Wiener Virtuosen, Musikverein Brahms Hall

Boccherini, Schubert, Mozart, Françaix

The Wiener Virtuosen, musicians from the Philharmonic, brought playful chamber music surrounding moodier songs to the Musikverein’s small Brahms Hall this evening.  

Luigi Boccherini‘s Pastorale, Grave, e Fandango established a pleasant atmosphere, one dance-like melody building on the next, until reaching the fadango, when Boccherini let loose to have the chamber ensemble imitate a baroque guitar, moving the plucking and the thumping and the riffs from one instrument to the next.  The audience practically jumped out of its seats to dance along.  Pass the castinets!

Luca Pisaroni, a protege (and subsequently also son-in-law) of Thomas Hampson joined the ensemble for a series of songs by Franz Schubert, orchestrated variously by Johannes Brahms, Anton von Webern, Max Reger, and Felix Mottl.  The orchestrations served to add extra warmth and color to the music, in ways that a piano could not do, drawing out the emotion further, especially considering Pisaroni’s own voice was full and round, amply supported by a deep baritone.  While Pisaroni did not necessarily wear all of his emotions on his sleeve (in contrast, say, to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the master of this Fach), these settings allowed the songs to speak clearly for themselves: MemnonIhr BildAn die MusikDer Tod und das MädchenAn Schwager KronosLitanei auf das Fest Allerseelen, and finally Erlkönig.

While Pisaroni did have a gorgeous deep baritone, his voice unfortunately did bottom out, lacking a true bass.  This became exposed in the second half of the concert with songs composed by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart for bass vocalist: Mentre ti lascio, o figliaCosì dunque tradisci… aspri rimorsi atroci (written for the bass who premiered the role of Osmin in Entführung), and Per questa bella mano (written for the bass who premiered Sarastro in Zauberflöte).  The baritone registers were fine – the bass not so much (Pisaroni hit the deep notes, just weakly).  More Schubert might have helped.  Nevertheless, he displayed the talent and presence that had attracted Hampson’s attention – and Hampson’s Liederabende are always elegant affairs.

The concert concluded with a more peculiar work by Jean Françaix, a French composer who obviously drew inspiration from Vienna for his Octet for Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, two Violins, Viola, Cello, and Bass (premiered in this hall in 1972).  The program notes said the composer had sought to update Schubert in a modern idiom.  I honestly heard very little Schubert, but little Viennese lilts did appear throughout, especially the parodies of Viennese waltzes in the fourth movement.  And while the jokes hit home with this Viennese audience, it was just amusement without much substance.  Another bookend for the Boccherini perhaps, but not at the same level.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart

Salzburg’s Mozarteum Foundation runs an annual Mozart Week Festival overlapping the anniversary of the composer’s birthday (27 January 1756).  Quite oddly, these are the most expensive tickets of the year in Salzburg – even more than the Salzburg Festival.  It’s a great mystery why.

I’ve skipped it the last two years as it is extremely hard to justify the prices, but last Summer while renewing my Mozarteum subscription series tickets (quite reasonably priced), I decided to pick up relatively cheaper-end seats for three concerts for this Winter’s Mozart Week while they were still available.  By stroke of bad luck, I now have to go on a last-minute work trip this weekend and will miss two of the concerts (so gave my tickets back to the box office tonight for re-sale), leaving me with only tonight’s concert (and next year’s Mozart Week schedule, just released, looks especially uninteresting, so I won’t be going back any time soon).

The programs mix about 50% or more Mozart with some other themes (this year includes a lot of Haydn).  That’s probably a bit more Mozart than my diet can take, and tonight’s concert was 100% Mozart, but he’s a fun if highly over-rated composer, so I decided to enjoy.  The forces assembled tonight in Salzburg’s Great Festival House – the Vienna Philharmonic under Yannick Nézet-Séguin – promised to make the performances dynamic, and they did not disappoint.

The concert included Symphonies #39 and #40, composed back-to-back but in different styles, which Nézet-Séguin and the Philharmoniker mastered.  For #39, they captured Mozart’s quirky humor, the sudden shifts and surprises, unexpected pauses and changes in direction.  #40 is a bit more serious, and Nézet-Séguin emphasized the thick harmonies hiding under the melodies, giving this work perhaps even more weight than it normally has.

