Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Beethoven, Schumann

My second concert of the day at the Festival took me over the river to the Mozarteum, where the Camerata Salzburg took the stage.  A fine chamber orchestra, they provided a fuller sound than their numbers might have indicated.  On the podium, the young Italian Lorenzo Viotti generally had a clear idea of what he wanted to present, and the orchestra generally followed him – but he may need more seasoning.

The indubitable star of the evening was the soloist, a young Armenian violinist (apparently 32 years old, although he looks even younger): Sergey Khachatryan, who confidently delivered Beethoven‘s soaring concerto.  His tone remained warm, but edgy enough to not ever become too sweet, masterfully expressing Beethoven’s lines.  This work is normally a series of dialogues between the soloist and individual members of the orchestra, but Viotti chose to move them all to the same side of the conversation, with the violinst first among equals in presenting to the audience.  While this may have worked for the first movement, and maybe some of the third, it broke down in the more thinly-orchestrated middle movement, the orchestra not providing the appropriate accompaniment – often disjointed – while Khachatryan forged on regardless.

A triumphant applause enticed Khachatryan back out for an encore: an arrangement of an Armenian folk song, in which he sang several octaves of wistful melody on his instrument.

After the intermission, Viotti and the Camerata shed Khachatryan and gave us Schumann‘s third symphony.  Viotti’s exuberance – to match the music, of course – did lead to some ragged edges with the orchestra not quite all together.  But when they did come together they crafted a bold and evocative tone poem depicting Schumann’s delight at his arrival on the Rhine.

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Bruckner, Larrson

The second evening with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Salzburg’s Great Festival House did nothing to change my positive impression of this orchestra from yesterday.  Once again the orchestra members produce sounds in full color, with a sense of time and space, not so much playing instruments as using them to create tonal portraits.

The young violinist Christine-Maria Höller from Salzburg’s Mozarteum conservatory joined the orchestra for Beethoven‘s violin concerto.  Although a little rough to start, she quickly warmed into the work, with a strong and determined tone which effortless entered into dialogue with the different instruments Beethoven highlighted in the orchestra, and with the orchestra as a whole.  Conductor Florian Krumpöck worked the orchestra with her, deftly crafting the individual sounds and blending them together.  Beethoven’s brilliant concerto is a conversation with many voices, but the trick is to ensure that none of them get lost, and that all of them have something clever to say.  That they accomplished.

Höller then danced back on stage for a flamenco encore.

After the intermission came Bruckner‘s Fourth Symphony.  The lush strings provided an earthy basis for the ongoing dialogue between flute and horn that carries its way throughout this symphony, while the rest of the brass soared above them with a heavenly chorale.  This symphony came across as the logical continuation of the Beethoven concerto, a series of fascinating conversations among instruments.  On the whole, though, Krumpöck’s slow tempi (although they work for some) did not alwyas allow this longer conversation to press forward, sometimes straying from the topic and losing interest.  Nevertheless, this was a happy conversation, with a shiny bright outcome.

The strings gave us another encore – a romance for string orchestra by Lars-Erik Larsson.  Although not a dance, these strings periodically could not help themselves, and the Austrian Krumpöck perhaps had them inserting a charming lilt, which they could certainly handle.

Philharmonie Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Adams, Beethoven

The local youth orchestra, the Philharmonie Salzburg, took the stage of the Great Festival House this evening, under the baton of its founder Elisabeth Fuchs, for Beethoven‘s always-inspiring Ninth Symphony.

This being Salzburg, the young performers attained a high quality.  Fuchs drove the music forward with passion – something that worked well in the first two movements, but less so in the third (slightly too fast) and fourth (slightly too frantic).  The orchestra could not handle the swells in the music so well, never quite achieving full sound, but was far better in the more restrained moments.  Fuchs presumably knows her orchestra, so restrained a bit more of the music than normal, which certainly added drama but also emphasized the failed swells to a greater extent.  Still, overall, this was a fine performance for such an orchestra, which proved adept even at some of Beethoven’s more crazy junctions.

Soloists Ursula LandmayrChrista RatzenböckMichael Nowak, and Matthias Helm made a wonderful quartet (if not always in time with the orchestra, partly because they were stationed on the front of the stage with their backs to the conductor Fuchs in a poorly-advised failure in blocking), backed up (thankfully from the back of the stage) in fantastic fashion by the Salzburger Bachchor.

The concert opened with On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams, composed as a commission for the New York Philharmonic’s concert on the first anniversary of the September 11th, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.  This work contained snippets taken from the missing persons photos placed by the victims’ relatives around New York, overlayed on what was supposed to be mood-setting music.  Whoever came up with this idea (possibly Adams himself) had a good concept, but unfortunately the music was by John Adams, devoid of any value or meaning.  Not offensive, thankfully, but it did not say anything.  This assessment would have been true on its own, but became compounded in juxtaposition with the Beethoven Ninth after the break (according to the program, Beethoven’s Ninth was indeed also the pairing at the world premiere of Adams’ work.)  Yet Beethoven’s was a work of utter genius with everything to say written almost two centuries before Adams wrote his piece, thereby exposing Adams as a vapid fraud.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Mozarteum

Haydn, Kakhidze, Eötvös, Beethoven, Praetorius

A bizarre evening at the Mozarteum: three peculiar works by Joseph Haydn, Vakhtang Kakhidze, and Peter Eötvös, followed by Beethoven‘s Sixth Symphony on steroids, as interpreted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the Mozarteum Orchestra.

