Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Smetana, Mozart, Tschaikowsky

The Salzburg Kulturvereinigung (Cultural Association), which organizes most of the big concert events in Salzburg outside the various festivals, celebrated a jubilee concert this evening in the Great Festival House, with the Mozarteum Orchestra under its new chief conductor Riccardo Minasi (my fourth concert in a row with this orchestra, three of them with the new conductor).  

I am glad the Kulturvereinigung leaves the music to the musicians, because the association’s math and reading skills left me befuddled.  All of the publicity including the program books called this the 70th anniversary jubilee.  However, the year 1947 (70 years ago) appeared no where, and all references to a specific starting date indicated this concert commemorated the very first concert from 17 October 1952 (which is only 65 years ago).  The publicity also made a point that tonight’s concert repeated the program of that very first concert – yet here again it did not (they reproduced the flier from that first concert program which showed this clearly).

Ignoring the bizarre publicity and turning to the music: the orchestra performed Smetana‘s Moldau (the second tone poem from My Fatherland) and Tschaikowsky‘s Symphony #5, both in similar fashion.  In the case of the Moldau, we heard the waters swirl, the waves splash, and the stream flow by robust promontories.  And while that’s probably not what Tschaikowsky had in mind when he wrote his symphony, the interpretation somewhat worked here too.  Minasi kept the orchestra delicately restrained at times, then introduced the themes on top, growing from the stream to great crescendi before backing down.  And while careful at the more subdued bits, Minasi does have a tendency (which I have noticed in the other concerts I have heard him conduct recently) to get a little excited during the bigger moments, moving forward at faster-than-necessary tempi (most obvious during the march at the end of the final movement, which was practically a double-step).  These styles (too fast or too delicate) also do not always let the orchestra exhibit full sound – but many of the solo and sectional lines demonstrated that the instrumentalists do have much to say.

The original 1952 concert they commemorated had opened with the Dances of Galánta by Zoltan Kodály.  Tonight this work had fallen out of the program, replaced instead between the Smetana and Tschaikowsky works by Mozart‘s 20th piano concerto.  That substitution was a a real shame – the Kodály work is far more interesting than Mozart’s rather routine concerto.  Piano soloist Peter Lang (who apparently made his Great Festival House debut with this concerto in 1966) and the orchestra produced a completely idiomatic if uninspired reading.  All the more reason they should have done the Kodály dances.  Yawn.

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Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Musikverein (Vienna)

Dvořák, Smetana

When the post of Kapellmeister opened unexpectedly in Leipzig last year, the Gewandhaus Orchestra moved quickly to secure Andrís Nelsons, one of the most dynamic conductors of the next generation (he turns 40 next year).  Nelsons, who had only shortly before taken up his post as music director in Boston, where he has the unenviable task of rebuilding the Boston Symphony Orchestra from its long years of slow decay, would have been silly not to take on this new opportunity, even if it will leave him a bit overstretched.  

Nelsons and the Gewandhaus Orchestra came to Vienna for the first time since the new appointment was announced, and clearly they were meant for each other (Nelsons’ wife, Kristīne Opolais, shouldn’t be jealous; she was tonight’s soloist).

The Orchestra has a warm and creamy sound, but which is never muddled.  Instead, it displays a bright passion and nuance, which directly responds to Nelsons’ own demonstrative conducting technique.  He has become somehow even more expressive as he gets older, contorting his body as he used to, but honing his method of drawing concepts and hidden thoughts out of the instruments (he’s also grown a beard, possibly to compensate for his rapidly receding hairline – he’s now gone half-bald).

Tonight’s concert showcased the music of Antonín Dvořák (with one brief selection by Bedřich Smetana), in particular the Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”).  This is a popular symphony for a reason – the music is fantastic and varied – but over-performed to the point that it has become generally trite.  Nelsons and the Leipzigers made it special.  They captured the excitement of the new, as it indeed was in 1893, even in the quiet passages which they played with delicacy but confidence.   This performance never dragged, indeed some fascinating aspects lurked around every corner and Nelsons and his team found and uncovered all of them (I’ll forgive one wayward blatt in the horns towards the end), one pleasant surprise after another when there really shouldn’t be any more suprises in this symphony.

The other orchestral selections (the concert overture Othello, the Polonaise from the opera Rusalka, and as an encore a Slavonic Dance) demonstrated the same overwhelming passion and swing.  But when the moments arose for quiet solos, the orchestra dropped its volume without sacrificing its stride, to give just the right amount of support and ambience to the soloist.  This was therefore most helpful during the soprano vocals by Opolais, who sang two excerpts from Rusalka, another Dvořák song, and a selection from Smetana’s opera Dalibor.  Her voice also proved the right match for this orchestra: strong, confident, and warm into the night.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Smetana, Korngold, Bach, Dvořák

A pleasantly sentimental Sunday morning concert with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Salzburg’s Great Festival House may not have overwhelmed, but got the day off to a good start. 

