Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Mahler

The final subscription concert of the 2018-19 season by the Mozarteum Orchestra under chief conductor Riccardo Minasi had a single work this morning: the Symphony #5 by Gustav Mahler.  While they easily could have had something else on the program before an intermission, in a sense it was good for them to keep this focus.  Minasi’s own background as a violinist who had specialized in early music and the baroque, and his recent conducting career in which he has preferred short(er) pieces must have made Mahler quite foreign to him.  But in becoming chief conductor here, he has clearly intended to expand his repertory.

There is something to say about hearing a work like Mahler’s in a fresh interpretation, by someone not so familiar with the Fach but willing to learn.  What we got was indeed a refreshing performance, with Minasi demonstratively coaxing competing lines from the orchestra.  The symphony itself is a competition between dance and despair, and Minasi tweaked and tucked to pull out both the dissonance and the fact that with Mahler the two aspects really belong together.  This began from the opening funeral march (parsed through a limping dance) and went right the way through to the final triumphant (if only hopefully-so) chorale.

The emphasis on various stray lines highlighted the complexities of the music – rather than blending it all together – and the orchestra in general responded with exquisite playing (a few stray notes and blotches notwithstanding – my second concert in a row with this orchestra where I am noticing more of these issues), particularly exceptional and evocative in the woodwinds and principal trumpet and horn.

What did not work so well was bringing the principal horn down to the front of the stage (even forward of where a soloist would stand during a concerto) during the third movement.  Although that movement features the solo horn quite a bit (albeit this is Mahler, so really not much more than usual), it did not have enough solo lines to justify the strange positioning, and the poor hornist fidgeting during the long periods when he did not have lines, wondering what on earth he was supposed to do standing there at the lip of the stage in front of Minasi.  But I’ll give Minasi points for his creativity and desire to tackle something new (for him) in a thoughtful manner.  The orchestra was also quite enthusiastic, as was the audience which gave an extended applause.

Advertisements

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Sibelius, Dvořák, Beethoven, Schubert

I had bad luck with the Camerata Salzburg this year: they had a great subscription series, which I had tickets to, but then I always seemed to be away whenever the concerts took place (I did get to one of their non-subscription concerts).  So, this evening, the final concert in the series was my first – Andrew Manze conducted.  At first glance, the musical selections looked a little odd set out in reverse chronological order.  On hearing them interpreted by Manze and the Camerata, however, it became clear that these works were more original the earlier they were written.

Leading off was a suite from Sibelius‘ Rakastava scored by the composer for strings, timpani, and triangle.  I’m used to this chamber orchestra having a larger sound than its numbers would imply.  But this performance came across surprisingly thin, missing Sibelius’ sonorities.  A relatively early work by the composer, it is seldom performed (I’d honestly never even heard of it).  Is it a poor work?  The music seemed indicative of Sibelius, but maybe the scoring just failed?

It could hardly be an orchestral failure, as the orchestra was nothing short of exhilarating for the rest of the concert.  Joshua Bell joined the Camerata as soloist in Dvořák‘s violin concerto, jumping in completely with an aggressively physical performance that nevertheless had real subtlety and warmth.  Manze and the Camerata supported him fully in this approach.  Here was also the richness I’d usually expect from Sibelius, transferred back three decades.  This is a standard work in the repertory, deservedly so, but when made this lively it remains fresh.

The last programmed piece was Beethoven‘s Symphony #2, from eight decades earlier, and a rarely performed early work by that composer.  But Beethoven was a genius, and with this symphony he brought music kicking and screaming into the 19th century.  In structure it is reasonably conventional – in composition it is anything but, and Manze emphasized all the deviations from convention.  The Camerata played with energy and vigor, and was in on all of the musical jokes, eclipsing even Bell’s performance of the Dvořák, with even more transcendent edginess and angularity.  

Both halves of the concert contained encores to allow the heartbeats to return to normal with more sedate, romantic, sonorous performances of a violin trio by Dvořák (Bell and the Camerata’s two first chair violins) before intermission and an excerpt from Schubert‘s Rosamund at the end.  Made me very sorry to have missed so many other concerts by the Camerata this year.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Beethoven, Bach, Strauss

Salzburg’s Great Festival House has reopened after several months of supposed renovation, and the Mozarteum Orchestra greeted it with a joyous rendition of Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto #1 with Herbert Schuch at the keyboard and Riccardo Minasi on the podium.  Minasi kept the performance well-shaped and lively, while Schuch deftly handled the longer third cadenzi that Beethoven wrote as an alternative set for himself eight years after he gave the premiere of this work.  An early work by Beethoven, it showed a fullness of character (despite a smaller orchestra) while maintaining a youthful boisterousness.

Schuch added a more sedate chorale by J.S. Bach as an encore, which made a nice balance for the mood going into the intermission – he did not need a show-stopper, but just enough to allow everyone to relax from the exciting first work back in the hall.

After the intermission, StraussDon Quijote did not quite have the same impulse.  The playing was generally fine (although a surprising number of stray notes emerged), but I never got the sense that Minasi had become sufficiently comfortable with this work, as it lacked the humor and spring it needs.  The title character appears as the solo cellist, and there are two ways of taking it: either as a first-chair cellist blending into the whole (as the principal violist, tenor horn, and bass clarinet combine to portray Sancho Panza within the orchestra), or as a virtuoso main focal point of the story.  Marcus Pouget did not really do either: as a featured soloist he sat up front next to Minasi and played well within the orchestra – so perhaps trying to stand out but not really doing so.  His playing, like the orchestra’s, was fine, but it just lacked any particular drive.  (On the other hand, the soloist threesome portraying Sancho really did stand out, particularly the principal violist – with tonight’s performance, the work could have as easily been called Sancho Panza).

