Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, Felsenreitschule

Dvořák, Bruckner

Herbert Blomstedt is ageless.  At 92 years old, he was probably older than any four members of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra combined.  They are lucky to learn from his wisdom.

The Bruckner symphonies at this year’s Festival seem to have been shoved to the end: three in the final week, starting this evening with the Sixth Symphony.  The orchestra, possibly the finest youth orchestra in Europe but also by its nature turning over musicians regularly, sounded uncharacteristically weaker in the winds than expected, with noticeably missed notes early on.  Presumably Blomstedt noticed as well, since he presented us with a quite unusual interpretation: instead of the strings producing a lush foundation upon which the winds could drive the plot forward and set up the soaring chorales, he instead had the winds provide a generally-legato rich base upon which the strings could take control – indeed, all of the string, from the pulsating violins to the rich viole in the adagio to the double basses (whom he lined up across the entire back row) taking a surprisingly large sound (I’ve never known double basses to have the lead role in Bruckner before) and pushing the symphony onwards.  Indeed, this interpretation could be described as an “inverted Sixth” – not the way I have heard it before, but with Blomstedt there is always something new and brilliant.  The man is an architect of music.

The first half of the concert was not as successful, containing ten Biblical Songs by Dvořák.  This was a very personal work for the composer, based on various Psalms (sometimes combined or edited).  But he only ever orchestrated five of the ten (even though he lived quite a bit beyond completion) and the whole set feels a tad unfinished (tonight performed with orchestrations of the other five made by others after the composer’s death).  The baritone soloist was Christian Gerhaher, who does not have a particularly large voice – I have heard him sing Mahler on this stage (the Felsenreitschule) and with this orchestra a three years’ back, where to be heard over the orchestra he had to force his voice and it came across unpleasant then, but I’ve also heard him sing Schumann less forced and more warmly.  The chamber orchestra accompaniment, with Blomstedt in control, meant Gerhaher did not have to strain this evening, and the warmer version of himself emerged (if still not especially large in voice).  But the songs themselves were not so convincing (I actually own a decent recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing six of them – in German translation with piano accompaniment – where he manages to make a case for them, but Gerhaher won’t be confused for Fischer-Dieskau, although I believe he may have studied with him once upon a time).

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Dusapin, Mahler, Dvořák

I have taken to generally going to hear the annual Young Conductors Award prize concert each year at the Salzburg Festival to see what name might be coming down the line.  Hungarian Gábor Káli won the competition last year, so he got the honors of the concert in the Felsenreitschule this year.  His is definitely a name to look for in the future.

The Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra has not been particularly distinguished in recent years, never seeming to have quite recovered from an attempt by the Austrian radio (for whom it works, after all) to shut it down during the 2009-2010 season.  But I don’t believe I have heard it sound this good since before its near-death experience.  Káli gave it real character this evening, its playing evoking feeling and emotion.

For Mahler‘s Songs of a Wayfarer, baritone Andrè Schuen added his own warm, expressive tone, telling stories both with clear diction and intelligent nuanced singing (I definitely want to hear him again too!).  Káli and the orchestra were right with him for support, the song cycle erupting into full color.  After the intermission, Dvořák‘s Ninth Symphony built to another level.  This was not just the homogenized (if decent) sound I have come to expect from this orchestra, but rather more lilt and theatrics, as it used to sound ten years ago.  From the podium, Káli clearly had taken charge, and the orchestra happily and enthusiastically followed (so did the audience – he earned a long well-deserved applause).

