Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Strauss

Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Strauss all traveled to Italy as young men (the first two at the same time, although not together), which inspired them to write italianate works, which the Mozarteum Orchestra and Riccardo Minasi presented at a Sunday matinee this morning.

Minasi animates the orchestra, particularly during the faster parts (when he takes particularly frenetic tempi).  The slower movements dance, where there is lilt.  Where there is meant to be broader color – painted landscapes, for example – he does not always complete the picture, although this orchestra has the talent to produce the full palette.

The former (frenetic style) was on display in the Overture to Berlioz’ opera Benvenuto Cellini, which came across a bit crazy, a warm-up for Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony (“Italian”), whose outer movements had a definite forward drive, and whose interior movements had a certain spring in the step but not necessarily the fullness of tone.

Richard Strauss’ under-performed youthful work Aus Italien, is a four-movement tone poem, and perhaps here in the first three movements may have been too north-of-the-Alps in structure (if not in inspiration) for Minasi.  The first movement especially foreshadows the tonal lushness Strauss would later develop.  The final movement, though closer to Minasi’s rambunctious style, is actually the weakest link: Strauss mistook Funiculì Funiculà as a Neapolitan folk song and used it as the basis for his final movement – its (then very much alive) composer, Luigi Denza, sued Strauss for plagiarism and apparently recovered quite a bit in royalties.  Strauss should have quietly cut the final movement, which does not go with the first three anyway, but at least Minasi and the Mozarteum Orchestra had fun with it this morning.

 

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Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Beethoven, Berlioz

Beethoven‘s violin concerto has now featured on three concert programs I have attended in Salzburg during 2017.  All three soloists have done it justice, but tonight’s was the best of the three: Emmanuel Tjeknavorian, the 22-year-old Austrian son of the Armenian composer/conductor Loris Tjeknavorian.  The young Tjeknavorian had a gorgeous tone – sweet, but not sweetened, like a fresh organic vegetable relying on natural sugars to melt naturally in the mouth.  He backed this up with full-bodiedness, but still kept nuance.  A truly remarkable performance.

Less should be said about guest conductor Marko Letonja, who gave Tjeknavorian an uninspired backdrop.  The Beethoven concerto excels because of the series of dialogues it sets out between the solo violin and various instruments in the orchestra.  Letonja featured none of these instruments, instead blurring all of them together into a homogenized blob.  The orchestra supported the soloist – indeed the way most concertos call for an orchestra to do – but this is not what Beethoven had constructed.

Letonja applied the same approach for the second half of the concert, Berlioz‘s Symphonie Fantastique.  He did try to emphasize the odd syncopation, which left the work off-kilter as Berlioz intended: this is essentially Berlioz on a drug trip.  Unfortunately, with Letonja conducting, the drug of choice appears to have been qualudes.  The whole work dragged – especially an interminable third movement.  The Mozarteum Orchestra sounded great – although periodically unable to follow Letonja, not coming in together nor always on beat – but generally uninspired.  At least they too visibly enjoyed Tjeknavorian’s performance – they knew he was tonight’s winner.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Berlioz, Prokofiev, Schostakowitsch

The first Sunday matinee of the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s new season filled Salzburg’s Great Festival House with music, if with many empty seats as well.  This was a shame, as the orchestra shone under guest conductor Markus Stenz.

The concert overture Roman Festival by Berlioz led kicked off the program full of color.  Derived from music adapted from his opera Benvenuto Cellini, this reworking allowed the individual musicians in the orchestra to showcase themselves while blending to a thrilling whole.  This was moreso apparent in the second work, Prokofiev‘s first violin concerto, where soloist Arabella Steinbacher joined the orchestra.  Her tone was warm and sweet – but never too much so, allowing just enough edge to reflect that Prokofiev, when he wrote this in 1916, remained in the vanguard of new music.  So we got intricate combinations of musicians – introduced by the viole, Steinbacher played a dialogue with the flutes, and then moved on to continue the discussion through the orchestra.  And quite a fun discussion, moving back and forth and around and around, providing stimulation for the mind throughout the masterfull (and underperformed) work, here captured well be these artists assembled on stage.

Steinbacher treated us to an encore – a movement of a sonata by Prokofiev – which allowed her to showcase her talents further.  This time, she carried out the fanciful dialogue not with an orchestra, but rather by herself.  Her tone was just big enough to fill the large hall without strain, and allow us to enjoy her versatility working through Prokofiev’s clever thoughts.

The program closed with more color, except this time more somber: Schostakowitsch‘s fifth symphony.  Stenz translated the sense of foreboding in the symphony by controlling the dynamics, the big moments bringing in a shock component.  Stenz made Schostakowitch almost snarky: did the first movement describe clowns rounded up and marched to Siberia for cheering up the miserable victims of Soviet oppression?  Who was trying to dance in the second movement?  There was the color – so obvious in the Berlioz and Prokofiev works – showing through, in an controlled reading.  While in my own head I’ve heard this work as increasingly black over the last few years (and heard that interpretation to the extreme with the Petersburgers and Yuri Temirkanov visiting the Musikverein a year and a half ago), I still understood the convincing spin Stenz and the orchestra gave the symphony.  It certainly helps that this orchestra is in good form.

Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Walton, Dvořák, Berlioz, Verdi, Tschaikowsky, Prokofiev

The Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra came to town today with a program of music inspired by Shakespeare in love.  The renowned Austrian actress Senta Berger introduced each selection with a mix of biographical information of Shakespeare (and his loves and loves lost), period history, readings from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets (mostly in German translation), literary commentary on Shakespearean double-entendre in English, and some stories of later generations inspired by Shakespeare.

This program concept was good, but they could have thought it through more fully.  There was nothing wrong with Berger’s reading, but the mish-mash of texts came across as disjointed.  She also made no effort to connect the readings to the music in the program.  For example, she could have dramatized the scenes set by the composers, or explained the music in the context of the selections – if these composers were inspired by Shakespeare, the link should be obvious.  Or multiple actors could have acted out the scenes.  And while she alluded to the big delay between Shakespeare’s death and when people started setting his work to music, she could have explained more (as it was, she just said that opera, a natural medium for Shakespearean drama, did not exist yet in his lifetime and so it would take some time – problem was that all but one of the musical selections had no connection to opera, so that could not explain the delay).

The Nuremberg Symphony, though perfectly competent, did not make up for this disjointedness.  The playing was workmanlike.  They hit most of the notes.  They concentrated so hard to do so, that the music came out with little emotion, which essentially defeated the purpose of this concert.  Young English conductor Alexander Shelley kept these forces together with a smile.

The concert opened with an arrangement of music by William Walton for the 1936 film of As You Like It starring Laurence Olivier and continued with Dvořák’s Concert Overture to Othello.  Both compositions, seldom heard, displayed drama (not always communicated by the orchestra).  A selection of music from Berlioz’s “Dramatic Symphony” Romeo and Julietwas not dramatic – at least not this selection and not with this orchestra.  The ballet music from the third act of Verdi‘s MacBeth (the one nod to opera) jumped out a little better, possibly because Berger had been rather raunchy in her introduction.  Tschaikowsky’Romeo and Juliet Fantasy could have fantasized more.  The encore, the fight scene (not a love scene) from Prokofiev’Romeo and Juliet ballet, actually allowed them to let it all loose.

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.

Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna & Vienna Academic Wind Philharmonic, Musikverein

Brahms, Berlioz

Another amateur night in the Musikverein.

The Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, the Musikverein’s house amateur orchestra with the excessively-long name, performed Brahms’ Symphony #4 under Robert Zelzer for the first half of the program.  The playing was somewhat ragged, but they made it through reasonably well, considering they are not professional musicians.  As usual, Brahms wrote pleasant-sounding music but had nothing to say.  Occasionally an orchestra partly makes up for this by itself having something to say when playing Brahms, but not this orchestra and not tonight.

After the intermission, the Academic Wind Instrument Philharmonic – a student orchestra which grew out of the Vienna Technical University – got to do the original version of the rarely-heard Grand Funereal and Triumphal Symphony of Berlioz under the Danish conductor David Hojer.  The first movement – funeral music – emerged quite strikingly.  Perhaps I have spent too much time in Russia recently, but I almost heard antecedents of Schostakowitsch in some of Berlioz’ harmonies and rhythms.  A Russian orchestra, with its glaring winds, might take to this work.  The second and third movements settled in less convincingly as the orchestra tired and began to drag.  Berlioz himself later re-scored this piece to strengthen those two movements with a chorus, and perhaps this performance of the original version provided some indication of why he believed he needed to do that.  Indeed, when it looked like the orchestra was preparing to perform an encore, Hojer consulted with several of the musicians and then announced from the stage that they were too tired to play an encore.

Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Berlioz, Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch

Now that it is safe to go hear the Russian State Symphony Orchestra again, after it has deposed Gorenstein, I have now heard it perform twice in six days.  Tonight it played in the Tschaikowsky Hall, with a program that included very different works by Berlioz, Tschaikowsky, and Schostakowitsch.  The orchestra handled all three idiomatically, switching styles with ease from one to the next.  That it did not shine as much as it did last Thursday I can attribute to the different acoustics of the hall – the Tschaikowsky Hall is simply not in the same league as the Conservatory.  However, this orchestra clearly enjoys life much more than it used to until recently, a joy that comes across in its playing.

The Romanian conductor Ion Marin took the podium with equal excitement.  The concert opened with a cheerful rendition of the Roman Carnival Overture by Berlioz.  The mood switched from upbeat to pensive for Tschaikowsky’s Variations on a Rococo theme, with Ivan Karizna as the cello soloist.  Karizna is a 19-year-old Byelorussian, student at the Moscow Conservatory.  Oddly, from my vantage point, he looked a bit like Marin, and could have passed as the conductor’s illegitimate son.