As for the renovations: I must admit I did not notice anything different than before.  The hall could use a good sprucing up, as it is looking a bit tired, and I had assumed that is exactly what they were doing.  But all the rips and scratches were in the same places.  The stage looked the same, too.  The woman in the seat next to me thought that maybe they had installed brighter lights in the foyer – possibly, but that would then appear to have been the extent of it.

Salzburger Landestheater

Rossini, La Gazzetta

I have no idea what I just saw, which in this case is not a bad thing.  Even by Rossini‘s standards, his opera La Gazzetta is crazy, which is why it completely disappeared from the repertory for about 150 years (and then only in a partially cobbled-together performance since not all of the manuscript was found).  Rossini had recycled music from elsewhere into this opera and used music written for this elsewhere (notably re-purposing the overture for Cenerentola).  A proper, more-or-less complete, performing edition was not reconstructed until 2001.

The Salzburg Landestheater pulled it off the shelf this season, and in this performance I just gave up trying to understand the plot, and just enjoyed the complete farce and wonderful music.  The director, Alexandra Liedtke, is German, but I nevertheless gave her the benefit of the doubt when deciding to buy a ticket, based on the staging she did of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann in this theater last season – that staging was actually nothing special, but it was not offensive German Regietheater and allowed for quite an intelligently reconstructed version of Offenbach’s own opera with problematic multiple versions.

Liedtke set the staging in around 1960, when the opera – or at least parts of it – was rediscovered.  That may indeed have been the only logic for the time period.  I don’t know.  Rather than trying to clarify what was happening on stage, she augmented the farce.  In the sense that the plot is already quite convoluted (I’m having a hard time even finding a good plot summary online that makes any sense at all, and the program book did not even make an attempt – it provided a simplified outline, but even that was not so simple and far more is going on that the outline simply can’t capture), this actually worked.  I do not know how much of the plot twist is actually in the original and how much she added (especially the background slapstick that kept involving main characters as well so mixed into the story line), but I suppose it did not really matter.

In the end, it was worth enjoying precisely because it was a complete farce.  Oh… and the music.  The music was great.  The cast (themselves a mishmash – all quite acceptable with no standouts and no problems, several of them having performed here before but mostly not this theater’s repertory casting) clearly had fun on stage.  The young Welshman Iwan Davies, the Landestheater’s corepetitor, got to take the podium (apparently substituting for the regular conductor, although no explanation was provided) – and he took a little bit of time to warm into the evening, starting off a bit too square for Rossini, but once warmed up the Mozarteum Orchestra took over with lighthearted playing and appropriate tone.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

L. Mozart, W. A. Mozart

The Camerata Salzburg celebrated Leopold Mozart‘s 300th birthday this evening with an amusing concert in the Mozarteum with Andreas Spering conducting.  Eclipsed in music history by his son, Wolfgang Amadé, in his day Leopold was a highly-celebrated pedagogue, conductor, and violinist – but of course his son (and daughter Nannerl) learned well

The concert opened with Symphony in B-flat, a fairly conventional work of its period.  A superlative chamber orchestra, the Camerata has a fullness of tone that magnified the work (the fact that the orchestra avoided the faddish trend of using out-of-tune period instruments certainly also helped).  Where Leopold Mozart excelled, however, was in the introduction of solo instruments to the chamber ensemble, so in the case of the second piece on the program – a concerto for two horns in E-flat – the two hornists playfully danced around the continuo (I wasn’t quite sure they were fully in tune with each other, though).

All of this playfulness, however, was nothing compared to what followed: a selection of short ditties by a ten-year-old Wolfgang Amadé, mostly snarky variations on themes by other composers that the younger Mozart made fun of in something known as his Gallimathias Musicum (Quodlibet) – a whole lot of whimsy, which the orchestra hammed up (including by walking off the stage and wandering around the hall).  Some of it was warped, some syncopated, some sung, some made to sound like bagpipes, and God Save the King performed with different instruments going along at different speeds.  Leopold must have been in equal measures proud of and horrified by his progeny.

After the intermission, we returned to Leopold, now his Serenade in D-flat.  The initial movements for the continuo alone once again reverted to standard (albeit good standard), but then followed several movements in which Leopold seems to have incorporated his concerti for natural trumpet and for tenor trombone.  Once again, the solo instrument added immensely to the work, darting in and out of the continuo and playing with conventions (neither of these instruments had reached their modern forms yet, so they were not yet standard orchestral fare).  These two solo instruments were not modern (unclear from my seat was whether they were original from the period or models) and – especially the natural trumpet – are harder to play accurately.  But aside from a few off-notes, they blended well.  (The concert materials, including on line, did not identify the soloists by name – I do not know if they might have been listed in the program, as they ran completely out of programs and I and those seated around me did not manage to find any although some people in the audience clearly had them).

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Beethoven

I realized I had not heard the Vienna Philharmonic live in over six months, so resolved the problem by snagging a returned ticket for this evening’s concert in the Musikverein with Andris Nelsons performing Beethoven‘s symphonies #4 and #5.