The only part of the concert that made no sense was the first piece: Morning in Long Island by Frenchman Pascal Dusapin.  Dusapin wrote this piece in 2010 based on the memory of a particularly bleak Fall morning he had spent on Long Island in 1988 that had clearly stuck in his mind all that time.  His moody music quite successfully portrayed the gloomy weather and damp chill, so that the audience certainly experienced his 1988 morning too.  The main problem, though, was that this went on for half an hour.  While the music evolved and shifted a bit, it never got around to saying anything more than the weather, which we already knew.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Sibelius, Dvořák, Beethoven, Schubert

I had bad luck with the Camerata Salzburg this year: they had a great subscription series, which I had tickets to, but then I always seemed to be away whenever the concerts took place (I did get to one of their non-subscription concerts).  So, this evening, the final concert in the series was my first – Andrew Manze conducted.  At first glance, the musical selections looked a little odd set out in reverse chronological order.  On hearing them interpreted by Manze and the Camerata, however, it became clear that these works were more original the earlier they were written.

Leading off was a suite from Sibelius‘ Rakastava scored by the composer for strings, timpani, and triangle.  I’m used to this chamber orchestra having a larger sound than its numbers would imply.  But this performance came across surprisingly thin, missing Sibelius’ sonorities.  A relatively early work by the composer, it is seldom performed (I’d honestly never even heard of it).  Is it a poor work?  The music seemed indicative of Sibelius, but maybe the scoring just failed?

It could hardly be an orchestral failure, as the orchestra was nothing short of exhilarating for the rest of the concert.  Joshua Bell joined the Camerata as soloist in Dvořák‘s violin concerto, jumping in completely with an aggressively physical performance that nevertheless had real subtlety and warmth.  Manze and the Camerata supported him fully in this approach.  Here was also the richness I’d usually expect from Sibelius, transferred back three decades.  This is a standard work in the repertory, deservedly so, but when made this lively it remains fresh.

The last programmed piece was Beethoven‘s Symphony #2, from eight decades earlier, and a rarely performed early work by that composer.  But Beethoven was a genius, and with this symphony he brought music kicking and screaming into the 19th century.  In structure it is reasonably conventional – in composition it is anything but, and Manze emphasized all the deviations from convention.  The Camerata played with energy and vigor, and was in on all of the musical jokes, eclipsing even Bell’s performance of the Dvořák, with even more transcendent edginess and angularity.  

Both halves of the concert contained encores to allow the heartbeats to return to normal with more sedate, romantic, sonorous performances of a violin trio by Dvořák (Bell and the Camerata’s two first chair violins) before intermission and an excerpt from Schubert‘s Rosamund at the end.  Made me very sorry to have missed so many other concerts by the Camerata this year.

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, Großes Festspielhaus

Dvořák, Bruckner

I chose not to get a subscription to either the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s Sunday morning or Thursday concert series this year, because enough programs just were simply not interesting to make a subscription enticing (for the Sunday series, notably Bernstein’s pretentious Mass in November), but instead put together a couple of combination subscription packages with other concerts from the Mozarteum Foundation.

This morning’s concert in the Great Festival House was certainly among the ones that jumped out as worth including, featuring Bruckner‘s unjustly under-performed Symphony #0.  The composer lacked all self-confidence, and when he had shown his symphony to friends who questioned it, he “annulled” it.  It did not deserve this fate.  And while it could have used some polishing, it contained all the essentials of Bruckner’s magic worlds of sound (indeed at times more succinctly than the Symphony #2 which immediately followed it in order of composition – it post-dates his Symphony #1, not to mention his “Study” Symphony #00).  In some respects this symphony does not sound like an early Bruckner work (well, relatively early – he started composing orchestral music rather late, with Symphony #00 when he was 39, #1at age 41, and #0 at age 45) – in experimenting with new harmonies and structures, Bruckner had already become rather forward-looking, in ways he friends likely could not understand.

The Mozarteum Orchestra’s emeritus music director, Ivor Bolton, still has an excellent rapport with his former orchestra, and together they gave this symphony the reading it deserved, and of which Bruckner himself could have been proud (assuming such a humble man could ever be proud).