The program opened with the Moldau, the second tone poem in Smetana’s My Fatherland series, which the orchestra performed evocatively under the baton of British guest conductor Matthew Halls.  I was a little worried about the flutes in the long opening passage, depicting the origins of the river, as I was not sure they were coming up for air – but capture a gurgling spring they did, and the rest of the orchestra took it downstream from there until the river met the Elbe.

Austrian violinst Benjamin Schmid, a professor at the Mozarteum who specializes in 20th century music, joined the orchestra for Korngold’s violin concerto.  Korngold, a Viennese Wunderkind with a theatrical flare who landed in Hollywood as an Academy Award-winning composer of film music, repackaged some of his film themes into this concerto, keeping the atmosphere while creating something a bit more serious and charming, which is not performed often enough.  Though technically-proficient, Schmid tried to milk a sweet tone from his violin, with legati and vibrati, but it unfortunately came out somewhat sour.  Korngold said he wanted the soloist for this work to be more Caruso and less Paganini – but Schmid is neither.  Even more sour (since he had no orchestral accompaniment) was his solo encore, which sounded like it must have originally been by Bach, but underwhelmed.

Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony rounded out the program.  Halls seemed determined to emphasize the influence of Brahms on this work.  Brahms did indeed influence and champion the Czech composer.  Brahms, wrote music of the highest quality that was often excessively unimaginative and dull.  But whereas Dvořák learned orchestration and structure from his mentor, he took inspiration from Czech (and other) folk traditions and had something more to say.  The performance this morning managed to leave out the extra meanings, producing just a nostalgic reading of what might have been.  For a Sunday morning, that may have been enough.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Holzer, Resch, Smetana

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra celebrated the so-called Austrian “National” Holiday (a misnomer – it is really a state holiday; there is an Austrian state, which this holiday celebrates, but I do not know what an Austrian “nation” is) in the Konzerthaus this morning.  Dynamic 33-year-old Moravian guest conductor Jakub Hrůša took the podium enthusiastically.

The concert opened with the Austrian Federal Anthem, music by Johann Holzer that was chosen in 1946 because people mistakenly thought Mozart had written it.  It is not a memorable work and we really do need to reclaim Haydn’s anthem stolen from us by Germany.  Although everyone in the hall stood up, no one sang (I don’t even know the lyrics – something mundane about being a land of mountains and streams).  More interestingly, the work Land by the young Austrian composer Gerald Resch followed, taking Holzer’s work and putting it into a blender.  The resulting piece resembled the original, somewhat shredded but generally smooth; the style kept morphing, so it was not always clear what Resch intended, except for a new way of hearing Holzer’s hymn.

But these pieces were just warm-up for Smetana’Má Vlast.  Although the “Fatherland” Smetana wrote about was Bohemia, Bohemia was indeed part of Austria at the time he wrote these six tone poems.  Often performed individually and separately, Hrůša performed them individually in a row, three on either side of the intermission, taking a pause and bow between poems except for the final two.  Hrůša put one harp on either side of the orchestra, and they opened the work playing off each other in alternation, setting the scene.  The Symphoniker’s strings were sumptuous.  The woodwinds were evocative of the landscapes they portrayed.  Hrůša gave the fourth poem, “From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields,” perhaps a little too martial a reading, not particularly a stroll through the countryside.  The final two poems, written four years after the first four, had an altogether different color (Smetana was also completely deaf then), and for those Hrůša captured the drama.

The fifth poem, Tabor, of course is named after the town where my great grandfather was born (although he had already moved off to Vienna, and then Manchester, by the time Smetana wrote this; and the Ehrlich family had almost certainly not settled there yet at the time the town was founded by Hussites in the enents Smetana portrays in the poem).  But still, a good connection for “My Fatherland.”

Volksoper

Smetana, Verkaufte Braut

The Volksoper has unveiled a new productionof Smetana’Bartered Bride this year.  It is a much simpler updated staging than what I saw in this house in 1987, but it worked.  The entire action took place on a single set, which looked like the inside of a large barn painted white, with long benches and tables serving as props.  Although this came across as odd at first, it ended up working in its simplicity.

