Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Dvořák, Strauss, Stravinsky

The Vienna Philharmonic added some seats on stage for this afternoon’s concert, and even sitting amidst the percussion (albeit thankfully not next to a gong, as I once found myself a few years ago) it is hard to resist hearing this orchestra in the Musikverein with Mariss Jansons on the podium… indeed, getting to watch him from the orchestra’s perspective (when he was not blocked out by a music stand or a percussionist).  

On the program was a strange mix of works I did not necessarily understand why they went together: Dvořák‘s Eighth Symphony, Richard StraussDeath and Transfiguration, and the suite from Stravinsky‘s ballet The Firebird.  As Jansons explained in a talk in Salzburg last summer, sometimes parts of the same concert don’t have to go together, but even by that standard this combination was odd.  Perhaps the one linkage here was some truly fine playing.

The Dvořák symphony came out dancing, full as it is with Czech folk dances.  Jansons maintained a certain tension, which just gave the exuberant bits all the more sway.  This may have anticipated a ballet suite later in the concert, but folk dances and ballet are still two different genres, so maybe not.

If the Strauss tone poem after intermission danced, it was with death.  This set an altogether different mood, and at one point close to the end the orchestra sent a cold chill through the room.  Somehow, through force of music, we all emerged on the other side, shivering in our seats but transfigured.

Jansons took a much more humorous approach with Stravinsky’s Firebird suite.  This is fun music, with a lot happening despite a somewhat reduced orchestra.  A twinkle in Jansons’ eyes made sure the orchestra kept the music upbeat (they not only smiled back at Jansons, but smirked knowingly at each other – particularly the bemused percussionists around me), until the lullaby section, which grew somewhat dark before a triumphant finale.  Shades of Death and Transfiguration earlier in the concert?  Or just masterful playing?

This orchestra reigns.  It’s not always technically the best, but it has a feel for music like no other orchestra.  And Jansons on the podium brings out some of its finest moments.  Although the balance was a bit off from my seat in the percussion, I could feel the magic in the Musikverein’s Golden Hall.  The audience felt it too, with thundering applause and a rare standing ovation (we are spoiled by this orchestra, so it doesn’t happen often).  The applause did not stop even after the orchestra finally left the stage, and Jansons had to return for not one but two individual curtain calls.  I cannot remember that happening before.

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mendelssohn, Lecuona, Stravinsky, Mahler

Tonight I had quite a discovery in Salzburg’s Great Festival House: the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra from Sweden.  This orchestra sprung to the rescue for a two-night set in Salzburg when the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra canceled its European tour (as the result of a budget crisis, I have been told).  The new orchestra generously took over kept the same conductor (Florian Krumpöck), soloists, and program as the Jerusalemites (Jerusalemers? Yerushalaimi? what is the adjectival form of Jerusalem anyway?) with one substitution tonight – Mahler‘s First instead of his Ninth (so I’ll get the First twice within one month, as the Mozarteum Orchestra has it scheduled for my next Sunday subscription concert in May).

 

A number of conductors have launched their careers in Norrköping, among them Herbert Blomstedt and Franz Welser-Möst, but for some reason I’ve never heard of it.  Now I have, and that makes me happy.

 

The concert tonight led off with Felix Mendelssohn‘s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which he wrote when he was only fourteen and of which he and his sister Fanny gave the premiere (also performing the orchestra parts between them, since they lacked an orchestra and only had the two pianos).  For what it was, it showed the composer’s real talent – but it was essentially only reworked Mozart and not one of his finer works  (by the composer’s own recognition – he never published it).  Still, it did provide a platform for Felix and Fanny to show off their enormous talents, and they probably had fun with it as the Israeli duo of Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg (not sister and brother, but a married couple) clearly had fun together tonight, throwing lines of music back and forth at each other from two interlocking pianos.

 

Silver and Garburg then gave us two encores on a single piano but with four hands.  First came Ernesto Lecuona‘s Malagueña, followed by an arrangement of the opening of Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky (as much as they hammed it up, it’s still better orchestrated).