This is actually the second time I have heard Beethoven’s Fourth this month.  The Philharmonic is a different orchestra from the Mozarteum Orchestra, of course, so right there I was always going to get a different sound – bigger, fuller, more nuance.  And by pairing this symphony with his Fifth, the mood was also going to be quite different.  Normally, if paired, the Fifth goes with the Sixth (they were written at the same time and had their premiere at the same concert), but the putting the slightly earlier Fourth in juxtaposition with the Fifth emphasized the progression.

Nelsons took both with a big, rich, and mysterious sound.  He did not emphasize the lighter moments of the Fourth (they were there in full color, though, just worked into the orchestral whole), producing a somewhat edgier mood.  This continued through the first three movements of the Fifth, until the Fifth’s final movement erupted in joy.

As I have mentioned previously, the Fourth often gets lost in between the Third and the Fifth, or gets overlooked with a slender interpretation.  The Mozarteum Orchestra two weeks ago under Joshua Weilerstein, and the Philharmonic this evening under Nelsons, flushed it out.  But having it introduce the Fifth, as Nelsons did, not only highlighted its value in and of itself, but also elevated it to the same level as its more-performed successor.

Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, Musikverein

Mozart, Bruckner

I woke up early this Sunday morning for a concert of the Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, the amateur house orchestra of the Musikverein.  I used to attend their concerts periodically, but do not seem to have been in Vienna recently when they were playing, until this morning.  This was probably the best I have heard them sound.  Robert Zelzer, their music director, conducted, 25 years to the day after he made his debut with this orchestra.  

It is fair to say I am sick of Mozart, who is over-performed (and even more so in Salzburg, where I have been based for almost five years).  That said, Mozart is pleasant to wake up to on a Sunday morning, and I also suppose I don’t mind hearing a work I did not previously know.  This morning’s offering was his Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, and Orchestra.  Mozart wrote this in Paris for four touring musicians he knew from Mannheim (the clarinet part was originally for flute), but they ended up not playing it and the piece languished in an archive until being discovered 200 years later.  Typically Mozartian, the music danced playfully for thirty minutes.  The team of soloists (Adelheid Bosch, oboe; Christoph Zimper, clarinet; Peter Dorfmayr, horn; and Max Feyertag, bassoon) handled the tricky phrases effortlessly, while Zelzer and the orchestra provided a strong continuo.  A good start to the day.

Zelzer’s reading of Bruckner‘s Ninth Symphony was in general a pretty standard interpretation, which is fine (especially with an amateur orchestra which has not – by my listening in previous years – managed to have the fullness of sound for Bruckner.  But today they did.  This was a sorrowful reading of Bruckner’s final, unfinished, work… but just as we felt the sadness, along came a bit of the Mozartian cheer in the final movement, where the orchestra almost began to dance again.  Well done.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Haydn, Gruber, Webern, Beethoven

A fun, if a bit unorthodox, evening with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall.  The young American conductor Joshua Weilerstein clearly found his element, bookending Haydn and Beethoven around Gruber and Webern.

The overture to Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation opened the mood.  Describing “chaos,” this music was considered extreme in its day – Haydn left phrases unfinished and with chords open, reminding us that music need not go by formula.

That certainly applied on the next piece: Frankenstein!! A Pandemonium for Chansonnier and Orchestra after Nursery Rhymes by H.C. Artmann, music by H. K. Gruber.  Gruber’s output is decidedly mixed – it has its moments but usually requires severe editing that he does not do in order to identify a point.  Frankenstein!! may be the first of his works that I actually enjoyed start to finish.  To be honest, I still am not sure what to make of it, but at least this one was fun.  Gruber himself performed as the chansonnier, using his voice to obtain full special effects.  The Orchestra achieved the other effects not by abusing their instruments, as many of Gruber’s contemporaries think is necessary for “new music” but by pulling out children’s toys and playing those.  The songs were short and varied enough not to ever drag, with suspense added to hear what they’d do next.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned for Anton von Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra.  Weilerstein gave a short intro to remind everyone that the five-movement work lasted only four minutes in its entirety.  Therefore, he decided to perform it twice: once to allow the audience to listen to its overall color, and the second time to focus on the individual sounds.  That actually worked.  Weilerstein explained that Webern had distilled all of 20th century music into its bare minimum components, but it was all there.  Indeed it was.  Webern said so much with so little.

That said, I still found it rewarding to return to something more normal to finish the concert: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony #4.  This symphony does not get performed often, but has long been admired by those in the know.  Its mysterious slow opening leads into a boisterous first movement, and it dances away from there.  Many people see it as lighter and more relaxed compared to its neighbors, but Weilerstein – building on Haydn, Gruber, and Webern – emphasized just how much fun this symphony can be.  This was not a tranquil reading, but one full of action and humor.

Volksoper

Wagner, Der Fliegende Holländer

I decided to take a risk and snag a ticket for opening night of a new production of Wagner‘s Flying Dutchman in the Volksoper.  The Volksoper, which excels in lighter Viennese fare and non-standard period pieces, does not always quite rise to the larger operatic repertory; furthermore, tonight’s opera director was German (which flashes warning signs) and conductor French (if not a warning, then at least a flag for Wagner).  But I looked at the Volksoper’s preview materials on line and decided it was worth the chance – and it certainly was.

The director, Aron Stiehl, did not provide a standard staging, but he did read the book and make an intelligent interpretation (something his countrymen should also really try doing sometime).  The Volksoper stage is not large, so any staging would require some amount of suggestion rather than realism.  The first thing he dispensed with, therefore, were the ships – making them more an allusion.  With those out of the way, the remainder of the props were not quite minimal but suggestive of something – and hence his interpretation: the Flying Dutchman as a psychological drama.  Costumes were nondescript and of no particular period, so we did not focus on those, and unlike his German colleagues he did not see the need to shock us.  Indeed, by minimizing the distractions, without being minimalist, we focused more on the words and the acting, so that was a win.

