Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Lyadov, Korngold, Tschaikowsky

A trip to the United States would not feel complete without checking the calendar of the Philadelphia Orchestra, by far the finest orchestra in the land.  The only negative is the Orchestra’s less-than-ideal concert hall  in the Kimmel Center, which looks pretty enough on the inside but has somewhat dull acoustics.  The sound is clear enough (and with this orchestra, that is fantastic), but having heard this orchestra perform elsewhere I know full well how much better the orchestra can sound in a brighter hall.

Specifically, tonight’s program included Tschaikowsky‘s Fifth Symphony.  I heard this orchestra perform this symphony in Dresden’s Semper Opera House in 2015, an orgasmic performance that has made me completely avoid listening to this symphony again ever since.  Tonight’s version had all of the orchestral nuance of that 2015 performance, but with a damper fully in place.  Despite that, the Orchestra made the large moments sound almost delicate while stamping authority and conviction on the quieter bars.  This suitably complex retelling of a warhorse symphony culminated in a brash march that practically swung side-to-side rather than relentlessly forward, a happy triumph (even if leaving me less emotionally exhausted than I was after hearing the Philadelphians perform it in Dresden two years ago).

Where this orchestra continues to excel is in its ability to take a group of virtuosi, each instrumentalist amazing the audience in skill, and join them together into a whole that is still substantially more than the sum of these not insubstantial parts.  No other orchestra in the United States accomplishes this so consistently (if at all) right now.

The talent came on show right away in the concert’s opening selection, Kikimora by Anatol Lyadov.  This short tone poem begins mysteriously in the low strings, and includes fine lines for assorted winds, each more sumptuous than the next.

The middle piece on the program, Erich Wolfgang Korngold‘s Violin Concerto, practically echoed the Lyadov in its middle movement (an unexpected link between these two seemingly unrelated works).  The outer movements were more ostentatious, the solo lines (provided tonight by Renaud Capuçon, whose warm tone also got swallowed up by the hall’s poor acoustics) well supported by an orchestra which matched – if not exceeded – the soloist in talent.  In reality, the star of this concerto tonight was not Capuçon but rather the Orchestra.

The Orchestra’s young Conductor-in-Residence, Cristian Măcelaru, sprung in on short notice when scheduled conductor Tugan Sokhiev had to withdraw for medical reasons.  Măcelaru kept Sokhiev’s original program, and dextrously led the orchestra through it.

 

 

Stuttgart Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Tschaikowsky, Bach, Elgar

Back to the Great Festival House for the third night in a row – but this time a different orchestra, the Stuttgart Philharmonic on the stage, under Israeli-American conductor Yoel Gamzou.  The concert was merely OK – far less rewarding than the Norrköpingers who appeared the previous two nights.

The first half of the concert featured Russian violinist Andrey Baranov, who may be the first Russian I have heard who seems not to get the Tschaikowsky violin concerto.  He came out with a halfway sugary tone (not quite all the way in that direction, but still a bit too much), which contrasted – actually, more conflicted – with the orchestra’s harder edge.  Indeed the orchestra sounded more authentically Russian than Baranov.  After the first movement, Baranov and Gamzou conferred briefly with each other, which seems to have resulted in Baranov trying something different for the second and third movements – trying to achieve a more striking sound, however, Baranov was not quite authentic to himself, and still did not quite mesh with the orchestra although Gamzou clearly also tried to make adjustments.

Baranov gave us two solo encores (not sure what the first one was, but he told us the second was Bach), in which he reverted to his original sweet tone.  Playing without orchestral accompaniment, where he determined the sound, gave him a little more success.  But I still wouldn’t rush out to specifically see him perform.

After the break came Elgar‘s Second Symphony.  I suppose there is a reason this work is rarely performed.  It’s long (almost an hour), big (full orchestra plus), and never gets to much of a point.  Periodically the brass try to get a melody going, but then the music just decides it isn’t necessary and wanders off aimlessly.  For a tonal and late-romantic work it really should say something, but fails repeatedly.

That said, the orchestra sounded very good.  Gamzou, a protege of Carlo Maria Giulini, seemed to have inherited much of the orchestral control of his mentor – with broad but clear sweeps of his body and cascading arms, that the orchestra itself responded well to, with a clear sympathy between conductor and musicians.

Israel Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schoenberg, Tschaikowsky, Mussorgsky

Zubin Mehta, recovering from knee surgery, conducted the Israel Philharmonic tonight in Salzburg’s Large Festival House while sitting down.   He received major applause for the effort, and for his genuine popularity. Unfortunately, the handicap resulted in a concert that resembled one of his misses that came all-to-frequently for much of his otherwise charismatic career.

The Israel Philharmonic demonstrated real virtuosity across all of its lines, one instrumentalist finer than the other.  They played well together.  So the problem came in interpretation, and possibly a lack of inspiration.