The orchestration for Haydn’s Symphony #31 was determined by the forces available to him in the court of Count Eszterházy at the time he wrote it, which included four virtuoso hornists.  That was apparently about a quarter of the size of the entire Eszterházy orchestra (although subsequent performances have filled out the other sections).  Haydn had the hornists playing in dialogue with individual other instruments in a somewhat unorthodox back-and-forth, which must have alarmed some people in its day.  Indeed, it may have alarmed the orchestra tonight: while the horns jumped in vociferously tonight, the rest of the orchestra seemed a bit overwhelmed at first, before fully getting in time and swing mid-way through the first movement.

Vakhtang Kakhidze’s 1996 composition Brotherhood followed, being sure not to remain in any one style for more than a few measures.  Aside from a string orchestra (playing not only their instruments, but also snapping and literally slapping their thighs), Kakhidze added a clarinet (originally a soprano saxaphone) and a piano, the pianist (tonight, Onutė Gražinytė, sister of the conductor) having some object to beat against the top of the piano and a microphone to hum into (and make “shush” noises – not because anyone was talking, just because… well, why not?).  These were gimmicks, of course, but did not come across as fake – clearly the orchestra had fun on stage, as did the audience in the hall, creating a festive atmosphere.  The program gave billing to the violist and the clarinetist (the Mozarteum’s principals), but in reality this was much like the Haydn symphony before it, with many standout solo lines.

After the intermission came the world premiere of Dialogue with Mozart: Da Capo for Orchestra by Eötvös, commissioned for the orchestra’s 175th anniversary this year.  It consisted of fragmentary lines from Mozart put into a blender.  Familiar and disorienting in equal measures, this work continued the fun of Kakhidze before the break, albeit in a different language (Hungarian not Georgian – but both are indeed odd-sounding languages).

If we thought that the final work on the program, Beethoven’s Sixth, might restore normality to the evening, well then we were very very wrong.  Gražinytė-Tyla’s frenetic interpretation (as she bounced wildly on the podium as though she were trying to touch the ceiling and nearly succeeded) was fast and often loud, although she included much play in the dynamics.  In fact, it seemed that she tried to connect this piece to the previous ones, with their clear solo lines, to highlight specific parts throughout.  

Not only Gražinytė-Tyla but also the music jumped maniacally from the stage.  This was Beethoven rushing out of control into the 21st century.  As the performance went on, I began to understand her concept more: when Beethoven wrote this symphony in 1806, it was revolutionary, and although a modern informed listener can comprehend that the fact the symphony had a story line was original for its day, the music itself today is not normally considered so shocking.  Giving it an update, jarring us in our seats, actually made us appreciate how crazy this symphony must have sounded to the Vienna audience in 1806.

As an encore, Gražinytė-Tyla led the orchestra and the audience in Michael Praetorius‘ setting of the Christmas hymn “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.”  And off we went happily perplexed into the night.

Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schumann, Liszt, Beethoven, Rossini

The young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili packed the Great Festival House in Salzburg this evening for her concert with the Orchestra of Italian Switzerland.  Her performance of Schumann‘s piano concerto – simultaneously sultry and driven – demonstrated how she has achieved her current star status.

Schumann’s tedious concerto has fine musical moments, but normally drags (Schumann basically extended a fantasy he had written earlier without any new inspiration).  The orchestra, and conductor Markus Poschner, could not do much about that, nor did they (and it showed especially when the orchestra played without piano).  But Buniatishvili pieced together the moments, engaged the orchestra in dialogue, and made one of the more plausible cases for this work that I have heard.

Then she barged out for an encore: Liszt‘s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 – this is a wild work when played by an orchestra, but Buniatishvili played it tonight as a piano transcription, meaning that she also had to capture the missing orchestral parts, and then she did all of this at breakneck speed for a remarkable display of digital acrobatics on the keyboard.  A second encore, something late romantic which I did not recognize, was more sedate and probably necessary to allow the audience heart rates to drop a little before the intermission.

This orchestra is barely larger than a chamber ensemble, so the sound was neither full nor lush enough – especially without Buniatishvili on the piano.  Some of that became less problematic given the choice of music after the intermission: Beethoven‘s Symphony #3, an exceptional piece of music, that Poschner seemed in general to understand for its drama and the orchestra picked up with gusto – and while thin, Beethoven’s music adeptly interpreted more than compensated.