The concert opened with the more-often performed Cello Concerto by Antonín Dvořák.  The 25-year-old Salzburg native Julia Hagen joined the orchestra as soloist.  If the cello has been described as the closest instrument to the human voice, then her performance demonstrated why, her warm tone making me wonder what the words were to this piece.  Her playing was perhaps not bold enough for this energetic work, particularly in the first movement (she needed to re-tune her instrument right after that, so even she realized it was certainly a little off), but on the whole her song-like approach worked (as it did for an unidentified solo encore).

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.

 

SWR Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Dvořák, Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch

I do not think I have ever heard a cello so gorgeously played as by Mischa Maisky tonight, in a performance of Dvořák‘s Cello Concerto with the SWR Symphony Orchestra and Aziz Shokhakimov in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  When he needed a big sound to balance the whole orchestra, he got it; when he needed delicate playing, he did that too (his duets with the principal flute were especially wonderous, the flutist sounding far better than Wednesday evening’s solo flutist too).  Throughout, his tone was heart-rendingly warm and full – high notes, low notes, loud, soft, delicate, aggressive, whatever it was, pure beauty emerged.  Shokhakimov did not exactly restrain the orchestra, nor flatten – no, this was a full orchestral effort, but he did ensure it had a solid basis for accompaniment that allowed Maisky to take over the extra interpretation, with lilts and embellishments.  Indeed, a human voice singing actual words could probably not have been so expressive (as an encore, the orchestra accompanied Maisky in Lensky’s aria from Tschaikowsky‘s Yevgeny Onyegin, with the baritone transcribed for cello, and he made us forget that there are normally words being sung).

I really do not know what else to say.  And this is especially so since the last time I heard this concerto was at last summer’s Festival, also with Shokhakimov on the podium (his prize-winner’s concert, having won the young conductors’ competition at the 2016 Festival), but then with a dreadful cello soloist who butchered this beautiful piece.  I did not blame Shokhakimov for that mess (it was definitely the cellist), but it was vindication that he got to do this piece again in Salzburg so soon thereafter with a cellist at the opposite extreme (and a better orchestra this time, too).

The orchestra is in its second season of existence, having been formed in Fall 2016 from the merger of two orchestras of Germany’s South Western Radio (that network’s house orchestras from Stuttgart and from Baden-Baden).  I would imagine that morale would probably not have been very good initially (I’d guess the decision was a financial one), but it did mean they got to select the best players from two decent orchestras, with a really quite good final result, with a level of virtuosity exceeded among German radio orchestras possibly only by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

This talent was on display (without Maisky) after the intermission, for Schostakowitsch‘s First Symphony.  A student work (his graduation piece from the conservatory), it did not yet have the darkness and pain he displayed later, but it still represented the next logical forward step in symphonic music after Mahler.  A colorful work with many exposed lines (that, as student writing, do not always lead anywhere) presents challenges, which this orchestra handled effortlessly.  The affable Uzbek, Shokhakimov, kept them lively.

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Dvořák, Bach, Prokofiev

Another weekend at the Festival, moving into the Felsenreitschule for the annual Young Conductors Award prize concert, which featured last year’s winner Aziz Shokhakimov, only 29 years old but for the last eleven years the principal conductor of the Uzbek National Opera.  This evening he had the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra at his disposal – a competent if somewhat undistinguished orchestra by Austrian standards (albeit probably better than his own, I am sure).

Shokhakimov provided all of the necessary impulse to drive the orchestral music forward, even during moments of sadness, introspection, or tragedy.  This was especially true in the second half of the concert, with a performance of Prokofiev‘s Fifth Symphony, written in the final year of the Second World War and celebrating impending victory while lamenting the terrible toll.

It worked less well in the first half of the concert, but not because of Shokhakimov.  For Dvořák‘s Cello Concerto, the Romanian soloist Andrei Ioniţă simply sapped all energy from the room whenever he played.  Although sometimes capable of a round warm tone, most of the time he sounded like he was scraping a washboard.  The contrast between the excitement of the pure orchestral passages (of which Dvořák gave us many) and dreary cello solos (not what Dvořák wrote, but what Ioniţă played) were extreme.  Ioniţă came back out for an encore of what sounded very much like Bach (scored for washboard).

