Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Liszt, Elgar, Britten, Bartók, Sibelius

Eighty years ago, about 20% of the population of Salzburg came out to burn books.  They mostly burned books written by or about, or which had even belonged to, Jews – but since there really were not so many Jews in this extreme anti-Semitic town, they added others to the pyre: those of pro-Habsburg monarchists and of anyone who had spoken out against the incorporation of Austria into Germany.  The Salzburg University Library, across the lane from the Great Festival House, is one of several places in the town remembering this event with exhibits, in this case outward-facing posters in the ground floor windows depicting Salzburg citizens whose books were burned and the Salzburg Nazis who burned the books.  Across from the door where I entered the Great Festival House this evening, Max Reinhardt’s face stared out.  Reinhardt founded the Salzburg Festival and made this city an important cultural center – and the Salzburgers hated him for it and saw the Festival as a plot by international Jewry to take over Salzburg (oh, they’ve loved the Festival ever since the Nazis appropriated it in 1938 and of course from the 1950s to the 1980s under its intendant, the unrepetant Nazi Herbert von Karajan).  Broken, Reinhardt died in exile in 1943.

Salzburg is a beautiful city, but it is a beauty tarnished.  So this exhibit seemed like a good scene-setter for this evening’s concert of the Helsinki Philharmonic, visiting Salzburg for three concerts this week (I’ll go again on Friday – would have gone tomorrow too, but that’s my Mozarteum Orchestra Thursday subscription concert).   Susanna Mälkki conducted a program of melancholy.

Ferenc Liszt‘s tone poem Orpheus opened the concert.  Liszt wrote this as a new prelude for a revision he did of Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice, to describe pure beauty cast into the depths of the underworld.  Edward Elgar wrote his Cello Concerto (performed here with Norwegian soloist Truls Mørk) in the aftermath of the carnage of the First World War and as his wife lay dying.  Béla Bartók, who had opposed the Nazis and fled to the United States, wrote his Concerto for Orchestra while consumed by abject poverty and leukemia in his New York exile – it would be the last work he completed before he died.  (Janne SibeliusValse Triste concluded the concert as an encore, the sad waltz from his incidental music to a play called Death.)  So much beauty; so much sadness.

The orchestra carried this mood throughout the concert, although there was a certain humor to the warped tunes in the final two movements of the Bartók.  Mørk was not quite up to the level of Sol Gabetta (whom I heard perform the Elgar concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic last month) – it’s a difficult piece to get right.  He exhibited a fuller understanding of a solo encore work (a movement from the Cello Suite #2) by Benjamin Britten, in which he could display a bigger sound, capturing the instrument’s deep – and deeply human – voice.  Meanwhile, Mälkki’s conducting was rather blockish – very heavy-handed and abrupt, not always drawing out the lines to their fullest or allowing the orchestra to sing.  The audience applause was polite but underwhelming (this was my Wednesday Kulturvereinigung subscription concert with the usual crowd, so I can indeed compare the reaction to other concerts).  It wasn’t a bad performance at all, just not quite to the level I think the audience expected.

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Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Sibelius, Britten, Schoenberg, Strauss

A wonderful Sunday morning chamber concert in the Mozarteum by the Camerata Salzburg featured some lesser-known works by Janne Sibelius, Benjamin Britten, Arnold Schoenberg, and Richard Strauss.  It was like being invited over for brunch by old friends who spent the meal regaling me of stories from their youth that I had never heard before, full of detail and charm.  (That said, I actually have heard the Strauss work in concert once before, and own excerpts from the Sibelius work on a recording; the rest was new for me.)

The Camerata’s strings were especially lush, and for those pieces requiring woodwinds, they were emotive.  We had that all together for the incidental music composed by Sibelius for Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande, a rare work by that composer not rooted in Finnish myth, but still identifiably Sibelian in its somber but dramatic colors.

On either side of the intermission, soprano Anna Prohaska joined the orchestra for some songs.  Before the intermission came “Illuminations” by Britten, setting texts by a London-based French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, who wrote in French but used English metrics.  These also spanned the dramatic range, and demonstrated Britten’s mastery of both fine chamber musicianship and rhetoric.  Prohaska channeled her inner Britten, also mastering both, with a fine dramatic reading spanning the emotions.

After the intermission, Prohaska and the ensemble added two songs by Schoenberg, based on themes from early string quartets setting the words of poet Stefan George: “Litany” and “Rapture.”  If Schoenberg’s starting point was Beethoven, he quickly moved into new tonal (or atonal) experiments, but left enough room for today’s artists to wax mystical.

As a final programmed work, the Camerata’s principal hornist Johannes Hinterholzer came to the front of the stage for Strauss’ Horn Concerto #1, which the then 18-year-old composer wrote as a 60th birthday present for his illustrious hornist father.  Where the other works on this morning’s program were essentially melancholic, this one was boisterous and happy.  Hinterholzer played with enthusiasiasm, backed up in equal measures by his colleagues, all clearly having fun while doing so.

