Musica Aeterna Orchestra of the Perm Opera, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Berg, Mahler

The “Musica Aeterna” Orchestra of the Perm Opera certainly provided the most unusual reading of Mahler‘s First Symphony (the third live performance of the work I have heard this year), paired with Berg‘s Violin Concerto in Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule.

It’s not that it was necessarily bad – it wasn’t – but they tried too hard to make it more performance art than performance.  Less of the former and more of the latter would have been nice.

Conducting was Teodor Currentzis, whom I first heard last Fall with the Camerata Salzburg and thought was quite promising.  I think he still is, but he seems to have let spectacle get the better of him.  Currentzis is a Greek who studied in Russia and whose career seems to have gotten stuck in Siberia.  He’s beginning to venture back out.  He founded this orchestra (with a Latin name – why?) in 2004 – one wonders what the Perm Opera used for an orchestra until then.

Russian orchestras have a distinctive timbre, mostly from the method of playing the wind instruments.  This works surprisingly well for Mahler.  However, this orchestra does not sound Russian at all, and instead has a rather homogenized sound, which is unfortunate.  Perhaps to make up for this lack of distinction (which I suppose he wants – it’s his orchestra, after all, and always has been!), Currentzis plays with the volume to exaggerate the dynamic range.  This produces delicate rather than robust playing for the quieter moments (even when quiet robust would be wanted) and big swells of sound to the larger moments.  The overall tone is not bad, it’s just the orchestra seems to use dynamics as a substitute for actually inflecting the music.

For the Mahler, Currentzis had the orchestra stand rather than sit (except for those instruments that have to be played sitting down).    The musicians did not seem to know what to do, fidgeting from leg to leg (or in some cases, especially the concertmaster, more than fidgeting – he kept jumping around, up and down, and almost off the stage).  Visually this became distracting.  And while there may be times (chamber orchestras in confined spaces, for example) where standing might be preferable, an hour-long Mahler symphony is not one of those times.

Tacked onto the Mahler First came an encore – the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth.  Lacking the big swells of the Mahler First, this single movement lent itself even less to the performance style and made the delicate playing sound altogether too thin (especially for the drawn-out slow movement speed).

The first half of the concert had also been for show.  Members of the orchestra started playing – or, rather, making noises on – their instruments before Currentzis and soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja came on stage.  These noises were, I think, supposed to be aetherial noises to set a mood.  Again, they served only to showcase performance art over performance.  Currentzis and Kopatchinskaja tip-toed on stage during this nonsense (Kopatchinskaja barefoot – as is her wont – but also taking a random detour through the orchestra on her way in), and then jumped right into Berg’s concerto.

Berg’s Violin Concerto is a difficult enough work to figure out – except during the occasional lapses when Berg actually tried to write (and succeeded in writing) music.  The weird intro did not help this understanding.  At least the orchestra was sitting down for this one.

Again, it’s not that the performance was bad, it was just they tried too hard to make it performance art.  They should stick to music.

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.)

Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, Felsenreitschule

Mahler

The Vienna-based Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, another legacy of Claudio Abbado, is probably the world’s leading youth orchestra.  Its regular appearances at the Salzburg Festival deserve a flag, combining youthful exuberance with skill and promise for the future.

Tonight’s albeit somewhat morbid program was no exception: indeed, it was an all-Mahler program, featuring the final movement (“Abschied”) from the Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony, the last piece Mahler completed before he died.  Philippe Jordan conducted, with Christian Gerhaher as the soloist for the Abschied.

Jordan coaxed a wide palette of sounds from the orchestra, and by highlighting individual lines, and then mixing them, he revealed just how peculiarly Mahler scored the Lied von der Erde.  Gerhaher was more of an appendage, just kind of there.  An alto soloist usually sings this movement, but Mahler put down a baritone as an alternate.  The advantage of a baritone voice is to provide darker coloring, but Gerhaher failed on this front.  His voice is neither especially pretty nor full-toned  – probably not helped because he essentially spoke half of the lines rather than singing them, periodically breaking into a quasi-falsetto.  His instrument was big enough to project over the orchestra, but it was a characterless performance, easily overshadowed by (when not getting in the way of) the orchestra.  We heard him, but did we really want to?