(Addendum: I discovered after writing this that the washboard has actually been adapted for use in jazz as a percussion instrument.  That is not that sound I intended to suggest by my description, but rather I meant the sort of sound that might be created by scraping a wire bow across a washboard – not having ever tried that myself, and listening to some jazz recordings of washboards, I wonder if I would even be right.  In short, Ioniţă’s sound was scratchy, rough, and metallic.)

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Dvořák, Strauss, Stravinsky

The Vienna Philharmonic added some seats on stage for this afternoon’s concert, and even sitting amidst the percussion (albeit thankfully not next to a gong, as I once found myself a few years ago) it is hard to resist hearing this orchestra in the Musikverein with Mariss Jansons on the podium… indeed, getting to watch him from the orchestra’s perspective (when he was not blocked out by a music stand or a percussionist).  

On the program was a strange mix of works I did not necessarily understand why they went together: Dvořák‘s Eighth Symphony, Richard StraussDeath and Transfiguration, and the suite from Stravinsky‘s ballet The Firebird.  As Jansons explained in a talk in Salzburg last summer, sometimes parts of the same concert don’t have to go together, but even by that standard this combination was odd.  Perhaps the one linkage here was some truly fine playing.

The Dvořák symphony came out dancing, full as it is with Czech folk dances.  Jansons maintained a certain tension, which just gave the exuberant bits all the more sway.  This may have anticipated a ballet suite later in the concert, but folk dances and ballet are still two different genres, so maybe not.

If the Strauss tone poem after intermission danced, it was with death.  This set an altogether different mood, and at one point close to the end the orchestra sent a cold chill through the room.  Somehow, through force of music, we all emerged on the other side, shivering in our seats but transfigured.

Jansons took a much more humorous approach with Stravinsky’s Firebird suite.  This is fun music, with a lot happening despite a somewhat reduced orchestra.  A twinkle in Jansons’ eyes made sure the orchestra kept the music upbeat (they not only smiled back at Jansons, but smirked knowingly at each other – particularly the bemused percussionists around me), until the lullaby section, which grew somewhat dark before a triumphant finale.  Shades of Death and Transfiguration earlier in the concert?  Or just masterful playing?

This orchestra reigns.  It’s not always technically the best, but it has a feel for music like no other orchestra.  And Jansons on the podium brings out some of its finest moments.  Although the balance was a bit off from my seat in the percussion, I could feel the magic in the Musikverein’s Golden Hall.  The audience felt it too, with thundering applause and a rare standing ovation (we are spoiled by this orchestra, so it doesn’t happen often).  The applause did not stop even after the orchestra finally left the stage, and Jansons had to return for not one but two individual curtain calls.  I cannot remember that happening before.

Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Musikverein (Vienna)

Dvořák, Smetana

When the post of Kapellmeister opened unexpectedly in Leipzig last year, the Gewandhaus Orchestra moved quickly to secure Andrís Nelsons, one of the most dynamic conductors of the next generation (he turns 40 next year).  Nelsons, who had only shortly before taken up his post as music director in Boston, where he has the unenviable task of rebuilding the Boston Symphony Orchestra from its long years of slow decay, would have been silly not to take on this new opportunity, even if it will leave him a bit overstretched.  

Nelsons and the Gewandhaus Orchestra came to Vienna for the first time since the new appointment was announced, and clearly they were meant for each other (Nelsons’ wife, Kristīne Opolais, shouldn’t be jealous; she was tonight’s soloist).

The Orchestra has a warm and creamy sound, but which is never muddled.  Instead, it displays a bright passion and nuance, which directly responds to Nelsons’ own demonstrative conducting technique.  He has become somehow even more expressive as he gets older, contorting his body as he used to, but honing his method of drawing concepts and hidden thoughts out of the instruments (he’s also grown a beard, possibly to compensate for his rapidly receding hairline – he’s now gone half-bald).

