Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Sommer, Mahler, Rachmaninov, Schubert, Bartók

Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra came to Vienna’s Musikverein for a two-night set, for which I was fortunate to be home for the first night, which contained an ecclectic mix.  

If I had to describe this orchestra with one adjective, it would be “complete.”  No individual instrument stood out, but together they produced the most perfectly balanced sound.  There were no gaps, no flaws, no twists they could not make together.  Jansons has been at its helm since 2003, so this represents a tribute to him as well.

The concert led off with a concert overture to Antigone by a forgotten 20th-Century Czech composer Vladimír Sommer, someone I had never heard of before.  He had a limited output, and this work showed a routine post-romantic style.  It provided enough excitement to launch a drama, but was only a concert overture, not a setting of the entire Sophocles work for theater, and therefore seemed to be missing something (although also not clear from this snippet if Sommer could have pulled off writing an entire drama).

For more drama, alto Gerhild Romberger joined the orchestra for Mahler‘s Kindertotenlieder.  Jansons and the orchestra drove this work, too, but Romberger did provide a warm, full-bodied, expressive, solo voice, at least in the middle register.  Her moving reading melted the texts, demonstrating sadness and evoking sympathy.  She did however lack the strength in the brief moments Mahler took her to the upper register, and she simply did not have the dramatic voice required for the final song (“In diesem Wetter”), which stays mostly at the bottom of the range.  Jansons restrained the orchestra in the final song so as not to overwhelm her, but it was an unfortunate conclusion to an otherwise heartful cycle.

After the intermission, the orchestra’s “complete” sound could come into its own with Rachmaninov‘s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s final orchestral work.  It’s a strange combination – apparently Rachmaninov conceived it as something which could be converted into a ballet, but a project the composer subsequently abandoned during composition, so while going through an assortment of dance forms, it is not really a set of dances but a more of a three-movement symphony with a lot of moving parts.  The orchestra navigated around and through these motions masterfully, making this difficult work fully accessible to the listener.  The audience erupted in pleasure (prompting not just one but two encores: the more sedate Moment Musical by Schubert and the crazier excerpt from The Miraculous Mandarin by Bartók).

Vienna Chamber Opera

Ullmann, Der Kaiser von Atlantis

On the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I attended a performance of Viktor Ullmann‘s Kaiser von Atlantis at the Vienna Chamber Opera.

Ullmann wrote the opera in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, a Nazi propaganda site where the Germans gathered Jewish cultural elites (mostly from the former Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia) to show the Red Cross and visiting dignitaries how well they were treating Jews despite wartime conditions.  Having served that purpose, the Germans deported the prisoners to Auschwitz in late 1944, where they murdered most of them – including Ullmann – immediately upon arrival.

Despite the difficult circumstances, the inmates in Theresienstadt enjoyed a brief cultural respite on their way to mass death.  Their minds focussed on new compositions, many of which survived liquidation in the camp library.  They wrote for the musical forces available, using odd instrumentations and limited-sized productions.  But this inpiration produced compelling theater.

The Vienna Chamber Opera succeeded in giving this peculiar piece a dignified staging.  This was actually my first time in the theater – I’ve known about this small house embedded on an alleyway in the First District for many years but for some reason never attended anything.  When booking the ticket on-line, I realized that it is run as a satellite by the Theater an der Wien in the Sixth District, my city’s third – and most “creative” – opera house (“creative” not necessarily being a good thing with opera, as it is often infected by obnoxious self-important German directors who show disdain for operas they stage, one reason I have still never attended a performance in the historic Theater an der Wien).  Thankfully, the people responsible for this production allowed the little opera  to speak for itself.

Infused with dark humor, the opera tells the story of the elusive Emperor Overall of Atlantis, who has declared total war until everyone is dead.  This megalomania so offends, that Death himself goes on strike.  With Death refusing to work, no one can die, in war, by execution, by disease… which creates its own illogic.  The Emperor attempts to use this as propaganda, that he is responsible for eternal life, while continuing to wage war. This farce becomes untenable, until he has to beg Death to return to work.  Death agrees, so long as the Emperor is the first victim.  The population greets Death as redemption.

The opera’s text and music were infused with German and central European literary and musical tradition, with word and note play and explicit and implicit references to poets and composers.  The audience (had it ever been performed in Theresienstadt – it was not, and ultimately was not performed for the first time until 1975) would have understood the references, and would have felt that the plot personally affected them, as they lived out their final days awaiting their own murders in a concentration camp set up as a stage for Nazi propaganda.

Obviously a plot like this (and a cast of only six singers) does not call for an elaborate staging (and they would have had limited sets in Theresienstadt anyway).  The staging in the Vienna Chamber Opera thus remained simple, but with heavy use of distorted images through film or props (including a large – dead – tree removed at the beginning, with the resulting hole in the ground filled in by the characters during the opera, suddenly lowering down from heaven at the end and being replanted – still dead – in the gound).  Obviously this was more elaborate than anything they could have produced in Theresienstadt, but it never overdid it and it let the music and text speak for themselves.  While the images provoked by the staging are hard to convey out of context, in context they worked as a unified whole.

