Münchner Symphoniker, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Grieg

Tonight’s reading, in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, of excerpts from Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (in German translation) clarified the music of Edvard Grieg.

Although I have heard Grieg’s complete incidental music to Peer Gynt (accompanying a reading in Russian), normally only the two short suites get performed, disembodied from the whole.  The Munich Symphony Orchestra kept only the two suites as well this evening, but by inserting the readings that explained what the music itself sought to describe, it gave them additional meaning and drama.  This is nice music, but much nicer when put in context – indeed, the music makes a whole lot more sense this way (I do not believe I have ever heard “In the Hall of the Mountain King” quite like that before).

Friedrich von Thun, a famous Austrian actor, did the readings.  He can still certainly act, but his voice has become dry and crackly and required amplification.  He worked well, however, with Estonian conductor Anu Tali, who knew how to draw out the dramatic scenes from just eight segments of music.  Unfortunately it is worth noting that Tali is a woman – not that has anything to do with her music-making, but only because it is so absurdly rare to see female conductors for reasons I have never comprehended.  Good for her.

The concert opened with Grieg’s Piano Concerto, performed with the young Austrian pianist Florian Feilmair.  The Munich Symphony Orchestra apparently performs a lot of European movie soundtracks, which gives it a somewhat homogeneous background tone – and although he played well (albeit sometimes hesitantly), Feilmair just did not blend in.  The concerto thus came off sounding like it was an orchestral work that Grieg never fully orchestrated.

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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.

Arctic Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Aagard-Nilsen, Tartini, Lindberg, Tschaikowsky, Grieg

Trombonist / conductor / composer Christian Lindberg founded the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra in 2009, inspired by the Venezuelan maestro José Antonio Abreu (founder of “El Sistema”), who advocates social transformation through music.  The Arctic Philharmonic, based in a couple of Norwegian towns north of the Arctic Circle, recombines itself in different settings and combinations to flood the region with a variety of music.  This week they came to Salzburg – and tonight’s program looked the most promising in the schedule.  Indeed, it was a pleasant surprise – maybe I should have gone to more of their concerts this week (some overlap in the selections from day to day, but a good range).  I had assumed from the publicity that it was a student “Sistema” orchestra, and thought a bunch of concerts might be too many, but it’s a professional group I’d be pleased to hear again (although this was the final night this time through).

Lindberg is a somewhat famboyant character, and very expressive on the podium.  He clearly rehearses this orchestra well.  They played every note distinctly and with distinction.  At times this became a little too technical, and the tone was often a tad thin no matter the size of the group on stage (for the Tschaikowsky Fourth Symphony, for example, the big orchestra did not always have the fullness of sound to match).  But if the orchestra did not always make Tschaikowsky’s rhythms dance, or always reflect Tschaikowsky’s moods (although the first movement drew out the melancholy of Yevgeny Onyegin, composed around the same time), it did provide quite a spring during selections from Grieg’Peer Gynt music played as several encores.

The concert had opened with Boreas Sings, a 2012 work by Norwegian composer Torstein Aagard-Nilsen, inspired by the Aurora Borealis.  The piece never really went anywhere – it developed sounds in one direction, then morphed into something else, and morphed again, and again.  I suppose this is an accurate musical description of the Aurora Borealis (I’ve somehow never experienced it, unfortunately).

Other than the Grieg encores, the highlights of the night involved the outstanding young Venezuelan trumpeter Pacho Flores.  Lindberg first met him when he went to Venezuela to conduct Abreu’s orchestra, and then came across him again later, and decided he had to bring him on tour.  Flores did not dissappoint, and we got to experience plenty of his talent.

After the Aagard-Nilsen piece, Flores came out for Tartini’s Concerto for Trumpet and Strings, which was an arrangement of a violin concerto.  Tartini, born in the wonderful Venetian fishing village of Pirano (one of my favorite spots in modern-day Slovenia) had six fingers on his hands, enabling him to perform impossibly-difficult music on his violin – notably the “Devil’s Trill.”  In this case, he transcribed this impossible violin music to the trumpet, which should right there be even more impossible.  Flores made it sound effortless.  Maybe he has six tongues.  And in between the crazy outer movements, the slow inner movement came across as fine velvet, demonstrating Flores’ versatility.