In between the symphonies we were supposed to have a selection of Mozart’s songs performed by Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón (songs not heard so often, which had made this concert particularly appealing to me).  Unfortunately, Villazón came in to rehearse earlier today sick and coughing heavily, so was a late cancelation.  Brazilian pianist Maria João Pines, in town for a concert last night, was on her way to the airport when the Mozarteum called her up and asked her to skip her flight and perform tonight as well.  She did a standard work from the repertory – Piano Concerto #23.  Her playing was workmanlike, lacking sparkle or humor.  About all I can say regarding the others on stage: the orchestra accompanied her.  Nothing particularly wrong with anything, indeed beautiful music, but perhaps paradigmatic of Mozart himself on one of those days when he just did not feel like playing any jokes.  And Mozart’s music without Mozart’s humor is… perfectly nice for a lazy weekend morning, but maybe not for an evening concert with the fashionably overdressed crowd.

Concertgebouw Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Mozart, Mahler

Precious few orchestras manage to staff themselves fully with players in every section who simultaneously exhibit individual virtuosity and blend into an orchestral whole. It is this which makes the Philadelphia Orchestra in its current incarnation rank high above all others in North America. But the Philadelphia has had its ups and downs over the years (including downs in very recent memory). The elite among the elite manage to maintain this level of excellence year-in-year-out, indeed decade-in-decade-out. Possibly only two orchestras on the planet meet this exalted standard: the Wiener Philharmoniker, which makes its home in the Musikverein, and the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam, which visited the Musikverein this morning.

They arrived with a guest conductor: Semyon Bychkov, a wise choice (they recently appointed the uninspiring Daniele Gatti as their music director – I suppose Gatti must rehearse well, but from my experience orchestras simply ignore him during concerts where he stays out of the way while the orchestra in front of him makes the music; but Gatti’s appointment marks a big drop off from their outgoing chief Mariss Jansons). Where the orchestra provided Bychkov with a palette of the most vibrant colors, it still required a painter to know how to blend those colors to create a masterwork. Bychkov knew what to do, making broad brush strokes where necessary but also showing attention to fine details. Controlled on one hand, Bychkov was passionate on the other. He is a conductor who continues to grow in stature every time I hear his concerts.

This morning’s concert led off with Mozart’s Piano Concerto #22, with Emanuel Ax at the keyboard. The interpretation put paid to the idiotic original instruments movement: here we had a full-sized orchestra with proper instruments, and Ax sitting at a piano (which had actually also not been invented yet when Mozart wrote this – the German title should really be translated as “Keyboard Concerto #22”). One wonders if this sound is not what Mozart really had inside his head when he wrote it, but the poorly-tuned instruments and insufficient resources of his era meant that he wrote not for his own inadequate time but for the future when it would finally become possible to perform the music properly. Just because music may have been performed badly at the time composers wrote is no justification (other than curiosity) to perform the music badly today. Ax, Bychkov, and the orchestra made a convincing case for Mozart as he might have been, in full sound but never overbearing. The details were all there, right down to Wolfgang Amadé’s sarcastic smile.

This was the second time I have heard Ax perform this work this year – he did it at the Salzburg Festival in August with the Vienna Philharmonic under Jansons, also for a morning concert.  It’s a perfect piece to start off a morning – not too heavy.  This morning’s performance was the more substatial of the two readings, without becoming too heavy, and set out the stronger case for this concerto.

After the intermission came Mahler’s Symphony #5 in all of its glory. This is actually the second time I have heard Bychkov conduct this symphony in 2016 – the last was in May with the orchestra of the Vienna conservatory. While the previous performance was good, this time with the Concertgebouw Orchestra Bychkov could take the piece to another level. He slowed down the first movement somewhat, even bringing the quieter sections down a notch, to produce an extra layer of foreboding as Mahler grappled with fate. This touch also allowed him to emphasize many of the musicians in the orchestra and their intricate lines – but, as I said above, their individual virtuosity was apparent for all to hear but never strayed from creating a whole sound. On the podium, Bychkov could build on this, moving up to the anticipated triumph of the truncated chorale at the end of the second movement (which later resolved in complete triumph with the full chorale at the end of the fifth movement). The dance melodies danced – in the forefront where appropriate and behind the scenes where suggestive, the scherzo hopped, and the juxtaposition of the adagio with the final movement (performed correctly without break) accentuated the victory.