There was an encore, which Hinterholzer introduced loudly enough but then he swallowed the name of the composer so that it became unintelligible, so I have no idea what it was; it was not as good as the Strauss and on the whole we could have done without it.  The four scheduled pieces on the program were enough of a good thing with this group.  The orchestra went without a conductor today, instead having guest concert master Sebastian Breuninger lead, giving demonstrative cues.  Breuninger is the concert master of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra – the Camerata’s own concert master, Gregory Ahss, announced in the annual program schedule and in many of the flyers available in the foyer (but not in the printed program, which showed Breuninger) as leading this concert, was mysteriously absent.  I saw Ahss perform with this orchestra in January, and an on-line search comes up with no further information about the substitution.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Wagner, Britten, Mendelssohn

Fall has most certainly arrived in Salzburg, but with it the concert season also picks up.  Tonight, the Camerata Salzburg opened its year with a spirited performance under the St. Petersburg-trained Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis.  I had never heard of Currentzis, who seems to have mostly vanished inside the Russian Federation for his career, but he is quite talented.  Indeed, the orchestra parted ways with their unremarkable chief conductor (Louis Langrée) last season and decided to go without one – but maybe they should keep this one!  They clearly had an excellent rapport with him, and their enjoyment spilled off the stage into the Mozarteum’s Great Hall.

The centerpiece of tonight’s concert was a somewhat unusual work by Benjamin Britten, his Seranade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. A not-quite-tonal work, it sets six poems written over six centuries, and prompts difficult blends of colors, which Currentzis coaxed with ease from the orchestra.  The tenor soloist Samuel Boden and hornist Johannes Hinterholzer fully grasped the mood as well, with their idiomatic readings.  Although on a modern horn for the songs themselves, Hinterholzer played the Prologue and Epilogue on a natural horn – the last as a backstage solo with the lights in the hall fading to darkness.

Sandwiching this peculiar Britten piece came two more traditional – but themselves quite different – works.  The concert opened with Wagner‘s Siegfried Idyll, here performed extremely delicately by Currentzis and the Camerata.  This was perhaps the Idyll Wagner intended, as a brithday morning wake-up gift for his wife, although tonight working equally as well to set the relaxed mood at the end of a hectic week.

After the intermission came a boisterous Symphony #4 by Felix Mendelssohn, which coming after the Wagner and Britten works demonstrated the Camerata’s sheer musicality.  This is a chamber orchestra, so they did not augment the string section although adding the assorted wind instruments – this allowed Currentzis to highlight the various lines in those instruments, over a string foundation, with the orchestra capturing all of the nuances.

The audience exploded in applause.  This applause, on top of the Mendelssohn, may have raised the roof in the hall, so Currentzis and the orchestra felt compelled to sedate everyone again with an encore (not a bad idea at all).  Currentzis spoke a long introduction for this encore, emphasizing the need for silence and inner reflection after the wild performance of Mendelssohn, but he never actually told us what it was.  It was some quiet minimalist piece of no particular interest (performed with the house and stage lights off, illuminated only by the music stand lights) that – to be frank – was anti-climactic after his long-winded introductory remarks.  Far better would have been to turn the lights off and let us meditate in actual silence before heading back out into the night.  But given the music-making of the rest of the evening before the encore, all is forgiven.

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Britten, Schostakowitsch

It was third time lucky this year with the Berlin Philharmonic.  They underwhelmed me in Vienna and Berlin in May, but in Salzburg this afternoon they hit their stride for the closing concert of the Festival.  Simon Rattle took the podium.

The concert opened with a work I did not previously know: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge by Benjamin Britten.  This was Britten’s first major international success, composed on commission for the 1937 Salzburg Festival.  In it, Britten took a simple theme from his composition teacher and ran it through a bunch of variations for string orchestra.  And these were not just the usual variations, but rather in a wide range of styles, from Viennese waltz to funeral music and from military march to baroque fugue.  The Berlin Philharmonic strings needed to demonstrate almost every possible manner of playing, and Rattle had to jump from one to another with versatility and agility.  They succeeded and then some.

These skills also helped after the intermission, when the full orchestra took the stage.  Schostakowitsch’s Fourth Symphony was banned for 25 years in part because it accurately portrayed how miserable life is in Russia.  The authorities also thought it was far too complex.  The Berliners handled the complexities this afternoon with few problems – almost made it sound easy, but sometimes it was a head-scratcher (“did they really just manage to play that?!?!).  Rattle had it all under control.  My only quibble is that they could have played it several shades darker – this performance did not quite portray Russia in all of its misery.