It’s not a bad orchestra, but it did have the timbre of an original instrument ensemble (which it is not – except for the trumpets who played on cumbersome valveless trumpets that required them to constantly insert different-length tubes much to what looked like permanent frustration on their faces).  Only the woodwinds (and especially the fantastic oboist) produced properly rounded sounds.  Poschner also took the first and second movements far too fast (presumably he followed the nonsensical markings Beethoven mistakenly jotted on his scores later when he was given a defective prototype metronome).

The orchestral encore – the overture to the Barber of Seville by Rossini – came off somewhat better.  This is supposed to be a fast work, so the reading was far more idiomatic.  Again, Poschner’s and the orchestra’s sense of drama provoked solid music-making, and as a comic opera overture the thinner orchestra did not detract, but indeed kept it appropriately light and exuberant.

Tonkünstler Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, Dean

A few things converged to bring me to the Musikverein this afternoon: I realized I had not been to a concert there this winter; it has been a longer while since I last heard the Tonkünstler Orchestra, a pleasant provincial orchestra from Lower Austria that I came to enjoy when visiting Vienna from Kosovo back in the day; and trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger reliably introduces audiences to new repertory with flawless technique.

Today’s program opened with a spirited Leonore Overture Nr. 3 by Beethoven. Conductor John Storgårds coaxed dramatic playing all around, particularly from the flutes. The fondness for Beethoven continued in the concert’s finale, with the under-performed gem of his Eighth Symphony. The Beethoven 8 is his smallest and shortest symphony, and often overlooked, but although it took a more classical form at first look, a deeper examination such as today’s brought out the nuances Beethoven had developed as he revolutionized music. The performance on the whole was nothing special, but the sound was balanced and the playing fine, to get the message out.

On the other hand, Australian composer Brett Dean’s Dramatis Personae trumpet concerto, which he wrote on commission for this orchestra and soloist, came across contrived. Hardenberger is excellent, and if Dean wanted someone to interpret his work he could not have done better. But the only way to understand this piece was to read the program notes, and even then its meaning was unclear. The music either needs to be able to speak for itself (especially in able hands), or the program must tell a story that allows the listener to follow along. In this case, the whole composition failed.

Dean’s music was not unpleasant, just unintelligible even with the program. Dean said he chose to write a trumpet concerto inspired by Beethoven’s Leonore fanfare – the trumpet having something to announce. But it remains unclear what he was announcing. After some odd percussive opening, the first recognizable music in the first movement was reminiscent of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony gone awry. After moving through several adventures and misadventures, the trumpet hero ended up in the urban landscape of Charles Ives. But Ives needed no program. This is probably not a piece I need to hear again in the hopes of understanding it better, but hearing Hardenberger attempt these works is always a pleasure.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Orchesterhaus Salzburg

Mozart, Prokofiev, Beethoven

The Mozarteum Orchestra kindly gave me a free ticket to a non-calendar concert this morning at their rehearsal hall in the Orchesterhaus, where they were auditioning a candidate for their soon-to-be-open music director position: Vassilis Christopoulos, a Greek born and educated in Germany. At 40, he is still young, but has spent his career flitting around the most provincial of provincial houses. His two head postings – currently head of the Southwest German Philharmonic of Constance and formerly artistic director of the Athens Opera – have not made a name for either. The concert was extremely pleasant, but the orchestra may still be searching.

Christopoulos was fine, with a clear technique, but I did not see any particular spark of inspiration. The orchestra likely wants someone more established who rehearses well, although I think they should go for a young dynamo on the up, after the model of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, an ambitious provincial band (like the Mozarteum) which regularly selects charismatic music directors in their late 20s who bring the orchestra and its renown up with them as they rise (most famously Simon Rattle, who stayed 18 years, followed by Sakari Oromo for ten, Andris Nelsons for seven, and starting this fall Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who is the music director of the Salzburg Landestheater).

The program opened with the Overture to Mozart‘s Don Giovanni, which this orchestra could probably play in its sleep. The music flew off the stage (designed to match the stage in the Great Festival House, so the orchestra can maintain its sightlines) and whirled into the audience (a 250-seat 2-level auditorium, so not very deep), which allowed us to appreciate the interior lines and menacing brass (all of two horns and two trumpets, but still coming on strong in this reading). The whole opera is in their repertory this season, in their dual role as pit orchestra for the Landestheater, so when they play the overture they are also ready to present the full meaning of an entire drama condensed into five minutes.

Two first symphonies followed. Prokofiev wrote his first – the “Classical” – in the style of Haydn, if Haydn had come back in the 20th century. The instrumentation he borrowed from what Haydn had used in his final symphony. Prokofiev’s is a playful work, and the orchestra had fun with it. Beethoven‘s first is altogether more serious – an actual student of Haydn, he took his teacher’s idiom one more step, writing five years after Haydn had completed his final symphony. Though still classical in style, the young genius tinkered a bit with convention to hint at the breakthroughs he would soon unleash, giving this work a hightened sense of urgency and drama. The Orchestra performed both of these comfortably within their idiom.