Bright sunlight shone through the upper windows of the Musikverein (rarely happens as it requires a morning concert, a sunny day, and the right angle) and illuminated the Golden Hall in all of its glory, a perfect complement to the musicianship on the stage. Someone up there was smiling too.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus

Mozart, Copland, Schubert

I went to see and hear for myself, as 27-year-old rapidly rising star Lahav Shani conducted the Vienna Symphony Orchestra at the Konzerthaus this evening.  About a year ago, he sprung in to conduct the Philharmonic when the scheduled conductor canceled on short notice due to illness, and the reviews were incredible.  This led to more bookings with the Philharmonic and other orchestras (including the Symphoniker tonight), and he will soon take over as music director in Rotterdam, often a stepping-stone to a star career.

This evening’s performance did not disappoint.  The opening work – the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart – enabled Shani to reveal often-hidden lines.  The strings drove the action forward, but the winds created tension, to set up the impending comedy.  Shani highlighted these juxtapositions, and the excellent Symphoniker responded just so.

Similarly, for the second half of the concert, Schubert‘s Great C Major Symphony capped off the concert.  Although I am not sure I heard any new nuances I did not alread know, this performance – clearly thought-through by Shani and expertly performed by the Symphoniker at the pinacle of the idiom – did provide a vivid reminder of just how majestic and exciting this symphony can be, and in many ways how visionary as well.  Shani will certainly grow further as his career takes off.

In between these two standard pieces came Aaron Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto, with soloist Sabine Meyer.  The first movement arrived full of melancholy, which led into a cadenza-only movement that began to awaken the instrument before jumping into a somewhat more flamboyant finale.  Copland wrote the work on commission for jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman.  There is jazz-like syncopation, requiring versatility, but this is not jazz and falls cleanly within a classical paradigm, if tending to something new.  Meyer, dextrous of tongue, danced to the music as she played.  Her unidentified encore was in the same style as the cadenza, but considerably faster.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Strauss, Mozart, Schubert

Thus spake Zoroaster: the 2016-17 music season hath opened.  The Mozarteum Orchestra took to the Great Festival House this evening under Hans Graf, its former music director (1984-94) for Mozart’s clarinet concerto sandwiched by two tone poems by Richard Strauss.

 Graf started the concert with Don Juan at a faster-than-usual clip, which highlighted the Don’s playful seductive nature.  Also Sprach Zarathustra, which concluded the concert, came across suitably mystical.  Both works showcased the orchestra’s talents, a fullness of sound and character.  They also demonstrated how modern Strauss could sound, breaking ground as a tone poet (coming after Liszt, in this regard, but pressing ever forward into the twentieth century still-to-come).

 In the juxtaposition with Strauss, Mozart came off worse for the comparison.  This is not only because his clarinet concerto was composed a century before the two Strauss poems.  But coming in the final year of Mozart’s life, it did not represent anything new in particular, but more a rehash of Mozart’s usual conventions.  Certainly he was a master, and the very beautiful music and an understanding for the instrument helped.  In this case, he wrote knowingly for the clarinet, as a non-human singing voice.  And he had a sympathetic reading, by soloist Matthias Schorn, principal clarinetist of the Vienna Philharmonic, who produced a warm and fuzzy sound, big enough to fill the hall and – for added emphasis – breaking into a gorgeous mezza voce for the more delicate, yet still robust, measures.  But was it original?  

Schorn (with the orchestra) also gave the happy audience an encore: an arrangement (by Offenbach!) of Schubert’s song “Leise flehen meine Lieder.”  

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Bruckner

Christoph von Dohnányi, longtime Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra and frequent guest of the Vienna Philharmonic, used to comment that his orchestra in Cleveland played every note perfectly, yet he was still trying to get them to sound more like the Philharmonic, which did not play every note perfectly. It’s not just about playing perfectly, but performing the music with a certain emotion in the notes, and something the Philharmoniker gets better than anyone.  So hearing the Philarmoniker this morning perform in juxtaposition with the Clevelanders on Friday reinforced exactly what Dohnányi meant.  

It of course helps to have Mariss Jansons on the podium, which ensured intelligent readings that maximized the orchestra’s ability to add its color.  The two halves of the concert had little to do with each other (“sometimes they do not have to” Jansons explained at a talk here last week).  But we got Mozart‘s Piano Concerto #22 and Bruckner‘s Symphony #6 on either side of the intermission.

Emanuel Ax performed as soloist for the Mozart.  He and the Orchestra created a soothing, almost melancholic, tone, which both blended well and with the contrasting lines informing each other.  For a matinee concert, this was a good way to start a morning.