The cast was uniformly excellent.  The Chamber Opera naturally has a small theater, so the singers do not need to have overwhelming voices, but they nevertheless carried out their roles with force and conviction.  Special mention must go to the baritone who portrayed the central character, the Emperor Overall, Matthias Helm, who was not supposed to be here.  The person advertised for the title role came down with a massive flu and was home in bed.  This opera, only having a limited run of seven evenings over four weeks, had no understudy and almost no one is familiar with the parts because it is rarely performed.  So they almost canceled… but this being Austria they searched out recent performances and found someone nearby who had taken the role to acclaim.  Helm spent the entire day rehearsing this production, and gave a convincing reading.  The Vienna Chamber Orchestra sounded clear and handled the sometimes difficult music with ease under conductor Julien Vanhoutte.

Salzburger Landestheater

Aucoin, Orphic Moment
Gluck, Orpheus and Eurydice

I was pleasantly offered a ticket to the opera at the Landestheater this evening for an experimental production, and decided to give it a try.

The 26-year-old American composer Matthew Aucoin has reimagined Gluck‘s Orfeo ed Euridice, with a performance of Aucoin’s Orphic Moment wrapped around Gluck’s music (styled as Orfeo Squared) at the Salzburg Landestheater.  I definitely did not understand his concept.

I’m really not sure where to begin, so I guess I should hit plot, music, production, and performance.

From a plot perspective, we started with Orpheus’ existential decision to look back at Eurydice just before reaching safety, which sends her back to the Underworld.  In this version, his look is almost intentional – the tragic loss of Eurydice the first time had made him a more inspired artist.  We then left Aucoin’s music and went back to Gluck’s.  Where Gluck changed the ending of the myth to have Love bring Eurydice back to life a second time despite Orpheus’ look, Aucoin gave an additional plot twist to have Orpheus reject this ending and walk away from her.  Why?  Psychobabble?  This reworking just ended – the audience was not even aware that it ended – we only realized when the cast started bowing.

On to the music, Aucoin’s new music did not speak to me either.  I’m not sure how to classify it.  Modern, of course, but that’s not really a classification.  Maybe I’ll just stick with “not ugly” (not pretty, either).  But what was its relationship to Gluck’s music?  It did not add anything, and it did not provide an enlightening juxtaposition.  Did it have a point?

As for the production… we had a minimalist set with a lot of moving parts and projections (of Eurydice’s face), with a dancer in  a box representing Eurydice appearing as an alternative to the singer portraying Eurydice.  I suppose the idea of the whole staging was to capture Orpheus’ mental state.  This was not German Regietheater, and clearly they were trying to portray the actual plot (some of which is indeed psychodramatic inside Orpheus’ head).  Did it work?  If in the end I was not clear on what was going on, then I’ll have to say no.

The Mozarteum Orchestra in the pit sounded fantastic.  Aucoin himself conducted, although it was entirely unclear if he had a role in the orchestra’s sound.  Gluck’s opera is rather static (as were the bits written by Aucoin), so the performers would need to drive this work forward, and Aucoin did not.  The singers – Rowan Hellier (Orpheus), Laura Nicorescu (Eurydice), and Tamara Ivaniš (Love) – also did not.  Their voices were fine (Hellier’s voice a little weaker than the others – although she has much more to sing, she was weak from the start, perhaps holding back to make it through a performance her role must carry), but I did not sense sufficient emotion or nuance.

As a final verdict, I think Aucoin may just have tried to be too clever.  A performance of Gluck’s opera, complete and without all of the other distractions, may have succeeded with these same forces.  In fact, the cast was entirely acceptable and the staging (of the Gluck portions) did try to elucidate the plot, so without Aucoin’s distractions the Gluck on its own probably would have made me leave the evening very satisfied.  Unfortunately, Aucoin’s confused frame did not allow proper focus on the Gluck opera as such, making the experience unfulfilling.

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Dvořák, Rachmaninov, Gluck, Bach

Back again to hear the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Andrés Orozco-Estrada in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  It would appear the orchestra made some adjustments to the hall since Wednesday, as the tone was clearer and some of the peculiarities (like the vibrating forte brass) did not repeat tonight.  So I can possibly put down their Wednesday sounds to insufficient rehearsal time in this hall (maybe – I have no idea; I only know they sounded better tonight).  However, they continue to play with little emotion, more background music for a film soundtrack but without the film.

Tonight’s concert opened with Dvořák‘s tone poem The Midday Witch, a humorous little piece of Czech folklore, which put me at ease that we would not have as murky a concert as on Wednesday.  The music then switched back to Rachmaninov – his fourth piano concerto and the second symphony.