 

After the intermission came the anticipated Mahler First, the substitution.  Actually, as an earlier composition by Mahler, it probably was a better choice to come after the youthful Mendelssohn work.  The orchestra performed the symphony in technicolor – this was quite an exuberant performance.  They captured the dancing melodies better than the underlying melancholic ones, but that made it happier, I suppose.  Unfortunately, conductor Krumpöck intentionally could not keep a temp – he kept switching tempi radically throughout, the way Leopold Stokowski used to alter some works to make them (he thought) more dramatic.  But when the work is already dramatic, these sudden and unwarranted tempo shifts all over the place just make it confused.

 

As another encore, Krumpöck and the Nörrkopingers gave us Mahler’s so-called “Blumine” movement, which I actually do not believe I have ever heard live before (only recordings).  This was a movement from an early piece of incidental music Mahler wrote.  When he discarded that other work (no copies are known to have survived), he stuffed this one movement into a draft of his First Symphony, since it had some melodic ties (as do many of Mahler’s works with each other), but then thought better of it so removed it again.  Mahler was right not to include it in his symphony, but the Norrköpingers made a good case for it as a symphonic fragment standing by itself.

 

Let’s see what they do with Beethoven and Bruckner tomorrow.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Stravinsky, Schwertsik, Lindberg, Gruber

This month’s Sunday morning subscription concert of the Mozarteum Orchestra featured a decidedly contemporary selection.  The composer HK Gruber conducted and introduced each work – a guided tour of the scores, as it were.

The concert opened with something relatively traditional: Four Norwegian Impressions by Igor Stravinsky, written for a film to portray the German occupation of Norway during the Second World War. As Gruber pointed out, the music was not especially martial nor really Norwegian – mostly it was Stravinsky.  These short little-heard pieces were fine music if nothing special – from Stravinsky’s “weak period,” but Gruber said he wished he could write as well as Stravinsky in his “weak period.”

The remaining works on the program were by still-living composers.  Some tone poems followed by Kurt Schwertsik, from his multi-year cycle Earthly Sounds – from which Gruber selected Five Nature Pieces (Wind, Thunder, Rain, Water, Birds) composed in 1984 and With the Giant Boots composed in 1991.  Schwertsik was apparently driven out of his German compositional school for daring to write tonal music.  These were not old-fashioned, just tonal, and relied to a great extent on special effects in the heavily enlarged percussion section.  The Five Nature Pieces, all short, ended up being more gimmick than substance – pleasant enough music, but without the special effects there was not much there.  The piece With the Giant Boots was much longer, which actually meant that Schwertsik had sufficient time to do development in the orchestra, making this a much more satisfying work.  Schwertsik himself came on stage for a long bow and warm applause.

After the intermission came the Clarinet Concerto by Magnus Lindberg, composed in 2002.  Of all the works on this morning’s program, this probably succeeded the most.  It was also tonal, but mixed a range of styles and approaches (and according to Gruber, Lindberg is fond of drastic tempo changes and explored some with us before the piece began).  This may have been the music of George Gershwin if he had lived until 2000 – and had been born in post-Sibelian Finland.  The young British clarinetist Mark Simpson demonstrated all the different skillsets required to pull off the solo parts.

For the last work of the morning, Gruber introduced his own 2002 composition, Dancing in the Dark.  Gruber sees himself as the heir of the Viennese musical tradition, so his music harks back to previous eras while taking new directions.  But this mix of styles and reliance on special effects gets a bit tiresome.  So while nothing was quite wrong with this work, there was no commonality and it never seemed to go anywhere even as it did not quite sit still either.  Maybe if it had come earlier in the concert, or as part of a concert not entirely dedicated to this type of music, it may have fared better just by being original.  Coming at the end today, it simply got lost.

Entertaining curiosities with enlightening presentation – for that we have Gruber to thank.  Other than the Lindberg, I am not sure I need to hear these works again.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch

A visit to the Musikverein’s Golden Hall by Mariss Jansons to lead the Vienna Philharmonic is always worth flagging in the calendar, no matter what they put on the program. Tonight proved no exception, with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Schostakowitsch’s 10th Symphony.

