Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Khachaturian, Rimsky-Korsakov

Middle Eastern-inspired music filled Salzburg’s Great Festival House this evening, presented by the Mozarteum Orchestra under the young Spanish guest conductor Antonio Méndez.

Violinist Alina Pogostkina (born in the Soviet Union, her violinist parents left after it collapsed to begin a new life in Germany as street musicians, which is how she got her start) joined the orchestra for Aram Khachaturyan‘s violin concerto.  She may not have fully warmed up before coming on stage, as the sounds that initially emerged from her instrument were weak and halting, even though the music itself requires a robust and somewhat edgy opening.  Méndez noticed, and quickly dialed down the orchestra to not overwhelm her.  As her sound warmed (although it never became completely full), the orchestra came back up to a normal level.

I’m not convinced she ever quite captured the rawness of this work.  The orchestra did, however.  Although not scored for duduks, it could have been: the most quintessential of Armenian instruments made its presence felt in the music even without being in the score.  The orchestra painted a journey across the low Caucasus, with highly evocative playing.

The journey south deeper into the Middle East continued with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov‘s tone poem Scheherazade.  Méndez did not magnify the sounds, but pulled out individual lines and wove them together.  Not big drama, but lots of little touches.  Both halves of the concert presented especially fine playing by the bassoon soloist in particular, and also the first chair oboe and clarinet.

Norddeutsche Philharmonie Rostock, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Khachaturian, Tschaikowsky, Brahms

The concert promoters mislabeled tonight’s concert as a “Russian” night, even though a piece by the Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian made up the first half of the program.  Perhaps the they did this to recognize Armenia recently joining the Eurasian Union as part of its gradual reincorporation into Russia.

The Norddeutsche Philharmonie Rostock performed in Salzburg’s Great Festival House under the baton of the Viennese conductor Florian Krumpöck, with young Austrian (from a village near Salzburg) violinist Christine-Maria Höller performing the solo for the Khachaturian Violin Concerto.  I do not think they understood this piece at all.  Möller’s playing was more mechanical than lyrical, and she never captured the wild Caucasian dance melodies.  She demonstrated fine tone and technique, just not feeling.  Krumpöck also allowed the orchestra to overwhelm her at times, with unsatisfying consequences.

Tschaikowsky’s Fifth Symphony came after the intermission.  Krumpöck did his best to capture the composer’s innate dancing, with lilting gestures on the podium, but the orchestra did not respond and failed to reflect those moods, generally playing with a lack of fluidity.  Not until the marching final movement did the orchestra respond – good Germans, I suppose: at least they know how to march.  Even so, this is supposed to be a melancholy march, and while rousing they did not capture Tschaikowsky’s depression.  Still, the main part of the concert ended on a strength.

For an encore, Krumpöck and the Rostock orchestra jumped into the Hungarian Dance #5 by Brahms.  Brahms the Germans understood: finally they danced.

Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall

Khachaturian, Mendelssohn

Dora Serviarian-Kuhn has a reputation as the world’s leading interpreter of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto.  That must be a mixed blessing, since this is clearly not one of his best works.  Although jarring, it lacks the drama of much of his music: noise does not equal excitement.  Her hands handled the leaps and bounds athletically, and I think the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra hit most of the notes.  But for a piece with a lot going on, it was actually quite dull.

In contrast, the Mendelssohn 4th Symphony after the break did provide drama in abundance.  Maestro Eduard Topchjan had the podium – my last chance to see him conduct for a while – as he led his orchestra through Mendelssohn’s scenic tour through Italy.  The Armenian Philharmonic strings still sound a little thin and the winds have a tendency to jump their cues, but those are normal problems here.  Otherwise Topchjan kept the pacing clear and lively.  The audience, which probably came in predisposed to cheer the Khachaturian work rather than the Mendelssohn, clearly knew which of the two halves of the concert came out better as evidenced through the much more rambunctious applause in the second half.