This versatility came out again in the next work, Akbank Bunka, composed by the conductor Lindberg himself in 2004.  This piece never quite decided what style it wanted to be in, ranging from neo-Sibelius to neo-jazz.  No matter.  Flores handled it all.

For an encore, Flores came out with a flugelhorn and did a solo piece.  I have no idea what it was, but it sounded like he had taken a trumpet exercise book for students and then played it at record speed.  The ease he did this with was astonishing.  He then gave us another extended encore, accompanied by the orchestra – also no idea what it was, but it sounded like bad film music arranged for performance in a nightclub – no matter, since Flores could make this sound good too and demonstrate his versatility in the process.  In total, he played a range of styles several centuries apart using three different instruments.  The audience kept calling him back out for more bows, with the hope of getting more encores, but none of these were short and his lips may have fallen off.  Or maybe not, but that was all we got.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Grieg, Bruckner

Last week, the Armenian Philharmonic canceled a concert when soloist Shlomo Mintz got sick.  Although I was looking forward to hear Mintz perform live, I think I was more disappointed in the end that I would not get to hear Eduard Topchjan and the Armenian Philharmonic perform Bruckner’s 9th Symphony, after having been surprisingly overwhelmed by these forces combining on Bruckner’s 4th in February.

So, to my delight, posters went up around town yesterday advertising a late addition to the concert schedule: a performance tonight, with the Grieg Piano Concerto and… Bruckner’s 9th.  As soon as I saw a poster, I ran as fast as I could to the box office and got a ticket.

I do not understand how they do it.  Bruckner cannot be a staple part of their repertory.  A functional but not great orchestra normally would not get this right.  But obviously God himself, captured in Bruckner’s music, has entered their skins and produced yet another tear-inducing performance.  The fact that the orchestra is flawed (strings were shrill, winds missed their attacks) actually made the performance more moving.  This is far from a perfect orchestra, and Bruckner was a very humble man, who saw himself as an imperfect servant of the Almighty.

Topchjan clearly had the orchestra well rehearsed.  They took a slow tempo, probably deliberately careful because the work was unfamiliar, but a slow tempo works for Bruckner.  They played the music as they found it, simply, honestly, and passionately.  The first movement built a wonderous tower, the scherzo bit the heart, and the adagio left the earth and climbed to heaven.  The acoustics in the Khachaturian Hall – not a huge hall, but very tall – took the sound right up to the high ceiling and brought it back to earth transformed and transformative.  Bruckner did not live long enough to complete this symphony, and left three movements behind as his testament, dedicated to none other than “the dear God.”  I think the orchestra even managed to play the dedication tonight.

I have heard better orchestras perform this work, including in 2013 already.  But did they really understand it so well as these Armenians?  I do not cry often at concerts.  I don’t give too many standing ovations either.  Topchjan and the Armenian Philharmonic provoked both for the second time this year, both times after performing Bruckner symphonies.

The concert opened with the Grieg Piano Concerto.  This was workmanlike.  Topchjan does make this orchestra sound better than anyone else, so he could keep the performance lively, flowing, and full of exciting dynamic swells.  Tigran Alaverdyan, the soloist, made playing the piano look effortless (I had an excellent view of his fingers).  Unfortunately, the Khachaturian Hall’s Steinway piano is not so good – something I’ve noticed before – and sounded rather tinny.  This was a piano to use to accompany someone, not to use as a solo instrument.

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Grieg, Pärt, Sibelius

Briefly in Vienna, I popped into the Musikverein to see what was on.  I do not believe I have heard the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra since the government nearly shut it down a few years ago. The Orchestra receives funding from a tax on televisions.  Even when I am in Vienna, I do not watch television and cannot even get the publicly-funded stations (they do not broadcast terrestrially and I do not have cable, so I can only receive free satellite, for which only one Austrian public channel is partially accessible).  So I pay for this.  Because public television is outdated, and in Europe has just morphed into commercial television anyway, no one really watches.  What makes the television tax palatable in Austria is that so much of it goes to arts funding in general. Nevertheless, they still threatened to disband this orchestra around 2009, until it was saved by public outcry.  In the process, it lost its conductor (Bertrand de Billy) and I wonder how many of its musicians. Tonight it sounded like a shell of its former self.