Two works by Schoenberg took up the first hour of the concert:Verklärte Nacht and the Chamber Symphony #1.  The first work, for a string chamber orchestra, can be quite sensuous, an individual work but still fully tonal.  Not tonight, as it dragged from the beginning and the night felt like it never ended.  The Chamber Symphony #1, for 15 instruments, already shows Schoenberg begin to break down traditional tonality.  This imaginative work requires much expert playing, which we got.  But after ten minutes tonight, Mehta ceased to say anything new, leaving the audience to just wait for this to pass.

After the intermission came Tschaikowsky’s Sixth.  This interpretation featured more excellent instrumentalism, yet somehow managed to both lack dancing in Tschaikowsky’s lush swinging orchestrations, and also miss the morbid foretelling of the composer’s own death days after the Symphony’s premiere.  This version tonight just dragged.

Mehta managed to stay on his feet during the encore, the prelude to Khovanshchina by Mussorgsky, and here we received more drama in the reading.  It’s hard to criticize the conductor, who could have rightfully canceled, but that’s what we got.  He’s personally popular for a reason.  But at least we did get to hear the Israel Philharmonic, itself worth the price of a ticket.

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, Konzerthaus Berlin

Muhly, Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninov

Tonight the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin appeared at the Berlin Konzerthaus with a rather more-challenging program. The Berlin Konzerthaus is famous for its acoustics, but from tonight’s observation this praise is not deserved. Maybe it got this reputation only in comparison with the other concert hall in town, the Philharmonie, which I discovered last night is truly awful. It is also clear that the house management knows something is wrong with the acoustics, as plexiglass plates have been installed over the orchestra to deflect the sound (either that, or to keep unruly Berliners in the side balconies from spitting on the orchestra). Nine additional large plexiglass dishes hung near the ceiling to try to get the sound to do something (or were they UFOs hovering up there to hear the Philadelphians?). In short, the acoustics are not bad but nothing special and the house clearly knows this.

However, because the acoustics were more straightforward, I did get a better chance to hear Mixed Messages by Nico Muhly that I heard for the first time two nights ago. While the Orchestra did need that piece in Dresden to understand the acoustical bounces of that hall (which, as I noted, had better acoustics but the bounces off the walls took getting used to), tonight they could jump right in and it came across more clearly and somewhat less crazy than it sounded on Sunday. Nevertheless, although the piece changed its musical style, it did not go anywhere, and the common thread throughout could not sustain it for the full length. If Muhly edits it down to something shorter, it may stand.

Works by Schostakowitsch and Rachmaninov demostrated what composers with something to say can achieve despite wild rhythms and modern sounds – Muhly is not in their league.

From Schostakowitsch, we got the First Violin Concerto, with the solos played defiantly by Lisa Batiashvili. Batiashvili exhibited a warm, deep tone, while remaining crisp. The Schostakowitsch concerto allows for the violin to play along with the orchestra but periodically change its tune and go its own individual way, still hewing closely to the orchestra, as if to show that an individual can preserve an identity in the face of oppression and demands for conformity. But then, even those bets were off, as the violin solo turned into a full-out cadenzaof enormous complexity. Batiashvili made this into a real tour-de-force. Did Schostakowitsch (who wrote the piece for David Oistrakh) really expect human violinists could play this? Batiashvili did. And when the cadenza finished, the orchestra joined back in at a level unheard before. The violin individualist had freed the masses.

After a standing ovation, Nézet-Séguin sat down at the piano on the side of the stage, and Batiashvili joined him for a Tschaikowsky romance, that lowered the tension going into the break. But after the intermission, the gloves came off again for a crazy Rachmaninov Third Symphony. Although it got its premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra have decided to champion it, it really is not one of the composer’s better works. But if anyone can do it, then this orchestra will at least make the case. The concert ended with another encore designed to bring down the tension: Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, highlighting the violins and woodwinds. Wonderful playing.

Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonie

Petrassi, Strauss, Tschaikowsky

I went to hear the Berlin Philharmonic perform in its natural environment. What an awful concert hall they play in. I did not realize. Besides the fact that it is just plain ugly, and way too big, the most important issues concern acoustics. When a small number of instruments play, or more of them play quietly, then the sound travels cleanly. But if multiple instruments are playing, especially with any volume at all, the sound turns to sludge.

So with the caveat that I could not hear them cleanly due to their lousy home hall, they sounded a bit better than they did in Vienna earlier this month, at least playing with some sense of emotion.  Gianandrea Noseda, an Italian currently based in Turin, made his first appearance with the Berliners. Although not in his bio, he would seem to be a protege of Valery Gergiev, given his dates both as an assistant at the Mariinsky and as principal guest in Rotterdam. The audience gave him a warm welcome.

The concert opened with a strange 1932 piece by Goffredo Petrassi, his Partita for Orchestra. This work tried to say everything and in the end said nothing. It had too much going on, with no clear style, and no clear direction (although three movements tried to make their own ways). The music was not unpleasant, it just had no point. Not even at least a nice melody, on one hand, or a new concept of composition, on the other.

