Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Haus für Mozart (Salzburg)

Haydn, Gruber, Mahler, Grieg

This evening’s concert by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Juanjo Mena in Salzburg’s Haus für Mozart confirmed my impression yesterday, but exceeded the result.  First, the musical selection was better tonight.  Second, I had a seat with passable acoustics.  And third, I finally did not have to stifle a cough, so I was more comfortable (still a little congested, but not much of an issue any more).

Joseph Haydn‘s trumpet concerto opened the concert, again with Håkan Hardenberger as soloist.  This was the first modern trumpet concerto – the keyed trumpet had just been invented, allowing a trumpet to have the full range of notes, and Haydn was the first to write for it, combining his usual good humor with a demonstration of the new instrument’s capabilities.  Hardenberger plays everything idiomatically, and here was no exception, a warm tone throughout.

We then switched gears entirely for a different type of trumpet concerto: H. K. Gruber‘s Three MOB Pieces, originally for jazz septet here rescored for trumpet and orchestra in a version the composer did for Hardenberger himself several years back.  Gruber has never explained what “MOB” stands for (he has implied but not confirmed “mobility”).  They are American big-band-inspired works, and in this performing version a nice showpiece for Hardenberger (actually three different showpieces, performed on three different trumpets).  Not really my thing, and unclear if this is appropriate music for an orchestral concert, but it allowed a display of virtuosity and was not as pointless as the Wallin concerto last night.

After the break came another first symphony – not Brahms, as we had last night, but Gustav Mahler.  Salzburg is the location of the (likely apocryphal) story in which Brahms complained to Mahler while walking along the Salzach River that after Beethoven had said everything there was to be said with music, it was now impossible to write anything new.  Mahler pointed out at the river and said: “Look, Maestro!  Here comes the last wave!”  So Brahms’ first symphony was a mature work which said nothing new (water under the bridge, as it were).  Mahler’s was a youthful work which marked the next wave in the flowing river.

With this much to work with, Mena and the Bergen Philharmonic excelled, producing a full, emotional, and ultimately exuberant performance.  This orchestra once again demonstrated its complete sound, with strong solo lines magnifying the full impact.  Mena again looked like he was molding clay, but this was a much higher-quality clay, and the life he breathed into it showed.  The symphony indeed came alive.  The audience reception agreed, with a much bigger applause than last night (they earned it last night, but the music was less compelling – tonight just went in total to the next level).  Two additional encores from Edvard Grieg‘s incidental music to Peer Gynt rounded off the performance (one was “Morning;” the other I can’t quite remember what the segment is) with more enthusiastic responses and smiles all around.

My seat this evening was up top on the side – I’ve actually sat in almost the equivalent seat on the other side before, and thought it was OK, so now I know where to sit in this hall.  Sitting over the orchestra, the sound came straight up to me.  I have had other seats up top before too, which were OK.  Now I realize where the sound goes in this hall: right to the ceiling – from the other seats I’ve been in lower down, it has sounded like it was trapped in a box.  Given that the other two halls in the Festival complex have good acoustics, one wonders how they got this one so wrong.  And the name is stupid too, as I’ve remarked before.  Why “House for Mozart” (not to be confused with “Mozart’s House” and “Mozart’s Birth House” both open as museums in Salzburg)?  Why not “Mozart Hall” – or, given the number of things named for Mozart already in this town, why not name it after someone else?  Or since there is a “Great Festival House” next door, even the prosaic “Little Festival House” would even work.  At any rate, looking through the windows of the Great Festival House, the renovations are well underway and the sooner we get concerts back there the better.  Maybe they can rip this hall out next year (ahead of the Festival’s 100th anniversary) and replace it with a new hall with decent acoustics.

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Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Haus für Mozart (Salzburg)

Wagner, Wallin, Brahms, Grieg

The Bergen Philharmonic had not yet started its season when I was staying across the street from its home at the end of last Summer. No worries, they’ve come to me, with guest conductor Juanjo Mena and the incomparable Håkan Hardenberger on the trumpet(s).

I probably would not have chosen this concert, but it was part of my Wednesday subscription series (tomorrow is a more promising program, and I’ll go back for that).  At least it began and ended well, and even the long slog through the middle was well-performed.  This orchestra has a wonderfully complete lyrical sound, with solo lines to augment the point (but never outshine the whole).  Particularly soulful solos came from the concertmistress (who I think went to Exeter several years before I did), oboe, and principal horn.  Mena had a wonderful sense of sound-shaping, as though forming clay and breathing life into it.

