Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Tarrodi, Ravel, Chopin, Stravinsky, Sibelius

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and its new chief conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali came to the Felsenreitschule this evening with a vividly colorful Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky.  Composed between his Firebird and Rite of Spring, tonight’s performance also demonstrated how this could serve as a bridge work between those greatly-contrasting styles, as Rouvali and the Orchestra emphasized the complexities in the score – particularly in the first and fourth scenes, set in the fairground, when we could hear all the varying activities going on at once (but never jumbled).  Although a concert performance, we could almost see the ballet.

In saying we could almost see the ballet, I am not actually referring to Rouvali’s unusual conducting style – one would think he was once a ballet dancer, with his exaggerated arm motions and (controlled) leaps around the podium on his toes.  He did this throughout the concert, not just for Petrushka, so it is his style.  But the orchestra responded well – and indeed sounded much better than the last time I heard it live (under Rouvali’s overrated predecessor Gustavo Dudamel).  

The concert’s encore, the Valse Triste by Janne Sibelius, also thrived in this telling – although the extreme tempo changes may have been a bit odd (even if they actually worked), starting off and finishing very slowly, but getting very fast, or speeding up and slowing down, to emphasize an odd rhythm.

Unfortunately, as colorful as the concert was after the intermission, so was it dull before the intermission.  The concert had opened with Liguria, a tone poem from 2012 by the Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi.  The program notes said she was inspired by Respighi’s musical canvasses of Italian landscapes, but Respighi could make pine trees exciting – I heard none of this in her work.  The waves were clear and soothing, lapping against the coast, but the music never went anywhere.

Worse was to come: Maurice Ravel‘s Piano Concerto (the one for two hands).  I suppose it was pleasant, maybe, but there just was nothing of substance there.  For such a work, the performance matched exactly.  Soloist Alice Sara Ott appeared intent on getting as little sound out of the piano as possible, tapping her fingers lightly against the keys.  She remained audible because the orchestra never overwhelmed her – Ravel had not really given them anything to do either.  This was distilled essence of music.  Ott’s encore, Frederic Chopin‘s posthumous Nocturne #20, showed more of the same technique from Ott, if slightly more of value from the composer.

Of course, there was a tragic subtext.  Ott was supposed to perform Grieg’s concerto this evening.  But late last year she felt unwell and went to have medical tests done.  Earlier this month she got the results: multiple sclerosis.  At 30 years old, she now must contemplate the end of her career.  I guess the insubstantial Ravel work is far less grueling than Grieg’s showpiece.  This is sad and I feel for her.  She has announced that medical breakthroughs mean she will fight the disease, and I wish her well and many more years in front of a keyboard.

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Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Chopin, Dvořák

The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra has returned to Salzburg’s Great Festival House for a set, under the baton of its chief conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada.  The large hall was packed – looked to be completely sold out.

Normally there is only so much Chopin I can tolerate at any one sitting, so I came in a little apprehensive about his first piano concerto taking up the entire first half of the program (which is part of my subscription package).  I mostly know Chopin’s works for solo piano, which don’t really do it for me, so feared a long concerto might be worse.  However, hearing this work for the first time I realized that adding an orchestra gave the music more depth and variety (the longer parts for solo or with limited orchestra were naturally less interesting).  There was a certain swing to this performance, with Rafał Blechacz, a young Pole, at the keyboard.  He produced a glistening tone, fingers tapping lightly as though on top of the water, letting the ripples flow softly outwards.  The orchestra supported this approach.  And while it seemed a more appropriate piece for a Sunday matinee and not a Wednesday evening concert, somewhat sedate and subtle, it worked.  While I am not likely to go out of my way to hear this concerto again, I would not now seek to avoid it either.

As if to prove a point, though, Blechacz came out with an encore that sounded like a solo Chopin work, and though nothing was missing from his playing, the absence of the orchestra was notable.

After the intermission, the orchestra and Orozco-Estrada gave a somewhat unusual interpretation of Dvořák‘s Ninth Symphony.  Orozco-Estrada decided to emphasize some of the off-kilter syncopation by playing around quite drastically with tempi – faster or slower, speeding up and slowing down.   This approach was not unconvincing (it perhaps made the piece more American and less Czech in inspiration – the piece has elements of both), however it left instruments too often out of time with each other, which I don’t believe was the intent.