Tonight’s concert showcased the music of Antonín Dvořák (with one brief selection by Bedřich Smetana), in particular the Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”).  This is a popular symphony for a reason – the music is fantastic and varied – but over-performed to the point that it has become generally trite.  Nelsons and the Leipzigers made it special.  They captured the excitement of the new, as it indeed was in 1893, even in the quiet passages which they played with delicacy but confidence.   This performance never dragged, indeed some fascinating aspects lurked around every corner and Nelsons and his team found and uncovered all of them (I’ll forgive one wayward blatt in the horns towards the end), one pleasant surprise after another when there really shouldn’t be any more suprises in this symphony.

The other orchestral selections (the concert overture Othello, the Polonaise from the opera Rusalka, and as an encore a Slavonic Dance) demonstrated the same overwhelming passion and swing.  But when the moments arose for quiet solos, the orchestra dropped its volume without sacrificing its stride, to give just the right amount of support and ambience to the soloist.  This was therefore most helpful during the soprano vocals by Opolais, who sang two excerpts from Rusalka, another Dvořák song, and a selection from Smetana’s opera Dalibor.  Her voice also proved the right match for this orchestra: strong, confident, and warm into the night.

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Dvořák, Rachmaninov, Gluck, Bach

Back again to hear the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Andrés Orozco-Estrada in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  It would appear the orchestra made some adjustments to the hall since Wednesday, as the tone was clearer and some of the peculiarities (like the vibrating forte brass) did not repeat tonight.  So I can possibly put down their Wednesday sounds to insufficient rehearsal time in this hall (maybe – I have no idea; I only know they sounded better tonight).  However, they continue to play with little emotion, more background music for a film soundtrack but without the film.

Tonight’s concert opened with Dvořák‘s tone poem The Midday Witch, a humorous little piece of Czech folklore, which put me at ease that we would not have as murky a concert as on Wednesday.  The music then switched back to Rachmaninov – his fourth piano concerto and the second symphony.

Denis Kozhukhin returned to the keyboard for the concerto.  This is perhaps not as strong a work as the third concerto these forces performed on Wednesday, seemingly lacking direction – a little jazzy, but with no discernable overall concept.  Kozhukhin sounded better – somewhat less pedal – and hit all the notes, but I’m not sure Rachmaninov gave him enough to work with.  His two encores (by Gluck and Bach) repeated from Wednesday and demonstrated more of a match for his style, relaxed and sentimental.

Rachmaninov’s lush second symphony is another moody piece.  When performed right it has a forward drive and excitement to it.  Its legatos would seem suited to this orchestra, but their lack of emotion canceled that out tonight.  It is a long work – nearly an hour – keeping in mood, so it is essential that the conductor and orchestra remain engaged.  The playing was pretty, and the woodwinds especially made an impression, but this performance dragged.  The audience spent the concert audibly fidgeting in the seats.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Smetana, Korngold, Bach, Dvořák

A pleasantly sentimental Sunday morning concert with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Salzburg’s Great Festival House may not have overwhelmed, but got the day off to a good start. 

The program opened with the Moldau, the second tone poem in Smetana’s My Fatherland series, which the orchestra performed evocatively under the baton of British guest conductor Matthew Halls.  I was a little worried about the flutes in the long opening passage, depicting the origins of the river, as I was not sure they were coming up for air – but capture a gurgling spring they did, and the rest of the orchestra took it downstream from there until the river met the Elbe.

Austrian violinst Benjamin Schmid, a professor at the Mozarteum who specializes in 20th century music, joined the orchestra for Korngold’s violin concerto.  Korngold, a Viennese Wunderkind with a theatrical flare who landed in Hollywood as an Academy Award-winning composer of film music, repackaged some of his film themes into this concerto, keeping the atmosphere while creating something a bit more serious and charming, which is not performed often enough.  Though technically-proficient, Schmid tried to milk a sweet tone from his violin, with legati and vibrati, but it unfortunately came out somewhat sour.  Korngold said he wanted the soloist for this work to be more Caruso and less Paganini – but Schmid is neither.  Even more sour (since he had no orchestral accompaniment) was his solo encore, which sounded like it must have originally been by Bach, but underwhelmed.

Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony rounded out the program.  Halls seemed determined to emphasize the influence of Brahms on this work.  Brahms did indeed influence and champion the Czech composer.  Brahms, wrote music of the highest quality that was often excessively unimaginative and dull.  But whereas Dvořák learned orchestration and structure from his mentor, he took inspiration from Czech (and other) folk traditions and had something more to say.  The performance this morning managed to leave out the extra meanings, producing just a nostalgic reading of what might have been.  For a Sunday morning, that may have been enough.

Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, Felsenreitschule

Mozart, Dvořák

The Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra scored a triumph in Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule this evening, with round after round of boisterous applause and foot-stomping.  On the podium, the almost-youthful Herbert Blomstedt, who is actually as old as any four orchestra members combined.  But this in no way made him any less enthusiastic, and the warm bond between Blomstedt and the orchestra became immediately apparent.

The concert led off with Mozart’s Symphony #39, a work in which the playful composer switched directions several times.  Just when the symphony looked to go one way, Mozart went the other.  Blomstedt accentuated these jumps, and the skillful musicians smiled back.  

This was my first time in the Felsenreitschule, a concert hall made for the Salzburg Festival, built out of a former Prince-Archbishop’s stables carved into the mountainside.  I found the hall a bit odd – the seating in the theater is symmetrical, but not centered in the room.  The stage is used by the Festival for opera productions, and so many of the sets, as well as scaffolding, cluttered the sides around the orchestra, making it feel like they were performing in a warehouse (while we were sitting in a theater that did not quite match).  The acoustics are supposed to be excellent – it is what made Max Reinhardt and the other founders of the Festival want to use this space, but for the Mozart the orchestra sounded a bit distant.

Yet the orchestra on stage for Mozart was small.  After the intermission, the full orchestra emerged for Dvořák’s Symphony #9, and they no longer sounded distant.  This was odd, because the sound should depend on the number of instruments playing and their volume, and not the number of instruments sitting on stage (in other words, the big passages in the Mozart still sounded distant, whereas the quieter passages scored for only a few instruments in the Dvořák did not.  Perhaps it took this long to warm up (the hall indeed felt warmer as the night wore on).

Blomstedt and the orchestra continued to have fun with the Dvořák, particularly the syncopated rhythms where they accentuated the dance.  Ultimately, they went directly to a dance, one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances came as an encore that shook the hall.  Talented playing all around – remarkable woodwinds (especially the English Horn solo in the Dvořák; although the flutist for the Dvořák was no where near as good as his colleague who had performed for the Mozart, and who reminded me of my sister).

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.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch, Dvořák

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra sounded both delicate and robust, in appropriate measures, as it navigated the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Tschaikowsky and the Ninth Symphony by Dvořák under the direction of Vassily Sinaiksy in the Konzerthaus this evening.  Sinaisky on the podium looked very much like the orchestra’s kind-hearted professor, engaging his orchestra fully, calling on individual instruments demonstratively, and peering studiously over the top of the reading spectacles perched upon the end of his nose, as he drew sound from the orchestra using his hands and without need of a baton.

Sinaisky, a conductor I had not previously heard of, was a stand-in for Neemi Järvi, who had taken ill.  It seems Sinaisky does not have any pressing engagements at the moment as he recently resigned as music director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater after a dispute with the new management (I suppose he could not have survived a few months longer for the management to completely change again).  The association with the Bolshoi, of course, sent up a red flag – there is probably no opera house in the world (outside Italy, of course) with so much political intrigue and thick mafia connections, surviving entirely on its reputation as having once been a world-class opera company.  In my time in Moscow, I discovered fully six opera venues in that city of superior quality to the once-proud and now farcical Bolshoi.

