Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Weinberg, Brahms

I still cannot believe I was unaware of the existence of Moishe Weinberg as recently as five years ago.  Now I plan my schedule to incorporate rare performances of his music.  One of the greatest composers of the 20th Century, he was first championed by Dmitri Schostakowitsch (who served as a mentor for the younger Weinberg, but admitted Weinberg may indeed have been more talented).  One of his most recent champions is the brilliant young Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who led the Mozarteum Orchestra this morning in his Second Symphony.

Scored only for string orchestra, this Symphony produced rich complexities which combined the intimacy of a sting quartet with the full-bodied sounds of a symphonic work.  Multiple lines (even among instrument groups) weaved in and out throughout the three-movement symphony, capturing vast sonorities sometimes almost delicately.  The first movement strung together a series of dances, but warped by the aftermath of the Holocaust (Weinberg was the only member of his family to survive – when he wrote this in 1945-46 in his Moscow exile he may still have been unaware of their fate but presumably knew it could not have been good).  The bleak second movement may have been too bleak even for the Russians, and may be the reason the Soviet authorities suppressed this symphony for nearly two decades (they did not permit it to have its premiere until 1964, a fate which often befell Weinberg’s works and which contributed to his oblivion despite his enormous talents and the high quality of his music at so many levels).  The moods of the first two movements combined to form the finale, but rather than rehash, Weinberg found new themes and tonalities, particularly in expansion of pizzicato to set the music on edge.

Under the impulse of Gražinytė-Tyla and the Stadler Quartet (formed by Mozarteum Orchestra members led by the concertmaster), there will be a Weinberg Festival in Salzburg in early December to mark the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth, featuring a good selection (by no means anywhere near complete) of his chamber music.  It has not had much publicity (Gražinytė-Tyla alluded to it but gave no details when making some introductory remarks at a concert featuring Weinberg’s music performed by the Stadler Quartet last Spring), but a few (not many) fliers were lying around in the lobby of the Great Festival House this morning, and I am now figuring out how to plan my schedule to get to as many of the performances as possible.  I’d say others should do the same.

The novelty and creativity of Weinberg’s work overshadowed the program’s main advertised piece, which came after the intermission: Brahms‘ Requiem, perhaps that composer’s greatest and most monumental work, and certainly his most original.  Gražinytė-Tyla recognized it as a very personal work despite its size, and so rather than making it a giant piece (although there were indeed 150 performers on stage) with at times swelling fortes, she kept it intimate (not quiet in the big parts – suitably loud where that was necessary – just intimate).  For this work, the Salzburg Bach Chorus and soloists Günther Haumer and Robin Johannsen (she a very late substitute – so late that not only did they not have time to put an insert in the program, they did not even print up pieces of paper to post at the entrance to alert concert-goers of the change) joined the Mozarteum Orchestra and Gražinytė-Tyla to make a balanced, sensitive, and emotional whole.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Glinka, Bartók, Saint-Saëns

I spent a colorful (if dark colors) Sunday morning with the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  The three works on the program did not logically fit together, except perhaps for their color palette.  Riccardo Minasi, the orchestra’s music director, certainly saw to that.

The overture to Mikhail Glinka‘s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila energized the hall from the outset.  Glinka used dark Russian colors to highlight folk and dance-able music.  Although the overture is well-known, the opera gets performed rarely, which in my opinion is a huge oversight – indeed, a good production of this opera (such as the only time I have seen it performed, by the Novaya Opera in 2010, a production I remember fondly) is magical in a way Mozart’s Zauberflöte can be and would hook generations of children on opera.  I keep repeating this every time I hear the overture in a concert, in the hope that someone might actually start programming the entire opera (and not some imbecilic self-important German opera director, but rather someone with actual talent interested in staging the opera).  The overture is fun; the whole opera is more so.

When Béla Bartók died in 1945, he was still working on a viola concerto.  One of his students completed the orchestration, and fifty years later Bartók’s son made additional tweaks, to produce the version we heard today.  It also employed dark coloration, alternatingly moody and folkish.  It’s not a work I’d heard before, but would gladly again.  Violist Antoine Tamestit made a wonderful sound and a statement about an under-appreciated instrument.  Indeed, if the question about Glinka’s Ruslan is why that opera is rarely performed, then the question Bartók’s concerto provoked – or at least in this interpretation – is why there are not more viola concerti.  The instrument may not hit the highs of the violin, nor the warm tenor of the cello, but it has something to say in the alto range.

Minasi borrowed the concertmaster’s violin, and accompanied Tamestit in a lively duet to liven the mood as we headed into break.  This was quite short, but maintained positive energy in the house.