The orchestra opened the concert with a somewhat muddy tone, but warmed and became clearer throughout, particularly as the Dvořák symphony progressed (the encore, another Dvořák movement for strings only from his Serenade for Strings, was more homogenized).  All in all, this group sounded much better than the last time I heard them here about two years ago, this time playing with more emotion and color, particularly the improved brass.  Last time I suspected they had not done a proper soundcheck in the hall, but this time the balance worked well.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Hoffmann, Beethoven, Chopin, Haydn

A triumphant final subscription concert of the season had the Mozarteum Orchestra sounding absolutely ebullient this evening – maybe the best I have heard this orchestra sound since I moved to Salzburg four years ago.

The Orchestra, wrapping up its first season with its chief conductor Riccardo Minasi, was in its element in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall, performing music by ETA Hoffmann (!), Ludwig van Beethoven, and Joseph Haydn.  Minasi tends to conduct things a tad fast and loud, but it worked with this concert, and the orchestra members looked up at him with broad smiles and then poured their enthusiasm into their instruments.  They all sounded great – although I’d have to single out the oboist especially.

The poet ETA Hoffmann did a bit of everything artistic, including compose music.  His opera Undine was successful and much admired by Carl Maria von Weber (and inspired a bit of Weber’s Freischütz), but quickly fell out of the repertory.  Minasi dusted off the overture to open the concert full of drama and verve.  This nicely set the mood for Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, for which they also emphasized that composer’s sense of drama.  This concerto had its premiere at the same concert where Beethoven also premiered his fifth and sixth symphonies, Choral Fantasy, and several parts of his Mass in C – and it was supposed to be a somewhat lighter foil for all of that (indeed it probably was), but nevertheless it is still Beethoven, so always room for melodrama. Tonight’s soloist, the Vienna-based Japanese pianist Yoko Kikuchi (a last-minute substitution – the program and website still show the original ill pianist) was very good, but even she was going along for the ride, with the Orchestra and its fine solo lines soaring off the stage.  (Kikuchi added a solo encore by Chopin, to demonstrate she could do this without orchestra, although it was less-exciting without the orchestra.)

After the intermission came Haydn’s Symphony #104, his final one.  It’s also dramatic, but Haydn scattered in it many musical jokes (odd pauses, instrumental combinations, dynamic changes, and missing harmonics), which Minasi and the Orchestra emphasized here as well, bringing such joy to the stage.  At the end of the performance, the audience erupted.  No one even budged – wave after wave of applause came and the audience stayed fixed in our seats.  The Orchestra had not planned an encore, but was forced to repeat much of the final movement or else we might still be sitting there applauding.  Fantastic.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Semperoper (Dresden)

Muhly, Grieg, Chopin, Tschaikowsky

The last time I visited Dresden, the city consisted of big empty areas with periodic piles of rubble. Presumably, the communists had wanted to remind everyone of what British and American bombers had done to the city in the Second World War, quite ignoring the ravages that Russia had inflicted. The city center remained virutally empty (I couldn’t even find a hotel, so only stayed for a day from an early morning arrival by train to a night train back out). The wrecked core was surrounded by hideous apartment blocks. In the midst, the Semperoper building had been rebuilt, but (as I was told tonight) only the exterior.

Today, I arrived in Dresden to find it unrecognizable. First of all, there is a city here. Some neighborhoods have modern buildings, while the core of the center has been rebuilt to look like it did before the War. Tourists throng the streets. City residents bask on the grassy lawns and beaches which appeared on the river banks. And the Semperoper, too, has reopened.

The Philadelphia Orchestra tested the hall tonight. The acoustics were clear, if possibly too radiant. The sound not only approached me from the stage, but from behind as well. The Orchestra said they were not always sure how the music was bouncing off the walls and coming back to them, and which to play with. So they guessed.

Their guesses were good beyond belief. Is this one of the top twenty orchestras in the world? Top ten? Top five? They certainly made a case for themselves tonight.

The concert opened with Mixed Messages by Nico Muhly, which had its world premiere by this orchestra earlier in the month. He says he does not write in any particular style, just music he would enjoy listening too. He has peripatetic tastes, although the fact that he composes music to match his tastes and not to shock makes him a big improvement on many contemporary composers. I’m not sure what original he had to say – Charles Ives said many of these things much better 100 years ago. But I’ll have another chance to hear this work on Tuesday and maybe I’ll find something. In the meantime, it gave the orchestra a good warm-up and a chance to test the acoustics in the hall before the other works.

There followed a passionate reading of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with soloist Jan Lisiecki. The Canadian Lisiecki, all of 20 years old, had an obvious rapport with his countryman, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and together they crafted magic with the orchestra. Lisiecki gave us a encore, of a Chopin Nocturn – the posthumous one famously played by Wladislaw Szpilman live on Polish radio at the time the Germans invaded, a performance he was therefore unable to complete for six years and unfathomable hardship. Lisiecki’s reading was pensive, moving, and restrained.

