jueves, septiembre 15, 2016

German Romanticism at the Sans Souci: Opìtz surprises again


            For decades one of the best features of our musical life has been the Fundación  Música de Cámara under the artistic direction of Guillermo Opitz. The veteran maestro is the last of the great German/Austrian  teachers, organisers and composers in the line of Guillermo Graetzer (founder of the Collegium Musicum), Erwin Leuchter,  Ernesto Epstein, and the Franzes (father and son). They have all brought to us their deep knowledge and have contributed essentially to the cultural maturing of several generations.

            The FMC programmes concerts in embassies and residences of quality, and among them an awaited and yearly venue is the marvelous Sans Souci Palace close to San Fernando, surely one of the most beautiful in Argentina, and surrounded by idyllic gardens and fountains. The place is of course used for special events, particularly marriages; its main hall hosts the FMC,  and for it Opitz presents each season a completely different and variegated programme combining singers and pianists that he has painstakingly trained during the preceding months. Granted, the acoustics are too resonant, but  the hall (including its lateral right wing) is always chockfull of enthusiastic music lovers and the ambience is unique in the warmth of young people giving their best under the impeccable guidance of Opitz.

            The maestro again surprised in the panorama he gave of German Romanticism with both vocal and instrumental pieces. Twelve composers, nineteen scores, seven singers and six players, in choices that not only completely avoid the hackneyed but dig out fascinating pieces probably in local premières, and stress  rare combinations; I have a fifty-year career as a reviewer, but half of what I heard was new to me.

            I don´t have the space to mention everything, but you´ll soon see why these concerts are true events. Louis Spohr is rarely heard nowadays, but his "German songs" for soprano, clarinet and piano are very attractive, and we heard them by fine artists: soprano Carolina Gómez has a brilliant lovely voice well used, Sofía Kujta is a clarinet talent and José Azar proved a fine accompanist throughout the evening. The Weber songs we heard were for voice and guitar, not piano, and revealed the warm timbre of bass Roman Modzelewski, able to sing softly in the high regions.

            The great Romantic Robert Schumann was present with rarely heard material: two pieces from the "Minnespiel" ("Love play") on Rückert texts: the first for mezzo and baritone, the second for vocal quartet. It allowed us to hear the fresh voices of soprano Valentina Merlo, mezzo Anahí Fernández Caballero and tenor Josué Miranda, the expressivity of baritone Gabriel Vacas and the clean articulation of  pianist Miranda Herrera. And a lively Piece for clarinet, viola and piano by Bruch let us meet the assured playing of violist Juan Manuel Castellanos (with Kujta and Azar).

            In the Second Part I enjoyed two Lieder by Strauss in which soprano Gómez was accurate and versatile, accompanied by Herrera with real comprehension of the composer´s innovative way of writing for the piano. One cavil: "Himmelsboten" ("Messengers from Heaven") should be sung by a man according to the text. And then, in the final three composers Opitz observed an old tradition of these concerts: a semistaging, in this case by Lizzie Waisse, due to the theatrical character of the chosen pieces.

            Peter Cornelius wrote a funny parody: "Der Tod des Verräters" ("The death of the traitor") in which three men in turn or combined sing "I die the death of a traitor", "You die...", "He dies...", etc., accusing each other by gestures. Miranda, Vacas and Modzelewski (with Herrera, the very professional pianist for all the final scores) communicated well.

             Carl Loewe is the admirable composer of lengthy ballads that should be better known; he has a personal voice, and the piano writing is difficult. But in this case we heard two charming duets on Goethe poems for soprano, contralto and piano from Op.104: "An Sami" ("To Sami") and "Die Freude" ("Joy"). Merlo and Fernández Caballero did very well in the rippling melismas of the second.

            To end the evening, the girls of Loewe and the boys of Cornelius sang together a "Kinderkonzert" ("Concert for kids") by the almost unknown Hermann Zilcher (1891-1948) in which everyone "plays" a different instrument. And they said goodbye with "For Eternity, amen!". Good clean fun and we went home elated.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Steuerman and Alegre: pianistic maturity and youthful exuberance

             One essential talent if you manage a concert institution is to show quick reflexes in case of an unexpected crisis. The Mozarteum Argentino has always shown that capacity, and the sudden intoxication of Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes , who had arrived to our city for two recitals, gave them just one day to find a suitable replacement; aided by luck and the good disposition of the artist, we had the presence of Brazilian pianist Jean Louis Steuerman, who not only saved the day but gave a quality programme with results that were quite good. The venue was, as usual, the Colón.

