Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Bernstein, Schostakowitsch

The 2018-19 concert season opened in Salzburg’s Great Festival House with the hometown Mozarteum Orchestra and guest conductor John Storgårds. They performed music from the mid-1950s by Leonard Bernstein and Dmitri Schostakowitsch, although the pieces could not have been more different: Bernstein’s charming Serenade After Plato’s Symposium and Schostakowitsch’s brutal Eleventh Symphony.

The Bernstein piece, scored for violin solo (tonight, Baiba Skride), strings, and percussion, was suitably eclectic in style, with movements representing figures at Plato’s dinner party.  I suppose the nature of each movement was supposed to represent the respective character, but whether Bernstein succeeded in this or not (and some evidence suggests he wrote the music first and only later added the cultural references to the written description) the music did work in an odd way.  Written simultaneous with Candide, some elements of that opera make an appearance in the score here, and Stravinsky also has an influence.  I had not known this piece before, and had feared it might be over-thunk like so many of Bernstein’s works, but maybe because he was not really trying to set a program (despite his official description) he kept this more contained.  The orchestra got it.  Skride got it.  The combination produced delightful interplay, well balanced and full of humor.

After the break, Storgårds let loose with Schostakowitsch’s approximate portrayal of the events in Russia of 1905 – a year which opened with peaceful protesters coming to the Imperial Palace to plead with the Czar (whom they actually revered), only to have the Czar send his soldiers shooting into the crowd leaving thousands dead, triggering revolutionary events that foretold the overthrow of the Czarist regime in 1917.  In memorializing the victims and raising the alarm, Schostakowitsch’s subtext concerned the post-1917 Soviet regime under which Russia continued to suffer (the symphony was officially written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution).  

Lines in one section of the orchestra came into direct conflict with lines played by other instruments, both dissonant and cumulative (in this way it actually did resemble the Bernstein work too).  Storgårds’ interpretation was raw – with the comfort level of ripping scabs off wounds unable to heal, with the wailing of harsh crescendi interjecting.  Gone were the soaring chorales – either of the peasants’ pleas or the memorial hymns – replaced instead by harsh reality.  This was not the Mozarteum Orchestra at its most beautiful, but that was exactly Storgårds’ point.  This was the Mozarteum Orchestra at its most dramatic.  I still think it’s possible to do both (my clear favorite reference recording of the work is with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra – a recording that made this possibly my favorite of Schostakowitsch’s output), but tonight’s interpretation was highly convincing on its own merits.  Special kudos to the English hornist and percussion section.

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London Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bernstein, Dvořák, Janáček

A member of the Philadelphia Orchestra assured me that Leonard Bernstein‘s Second Symphony, the “Age of Anxiety,” which I heard for the first time when the Philadelphia Orchestra performed it in Vienna in June, only makes sense after the second time through.  That second time came this evening at the Festival, with the London Symphony Orchestra under its new music director Simon Rattle visiting the Great Festival House.  Bernstein the composer was still too pretentious for his own good, but at least I understand how the pieces fit together now.

It was not an issue of the orchestra, as the Philadelphians handled every difficult twist and turn in June, just as the Londoners did this evening, it is just that it takes two hearings to have a listener’s ear assemble it sensibly.  It’s actually rather fun when it is all put together.

There was one major improvement tonight, however: the piano soloist.  Jean-Yves Thibaudet looked frightened out of his wits when he performed with the Philadelphians in June.  Tonight, Krystian Zimerman sat at the keyboard cool as can be, and made the extensive solo parts sound effortless.  I had a direct view of his hands from my seat, and they just moved up and down the keyboard (including several lines where they crossed each other) as though this was easy.

Zimerman came back out for a solo encore – I’ll guess Chopin, although I’m not 100% sure (not really my thing), but again cool and collected.

After the intermission, Rattle and the orchestra returned with the second set of Slavonic Dances by Antonín Dvořák and the Sinfonietta by Leoš Janáček.  This orchestra certainly has a lot more lilt and playfullness than Rattle’s previous band in Berlin, and he highlighted all of the color.  I can see why it is regarded as the best of the several world-class London-based orchestras – I have not heard it live for a few years (I am more current with the London Philharmonic, sounding better under Vladimir Jurowski than it has since the 1980s, and the Philharmonia), but might agree.  Its strings sounded beautiful and adept at crafting the lines, but despite a full-sized contingent strangely thin in contrast with, for example, the Vienna Philharmonic or the Philadelphia Orchestra. So top ten but not top five…. or maybe it will convince me otherwise tomorrow evening.