Russian National Philharmonic Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Wagner, Bellini, Glinka, Rachmaninov, Rubinstein, Bizet, Khachaturian, Pakhmutova, Dunayevsky, Babzhanian, Orbelian

Tonight’s concert by baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the Armenian Philharmonic was peculiar long before it started.  Ostensibly part of the annual Yerevan Perspectives Music Festival, it appeared neither on the Festival’s published program nor on the Armenian Philharmonic’s schedule.  But when posters went up around town, tickets sold out.  Only cheap seats were available when I got to the box office, and in retrospect that was a good thing because this concert was not worth more than a 10-dollar ticket.  After the concert sold out (or over-sold out, since some people were literally sitting on every available stair in the aisles and standing to fill every other empty space), black market tickets were going for well above face value.

A list of composers was published on the concert flier, so presumably they knew what they were performing in advance.  But to tell us what was being performed, they hired a master of ceremonies.  Sometimes he was too slow to announce the next selection.  Sometimes Hvorostovsky beat him too it.  Sometimes we just had to guess.  A program would have been a nicer idea.

The first half of the program contained a mix of arias and orchestral overtures.  Hvorostovsky is clearly more comfortable in the Russian repertory, and Aleko’s lament from Rachmaninov’Aleko and an aria from Rubinstein’s Demon remain signature works, combining loving sensitivity with drama.  His singing style may be less suited for German and Italian repertory, at least for tonight’s selections, since his voice can sound somewhat bitter and not subtle in those languages, and this undermined the portrayal in Wolfram’s Ode to the Evening Star from Wagner’Tannhäuser and in another aria that sounded (I’ll guess) like it came from Bellini’Puritani.  It worked better for Escamillo’s bullfighting aria from Bizet’Carmen, as Hvorostovsky ostentatiously made his appearance in the middle of the orchestral introduction, and then gave a swashbuckling portrayal quite appropriate for the scene (this may also have worked better since French is already an ugly enough language, and a biting Russian baritone will not make that worse).

The orchestra mostly kept pace, under the baton of the Armenian-American conductor Constantine Orbelian, but Orbelian does not have the same control that the orchestra’s music director Eduard Topchjan has.  Topchjan is perhaps the only one to make this orchestra sound good.  Tonight, they reverted down several levels, missing notes and entrances, and failing to allow natural phrasing in the music to flow, making the performance somewhat disjointed.  When Hvorostovsky sang, they thankfully stayed in the background (with some glaring exceptions).  When performing the overtures to Verdi’NabuccoGlinka’s  Ruslan i Lyudmila, Bizet’s Carmen, they just served to keep the audience entertained while Hvorostovsky took a breather.  Likewise for a Khachaturian dance in the concert’s second half.

When I worked in Russia, someone told me that someone famous (unfortunately, I forget who) once quipped that if the Russians have ever done anything cultured, they learned it from the Jews, the Armenians, or the Georgians.  The second half of the concert seemed designed to prove that no matter how well they have been trained, Russians remain tasteless underneath.  I suppose Hvorostovsky selects his own programs, so I will blame him.  His selections in the second half converted the hall into a Russian nightclub, but with the accompaniment scored for full orchestra to ensure it could become as tacky as possible.  He sang a string of Russian-language songs by Russian and Armenian composers (according to the flier: Pakhmutova, Dunayevsky, Babzhanian, and Konstanin Orbelian – the last being the uncle of the conductor and who came on stage personally to accompany Hvorostovsky and the orchestra on a miked piano, and whose music is as cheesy as it was when I last suffered through it in 2011).  Hvorostovsky used a microphone for these songs (he correctly did not use one in the first half of the program).  Why someone with his voice needed amplification is a mystery, but it just made the sound more seedy and defeated the point of paying to hear him sing live.  His gold chain glittered under his half-unbuttoned shiny black shirt.

Audience reaction was mixed.  Some – presumably the Russified Armenians, of whom there are far too many – clearly loved it and applauded madly.  But a sizable minority had expressions of disgust on their faces similar to mine.  After politely sitting through the scheduled part of the concert, and sitting on our hands during the applause, we waited to see what Hvorostovsky would do for encores.  He began with two differently-scored versions of the Russian nightclub favorite “Dark Eyes.”  When it became clear that the encores would continue in the same manner, lots of us got up and walked out.