The question I had going into the second half of the concert was: why would anyone program Camille Saint-Saëns‘s Symphony #3 (inscribed “With Organ”) in a house that does not contain an organ?  They can and do wheel out an electric simulated organ with speaker amplification, but it’s not the real thing and makes a pitiful substitute.  Indeed, the Dresden Staatskapelle fell on its face in this house in 2017 trying to do just that.  But Minasi and the Mozarteum Orchestra had an answer to this question.  Instead of having the organ as a central part of the music, they instead highlighted the rich symphonic colors (Saint-Saëns was of course inspired by the tone poems of Ferenc Liszt, in whose memory he wrote the work), and the organ emerged almost as an afterthought, augmenting the depth of the colors but not actually painting them itself.  This approach worked under the circumstances (the symphony is thrilling with a proper organ, but without one this alternative interpretation was quite good as well).

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Beethoven, Stravinsky

The new concert season opened while I was in India, so this evening was my first.  Pianist Herbert Schuch joined Riccardo Minasi and the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Great Festival House for two Beethoven concerti, followed after the break by Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #2, actually his first in order of composition, was not a fully-developed work, and indeed came off unconvincing when Lang Lang and the Camerata under Manfred Honeck performed it at the Festival during the Summer.  But perhaps they tried to do too much with it.  Schuch, Minasi, and the Mozarteum took a much more reserved approach this evening, and while that did not improve the quality of the concerto (still a student experiment that Beethoven himself did not think very highly of), they did manage to make it lyrical and demonstrate the talent that this composer would use to bring music into the 19th century.  All together, this performance exceeded the one at the Festival by every measure.

In contrast, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5 may mark the absolute pinnacle of the Fach. These forces approached it similarly to how they did the second concerto, never trying to overwhelm anything, but now with far superior music.  The orchestra highlighted substantial dance, with Schuch providing glistening tinkling to augment the delicate colors.  Though not a robust performance, it worked well to demonstrate the composer’s development and consistency, even in contrast with his less-substantial earlier concerto.

Schuch provided an encore: a bagatelle by Beethoven, which he made look forward almost to a Strauß waltz.  However, as a solo work, it left him exposed.  The tingling technique did not succeed as well without the orchestra to provide some heft.

After the intermission, the orchestra showed its full colors with Stravinsky’s nutso ballet.  The tone was all there, but one thing was missing: the ballet.  Although quite a wild work, Stravinsky did intend performers to dance to it.  Minasi coaxed all the right tones and complicated dissonance from the orchestra, which sounded amazing, but he made the sections too detached, and lost the flow even within sections.  He is maturing as a conductor and should be applauded for his thoughtful programming, but he may not quite be there yet with some of this twentieth century music.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Mahler

The final subscription concert of the 2018-19 season by the Mozarteum Orchestra under chief conductor Riccardo Minasi had a single work this morning: the Symphony #5 by Gustav Mahler.  While they easily could have had something else on the program before an intermission, in a sense it was good for them to keep this focus.  Minasi’s own background as a violinist who had specialized in early music and the baroque, and his recent conducting career in which he has preferred short(er) pieces must have made Mahler quite foreign to him.  But in becoming chief conductor here, he has clearly intended to expand his repertory.

There is something to say about hearing a work like Mahler’s in a fresh interpretation, by someone not so familiar with the Fach but willing to learn.  What we got was indeed a refreshing performance, with Minasi demonstratively coaxing competing lines from the orchestra.  The symphony itself is a competition between dance and despair, and Minasi tweaked and tucked to pull out both the dissonance and the fact that with Mahler the two aspects really belong together.  This began from the opening funeral march (parsed through a limping dance) and went right the way through to the final triumphant (if only hopefully-so) chorale.

The emphasis on various stray lines highlighted the complexities of the music – rather than blending it all together – and the orchestra in general responded with exquisite playing (a few stray notes and blotches notwithstanding – my second concert in a row with this orchestra where I am noticing more of these issues), particularly exceptional and evocative in the woodwinds and principal trumpet and horn.

What did not work so well was bringing the principal horn down to the front of the stage (even forward of where a soloist would stand during a concerto) during the third movement.  Although that movement features the solo horn quite a bit (albeit this is Mahler, so really not much more than usual), it did not have enough solo lines to justify the strange positioning, and the poor hornist fidgeting during the long periods when he did not have lines, wondering what on earth he was supposed to do standing there at the lip of the stage in front of Minasi.  But I’ll give Minasi points for his creativity and desire to tackle something new (for him) in a thoughtful manner.  The orchestra was also quite enthusiastic, as was the audience which gave an extended applause.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Beethoven, Bach, Strauss

Salzburg’s Great Festival House has reopened after several months of supposed renovation, and the Mozarteum Orchestra greeted it with a joyous rendition of Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto #1 with Herbert Schuch at the keyboard and Riccardo Minasi on the podium.  Minasi kept the performance well-shaped and lively, while Schuch deftly handled the longer third cadenzi that Beethoven wrote as an alternative set for himself eight years after he gave the premiere of this work.  An early work by Beethoven, it showed a fullness of character (despite a smaller orchestra) while maintaining a youthful boisterousness.