 

Philadelphia Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Bernstein, Tschaikowsky, Elgar

The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin returned for a second night in the Musiverein’s Golden Hall, making a bigger splash with the audience than last night: bigger applause devolving to rhythmic clapping and a call for an encore.  To be honest: this orchestra certainly deserved the ovation, but I’m not convinced tonight was better than last.

The first half of the concert had one peculiar piece, Leonard Bernstein‘s Second Symphony, the “Age of Anxiety.”  Bernstein was a far better conductor and intellectual than he was a composer, but this is one of his better compositions.  That does not make it any less pretentious.  Part One was everywhere (as the composer intended), which I suppose is what gives it the sense of anxiety.  But it was a joyous Part One – a musical description of four people getting drunk together, but each lonely and self-absorbed, in a bar, they seemed to be embibing a bit too much and may have actually been rather happy when not mourning their own existence.  Part Two, on the other hand, never seemed to figure out what it wanted to be, shifting musical styles (including a bit of jazz) without settling on anything.  This may have been a bit too weird.  The Orchestra could certainly handle this tricky music with no problem at all – the only one who seemed to be anxious was Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the piano soloist (the work is in many ways more piano concerto than symphony), whose mouth remained agape and whose eye stared up at Nézet-Séguin with a look of utter fear.  Thibaudet appears to have told his barber to cut his hair to match Bernstein’s own hairstyle, and there was a passing similarity, so perhaps this was indeed the pianist channeling the composer’s spirit.

For the second half of the concert, the Orchestra pulled out Tschaikowsky‘s Fourth Symphony.  His fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies are performed far too often.  They are good music, but it’s just hard to say anything new.  This Orchestra’s thrilling Tschaikowsky Fifth in Dresden in 2015, for example, still rings in my ears – it was that good.  Tonight’s Fourth… wonderful performance, but I heard nothing I haven’t heard before.  So that was a bit disappointing.

But yes it was a wonderful performance, and the audience appreciated it maybe more than I did.  The solo bows elicited roars (particularly for the principal oboist, Richard Woodhams, who is retiring at the end of this tour, whose solo bow inspired massive foot thumping across the hall).  So the orchestra gave us an orchestration of Edward Elgar‘s Liebesgruß to show off its lush string sound, as an encore.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Reich, Bernstein, Antheil, Copland, Curiale, Still

American night at the Mozarteum: music by Steve Reich, Leonard Bernstein, George Antheil, Aaron Copland, Joseph Curiale, and William Grant Still.  Conductor Riccardo Minasi led the superb Mozarteum Orchestra in an intelligently-constructed program.

With the exception of the Copland segment (and an encore by Bernstein – a rousing excerpt from West Side Story), nothing in the program has entered the standard repertory, so tonight was a chance to experience something new – or lots of somethings new.  The connecting strand was one of taking jazz and other American rhythms and incorporating them into classical orchestral music.  This also required highlighting the winds especially, and the Mozarteum’s winds rose to the challenge.  However, they did this one a bed of strings, who created a full supportive tone.

The Copland selection – three excerpts from his ballet Rodeo – may have been the most accessible (which may also explain why this music has entered the standard repertory).  But “accessible” does not mean “easy” – Copland’s music jumped around both in rhythm and in tone, and the orchestra got all of the crazy juxtapositions, smiling and winking at each other as they went.

Excerpts from Bernstein’s ballet On the Town, and Antheil’s Jazz Symphony both attempted other aspects, maybe less successfully than Copland.  Antheil’s work came in a revised version (apparently the original one – although fully orchestrated – called for three pianos; one was certainly sufficient).  The Orchestra’s principal solo trumpet, Johannes Moritz, came to the front of the stage for Curiale’s Blue Windows for Trumpet and Orchestra – the only work composed in the 21st century (everything else was 20th century).  After a jarring start in the orchestra (intentional – Curiale wrote it that way), the work settled down, and Moritz’s warm and silky tone balanced the rest of the team.