I actually had not thought too much before about comedic aspects of the words, but here, for example, Stiehl made fun of the Steersman (as did the rest of the cast) as a somewhat inept buffoon (not just someone who falls asleep at the watch), although one wonders how he got the job if he were really that incompetent.  The strangest deviation was to avoid having spinning wheels completely, instead making women in the second act part of a choral group practicing under the direction of Mary.  The portrait of the Dutchman on the wall was again alluded to but never shown (it would have been hanging on the non-existent wall where the orchestra pit was), and instead the room was filled with paintings of the sea.  I’m not sure that worked.

On the other hand, the Dutchman’s anguish as to his fate was palpable.  He has given up: this will be his final stop, and if it doesn’t work, he will accept death and eternal damnation.  In the final act, Stiehl had him walk in on the conversation between Senta and Erik earlier than where it normally happens.  In the plot, he normally walks in just as Erik is urging Senta to be faithful (meaning to Erik) and not having heard the context misinterprets that as Erik urging Senta to be faithful to her pledge to the Dutchman, after which the Dutchman announces himself, sets sail without Senta, and Senta seeing the misunderstanding throws herself off a cliff into the sea.  In Stiehl’s reading, by arriving early enough to hear the context, the Dutchman understands that Senta is just a child with an obsession, and the best course of action is not to take advantage of her but instead to leave her in Erik’s protection (as she had been) and to leave to his own fate.  Thus in this staging Senta never actually does throw herself into the sea: the opera ends with her walking towards the illuminated waves, but the ending is intentionally ambiguous.  Maybe she will throw herself in to redeem the Dutchman (as the music tells), but on the other hand it all may have been a dream.

To pull this all off required great performers.  The cast was tremendous, headed by Markus Marquardt as the Dutchman, who went through the whole range of emotions and psychological twists Stiehl had devised, with a powerful and expressive voice.  As Daland, Stefan Czerny had a twinkle in his eye, even as (when getting right down to the text) he is essentially selling his own beloved daughter to the highest bidder, which would make him a bit one-dimensional even if so much not in Czerny’s characterful reading.  Meagan Miller, as Senta, also managed to make her character more than just a one-dimensional lovesick teen, although her voice warbled a bit.  Tomislav Mužek, with a pleasant and large tenor, made a forceful Erik, not the landlubber wimp he often comes across as in this sea-based drama.

The orchestra played with both brilliance and nuance.  Conductor Marc Piollet got it.  The sound from the pit was large, but despite that never overwhelmed the singers.  Indeed, the orchestra was itself practically a character in the plot.  Since so much of the staging was allusion, and many of the alluded-to objects (from the Dutchman’s ship to the portrait on the wall) would have been located where the orchestra pit was (based on where the characters were pointing to refer to things), it meant that the descriptive music had to have an even bigger role.  That it did.  And the orchestra had to keep the drama moving, which meant with forward-driving but also tweaking the emphasis (some of which Wagner wrote intentionally off-beat to make the opera feel more uneasy), and so required a full understanding of its role in this production.  In that it fully succeeded under Piollet’s direction.

Glad I decided to take the risk!

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Tarrodi, Ravel, Satie Sibelius

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Santtu-Matias Rouvali performed Sibelius‘ Second Symphony in the Felsenreitschule this evening much the way they performed Stravinsky’s Petrushka on Wednesday evening by emphasizing the dissonances and angles.  That worked well for Stravinsky, because his piece was a ballet and also because the complicated rhythms and juxtaposed instrumentations were meant to be jumpy and push the drama forward.  But for Sibelius’ symphony, these sounds need to combine to create the huge canvas, not stand out.  The result was jagged.  Individual orchestra members had wonderful lines and great talent, but the whole was less than the sum of the parts.  Rouvali could not pull it all together, and his interpretation did not convince.

It worked a bit better in the encores (more Sibelius): first the Valse Triste (again), with the same extreme tempo changes as Wednesday pulsating forwards; second Finlandia, which is a little less dissonant and has distinct sections, so the approach mostly worked (there was an odd moment where Rouvali clearly froze all movement and brought out a discordant section in the celli – and turned and winked to the audience before proceeding onwards).

The first half of the concert was unfortunately a reprise of Wednesday.  Andrea Tarrodi‘s Liguria did not get more interesting in a second hearing.  It’s not an unpleasant quarter hour, just a rather dull experience listening to crashing waves on the Ligurian coast.  If I were really sitting listening to waves on the Ligurian coast, I’d have a good book with me.

Then I pained again for pianist Alice Sara Ott, newly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, who was supposed to perform a Liszt concerto tonight.  But as with the Grieg concerto originally scheduled on Wednesday, she substituted Ravel‘s.  So it seems her career will slowly come to a close at age 30, with this the only work left in her repertory.  And as with Tarrodi’s tone poem, it also did not get more interesting in a second hearing.  Ravel is most justly famous for his masterful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – no one has managed to do it better.  But that’s one work, and Ravel did not even write it.  The most famous piece he himself wrote was his tedious Bolero that shows up at pops concerts when people are having too much fun and need to be bored out of their wits.  Beyond that, his ballet Daphnis and Chloe has its moments, but he was neither a skilled orchestrator (Mussorgsky’s Pictures aside) nor an especially talented composer capable of developing an idea.  Ott’s minimalist technique (supported well by Rouvali and the orchestra) suited this concerto.  She also gave an unidentified solo encore in the same style.  (UPDATE: The concert promoter has helpfully identified it as Gnossienne 1 by Erik Satie).