I do not know how often this orchestra performs these days.  I do not see it much in the listings, but it could merely be a factor of when I am around.  The young German conductor Cornelius Meister, de Billy’s successor, took the podium tonight, and he might just inspire the orchestra less.  I would need to hear more before deciding. Tonight’s concert, with music by Edvard Grieg, Arvo Pärt, and Janne Sibelius, would allow the orchestra to demonstrate its musicality.  This it did in part, but the theatrical passages got outnumbered by the passages where it simply played the music as written.  At times, the orchestra missed cues and sounded ragged around the edges – more so during the Grieg and Sibelius works, although it could have done so during the Pärt as well but no one would have noticed.

Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite #2 and Sibelius’ Symphony #5 framed the program.  At times these had inspiration, but somehow the orchestra managed to muddy the acoustics of the Golden Hall in a way I had not realized was possible.  I sat in a seat I often sit in, so the blur certainly came from the orchestra and not from the peculiarities of a particular seat.  The air remained clear, just the sound slushed through, although it did shine at times.

The piece which made me most curious came in the middle of the concert: Pärt’s Credo for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra (with the Singverein and with Meister at the keyboard).  Pärt is a composer I have wanted to get to know for almost thirty years, but for some reason have never gotten around to it.  I do not believe I have ever heard Pärt live, I have no recordings of any of his music, and I have only heard works by him on the radio in passing without paying special attention.  Perhaps this was not the best Pärt piece to begin with.  It had wonderful moments, welding baroque or even polyphonic harmonies onto a 20th-century orchestral palate.  Unfortunately, Pärt interrupted these pleasant bits with obnoxious intrusions of sound produced in often gimmicky ways, getting unusual noises out of the instruments or voices.  I think I will need to find another piece to begin to explore Pärt again.

After the Pärt piece, Meister performed an encore for solo piano.  I did not catch what he announced that it was (his announcement was clearly audible, but not intelligible), nor did I recognize it. However, I do not need to waste much time finding out, since I do not wish to hear this dull and ugly encore again.

Tonkünstler Orchestra, Musikverein

Grieg, Martinsson, Sibelius

Back-to-back concerts today at the Musikverein (they still make you check your coat separately for each concert, though).

First up was the Tonkünstler performing an all-Scandinavian concert under John Storgårds.  They opened with Grieg’s From Holberg’s Time.  An all-string piece, the Tonkünstler strings produced a very sweet sound with a pleasant lilt.  Because four of the five movements actually derived from dances, this interpretation stressed the rhythms quite nicely, providing an extra layer of charm on these miniatures.

“Bridge”- a trumpet concerto by Rolf Martinsson, a contemporary Swedish composer (who may have been in the audience – the trumpeter motioned very clearly to someone during the applause, but that person did not stand up or bow) followed.  I have not decided if I liked the piece or not, but at least the composer had something intelligent to say.  Martinsson seemed unsure if he intended to be post-romantic or post-atonal, alternating between the styles, but he did clearly intend to put in place a foundation to allow the trumpeter to be a virtuoso.  He had indicated that so few trumpet concerti had been written in the last couple of centuries because of the nature of the instrument and the developments in music, and therefore he intended to provide a modern piece that would work for virtuoso trumpet.  In this he succeeded, with the help of trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger (for whom he originally wrote the piece in 1998).  Hardenberger had a bright and clear tone, and the skill to jump around the range.  In general, the orchestra would set a post-romantic mood, and then interrupt it with some atonality (or mild tonality), where the trumpet would jump in.  Perhaps the one section that did not work was when the score called for the solo trumpet to be muted, as dampening the sound of the solo instrument defeated some of the purpose of a trumpet concerto.  On the whole, however, I am always glad to hear intelligent modern music that still qualifies as music.