I last heard this peculiar Stravinsky work five seasons ago, with the at the time newly-bankrupt and demoralized Philadelphia Orchestra under the perennially bankrupt-of-ideas Charles Dutoit. They completely flummoxed me with what seemed an ugly and pointless work. Nevertheless, I thought something must be hiding in there, and so I’ve waited eagerly for the opportunity to hear the work again. Lo and behold, when put into the competent hands of Jansons, it all made sense tonight.

Stravinsky re-thought the psalms, updating old church chants for the twentieth century with a highly original orchestration. There are many ways to praise the Lord. The Lord has probably heard them all before, so I suppose Stravinsky decided he required something new and inspired to get attention. Jansons got the pacing right, the broad and mystical mixed with the impulsive and driven. The Philharmoniker – or at least the strange combination of instrumentalists called for by Stravinsky – brought out the bold accents and bright colors, wherever required, to support the Singverein’s vocals. Would that the Lord be pleased! The audience certainly was, with a thumping ovation.

After the intermission came Schostakowitsch. If Stravinsky from his exile could praise the Lord with a new song, Schostakowitsch was left behind in Russia, lingering in a godless empire. The first movement portrayed a landscape so devastating that the Siberian gulags would have paled in comparison. Death, heartbreak, destruction, and all of the misery of the Soviet regime was on display. As the symphony progressed across the musical tundra, the regime and its minions shot down anyone who dared hope. The workers went about their roles as automatons in their wonderful dictatorship of the proletariat. But through it all came a glimmer of light – in the snarky form of the composer’s musical signature: D-S-C-H, D-S-C-H, D-S-C-H – haltingly at first and ultimately triumphantly. Jansons let us hear the message clearly, and the orchestra responded. Indeed, at times it felt like echoes from last night’s concert (Mahler 7) had hung in the hall, with some intimate solo parts and exposed ensemble playing, shining some light in the darkness. Oh so much darkness.

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.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch, Prokofiev

I rushed up from Washington to Philadelphia in time to hear Valery Gergiev conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in three very different symphonies by Russian composers. What Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, Schostakowitsch’s 9th, and Prokofiev’s 5th had in common was intriguing rhythmic combinations, which make them fun, if difficult, to play.  The Philadelphians proved themselves up for the challenge.

The Stravinsky might be the oddest of the lot.  Written over a period of a couple of years, it is not quite clear that the composer ever had a clear vision or plan for this work.  The creativity came in the rhythmic shifts and juxtapositions across the instruments.  A medium-sized orchestration never became too overpowering, and the Philadelphians played the work with dexterous delicacy: tender moments prevailing through jarring jabs of sound.

In some respects, the orchestra sounded as though it had started the concert by going mostly through motions, taking a while to warm up during the piece.  The playing was fine, but some sparkle lacked at the outset.  Part of that may have been Stravinsky’s lack of clarity in this work.  Certainly, by the time the Schostakowitsch came, the Orchestra was now ready.

Schostakowitsch’s work marks a triumph of his own spirit at a time of triumph for his country.  The communists expected a major work to crown their victory in the Second World War, and Schostakowitsch gave them a sarcastic one.  The work dances – maybe not with as much syncopation as Stravinsky’s or with the balletic sweeps of the Prokofiev that followed, but nevertheless it showed a certain celebration alternating with dark brooding.  Although Soviet Russia had defeated Nazi Germany, it remained Soviet Russia, its peoples enslaved.  The irony did not escape notice that the Orchestra took its cues from Gergiev, a close friend of (and apologist for) current Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.  But politics aside (and sticking to music-making), Gergiev successfully shaped this symphony with his clawing fingers, giving it a fuller and more meaningful reading than the Stravinsky.

The Prokofiev symphony after the intermission provided something more in line with what the communist regime would have wanted.  Written shortly before the end of the European war, as the Red Army advanced to liberate (and re-enslave) Eastern Europe, Prokofiev could use dramatic language and large forces to portray both the uplifting triumph and sad laments of the battlefield, while still maintaining a modern musical language characterized by its own dancing rhythms.  The Orchestra’s sound came across full when it had to, but the solo lines throughout emerged with sensitivity and virtuosity.