It did allow the orchestra to warm up ahead of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, with soloist Camilla Nylund (subbing for an indisposed Angela Denoke). Nylund clearly had not had the benefit of the Petrassi warm up, so it took her until the middle of the second song before she came into full voice. Until then, she warbled. The solos in the orchestra were outstanding, but the dry acoustics in the hall made the bigger sections lose their shine. Nylund projected out cleanly in the final two songs, but probably would also benefit from a better venue.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned with Tschaikowsky’s Fourth Symphony. Noseda knew how to draw out the emotion, the anguish and the angst. The woodwinds were especially exceptional, particularly in their third-movement dialogue with pizzicato strings. The larger parts got muddled, hitting the ear as a blur. Fine playing, but a poor hall (then again, when they performed in the Musikverein, they did not sound so good – also a muddle in a hall with excellent acoustics). I am being hard on them, because they claim to be so good. But could it really be that the orchestra, though indeed good, may be the most over-rated orchestra on the planet?

Philadelphia Orchestra, Semperoper (Dresden)

Muhly, Grieg, Chopin, Tschaikowsky

The last time I visited Dresden, the city consisted of big empty areas with periodic piles of rubble. Presumably, the communists had wanted to remind everyone of what British and American bombers had done to the city in the Second World War, quite ignoring the ravages that Russia had inflicted. The city center remained virutally empty (I couldn’t even find a hotel, so only stayed for a day from an early morning arrival by train to a night train back out). The wrecked core was surrounded by hideous apartment blocks. In the midst, the Semperoper building had been rebuilt, but (as I was told tonight) only the exterior.

Today, I arrived in Dresden to find it unrecognizable. First of all, there is a city here. Some neighborhoods have modern buildings, while the core of the center has been rebuilt to look like it did before the War. Tourists throng the streets. City residents bask on the grassy lawns and beaches which appeared on the river banks. And the Semperoper, too, has reopened.

The Philadelphia Orchestra tested the hall tonight. The acoustics were clear, if possibly too radiant. The sound not only approached me from the stage, but from behind as well. The Orchestra said they were not always sure how the music was bouncing off the walls and coming back to them, and which to play with. So they guessed.

Their guesses were good beyond belief. Is this one of the top twenty orchestras in the world? Top ten? Top five? They certainly made a case for themselves tonight.

The concert opened with Mixed Messages by Nico Muhly, which had its world premiere by this orchestra earlier in the month. He says he does not write in any particular style, just music he would enjoy listening too. He has peripatetic tastes, although the fact that he composes music to match his tastes and not to shock makes him a big improvement on many contemporary composers. I’m not sure what original he had to say – Charles Ives said many of these things much better 100 years ago. But I’ll have another chance to hear this work on Tuesday and maybe I’ll find something. In the meantime, it gave the orchestra a good warm-up and a chance to test the acoustics in the hall before the other works.

There followed a passionate reading of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with soloist Jan Lisiecki. The Canadian Lisiecki, all of 20 years old, had an obvious rapport with his countryman, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and together they crafted magic with the orchestra. Lisiecki gave us a encore, of a Chopin Nocturn – the posthumous one famously played by Wladislaw Szpilman live on Polish radio at the time the Germans invaded, a performance he was therefore unable to complete for six years and unfathomable hardship. Lisiecki’s reading was pensive, moving, and restrained.

If the Grieg concerto was passionate, Piotr Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #5 was orgasmic. Nézet-Séguin nourished the dialogue among the instruments (and it certainly helps when every instrument in the dialogue is world-class and able to ascribe new meanings to well-heard phrases), and with a lilt here, an abrupt tempo change there, and still another tense moment relieved by wildness, he took Tschaikowsky’s pent-up romanticism and set it loose in the hall. If this interpretation had become any more intense, Tschaikowsky’s music would have morphed into Scriabin. I think I now understand how Scriabin, who did not come to the Moscow Conservatory until long after Tschaikowsky had stopped teaching there, could emerge from the same music school. The Tschaikowsky Fifth is a warhorse, all too often performed, but tonight I heard something I have never heard before.

The Dresden audience gave the orchestra a standing ovation. They pounded the floor with their feet. Curtain call after curtain call ensued, until Nézet-Séguin silenced the crowd and said thank you. But an encore was not forthcoming. The orchestra looked exhausted – and an 8:00 p.m. start time had not helped (concert finished close to 10:30, even without the encore) for a long European tour. The other oddity, of course, with such a start time is that restaurants in Dresden were mostly closed or had stopped serving by the time the concert ended. Very odd to schedule a late start time in a city that does not stay open especially late.