Schuch added a more sedate chorale by J.S. Bach as an encore, which made a nice balance for the mood going into the intermission – he did not need a show-stopper, but just enough to allow everyone to relax from the exciting first work back in the hall.

After the intermission, StraussDon Quijote did not quite have the same impulse.  The playing was generally fine (although a surprising number of stray notes emerged), but I never got the sense that Minasi had become sufficiently comfortable with this work, as it lacked the humor and spring it needs.  The title character appears as the solo cellist, and there are two ways of taking it: either as a first-chair cellist blending into the whole (as the principal violist, tenor horn, and bass clarinet combine to portray Sancho Panza within the orchestra), or as a virtuoso main focal point of the story.  Marcus Pouget did not really do either: as a featured soloist he sat up front next to Minasi and played well within the orchestra – so perhaps trying to stand out but not really doing so.  His playing, like the orchestra’s, was fine, but it just lacked any particular drive.  (On the other hand, the soloist threesome portraying Sancho really did stand out, particularly the principal violist – with tonight’s performance, the work could have as easily been called Sancho Panza).

As for the renovations: I must admit I did not notice anything different than before.  The hall could use a good sprucing up, as it is looking a bit tired, and I had assumed that is exactly what they were doing.  But all the rips and scratches were in the same places.  The stage looked the same, too.  The woman in the seat next to me thought that maybe they had installed brighter lights in the foyer – possibly, but that would then appear to have been the extent of it.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Haydn, Gruber, Webern, Beethoven

A fun, if a bit unorthodox, evening with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall.  The young American conductor Joshua Weilerstein clearly found his element, bookending Haydn and Beethoven around Gruber and Webern.

The overture to Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation opened the mood.  Describing “chaos,” this music was considered extreme in its day – Haydn left phrases unfinished and with chords open, reminding us that music need not go by formula.

That certainly applied on the next piece: Frankenstein!! A Pandemonium for Chansonnier and Orchestra after Nursery Rhymes by H.C. Artmann, music by H. K. Gruber.  Gruber’s output is decidedly mixed – it has its moments but usually requires severe editing that he does not do in order to identify a point.  Frankenstein!! may be the first of his works that I actually enjoyed start to finish.  To be honest, I still am not sure what to make of it, but at least this one was fun.  Gruber himself performed as the chansonnier, using his voice to obtain full special effects.  The Orchestra achieved the other effects not by abusing their instruments, as many of Gruber’s contemporaries think is necessary for “new music” but by pulling out children’s toys and playing those.  The songs were short and varied enough not to ever drag, with suspense added to hear what they’d do next.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned for Anton von Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra.  Weilerstein gave a short intro to remind everyone that the five-movement work lasted only four minutes in its entirety.  Therefore, he decided to perform it twice: once to allow the audience to listen to its overall color, and the second time to focus on the individual sounds.  That actually worked.  Weilerstein explained that Webern had distilled all of 20th century music into its bare minimum components, but it was all there.  Indeed it was.  Webern said so much with so little.

That said, I still found it rewarding to return to something more normal to finish the concert: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony #4.  This symphony does not get performed often, but has long been admired by those in the know.  Its mysterious slow opening leads into a boisterous first movement, and it dances away from there.  Many people see it as lighter and more relaxed compared to its neighbors, but Weilerstein – building on Haydn, Gruber, and Webern – emphasized just how much fun this symphony can be.  This was not a tranquil reading, but one full of action and humor.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Haus für Mozart

Berlioz, Tschaikowsky

The music of Berlioz is worth getting up early for on a Sunday.  That said, I nearly did not – a cough lingering from a cold earlier this month made me anxious about attending a concert, and has been interrupting my sleep, so I thought I’d make the call this morning.  Then I overslept and did not think: only had time to race into town (and I managed to stifle my cough, at least during the parts when the orchestra was playing). 

I’m glad I did.  I did not renew my Mozarteum Orchestra subscriptions this year (neither Sunday nor Thursday series) because there were concerts in both that really did not interest me, so instead I decided it was better to get two mix-and-match subscriptions with the Mozarteum Foundation, throwing in those orchestra concerts that most appealed.  This was one.  Berlioz does not get performed frequently enough (beyond the Symphonie Fantastique) – he was quite innovative for his day, and indeed his consistently good output puts every other French composer to shame.  He brings a sense of drama and passion to music, sounding perhaps a tad warped.  Today’s selections included Harold in Italy (with solo viola – originally written on commission for Paganini, who wanted to try out a new viola; Paganini rejected the score, but upon hearing it performed several years later broke down in tears, dragged Berlioz back on stage, and wrote Berlioz a large check) and the overture to Le Cousaire, although it was never quite clear what it was an overture to (usually assumed to be a play by Byron, but it was actual the overture’s third title added after several performances, none connected with Byron’s play).   Actually,  despite its title suggesting Byron, Harold in Italy is not a setting of Byron, but a setting of Berlioz’ own travels in Italy reading Byron.  In other words, a lot of Berlioz’ drama does not actually dramatize anything – it’s drama for drama’s sake without a plot.  This fact contributes to what makes Berlioz so bizzarre.

