Albanian Radio-Television Orchestra, Tirana University of the Arts

Zoraqi, Tili, Zadeja, Laro, Kurti, Jakova, Gaci, Ibrahimi, Gaqi, LeGrand, Kushta, Deda

Tonight was an altogether different sort of celebration, as the Albanian Radio-Television Orchestra turned 50 (shortly before the modern Albanian state turns 100 next month) with a gala concert at the University of the Arts.  This is an altogether less dreary concert hall than the opera house where I have heard them perform before.

The program contained almost exclusively Albanian music by composers I have mostly never heard before and may never hear again.  But I remain open for new music, so enjoyed the experience.  I assume the selections were Albanian warhorses from the years of isolation, although I really know nothing about them.  The orchestra seemingly picked them in order to sound at its best.  Solo lines did not shine, but ensemble playing filled the room adequately.  Chief conductor Jetmir Barballushi opened and closed the concert, with a train of others taking the stage for a piece or two in between (and a young one popping up for the encore).

No programs were available (although I saw that a handful of people had clearly received them in advance and brought programs with them.  I’ve yet to find a website for this orchestra (nor any link even from the Albanian Radio-Television site).  So I tried to figure out the program as best I could from the announcer who came on stage every time they substituted conductors.

Most of the pieces sounded out of the romantic or post-romantic tradition.  At the end of the concert, they showed a film about the orchestra with interviews, and certainly it became clear that after the Second World War, until Albania broke with the Soviet Union, there was indeed a Russian influence in Albanian classical music.  This could as well be discerned from tonight’s selection, but so could a central European trend that had existed earlier and then again subsequent to the fall of Communism.

The concert opened with a rousing Festive Overture by Nikolla \Zoraqi.  Two Sketches for flute and orchestra by Spartak Tili followed, showing a somewhat eastern influence (the composer stood up and took a bow).  The suite from Çesk Zadeja’s ballet Deline added syncope to the mix.  The music returned to the normal with the overture to the film music from Liberty or Death by Kujtim Laro, a rather dramatic tone poem that worked even independently of a film.

Of course, nothing was truly independent of a film, because on the screen behind the orchestra, they kept playing the same 20-second clip over and over and over and over the whole concert, which mixed the RTSh logo with brief scenes from classic Albanian television films.  I have now seen Skanderbeg charge off on his horse against the Turks in the 15th century, and Ismail Qemali raise Skanderbeg’s banner as the flag of independent Albania in 1912 repeatedly to exasperation.

The conductor of Palokë Kurti’s fantasy “Unification of Albania” introduced the composer as a great patriot for Albanian independence who died in 1920.  For someone trying to create a hymn for his new country, he did not seem to include any recognizably Albanian style.  Indeed, the piece could have been written by Verdi, scored for marching band.

An aria from Prenk Jakova’s opera Skanderbeg followed, sung inexpertly by a woman whose name I did not catch.  I had enjoyed this opera complete in June.

The following pieces all seemed derivative of something.  Pjetër Gaci’s violin concerto started off like a lesser version of Bruch’s and moved into territory of Schostakowitsch and Dvorak.  Feim Ibrahimi’s suite from the ballet Gjergj Elez Alia began like Stravinsky morphing into Tshaikowsky before turning into a strange blend of Prokofiev and Paliashvili.  Thoma Gaqi’s Symphonic Dance #2 sounded like it took a theme from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and ran it through Ravel’s Bolero, with the result being not as original as the former but far more exciting than the latter.

One non-Albanian piece graced the program: a somewhat dull work by Michael LeGrand, whom I have also never heard of, but appears to have been a foreign film composer.  This was a piece for cello and orchestra apparently taken from a film called Papa Can You Hear Me? of which I know nothing.  I have no idea why this piece made it into the program, except maybe to showcase the solo cellist, who was not bad but who could have selected an Albanian work to perform instead.