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Tarrodi, Ravel, Chopin, Stravinsky, Sibelius

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and its new chief conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali came to the Felsenreitschule this evening with a vividly colorful Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky.  Composed between his Firebird and Rite of Spring, tonight’s performance also demonstrated how this could serve as a bridge work between those greatly-contrasting styles, as Rouvali and the Orchestra emphasized the complexities in the score – particularly in the first and fourth scenes, set in the fairground, when we could hear all the varying activities going on at once (but never jumbled).  Although a concert performance, we could almost see the ballet.

In saying we could almost see the ballet, I am not actually referring to Rouvali’s unusual conducting style – one would think he was once a ballet dancer, with his exaggerated arm motions and (controlled) leaps around the podium on his toes.  He did this throughout the concert, not just for Petrushka, so it is his style.  But the orchestra responded well – and indeed sounded much better than the last time I heard it live (under Rouvali’s overrated predecessor Gustavo Dudamel).  

The concert’s encore, the Valse Triste by Janne Sibelius, also thrived in this telling – although the extreme tempo changes may have been a bit odd (even if they actually worked), starting off and finishing very slowly, but getting very fast, or speeding up and slowing down, to emphasize an odd rhythm.

Unfortunately, as colorful as the concert was after the intermission, so was it dull before the intermission.  The concert had opened with Liguria, a tone poem from 2012 by the Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi.  The program notes said she was inspired by Respighi’s musical canvasses of Italian landscapes, but Respighi could make pine trees exciting – I heard none of this in her work.  The waves were clear and soothing, lapping against the coast, but the music never went anywhere.

Worse was to come: Maurice Ravel‘s Piano Concerto (the one for two hands).  I suppose it was pleasant, maybe, but there just was nothing of substance there.  For such a work, the performance matched exactly.  Soloist Alice Sara Ott appeared intent on getting as little sound out of the piano as possible, tapping her fingers lightly against the keys.  She remained audible because the orchestra never overwhelmed her – Ravel had not really given them anything to do either.  This was distilled essence of music.  Ott’s encore, Frederic Chopin‘s posthumous Nocturne #20, showed more of the same technique from Ott, if slightly more of value from the composer.

Of course, there was a tragic subtext.  Ott was supposed to perform Grieg’s concerto this evening.  But late last year she felt unwell and went to have medical tests done.  Earlier this month she got the results: multiple sclerosis.  At 30 years old, she now must contemplate the end of her career.  I guess the insubstantial Ravel work is far less grueling than Grieg’s showpiece.  This is sad and I feel for her.  She has announced that medical breakthroughs mean she will fight the disease, and I wish her well and many more years in front of a keyboard.

Stadler Quartet, Mozarteum Viennese Hall

Weinberg, Woodborne

A fantastic chamber concert by the Stadler Quartet in the Mozarteum’s Viennese Hall this evening was not quite the one advertised.  The second violinist got very ill earlier this month – he has recovered, but with a cut in rehearsal time they decided to dispense with a Beethoven quartet and replace it with a trio (scored for violin, viola, and cello).  After that, they just reorganized the concert order completely.  And as much as I love Beethoven, the final result was an even bigger treat.

Moishe Weinberg was one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century – yet remains virtually unknown.  I only discovered him online about four years ago.  His works are almost never programmed – and if I see anything by him in a program, and I can physically get there, then I intend to go.  His String Quartet #8 was already scheduled this evening (what attracted me to the concert in the first place), but his Trio for violin, viola, and cello was the late addition.  The trio (composed in 1950) and the quartet (composed in 1959) made up the first half of the concert.  As an added bonus, the rising star conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla apparently has the same opinion of Weinberg as I do and so she came all the way to Salzburg just for this concert – and was invited on stage to introduce the composer (she apparently discovered him for the first time five years ago – about a year before I did) and announced she will be bringing some of his orchestral works to Salzburg soon.  What a treat that will be.

I have described Weinberg’s sad story before – born  and educated in Warsaw, he fled east when Germany invaded Poland in 1939.  The Germans murdered his entire family.  He got stuck in the Soviet Union (which, allied with Nazi Germany, had invaded Poland from the other direction), married the daughter of Solomon Mikhoels and then the Russians murdered her family.  He himself was purged but saved from execution by the intervention of Dmitri Schostakowitsch, who had become his mentor.  Russian anti-Semitism meant his music was rarely performed even in the Soviet Union, but for those who knew, they knew.

His complex music exists on many levels.  The undertone of the two works this evening was immense sadness.  But above it came dancing and humor and survival.  The techniques varied, keeping the works fresh and evolving, with a lot going on.  These are works worth hearing over and over, and each hearing would reveal something new – of course, I’ve only heard them now once.  The Stadler Quartet indicated it wants to perform all of Weinberg’s seventeen quartets this year alone (the 100th anniversary of his birth comes in December).  I have a lot to look forward to (hopefully they won’t shove all the concerts into October when I am in the US).