Wiener Symphoniker, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Johann Strauß II

Beethoven was a genius. Tonight’s concert with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Ádám Fischer made this obvious.

When first performed in 1808, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony must have shocked the audience (and the Sixth, having its premiere at the same concert, gave them even more nuance to think about). Tonight’s performance of the Fifth was rather classical in approach: restrained, somewhat on the faster side, and not necessarily forward-looking. For its time, that would have been enough, given the work’s radical construction. This masterful performance, particularly the gifted woodwinds, gave the thick canvas a rich coloration.

What made this Symphony stand out so much, however, was not taking it in isolation. Instead it followed as the second half a concert whose first half featured music by Mozart (Symphony #35) and Haydn (Cello Concerto #1). Mozart and Haydn were themselves no slouches as composers, two of the best of their day, and from whom Beethoven himself personally learned his craft (only briefly with Mozart, more from Haydn). The concert used them tonight to set up the Beethoven, to demonstrate just how much more he could push music forward. These two works were taken by half-sized orchestras, typically for their period, and well within their context. Nicolas Altstaedt joined the orchestra for the cello concerto – a somewhat underwhelming cellist, he took Haydn back a generation more with his somewhat off-tuned instrument (does his cello not hold a tune, or does he not?). Possibly this was Altstaedt’s idiom – I have heard him labor through Schostakowitsch before, but he managed Haydn better tonight.

For a first-half encore, Altstaedt played something for solo cello I could not identify but which sounded like it could have been Sibelius, which he handled dexterously. Fischer and the orchestra gave us two second-half encores: Brahms’ Hungarian Dance #5 and Johann Strauß II’s Pizzicato Polka. Not big works to be sure, but they had the room swaying after the Beethoven, making the final mood somewhat lighter.

Concentus Musicus Wien, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven

Nikolaus Harnoncourt interpreted Beethoven’Missa Solemnis at the Salzburg Festival tonight the way it might have sounded had Beethoven not been a genius.

Harnoncourt regularly produces performances that make the listener hear a piece differently – it’s just that his performances are usually no good. But they can provoke an understanding of why the music was good in the first place.

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is an expansive work. It was never meant for a church, but Beethoven simply used the form of a mass as an excuse for some very forward-looking music-making.

For tonight’s performance, with Harnoncourt’s own Concentus Musicus Wien and the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Harnoncourt deconstructed the music for an ensemble barely larger than a chamber group. When Beethoven called for soaring lines, Harnoncourt coaxed restricted tones. If Harnoncourt did allow any hint of Beethoven’s lush harmonies to emerge, he did so by reducing still further the number of instruments, thinning out the sound.

Harnoncourt also seems to have instructed orchestra and chorus to make sounds as though they were in a gothic church with reverberating acoustics. However, we were in Salzburg’s Large Festival House, not a church. So having the chorus sing staccato, and the strings play in a detached manner, broke up Beethoven’s sounds further and never let them open into the hall. The brass played into their own laps, with completely muffled tones, when the music called for brightness. In all, this was a backwards-looking, 18th-century mass, not a work of late Beethoven at the top of his innovation.

Laura Aikin and Elisabeth Kulman did their best to provide full soprano and alto solo voices.  Johannes Chum’s tenor was limp on the higher register, and Ruben Drole’s bass came out bitter and pinched in the lower register.

Perhaps the only truly moving part of this performance came when concertmaster Erich Höbarth, playing the violin solos, picked up the entire performance onto his back and carried it through the Benedictus. His violin solos were nothing short of spectacular, and as Harnoncourt allowed him to shine he raised the level of the entire ensemble. Of course, the Benedictus is also the most delicate part of the Missa Solemnis, and therefore did not entirely contradict Harnoncourt’s limited worldview. But this was Höbarth’s moment in charge, not Harnoncourt’s.

Also worth a mention was the solo flute, which had a wonderfully pure tone, which stood out more since the rest of the orchestra often did not.

Wiener Virtuosen, Musikverein Brahms Saal

Beethoven, Martinů, Wellesz, Elgar

I felt like I was not getting enough chamber music.  That’s an easy problem to resolve in Vienna.  The Wiener Virtuosen, a chamber ensemble made up of members of the Philharmonic, performed an unusual and fascinating concert in the Brahms Hall of the Musikverein this evening.

Most of the program jumped out of the 20th Century, but Eleven “Mödlinger Tänze” by Beethoven served as a warm-up.  Beethoven did not mean these to become part of his lasting repertory, having just thrown them together for some friends performing at a Fasching party in 1819.  He never published them and did not count them in his inventory.  But even a casual set of works by Beethoven makes an impression.  Nevertheless, works by Martinů and Wellesz were the real reasons to hear this concert.