The finale was the symphonic poem Let’s Go by Shpëtim Kushta, which brought things back to where they should be.  An encore, written by the orchestra’s longtime conductor Ferdinand Deda, would have been anti-climactic, except that it made a good segue into the film on the history of the orchestra.

In the film, the orchestra’s current general manager stated in an interview that the purpose of a house radio-television orchestra is to educate the general public.  The orchestra accomplished that goal tonight.

Color Trio, Jordan Misja School of Art (Tirana)

Haydn, Mozart, Gürkan, Mendelssohn, Léhar, Stolz, Strauß II, Strauß I

Starved for live music, I went to a concert that might not normally have been on my radar.  A group from Vienna, the Color Trio (a piano trio plus soprano) was being heavily promoted by the Austrian Embassy as part of a cultural exchange.  The program looked nice, actually, so off I went.

Oddly, I think I was the only foreigner in the hall (the concert hall of a music middle school not far from my office).  They also performed only about half of the advertised program (no, I did not leave at intermission, they handed out revised programs which contained half of the works from the first half of the advertised program and half from the second, all over in a bit more than an hour).  In all, compared to the Austrian Embassy’s hype, this experience was a bit of a let down.  The musicians had no special quality, although hearing reasonable live music in Tirana added something.

The concert opened with Haydn’Gypsy Trio, which got its name from the themes used in the third movement.  It took until that movement for the musicians to fully warm up.  Then followed an aria from Mozart’s Figaro, sung in Germanic Italian by the soprano Petra Halper-König.  The trio’s violinist, Serkan Gürkan, then performed one of his own compositions, “Mein Wien,” accompanied by the pianist Ilse Schumann – a work which started and ended with music reminiscent of a melancholy rain and danced around a little in the middle section, so I suppose indeed the composer’s impression of Vienna.  Cellist Irene Frank then returned to join Gürkan and Schumann for the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio #1, a much more robust work that allowed the musicians to fill the hall with sound.  This Mendelssohn piece was certainly the highlight of the evening.

A selection of other Austrian pieces were supposed to round out the concert’s first half, but vanished from the program.  The original second half of the program was to contain a selection of Viennese dance and operetta music arranged for trio (with soprano, as necessary).  In the end, only five works remained: Ferenc Lehar’s Gold and Silver Waltz, an operetta aria by Robert Stolz (“Spiel auf deiner Geige” from Venus in Seide), the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka and Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauß the son, and as an encore the Radetzky March by Johann Strauß the father.  These works were performed altogether too quickly.  I suppose the sonorities do not work as well with only a trio performing, so these arrangements probably work either as background music or for actual dancing at an event but less so for a concert performance, and performing at speed at least cuts out the opportunities for thin sonorities in these arrangements.  The waltzes would have been fast enough, but someone might have died trying to keep up dancing to that polka.  As for the march, we clapped and left.

National Opera Orchestra of Albania

Zoraqi, Jakova, Laro, Ilo, Smetana, Dvořák

Attended a “gala concert” tonight at the Albanian National Opera, put on to celebrate 90 years of Czech-Albanian diplomatic relations.  I suppose what made it a “gala” was that there were dignitaries there, people dressed nicely, and drinks were served afterwards in the foyer.  Also, the Czech Ambassador and Albanian Foreign Minister spoke beforehand, and the orchestra played both national anthems.

The program contained an assortment of Czech and Albanian classical music, all romantic-period in style (although the Albanian compositions were mostly written a century after the Czech ones).  The Albanian works opened with Nikolla Zoraqi’s Festive Overture, which sounded like movie music (which I suppose makes sense, since he mostly wrote movie music), and continued with an aria from Prenk Jakova’Scanderbeg (which I saw complete in June), Kujtim Laro’s moving tone poem Freedom or Death, and a song (“I love Albania more“) by Spiridon Ilo, a signer of the Albanian declaration of independence who wrote patriotic songs as a hobby.  The Czech works were excerpts from Smetana’The Kiss and Bartered Bride, and Dvořák’Rusalka and 9th Symphony.

