Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Weber, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Berlioz

I just spent a surprisingly unfulfilling evening with the Mozarteum Orchestra under music director Riccardo Minasi.  The orchestra actually sounded great… so I suppose I’ll need to blame the uninspiring mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich.

Aldrich appeared for two sets, closing both halves of the concert.  In the first part, she sang the Wesendonck Lieder of Richard Wagner.  Initially, her voice came out coarse, marking a contrast from the wonderful warmth of the orchestra.  She gradually settled into it, but never quite captured much of the emotion.  She closed the concert’s second half with the Death of Cleopatra by Hector Berlioz.  Now her voice was fully ready, but the songs dragged.  Part of this may be the songs themselves: Berlioz wrote them to conform to the expectations of a French jury in order to win a five-year stipend in Rome.  Since the French generally don’t seem to understand music (and had repeatedly rejected Berlioz before – he was probably far too creative and consistently talented a composer to be understood by his countrymen), I might mark this down to Berlioz intentionally writing dull music.  Might a better vocalist have done more with it?  Perhaps, but perhaps not.

The orchestral selections came out better.  The concert opened with two pieces by Carl Maria von Weber: the overture to his opera Euryanthe and the funeral march and overture he wrote for Schiller’s play Turandot.  I do not believe I had heard the second one before, but it was instantly recognizable since Hindemith wrote his famous variations on it.  The concert’s second half opened with The Hebrides by Felix Mendelssohn – if not quite as evocative as the performance I heard of this concert overture (more like a tone poem) by the Philadelphia Orchestra in October, the orchestra still gave us a treat with gorgeous solo lines rising from a full-bodied ensemble.  More of that and less of her next time, please.

Stadler Quartet, Salzburg Synagogue

Weinberg

The third evening of the Weinberg 100 Festival took place in the Salzburg Synagogue.  In one sense, this was an appropriate venue for music by someone whose tragic life was defined by his Jewish identity: the Nazis murdered Moishe Weinberg‘s family, the Soviets murdered his wife’s family, he was purged, and although he was saved through the intervention of Dmitri Schostakowitsch his music was suppressed in the Soviet Union and virtually unknown outside it – all because he was Jewish.  On the other hand, it is Shabbat, and attending a concert in an active synagogue on Shabbat just felt a bit odd (there are no Friday evening services in Salzburg, and never a minyan for Saturday morning, and maybe 30 or so Jews in the entire city none of whom is particularly religious, but it’s still an active synagogue).

Tonight’s concert of music by featured two quartets masterfully performed by the Stadler Quartet, sandwiching a trio for flute, viola, and harp.  Quartet #8 opened the evening – the same one the Stadler Quartet had included in a concert this past February. It began by piercing the soul with tragedy, moved on into some almost-klezmer inspired humor, which it then deconstructed.  The different lines moved along and returned in new places, intersecting each other.  Listening to Weinberg’s music requires intellectual gymnastics and an innate Jewish ability to combine humor with tragedy.

The Quartet #4 closed the evening.  Written in the closing months of the Second World War, Weinberg gave it a wartime program, depicting the approach of war, invasion, mourning, and ultimately happy memories of childhood and hope for a better future.  Schostakowitsch, who had in 1943 succeeded in bringing Weinberg from his exile in Tashkent to Moscow and had become the younger composer’s mentor, clearly inspired this war quartet.  But Weinberg gave it perhaps more devastation than even Schostakowitsch managed in his music (even considering that Schostakowitsch also had his snarky humor – Weinberg’s humor wasn’t snarky, through, it was more a coping mechanism to survive).  The Stadler Quartet experienced a little hiccup in the first movement, but by the time we got all the way through to the end of the piece it was forgotten.