Guest conductor Antony Walker (an Australian who leads the Pittsburgh Opera) clearly understood and channeled this composer – Berlioz was very touchy about letting others conduct his music, but I think he would have been most satisfied this morning – with the orchestra showing great comfort and enthusiasm.  For Harold in Italy, local star violist Veronika Hagen joined in idiomatically and warmly.

The concert ended with Tschaikowsky, but not a standard one of his works – rather his Francesca da Rimini tone poem (written after returning from Bayreuth, influenced by Wagner’s operas and Liszt’s tone poems).  There is a plot here, but Walker and the Mozarteum Orchestra captured the Berlioz-like drama, making it feel like a natural progression.

The Great Festival House is undergoing renovations this winter, so concerts have found other venues.  Today’s concert with the Mozarteum Orchestra moved next door to the stupidly-named House for Mozart (although more than Mozart gets performed there, and it has no connection to Mozart other than the name – one wonders why this venue in the Salzburg Festival complex could not have just been named the “Mozart Hall” if they really wanted to name yet another thing in Salzburg after the composer).  The hall also does not have great acoustics – I have sat in different seats before, and then today got to hear from two different vantage points (running late, I stood in the standing room in the back before the intermission as there was no way to get to my seat when I arrived; and then my seat was the very first one over the stage on the first balcony, with the poorly-designed layout of the hall meaning I essentially had to be the first person to take my seat or else have to climb over everyone else).

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn

Drumroll, please: the three pieces guest conductor Trevor Pinnock put on the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s program tonight all shared one thing in common: a prominent opening for the tympani.  This was an elegant concert, and another good demonstration of why it is easy to become fond of this intelligent little provincial orchestra, with its warm and engaging sound.

I’ll go back to the visting Frankfurters in the Great Festival House tomorrow night, but broke up their set with a trip over the Salzach to the Mozarteum this evening.  The local orchestra plays with far more character and musical feel, and that comes across more so when able to contrast directly with the larger German orchestra on alternate nights.

The overture to Mozart‘s Clemenza di Tito got the fun started in a lively manner.  Then soloist Vilde Frang came on to perform Beethoven‘s Violin Concerto.  Her sound was equally warm as the orchestra’s but had a slight bitter edge that thrust the piece forward.  So where the orchestra gave a boisterous and happy reading, she added just the right touch of melancholy (not too much, just enough to keep things dramatic).

For an encore, she provided solo variations on the Austrian Imperial Hymn, composed by Haydn (subsequently stolen by the Germans, leaving us instead with a silly ditty chosen because it was – wrongly – attributed to Mozart; let the Germans get their own anthem and we really need to claim ours back).

The concert concluded with more Haydn: his Symphony #103 – part of a series the composer wrote in London and where he experimented freely.  Haydn’s flaunting of convention also played into this orchestra’s strength, as they clearly had fun (not only the tympanist, who enjoyed his prominent role this evening).  My only quibble is that the Beethoven concerto cleary went even further than the Haydn symphony, so reversing those two works in the program would have made for a more fulfilling progression.  Instead, the Haydn represented a step back following the Beethoven, rather than the unconventional work it was for its day.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Schoenberg

The Mozarteum Orchestra‘s concert tonight in the Mozarteum featured a little night music, but none of it by Mozart – rather a much more interesting program of Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Schoenberg under the baton of Leopold Hager (a native Salzburger, who had served as chief conductor of this orchestra from 1969-1981).

The Overture and some excerpts from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummernight’s Dream made for a welcome opening.  In reality, this is not really night music, but Shakespearean comedy, for which Mendelssohn captured the charm in notes, and the orchestra tonight brought out the full color.  It might have been nice to have the complete set of incidental music.

Real night music came next, with Summer Nights, a song cycle by Berlioz (with soprano Juliane Banse joining Hager and the Mozarteum Orchestra).  These songs individually were pensive laments, but collectively the cycle did not work so well – the mood was too similar and did not vary (as, say, Schubert or Mahler song cycles might, even when they are also pensively lamenting), and this gave more drag than drive.  Banse’s voice was pleasant when contained, and large enough to project clearly and express emotion, but when projecting it sometimes turned a tad sour, more sour than the lamenting might justify.