The Bolshoi has never recovered from firing Boris Pokrovsky as its chief over thirty years ago (Pokrovsky, perhaps one of the most intelligent opera directors of all time, had lasted three decades as the boss in that house and had personally seen to the maintainance of the house’s quality and tradition – rumor is that he allowed the theater to employ too many Jews for the government’s liking, and was fired when he refused to purge them).  On the other hand, Sinaisky would not be the first decent artist to think he might be the one to fix that hopeless theater after Pokrovsky’s ouster.  But Sinaisky failed, just like everyone else in the last thirty years, and now sits unemployed waiting for people like Järvi to get sick.

Tonight, the Symphoniker looked glad to have him, and he looked glad to have them too (certainly a far better orchestra than the band that sits in the Bolshoi’s pit).

Also on the program, coming between the other two works, was the Cello Concerto #1 by Schostakowitsch, which the composer wrote for his friend and fellow dissident Mstislav Rostropovich.  Intermixing humor and other-worldliness, this concerto is not easy on the cellist, who must get a broad range of sounds out of the instrument while maintaining a dialogue with the orchestra.  The Franco-German soloist Nicolas Altstaedt somehow got through it all intact.  But Altstaedt is not Rostropovich, and his sound lacked fullness, while his playing was labored to the point that he became completely out of breath, his wheezing projecting over the sound of his instrument.  The orchestra did its part, and Sinaisky did well to keep everything together, but the young Altstaedt might be advised to stick to simpler works at this stage of his career.

Wiener Symphoniker, Musikverein

Dvořák, Honegger, Gershwin

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra remains in great sound.  On the podium tonight, Manfred Honeck, the Austrian-born conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, who previously played violin in the Vienna Philharmonic, made a triumphant return to the Musikverein.

Honeck flipped the order of the pieces around from the traditional concert design, starting with the symphony, then a concerto, and concluding with a shorter rousing work, placing the three works in strict chronological order of composition. Dvořák’s Symphony #8 opened the program, Honeck giving it an especially dramatic reading, nursing the melodic lines while bringing out quite a bit more tension than normal while contrasting those lines against each other.  The orchestra responded with lush resonances, but although they clearly understood what he wanted they must not have rehearsed fully with him (this despite having performed the same program at a concert last night), as evidenced by a number of missed cues or failures to release notes together.  Honeck is a very diminutive person, and so it also could be that they simply had trouble seeing him, although he did wave his arms around above his head as if to signal “I’m over here!!!”

The concert’s mood changed completely after the break.  Indeed, I heard no connection at all between the two halves.  Honegger’Cello Concerto and Gershwin’American in Paris clearly went together – works conceived in Paris by a Swiss and an American, respectively (although Gershwin apparently finished writing his work in Vienna) but having little thematically to do with Dvořák’s Czech folksong-inspired symphony.  Honegger’s concerto married the Swiss composer’s interest in baroque and classical-era composers with the 1920s Parisian jazz idiom, especially catchy in the first movement’s variation on what sounded quite familiar – indeed, although the program notes did not identify it, it sounded peculiarly like a work by Weber better known through variations in a different style later written by Hindemith.  The young German cellist Maximilian Hornung carried off these lively and invocative juxtapositions well, blending back into the orchestra where necessary and then emerging with the next thoughtful phrase.

Gershwin’s American in Paris brought the concert to a triumphant conclusion, the audience absorbed by its humorous orchestration.  The 1930s car horns especially provoked broad smiles, not only from the public but from the percussionists tasked with bringing the city to life. They clearly had fun with this.  During the applause, Honeck awarded them a sectional bow, but they did not see him waving at them, so he climbed up onto a higher platform and waved again, still without success.  The brass passed along the message and they got their bow in the end.  Poor Honeck, who conducted well, clearly needs a much higher conducting platform to remain in the orchestra’s line of vision.