Stadler Quartet and Ariane Haering, Schloß Leopoldskron

Beethoven, Schubert, Stravinsky, Ravel, Webern, Lehár

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camerata Salzburg, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven

Pinchas Zukerman and the Camerata Salzburg brought chamber music to the stage of the Khachaturian Hall.  They provided beautiful and delicate playing, but had a hard time filling the large hall with sound, particularly the strings, who foud themselves regularly overwhelmed by the winds, who were certainly not themselves overplaying.

This issue became apparent right from the first piece: Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite.  Without thicker strings, the dischords Stravinsky intentionally put in the winds stood out more, making this neo-classical work odder than the composer intended.  For Mozart’Haffner Serenade, with Zukerman conducting with his violin, the situation improved somewhat.  Still, Zukerman got a lush sound from his instrument, and it easily left the stage and reached our ears, which contrasted with the subdued Camerata strings.

The balance finally worked after the intermission, for Beethoven’s Romance #1 for Violin and Orchestra.  Essentially a work for solo violin augmented by chamber orchestra, Zukerman took over the playing more assertively, and the orchestra did not need to stand out but rather just had to back him up.  And with their gorgeous playing, they did just that.

Mozart’s Symphony #39 closed the program.  Here, the strings put a little more oompf into their playing, but again the wind section dominated.   An encore Mozart menuetto, scored with limited wind lines, demonstrated that the strings, playing almost alone, could make a bigger impact, even in this cavernous hall.  I just left wondering if maybe they need to perform in a more intimate venue.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

R. Strauss, Stravinsky

After a break for coffee and cake, I returned to the Musikverein for the Vienna Symphony with Fabio Luisi.  I recognized a lot of people at the second concert from the first, so maybe others are catching on to my methods.

This orchestra enjoys a clear rapport with Luisi, its chief conductor since 2005, and has sounded fantastic in recent years.  No doubt he has them well-trained.  Luisi’s own performances are reliable, but never rise up to anything that would bring down the house.  I suppose the guest conductors must do that, thankful that Luisi has the orchestra in top form.  But even if his performances may not shatter the earth, they do provide high-quality musical entertainment.

This evening’s concert opened with an extremely playful rendition of Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss.  Luisi coaxed sumptuous tones from the orchestra while keeping the pace light.   Then Pianist
Rudolf Buchbinder joined the orchestra for Strauss’ Burleske for Piano and Orchestra, composed shortly before Till Eulenspiegel, and in some ways a study for it with its good-humored pacing and instrumental dialogue.  Buchbinders fingers must have broken some world speed records – I am not sure my fingers could move that fast even if it were not necessary to hit the right notes.  He, on the other hand, made it look effortless.

After the intermission, Stravinsky’Petrushka sounded a logical connection to the first half of the program, particularly in Stravinsky’s 1947 reworking.  The fairground setting of the ballet drew from the Straussian experience, adding new dissonances and contrasts, and making the most of the orchestra’s many talents showcasing their solos.  With this orchestra, there was no need to stage the ballet, since the lines themselves danced right up to poor Petrushka’s tragic end.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Stravinsky, Tomasi, Tschaikowsky

I would not normally describe Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #6 as “rousing,” but tonight’s performance by the Vienna Symphony under Hans Graf was exceptional.  The first movement began with a low, dark grumble which felt like it had emerged slowly from the floorboards of the Musikverein.  This swelled into waves of emotion, which washed from the orchestra over the audience.  By the third movement, the only one which does not end quietly, the musicians had reached a feverish intensity.  Although the Musikverein audiences are usually good about their applause (sometimes tourists have been known to applaud at inappropriate times, but this is rare), the crescendo at the end of this third movement had the audience roaring, with wild applause across the hall.  Indeed, I am not sure if any of the audience members could really contain themselves, the emotions had simply grown that high.  The orchestra, which might be expected to react to such an interruption with annoyance, appeared instead to expect it.  After acknowledging what happened, the orchestra picked up with the final movement.  This gradually faded out, much the way the first movement had begun – returning to a low grumble under the floorboards.  A drained audience gathered its breath, and then the applause resumed long and hard.