The first piece was actually oddest work of the night: Reich’s Clapping Music was inspired by African drumming, and consisted of sixteen orchestra members coming to the front of the stage and clapping to a beat led by Minasi (clapping while facing them).  Cute, but I’m glad it only lasted three minutes.  African drums might have provided more variety in sound.

The final scheduled work was a find.  Still’s “Afro-American” Symphony #1 was the first symphony by a black composer ever performed by a “white” orchestra in an age of segregation (the premiere came in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic conducted by Still’s friend Howard Hanson).  Still drew inspiration from the sounds he had heard growing up along the Mississippi River, but this was not just a rehash or orchestration thereof, but a wonderful synthesis that clearly grew from his heart.

Volksoper

Bernstein, Candide

The Volksoper premiered a new Candide tonight, in an unstaged adaptation of the 1999 version.  Bernstein’s operetta has an unfortunate and problematic performance history, so this may represent one of the better attempts to make sense of it all.  Bernstein had a flair for the dramatic, but Candide failed miserably as a stage production and I have never understood why he, of all people, thought it might succeed.  Voltaire’s story is not conducive to staging, especially when edited down to fit into a night’s performance, jumping as it does all over the planet.  As a parody, however, it works.

And, of course, Bernstein’s music works.  So for more than half a century, different people have attempted to preserve Bernstein’s music with a semblance of the plot, with more or less staging.  Tonight’s adaptation did not try to stage it at all, although the singers provided some acting.  The arranger had an actor substitute all of the dialogue with German-language narrative, although all of Bernstein’s musical numbers were performed in the original English.  In this way, the Volksoper’s artistic director Robert Meyer, appearing as the narrator, managed to capture the story’s humor without the distractions of an impossible plot, as well as throwing in additional jokes.  Taking care of the plot in this way, he allowed the singers to concentrate on the music, pulling off the comic lyrics to the melodious tunes.  Stephen Chaundy (Candide) and Jennifer O’Loughlin (Cunegonde) were in full voice as the leading couple.  Morten Frank Larsen made a fine Pangloss, and Kim Cresswell (quite a performer, although in uneven voice) provided wit and charm in the role of the Old Lady.  Joseph R. Olefirowicz conducted an elegant and idiomatic interpretation of Bernstein’s music, which, in the end, remains the reason people keep desperately trying to find good ways to perform this otherwise heavily-flawed operetta.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Schubert, Adams, Lutosławski, Brahms, Britten, Bernstein

The Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra performed a Sunday afternoon light concert of symphonic dances under the baton of Dmitry Liss, which ran through a number of styles: Six German Dances by Franz Schubert (as orchestrated by Anton Webern), the Chairman’s Dance from Nixon in China by John Adams, Five Dance Preludes for Clarinet and Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski (with Vladimir Permyakov on Clarinet), Hungarian Dance Nr. 6 by Johannes Brahms, the Musical Evening Suite by Benjamin Britten (based on Rossini), and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein.

Liss kept the afternoon light and bouncy.  This worked best for the Brahms, with an almost-Hungarian lilt, and for the Bernstein, which Liss made sound like Bernstein had composed it under the influence of Stravinsky (maybe he did…?).  It worked less well for the Adams dance, which had a lot of movement and went absolutely nowhere, a typically poor effort by that ridiculously over-hyped composer.

After coffee and a sandwich, I migrated over to the Stanisklavsky.

Yale Alumni Chorus and Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

Britt, Vaughan Williams, Orbelian, Babajanian, Tigranian, Khachaturian, Bernstein

The Yale Alumni Chorus came to Yerevan.  It looks like they recruited most of it from the comfortable armchairs in the reading room of the Yale Club of New York, as it consisted mostly of white men of a certain age (and a bunch of younger women – when did Yale start admitting women?).  But they can sing – I’ll attest to that.  Apparently, this trip was organized by two conductors from the same Armenian family (Konstantin Orbelian, from Armavir, Armenia, and his nephew Constantine Orbelian, from San Francisco), who seem to have a long association with the Yale Glee Club, so the concert was put on in their honor.

The concert opened with the world premiere of “Dream and a Song” by Colin Britt, with the Chorus under Yale Glee Club conductor Jeffrey Douma accompanied by the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra.  The program notes provided no information at all about this work, and I have never heard of the composer.  Short piece, a bit of a fanfare for voice, sufficient for getting the choral concert underway.  So I suppose it worked, but was otherwise uninteresting.