The Bruckner symphony after the intermission was more lively.  Probably the least performed of Bruckner’s mature symphonies (and the only one he did not revise), it was actually my favorite among his works when I was a child.  So this made for a nostalgic day-after-birthday concert.  At his talk last week, Jansons was asked why he chose Bruckner’s sixth: he replied that the Festival had offered conductors a selection of works premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic to perform with that orchestra at the Festival over several years, and he was slow deciding until many others were already taken.  But he nevertheless appreciates this symphony and its construction, as do I, even if we have moved on to others.  One can picture Gustav Mahler giving the symphony’s premiere with the Philharmoniker in the Musikverein three years after Bruckner’s death.

Webern Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Mozart, Mahler

I had not planned on any concerts until the Salzburg Festival this Summer, an unusual gap of two months. So I suppose I was bound to fill it when a ticket opened up in the packed Musikverein this evening for a concert of the Vienna Conservatory’s Webern Symphony Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov.  I can now testify that the future of Mozart and Mahler in the Musikverein sounds secure.

Pairing Mozart’s Piano Concerto #20 and Mahler’s Symphony #5 on the program had a certain logic. Both start in minor, somewhat foreboding, but end in a triumphant major. Without resorting to stereotype for such arrangements, Bychkov still drew out the transformation – these are not just fate-conquering works, but a positive trip through a troubled world. Bychkov restrained the orchestra for much of the darker moments, yet always pushed forward, never dragging. This allowed the youthful orchestra to demonstrate its exuberance during the brighter passages. A lot of happiness shone through here.

At the keyboard for the Mozart sat Jasminka Stančul, whose hands almost hovered above the keys and simply coaxed the music effortlessly out of the piano. She and the orchestra spoke the same language and their instrumental voices blended beautifully.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Orchesterhaus Salzburg

Mozart, Prokofiev, Beethoven

The Mozarteum Orchestra kindly gave me a free ticket to a non-calendar concert this morning at their rehearsal hall in the Orchesterhaus, where they were auditioning a candidate for their soon-to-be-open music director position: Vassilis Christopoulos, a Greek born and educated in Germany. At 40, he is still young, but has spent his career flitting around the most provincial of provincial houses. His two head postings – currently head of the Southwest German Philharmonic of Constance and formerly artistic director of the Athens Opera – have not made a name for either. The concert was extremely pleasant, but the orchestra may still be searching.

Christopoulos was fine, with a clear technique, but I did not see any particular spark of inspiration. The orchestra likely wants someone more established who rehearses well, although I think they should go for a young dynamo on the up, after the model of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, an ambitious provincial band (like the Mozarteum) which regularly selects charismatic music directors in their late 20s who bring the orchestra and its renown up with them as they rise (most famously Simon Rattle, who stayed 18 years, followed by Sakari Oromo for ten, Andris Nelsons for seven, and starting this fall Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who is the music director of the Salzburg Landestheater).

The program opened with the Overture to Mozart‘s Don Giovanni, which this orchestra could probably play in its sleep. The music flew off the stage (designed to match the stage in the Great Festival House, so the orchestra can maintain its sightlines) and whirled into the audience (a 250-seat 2-level auditorium, so not very deep), which allowed us to appreciate the interior lines and menacing brass (all of two horns and two trumpets, but still coming on strong in this reading). The whole opera is in their repertory this season, in their dual role as pit orchestra for the Landestheater, so when they play the overture they are also ready to present the full meaning of an entire drama condensed into five minutes.

Two first symphonies followed. Prokofiev wrote his first – the “Classical” – in the style of Haydn, if Haydn had come back in the 20th century. The instrumentation he borrowed from what Haydn had used in his final symphony. Prokofiev’s is a playful work, and the orchestra had fun with it. Beethoven‘s first is altogether more serious – an actual student of Haydn, he took his teacher’s idiom one more step, writing five years after Haydn had completed his final symphony. Though still classical in style, the young genius tinkered a bit with convention to hint at the breakthroughs he would soon unleash, giving this work a hightened sense of urgency and drama. The Orchestra performed both of these comfortably within their idiom.

Wiener Symphoniker, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Johann Strauß II

Beethoven was a genius. Tonight’s concert with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Ádám Fischer made this obvious.

When first performed in 1808, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony must have shocked the audience (and the Sixth, having its premiere at the same concert, gave them even more nuance to think about). Tonight’s performance of the Fifth was rather classical in approach: restrained, somewhat on the faster side, and not necessarily forward-looking. For its time, that would have been enough, given the work’s radical construction. This masterful performance, particularly the gifted woodwinds, gave the thick canvas a rich coloration.