After the intermission came the world premiere of the String Quartet #2 – The Eternal Reciprocity of Tears – by South African composer Shane Woodborne.  Woodborne made this quartet a wordless setting of four poems by Wilfred Owen, which Owen composed about his experience in the First World War while convalescing from having been wounded on the front.  After regaining health, he went back to the front where he was killed one week before the end of the war, aged only 25.  Woodborne’s quartet captured the tragedy – and although employing techniques like Weinberg’s dances, these were not happy ones but illustrated the activity and trauma of war.  The Stadler Quartet has probably been practicing this piece the longest (since it was completed last year) and put their hearts into it, suitably raising the dead.  In the audience for the concert, Woodborne also had the opportunity to introduce the work before the performance, and received enthusiastic applause together with the Stadler Quartet at the evening’s end.

North German Radio Radio Philharmonic, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Elgar, Korngold, Kreisler, Vaughan Williams, Händel

Tonight’s performance in the Felsenreitschule of the oddly-named North German Radio Radio Philharmonic proved altogether more satisfying than last night.

Violinist Arabella Steinbacher returned this evening with Korngold‘s violin concerto, which besides having far more to say than Brahms’ dull offering last night also highlighted both of her main strengths: warm melodic lines and complex rich fullness of body.  The general progression of the work moves from the first towards the second, a combination of styles many violinists cannot accomplish but Steinbacher can.  Once again, however, her sound, though not small, was also not big, but conductor Andrew Manze ensured the orchestra maintained the proper balance, never overwhelming her and indeed blending and augmenting with her tones.  This is a good partnership.

She played the same encore as last night – the recitativo and scherzo by Kreisler – but it succeeded even more coming as it did after the Korngold.  It also started with the warm lines before becoming more active, echoing and magnifying the Korngold work, to send us even more satisfied into the break.

The concert had opened with Elgar‘s seldom heard concert overture Froissart, which represented an attempt to use late 19th-century musical language to harken back to the 13th.  It had its moments, but could have used some serious editing which might have also cleared up just what it was trying to do (the orchestra also seemed unclear and got lost a couple of times).  Indeed, Elgar himself apparently thought the same when he looked back at it years later, but decided not to fix it.  Now I’ve heard it.

Vaughan Williams‘s Symphony #5 followed the break, and although three times longer than the Elgar work, and also a somewhat emotive nostalgic work, it had a point, contained wonderful touches and nuances that kept the listener interested, and was properly edited.  Completed at the hight of the Second World War, it was sad but hopeful, and Manze and the orchestra gave a skilled presentation with great understanding – essentially the opposite of the Elgar at the start of the concert.

A warmer applause – bigger than last night – was well-earned, and in return they treated us to two excerpts from Händel‘s Music for the Royal Fireworks.  I must also say that Händel’s monumental works come across far better when arranged for modern orchestras and forces Händel would have gladly had if they had existed in his age – using piddly baroque ensembles with out-of-tune instruments doesn’t really cut it any more (at least not for these grand showcases).

North German Radio Radio Philharmonic, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Brahms, Kreisler, Mendelssohn, Händel

The North German Radio Radio Philharmonic has come to the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg this week.  That sentence apparently does not have a typo. The orchestra indeed has “radio” twice in its name.  How bizarre.  Must be a German attempt at humor.

I actually was only planning on going to their concert tomorrow, but ended up with this ticket unexpectedly: I’ll miss the Luxemburg Philharmonic in March while I am in London, and was wondering what to do with that ticket, when the concert promoter got in touch with me the same day entirely by chance and asked if I might happen to be willing to exchange my ticket for that concert for something else (during maintenance work in the Felsenreitschule, the seat for which I had a ticket had been removed and replaced with a wheelchair spot).  So this was the exchange.  Solved their problem and mine.

That said, there was a reason I had not planned on going tonight: the first half of the program contained a single work, the Violin Concerto by Brahms.  Some anonymous wit had apparently once called this less a “concerto for orchestra and violin” and more a “concerto for orchestra versus violin.”  Except that this description still makes it sound too exciting.  It’s dull.  Really dull (except for the oboe, who gets some nice melodies).

Soloist Arabella Steinbacher gave it a brave shot.  She had a lush warm tone, with actually a lot of color and and substance – like a complex Georgian red wine.  It worked best during the quieter passages, since the size of her sound was not especially large.  The orchestra’s chief conductor Andrew Manze had everything under control, however, never allowing the orchestra to overwhelm her and keeping perfect balance.  But did I mention the concerto is dull?

Steinbacher came back out for a solo encore, a little recitativo and scherzo by Fritz Kreisler which allowed her to show off her talent. Another bottle of fine Georgian wine from the cellar.

After the intermission, the Orchestra returned for a spirited Mendelssohn Symphony #4, his colorful “Italian” landscape.  The orchestra also has a nice warm sound.  But it’s not a Georgian red wine.  It might be a German white.  The playing was roundly good, but not especially distinctive and somewhat homogeneous. Two excerpts from Händel’s Water Music followed similarly.  Fun stuff – not dull.  Next time they might think of pairing Mendelssohn’s far better violin concerto with this symphony, rather than Brahms’ – the Mendelssohn would also be appropriate for Steinbacher’s tone.  Poor choice this evening.

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Haus für Mozart (Salzburg)

Haydn, Gruber, Mahler, Grieg

This evening’s concert by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Juanjo Mena in Salzburg’s Haus für Mozart confirmed my impression yesterday, but exceeded the result.  First, the musical selection was better tonight.  Second, I had a seat with passable acoustics.  And third, I finally did not have to stifle a cough, so I was more comfortable (still a little congested, but not much of an issue any more).