Bohuslav Martinů’s Nonett, one of the last works he composed before he died in 1959 and premiered at the Salzburg Festival that year, employed complex harmonics and rhythms, with the instruments seemingly moving independently, but when assembled together this remained accessible music.  Chorales – large almost – tried to emerge from the evocative second movement, moving from instrument to instrument.  By the third movement, every time we thought we knew where the music was going, it detoured.  This was a walk in the woods, with no particular place to be, wandering wherever the route looked nicest.  Martinů proved that it is possible to marry such 20th-Century complexities and still make sonorous tones.

Clarinetist Ernst Ottensamer felt the need to introduce the Oktett op. 67 by Egon Wellesz: “don’t be afraid of Egon Wellesz,” he advised the audience before the ensemble started, “it may not be the most melodic work.”  Ottensamer was unfair.  Although composed ten years before the Martinů Nonett (with a premiere at the 1949 Salzburg Festival), this Wellesz piece in many ways developed Martinů one step further in the way it combined new harmonies and rhythms with real musicality.  It opened with a mysterious but forward-driving push, filling the room with a big sound: in part, the big sound came from the ensemble, but in part the music was also dramatic and full.  The second movement appeared to be picked up from Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in parts.  Melodies tried to spring out of the third movement, but only by the fourth movement did Wellesz develop a cantabile section, with gorgeous harmonies.  By the fifth movement, the piece became downright whimsical, a country dance chaperoned by seriousness.

The Wiener Virtuosen gave intelligent readings of these difficult but (when performed this way) approachable works.  To send everyone home with something more traditional, they gave us an arrangement of Edward Elgar‘s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations.  This seems to be the encore of choice these days – I think I’ve heard it performed four times in the last year – but Ottensamer introduced it as “the most beautiful melody in the symphonic repertory of the 20th Century.”  I don’t know about that, but certainly when performed by this group they make a case for it.

Berlin Konzerthausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Mozart, Schostakowitsch, Elgar

The Berlin Konzerthausorchester, as its name implies the house orchestra of a concert hall in Berlin (and apparently an offshoot of the once reasonably-good Berliner Symphoniker), has come to Salzburg for three nights, with a bunch of works that do not logically fit together in any particular way (nor do the program notes provide an explanation for the selection).  Tonight’s concert: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1 (with a movement from a Mozart sonata for solo piano as an encore) and Schostakowitsch’s Symphony #5 (with “Nimrod” from Elgar’Enigma Variations as an encore).  (Tomorrow night’s concert has the same program, which I won’t repeat; Friday’s concert has mismatched Prokofiev and Haydn – since I fly on the weekend, I may need to work late on Friday so I’ll likely skip that one.)

Berliner Martin Helmchen played the piano solos, and another Berliner, Michael Sanderling, conducted.  Sanderling is the third of three sons of the late conductor Kurt Sanderling – and all three sons themselves became conductors.  I heard his father conduct in Zurich in 2002 on his farewell tour (he retired that year at 90 years old).  The youngest Sanderling (who is actually turning 48 later this month) may have inherited his father’s understanding of music, but may not have inherited his father’s ability to communicate that understanding.  Or maybe not with this orchestra.  The Berlin Konzerthausorchestra was technically sound, responded to Sanderling’s shaping, but something was missing: feeling.  Although the interpretation was clear, the outcome was rigid.

The Beethoven concerto, written at the end of the 18th century, remains in that century even as it shows signs of Beethoven’s growing genius.  Tonight’s performance took it carefully with a light touch.  The Mozart encore perhaps allowed the Beethoven to shine more.  Although it may be sacrilegious to say this in Salzburg, Beethoven eclipses Mozart.  If Mozart had never existed, the world would be deprived of a lot of beautiful music by Mozart, but that’s all.  If Beethoven had never existed, music would not have evolved the same way, and we would not only be deprived of music by Beethoven, but by much of what came after.  Helmchen’s beautifully-played Mozart encore proved the point.

As for the Schostakowitsch symphony, Sanderling clearly understood the work, and the orchestra dutifully followed his interpretation.  But understanding it and being fluent in it are not quite the same.  Schostakowitsch’s Fifth is often misinterpreted as a triumphal Soviet work; in reality, it is about as triumphal as an a defeated man being ordered to celebrate while having a gun pointed at his head.  Sanderling took the tempi slowly, which drew out the irony and the pain underlying the music.  The percussion pierced.  The orchestra did as instructed, but in this case the middle bits dragged, and thus lost the complex emotions.  Maybe Berliners are not capable of emotion.

After such a work, the encore had to be lighter but not too happy.  Elgar’s “Nimrod” served the purpose well, even if it is an over-used encore these days.  The orchestra played sentimentally, but maybe not enough so.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Schubert, Schostakowitsch, Beethoven, Johann Strauß II

Woke up early on a Sunday for a wonderful concert by the Wiener Symphoniker in the Konzerthaus.  Philippe Jordan, in his first season as the orchestra’s official Chief Conductor (although long a fixture here, especially after the departure of Fabio Luisi), took the podium.  I first saw him conduct twelve years ago in Graz, and he has retained his ability to charm.