Yale Alumni Chorus and Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

Britt, Vaughan Williams, Orbelian, Babajanian, Tigranian, Khachaturian, Bernstein

The Yale Alumni Chorus came to Yerevan.  It looks like they recruited most of it from the comfortable armchairs in the reading room of the Yale Club of New York, as it consisted mostly of white men of a certain age (and a bunch of younger women – when did Yale start admitting women?).  But they can sing – I’ll attest to that.  Apparently, this trip was organized by two conductors from the same Armenian family (Konstantin Orbelian, from Armavir, Armenia, and his nephew Constantine Orbelian, from San Francisco), who seem to have a long association with the Yale Glee Club, so the concert was put on in their honor.

The concert opened with the world premiere of “Dream and a Song” by Colin Britt, with the Chorus under Yale Glee Club conductor Jeffrey Douma accompanied by the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra.  The program notes provided no information at all about this work, and I have never heard of the composer.  Short piece, a bit of a fanfare for voice, sufficient for getting the choral concert underway.  So I suppose it worked, but was otherwise uninteresting.

The highlight of the concert came next, with the Chorus and the Philharmonic performing Dona Nobis Pacem by Ralph Vaughan Williams under the baton of the Philharmonic’s artistic director Eduard Topchjan.  I’ve now heard this orchestra perform dully under many batons this year, but Topchjan once again proved that he (and perhaps only he) can make it sound quite good.  In this piece, Vaughan Williams set a series of Walt Whitman poems to dramatic music.  Chorus and orchestra responded to the challenge.  So did soprano Syuzanna Melkonyan.  Baritone John Rouse was somewhat weaker, but came along for the ride.

After the intermission, the concert became eclectic.  It started with a series of Armenian a cappella songs performed by the Paros Chamber Choir, a small chorus composed of long-term patients at a rehabilitation hospital in Yerevan, many of whom are confined to wheelchairs.  They were good, as was the sequence of songs they chose, and they earned a rousing applause.

Unfortunately, when they left the stage, the concert took a big turn for the worse.  I suppose if the two Orbelians sponsored the concert, then they deserved to be trotted out on stage themselves.  Uncle Konstantin played the piano and Nephew Constantine conducted.  First came “Memories of Gershwin” composed by the Uncle, a piece for piano and orchestra in the style of Gershwin, but without the talent of Gershwin.  This was tolerable and entertaining, at least, unlike the next two offerings.

However, before each of the next two offerings, Uncle Konstantin took it upon himself to grab a microphone and start mumbling uncontrollably.  He did so in Russian.  This leads me to ask what self-respecting Armenian, born in Armenia (the program said he was born in Armavir, which is somewhat west of Yerevan), addressing an audience of Armenians in the Armenian capital, does so in… Russian.  If he does not respect himself, there is little reason for me to respect him.  But that aside, now back to the so-called music.

“Nocturne” by Arno Babajanian followed the mock-Gershwin.  This was cheesy taken to an extreme – nightclub-style music scored for full orchestra accompanying the piano (with a piano part hammed up to the fullest by the elder Orbelian – I suppose ham goes with cheese).  I half expected film credits to start rolling on the organ pipes in the back of the stage – possibly the final credits of a film would be the only time this music might have any reason to be performed.

As bad as this was, the elder Orbelian took it even further with the next work – “Birch Trees” – which he wrote himself to prove he could be cheesier than the next guy, I suppose.  In addition to the overwrought orchestra and piano, we had to suffer through a tenor soloist, Yeghishe Manucharian.  Manucharian’s voice was so weak he required heavy miking.  Very heavy miking.  So heavy, in fact, that I (and other members of the audience) literally had to cover our ears to keep our heads from exploding.  Khachaturian Hall is not exceptionally large, so if Manucharian does not have a voice big enough to perform in it, then he needs to find another career.  Maybe he could sing in a nightclub.