Arctic Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Aagard-Nilsen, Tartini, Lindberg, Tschaikowsky, Grieg

Trombonist / conductor / composer Christian Lindberg founded the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra in 2009, inspired by the Venezuelan maestro José Antonio Abreu (founder of “El Sistema”), who advocates social transformation through music.  The Arctic Philharmonic, based in a couple of Norwegian towns north of the Arctic Circle, recombines itself in different settings and combinations to flood the region with a variety of music.  This week they came to Salzburg – and tonight’s program looked the most promising in the schedule.  Indeed, it was a pleasant surprise – maybe I should have gone to more of their concerts this week (some overlap in the selections from day to day, but a good range).  I had assumed from the publicity that it was a student “Sistema” orchestra, and thought a bunch of concerts might be too many, but it’s a professional group I’d be pleased to hear again (although this was the final night this time through).

Lindberg is a somewhat famboyant character, and very expressive on the podium.  He clearly rehearses this orchestra well.  They played every note distinctly and with distinction.  At times this became a little too technical, and the tone was often a tad thin no matter the size of the group on stage (for the Tschaikowsky Fourth Symphony, for example, the big orchestra did not always have the fullness of sound to match).  But if the orchestra did not always make Tschaikowsky’s rhythms dance, or always reflect Tschaikowsky’s moods (although the first movement drew out the melancholy of Yevgeny Onyegin, composed around the same time), it did provide quite a spring during selections from Grieg’Peer Gynt music played as several encores.

The concert had opened with Boreas Sings, a 2012 work by Norwegian composer Torstein Aagard-Nilsen, inspired by the Aurora Borealis.  The piece never really went anywhere – it developed sounds in one direction, then morphed into something else, and morphed again, and again.  I suppose this is an accurate musical description of the Aurora Borealis (I’ve somehow never experienced it, unfortunately).

Other than the Grieg encores, the highlights of the night involved the outstanding young Venezuelan trumpeter Pacho Flores.  Lindberg first met him when he went to Venezuela to conduct Abreu’s orchestra, and then came across him again later, and decided he had to bring him on tour.  Flores did not dissappoint, and we got to experience plenty of his talent.

After the Aagard-Nilsen piece, Flores came out for Tartini’s Concerto for Trumpet and Strings, which was an arrangement of a violin concerto.  Tartini, born in the wonderful Venetian fishing village of Pirano (one of my favorite spots in modern-day Slovenia) had six fingers on his hands, enabling him to perform impossibly-difficult music on his violin – notably the “Devil’s Trill.”  In this case, he transcribed this impossible violin music to the trumpet, which should right there be even more impossible.  Flores made it sound effortless.  Maybe he has six tongues.  And in between the crazy outer movements, the slow inner movement came across as fine velvet, demonstrating Flores’ versatility.

This versatility came out again in the next work, Akbank Bunka, composed by the conductor Lindberg himself in 2004.  This piece never quite decided what style it wanted to be in, ranging from neo-Sibelius to neo-jazz.  No matter.  Flores handled it all.

For an encore, Flores came out with a flugelhorn and did a solo piece.  I have no idea what it was, but it sounded like he had taken a trumpet exercise book for students and then played it at record speed.  The ease he did this with was astonishing.  He then gave us another extended encore, accompanied by the orchestra – also no idea what it was, but it sounded like bad film music arranged for performance in a nightclub – no matter, since Flores could make this sound good too and demonstrate his versatility in the process.  In total, he played a range of styles several centuries apart using three different instruments.  The audience kept calling him back out for more bows, with the hope of getting more encores, but none of these were short and his lips may have fallen off.  Or maybe not, but that was all we got.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Sibelius, Nielsen, Tschaikowsky

While in Vienna to grab a few things before flying to the US, since I was leaving from Salzburg, I decided to grab a concert.

I have finally heard a piece by Carl Nielsen that I actually liked.  Nielsen took a ride over the Alps on a new-fangled automobile which apparently inspired him to write a flute concerto in a hurry.  Probably since there are so few flute concerti in the modern repertory, this allowed him more originality than trying to write more standard repertory, at which he usually took his time to produce spectacularly dull results.  This work had a degree of whimsy, with juxtaposed sounds – flute with several reeds, flute with tympani, and – most rewardingly – flute with trombone.  Marina Piccinini performed the solos, taking a little time to find her tone but once she got there she performed with warmth.  The Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Saraste gave her excellent balance and support.

The concert had opened rather more prosaically, with incidental music by Sibelius to Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelleas and Melisande.  The Sibelius incidental music for this play is rarely performed (particularly in contrast with that by Fauré or Schoenberg) – apparently for good reason, as it is not one of his better efforts.  The problem came in that the music was too short and detached to ever fully capture the drama.  Sibelius actually set nine pieces to music, of which Saraste picked three (At the Castle GateIntermezzo, and Melisande’s Death) – maybe they would have been better served if left in the context of all nine.

For the second half of the concert, Saraste and the Symphoniker gave a spirited reading of Tschaikowsky’s Fourth Symphony.  The brass sounded out the fate motive, and spent the rest of the symphony ambitiously trying to overcome that fate, while the rest of the orchestra resigned itself to melancholy.  While the final chords echoed triumpantly over the Russian dancing, this reading gave a more anguished triumph.  The Symphoniker sounds great, although Saraste is a tad wooden, fully proficient and getting the tone right, but not as dynamic as he could be.