The real treat of the evening came after the intermission, with Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night in the version the composer himself made for string orchestra.  This version, in my opinion, works better than the original sextet, allowing thicker sonorities and far more emotion.  Although a more than half-hour instrumental setting of a single poem, Schoenberg takes the listener through an emotional ride, into the deepest thoughts and souls of the two protagonists.  The Mozarteum Orchestra strings truly demonstrated their worth this evening, with Hager’s shaping, to draw out the little ravishing details for a heartfelt interpretation – not only telling the story but conveying its deep sympathetic meaning without uttering a word.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Dvořák, Bruckner

I chose not to get a subscription to either the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s Sunday morning or Thursday concert series this year, because enough programs just were simply not interesting to make a subscription enticing (for the Sunday series, notably Bernstein’s pretentious Mass in November), but instead put together a couple of combination subscription packages with other concerts from the Mozarteum Foundation.

This morning’s concert in the Great Festival House was certainly among the ones that jumped out as worth including, featuring Bruckner‘s unjustly under-performed Symphony #0.  The composer lacked all self-confidence, and when he had shown his symphony to friends who questioned it, he “annulled” it.  It did not deserve this fate.  And while it could have used some polishing, it contained all the essentials of Bruckner’s magic worlds of sound (indeed at times more succinctly than the Symphony #2 which immediately followed it in order of composition – it post-dates his Symphony #1, not to mention his “Study” Symphony #00).  In some respects this symphony does not sound like an early Bruckner work (well, relatively early – he started composing orchestral music rather late, with Symphony #00 when he was 39, #1at age 41, and #0 at age 45) – in experimenting with new harmonies and structures, Bruckner had already become rather forward-looking, in ways he friends likely could not understand.

The Mozarteum Orchestra’s emeritus music director, Ivor Bolton, still has an excellent rapport with his former orchestra, and together they gave this symphony the reading it deserved, and of which Bruckner himself could have been proud (assuming such a humble man could ever be proud).

The concert opened with the more-often performed Cello Concerto by Antonín Dvořák.  The 25-year-old Salzburg native Julia Hagen joined the orchestra as soloist.  If the cello has been described as the closest instrument to the human voice, then her performance demonstrated why, her warm tone making me wonder what the words were to this piece.  Her playing was perhaps not bold enough for this energetic work, particularly in the first movement (she needed to re-tune her instrument right after that, so even she realized it was certainly a little off), but on the whole her song-like approach worked (as it did for an unidentified solo encore).

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Bernstein, Schostakowitsch

The 2018-19 concert season opened in Salzburg’s Great Festival House with the hometown Mozarteum Orchestra and guest conductor John Storgårds. They performed music from the mid-1950s by Leonard Bernstein and Dmitri Schostakowitsch, although the pieces could not have been more different: Bernstein’s charming Serenade After Plato’s Symposium and Schostakowitsch’s brutal Eleventh Symphony.

The Bernstein piece, scored for violin solo (tonight, Baiba Skride), strings, and percussion, was suitably eclectic in style, with movements representing figures at Plato’s dinner party.  I suppose the nature of each movement was supposed to represent the respective character, but whether Bernstein succeeded in this or not (and some evidence suggests he wrote the music first and only later added the cultural references to the written description) the music did work in an odd way.  Written simultaneous with Candide, some elements of that opera make an appearance in the score here, and Stravinsky also has an influence.  I had not known this piece before, and had feared it might be over-thunk like so many of Bernstein’s works, but maybe because he was not really trying to set a program (despite his official description) he kept this more contained.  The orchestra got it.  Skride got it.  The combination produced delightful interplay, well balanced and full of humor.

After the break, Storgårds let loose with Schostakowitsch’s approximate portrayal of the events in Russia of 1905 – a year which opened with peaceful protesters coming to the Imperial Palace to plead with the Czar (whom they actually revered), only to have the Czar send his soldiers shooting into the crowd leaving thousands dead, triggering revolutionary events that foretold the overthrow of the Czarist regime in 1917.  In memorializing the victims and raising the alarm, Schostakowitsch’s subtext concerned the post-1917 Soviet regime under which Russia continued to suffer (the symphony was officially written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution).  

Lines in one section of the orchestra came into direct conflict with lines played by other instruments, both dissonant and cumulative (in this way it actually did resemble the Bernstein work too).  Storgårds’ interpretation was raw – with the comfort level of ripping scabs off wounds unable to heal, with the wailing of harsh crescendi interjecting.  Gone were the soaring chorales – either of the peasants’ pleas or the memorial hymns – replaced instead by harsh reality.  This was not the Mozarteum Orchestra at its most beautiful, but that was exactly Storgårds’ point.  This was the Mozarteum Orchestra at its most dramatic.  I still think it’s possible to do both (my clear favorite reference recording of the work is with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra – a recording that made this possibly my favorite of Schostakowitsch’s output), but tonight’s interpretation was highly convincing on its own merits.  Special kudos to the English hornist and percussion section.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Hoffmann, Beethoven, Chopin, Haydn

A triumphant final subscription concert of the season had the Mozarteum Orchestra sounding absolutely ebullient this evening – maybe the best I have heard this orchestra sound since I moved to Salzburg four years ago.