Wagner‘s Flying Dutchman was of course set on the Norwegian coast, so I suppose it was fitting to open the set with the overture, a study in character contrasts as performed here.  The excitement vanished in a hurry, however, for Rolf Wallin‘s Trumpet Concerto, The Fisher King.  I suppose a legend about a wounded king sitting on the banks of a river waiting for fish to bite is never going to be the stuff of high drama (although it could be mystical – Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version had the story evolve into Amfortas, leading to Wagner’s portrayal in Parsifal).  Wallin’s music also just sat there, throbbing along, periodically interrupted by a spasm in the orchestra, and with virtuosity throughout by Hardenberger (for whom Wallin wrote this piece in 2011).  Wallin designated it a “trumpet” concerto, but he should have called it a “trumpets” concerto, as it required two (not an issue for the versatile Hardenberger).

Ironically, Wallin’s concerto set up the second half of the concert well: the first symphony by Johannes Brahms.  The great conductor Hans von Bülow referred to this as “Beethoven’s Tenth.”  Brahms understood that as a compliment, but in reality it was an indication of how unoriginal Brahms was, since coming half a century after Beethoven’s Ninth, the music really should have progressed (indeed, in many respects, Brahms regressed).  Brahms mastered symphonic technique, but just did not add anything (those few emotional works when he dropped his inhibitions, such as his Requiem and a handful of shorter pieces, demonstrated that Brahms could do original, he just usually did not want to).  Like the Wallin concerto, this opened with a throbbing pulsating rhythm, and then just moved along (certainly more musical than Wallin, and the orchestra had enough moments to shine with it, but… Brahms).

Bergen-born Edvard Grieg had been the music director of this orchestra in the 1880s, and so we naturally got two encores excerpted from his incidental music for Peer Gynt – “Åse’s death” and “In the hall of the mountain king” – the first with sumptuous lush strings, the second full of enthusiasm and smiles all around.

My lingering cough is now (mostly) better, but the acoustics in the Haus für Mozart are not.  This evening I sat downstairs, center – I don’t remember sitting there before either, but it did not help.  Tomorrow I’ll be up top, where I have been before and have found it reasonable, so maybe it’s only really passable all the way up there.  I’ll confirm tomorrow.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Zimmermann, Mahler

 

I went to hear Mahler‘s 2nd for the first time since my father died.  He would have liked this spectacular, emotive performance by the Vienna Philharmonic and Andris Nelsons in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

Nelsons gave the performance extra drama – this is, of course, an orchestra drawn from an opera house, which knows better than most how to use music to augment the impact on the audience, so they bought in to Nelsons’ reading.  Essentially, Nelsons kept the lid on the first movement, making it almost delicate and mysterious.  This allowed him to draw out individual lines to highlight anguish and pain.  When the music swelled to crescendo, it proved devastating.  And then came the almost playful second and third movements, as interludes, almost classical in proportions (despite a full Mahler-sized orchestra).  The fourth movement – “premordial light” – shone.  Then we returned to the approach of the first movement… except whereas the first movement was a “celebration of death” the final movement is one of life and renewal and triumph.  Nelsons never lost sight of that ever-broadening smile among the tears.

Soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova, and the Bavarian Radio Chorus sang beautifully.  At the end: silence, even after Nelsons dropped his arms and released the room.  Only when he turned to look out over the stunned hall did tentative clapping begin, swelling slowly.  The audience stayed standing in our seats to applaud until 11 p.m..

Before the intermission came Bernd Alois Zimmermann‘s Trumpet Concerto “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See” with soloist Håkan Hardenberger.  I suppose Nelsons chose this to somehow set up his interpretation of Mahler.  The work, in one long movement, has a colorful orchestral backdrop that starts in dissonance, moves through dancing jazz, and finishes in mystery, sort of the reverse of his interpretation of Mahler’s 2nd.  On top of this, the trumpet moves through a variety of styles.  And who better than Hardenberger, whose versatility shines, to interpret this.  The work was actually fun – despite the undercurrent (inspired by an old Negro spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” the German Zimmermann wrote it shortly after his own country had checked out of the human race for a few years as a sort-of self-indulgent Schadenfreude to highlight American racism, but he undermined his own message somewhat by changing the title to parody black American English).  But in the end, juxtaposed to the Mahler, it was unconvincing.  It was written decades after Mahler, so it is not like Zimmermann could set up Mahler or provide influence; Mahler was also fresher, more original, and managed to carry his work over five movements and more than an hour and a quarter.