Denis Kozhukhin returned to the keyboard for the concerto.  This is perhaps not as strong a work as the third concerto these forces performed on Wednesday, seemingly lacking direction – a little jazzy, but with no discernable overall concept.  Kozhukhin sounded better – somewhat less pedal – and hit all the notes, but I’m not sure Rachmaninov gave him enough to work with.  His two encores (by Gluck and Bach) repeated from Wednesday and demonstrated more of a match for his style, relaxed and sentimental.

Rachmaninov’s lush second symphony is another moody piece.  When performed right it has a forward drive and excitement to it.  Its legatos would seem suited to this orchestra, but their lack of emotion canceled that out tonight.  It is a long work – nearly an hour – keeping in mood, so it is essential that the conductor and orchestra remain engaged.  The playing was pretty, and the woodwinds especially made an impression, but this performance dragged.  The audience spent the concert audibly fidgeting in the seats.

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Rachmaninov, Gluck, Bach

The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra has moved into Salzburg’s Great Festival House for a three-day series of concerts. The first one was part of my Wednesday monthly subscription series, and I also opted for Friday in addition.

The orchestra seems to have become a bit artsy since I last heard it live, now styling itself as the hr Symphony Orchestra (with a lower case hr, short for Hessian Radio – of course Frankfurt is in the German state of Hesse and the state radio is the Hessian Radio, so this name happens to be accurate but peculiar, especially with the lowercase hr). It has a respectable history as the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, so this must be some zany German concept of rebranding a product that does not require a rebranding. One would prefer this orchestra to focus on maintaining its quality rather than coming up with strange marketing gimmicks.

So as for quality: if I did not know the acoustics in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, and/or I were not sitting in my usual seat, I would have assumed that something was wrong with the acoustics in this hall (however I do know the hall and was sitting in my usual spot). The orchestra has acquired a distinctly muddy tone, a bit of a blur as though it were performing in the background of a movie score. As the brass performed forte, there was a distinct vibration, like the sort of feedback that emerges from an old radio speaker when the volume is turned up too high. Of course there was no amplification: this vibration came naturally from the brass, which is just odd. Their Colombian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada underwhelmed (his previous orchestra, the Tonkünstler of Lower Austria, also saw its level drop noticeably during his tenure).

The young Russian Denis Kozhukhin joined the orchestra at the keyboard for Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, in what was not a thrilling reading. In fact, maybe the Orchestra was trying to match his style, which sounded like he employed too much pedal and let the notes run together (he hit them all, just not making much distinction). The style may have worked better for two solo encores, by Gluck (an arrangement from Orfeo ed Euridice) and Bach (a prelude), both mellow and requiring less passion than Rachmaninov.

I snuck out at intermission, only because my late-scheduled extra surgery in Vienna first thing in the morning means I needed to make the last train home, and staying to the end of the concert would have cut it too close. I suspect this orchestra’s rendition of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony after the intermission may have lulled me to sleep, too. I will however return to hear more Rachmaninov plus Dvořák on Friday.


Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Ligeti, Liszt, Chopin, Bartók

A mostly-Hungarian morning with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Great Festival House, with works by LigetiLiszt, and Bartók (and a piece by Chopin that did not belong in this set).

Ligeti’s Atmosphères took a full orchestra and a full polytonality, but broke down the music into smaller components, each one somehow full but without logical progression.  I suppose any given note or measure was sonorous, but when taken all together we got: I’m not really sure.  When members of the orchestra are holding their ears, it is a bad sign.

The Ligeti did serve as a useful preparation for jumping back a century to Liszt’s second piano concerto.  This work did not keep to the conventions of its day, with six segments (not really movements) played without break.  These also did not generally follow melodic lines, but (especially in this reading by the Scottish conductor Douglas Boyd) also could be abrupt like Ligeti.  Yet Liszt was a master of the idiom, and instead of a dialogue between piano and orchestra, as would have been typical, he made the piano part of the orchestral fabric.  Soloist Tsimon Barto and the orchestra gave a robust performance, a strong centerpiece for the Sunday morning concert.

The concert concluded with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, written from his US exile, as he lay homesick, impoverished, and dying.  Boyd gave the work a somewhat melancholic interpretation as a result.  But Bartók could indeed show himself as Liszt’s heir in the mastery of Hungarian orchestral color, and the musicians of the Mozarteum Orchestra shone, coming into their own when featured.

Between the Liszt and the Bartók works, Chopin’s Andante Spianato e Grande Polonaise Brillante was far out of place, and not juse because Chopin was not Hungarian.  This was a black and white work in a concert full of color.  Juxtaposed on this program with music by his contemporary Liszt, it provided further evidence that Chopin was more curiosity than visionary in the world of mid-19th Century pianist-composers.  The piano parts said little enough, but one wonders why there was an orchestra there at all.  It did not have a dialogue with the piano (as would have been normal), nor did it follow Liszt’s example of embedding the piano within an orchestral palette.  It seemed more of an afterthought, kind of like how this piece might have ended up on the program in the first place.  Barto, a charismatic performer, could not rescue it.