Tonkünstlerorchester, Musikverein

Britten, R. Strauss, Elgar, Sibelius

Came into Vienna for a conference and other meetings this week.  Decided to pop into the Musikverein unplanned for what looked like good program of the Tonkünstlerorchester: early and rarely-performed works by Benjamin Britten and Richard Strauss, and Elgar’Enigma Variations.

I had not realized the history behind Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, for which he received a large commission from the Japanese Emperor for a major festive work and instead wrote a melancholic orchestral work inspired by the Catholic mass for the dead.  Better to decline the commission than to still accept the money but insult the Emperor for the sake of artistic expression.

The piece, however, is of quite high quality and although I cannot remember seeing it on other concert programs (although I am familiar with it through a recording), it led to a number of other commissions as Britten’s career took off.  This afternoon, Danish conductor Michael Schønwandt gave a full-bodied reading.  He may be unfamiliar with the acoustics in the Golden Hall, since although he clearly wanted to accentuate the rich lines of individual instruments, he kept the rest of the orchestra playing thickly, meaning the sounds tended to blur.  In this hall, such an approach is not necessary to achieve a full sound.

Richard Strauss grew up as the son of the most celebrated hornist of his day, and he clearly understood the instrument.  So did the Czech soloist Radek Baborák.  The expressiveness appeared to grow from Mozart’s four horn concerti, augmented with late-classical and early-romantic developments from Schubert or Schumann or Mendelssohn, which Baborák approached with versatility, character, and charm.  The soloists within the orchestra complemented his playing, and with Schønwandt’s approach good dialogues developed between Baborák and the orchestral soloists.  Baborák gave us a little encore as well (although his announcement to introduce what it was was not audible, at least his horn was).

Unlike the first two works, Elgar’s Enigma Variations are often performed and a bit of a warhorse.  It remains a lovely work.  Tonight’s concert lacked the English sentimentality usually heard with this work, but the Tonkünstler nevertheless played it well.  Once again, some of the section soloists had wonderful lines, which Schønwandt allowed them to augment, particularly the first flute and first cello.  Schønwandt capped off the concert with the Valse Triste by Sibelius, which the orchestra did play sentimentally and with a melancholic lilt.

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.

Russian National Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Beethoven, Strauss, Ravel, Britten, Pletnëv, Tschaikowsky

Again, another evening with the Russian National Orchestra, indeed a world-class ensemble, this time holding its 20th anniversary gala in the Tschaikowsky Hall.  Good to hear it playing music it is more familiar with – not so technical as its Wagner on Monday.  Kent Nagano conducted the first half of the concert, and he was not as technical as he had been on Monday either.  His form remained easy for the orchestra to follow, but with orchestra and conductor more familiar with the music, they let loose tonight.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture #3, in a dramatic reading, albeit taken a little too fast.  Don Juan by Richard Strauss followed.  In this second piece, Nagano allowed the winds to play in a more-typically Russian style, which may have made this the most neurotic Don Juan I’ve heard (different, albeit in a good way).  The first half of the concert closed with Ravel’s Bolero, a work which allowed the individual members of the orchestra to showcase themselves.  The Bolero is a dreadfully interminable piece, no matter who performs it, but I tried to block out the big picture music and focus on the individual instrumentalists, which with this group made the work bearable.

After the intermission, Mikhail Pletnëv, the orchestra’s founder, took the podium.  They’ve obviously let him out of prison in Thailand again for the occasion.

Pletnëv began his half of the concert with Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell (originally composed for an educational film, with commentary, as the “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” here performed in its revised purely orchestral version).  Like Ravel’s Bolero, this piece allows the individual instrumentalists to showcase themselves, and that they did.  Although Ravel was known as a great orchestrator, Britten was by far the more talented and creative composer, and Pletnëv’s reading with the RNO certainly provided virtuosity, excitement, and even raw aggression in a way maybe only a Russian orchestra could achieve.

Pletnëv’s own Jazz Suite, which he composed last year, rounded off the scheduled portion of the program.  Pletnëv clearly selected the work because it also allowed for different orchestra members – second chairs and others – to display their own virtuosity.  Unlike the jazz-inspired works composed by Schostakowitsch to thumb his nose at the Soviet authorities, which were really classical pieces inspired by jazz, Pletnëv’s piece was actual jazz music scored for full orchestra.  As such, it gave me the feeling that I was back at a Boston Pops concert.  I’m not so familiar with jazz, so cannot judge the originality of the work, but it did not come across as very original, as Schostakowitsch’s jazz-inspired works do, for example.  Still, the orchestra had fun, and so, therefore, did the audience.

As an encore, Pletnëv led the orchestra in an inspiring and rousing rendition of Tschaikowsky’s Slavonic March.  I think the audience wanted more encores, but, sadly, none was forthcoming.