He opened the concert with Schubert’s Second Symphony, an early work which, though not yet mature and therefore not frequently performed, nevertheless exhibits Schubertian characteristics.  Jordan’s reading drew out the joyful spirit of the work, using a good control of dynamics to increase the drama.  The first movement, which opens slowly before jumping in head-first at breakneck speed, proved especially successful (Schubert developed this technique as he matured, and it influenced Bruckner who also deeply appreciated Schubert’s talent and originality).

Schostakowitsch’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra followed.  The composer wrote this sarcastic piece in 1933 to cheer himself up during one of the darkest periods in Russian history (which, sadly, has no lack of dark periods – indeed, it’s mostly dark, but the 1930s were especially dark).  Khatia Buniatishvili, the young Georgian star, took on the challenge, and in contrast to the Schostakowitsch piano concerto I heard yesterday in this case she dominated the stage.  The Symphoniker’s first trumpet, Rainer Küblböck, performed the trumpet solos, and nimbly switched from the somewhat sad muted lines to the boisterous and bright unmuted sections.  At the end, Buniatishvili came back out and gave us two encores (neither identified, and I do not know the repertory well enough to place them).  The first (clearly 20th-century, maybe Schostakowitsch?) nearly blew the roof off the hall – I did not believe a piano could produce that much sound, rivaling some orchestras in might.  The second (sounded like something one of the Scarlatti family might have written, but could have been a neo-classical throwback) had a wonderful song-like character, and Buniatishvili’s keyboard did everything except produce the words.

After the intermission, the orchestra stormed through Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  Jordan took this at a faster clip than I normally would prefer (he probably followed Beethoven’s own erroneous metronome markings, which current theories suggest come from a broken metronome which displayed the wrong beat numbers), but got the orchestra to produce all the swinging excitement while gasping for breath.  Again, he utilized dynamics to underscore this dramatics of the piece.  He performed the first two movements without a break, going right from the initial Vivace into the slow movement, for maximum (and effective) contrast.  The final movement especially tied the concert neatly together, as it echoed the first movement of the Schubert symphony in the frenetic strings.  Although Schubert’s Second Symphony predated Beethoven’s Seventh by a full year, Beethoven was the older and more mature composer (and it would seem unlikely that Beethoven even knew Schubert’s symphony, as much of Schubert’s work in that period was developmental and not performed publicly or published until many decades after his death).

Jordan gave the enthusiastically-applauding audience another encore:  Künstlerleben by Johann Strauß II.  The Symphoniker lilted, and the audience danced out of the hall.  This orchestra sounds like it will maintain the level of quality it has built over the previous years under Luisi, almost to the point of rivaling its colleague down the street, the world’s best Wiener Philharmoniker (which sounds better when I am not sitting in the middle of its percussion section like yesterday).

Stadler Quartet and Ariane Haering, Schloß Leopoldskron

Beethoven, Schubert, Stravinsky, Ravel, Webern, Lehár

Tonight I got to play the role of Max Reinhardt and organize and present a concert in the Great Hall of Schloss Leopoldskron for an invitation-only audience of international dignitaries.  The concert took place as part of the program “1814, 1914, 2014: Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future” on the state of international diplomacy.  I programmed only pieces composed in 1814 and 1914, for which I brought in Salzburg’s leading string quartet, the Stadler Quartet (headed by the Mozarteum’s concertmaster Frank Stadler) and top piano soloist, the Swiss-born Ariane Haering.

The first two pieces on the program, from 1814, were private works never intended for public performance, which added to the sense of intimacy.  Ludwig van Beethoven wrote the Piano Sonata in e-minor, op. 90, for his friend Moritz von Lichnowsky, a Silesian aristocrat having an affair with an opera singer whom he later married (hence one of the movements is labeled to be performed in a “singable manner” – which Haering certainly did).  Franz Schubert’s String Quartet #8, composed in only eight days while Schubert was still only 17 years old, tested the composer’s many talents to reflect his astonishing development, although he never decided to publish the work during his lifetime.  The Stadler Quartet’s performance made the work sound very mature.

Moving along to 1914, the music became less harmonious.  Igor Stravinsky‘s friends considered his Three Pieces for String Quartet to be unfinished fragments.  He called them “abstract music” and published them anyway.  These works were fun – as written and as performed with a smirk.

Maurice Ravel wrote to his friend Stravinsky that he had rushed the composition of his Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, because he wanted to enlist in the French Army and feared the Great War would end before he had a chance to fight if he did not hurry up and finish.  So he rushed it and ran to enlist, and the senseless War lasted four more horrible years.  Tonight we programed the third movement, Passacaille (Très Large), as a slow and dancing contrast to the Stravinsky work, with sumptuous playing by these musicians.