What made this Symphony stand out so much, however, was not taking it in isolation. Instead it followed as the second half a concert whose first half featured music by Mozart (Symphony #35) and Haydn (Cello Concerto #1). Mozart and Haydn were themselves no slouches as composers, two of the best of their day, and from whom Beethoven himself personally learned his craft (only briefly with Mozart, more from Haydn). The concert used them tonight to set up the Beethoven, to demonstrate just how much more he could push music forward. These two works were taken by half-sized orchestras, typically for their period, and well within their context. Nicolas Altstaedt joined the orchestra for the cello concerto – a somewhat underwhelming cellist, he took Haydn back a generation more with his somewhat off-tuned instrument (does his cello not hold a tune, or does he not?). Possibly this was Altstaedt’s idiom – I have heard him labor through Schostakowitsch before, but he managed Haydn better tonight.

For a first-half encore, Altstaedt played something for solo cello I could not identify but which sounded like it could have been Sibelius, which he handled dexterously. Fischer and the orchestra gave us two second-half encores: Brahms’ Hungarian Dance #5 and Johann Strauß II’s Pizzicato Polka. Not big works to be sure, but they had the room swaying after the Beethoven, making the final mood somewhat lighter.

Wiener Symphoniker, Musikverein

Mozart, Papandopulo, D. Scarlatti, Mahler

Ádám Fischer and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra gave us a concert of two distinct halves in the Musikverein this evening – same orchestra, same conductor, and same hall, but the similarities ended there. The first half featured Mozart, who thought life was worth living; whereas in the second half came Mahler, who wished life were worth living.

Serbian pianist Jasminka Stančul joined in for Mozart’s Piano Concerto #23, bringing great warmth from her keyboard, while Fischer and the Symphoniker melted the room. The second movement practically sang – I eagerly waited for Don Ottavio to climb out from under the soundboard and start his serenade. The final movement displayed Mozart at his most exuberant and irrepressible.

Stančul used the momentum to provide two encores: the first, a distinctly modern firework by Boris Papandopulo (Studia 1), showed that her fingers could be everywhere at once; the second a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti on steroids (although her fingers did not always quite keep up for that one).

But if Mozart were so happy, despite impending doom, then Mahler’s Seventh Symphony put an end to that after the intermission. Fischer’s interpretation was ice cold. While the brass played the opening movement’s funeral marches with deep melancholy, the woodwinds bit, the strings ripped at the open flesh, and the percussion pounded. Fischer took the middle three movements almost as chamber works, despite having a full Mahler-sized orchestra on the stage, carefully crafting the delicate lines, moving from one instrument group to another, with thin blades and cautious steps across the ice. The Symphoniker’s musicians responded with gorgeously idiomatic playing. For the final movement, Fischer combined the two concepts, the brass chorales alternating with restrained but somber chamber constructs. This was a new interpretation of this work – take a big work and rein it in to find its inner meaning and desolation. Although it was an intelligent attempt, and wonderfully performed, to be entirely honest I am not sure Fischer’s interpretation convinced me.

Salzburger Dommusik, Salzburg Cathedral

Mozart

A special concert appeared in the Salzburg Cathedral in the old-fashioned way: by poster, with tickets at the door.  The Salzburg Cathedral Choir and Orchestra, with guests, performed Mozart’s Mass in c-minor in the Salzburg Cathedral.  And while they have a website and normally publicize, this concert remained a mystery – I had only seen posters two weeks ago at the Cathedral entrance.

The acoustics in that building do cause the sounds to blur, making a fair appraisal more difficult.  Nevertheless, the words came out with clear enunciation and the instruments emerged individually as well, so despite the blurry lines these musicians, who provide the music every week for High Mass and are used to the building and its acoustics, understood the idiom and the setting.  János Czifra conducted.

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).

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Stravinsky, Mozart, Tschaikowsky

Mozart in the Mozarteum this evening kicked off August at the Salzburg Festival, along with some of his admirers.

Pinchas Zukerman led the Camerata Salzburg on an intelligent chamber music course.  Rather than jumping in with Mozart and building, he started with the most modern piece on the program: Igor Stravinsky’Concerto for String Orchestra.  Although a piece from his neo-classical period, this was only Mozartean in form.  Stravinsky’s harmonics and syncopations made its mid-20th-century provenance clear.  For a short work, Stravinsky stripped out the nonsense and replaced it with charm, each strange harmony of syncopation coming unexpectedly but in just the right places.