Norddeutsche Philharmonie Rostock, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Khachaturian, Tschaikowsky, Brahms

The concert promoters mislabeled tonight’s concert as a “Russian” night, even though a piece by the Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian made up the first half of the program.  Perhaps the they did this to recognize Armenia recently joining the Eurasian Union as part of its gradual reincorporation into Russia.

The Norddeutsche Philharmonie Rostock performed in Salzburg’s Great Festival House under the baton of the Viennese conductor Florian Krumpöck, with young Austrian (from a village near Salzburg) violinist Christine-Maria Höller performing the solo for the Khachaturian Violin Concerto.  I do not think they understood this piece at all.  Möller’s playing was more mechanical than lyrical, and she never captured the wild Caucasian dance melodies.  She demonstrated fine tone and technique, just not feeling.  Krumpöck also allowed the orchestra to overwhelm her at times, with unsatisfying consequences.

Tschaikowsky’s Fifth Symphony came after the intermission.  Krumpöck did his best to capture the composer’s innate dancing, with lilting gestures on the podium, but the orchestra did not respond and failed to reflect those moods, generally playing with a lack of fluidity.  Not until the marching final movement did the orchestra respond – good Germans, I suppose: at least they know how to march.  Even so, this is supposed to be a melancholy march, and while rousing they did not capture Tschaikowsky’s depression.  Still, the main part of the concert ended on a strength.

For an encore, Krumpöck and the Rostock orchestra jumped into the Hungarian Dance #5 by Brahms.  Brahms the Germans understood: finally they danced.

Philharmonie Salzburg, Mozarteum

Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninov

They over-hyped tonight’s concert of the Philharmonie Salzburg in the Great Hall of the Mozarteum.  Or maybe I should not have gone to this concert so soon after returning from hearing both the Philharmoniker and the Symphoniker in Vienna this past weekend.  Still, the Philharmonie Salzburg sounds like a pretty good youth orchestra.

The announced conductor, Elisabeth Fuchs (the orchestra’s founder) did not appear (although she remains on the concert’s website, she was not in the program), and instead a 23-year-old cellist, Tobias Wögerer took the podium (after making his debut as a conductor in his native Linz earlier this year).  I suppose conductors have to start sometime and somewhere, so I will give him a pass.  He had a clear stick technique, but the orchestra did not always get it together.  In many respects, the orchestra did not blend as an orchestra, but rather each instrument and each line sounded exposed, a collection of musicians playing on stage at the same time (well, usually), but not necessarily together to form a coherent sound.  I do not know how much of this was attributable to Wögerer, how much to the mysteriously absent Fuchs who presumably rehearsed them, or how much to the youth of the musicians in the orchestra itself.  While an orchestra should be better than the sum of its parts, in this case the individual musicians were better and the orchestra was worse.

The concert opened with Tschaikowsky’Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, which Wögerer took at an unusually slow tempo, accentuating the drama.  While this worked for the opening sections, the orchestra did not hold together all the way through.

Russian pianist Nikolai Tokarev arrived on stage for Rachmaninov’Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  By the look of it, his luggage never arrived with him, as he did not dress for the concert, performing in jeans and an open-collared casual shirt.  Wögerer had the orchestra play everything staccato.  This had the interesting result of accentuating the natural staccato of the piano, but also made each attack more exposed if not everyone hit each note preceisely together (they did not).  Despite this attempt to play in a lively way, Tokarev lost interest somewhere along the way, and the entire piece became unusually dull.  Once the piece dragged on to its ultimate conclusion, Tokarev gave us for an encore a few more solo variations on the same Paganini theme, in a much more contemporary style.  I don’t know if some composer after Rachmaninov (but less talented) wrote these additional variations out, or if Tokarev simply improvised.  I suppose it did not matter.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned to perform Tschaikowsky’s  Symphony #6.  Again, it was rather unfortunate that whereas I bought tonight’s ticket a month ago, I got a last-minute ticket to hear the Philharmoniker perform this same work in the Musikverein last weekend.  Although I experienced the Philharmoniker from a seat in the midst of the percussion section, and therefore out of balance, these poor students tonight in no way could match the world’s best orchestra, and they did not.  As a youth orchestra, however, they were good – although, as noted earlier, they tended to perform individually as a group rather than always joining together for a common sound.  The audience was disproportionately young – the orchestra and Wögerer clearly invited all of their friends, so they got a rousing (deserved) applause.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Glinka, Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky

Sometimes tickets come available late for the subscription-only concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic.  I got one such ticket this afternoon, giving me a seat in the percussion section between the cymbals and the bass drum.  No kidding.  At least no Mahler was on the program, although my ears are still ringing a bit.