In between the two quartets, Vera Klug (flute), Sarah Maria Dragovic (viola), and Ingeborg Weber (harp) performed the bizarre trio – composed much later, in 1979.  It partly struck me as having the same problematic as the quartet #12 that the Stadler Quartet played last night, which showed too much influence from lesser composers.  According to the introduction this evening, Weinberg drew inspiration for the opening of the trio from Debussy, and that may indeed be the explanation.  It was thankfully not as bad as anything by Debussy, but it was also not a substantial work, until the third movement.  The third movement clearly owed its inspiration to Mahler.  But Weinberg’s music is best when he charts his own course, and I am also not sure that with this particular three-instrument combination there is even much of a course to chart.  That said, Dragovic and Weber were quite good and facile with the difficult score.  Klug, on the flute, did not have a pleasant tone.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Bartók, Weber, Koncz, Kodály, Brahms

The Camarata Salzburg provided a thoroughly-enjoyable Hungarian-themed concert in the Mozarteum this evening at the Festival.  A tremendous chamber orchestra, they had a whole series of fascinating concerts that I had hoped to attend during the 2018-19 season but kept finding myself out of town and giving my tickets away (I made it only to the final concert in their season series, plus an extra concert dedicated to Leopold Mozart; for the 2019-20 season their concert series is notable for being completely and surprisingly uninteresting and I have bought no tickets at all).  When this concert appeared on the 2019 Festival program, I starred it as a potential Summer highlight.

Béla Bartók‘s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta made up the first half of the concert.  It was an experimental work, but showed Bartók at his most original – and also in his element.  Odd tonalities resolve into fully-lyrical swells.  Just as the Hungarian accent in German has a mysterious and enormous charm, so does this same charm apply to Hungarian music.  The young Swiss conductor Lorenzo Viotti had everything under perfect control, but radiated sympathy and a twinkle.  The audience roared its approval, with more curtain calls than are usual before an intermission when the orchestra will be returning for more anyway.

Carl Maria von Weber‘s Clarinet Concerto #1 would have seemed to be the odd-piece-out on the program, since it has no Hungarian connection.  But it was an experimental work by the composer for a newly-developed mechanism for this instrument.  The work made a splash in its time, but for some reason (maybe because it is extremely difficult) it rarely shows up on concert programs.  Andreas Ottensamer, principal clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic (younger brother of his counterpart with the Vienna Philharmonic, both sons of the late Vienna Philharmonic principal clarinetist who died in 2017) did the honors this evening, and hammed the work up to the fullest, dancing on stage and turning to various other orchestra members (and conductor Viotti), making eye contact and urging them on – indeed, he was practically as engaged as Viotti in leading the orchestra.

There followed a work written for Ottensamer in 2017: the Hungarian Fantasy on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber for clarinet and orchestra, by Stephan Koncz (an Austrian of Hungarian descent) which sprung from Weber’s opera Die Freischütz.  This had a feel of improvisation about it, although it was not improv, fitting perfectly with Ottensamer’s personality deriving from the Weber concerto (and hence the need to have that non-Hungarian work on the program).  As it got faster and faster, crazier and crazier, everyone went loose.  But with this soloist, this orchestra, and this conductor, they never lost control, and the audience almost started dancing the csárdás with them.

The final programmed work was a dance set: the Dances of Galánta by Zoltán Kodály.  If we were not dancing already with Koncz, we certainly were with Kodály.  This is actually lush music but with a heavy Hungarian lilt, composed in 1933 not from Kodály’s own folklore research but rather from music preserved in a Vienna library.  The orchestra supplied a Hungarian dance by Johannes Brahms as an encore.  The enthusiastic applause from the audience suggested there should be a standing ovation, but as these are rare people seemed hesitant at first until the dam broke and everyone stood.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Brahms, Weber, Beethoven

I accompanied my mother to a Friday afternoon Philadelphia Orchestra concert to hear how my hometown orchestra is doing.  For the first time, I sat in seats at the Kimmel Center that had good acoustics – the new hall (now not actually so new) has never impressed me.  My mother had decided that anyone making gifts in my father’s memory should make them to the Philadelphia Orchestra, a worthy and transparent recipient now recovering from years of absolutely dreadful management.

The orchestra sounded in great musical health under the baton of guest conductor Christoph von Dohnányi.  The clear and crisp sound had sufficient emotion to transmit the music, and provided a nice contrast to the last concert I attended with the gooey-sounding San Franciscans visiting Vienna.