With Gerhaher out of the way, the orchestra became the focus for the Ninth Symphony.  I could not figure out Jordan’s concept for the work, or if he understood its warped architecture.  However, Jordan did successfully showcase the virtuosity of these young musicians – as an orchestral whole, within their sections, and individually.  These kids were spectacular, and if Jordan managed to allow them to demonstrate that to the raptured audience, then he succeeded – with or without any other intent.

The concert took place in the Felsenreitschule.  As a bizarre aside, the stage was set up for a concurrent production of West Side Story – and so the orchestra performed from within the set, repleat with New York street graffiti and scaffolding.  Mahler worked in New York at the time he composed tonight’s music (albeit he returned to Austria to do the actual composition), but I am not sure that connection was intentional – probably just a strange coincidence.

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Kabalevksy, Rachmaninov, Scriabin

Lorenzo Viotti, the Swiss who won the annual Salzburg Young Conductors Award last year, celebrated his victory concert this morning in the Felsenreitschule leading the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, with an ambitious all-Russian program.  Although he seemed to have a clear idea of the structure of the music, the performance was not compelling.  How much of this could be the fault of the nicely-toned by rather blurry orchestra is unclear.

The overture to Colas Breugnon by Dmitri Kabalevksy opened the morning concert like an alarm clock.  Kabalevsky’s music, usually fun if rarely memorable, did the trick, and Viotti and the orchestra handled the theatrics.  The young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili then took the stage for Sergei Rachmaninov‘s second piano concerto.  Buniatishvili performed the work entranced as if in a dream, in a better world.  The Orchestra applied a bit too much pedal, however.  Where her notes came across crisp and light, theirs plodded.  Clearly this was her dream: they just slept through it.

The single work after the intermission had first attracted me to this concert: Aleksandr Skryabin‘s Second Symphony.  Underappreciated as a symphonist, because he was stark raving mad, Skryabin was a classmate and close friend of Rachmaninov at the Moscow Conservatory and turned out some of the greatest Russian symphonies of the Twentieth Century.  He set out to destroy the world in six symphonies – fortunately maybe for the world but not for music-lovers nor certainly not for him, he died at 43 years old having only written five, so the world survived (although the Bolsheviks finished off his world two years later, and his reputation fell into rapid decline).  When his symphonies do appear on a concert program, they are worth seeking out, although again I think the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra simply was not up to the job.  Their sound was invariably sweet, where Skryabin required sour.

Salzburger Landestheater, Felsenreitschule

Bizet, Carmen

I do not know what opera I just saw performed by the Salzburg Landestheater at the Felsenreitschule (something nonsensical about Mexican drug cartels), but I do know what I heard: a musically-outstanding performance of Bizet‘s Carmen.

The highest kudos must go to the Landestheater’s music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, for ignoring the idiocy on stage and getting the musicians to produce real drama.  She captured the emotion, drove the (real) plot, and balanced the tragedy with the light-heartedness and dance in much of this music.  The orchestral colors mixed in just the right combinations, full but never overwhelming the singers.

The cast, too, responded to her direction more than to the stage director’s.  The Byelorussian mezzo Oksana Volkova portrayed a seductive – both flirty and hard-to-get – Carmen with a full voice, although it tired during rhe second act (performed without a break from the first, so requiring her to show quite a lot of stamina).  Tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi, like his character Don José a Basque, took most of the first act to warm up, but his originally somewhat-dry voice came into its own as the opera progressed.  Philadelphian Zachary Nelson disappointed as a weaker-voiced Escamillo, more telling in contrast to the others.  The best voice of the evening belonged to Russian soprano Elena Stikhina, as Micaela, whose beautiful instrument radiated confidently.

About the staging (a terrible concept by Andreas Gergen), the less said the better.  This was not an update into another time and location, but rather a retelling of the story.  Determining exactly how to get the new plot to match the libretto took too much energy.  When it became apparent that the musical performance deserved full attention, I started ignoring the revised plot on stage and just enjoyed the music.  Looking at the singers, it seems they tried to do the same, focussing entirely on Gražinytė-Tyla and getting on with it.

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).