Semyon Bychkov took the podium for an all-Russian concert.  The chronically-ill Mikhail Glinka spent a Summer in Vienna, where he came for medical advice and to take the cure in Baden.  During his stay he met Johann Strauß (the father) and Joseph Lanner, who inspired him a few years later to try his hand at a waltz.  In a sense, Bychkov brought the Waltz-Fantasie home by having the Philharmoniker (not only the world’s best orchestra, but the world’s best waltz orchestra), perform it.

Kirill Gerstein joined the orchestra for the second piano concerto of Dmitri Schostakowitsch.  This is a tuneful work with a degree of charm, but written by Schostakowitsch during one of the many periods in his life when he was subject to artistic persecution.  While recognizably music by Schostakowitsch, it is perhaps less daring than it should be.  From my seat in the back of the orchestra, I also did not experience it as much of a concerto – the piano part seemed somewhat under-written and blended into the orchestral tones.  Gerstein gave a long solo encore to demonstrate his agility (I could not hear his announcement of what he played – it was not a showy piece, instead rather melancholic, but it did allow him to demonstrate versatility).

After the intermission came Pyotr Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #6.  Bychkov captured the composer’s depression.  While the orchestra carried off a flawless performace, I did not get the sense that I learned anything new from this reading.  However, I did learn some new things about cymbal technique.

Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Walton, Dvořák, Berlioz, Verdi, Tschaikowsky, Prokofiev

The Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra came to town today with a program of music inspired by Shakespeare in love.  The renowned Austrian actress Senta Berger introduced each selection with a mix of biographical information of Shakespeare (and his loves and loves lost), period history, readings from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets (mostly in German translation), literary commentary on Shakespearean double-entendre in English, and some stories of later generations inspired by Shakespeare.

This program concept was good, but they could have thought it through more fully.  There was nothing wrong with Berger’s reading, but the mish-mash of texts came across as disjointed.  She also made no effort to connect the readings to the music in the program.  For example, she could have dramatized the scenes set by the composers, or explained the music in the context of the selections – if these composers were inspired by Shakespeare, the link should be obvious.  Or multiple actors could have acted out the scenes.  And while she alluded to the big delay between Shakespeare’s death and when people started setting his work to music, she could have explained more (as it was, she just said that opera, a natural medium for Shakespearean drama, did not exist yet in his lifetime and so it would take some time – problem was that all but one of the musical selections had no connection to opera, so that could not explain the delay).

The Nuremberg Symphony, though perfectly competent, did not make up for this disjointedness.  The playing was workmanlike.  They hit most of the notes.  They concentrated so hard to do so, that the music came out with little emotion, which essentially defeated the purpose of this concert.  Young English conductor Alexander Shelley kept these forces together with a smile.

The concert opened with an arrangement of music by William Walton for the 1936 film of As You Like It starring Laurence Olivier and continued with Dvořák’s Concert Overture to Othello.  Both compositions, seldom heard, displayed drama (not always communicated by the orchestra).  A selection of music from Berlioz’s “Dramatic Symphony” Romeo and Julietwas not dramatic – at least not this selection and not with this orchestra.  The ballet music from the third act of Verdi‘s MacBeth (the one nod to opera) jumped out a little better, possibly because Berger had been rather raunchy in her introduction.  Tschaikowsky’Romeo and Juliet Fantasy could have fantasized more.  The encore, the fight scene (not a love scene) from Prokofiev’Romeo and Juliet ballet, actually allowed them to let it all loose.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra (Moscow Radio), Royal Festival Hall (London)

Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch, Elgar

I popped down to London to hear the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Fedoseyev perform in the Royal Festival Hall.  With this team, it is always a treat.  Fedoseyev has led the orchestra for forty years as of this year, so it is very much his instrument.

The instrument that opened the concert, though, belonged to violinist Vadim Repin.  Repin does not have a big tone, but he does have a beautiful one.  Fedoseyev had the orchestra provide him appropriately delicate backing in the Tschaikowsky Violin Concerto, not too robust as to overwhelm him.  Fedoseyev painted an overall picture using pastels rather than bold colors, colorful yet restrained.  Tschaikowsky might have appreciated more energy, however.

Where the Tschaikowsky Violin Concerto was light and sweet, the Schostakowitsch Symphony #8 after the intermission was dark and bitter.  I heard this symphony with the Tonkünstler a month ago, but it forms a more usual part of this orchestra’s repertory, and they knew how to dig into the soul.  The solo lines scattered among the industrialized music representing the faceless Soviet regime soared with great beauty.  Around them sounded devastation, Russia in rubble and its people under oppression.