The Orchestra, wrapping up its first season with its chief conductor Riccardo Minasi, was in its element in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall, performing music by ETA Hoffmann (!), Ludwig van Beethoven, and Joseph Haydn.  Minasi tends to conduct things a tad fast and loud, but it worked with this concert, and the orchestra members looked up at him with broad smiles and then poured their enthusiasm into their instruments.  They all sounded great – although I’d have to single out the oboist especially.

The poet ETA Hoffmann did a bit of everything artistic, including compose music.  His opera Undine was successful and much admired by Carl Maria von Weber (and inspired a bit of Weber’s Freischütz), but quickly fell out of the repertory.  Minasi dusted off the overture to open the concert full of drama and verve.  This nicely set the mood for Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, for which they also emphasized that composer’s sense of drama.  This concerto had its premiere at the same concert where Beethoven also premiered his fifth and sixth symphonies, Choral Fantasy, and several parts of his Mass in C – and it was supposed to be a somewhat lighter foil for all of that (indeed it probably was), but nevertheless it is still Beethoven, so always room for melodrama. Tonight’s soloist, the Vienna-based Japanese pianist Yoko Kikuchi (a last-minute substitution – the program and website still show the original ill pianist) was very good, but even she was going along for the ride, with the Orchestra and its fine solo lines soaring off the stage.  (Kikuchi added a solo encore by Chopin, to demonstrate she could do this without orchestra, although it was less-exciting without the orchestra.)

After the intermission came Haydn’s Symphony #104, his final one.  It’s also dramatic, but Haydn scattered in it many musical jokes (odd pauses, instrumental combinations, dynamic changes, and missing harmonics), which Minasi and the Orchestra emphasized here as well, bringing such joy to the stage.  At the end of the performance, the audience erupted.  No one even budged – wave after wave of applause came and the audience stayed fixed in our seats.  The Orchestra had not planned an encore, but was forced to repeat much of the final movement or else we might still be sitting there applauding.  Fantastic.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Ruzicka, Poulenc, Schumann

I am not really sure how the Mozarteum Orchestra could follow this evening’s guest conductor, Peter Ruzicka from Hamburg, whose stick-wagging technique seemed to have little correlation to the music.

Actually, they really did not follow him.  When they could ignore him, as during some of the larger passages in Schumann‘s Fourth Symphony, a standard in the repertory, the orchestra sounded its usual full self, with especially soaring brass chorales.  But during more exposed portions, especially with tempo changes, the orchestra sounded a little lost.

The works before the intermission made it harder for the orchestra.  Soloist Iveta Apkalna, from Latvia, gave a lyrical interpretation of Francis Poulenc‘s Organ Concerto.  But there was often a disconnect with the string orchestra, who seemed determined to cut disruptively across her solos.  Only the tympanist engaged her in the dialogue, and the passages with the two of them alone stood out as the highlight.

The concert had opened with a forgettable work by the conductor himself: his fantasy for strings, Into the Open.  I’m not really sure what this was – I suppose it was a fantasy in that the violins provided unaccustomed high notes perhaps looking to escape from the Mozarteum’s Great Hall into another world.  But mostly the strings just kept up with the violent cutting noises.  Although I thought it was forgettable, in retrospect the orchestra may have remembered it long enough to disrupt the Poulenc.

 

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Haydn, The Creation

 

The Mozarteum Orchestra created the world in the Great Festival House this evening.  Or at least part of it did.  When Joseph Haydn conducted his oratorio himself, he used 120 instrumentalists.   Tonight, conductor Matthew Halls only employed about 50 (seemingly those orchestra members that Krzysztof Penderecki did not use for his own reduced-orchestra Beethoven 7th on Sunday morning).

This is actually a rather whimsical work, with Haydn having illustrated everything from hopping rabbits to the waters flooding the earth.  Halls elicited some appropriately descriptive playing from the orchestra in full color portraits.  But the reduced forces meant that the work never became as monumental as it should have – indeed, it felt quite constrained, and at times even dragged.  These were elaborate miniature portraits, rather than a gradiose set of murals.