If the Grieg concerto was passionate, Piotr Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #5 was orgasmic. Nézet-Séguin nourished the dialogue among the instruments (and it certainly helps when every instrument in the dialogue is world-class and able to ascribe new meanings to well-heard phrases), and with a lilt here, an abrupt tempo change there, and still another tense moment relieved by wildness, he took Tschaikowsky’s pent-up romanticism and set it loose in the hall. If this interpretation had become any more intense, Tschaikowsky’s music would have morphed into Scriabin. I think I now understand how Scriabin, who did not come to the Moscow Conservatory until long after Tschaikowsky had stopped teaching there, could emerge from the same music school. The Tschaikowsky Fifth is a warhorse, all too often performed, but tonight I heard something I have never heard before.

The Dresden audience gave the orchestra a standing ovation. They pounded the floor with their feet. Curtain call after curtain call ensued, until Nézet-Séguin silenced the crowd and said thank you. But an encore was not forthcoming. The orchestra looked exhausted – and an 8:00 p.m. start time had not helped (concert finished close to 10:30, even without the encore) for a long European tour. The other oddity, of course, with such a start time is that restaurants in Dresden were mostly closed or had stopped serving by the time the concert ended. Very odd to schedule a late start time in a city that does not stay open especially late.

Russian National Philharmonic Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

Rachmaninov, Chopin, Bizet, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Saint-Saëns, Puccini, Cilea, Sorozábal, Giménez, Khachaturian

The Russian National Philharmonic Orchestra under music director Vladimir Spivakov dropped into the Khachaturian Hall this evening, as part of its tenth anniversary season celebrations.  This orchestra was created essentially as the house orchestra of Moscow’s International House of Music, that bizarre Escher-esque building with the awful acoustics where I attended one concert (not this orchestra) and never went back again.  So, since I completely managed to miss hearing this orchestra (not to be confused with orchestras having similar names) during my time in Moscow, I finally got to hear them now in a different hall.

Incidentally, it seems that in Moscow they no longer perform exclusively in the International House of Music, but schedule a significant minority of their concerts in the Moscow Conservatory Great Hall, with its top-notch acoustics.  I suppose they too regret their link with their home venue.

According to the orchestra’s website, they were supposed to do two concerts in Yerevan, followed by one in Gyumri (Armenia’s second-largest city).  The posted programs for Yerevan were an exclusively-Rachmaninov concert and an opera gala.  In the end, they combined the concerts into a single one in each venue (abridging the Rachmaninov to a single work).  This produced a bi-polar evening.

Before the intermission, the young Ukrainian pianist Aleksandr Romanovsky joined the orchestra for the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto.  While dexterously maneauvering through Rachmaninov’s score, he also tried his best to get a sweet sound out of the Khachaturian Hall’s sour Steinway.  In this, the orchestra assisted him with some exceptionally warm playing, particularly from the woodwinds.  Afterwards, Romanovsky treated us to a moving encore rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne opus 20.

After a long intermission, the orchestra returned for a full 90-minutes-worth of opera excerpts (from operas by Bizet, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Saint-SaënsPuccini, and Cilea, and from zarzuelas by Pablo Sorozábal and Gerónimo Giménez), joined by mezzo Juliette Galstian and soprano Hasmik Papian (both Armenian stars), and by baritone Vasily Ladyuk (a dynamic Russian).  The second portion of the concert had a spontaneous feel, in part because they did not keep to the printed program but added or subtracted arias or orchestral pieces independently of what was on the page.  Clearly they were having fun.  All three of the soloists demonstrated a sense of drama – or at least as much drama as they could muster with the arias taken out of context (and considering that the solo parts were all individual arias, so the program never allowed the three singers to interact with each other, which was unfortunate).  The orchestra, too, gave spirited accompaniment for the soloists, while also demonstrated its own spirit for the Carmen overture and intermezzi from Manon Lescaut and La Tabernera del Puerto, culminating in – as an encore – the Lezghinka from Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh.

Although the playing was quite beautiful, the second half of the concert had the feel of a long set of encores, one after another, never really going anywhere.  By the time of the real encore, the orchestra’s playing had simply lost much of its spontaneity.  Yes, they played all the notes well, but no they were no longer showcasing themselves despite the boisterous music.  For a brief visit on tour, Spivakov and his orchestra should have selected their program more wisely.