The concert promoted the opening of the 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture, so the orchestra knew it had to warm the home crowd with some Elgar encores.  A strongly sentimental Nimrod from the Enigma Variations showed they could communicate the message.  The Pomp and Circumstance March #1 which concluded the set came across as a tad regimented and less academic, but nevertheless roused the crowd.  In between came a encore I did not recognize, which sounded like someone’s quite fun attempt at imitating Spanish music.  The audience reacted delightedly to the encores – I am not sure they understood the Russian works, however.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch, Dvořák

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra sounded both delicate and robust, in appropriate measures, as it navigated the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Tschaikowsky and the Ninth Symphony by Dvořák under the direction of Vassily Sinaiksy in the Konzerthaus this evening.  Sinaisky on the podium looked very much like the orchestra’s kind-hearted professor, engaging his orchestra fully, calling on individual instruments demonstratively, and peering studiously over the top of the reading spectacles perched upon the end of his nose, as he drew sound from the orchestra using his hands and without need of a baton.

Sinaisky, a conductor I had not previously heard of, was a stand-in for Neemi Järvi, who had taken ill.  It seems Sinaisky does not have any pressing engagements at the moment as he recently resigned as music director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater after a dispute with the new management (I suppose he could not have survived a few months longer for the management to completely change again).  The association with the Bolshoi, of course, sent up a red flag – there is probably no opera house in the world (outside Italy, of course) with so much political intrigue and thick mafia connections, surviving entirely on its reputation as having once been a world-class opera company.  In my time in Moscow, I discovered fully six opera venues in that city of superior quality to the once-proud and now farcical Bolshoi.

The Bolshoi has never recovered from firing Boris Pokrovsky as its chief over thirty years ago (Pokrovsky, perhaps one of the most intelligent opera directors of all time, had lasted three decades as the boss in that house and had personally seen to the maintainance of the house’s quality and tradition – rumor is that he allowed the theater to employ too many Jews for the government’s liking, and was fired when he refused to purge them).  On the other hand, Sinaisky would not be the first decent artist to think he might be the one to fix that hopeless theater after Pokrovsky’s ouster.  But Sinaisky failed, just like everyone else in the last thirty years, and now sits unemployed waiting for people like Järvi to get sick.

Tonight, the Symphoniker looked glad to have him, and he looked glad to have them too (certainly a far better orchestra than the band that sits in the Bolshoi’s pit).

Also on the program, coming between the other two works, was the Cello Concerto #1 by Schostakowitsch, which the composer wrote for his friend and fellow dissident Mstislav Rostropovich.  Intermixing humor and other-worldliness, this concerto is not easy on the cellist, who must get a broad range of sounds out of the instrument while maintaining a dialogue with the orchestra.  The Franco-German soloist Nicolas Altstaedt somehow got through it all intact.  But Altstaedt is not Rostropovich, and his sound lacked fullness, while his playing was labored to the point that he became completely out of breath, his wheezing projecting over the sound of his instrument.  The orchestra did its part, and Sinaisky did well to keep everything together, but the young Altstaedt might be advised to stick to simpler works at this stage of his career.

Tonkünstlerorchester, Musikverein

Tschaikowsky, Petrovski, Schostakowitsch

After he survived the Siege of Leningrad, and after the Red Army turned back the Germans at Stalingrad, the Russian government sent Dmitri Schostakowitsch off somewhere quiet to compose a new symphony.  The Communist officials expected him to produce a triumphant work, and he gave them something triumphant – just not in the way that they meant.  The Eighth Symphony is dark and not quite optimistic, showing that although Schostakowitsch was pleased his county had turned the tide against the enemy, that triumph in reality only represented the victory of one evil empire over another.  The score came out heavily mechanized, but contains wonderful solo lines throughout the orchestra, often showing great humor (if too often crushed).  The triumph here was not that of the Red Army, but rather of the human soul, able somehow to survive under oppression.  Even the citizens of eternally-dismal Russia deserve freedom and a voice.  The regime responded by banning performances of this symphony for over a decade.

Orchestras sometimes get wrapped up the the industrial machine that churns out this symphony, but in a good performance they savor their lines and produce the little individual expressions of dissent that Schostakowitsch cherished.  The Tonkünstler Orchestra managed that today in the Musikverein, under the controlled direction of Michail Jurowsky.  The elder Jurowsky, who continues to age and looked extremely pale, no longer possesses the vigor he used to, but communicated to the orchestra with dextrous contortions of his baton and expressive fingers.  If I am around, I happily seek out his annual appearances in Vienna with this orchestra.

Speaking of expressive fingers, Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski mastered Tschaikowsky’Piano Concerto in the first half of the concert, establishing a spirited dialogue with the orchestra.  As an encore, Trpčeski and the Tonkünstler’s concertmaster Alexander Gheorghiu, and the twinkles in their eyes, joined forces for a charming work by Macedonian composer Soni Petrovski, which sounded like a cross between jazz and Balkan Gypsy music, with a bit of Stravinsky thrown in for good measure.  What fun.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Rachmaninov, Tschaikowsky

Before tonight’s concert of the Armenian Philharmonic, the Italian Ambassador, on behalf of his country’s president, presented conductor Eduard Topchjan with the Order of Merit, making him a Cavaliere, bestowed for his services to music.  This honor he well deserved.

