Bühne Baden, Stadttheater Baden

Lehár, Graf von Luxemburg

I had never actually ever been inside the Stadttheater in Baden (visible across the square from my father’s childhood bedroom).  So I used that as an excuse to go out to Baden this afternoon and take in the evening performance of the Graf von Luxemburg by Ferenc Lehár by the team from Bühne Baden (when I have seen them before, it has only been in the Sommerarena in the Kurpark).  It’s a provincial theater of no great importance (Max Reinhardt, born in Baden, had his first theatrical experiences here… albeit in an earlier theater building), but runs a full season to entertain those coming to the town for their cure.

The opera itself is simply a venue for some wonderful music Lehár threw together in about three weeks.  The plot is a rather simple farce, with even less development than usual, which mostly serves as a venue for the tunes.  In that respect, tonight’s performance did not disappoint.  The perfectly acceptable cast (several of whom I have heard at the Volksoper) performed idiomatically, led by Mehrzad Montazeri in the title role.  Oliver Ostermann kept beat, more or less, in the pit – but at least it was light and fun if not always lilting at the right time.

The staging added nothing.  The chorus and extras were distracting – the plot is already silly, but making it sillier does not help it along.  The setting was updated from its 1909 premiere (actually the same year this theater’s current building opened) to the 1920s, which did not help nor necessarily hurt.  However, it did make me appreciate more the only other version of this opera I have seen live, a production at the Volksoper in 2005, where a clever director kept all of the music and much of the dialogue but elaborated on the whole plot in order to make a substantial, sensible, and uproariously funny new version that Lehár himself would have approved of (as it was, Lehár never really thought this operetta worked despite his music – and unfortunately the Baden performance tonight simply verified Lehár’s own assessment even as everyone left the theater humming the tunes).

Stadler Quartet and Ariane Haering, Schloß Leopoldskron

Beethoven, Schubert, Stravinsky, Ravel, Webern, Lehár

Tonight I got to play the role of Max Reinhardt and organize and present a concert in the Great Hall of Schloss Leopoldskron for an invitation-only audience of international dignitaries.  The concert took place as part of the program “1814, 1914, 2014: Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future” on the state of international diplomacy.  I programmed only pieces composed in 1814 and 1914, for which I brought in Salzburg’s leading string quartet, the Stadler Quartet (headed by the Mozarteum’s concertmaster Frank Stadler) and top piano soloist, the Swiss-born Ariane Haering.

The first two pieces on the program, from 1814, were private works never intended for public performance, which added to the sense of intimacy.  Ludwig van Beethoven wrote the Piano Sonata in e-minor, op. 90, for his friend Moritz von Lichnowsky, a Silesian aristocrat having an affair with an opera singer whom he later married (hence one of the movements is labeled to be performed in a “singable manner” – which Haering certainly did).  Franz Schubert’s String Quartet #8, composed in only eight days while Schubert was still only 17 years old, tested the composer’s many talents to reflect his astonishing development, although he never decided to publish the work during his lifetime.  The Stadler Quartet’s performance made the work sound very mature.

Moving along to 1914, the music became less harmonious.  Igor Stravinsky‘s friends considered his Three Pieces for String Quartet to be unfinished fragments.  He called them “abstract music” and published them anyway.  These works were fun – as written and as performed with a smirk.

Maurice Ravel wrote to his friend Stravinsky that he had rushed the composition of his Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, because he wanted to enlist in the French Army and feared the Great War would end before he had a chance to fight if he did not hurry up and finish.  So he rushed it and ran to enlist, and the senseless War lasted four more horrible years.  Tonight we programed the third movement, Passacaille (Très Large), as a slow and dancing contrast to the Stravinsky work, with sumptuous playing by these musicians.

The Ravel movement also contrasted with the final programmed work, Anton von Webern’s Three Small Pieces for Cello and Piano.  Webern considered these a “distillation of music” and all three pieces together lasted less than two minutes.  At around the time he wrote these, Webern was also my grandmother’s music theory teacher in Vienna, so I have a particular soft spot for him.  Webern’s music was banned by the Nazis as “degenerate,” but he survived the Second World War only to be shot mistakenly by an American soldier in 1945 while offering a light to another American soldier, who thus perpetuated an American stereotype.

Although charming, Webern’s work was not going to send our guests humming into dinner.  So after poking around for something suitable, Frank Stadler and I settled on an arrangement for string quartet of the Weibermarsch from Ferenc Lehár’s Lustige Witwe.  Although not composed in 1914 (it was written in 1905), the operetta did reflect the mood before the First World War, and created a bit of a scandal by parodying the life of Crown Prince Danilo of Montenegro, who preferred the brothels in Paris to his homeland.  This march got feet tapping: “Yes, the study of women is hard!”

This was quite a fun concert to put together.  I also personally learned a lot researching the pieces, since chamber music is not my specialty, and these particular works are anyway not often performed.  I think the concert had a good balance and it certainly had top-of-the-line performers who could pull it off.  In fact, the Stadler Quartet specializes in contemporary music, and could add some 2014 pieces to the mix to fill out an entire program of 1814-1914-2014.  I decided against anything that contemporary, and did not want to worry about copyright issues, but could easily foresee a third section of this program developing and appearing in a concert nearby later this year.