This performance made up for the two uninteresting works which had graced the program before the intermission.  The concert had opened with Stravinsky’s rarely performed (for good reason) divertimento “The Fairy’s Kiss.”  A homage to Tschaikowsky, Stravinsky had orchestrated lesser-known music by Tschaikowsky with his own colors, and had then reworked the piece several times over a period of decades.  The only thing worth hearing was how Tschaikowsky’s music translated into Stravinksy’s tonal colors.  But the curiosity value soon faded – there was a good reason the original pieces by Tschaikowsky were themselves rarely performed, and Stravinsky added minimal curiosity but no drama, worth filing away with his other lesser works.  Kudos to the Symphoniker’s woodwinds, though, for some virtuosic playing.

For the second piece on the program, the excellent trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger made one of his frequent guest appearances in Vienna, this time as the soloist for Henri Tomasi’s trumpet concerto (1948).  Sadly, Tomasi would seem to be yet another of a long line of dull French composers with nothing to say.  The music was not unpleasant, and Hardenberger gave it an exceptionally skillful reading, but it simply did not go anywhere.  Worth filing away somewhere with Stravinsky’s Fairy’s Kiss.

Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Stravinsky, Chausson, Ravel, Rachmaninov

I attended an unplanned concert at the Moscow Conservatory – the 75th Anniversary Concert of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra.  When I was deciding what concerts interested me this month, this concert had a different program and conductor, and so I had marked it off the list.  But it seems that all that changed while I was away from Moscow.  I swung by the afternoon before the concert to see if any tickets would be available, and there were a few left up in the top level of the second balcony (but the hall has great acoustics, so this only meant it was hard to see the orchestra, but I could hear just fine).

This is the orchestra Yevgeny Svetlanov led for 35 years before he was fired in 2000 (after Putin came in), when the Ministry of Culture suddenly questioned his patriotism.  Mark Gorenstein, an impossibly dull Soviet wand-waver, was appointed to replace him.  The Orchestra musicians have been miserable ever since (but stay because the orchestra pays relatively very well for Russia).  Finally this Summer the musicians got up the courage to demand that Gorenstein be fired.  When this did not happen, they simply refused to show up for rehearsals this Fall, and all of their concerts this season have been canceled one-by-one as a result.  Two weeks ago, while I was away, Gorenstein got the axe and the young and dynamic Vladimir Jurowski was appointed in his place effective immediately.  Today was Jurowski’s first appearance with the orchestra in his new position.

The program opened with Stravinsky’Firebird Suite.  This is still the most Russian-sounding of orchestras, and the flagship of the state orchestra system, so it was fitting to open the anniversary concert with a showpiece.  Jurowski made the most of it, generating excitement with each scene in the suite.  If he had added the entire ballet as an encore, no one in this audience (nor in the orchestra) would have objected.  I have a soft-spot for this piece, since I think it was the first recording I ever owned as a child (with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra – a birthday present from my sister).  Hearing it fresh tonight, with a fully-charged orchestra and conductor happy to be there, made me remember the joy and excitement of putting on that record for the first time way back in my childhood.

After this thrilling start, the concert unfortunately shifted to French composers.  The choice for the next two pieces was curious, since they certainly do not figure in the core repertory for this orchestra, nor should they figure in the core repertory for any orchestra.  While, starting in the mid-19th Century, Russia discovered classical music and has since produced enormous quantities of exciting material (possibly the only civilized thing the Russians do produce), France has inexplicably seemed incapable of having any composer other than Berlioz (whom the French ridiculed for his admiration of Beethoven) capable of consistently producing music of any reasonable quality.  The French never cease to amaze me just how dull the music is that they write – and I keep listening to new pieces just hoping something will come along to break the monotony, but it never does.