Hearing that Stravinsky work first before anything by Mozart meant not seeing the Mozartean influence in Stravinsky, but rather hearing the first work by Mozart as a fore-runner of the modern.  Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5 had its own amusements, considering its 18th-century origin.  Zukerman, who picked up his violin to play the solos while conducting, intentionally did not show a warm tone, but rather propelled the music robustly.  If Stravinsky had given us a modern reinterpretation of classical form, Mozart, as performed here, gave us a glimpse of the modern from the classical period itself.

After the intermission, Mozart’s Serenade #6 – Serenata Nocturna – sounded more stereotypically Mozartean, both in terms of its more traditional harmonics and rhythms, and also for its churlish humor: Mozart oddly scored a bass as part of the concertino with solo lines, and added a flamboyant tympani to a chamber string orchestra.

The concert concluded with Tschaikowsky’Serenade for Strings, written as a hommage to Mozart, Tschaikowsky’s favorite composer.  But where Tschaikowsky called for the “largest possible” string orchestra (essentially the string section of a full symphony orchestra), Zukerman kept only the core members of the Camerata Salzburg on stage.  A chamber performance of this work emphasized many of the delicate nuances that get lost, but these performers could still fill the hall with sound during the larger portions.  A rousing end.

Czech National Opera, Estates Theater

Mozart, Don Giovanni

I could not pass up an opportunity to see Mozart’Don Giovanni in Prague’s Estates Theater, where the opera had its premiere in 1787. It’s a nice little theater, and the Czech National Opera has used it in recent decades as an alternative venue, as this afternoon.

The very small orchestra pit meant that the poor orchestra got packed in (the trombones having to sit in the corridor where the conductor entered). But under the baton of Jan Chalupecký, they made a full sound, always sufficiently grand but never overwhelming the singers. In fact, Chalupecký ensured this was the singers’ production.

Aleš Jenis played a svelte and seductive Don Giovanni to head the cast. Although she missed a few notes, Jana Šrejma Kačírková, as Donna Anna, also provided a spirited performance, growing in her passionate hatred of Giovanni throughout.  Jaroslav Březina, as Don Ottavio, had a nice tenor that I would have liked to hear more of, however I do have questions about his staying power if we had heard more of him (which may be why they seem to have deleted one of Don Ottavio’s signature arie, “Dalla sua pace…”).  Jan Martiník also deserved a mention as Don Giovanni’s comic sidekick Leporello.

Where this production failed completely, however, was in its staging. It was directed by two young men, the Slovak Martin Kukučka and the Czech Lukáš Trpišovský, who apparently always work in tandem, also apparently with not a single good idea between the two of them. The production started off minimalist, the characters wearing timeless outfits, and using roses painted black (sometimes the red was still visible underneath) as a stylistic link in different capacities from scene to scene (not sure what the meaning was, exactly, but they were not hurting anything). All of this would have been fine, but then they decided to start ignoring the plot, with a lot going on that did not match the words coming out of the libretto. That’s not fine. They made cuts (including, as noted, “Dalla sua pace”), which I thought may have been down to wanting to stage the production in the version in which it had its premiere (“Dalla sua pace” was added later in Vienna), but they were not consistent with this, so the cuts seem to have been made for other reasons, sometimes losing the dramatic flow (for example, Leporello getting discovered disguised as the Don and having to explain his own role to his accusers – cut).

Perhaps the strangest plot twist was the addition of theater-style seats on the stage (starting with two but more being added throughout the performance). This permitted characters to sit on stage and watch scenes they were not in. The Commendatore (particularly after his death) did this a lot, and while wandering around stage he also bumped into Don Giovanni several times throughout, causing the Don more frights. But most characters did this. I had assumed that the idea derived from the original Prague performance which had been done (according to 18th-century conventions) as a morality play – not just the (fictional) story of Don Juan Tenorio, but a lesson for the viewers of the consequences of this behavior. This began to make sense during the banquet scene (which, in this strange staging, was completely missing a banquet, incidentally), when most of the characters and chorus took their places on theater seats to watch how it would all turn out. They added a child, dressed like Don Giovanni including the distinctive hair style, to this scene (he got a bowl of snacks – so at least someone was eating). The Commendatore shook hands not with Giovanni but with the child, who then went upstairs to his bedroom (which appeared in the back of the stage). After condemning Giovanni to hell, the Commendatore joined the child in the bedroom (creepy).