The Orbelians finally went back stage, and the stagehands ensured that the piano followed them.  Eduard Topchjan returned to the podium to lead a pleasant folk-music-inspired aria from Armen Tigranian’s opera Anush.  The soloist was… Manucharian.  He must have seen the audience cringing during the previous piece, because when he returned to the stage he demonstrably pushed the microphone to the side and sang without it.  He proved that, if he strained enough, he could fill the hall.  But this also meant that his voice sounded heavily strained.  Now that he broke his vocal chords, maybe he could be a waiter in a nightclub.

There followed an interlude where the Yale Alumni Chorus presented awards to Topchjan and to Constantine Orbelian.  This took a while, since the two Yalie men presenting the awards were long-winded and the English-to-Armenian translator they hired was inadequate for her job.

Returning to the music, Douma took the podium again and gave us two further songs for chorus and orchestra by Aram Khachaturian, and then the final chorus from Bernstein’Candide (“Make Our Garden Grow”).  And then we got an encore.  I was expecting maybe “Boola Boola,” given the make-up of the Yale Alumni Chorus, but we instead had a negro spiritual.  This was truly excellent, although it was a bit incongruous seeing all those older white men with sticks up their backsides singing a negro spiritual (there was one distinguished-looking elder black man in the chorus, but he still looked like an old Yalie).  Since the chorus wasn’t going to do it, the audience provided the clapping and swaying instead.

Armenian State Youth Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall

Rimsky-Korsakov, Sibelius, Bach, Schubert, Khachaturian

The Armenian State Youth Orchestra performed at Yerevan’s Khachaturian Hall this evening, under the baton of Maxim Vengerov.  The hall was packed to overflowing, with the standing-room audience even crowding all of the aisles.  Judging by the number of close protection agents, I assume there were also a lot of government officials in attendance.

Students from the Yerevan Conservatory make up most of the members of this orchestra, supplemented where necessary by members of the Armenian State Philharmonic.  By my observation, the Conservatory must only train students in a limited number of instruments, since half of the woodwinds, all but two of the basses, and the entire brass and percussion sections were clearly not students.  That said, the orchestra – including its student sections – sounded reasonably good.  Another oddity: the student strings (i.e., violins, viole, celli, and two bassists) were obviously trained to sway together like grain in the wind – I know that most orchestras have the strings bow together, but this swaying business was disconcerting.  Two violinists did not get the memo: the second row second chair sat immobile and stared intently at his lap when he played and a woman several rows back swayed completely out of synch with everyone else.

Vengerov seemed to want to protect the students from being overwhelmed by the adults, so he muffled the brass.  This worked for the piece after the intermission – Rimsky-Korsakov’Scheherezade – since the strings lead that work, and their sound represented the waves surging and crashing.  It did not work so well for the concert’s opening work, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture, where Vengerov did not permit the brass choirs to soar.

Between the two Rimsky pieces on the program came the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Jaroslaw Nadrzycki, a young Pole with bizarre technique, as the soloist.  Instead of holding the violin diagonally under his chin and bowing across his body, Nadrzycki held the violin parallel to the floor, stuck his elbow high in the air above his head, and fiddled from above.  I do not know if it was the technique, or some other lack of talent, that produced the thin and sour tone.  The concerto dragged on like this for half an hour.  If Vengerov were going to trot out a young soloist, it is a shame he chose this one instead of showcasing a local Conservatory student – indeed, from the brief violin solos in the Russian Easter Festival Overture, the concertmistress may have been a good choice.  At the very least, he could have let her play the violin solos in Scheherazade, but he brought Nadrzycki out for that too, marring those sections.

For encores, we got three.  One came before the first intermission, when Nadrzycki played an arrangement for solo violin of Schubert’Erlkönig.  This arrangement seemed designed to maximize showmanship and fingering, and to minimize emotion.  The Erlkönig might as well have taken the child and been done with it.

At the end of the second half of the concert, Vengerov came out on stage with his own violin, and teamed up with Nadrzycki and the student strings for the largo movement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins.  Vengerov’s sweet and sensitive sound contrasted with Nadrzcki’s tones.

As a final encore, Vengerov knew how to bring the audience roaring to its feet: the Lezghinka from Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh.  For this, Vengerov unleashed the hounds, and the orchestra – especially the wild percussionist – played without restraint.