So tonight we had two pieces for violin and orchestra: the Poem for Violin and Orchestra by Ernest Chausson and the Gypsy Concert Rhapsody by Maurice Ravel.  Julia Fischer was the soloist.  Try as she, Jurowski, and the orchestra might, nothing they could do could bring these works to life.  And boy did they try.  Technically, they all played very well.  Fischer proved very adept.  The audience dozed, and awoke at the end of each piece to give a polite golf-tournament-style applause most notable for its contrast with the roaring applause which had greeted the Stravinsky.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned to Russian music with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  These are less dance music and more somewhat-eccentric post-Scriabin-esque studies in orchestral color that Rachmaninov wrote shortly before he died.  Jurowski and the orchestra kept the movements moving along, exploring their tones and rhythms until the end of the third dance, which sounded like it represented the composer taking a hop, skip, and a jump into the grave.  Never has the Dies Irae sounded so whimsical.  Jurowski applauded his new orchestra, the orchestra applauded Jurowski, and the audience applauded both.  This applause went on for a while.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Stravinsky, Beethoven

I had a rare chance to hear my hometown orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, in concert tonight in its home in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center.  As a Philadelphian myself, I feel entitled to switch back into my hometown persona – Philadelphians expect top performances from their institutions and make sure to come out deeply critical of anything less.  For much of its existence, the Philadelphia Orchestra has made the city proud, and so the city can reasonably expect it to remain among the best in the world.  Whether it does or not depends on many factors, and we Philadelphians will certainly call them out.

Driven by its incompetent management into bankruptcy, at least the Orchestra still sounds excellent musically.  Of course, its incompetent management is also responsible for the lack of a decent music director for many years now.  The last time I heard the Philadelphians perform, the Orchestra’s previous Music Director Christoph Eschenbach dully kept time on the podium.  Tonight, the current Chief Conductor, the even-more-uninspiring Charles Dutoit (who obviously uses the same tailor for his hairpiece as he does for his tailcoat), waved the baton.  The Orchestra did not need him.

The concert opened with Stravinsky’Symphony of Psalms.  This is an odd piece, which might be understandable in the hands of a decent conductor but remained beyond my comprehension tonight.  Stravinsky alternated between ugly and mystical music, to set psalms which praised God – psalms whose very nature should take neither ugly nor mystical music.  The unorthodox instrumentation (no violins nor viole) added to the strangeness.  I’ll have to listen again some time, but not with Dutoit on the podium.

After the intermission came a dull reading of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  Neither strenuous nor fluid in his approach, Dutoit managed to give the piece absolutely no lilt.  His listless stick-waving resulted in missed cues and confused dynamics across the orchestra.  Dutoit also managed to make the third movement Adagio – one of my favorite movements from the entire symphonic repertory, and a notoriously difficult test of a conductor’s skill – both too fast and too long.  In his rush, he lost the harmonies and shattered the lines, and the fourth movement could not come soon enough.  “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” sang the bass solo in the fourth movement: “O Friends, not these tones” – indeed not those other tones either, unfortunately.

In isolation, the Orchestra played well under the circumstances.  The Philadelphia Singers Chorale enunciated emotionlessly.  The ensemble of soloists – Melanie DienerMary Phillips, Joseph Kaiser, and Nathan Berg – fulfilled its purpose.  Berg’s voice sounded dry, however – and indeed all four soloists were gulping from water bottles.

The acoustics in the Kimmel Center remain overrated.  The orchestra sounded like it was performing behind a screen, its tone somehow dulled.  For a contemporary hall, the Kimmel Center looks reasonable enough, with darker wood than what has become common elsewhere, but I have never bought the claims that its high-tech design produced anything remotely reaching the spectacular acoustics its fans claim.  This is simply a dull hall.

And Dutoit has to go (a new Music Director – young and little-tested but enthusiastic and well-regarded by the Orchestra – has been named beginning in Fall 2012, which cannot come soon enough).  So, too, the need to chuck from the Kimmel Center roof the entire inept management of what should be one of the greatest orchestras on the planet rather than a wreck plunged into bankruptcy.  It is not too late to save the Philadelphia Orchestra, but someone needs to do it before all of its fine musicians go elsewhere.