National Opera Orchestra of Albania

Zoraqi, Jakova, Laro, Ilo, Smetana, Dvořák

Attended a “gala concert” tonight at the Albanian National Opera, put on to celebrate 90 years of Czech-Albanian diplomatic relations.  I suppose what made it a “gala” was that there were dignitaries there, people dressed nicely, and drinks were served afterwards in the foyer.  Also, the Czech Ambassador and Albanian Foreign Minister spoke beforehand, and the orchestra played both national anthems.

The program contained an assortment of Czech and Albanian classical music, all romantic-period in style (although the Albanian compositions were mostly written a century after the Czech ones).  The Albanian works opened with Nikolla Zoraqi’s Festive Overture, which sounded like movie music (which I suppose makes sense, since he mostly wrote movie music), and continued with an aria from Prenk Jakova’Scanderbeg (which I saw complete in June), Kujtim Laro’s moving tone poem Freedom or Death, and a song (“I love Albania more“) by Spiridon Ilo, a signer of the Albanian declaration of independence who wrote patriotic songs as a hobby.  The Czech works were excerpts from Smetana’The Kiss and Bartered Bride, and Dvořák’Rusalka and 9th Symphony.

The orchestral playing, by the opera orchestra, was sufficient.  Valmir Xoxa, whom I saw conduct the Barber of Seville recently, conducted the Albanian pieces, while Karel Smékal, the Czech Deputy Ambassador who trained as a conductor, took the podium for the Czech works.  Czech soprano Barbora Perná had a nice enough voice with a warble on the higher registers; while Elson Braha (Nemorino in last April’s Elixir) still has his pleasant but weak voice that cracked at volume but otherwise was good on the ears.

Throughout the concert, the organizers projected a slide show on a cheap movie screen behind the orchestra, showing photos of the Czech Republic in a loop that lasted about three minutes and repeated the whole night.  The screen was big enough to be distracting, but small enough so we could not really make out the slides well, especially since the stage lights were up so the orchestra could read its music.

Nevertheless, a pleasant evening with good live music, something that does not come often enough.

Tonkünstler Orchestra, Musikverein

Balakirev, Dvořák, Tschaikowsky

I took in one last concert in Vienna before leaving full-time for Albania.  The Tonkünstler took to the Musikverein stage under Mikhail Jurowski.  Poor Jurowski looks unwell: he’s gained weight, moves slowly, and walks with a cane – he seems to communicate more with his eyes than with his stick motion (which is now limited).

Of course, he looks better than the Israeli pianist Alexander Markovich.  I heard this combination Jurowski-Markovich-Tonkünstler a few years ago, which was so much fun that it got me to go back for more this time.  Markovich is still obese, and continues to play sitting far away from the piano with his arms reaching over his more-than-ample stomach.  But he keeps a wry smile on his face and a light touch on the keyboard, and the joy he takes from playing is contagious.  He and Jurowski communicated well with each other.  They performed the Dvořák piano concerto – which is seldom-performed for a reason.  the work is not bad, but not great either.  Still, I am happy to hear something new, and Dvořák had far more to say than some other people.

The concert had opened with Balakirev’s youthful Overture on Three Russian Themes.  This was quite pleasant, and demonstrated the skill Balakirev would later develop, often under-appreciated in the west, of producing quality and authentic Russian music.  Two of the three themes were later made more famous from settings by Tschaikowsky (in his Fourth Symphony) and Stravinsky (in his Petrushka), but did not lose anything by comparison in Balakirev’s arrangement.

After the intermission, the concert concluded with Tschaikowsky’s Second Symphony.  This has long been my favorite Tschaikowsky symphony, probably because it is the most authentic and least western (western composers did western music better than Tschaikowsky, and some of Tschaikowsky’s best works were the ones in which he did not try to imitate the west).  The orchestra sounded a little ragged for this one, but the reads, strings, and piccolo were generally good.  A red-haired flautist (in my direct line of view behind Jurowski’s shoulder through my binoculars) looked bored out of her wits the whole evening.