Sarajevo National Opera

Lehár, Die Lustige Witwe

I could not resist the thought of seeing Ferenc Lehár’Lustige Witwe with the Sarajevo National Opera this evening.  A classic of Viennese operetta from a sadly-departed era, this work poked fun of the little Kingdom of Montenegro, Bosnia’s (then Austria’s) mountain neighbor.  Bosnia was, at the time, inside the Austrian Monarchy, so the Bosnians inherited the right, I suppose.

Tonight’s performance, done traditionally, did not lack the necessary humor.  However, it also betrayed quite a large amount of melancholy, a mix of nostalgia for a world long departed and sadness for the plot twists that easily could have resulted in disaster but somehow all worked out in the end.  This performance would have equally succeeded as a comic tragedy.  I probably would have gotten even more out of tonight’s production, but the cast performed in whatever it is they call the language nowadays (formerly known as Serbo-Croatian).  Entirely appropriate, given the opera, but nevertheless it limited my full comprehension.

Still, conductor Dario Vučić gave an idiomatic reading, which vividly conveyed the message.  The orchestra warmed into the evening, sounding better and lighter as the night wore on.  The cast missed too many cues – I think due to their own lack of attentiveness than Vučić’s.  Adema Pljevljak-Krehić was the undisputed star as Hanna Glawari, the widow of the title, her beautiful sweet voice backed up with a good amount of power.  As the leading man, Davor Radić as Count Danilo provided a very good counterpart, although his voice came across somewhat weaker and throatier on the higher register, only partly counterbalanced by the twinkle in his eye.  As Baron Mirko Zeta, Jasmin Bašić kept the plot driving forward whenever he appeared.  The audience reacted well to Mirvad Kurić, in the non-singing role of Njeguš, but since I did not really catch the language I found this portrayal harder to judge – he certainly did not clown around excessively on stage, so this was a slightly more subtle portrayal.  All of this took place inside Sarajevo’s attractive and mostly-renovated National Theater.

Color Trio, Jordan Misja School of Art (Tirana)

Haydn, Mozart, Gürkan, Mendelssohn, Léhar, Stolz, Strauß II, Strauß I

Starved for live music, I went to a concert that might not normally have been on my radar.  A group from Vienna, the Color Trio (a piano trio plus soprano) was being heavily promoted by the Austrian Embassy as part of a cultural exchange.  The program looked nice, actually, so off I went.

Oddly, I think I was the only foreigner in the hall (the concert hall of a music middle school not far from my office).  They also performed only about half of the advertised program (no, I did not leave at intermission, they handed out revised programs which contained half of the works from the first half of the advertised program and half from the second, all over in a bit more than an hour).  In all, compared to the Austrian Embassy’s hype, this experience was a bit of a let down.  The musicians had no special quality, although hearing reasonable live music in Tirana added something.

The concert opened with Haydn’Gypsy Trio, which got its name from the themes used in the third movement.  It took until that movement for the musicians to fully warm up.  Then followed an aria from Mozart’s Figaro, sung in Germanic Italian by the soprano Petra Halper-König.  The trio’s violinist, Serkan Gürkan, then performed one of his own compositions, “Mein Wien,” accompanied by the pianist Ilse Schumann – a work which started and ended with music reminiscent of a melancholy rain and danced around a little in the middle section, so I suppose indeed the composer’s impression of Vienna.  Cellist Irene Frank then returned to join Gürkan and Schumann for the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio #1, a much more robust work that allowed the musicians to fill the hall with sound.  This Mendelssohn piece was certainly the highlight of the evening.

A selection of other Austrian pieces were supposed to round out the concert’s first half, but vanished from the program.  The original second half of the program was to contain a selection of Viennese dance and operetta music arranged for trio (with soprano, as necessary).  In the end, only five works remained: Ferenc Lehar’s Gold and Silver Waltz, an operetta aria by Robert Stolz (“Spiel auf deiner Geige” from Venus in Seide), the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka and Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauß the son, and as an encore the Radetzky March by Johann Strauß the father.  These works were performed altogether too quickly.  I suppose the sonorities do not work as well with only a trio performing, so these arrangements probably work either as background music or for actual dancing at an event but less so for a concert performance, and performing at speed at least cuts out the opportunities for thin sonorities in these arrangements.  The waltzes would have been fast enough, but someone might have died trying to keep up dancing to that polka.  As for the march, we clapped and left.

Highlights from 2005


Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Best opera: Dmitri Schostakowitsch, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, Hungarian National Opera (October). I have wanted to see this opera for many years, and found this straightforward production and repertory cast quite satisfactory and gripping.

Most unusual opera: George Enescu, Oedipus, Vienna State Opera (April). I did not know this opera at all, but was pleasantly surprised. It would have been the best performance I saw in 2005, if it were not for the Regietheater staging imported from Berlin. The director should please be deported back to Germany. Please.

Most fun at the opera: Ferenc Lehar, Der Graf von Luxemburg, Volksoper Wien (October). The director (not German) decided that the plot was silly, so he rewrote it keeping the music the same. This was neither Regietheater nor an “updated” plot, just different. I have no idea what opera I really saw, but I had fun.

Best concert: this was more of a year for operas than concerts, to be honest. If I have to pick one concert of non-standard repertory, I will single out a performance of one of my favorite oratorios, Franz Schmidt’s mystical Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln (based on the Revelations of St. John, Schmidt’s vision of the Apocalypse fittingly had its premiere shortly after the Nazis marched into Vienna), with the Tonkünstler Orchester Niederösterreich under Kristijan Järvi and a dramatic Robert Holl singing the Voice of the Lord from the Musikverein balcony, in Vienna (October). Thankfully, no German directors thought to stage this performance.