Joseph Haydn‘s trumpet concerto opened the concert, again with Håkan Hardenberger as soloist.  This was the first modern trumpet concerto – the keyed trumpet had just been invented, allowing a trumpet to have the full range of notes, and Haydn was the first to write for it, combining his usual good humor with a demonstration of the new instrument’s capabilities.  Hardenberger plays everything idiomatically, and here was no exception, a warm tone throughout.

We then switched gears entirely for a different type of trumpet concerto: H. K. Gruber‘s Three MOB Pieces, originally for jazz septet here rescored for trumpet and orchestra in a version the composer did for Hardenberger himself several years back.  Gruber has never explained what “MOB” stands for (he has implied but not confirmed “mobility”).  They are American big-band-inspired works, and in this performing version a nice showpiece for Hardenberger (actually three different showpieces, performed on three different trumpets).  Not really my thing, and unclear if this is appropriate music for an orchestral concert, but it allowed a display of virtuosity and was not as pointless as the Wallin concerto last night.

After the break came another first symphony – not Brahms, as we had last night, but Gustav Mahler.  Salzburg is the location of the (likely apocryphal) story in which Brahms complained to Mahler while walking along the Salzach River that after Beethoven had said everything there was to be said with music, it was now impossible to write anything new.  Mahler pointed out at the river and said: “Look, Maestro!  Here comes the last wave!”  So Brahms’ first symphony was a mature work which said nothing new (water under the bridge, as it were).  Mahler’s was a youthful work which marked the next wave in the flowing river.

With this much to work with, Mena and the Bergen Philharmonic excelled, producing a full, emotional, and ultimately exuberant performance.  This orchestra once again demonstrated its complete sound, with strong solo lines magnifying the full impact.  Mena again looked like he was molding clay, but this was a much higher-quality clay, and the life he breathed into it showed.  The symphony indeed came alive.  The audience reception agreed, with a much bigger applause than last night (they earned it last night, but the music was less compelling – tonight just went in total to the next level).  Two additional encores from Edvard Grieg‘s incidental music to Peer Gynt rounded off the performance (one was “Morning;” the other I can’t quite remember what the segment is) with more enthusiastic responses and smiles all around.

My seat this evening was up top on the side – I’ve actually sat in almost the equivalent seat on the other side before, and thought it was OK, so now I know where to sit in this hall.  Sitting over the orchestra, the sound came straight up to me.  I have had other seats up top before too, which were OK.  Now I realize where the sound goes in this hall: right to the ceiling – from the other seats I’ve been in lower down, it has sounded like it was trapped in a box.  Given that the other two halls in the Festival complex have good acoustics, one wonders how they got this one so wrong.  And the name is stupid too, as I’ve remarked before.  Why “House for Mozart” (not to be confused with “Mozart’s House” and “Mozart’s Birth House” both open as museums in Salzburg)?  Why not “Mozart Hall” – or, given the number of things named for Mozart already in this town, why not name it after someone else?  Or since there is a “Great Festival House” next door, even the prosaic “Little Festival House” would even work.  At any rate, looking through the windows of the Great Festival House, the renovations are well underway and the sooner we get concerts back there the better.  Maybe they can rip this hall out next year (ahead of the Festival’s 100th anniversary) and replace it with a new hall with decent acoustics.

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Haus für Mozart (Salzburg)

Wagner, Wallin, Brahms, Grieg

The Bergen Philharmonic had not yet started its season when I was staying across the street from its home at the end of last Summer. No worries, they’ve come to me, with guest conductor Juanjo Mena and the incomparable Håkan Hardenberger on the trumpet(s).

I probably would not have chosen this concert, but it was part of my Wednesday subscription series (tomorrow is a more promising program, and I’ll go back for that).  At least it began and ended well, and even the long slog through the middle was well-performed.  This orchestra has a wonderfully complete lyrical sound, with solo lines to augment the point (but never outshine the whole).  Particularly soulful solos came from the concertmistress (who I think went to Exeter several years before I did), oboe, and principal horn.  Mena had a wonderful sense of sound-shaping, as though forming clay and breathing life into it.

Wagner‘s Flying Dutchman was of course set on the Norwegian coast, so I suppose it was fitting to open the set with the overture, a study in character contrasts as performed here.  The excitement vanished in a hurry, however, for Rolf Wallin‘s Trumpet Concerto, The Fisher King.  I suppose a legend about a wounded king sitting on the banks of a river waiting for fish to bite is never going to be the stuff of high drama (although it could be mystical – Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version had the story evolve into Amfortas, leading to Wagner’s portrayal in Parsifal).  Wallin’s music also just sat there, throbbing along, periodically interrupted by a spasm in the orchestra, and with virtuosity throughout by Hardenberger (for whom Wallin wrote this piece in 2011).  Wallin designated it a “trumpet” concerto, but he should have called it a “trumpets” concerto, as it required two (not an issue for the versatile Hardenberger).

Ironically, Wallin’s concerto set up the second half of the concert well: the first symphony by Johannes Brahms.  The great conductor Hans von Bülow referred to this as “Beethoven’s Tenth.”  Brahms understood that as a compliment, but in reality it was an indication of how unoriginal Brahms was, since coming half a century after Beethoven’s Ninth, the music really should have progressed (indeed, in many respects, Brahms regressed).  Brahms mastered symphonic technique, but just did not add anything (those few emotional works when he dropped his inhibitions, such as his Requiem and a handful of shorter pieces, demonstrated that Brahms could do original, he just usually did not want to).  Like the Wallin concerto, this opened with a throbbing pulsating rhythm, and then just moved along (certainly more musical than Wallin, and the orchestra had enough moments to shine with it, but… Brahms).