As an aside: I had been disappointed to not have my application accepted for tickets for Salome by Richard Strauss at this year’s Festival.  But opening night was televised, so I at least watched that.  The staging, by an Italian, Romeo Castellucci was terrible.  His biography does not indicate any German connection, but watching this performance I might have assumed he could have been German or German-trained, given how little relevance his staging had to the plot and a desire to shock for sake of shock – opera in Germany is all about these narcissist imbecilic directors.  The characters wandering around the stage – sometimes stopping and standing in place, sometimes also contorting themselves, had no bearing to anything.  The literature indicated he thought the Dance of the Seven Veils was the culmination, but he did not have Salome dance.  Instead, after Herod left the stage (so he did not even get to see the dance), Castellucci had Salome tied immobile to the top of a pedestal labeled “SAXA” – Latin for “rocks” – and had a large hewn rock descend slowly from the ceiling to crush her (apparently it was hollow, because she survived to sing the next scene).  John the Baptist (who sang in blackface) appeared to share his cistern cell with a horse (!?), so that when they brought his head out, they actually brought the horse’s out instead.  The Baptist’s naked headless body (white skin – so I won’t even begin to guess why Castellucci portrayed him in blackface – probably to shock, or he’s just a racist, I don’t know) did come on stage at the end, and she made out with that corpse and kissed where his lips would have been if he had still had a head.  Salome was not killed at the end either (why should she be? – “kill that woman!” are only the opera’s final words, and the music describes her death).  It really is not worth recapping the rest of this garbage.  I suppose I am now pleased I did not pay for tickets.

The one redeeming feature: the Armenian-Lithuanian soparano Asmik Grigoryan as an expressive, physcologically tortured, Salome.  Franz Welser-Möst led the Philharmonic (which reminded me that I had seen an even worse staging of this opera in Zurich many years ago with him conducting).  If I had only heard this on the radio, I would have been impressed.

 

Tonkünstler Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, Dean

A few things converged to bring me to the Musikverein this afternoon: I realized I had not been to a concert there this winter; it has been a longer while since I last heard the Tonkünstler Orchestra, a pleasant provincial orchestra from Lower Austria that I came to enjoy when visiting Vienna from Kosovo back in the day; and trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger reliably introduces audiences to new repertory with flawless technique.

Today’s program opened with a spirited Leonore Overture Nr. 3 by Beethoven. Conductor John Storgårds coaxed dramatic playing all around, particularly from the flutes. The fondness for Beethoven continued in the concert’s finale, with the under-performed gem of his Eighth Symphony. The Beethoven 8 is his smallest and shortest symphony, and often overlooked, but although it took a more classical form at first look, a deeper examination such as today’s brought out the nuances Beethoven had developed as he revolutionized music. The performance on the whole was nothing special, but the sound was balanced and the playing fine, to get the message out.

On the other hand, Australian composer Brett Dean’s Dramatis Personae trumpet concerto, which he wrote on commission for this orchestra and soloist, came across contrived. Hardenberger is excellent, and if Dean wanted someone to interpret his work he could not have done better. But the only way to understand this piece was to read the program notes, and even then its meaning was unclear. The music either needs to be able to speak for itself (especially in able hands), or the program must tell a story that allows the listener to follow along. In this case, the whole composition failed.

Dean’s music was not unpleasant, just unintelligible even with the program. Dean said he chose to write a trumpet concerto inspired by Beethoven’s Leonore fanfare – the trumpet having something to announce. But it remains unclear what he was announcing. After some odd percussive opening, the first recognizable music in the first movement was reminiscent of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony gone awry. After moving through several adventures and misadventures, the trumpet hero ended up in the urban landscape of Charles Ives. But Ives needed no program. This is probably not a piece I need to hear again in the hopes of understanding it better, but hearing Hardenberger attempt these works is always a pleasure.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, J. Haydn, Gruber

Latvian Conductor Andrís Nelsons was the main attraction of tonight’s concert at the Musikverein.  A protege of Mariss Jansons, Nelsons has burst onto the Vienna music scene recently and received glowing reviews here, but always when I have been out of town.  So now I had to see for myself.  He used to play first trumpet in the Latvian National Opera orchestra until he ended up taking the baton as an emergency fill-in about ten years ago, which launched his career, first as chief conductor of that orchestra, and now in Birmingham.

Nelsons has an unusual conducting style.  He provides a few measures of beat with his baton to get everyone started together.  But mostly he paints with the baton instead of beating with it.  His movements on the podium are athletic and sometimes acrobatic, but nevertheless restrained.  He generally holds still in some contorted position which expresses the mood of the music, and makes demonstrative cues and modifications with his hands, before jumping up and down a few times and landing in a new body position.  Every now and then he keeps beat for a few more measures to ensure the orchestra remains together.  The technique produces expressive results.

Tonight he led the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which also requires some introduction.  A bunch of members of Claudio Abbado’s Mahler Youth Orchestra, perhaps the leading youth orchestra in Europe, wanted to continue to play together after they passed the orchestra’s age limit, so Abbado created the new orchestra for them.  They are “resident” in several European cities, which also means in none.  Tonight, they too performed athletically, their bodies swaying in broad circles along with the music as they played – whether they do this normally or only as a result of Nelsons, I do not know since I have not seen them play before.

Works by Beethoven book-ended the program, surrounding two trumpet concerti with Håkan Hardenberger, frequent guest in Vienna, as soloist.

