” but Gruber said he wished he could write as well as Stravinsky in his “weak period.”

The remaining works on the program were by still-living composers.  Some tone poems followed by Kurt Schwertsik, from his multi-year cycle Earthly Sounds – from which Gruber selected Five Nature Pieces (Wind, Thunder, Rain, Water, Birds) composed in 1984 and With the Giant Boots composed in 1991.  Schwertsik was apparently driven out of his German compositional school for daring to write tonal music.  These were not old-fashioned, just tonal, and relied to a great extent on special effects in the heavily enlarged percussion section.  The Five Nature Pieces, all short, ended up being more gimmick than substance – pleasant enough music, but without the special effects there was not much there.  The piece With the Giant Boots was much longer, which actually meant that Schwertsik had sufficient time to do development in the orchestra, making this a much more satisfying work.  Schwertsik himself came on stage for a long bow and warm applause.

After the intermission came the Clarinet Concerto by Magnus Lindberg, composed in 2002.  Of all the works on this morning’s program, this probably succeeded the most.  It was also tonal, but mixed a range of styles and approaches (and according to Gruber, Lindberg is fond of drastic tempo changes and explored some with us before the piece began).  This may have been the music of George Gershwin if he had lived until 2000 – and had been born in post-Sibelian Finland.  The young British clarinetist Mark Simpson demonstrated all the different skillsets required to pull off the solo parts.

For the last work of the morning, Gruber introduced his own 2002 composition, Dancing in the Dark.  Gruber sees himself as the heir of the Viennese musical tradition, so his music harks back to previous eras while taking new directions.  But this mix of styles and reliance on special effects gets a bit tiresome.  So while nothing was quite wrong with this work, there was no commonality and it never seemed to go anywhere even as it did not quite sit still either.  Maybe if it had come earlier in the concert, or as part of a concert not entirely dedicated to this type of music, it may have fared better just by being original.  Coming at the end today, it simply got lost.

Entertaining curiosities with enlightening presentation – for that we have Gruber to thank.  Other than the Lindberg, I am not sure I need to hear these works again.