Then they cut out the final scene completely. I do not like the final scene, and indeed find the opera comes to a better dramatic conclusion with the final scene omitted, but in this case they had removed all of the drama from the banquet scene and were treating the opera as a morality play, so the final scene – where six characters sing of the moral of the story – would have been completely appropriate with this staging. The one thing I thought I understood about this staging I clearly did not. Bad staging. Bad.

Berlin Konzerthausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Mozart, Schostakowitsch, Elgar

The Berlin Konzerthausorchester, as its name implies the house orchestra of a concert hall in Berlin (and apparently an offshoot of the once reasonably-good Berliner Symphoniker), has come to Salzburg for three nights, with a bunch of works that do not logically fit together in any particular way (nor do the program notes provide an explanation for the selection).  Tonight’s concert: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1 (with a movement from a Mozart sonata for solo piano as an encore) and Schostakowitsch’s Symphony #5 (with “Nimrod” from Elgar’Enigma Variations as an encore).  (Tomorrow night’s concert has the same program, which I won’t repeat; Friday’s concert has mismatched Prokofiev and Haydn – since I fly on the weekend, I may need to work late on Friday so I’ll likely skip that one.)

Berliner Martin Helmchen played the piano solos, and another Berliner, Michael Sanderling, conducted.  Sanderling is the third of three sons of the late conductor Kurt Sanderling – and all three sons themselves became conductors.  I heard his father conduct in Zurich in 2002 on his farewell tour (he retired that year at 90 years old).  The youngest Sanderling (who is actually turning 48 later this month) may have inherited his father’s understanding of music, but may not have inherited his father’s ability to communicate that understanding.  Or maybe not with this orchestra.  The Berlin Konzerthausorchestra was technically sound, responded to Sanderling’s shaping, but something was missing: feeling.  Although the interpretation was clear, the outcome was rigid.

The Beethoven concerto, written at the end of the 18th century, remains in that century even as it shows signs of Beethoven’s growing genius.  Tonight’s performance took it carefully with a light touch.  The Mozart encore perhaps allowed the Beethoven to shine more.  Although it may be sacrilegious to say this in Salzburg, Beethoven eclipses Mozart.  If Mozart had never existed, the world would be deprived of a lot of beautiful music by Mozart, but that’s all.  If Beethoven had never existed, music would not have evolved the same way, and we would not only be deprived of music by Beethoven, but by much of what came after.  Helmchen’s beautifully-played Mozart encore proved the point.

As for the Schostakowitsch symphony, Sanderling clearly understood the work, and the orchestra dutifully followed his interpretation.  But understanding it and being fluent in it are not quite the same.  Schostakowitsch’s Fifth is often misinterpreted as a triumphal Soviet work; in reality, it is about as triumphal as an a defeated man being ordered to celebrate while having a gun pointed at his head.  Sanderling took the tempi slowly, which drew out the irony and the pain underlying the music.  The percussion pierced.  The orchestra did as instructed, but in this case the middle bits dragged, and thus lost the complex emotions.  Maybe Berliners are not capable of emotion.

After such a work, the encore had to be lighter but not too happy.  Elgar’s “Nimrod” served the purpose well, even if it is an over-used encore these days.  The orchestra played sentimentally, but maybe not enough so.

Stuttgarter Philharmoniker, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Richard Strauss

I had a hike through the Alps this evening without leaving my seat, as the Stuttgart Philharmonic and Swiss conductor Stefan Blunier came to Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  During the performance of An Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss, a sequence of photos by German cellist-photographer Tobias Melle projected onto the screen behind the stage.

The photos reminded me of scenes from the good CIBA-Geigy calendars of yore, back when they only had scenes of Switzerland.  Although the photographs were often spectacular, this work actually requires no photos, since Strauss described a day’s hike through the Alps so well in his music.  So, to a degree, they even distracted attention from the music.  The question became not so much what image did Strauss portray, but did the music match a specific photo (no, actually, since we have the program subtitles by Strauss himself).  But in accompanying the photos, the Stuttgart Philharmonic did its job – it clearly did not intend to sit at the center of audience attention tonight.

The program opened with a technically-sound Symphony #39 by Mozart.  Nice woodwinds.  The strings could have lilted more, however.