The highlight of the concert came next, with the Chorus and the Philharmonic performing Dona Nobis Pacem by Ralph Vaughan Williams under the baton of the Philharmonic’s artistic director Eduard Topchjan.  I’ve now heard this orchestra perform dully under many batons this year, but Topchjan once again proved that he (and perhaps only he) can make it sound quite good.  In this piece, Vaughan Williams set a series of Walt Whitman poems to dramatic music.  Chorus and orchestra responded to the challenge.  So did soprano Syuzanna Melkonyan.  Baritone John Rouse was somewhat weaker, but came along for the ride.

After the intermission, the concert became eclectic.  It started with a series of Armenian a cappella songs performed by the Paros Chamber Choir, a small chorus composed of long-term patients at a rehabilitation hospital in Yerevan, many of whom are confined to wheelchairs.  They were good, as was the sequence of songs they chose, and they earned a rousing applause.

Unfortunately, when they left the stage, the concert took a big turn for the worse.  I suppose if the two Orbelians sponsored the concert, then they deserved to be trotted out on stage themselves.  Uncle Konstantin played the piano and Nephew Constantine conducted.  First came “Memories of Gershwin” composed by the Uncle, a piece for piano and orchestra in the style of Gershwin, but without the talent of Gershwin.  This was tolerable and entertaining, at least, unlike the next two offerings.

However, before each of the next two offerings, Uncle Konstantin took it upon himself to grab a microphone and start mumbling uncontrollably.  He did so in Russian.  This leads me to ask what self-respecting Armenian, born in Armenia (the program said he was born in Armavir, which is somewhat west of Yerevan), addressing an audience of Armenians in the Armenian capital, does so in… Russian.  If he does not respect himself, there is little reason for me to respect him.  But that aside, now back to the so-called music.

“Nocturne” by Arno Babajanian followed the mock-Gershwin.  This was cheesy taken to an extreme – nightclub-style music scored for full orchestra accompanying the piano (with a piano part hammed up to the fullest by the elder Orbelian – I suppose ham goes with cheese).  I half expected film credits to start rolling on the organ pipes in the back of the stage – possibly the final credits of a film would be the only time this music might have any reason to be performed.

As bad as this was, the elder Orbelian took it even further with the next work – “Birch Trees” – which he wrote himself to prove he could be cheesier than the next guy, I suppose.  In addition to the overwrought orchestra and piano, we had to suffer through a tenor soloist, Yeghishe Manucharian.  Manucharian’s voice was so weak he required heavy miking.  Very heavy miking.  So heavy, in fact, that I (and other members of the audience) literally had to cover our ears to keep our heads from exploding.  Khachaturian Hall is not exceptionally large, so if Manucharian does not have a voice big enough to perform in it, then he needs to find another career.  Maybe he could sing in a nightclub.

The Orbelians finally went back stage, and the stagehands ensured that the piano followed them.  Eduard Topchjan returned to the podium to lead a pleasant folk-music-inspired aria from Armen Tigranian’s opera Anush.  The soloist was… Manucharian.  He must have seen the audience cringing during the previous piece, because when he returned to the stage he demonstrably pushed the microphone to the side and sang without it.  He proved that, if he strained enough, he could fill the hall.  But this also meant that his voice sounded heavily strained.  Now that he broke his vocal chords, maybe he could be a waiter in a nightclub.

There followed an interlude where the Yale Alumni Chorus presented awards to Topchjan and to Constantine Orbelian.  This took a while, since the two Yalie men presenting the awards were long-winded and the English-to-Armenian translator they hired was inadequate for her job.

Returning to the music, Douma took the podium again and gave us two further songs for chorus and orchestra by Aram Khachaturian, and then the final chorus from Bernstein’Candide (“Make Our Garden Grow”).  And then we got an encore.  I was expecting maybe “Boola Boola,” given the make-up of the Yale Alumni Chorus, but we instead had a negro spiritual.  This was truly excellent, although it was a bit incongruous seeing all those older white men with sticks up their backsides singing a negro spiritual (there was one distinguished-looking elder black man in the chorus, but he still looked like an old Yalie).  Since the chorus wasn’t going to do it, the audience provided the clapping and swaying instead.