The Ravel movement also contrasted with the final programmed work, Anton von Webern’s Three Small Pieces for Cello and Piano.  Webern considered these a “distillation of music” and all three pieces together lasted less than two minutes.  At around the time he wrote these, Webern was also my grandmother’s music theory teacher in Vienna, so I have a particular soft spot for him.  Webern’s music was banned by the Nazis as “degenerate,” but he survived the Second World War only to be shot mistakenly by an American soldier in 1945 while offering a light to another American soldier, who thus perpetuated an American stereotype.

Although charming, Webern’s work was not going to send our guests humming into dinner.  So after poking around for something suitable, Frank Stadler and I settled on an arrangement for string quartet of the Weibermarsch from Ferenc Lehár’s Lustige Witwe.  Although not composed in 1914 (it was written in 1905), the operetta did reflect the mood before the First World War, and created a bit of a scandal by parodying the life of Crown Prince Danilo of Montenegro, who preferred the brothels in Paris to his homeland.  This march got feet tapping: “Yes, the study of women is hard!”

This was quite a fun concert to put together.  I also personally learned a lot researching the pieces, since chamber music is not my specialty, and these particular works are anyway not often performed.  I think the concert had a good balance and it certainly had top-of-the-line performers who could pull it off.  In fact, the Stadler Quartet specializes in contemporary music, and could add some 2014 pieces to the mix to fill out an entire program of 1814-1914-2014.  I decided against anything that contemporary, and did not want to worry about copyright issues, but could easily foresee a third section of this program developing and appearing in a concert nearby later this year.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Brahms, Weber, Beethoven

I accompanied my mother to a Friday afternoon Philadelphia Orchestra concert to hear how my hometown orchestra is doing.  For the first time, I sat in seats at the Kimmel Center that had good acoustics – the new hall (now not actually so new) has never impressed me.  My mother had decided that anyone making gifts in my father’s memory should make them to the Philadelphia Orchestra, a worthy and transparent recipient now recovering from years of absolutely dreadful management.

The orchestra sounded in great musical health under the baton of guest conductor Christoph von Dohnányi.  The clear and crisp sound had sufficient emotion to transmit the music, and provided a nice contrast to the last concert I attended with the gooey-sounding San Franciscans visiting Vienna.

The highlight of the concert, and perhaps of my entire musical year to date, came in the second piece, Weber’s Clarinet Concerto #1.  There is a reason this work receives few performances; it’s not a bad piece, but someone needs to perform it right, particularly the clarinet solos.  And prolonged music for solo clarinets could grate on the nerves.  Every so often, a special clarinetist comes along, such as Heinrich Joseph Baermann for whom Weber specifically wrote the work two centuries ago.  And today’s unrivaled clarinetist was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s own principal clarinet, Ricardo Morales.  I have never in my life heard a clarinet sound like that.  The tone was full and practically operatic, with all of the nuance of a singing voice; his instrument was not reedy or whiny but had a deep-textured wooden sound like a holy tribal flute invoking the heavans from a temple.  Apparently, he not only plays like this clarinet but constructs his instruments himself in order to perfect this tone.

The concert opened with Brahms’ “Haydn” Variations and concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony #7.  These works are justifiably popular, but to have a good concert requires performing with the warhorses rather than just going through the motions on their backs.  The strings had spring.  The winds added a warm tone.  Dohnányi maintained a justified balance, never too overbearing but never too restrained either.  The Philadelphians breathed.  They smiled.  They gleamed.  The music filled the hall and, for those two hours, brought us to a better place.

Armenian Philaharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Bizet, Gounod, Beethoven

Two weeks after my father died, I decided it was OK to start going to live concerts again.

I have long noted that only its principle conductor Eduard Topchjan seems to make the mediocre Armenian Philharmonic sound good.  I have suspected, though, that this might be because he does not schedule good guest conductors.  So tonight I got to hear what would happen if a truly excellent guest conductor took the podium: Pavel Kogan, whom I have seen at the helm of his Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, came to Yerevan.

The orchestra responded beautifully to him.  Even the normally-creeky strings produced full and nuanced tones.  Although not everyone always managed to play together, they still did far better than they normally do under guest conductors.

The concert opened with the suite #1 from Bizet’s incidental music to L’Arlésienne, in a reading which emphasized the music’s often-hidden peculiar inner harmonies and the melodrama sufficient to remember that Bizet wrote the music to augment a drama.

In contrast, the ballet music from Gounod’Faust was far less dramatic, because it never belonged in the opera to begin with.  Gounod had interpolated it into the opera only to fulfill the Paris Opera’s absurd ballet requirement.  So while the music did not portray drama, it still needed to dance, and Kogan had the orchestra dancing appropriately.

After the intermission came Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony.  Although not programmatic, this symphony has great drama like all Beethoven symphonies, albeit more subtle.  Kogan knew how to draw out the drama that, when hidden, makes this symphony not well-understood.  The symphony, which starts slowly and quietly, springs to life in a way a mediocre orchestra might not manage.  This one managed tonight.