The Beethoven works shone, particularly the Egmont Overture at the start of the concert.  The Seventh Symphony at the end of the program may have been less precise.  This chamber orchestra was actually larger than the reduced-size Tonkünstler I saw yesterday, which I suppose indicates what Zehetmair tried to accomplish yesterday.  The sound today filled the hall, but at the required moments remained subtle and restrained, particularly in the slow movement.  Nelsons adjusted the dynamics to great dramatic impact.

The first of the trumpet concerti, coming before the intermission, was that of Joseph Haydn.  Hardenberger sang with his instrument, in a somewhat subdued, mellow, tone.  Although I have appreciated him often in Vienna over the years, I do not believe I have heard him play any music written before the 20th century.  His playing remains technically excellent, but I am not convinced that this tone fully worked for Haydn, especially since it did not always come out purely or cleanly from the instrument.

After the intermission came the second trumpet concerto, “Busking,” written for Hardenberger in 2007 by the now 70-year-old Austrian composer H.K. Gruber, scored for trumpet, accordion, banjo, and string orchestra and obviously inspired by street music (at least in name and orchestration, if not in the actual musical style).  In reality, the concerto did not call for one trumpet, but several: Hardenberger emerged on stage with three instruments: a standard B-flat trumpet, a flugelhorn, and his favored C-trumpet, as well as a variety of mutes.  The piece began with Hardenberg playing the music using only his mouthpiece.  The first two minutes of this concerto provided amusement.  Unfortunately, the work lasted more than two minutes, with endless variations on the same lines.  But it went on and on interminably.  And on.  And on.  And on.  And when it finally finished, it became clear that was only the first movement.  Two more movements of utter boredom followed, making the work’s title anomalous.  Gruber knew we had all paid for our tickets in advance and therefore the performers were getting their money – if they actually tried to busk using this music, no one would have thrown them a single coin.  Perhaps someone might have thrown a tomato.  The work continued unbearably – never in an ugly way, just dully – for over half an hour.  If Gruber had nothing at all to say, he should not have said it at all.  Or he should have stopped at two minutes when the audience was still amused.  Boos rang out from the floor as soon as the work ended.  This was not fair for the performers, who actually played quite well, although during a rehearsal someone should have had the good sense to yell “stop” and refrain from performing this tedium in public, at least not to a captive audience in a concert hall.

In this regard, the time it took for the orchestra to warm back into the Beethoven Seventh may owe in part to the orchestra itself trying to recover from the immediately preceding work.  They would have been wiser to skip Busking and just launch directly into the symphony after the intermission.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Stravinsky, Tomasi, Tschaikowsky

I would not normally describe Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #6 as “rousing,” but tonight’s performance by the Vienna Symphony under Hans Graf was exceptional.  The first movement began with a low, dark grumble which felt like it had emerged slowly from the floorboards of the Musikverein.  This swelled into waves of emotion, which washed from the orchestra over the audience.  By the third movement, the only one which does not end quietly, the musicians had reached a feverish intensity.  Although the Musikverein audiences are usually good about their applause (sometimes tourists have been known to applaud at inappropriate times, but this is rare), the crescendo at the end of this third movement had the audience roaring, with wild applause across the hall.  Indeed, I am not sure if any of the audience members could really contain themselves, the emotions had simply grown that high.  The orchestra, which might be expected to react to such an interruption with annoyance, appeared instead to expect it.  After acknowledging what happened, the orchestra picked up with the final movement.  This gradually faded out, much the way the first movement had begun – returning to a low grumble under the floorboards.  A drained audience gathered its breath, and then the applause resumed long and hard.

This performance made up for the two uninteresting works which had graced the program before the intermission.  The concert had opened with Stravinsky’s rarely performed (for good reason) divertimento “The Fairy’s Kiss.”  A homage to Tschaikowsky, Stravinsky had orchestrated lesser-known music by Tschaikowsky with his own colors, and had then reworked the piece several times over a period of decades.  The only thing worth hearing was how Tschaikowsky’s music translated into Stravinksy’s tonal colors.  But the curiosity value soon faded – there was a good reason the original pieces by Tschaikowsky were themselves rarely performed, and Stravinsky added minimal curiosity but no drama, worth filing away with his other lesser works.  Kudos to the Symphoniker’s woodwinds, though, for some virtuosic playing.

For the second piece on the program, the excellent trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger made one of his frequent guest appearances in Vienna, this time as the soloist for Henri Tomasi’s trumpet concerto (1948).  Sadly, Tomasi would seem to be yet another of a long line of dull French composers with nothing to say.  The music was not unpleasant, and Hardenberger gave it an exceptionally skillful reading, but it simply did not go anywhere.  Worth filing away somewhere with Stravinsky’s Fairy’s Kiss.

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.