After the intermission, Storgårds treated us to an unusual interpretation of Sibelius’ Second Symphony.  At first, I did not understand what he was trying to achieve, but it slowly grew on me.  Having heard the strings sounding so sweet for the Grieg at the start of the concert, I was initially concerned when they opened the Sibelius sounding bitter.  The winds entered, also not sounding completely smooth.  But Storgårds plugged away at a deliberate slow pace, and the tonalities emerged.  The strings provided the base mood, upon which the wind instruments could construct their chorales.  This was a little bit of Bruckner – Sibelius’ favorite living composer when he studied in Vienna – emerging.  As the symphony went on, the emotion grew, right up to the final drawn-out chorale.  A successful performance of Sibelius must come across cold and dark, so that the listener considers drowning himself in the nearest frozen lake, but does not actually commit suicide because of the realization that, once dead, he will never again be able to hear the music of Sibelius.  I’d say Storgårds accomplished that feeling for this audience.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Sibelius, Grieg

Back to the Khachaturian Hall for a concert by the adult orchestra (Armenian Philharmonic) tonight, under the baton of Djong Victorin Yu, a Korean conductor (with a Philadelphia connection – he studied music composition at Penn; his age is unclear from his bio, and he looks ageless, but I think he must have been there in the 1970s).

Sibelius framed the concert, starting with Finlandia.  Yu took it at a slower tempo than usual, to emphasize Sibelius’ lush tonalities.  Unfortunately, this may not have worked so well with this orchestra.  The orchestra is perfectly adequate, but its sound is not quite full enough, particularly in the strings.  Fortunately, Yu allowed the brass section to growl in a way that Vengerov did not allow these same musicians to do when they backed up the Youth State Symphony on Tuesday, but they could not compensate for the strings.  Oddly, Yu took a different approach for the final work – Sibelius’ Second Symphony, a moody work often performed much more slowly than Yu did it today.  The faster tempo worked better for this orchestra, since we did not have to dwell on the tonalities.

Between the two Sibelius pieces came an unenthusiastic performance of nine movements from Grieg’Peer Gynt incidental music.  I’m wondering if the Sibelius second symphony after the intermission was more enthusiastic because half the orchestra rushed themselves to the bar in the basement of the concert hall during the break.

As an encore, we got the Andante from Grieg’s From Holberg’s Time.  Unfortunately, this is all strings.  Again, they were not so bad, but simply a tad thin and uninspired.

Presidential Orchestra of the Russian Federation, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Beethoven, Weber, Grieg

The Presidential Orchestra is the house orchestra of the Kremlin. Nothing special, just good music.

Concert included Beethoven’Egmont Overture, the overtures to Weber’s Freischütz and Oberon, and the Grieg Piano Concerto.  Anton Orlov conducted, Sergey Tarasov was the piano soloist. Tarasov was good.

After two concerts there, though, I’m not sure I care for the Tschaikowsky Hall. I find the Conservatory a much nicer venue.

The acoustics at the Tschaikowsky Hall are fine (neither especially good nor bad), and there are good sight-lines in the amphitheater layout. But the parterre is a little bit too sunken. Last night and today I sat in the lower amphitheater seats, behind the parterre, but even that was not very elevated. The result is that there is actually an obstructed view from most seats – the obstruction being the orchestra itself. To see over the first row of the orchestra, you need to be sitting in the upper amphitheater, which is actually quite some distance away from the stage.

Other quirks: totally inadequate cloakrooms, which are also laid out bizarrely so that the coat checker has to disappear into the back to find the coats and then re-emerge, which takes forever. They also bar the exits, so there is a huge bottleneck of people trying to leave (because of security, they make people enter through only two doors where they can inspect bags and wand suspicious people, but that is true in most venues in Moscow and not everyone arrives at the same time; other venues then open all the exits at the end of the performance so that everyone can get out at once, though). And they seem to hire people to read the program out loud before each piece – why have programs? This is just tiresome.