Only a very small audience showed up, but everyone knew what they had heard.  So did the orchestra.  Smiles all around and a standing ovation for Kogan from audience and orchestra.

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Sibelius

Winter has finally come to Vienna this year, which seemed like an appropriate time for the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra to perform Sibelius in the Musikverein.  The orchestra, under the baton of its new chief conductor Hannu Lintu, gave appropriately idiomatic readings of the composer’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies (and some encores), with excellent, moody and brooding playing.  The great swell that is the Seventh Symphony, rising from delicate foundations into a bold Nordic chorale, with wonderfully edgy woodwinds and brash brass, marked the culmination of the concert and of the composer’s output.  Sibelius wrote very little for publication after these two symphonies – and in his depression consigned all known sketches of his Eighth Symphony, which had occupied him for many years, to an open fire in the dining room of his country hut.

The concert had opened with Beethoven’Leonore Overture #2, which the composer rejected for a number of reasons, but not because of the quality of the music.  Thankfully, Beethoven did not burn it.  The Finns performed this work almost as a precursor to Sibelius, starting off delicately, with a particularly cold and dark timbre to portray Florestan in his dungeon, and building into something bigger and more free.

Following the Beethoven before the intermission, pianist Alice Sara Ott joined the orchestra for Mendelssohn’First Piano Concerto.  Her playing was certainly dextrous and impassioned, but the music was out of place.  This is a light and lyrical youthful work from Mendelssohn, which fit uneasily in an otherwise sturdy and somber program.  Likewise, a similar solo encore also demonstrated her talent, but did not fit the mood, which made it rather tiresome.

Camerata Salzburg, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven

Pinchas Zukerman and the Camerata Salzburg brought chamber music to the stage of the Khachaturian Hall.  They provided beautiful and delicate playing, but had a hard time filling the large hall with sound, particularly the strings, who foud themselves regularly overwhelmed by the winds, who were certainly not themselves overplaying.

This issue became apparent right from the first piece: Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite.  Without thicker strings, the dischords Stravinsky intentionally put in the winds stood out more, making this neo-classical work odder than the composer intended.  For Mozart’Haffner Serenade, with Zukerman conducting with his violin, the situation improved somewhat.  Still, Zukerman got a lush sound from his instrument, and it easily left the stage and reached our ears, which contrasted with the subdued Camerata strings.

The balance finally worked after the intermission, for Beethoven’s Romance #1 for Violin and Orchestra.  Essentially a work for solo violin augmented by chamber orchestra, Zukerman took over the playing more assertively, and the orchestra did not need to stand out but rather just had to back him up.  And with their gorgeous playing, they did just that.

Mozart’s Symphony #39 closed the program.  Here, the strings put a little more oompf into their playing, but again the wind section dominated.   An encore Mozart menuetto, scored with limited wind lines, demonstrated that the strings, playing almost alone, could make a bigger impact, even in this cavernous hall.  I just left wondering if maybe they need to perform in a more intimate venue.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Beethoven, Mozart, R. Strauss, Brahms

I did not think anyone could make that old Steinway piano in the Khachaturian Hall sound good.  Tonight, Aleksei Lubimov somehow managed to do so, and everyone in the house knew it.  The Moscow-trained pianist lifted Mozart’s Piano Concerto #27 out from the instrument, where it must have been hiding for decades.  The Armenian Philharmonic – or a chamber group of orchestra musicians, including recognizably some of the students I heard perform on Wednesday – gave him the accompaniment he needed, but otherwise stayed out of his way.  He spoke Mozart’s idiom, and the orchestra understood.

After a rhythmic applause, Lubimov returned for an encore – a sonata from the late classical or early romantic repertory that was not a showpiece but which had suitable embellishments and could showcase his pure musicality.  When the audience would not let the second round of applause die down, Lubimov returned for another similar encore.  He had no need to be flashy when he was so musical.  The piano really is not that good these days, but he restored it as much as possible to its former glory.

On the podium tonight, Stefan Willich brought an unusual personal subplot.  Willich is actually a German cardiologist (who also trained and later taught at Harvard) who conducts as a hobby.  He founded the World Doctors Orchestra, to bring together musician-doctors to give charity concerts.  So he is used to conducting amateur orchestras.  The Armenian Philharmonic is better than amateur, but normally sounds lost without its principal conductor Eduard Topchjan.  Willich managed to keep everyone mostly together, and when they played together they sounded rather reasonable.  I think the youth movement also helped, as the Youth Orchestra has sounded better than the adult one.

The concert opened with Beethoven’Coriolan Overture, in a solid if not quite dramatic reading.  After the Mozart concerto and the intermission, Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture disappeared from the program – perhaps Willich could not keep them together in rehearsal.  Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss remained, and where they stayed together they managed the chromatics.  As an encore, perhaps to complete a program by substituting for the Wagner, the orchestra played a spirited and sweeping Hungarian Dance #1 by Brahms – nothing special in this piece, so they actually sounded quite fine.  Probably a wise substitution.