Among the soloists, the 28-year-old Austrian soprano Christina Gansch, doubling up as both the Angel Gabriel and Eve, shone.    She managed a rare triple, succeeding in pureness of tone, fullness of voice, and dramatic presence.  She is certainly someone to watch out for on the opera stages of the future (or today, for that matter).  German baritone Daniel Ochoa as both the Angel Raphael and Adam, matched her in drama, but not always in voice (though not bad, he simply got outshone).  Austrian tenor Bernhard Berchtold as the Angel Uriel had a nice voice, I suppose, but it was not very big and he lacked drama.  Perhaps he could stick to chamber music (although he does not seem to inflect enough to do Lieder, so I am actually not sure what his ideal repertory would be – maybe some minor Russian character-tenor roles?).  The Salzburg Bachchor provided an idiomatic backdrop.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Penderecki, Beethoven

Krzysztof Penderecki is one of those composers known more for his reputation than for his actual music.  I seldom see his music in any programs, and indeed, I don’t recall ever hearing his work live in a program myself.  

This morning he brought his second violin concerto to Salzburg’s Great Festival House, for a performance by the Mozarteum Orchestra and soloist Leticia Moreno.  He conducted himself.

His music is reminiscent of warmed-over Schostakowitsch, and in the case of this particular work, Schostakowitsch’s cello concerto. Maybe less-edgy and less-original, but nevertheless quite pleasant enough structured as variations morphing without breaks for about forty minutes.  Moreno made her Salzburg debut last Fall with some spectacular playing in front of the Cadaqués Orchestra, and it helped Penderecki that he had her to interpret today.  She handled all of the tones he required, compfortable in every idiom from lyrical to frenetic, with a wide range (indeed, she beautifully hit notes I thought were above the violin’s register).  She did not have the biggest sound today, sometimes being overwhelmed by the orchestra in the larger passages.  The audience really would have appreciated an encore (unfortunately we did not get one).

After the intermission, Pederecki returned to the podium for Beethoven‘s seventh symphony.  He chose to do this with a greatly-reduced orchestra, barely larger than a chamber group.  If his own concerto had been a mellowed version of Schostakowitsch’s, then his Beethoven 7 was a mellowed version of Beethoven 7.  The performance lacked the necessary exuberance, except maybe in the slow movement (which he performed too quickly and with too much staccato).  Penderecki mostly used only one arm at a time when he conducted, with brief overlaps as he shifted from one to the other every few measures.  I did not quite get the concept, and the orchestra may not have either (certainly the horns were a total mess of confusion in the first movement, although they got their bearings as the symphony went on).

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Reich, Bernstein, Antheil, Copland, Curiale, Still

American night at the Mozarteum: music by Steve Reich, Leonard Bernstein, George Antheil, Aaron Copland, Joseph Curiale, and William Grant Still.  Conductor Riccardo Minasi led the superb Mozarteum Orchestra in an intelligently-constructed program.

With the exception of the Copland segment (and an encore by Bernstein – a rousing excerpt from West Side Story), nothing in the program has entered the standard repertory, so tonight was a chance to experience something new – or lots of somethings new.  The connecting strand was one of taking jazz and other American rhythms and incorporating them into classical orchestral music.  This also required highlighting the winds especially, and the Mozarteum’s winds rose to the challenge.  However, they did this one a bed of strings, who created a full supportive tone.

The Copland selection – three excerpts from his ballet Rodeo – may have been the most accessible (which may also explain why this music has entered the standard repertory).  But “accessible” does not mean “easy” – Copland’s music jumped around both in rhythm and in tone, and the orchestra got all of the crazy juxtapositions, smiling and winking at each other as they went.

Excerpts from Bernstein’s ballet On the Town, and Antheil’s Jazz Symphony both attempted other aspects, maybe less successfully than Copland.  Antheil’s work came in a revised version (apparently the original one – although fully orchestrated – called for three pianos; one was certainly sufficient).  The Orchestra’s principal solo trumpet, Johannes Moritz, came to the front of the stage for Curiale’s Blue Windows for Trumpet and Orchestra – the only work composed in the 21st century (everything else was 20th century).  After a jarring start in the orchestra (intentional – Curiale wrote it that way), the work settled down, and Moritz’s warm and silky tone balanced the rest of the team.

The first piece was actually oddest work of the night: Reich’s Clapping Music was inspired by African drumming, and consisted of sixteen orchestra members coming to the front of the stage and clapping to a beat led by Minasi (clapping while facing them).  Cute, but I’m glad it only lasted three minutes.  African drums might have provided more variety in sound.

The final scheduled work was a find.  Still’s “Afro-American” Symphony #1 was the first symphony by a black composer ever performed by a “white” orchestra in an age of segregation (the premiere came in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic conducted by Still’s friend Howard Hanson).  Still drew inspiration from the sounds he had heard growing up along the Mississippi River, but this was not just a rehash or orchestration thereof, but a wonderful synthesis that clearly grew from his heart.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Bruckner

Bruckner‘s 8th is one of my favorite symphonies.  If performed badly, however, it provides 90 minutes of utter tedium.  So when the Mozarteum Orchestra announced its 2017-18 schedule, my initial excitement to see this work programmed this morning in the Sunday subscription series turned immediately to disappointment when I noted the chosen conductor: the talentless Jeffrey Tate guaranteed it would be an unbearable ninety minutes which I had no desire to suffer through.  So I dropped my Sunday subscription this year in part as a result (also because the February concert in the Sunday series contains far too much Debussy to be worth waking up early in the morning for – actually, far too much Debussy to be worth the effort of even climbing the staircase to my seat in the Great Festival House even if I were already standing in the foyer) so I picked the Sunday concerts I wanted and mixed-and-matched (including with the great Camerata concert I attended on Friday) to form a different subscription leaving out the ones I did not want.