The audience leapt to its feet at the concert’s end, roaring approvingly in a massive standing ovation.  If this mediocre performance merited a standing ovation from a packed Philadelphia house (implying that this concert represented a much finer performance than what concert-goers have come to expect of it), then perhaps the Philadelphia Orchestra has already sunk into the depths.  What a tragedy.

Pokrovsky Chamber Opera

Stravinsky, The Rake’s Progress

For The Rake’s Progress by Igor Stravinsky tonight, Moscow’s Pokrovsky Chamber Opera sung in a Russian translation (from the original English), and used a 1978 staging by the late Boris Pokrovsky himself (the longtime Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Opera back when it was good from 1952-1982, who founded the Moscow Chamber Opera and who died in 2009, after which the Chamber Opera was named after him).

Pokrovsky was a master, and understood drama in a way few directors seem to these days.  The concept of this staging was actually quite simple.  Stravinsky had based the story on a series of paintings by William Hogarth.  So Pokrovsky put enormous picture frames on the stage, which when the drapes were pulled back from each frame revealed one of scenes in the original Hogarth paintings.  The cast emerged from the paintings to act out the scenes, dressed in period costumes from early eighteenth-Century Britain.  The rest of the props were kept simple and suggestive, allowing the cast to act their roles out.

I would imagine that singers can very much enjoy such stagings, since they get to demonstrate their full talents without distractions.  The theater layout was different from the way it had been set up the last time I was there (for Mussorgsky’s Sorochintsy Fair in the Fall) – the room was set up like a typical theater this time.  Although Stravinsky scored this opera for a small classical-sized orchestra, he nevertheless wrote a full opera and having a little more distance between the audience and the stage allowed for better visual and acoustical perspective.  The cast excelled – particularly Olesya Starukhina as Anne Truelove and Borislav Molchanov as Tom Rakewell (although Mochanov’s voice may have been too large for this theater – he often needed but failed to modify his volume).  Igor Gromov kept the whole work moving from the podium.  He seemed humorless, but considering he created the platform to allow the cast to provide the humor, and orchestra and cast sounded excellent, he should get the credit.

Moscow Chamber Orchestra “Musica Viva,” Moscow Conservatory

Pergolesi, La Serva Padrona; Stravinsky, Pulcinella

What fun!

The first half of the program consisted of Pergolesi’s short comic opera La Serva Padrona, paired after the break with Stravinksy’Pulcinella (complete score), which was of course inspired by Pergolesi (or, as we now know, inspired by what he thought was Pergolesi, which in fact was not by Pergolesi but itself inspired by the early Classical composer, so it could be said that Stravinsky’s work was inspired by music inspired by music by Pergolesi).

Conductor Aleksandr Rudin understood the difference – he conducted the Pergolesi from the harpsichord with true classical style and feel. For the Stravinsky, he comprehended what Stravinsky was trying to accomplish: not to write early 18th-Century music in the 20th Century, but rather to update that older music using more modern techniques and compositional developments. Rudin knew how to emphasize the edge Stravinsky gave to the music, and to draw out the contrasts and modern harmonies.

The soloists also got into the spirit. Their voices would probably not fill a proper-sized opera house, but in the Conservatory (even the Large Hall) with a chamber orchestra, they were full enough.  Wolf-Matthias Friedrich (bass) especially stood out with his good humor and clear (albeit Germanic) diction.  Olivia Vermeulen (mezzo) and Stanislav Mostovoy (tenor) sang the other roles with gusto.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Sibelius, Stravinsky

The Philharmoniker, under Valery Gergiev, accentuated the Brucknerian and Schubertian influences in Sibelius‘ 1st Symphony.  Sibelius had conceived this symphony when he studied in Vienna (although he wrote it later).  Bruckner was Sibelius’ favorite living composer, and Schubert was of course Bruckner’s model, so the concept worked.

The concert concluded with the suite from Stravinsky’s Firebird.