The highlight of the concert, and perhaps of my entire musical year to date, came in the second piece, Weber’s Clarinet Concerto #1.  There is a reason this work receives few performances; it’s not a bad piece, but someone needs to perform it right, particularly the clarinet solos.  And prolonged music for solo clarinets could grate on the nerves.  Every so often, a special clarinetist comes along, such as Heinrich Joseph Baermann for whom Weber specifically wrote the work two centuries ago.  And today’s unrivaled clarinetist was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s own principal clarinet, Ricardo Morales.  I have never in my life heard a clarinet sound like that.  The tone was full and practically operatic, with all of the nuance of a singing voice; his instrument was not reedy or whiny but had a deep-textured wooden sound like a holy tribal flute invoking the heavans from a temple.  Apparently, he not only plays like this clarinet but constructs his instruments himself in order to perfect this tone.

The concert opened with Brahms’ “Haydn” Variations and concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony #7.  These works are justifiably popular, but to have a good concert requires performing with the warhorses rather than just going through the motions on their backs.  The strings had spring.  The winds added a warm tone.  Dohnányi maintained a justified balance, never too overbearing but never too restrained either.  The Philadelphians breathed.  They smiled.  They gleamed.  The music filled the hall and, for those two hours, brought us to a better place.

Presidential Orchestra of the Russian Federation, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Beethoven, Weber, Grieg

The Presidential Orchestra is the house orchestra of the Kremlin. Nothing special, just good music.

Concert included Beethoven’Egmont Overture, the overtures to Weber’s Freischütz and Oberon, and the Grieg Piano Concerto.  Anton Orlov conducted, Sergey Tarasov was the piano soloist. Tarasov was good.

After two concerts there, though, I’m not sure I care for the Tschaikowsky Hall. I find the Conservatory a much nicer venue.

The acoustics at the Tschaikowsky Hall are fine (neither especially good nor bad), and there are good sight-lines in the amphitheater layout. But the parterre is a little bit too sunken. Last night and today I sat in the lower amphitheater seats, behind the parterre, but even that was not very elevated. The result is that there is actually an obstructed view from most seats – the obstruction being the orchestra itself. To see over the first row of the orchestra, you need to be sitting in the upper amphitheater, which is actually quite some distance away from the stage.

Other quirks: totally inadequate cloakrooms, which are also laid out bizarrely so that the coat checker has to disappear into the back to find the coats and then re-emerge, which takes forever. They also bar the exits, so there is a huge bottleneck of people trying to leave (because of security, they make people enter through only two doors where they can inspect bags and wand suspicious people, but that is true in most venues in Moscow and not everyone arrives at the same time; other venues then open all the exits at the end of the performance so that everyone can get out at once, though). And they seem to hire people to read the program out loud before each piece – why have programs? This is just tiresome.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Weber, Mendelssohn, Offenbach, Prokofiev

I moved into the Musikverein for the day, for three concerts back-to-back-back in the Golden Hall.  The first featured the Wiener Symphoniker and Dmitri Kitayenko.

I had never seen Kitayenko conduct in person, but know him from some fine recordings.  But this was the second concert in a row with the Symphoniker that I was disappointed with.  They sound perfectly fine, but the Symphoniker is too good to sound “perfectly fine.”  Fedoseyev (who conducted them last week) and Kitayenko (today) are both excellent conductors, and there was an obvious rapport with the orchestra (I know they love Fedoseyev, and I’ve heard him conduct them before with great results).  So I wonder what is up with that orchestra at the moment.

The performance today opened with the Oberon Overture by Weber, followed by the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (a 29-year–old Russian violinist, Mikhail Ovrutsky, was the soloist).  As a pre-intermission encore, they performed Hoffmann’s Kleinsack song from Offenbach‘s Tales of Hoffmann (I have no idea who the unannounced tenor was or where they found him – tenors don’t usually just pop up and sing encores when they are not in the program; voice sounded a little strained, maybe from lack of warm-up, who knows?).

After the intermission, German actor Gert Voss read a very funny short story by Thomas Bernhard in memoriam for the 20th anniversary of his death.  Then came Prokofiev‘s Peter and the Wolf, narrated by another apparently famous German stage actor, Sunnyi Melles.  She was dramatic, but missed a few cues, and read strictly from the script rather than providing the embellishments that are usual with live performances.  I suspect she never rehearsed and may have been reading it for the first time.