Then last month at my Mozarteum Orchestra Thursday evening subscription concert I saw in the list of upcoming concerts that for this morning’s Bruckner 8th they had replaced Tate on the podium with Karl-Heinz Steffens.  I have never heard of Steffens, but that was enough of an endorsement given the man he replaced.  My usual subscription seat was even still available, so I grabbed it.

Steffens had an ear for some fine details.  This performace was like getting a tour of a cathedral from an architect who periodically stopped to admire individual gargoyles.  At times, he took an almost minimalist approach, exposing instruments and placing the weight of the whole symphony on them – especially the woodwinds (I don’t think I’d ever appreciated the role the oboe plays in this symphony until this morning).  These touches stood out especially in the first movement, where they sounded almost plaintive.  He made the second movement more boisterous, actually cheerful.  And while the tempi he chose for the third and fourth movements were well within conventions, they were perhaps a tad faster than I prefer.  But this approach served his overall concept, to make this deeply religious work rather hopeful that the power of prayer might be answered.

My biggest quibble with the whole performace was Steffens’ failure to hold the silence at the end: he dropped his arms immedately on the final chord.  A well-deserved applause (the orchestra sounded fantastic this morning) erupted long and loud – but really this symphony requires absolute silence and heavy contemplation before returning to earth.

Because the Mozarteum Foundation does not coordinate its schedule (beyond not double-booking a hall) with the Kulturvereinigung, the other main Salzburg concert society, the Kulturvereinigung invited a guest orchestra to perform this symphony in the same hall on Friday (a concert I did include in one of my subscription packages with them).  Lucky me: I get to hear Bruckner’s 8th twice within just five days.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Schumann, Mozart

I probably would not have gone to tonight’s concert at the Mozarteum, except that it was part of a subscription series.  Not that anything was wrong with it (or I would have given the ticket away), just that it was not particularly exciting.  The value of attending was to hear the Mozarteum Orchestra play beautifully, especially the lush woodwinds and confident brass, on a bed of gorgeous strings.  So that was worth it.  

The music, presumably selected by the young British conductor Nicholas Collon, was a bit pedestrian.  The concert opened with an arrangement of Robert Schumann‘s Six Pieces in Canon Form.  Schumann took his inspiration for these piece from technical keyboard studies by Bach, and then this particular set was subsequently rearranged for two pianos by Debussy, then that version was itself orchestrated for chamber orchestra by British composer Robin Holloway, so that this version had its world premiere earlier this year.  To a music theorist, Bach’s keyboard studies were mathematical treasure troves – although not necessarily aesthetically great music.  And by the time these get washed through three other composers, they are no longer mathematically substantive, so what’s the point any more?  At least the playing was nice.

Mozart‘s 22nd Piano Concerto came next.  Till Fellner joined the orchestra with his velvety fingers.  The first movement started more joyfully, to raise the mood after the Schumann pieces, but then the rest of the performance dragged.  Whenever I eventually leave Salzburg I won’t need to be reminded to substantially reduce my intake of Mozart, just as I have already been reducing my intake of Tschaikowsky (whose favorite composer was Mozart).  They wrote beautiful music, often wonderfully so, and sometimes they even had something to say about it, but there often just is not enough there there.  Living in Salzburg has not inducted me into the cult of Mozart any more than living in Moscow inducted me into the cult of Tschaikowsky – I find both composers highly over-rated (if they did not have cult status, I’d judge them as quite good, but, as it is, enough is enough).

The concert closed with more Schumann: his 2nd Symphony.  This drew inspiration from Schubert’s 9th.  And while there are some experimental chromatics which the orchestra knew how to navigate, the symphony demonstrated a stunted development in symphonic music that led directly into the musical dead end that was Brahms.  (Bruckner, on the other hand, followed the logical development from Schubert and gave us a musical heritage that continued through Mahler, Sibelius, and Schostakowitsch, among others).  That said, if I am going to hear this tuneful and often stately symphony, I’m very pleased to have the Mozarteum Orchestra performing it.  They did it justice tonight.

Then again, maybe I am being especially jaded, still reveling in the afterglow of last weekend’s interpretation of Haydn and Bruckner by Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic.  Mozart and Schumann just cannot compare.