Salzburger Landestheater

Mozart, Die Zauberflöte

My first opera since moving to Salzburg… had to be Mozart, I suppose.  The Salzburger Landestheater has brought out a new production of Zauberflöte this year.

There may not be a right way to stage this opera.  I’m sure a German could think of a wrong way, but the German director in this case decided to actually stage it properly (maybe because he did not train in Germany).  The curtain opened with someone representing the impressario Emanuel Schikaneder (and in this case the librettist) on stage with an oversized suitcase, out of which emerged the evening’s characters.  This production would clearly bridge fantasy and reality.  Then the Schikaneder shed his cloak to reveal himself as Papageno… just as the real-life Schikaneder sang Papageno at the opera’s premiere in 1791.

For Tamino and Papageno, and Pamina and Papagena, in addition to the singers, they were also portrayed by marionettes.  Rather than just mimicking the singers, the marionettes became alter-egos, adding an extra layer of emotion, but also allowing these characters to talk to themselves and explore the their innermost psychologies.  The ploy added charm, helping to make these characterizations fuller, but also underscoring the fantasy/reality dichotomy.

The staging was otherwise simple and straightforward.  Costumes, though mixing periods, were generally neutral and blended well – except for Tamino’s.  Why Tamino (and therefore also his marionette) wore a Yale University sweatshirt was entirely unclear.

At the end of the opera, Papageno put his cloak back on and became Schikaneder again, ushering all the characters and props back into his suitcase.  Except Tamino and Pamina decided to go their own way without their puppets.  He gave them a hug and a blessing, and then climbed with his own puppet into his own suitcase as the curtain fell.

The star of the evening was the Landestheater’s terrific new 28-year-old Lithuanian music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.  Her unusual conducting style looked a little like she was mimicking the marionettes: she held her arms outstretched in front of her and upwards, while making oversized but clear motions.  Everyone could follow her perfectly.  She doubles as Gustavo Dudamel’s assistant in Los Angeles – but on first sight seems like she has more of knack for musical clarity than her overrated boss.

The cast was fine – voices were as big as they needed to be in this relatively small theater and with a chamber orchestra in the pit.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Mozart, Holst, Williams

The Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra could probably play Mozart without a conductor.  At tonight’s concert, they provided an idiomatic reading of the Symphony #41, “Jupiter,” with John Axelrod on the podium.  They probably mostly ignored him and got down to business.

Only a chamber-sized orchestra took the stage for the symphony, which I suppose matched the period in which Mozart wrote it.  However, this was late Mozart, and forward-looking, and does sound better with full orchestral forces.  The smaller sound got a little lost in Salzburg’s Large Festival House.

The full orchestra appeared for the concert’s second half, and this may have made the concert’s first half more clear.  This orchestra is less familiar with Gustav Holst, whose suite The Planets came after the intermission.  The extra instruments got lost, with stray sounds popping up – both the wrong notes and at the wrong times.  The solo horn made a number of disastrous entries.  However, whether these problems derived from the orchestra alone or were the fault of the man on the podium was unclear.

Axelrod was supposedly Leonard Bernstein’s last student, but he clearly was not the best.  Gimmicks do not make up for a lack of talent.  Like Bernstein, Axelrod believes in popularizing music – but Bernstein understood his fundamentals and relied on them.  Axelrod takes pride in being a “crossover artist” with rock.  His pelvic thrusts may have excited Elvis fans, but they lost the musicians who had to interpret their cues.

For Neptune, the last tone poem in the suite, Axelrod had a children’s chorus sing from offstage, their voices projected via speaker system, through which they were also distorted (seemingly intentionally).  This simply did not work, and how Axelrod thought it might make the evening more exciting eluded me.

Holst’s music is nice, but this performance betrayed that this suite is not exactly a series of high quality tone poems, but rather odd disjointed thoughts.  After Mozart’s forward-looking final symphony, the Holst did not hold up.

For an encore (why?), Axelrod led the orchestra in music by John Williams from Star Wars.  One of the kids in the chorus came out to present him with a plastic lightsaber, which he then used to annoint the kid as though he were being dubbed a mediaeval knight by his lord, thus demonstrating that Axelrod had no idea what a lightsaber was.  So much for pop culture.  But the performance did play up Williams’ obvious indebtedness to Holst’s work, the references made quite clear.  So maybe Holst was forward-looking in his way.  And maybe some day we will consider Axelrod forward-looking, although probably not.