Karizna produced a pleasant sound, and his agile fingers handled all the variations well from a technical perspective.  But he missed something, as his playing lacked depth.  At 19, he has plenty of time to mature.  He returned to the stage for an encore – a solo cello piece I did not recognize, that required additional showmanship.  Again, he could perform it technically very well, but still lacked something.  I also think his cello caught a cold between the Tschaikowsky and the encore, as it rasped a bit too much during the encore, a tone that was only rarely present during the Tschaikowsky and which was not required to interpret the encore.

After the intermission came Schostakowitsch’s 6th Symphony.  This is a strange work, which Schostakowitsch described as showing “spring, joy, and youth,” but which instead has Schostakowitsch’s typically bitter and foreboding tones.  Employing another musical language from Berlioz and Tschaikowsky, the orchestra spoke Schostakowitsch fluently as well.

Highlights from 2008

Highlights

Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Less travel and more time in Vienna meant I enjoyed even more live music than usual this year.

Best performance: Schostakowitsch, Symphony Nr. 8, Wiener Symphoniker, Vladimir Fedoseyev (November). Not among the more-often performed of Schostakowitsch’s symphonies, the anguished Eighth captures Schostakowitsch’s personality and mindset well. Written to commemorate the Red Army driving the Germans out of Russia, the undertone is that the Soviet regime was also ghastly, so the work was banned in Russia for many years. A moving performance, quite devastating in segments.

Runner up: Berlioz, Grande Messe des Morts, RSO Wien, Bertrand de Billy (November). I had forgotten just how immense this work was. Not sure the chorus even had room to inhale, they were so packed onto the Musikverein stage. The orchestra did not fit on the stage, so extended over the first few rows as well as into the first parterre loges on each side. The four brass choirs (in addition to the regular oversized brass section in the orchestra itself) were placed around the hall. Berlioz intended the piece, although bombastic, to be performed as church music and not as a concert requiem. De Billy clearly understood this and kept the lid on. The singing soared from the combined chorus of both the Wiener Singverein and the Wiener Singakademie.

Best concert venue: Occupation Museum, Tallinn (May). Visiting the Estonian Occupation Museum, I was invited to stay on after closing time for a concert with a rather odd quartet (soprano, flute, cello, and a glockenspiel-like instrument) performing modern, mostly Estonian, music. Between each piece the quartet moved around the museum and the audience had to carry our folding chairs from place to place, surrounded by Soviet-era memorabilia.

Most disappointing performance: Beethoven, Symphony Nr. 2 / Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, Göteborgs Symfoniker, Gustavo Dudamel, Vienna (October). If it had been a student orchestra, I would have been impressed. The much-hyped Dudamel (whom I watched from a balcony seat over the stage, where I could observe his peculiar technique) had clear passion and sense for palette, but the performance was far too sloppy for such an orchestra. Dudamel is the music director in Gothenborg, and thus can and should be held personally responsible. I cannot tell if Dudamel will gain more control as he gets older or will turn into Zubin Mehta (charismatic and capable of getting occasional exciting performances, but otherwise dreadfully boring and absolutely disastrous for orchestral discipline).

Worst performances: Nielsen, Violin Concerto / Bruckner, Symphony Nr. 6, Tonkünstler Orchester, Kristjan Järvi, Vienna (November). Nielsen is neither original nor interesting. Järvi demonstrated absolutely no feel for Bruckner. Dvořák, Cello Concerto, Daniel Müller-Schott, Wiener Symphoniker, Yakov Kreizberg (April). Müller-Schott’s uninspired solo work put me to sleep. Woke up after the intermission for a spirited Dvořák Sixth Symphony.

Best opera and most fun at the opera (winning both categories this year): R. Strauss, Capriccio, Staatsoper, Vienna (October). A rarely-performed esoteric work, the entire plot (in one act lasting nearly three hours) concerns whether music or text is more important to opera. No kidding. The opera’s seemingly unpromising plot was supported by witty text set to glorious music. The simple staging was well-considered and with good direction. Renee Fleming headed a superb cast, conducted by Philippe Jordan. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Runner-up for best opera: Verdi, Simon Boccanegra, Staatsoper, Vienna (September). A moody piece, not performed often enough. Not tuneful by Verdi standards, but with a plot resembling Gilbert and Sullivan. Thankfully, Verdi let Arrigo Boito fix up the libretto and made Boccanegra version #2 into good drama, if properly performed (as here).

Runner-up for most fun at the opera: Benatzky, Im Weißen Rößl, Kammerspiele, Vienna (May). The classic 1920s Austrian comedy, here performed cabaret-style on a small stage with a three-person orchestra.

Worst opera production: Wagner, Lohengrin, Staatsoper, Vienna (May). The performance, conducted by Peter Schneider, would have been great if I had kept my eyes closed. They should have saved the expense of a staged production and just done a concert performance, since the cast generally wore formal concert attire anyway. Of all the bizarre things on stage, the director left out the one thing which must be there: the swan (explaining in the program notes that this central figure was actually unnecessary). The imbecilic director was not German, but – to no surprise – trained in Berlin. I think I have to stop going to operas directed by people who have even visited Germany.