I had gotten sick of hearing this mediocre orchestra flail under guest conductors, and so the return of Topchjan meant an extra mark in the calendar.  The orchestra sounds remarkably different with Topchjan on the podium, and tonight’s concert showcased his ability to keep his orchestra in working order.  The concert actually began with an encore – I suppose, if Topchjan received an Italian knighthood, he needed to quickly program some Italian music in addition to the two Russian pieces already scheduled.  So he treated the ambassador to a spirited overture from I Vespri Siciliani by Verdi.

The scheduled portion of the program began with Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.  This concert actually marked the conclusion of the “Return Festival” (other than this concert, the Festival programmed mostly chamber music), in which Armenian-born stars who have settled elsewhere return to Armenia to perform.  Tonight’s piano soloist, Vag Papian, now based in Israel, began his international professional career as a conductor before settling in with the piano, and he at one point was the principal conductor of the Armenian Philharmonic in the late 1980s (succeeding Valery Gergiev).

Papian’s piano technique was curious – he set the bench rather high, and then hovered over the key-board as though he were short-sighted, bent over at 90 degrees with his nose practically jabbing at the tops of his fingers.  Papian handled the awful piano in the Khachaturian Hall by keeping his touch light, a softly-softly approach that hit all the notes without allowing too much of the tinny sound of this poor instrument to escape.  Topchjan kept the orchestra appropriately modulated, and an enraptured audience listened intently.  The strategy worked as well during the encore (which I could not identify), for solo piano and thus without any other instruments to cover if the piano should make its usual false noises.  Papian was rewarded by warm applause.

Oddly, half the audience did not return after the intermission for Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #4.  They missed a solid performance.  Despite a disastrous opening by the horns (especially sad, since the horns otherwise sounded great all night), Topchjan had the orchestra dancing its way through this exciting symphony, with an extra lilt in the second movement, some wonderfully-delicate play from the woodwinds in the third, and a boisterous brass finale.   Bravo, Maestro.

Armenian State Youth Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall

Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky

The first concert I ever attended in Yerevan was the Armenian State Youth Orchestra.  I had remembered that they were relatively good, compared with the adult Armenian Philharmonic, and tonight’s concert confirmed my recollection.

The Tschaikowsky Sixth Symphony allowed the orchestra to demonstrate its warm tones, which progressively heated up throughout.  The young conductor Sergey Smbatyan, who founded the orchestra in 2005 (when his father headed the Yerevan Conservatory), took the first two movements deliberately and probably too carefully, considering that the Orchestra could easily handle this music.  The third movement presto went to the other extreme, performed rather faster than normal, but at a pace that the Orchestra could keep.  The final movement brought everything together nicely.  Honestly, the adult orchestra does not manage to get this level of musicality, in tone, attack, and precision.  Smbatyan conducts without a baton, with his palms left open and facing downwards, almost as though he is petting the orchestra; yet his motions are clear and precise, and the Orchestra followed with no problem.  Currently based in London, Smbatyan has started to appear on more European orchestras’ radars.

The first half of the concert, offering Schostakowitsch’s First Violin Concerto, did not achieve the same level as the second half.  Smbatyan and the Orchestra tried, as did soloist Guy Braunstein, but something did not click.  Braunstein became the Berlin Philarmonic’s youngest-ever concertmaster in 2000 (when he was just 29) and retired at the end of last season in order to pursue a solo career.  During the two faster movements (second movement scherzo and fourth movement burlesque) he certainly demonstrated dexterity.  The slower movements (first movement nocturne and third movement passacaglia) did not offer him the same opportunities, and they emerged more workmanlike than thrilling, even though Schostakowitch’s typical chromatic games should have made them more fascinating.  The performance was not bad, and perhaps better than I had anticipated before the concert, until I discovered Braunstein’s bio during the intermission which caused me to re-evaluate.

I did not manage to find a program until the intermission (the students who were supposed to hand them out got lazy and stopped early, but they left the stash behind somewhere), so I got to listen to Braunstein before reading his biography.  As long as I thought he too was still a student (he certainly looked much younger than 42 – I am used to performers using old file photos for their program profiles but then looking older; seldom is it the other way around where the official photo makes the performer look older than in real life) I was more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt; after reading his biography, I was left wondering what went wrong.

Perhaps it came from insufficient rehearsal with this orchestra and conductor, but this was something I could not observe.  Although I had an excellent seat and got a good listen (undisturbed by the audience, which was small but well-behaved), I actually saw very little.  The concert was being filmed for television, and two large cameras with cameramen filled the middle aisle and blocked my view of a good part of the stage.  Different spotlights than usual were left on throughout the concert to illuminate the room, but two of them above and behind the orchestra were unfortunately directed straight into my eyes, so I could not observe very much (I mostly had to keep my eyes closed and just listened).  This means I could not see the interaction between Braunstein and Smbatyan, which might have given me more clues.  I may try to get that seat again for future concerts, though, just for the acoustics (they do not normally film concerts, so the partly-obstructed and partly-blinded view will not often repeat).