The orchestral playing, by the opera orchestra, was sufficient.  Valmir Xoxa, whom I saw conduct the Barber of Seville recently, conducted the Albanian pieces, while Karel Smékal, the Czech Deputy Ambassador who trained as a conductor, took the podium for the Czech works.  Czech soprano Barbora Perná had a nice enough voice with a warble on the higher registers; while Elson Braha (Nemorino in last April’s Elixir) still has his pleasant but weak voice that cracked at volume but otherwise was good on the ears.

Throughout the concert, the organizers projected a slide show on a cheap movie screen behind the orchestra, showing photos of the Czech Republic in a loop that lasted about three minutes and repeated the whole night.  The screen was big enough to be distracting, but small enough so we could not really make out the slides well, especially since the stage lights were up so the orchestra could read its music.

Nevertheless, a pleasant evening with good live music, something that does not come often enough.

Apollon Festival Opera, Military Cultural Center (Tirana)

Rossini, Barbiere di Siviglia

Just when I thought I would not get to hear any live performances this summer, then the Italian Cultural Institute of Tirana decided to sponsor a performance of Rossini’Barber of Seville.  The production is actually due to debut tomorrow at the Apollon Festival, in the ancient outdoor theater of Apollonia, near modern Fier.  But the full dress rehearsal took place at the Military Cultural Center of Tirana tonight in the presence of the Italian Ambassador.

The Military Cultural Center’s theater is not very large, and the seats squeaked more than the orchestra’s strings, but even so the atmosphere was more pleasant than in the city’s opera house.  The Ambassador left early, as did more than half of the audience, but that was not really fair.  Although hardly an impressive performance, it maintained the standard I now expect in Albania, of a bunch of tolerable singers having fun on stage with basic high-school-like sets, with the enjoyment spilling into the audience.  Armand Likaj performed a spirited Figaro and drove the plot, as he is supposed to.

The most beautiful voice of the evening belonged to the Bulgarian bass Emil Zhelev, with his cavernous deep voice personifying Don Basilio the music-master.  The rest of the cast hit many of the notes, more or less.  Actually, it seemed a shame that Ogert Islami, who sang the bit role of Fiorello, did not get a bigger part, as he stole the show during the opening scene.

Conductor Valmir Xoxa kept the small orchestra on pace.  While the strings screeched, the woodwinds sounded pleasant even when missing their cues.

National Opera of Albania

Javoka, Skënderbeu

Always one to at least try some new operas, I went to my first Albanian-language opera this evening.  The National Opera of Albania performed Skënderbeu by Prenkë Jakova.  Jakova was a 20th-century composer, and is considered the father of Albanian opera, although I’m not sure how many other Albanian opera composers there have been.  His family was repressed by the communist regime, and although (outside of stints as a political prisoner) he was allowed to continue to work because of his prominence, he was eventually driven by the regime to suicide one year after the premiere of this opera, at the age of 52 in 1969.

This opera took a safe topic – the 15th-century Albanian national hero Gjergj Kastrioti, known as Skanderbeg – in which all foreigners are portrayed as treacherous (matching the old communist regime’s paranoia).  Dramatically, the opera did not develop much, and contained out-of-place scenes like children’s chori possibly designed to provide an opportunity to add a patriotic song.  The final chorus was also a set patriotic piece of no particular quality.  I suppose these elements were essentially required by the regime at that time.

However, for the most part, the opera sounded musically like Verdi met Borodin in the Albanian Alps.  The set numbers were melodically derivative of Verdi, connected through music reminiscent of Borodin’s Prince Igor – not eastern per se (indeed, still using western harmonies), but certainly eastern-influenced.  As Jakova had studied eastern music, mostly Turkish, this association is probably not accidental, although I am not aware that Jakova was familiar with Russian music.  It’s hard to know what he knew given the isolation of Albania especially under that regime.