Bergen-born Edvard Grieg had been the music director of this orchestra in the 1880s, and so we naturally got two encores excerpted from his incidental music for Peer Gynt – “Åse’s death” and “In the hall of the mountain king” – the first with sumptuous lush strings, the second full of enthusiasm and smiles all around.

My lingering cough is now (mostly) better, but the acoustics in the Haus für Mozart are not.  This evening I sat downstairs, center – I don’t remember sitting there before either, but it did not help.  Tomorrow I’ll be up top, where I have been before and have found it reasonable, so maybe it’s only really passable all the way up there.  I’ll confirm tomorrow.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Haus für Mozart

Berlioz, Tschaikowsky

The music of Berlioz is worth getting up early for on a Sunday.  That said, I nearly did not – a cough lingering from a cold earlier this month made me anxious about attending a concert, and has been interrupting my sleep, so I thought I’d make the call this morning.  Then I overslept and did not think: only had time to race into town (and I managed to stifle my cough, at least during the parts when the orchestra was playing). 

I’m glad I did.  I did not renew my Mozarteum Orchestra subscriptions this year (neither Sunday nor Thursday series) because there were concerts in both that really did not interest me, so instead I decided it was better to get two mix-and-match subscriptions with the Mozarteum Foundation, throwing in those orchestra concerts that most appealed.  This was one.  Berlioz does not get performed frequently enough (beyond the Symphonie Fantastique) – he was quite innovative for his day, and indeed his consistently good output puts every other French composer to shame.  He brings a sense of drama and passion to music, sounding perhaps a tad warped.  Today’s selections included Harold in Italy (with solo viola – originally written on commission for Paganini, who wanted to try out a new viola; Paganini rejected the score, but upon hearing it performed several years later broke down in tears, dragged Berlioz back on stage, and wrote Berlioz a large check) and the overture to Le Cousaire, although it was never quite clear what it was an overture to (usually assumed to be a play by Byron, but it was actual the overture’s third title added after several performances, none connected with Byron’s play).   Actually,  despite its title suggesting Byron, Harold in Italy is not a setting of Byron, but a setting of Berlioz’ own travels in Italy reading Byron.  In other words, a lot of Berlioz’ drama does not actually dramatize anything – it’s drama for drama’s sake without a plot.  This fact contributes to what makes Berlioz so bizzarre.

Guest conductor Antony Walker (an Australian who leads the Pittsburgh Opera) clearly understood and channeled this composer – Berlioz was very touchy about letting others conduct his music, but I think he would have been most satisfied this morning – with the orchestra showing great comfort and enthusiasm.  For Harold in Italy, local star violist Veronika Hagen joined in idiomatically and warmly.

The concert ended with Tschaikowsky, but not a standard one of his works – rather his Francesca da Rimini tone poem (written after returning from Bayreuth, influenced by Wagner’s operas and Liszt’s tone poems).  There is a plot here, but Walker and the Mozarteum Orchestra captured the Berlioz-like drama, making it feel like a natural progression.

The Great Festival House is undergoing renovations this winter, so concerts have found other venues.  Today’s concert with the Mozarteum Orchestra moved next door to the stupidly-named House for Mozart (although more than Mozart gets performed there, and it has no connection to Mozart other than the name – one wonders why this venue in the Salzburg Festival complex could not have just been named the “Mozart Hall” if they really wanted to name yet another thing in Salzburg after the composer).  The hall also does not have great acoustics – I have sat in different seats before, and then today got to hear from two different vantage points (running late, I stood in the standing room in the back before the intermission as there was no way to get to my seat when I arrived; and then my seat was the very first one over the stage on the first balcony, with the poorly-designed layout of the hall meaning I essentially had to be the first person to take my seat or else have to climb over everyone else).

Bühne Baden, Stadttheater Baden

Strauß II: Zigeunerbaron

It’s always nice to take an afternoon out in Baden, which I combined today with Zigeunerbaron by Johann Strauß II at the Stadttheater.  

The Bühne Baden, as the local company styles itself, mostly entertains people taking their cure in the spa town, and many of their productions are just for fun rather than for any particular acclaim.  Sebastian Reinthaller, for many years a leading comic tenor at the Volksoper, spent three years as the artistic director here, and still comes out to sing.  His voice sounded a tad tired this evening, but that meant he did not overpower the other members of the perfectly adequate if not particularly distinguished cast.  I did get the feel that this performance, in the middle of their six-week run, did not make them especially enthusiastic – mostly going through the motions.  One motion they unfortunately did not go through was to affect the requisite Hungarian accents (perhaps the most charming foreign accent in German and an essential element to a number of classic comic operettas with Hungarian characters).

The staging was neither here nor there.  The co-directors provided an essay in the program to explain how they went about dealing with the historical inaccuracies and elements that are not politically-correct in 2018.  But Strauß meant it as a fictional comedy and was not trying for historical accuracy, and the non-politically-correct elements were in general not critical and anyway to be taken in the context of a period piece (1880s).  I am not sure the changes they made to the plot (including some alterations of the music) even improved anything anyway.  But they could all be safely ignored to just listen to the music.  Franz Josef Breznik beat time in the pit, and there was a certain local Austrian lilt to the playing as could be expected given where we are.

In all, the performance accomplished its goal as an evening’s fun entertainment.