Costumes were slightly updated to be what villagers might wear at the beginning of the twentieth century – the program notes explained that life really did not change much in rural Bohemia between the time Smetana wrote the opera in the 1860s and the First World War, so the exact time did not matter.  Why the director picked the end of that period specifically, however, remains unclear from the notes.  Mostly this worked, except at the end when the villagers all showed up in black and white outfits, and Marie got to wear a turquoise weddingdress.

The two leads, Ursula Pfitzner as Marie and Mehrzad Montazeri as Hans, matched up nicely, with expressive singing and clear diction.  Martin Winkler as Kecal, the marriage broker, also cut a fine and devious (or dubious) figure.  A very young conductor, Gerrit Prießnitz, kept the orchestra moving at a lively pace, making for delightful folk-inspired music and dance.

National Opera Orchestra of Albania

Zoraqi, Jakova, Laro, Ilo, Smetana, Dvořák

Attended a “gala concert” tonight at the Albanian National Opera, put on to celebrate 90 years of Czech-Albanian diplomatic relations.  I suppose what made it a “gala” was that there were dignitaries there, people dressed nicely, and drinks were served afterwards in the foyer.  Also, the Czech Ambassador and Albanian Foreign Minister spoke beforehand, and the orchestra played both national anthems.

The program contained an assortment of Czech and Albanian classical music, all romantic-period in style (although the Albanian compositions were mostly written a century after the Czech ones).  The Albanian works opened with Nikolla Zoraqi’s Festive Overture, which sounded like movie music (which I suppose makes sense, since he mostly wrote movie music), and continued with an aria from Prenk Jakova’Scanderbeg (which I saw complete in June), Kujtim Laro’s moving tone poem Freedom or Death, and a song (“I love Albania more“) by Spiridon Ilo, a signer of the Albanian declaration of independence who wrote patriotic songs as a hobby.  The Czech works were excerpts from Smetana’The Kiss and Bartered Bride, and Dvořák’Rusalka and 9th Symphony.

The orchestral playing, by the opera orchestra, was sufficient.  Valmir Xoxa, whom I saw conduct the Barber of Seville recently, conducted the Albanian pieces, while Karel Smékal, the Czech Deputy Ambassador who trained as a conductor, took the podium for the Czech works.  Czech soprano Barbora Perná had a nice enough voice with a warble on the higher registers; while Elson Braha (Nemorino in last April’s Elixir) still has his pleasant but weak voice that cracked at volume but otherwise was good on the ears.

Throughout the concert, the organizers projected a slide show on a cheap movie screen behind the orchestra, showing photos of the Czech Republic in a loop that lasted about three minutes and repeated the whole night.  The screen was big enough to be distracting, but small enough so we could not really make out the slides well, especially since the stage lights were up so the orchestra could read its music.

Nevertheless, a pleasant evening with good live music, something that does not come often enough.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Sibelius, Smetana

Back at the Musikverein this morning, for what was billed as a “Czech Matinee” with the Vienna Symphony, with Czech conductor Zdenĕk Mácal on the podium and Czech violinist Jan Pospichal playing the concerto solo.  The programming of Sibelius and Smetana was only half-Czech, however.

Pospichal, soloist for the violin concerto by Sibelius, is the concert master of this orchestra.  This means that, while he is used to working with the Symphoniker, such a pairing also has its drawbacks.  His tone was not robust enough for a concerto – he seemed more concerned with not overwhelming the orchestra, when for a concerto it really should be the other way around.  So his lines did not soar and sometimes got lost in the lush sounds surrounding him.  But he did get a good dialogue going with the rest of the orchestra, particularly when other instruments had contrasting solo lines.

After the intermission came the first three movements of Smetana’s Má Vlast.  The program notes made a point that Má Vlast was merely a collection of tone poems, in order to justify not performing all of them – or even performing them individually.  The Symphoniker has, apparently, only performed all six together twice in its history.  And although it is true that Smetana composed six tone poems, and gave them each individual premieres, he did see them as a group and one wonders why – as long as they were performing more than one anyway – they did not perform the entire set.

Macal clearly found a good level of sympathy with the musicians, although I am not sure I learned anything from his interpretation.  I am also not sure what to make of him – and his history also has some strange turns that suggest that others also don’t either.  He fled the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and built his career at the helm of middle-tier German orchestras with broad guest conducting engagements with world class orchestras on both sides of the Pond.  Then he languished inexplicably with the reputationless New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s, before returning triumphantly to Prague to head the Czech Philharmonic in 2003, a post he suddenly and inexplicably resigned from in 2007.

Still, the Symphoniker continues to sound good, particularly its woodwinds, no matter who is standing on the bump.