The cast was adequate (headed peculiarly by an American tenor – Roy Stevens – who was cast in the title role because someone decided he looked like an actor who had played Skanderbeg in a 1960s film – he learned to sing Albanian just for this part).  The orchestra was merely adequate as well.  Zhani Ciko, the opera’s general director, kept it all more-or-less together from the podium.

National Opera of Albania

Donizetti, L’Elisir d’Amore

The National Opera of Albania hit the stage of the Palace of Culture of Tirana this evening with Donizetti’L’Elisir d’Amore.  Almost everything screamed “high school” theater about this production.  The auditorium is the same one used for orchestra concerts, and even with the stage retracted partly to open an orchestra pit, the space is just not that large and the acoustics are not so great.  But sitting directly in front, I could hear (friends sitting a few rows back said they could not hear).

More importantly, I could see (well, I did have to shield my eyes from some of the stage lights pointing at wrong angles): this cast had fun.  What they lacked in talent they more than made up for in enthusiasm, and that counts for a lot to make a performance enjoyable.  I did not expect much, so just having a fun night at the opera hit the spot.

The Adina, Eriola Gjyzeli Dragoicea, was actually rather good.  Vladimir Sazdovsky as Dulcamara had a lively, if not large, baritone voice and Elson Braha as Nemorino had a very pleasant tenor voice as long as he did not try to project it (every time he tried to project, his voice cracked, but when singing softly he sounded very nice indeed).  Everyone else on stage clearly had a good time, and the stage director allowed them to do so.  I think he went to the market to buy the props, and told the cast to just bring odd clothes from their own closets to use as costumes, so there was no logic to the staging other than giving the singers the chance to ham it up, which they did.

The orchestra, under Eddi de Nadai, provided a useful accompaniment when playing underneath the singers, although the exposed orchestral parts were less pleasant.

A colleague from work brought her not-quite-five-year-old daughter, who also had fun.  So it was clearly contagious.

Albanian Radio-Television Orchestra, Tirana Palace of Culture

Lalo, Berlioz

I finally decided to venture into the Tirana Palace of Culture for a concert this evening.  I think the last time I attended a concert in the Balkans, it was the Kosovo Philharmonic in Pristina’s dismal Red Hall, of which about all I could say was they knew how to hold their instruments.  Today with the Albanian Radio-Television Orchestra was certainly better.  The Palace of Culture, a depressing building, was also better.  But I was starved for live music, so I will go back.

The Palace of Culture was originally designed by Russian Communists, which is about all you need to know to understand the design concept.  However, after construction began, nasty Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha decided that the Russians were no longer nasty enough, so he broke relations and the Palace of Culture was never finished, and even today looks like it did in the 1950s but even more run down.  They’ve painted the inside red and black, so if they dimmed the lights I might have thought it was a large concrete brothel.  Fortunately they kept the house lights up.

The orchestra was actually better than I expected.  They do have proper music education in Albania, unlike in Kosovo, so people can be trained.  But since they do not really pay, anyone good goes abroad.  That said, the first chair woodwinds were OK.  The rest sounded like a warped 45 lp vinyl record.  Conductor Jetmir Babullushi was an animated sort.

The program was short, at a little over an hour without an intermission.  The first work was the world premiere of Albanian composer Aleksandër Lalo’s “Jealosy” – a poem for guitar, cello, and orchestra.  This was a tonal work of no particular interest and no discernible structure.  The soloists, Admir Doçi (guitar) and Aristidh Prosi (cello) played into microphones, which threw the whole balance off.  The piece was soon over.

For the main work, they chose the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz.  The orchestra performed with more drama than talent, particularly when the hero got guillotined in the fourth movement.  At least everyone was smiling in the end, which meant that the atmosphere on leaving the concert was more pleasant than leaving a concert in Moscow, even if the music did not meet the standard.