            On the one hand I regretted the absence of Andsnes, a distinguished artist who had visited us only once as soloist with the BBC Orchestra, and who promised several pieces of Sibelius, rarely heard here and beautiful; I do hope that he will be back in another season. On the other hand, Steuerman (whose names and surname make me think of an Alsatian rather than a Brazilian) is an artist of important trajectory, and in his sixties his style and technique are in full maturity. Years ago he played with our Philharmonic Rachmaninov´s First Concerto.

            His programme was made up of four masterpìeces of contrasting aesthetics. He started with Johann Sebastian Bach´s First Partita: he has been awarded the Diapason d´Or for his recording of the Six Partitas, and has recently recorded the Goldberg Variations, so he is recognised as an authoritative voice in Bach for piano. Mind you, there will always be two controversies: whether it should be played on the piano, as the originals are for harpsichord; and if they are, should players imitate the harpsichord.

            On the evidence of what we heard, Steuerman believes in the second variant; three examples: the limpid articulation without pedal; some chords played as arpeggios, as harpsichordists do to make the sound less dry; and the ornamentation of repeats, for in the Baroque, both in opera and instrumental music, the first time you play the music straight, but the second is ornamented to avoid monotony. Steuerman played with taste and knowledge, avoiding the full decibels of the modern piano.

            Then, the challenge of Beethoven´s Sonata Nº 30, one of the famous last three where the composer explores new roads constantly. Although I wasn´t quite convinced in the First movement, where the speed contrasts weren´t as natural as they can be and the light cascades of sound should have been more poetic, the Prestissimo was firmly met, and the theme with variations of the last movement was impeccable.

            The Six little pieces for piano, Op.19, by Arnold Schönberg, are little jewels of atonal Expressionism of great historic importance, and Steuerman proved to be in complete empathy with the language (he has recorded the complete Schönberg piano scores). Curiously, Edward Steuermann (two "ns") studied composition with Schönberg and premièred all the composer´s piano works.

            And then, Chopin´s great Third Sonata, tackled by Steuerman with  a sense of form often distorted by colleagues that opt for ultra-Romantic interpretations: he gave us the music as written, with no exaggeration. The First movement had all the necessary emphasis of its varied moods, the Scherzo was airy and light, and if the Largo felt a bit monotonous, it always does: there´s too much repetition; the breathless Finale is a tour de force and in it Steuerman showed his controlled virtuosity.

            More Chopin in the encores: a charming Mazurka, and a "Minute Waltz" where he took the nickname too literally; it benefits by a less hectic tempo.

            Two weeks ago the 2016 cycle of Chopiniana, the piano institution led by Martha Noguera, started its season at the Palacio Paz (Círculo Militar) with a recital by Luis Ascot which unfortunately collided with the Mahler Third Symphony by Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic, but the second concert had no such problem and I was there. The Palacio is undergoing some changes and the first floor hall that was used for the concerts is now a restaurant, so we were back (as some years ago) at the lavish oval hall in the ground floor: attractive visually with its marbles and fine decoration, typical of the early Twentieth-Century, but too resonant.

            Tomás Alegre is only 24 and has been studying with Nelson Goerner at Geneva with a scholarship. His programme was short but difficult: Beethoven´s Sonata Nº 21, "Waldstein", and Rachmaninov´s Second Sonata, presumably in its revised version of 1931. Nº 21 may be the most energetic of Beethoven´s sonatas with a first movement that is relentless in its brilliance and intensity; after the pause of the slow movement, the third starts with serene feeling but soon piles up tremendous problems of coordination, magnified in the long Prestissimo coda. I believe that there is merit in virtuosity, and Alegre certainly has privileged fingers; however, he sometimes relaxed the basic pulse and the marked slowing downs ("ritenuti") were much slower than necessary and with silences that were too long.

            Alegre was in his element in Rachmaninov´s powerhouse of a sonata, with its ample rhetorics; of course the composer was also the best Russian pianist and he wrote it for himself. The young Argentine attacked it fearlessly with total command, showing the solidity of his training.

            The encores were quite good: the splendid Brahms Intermezzo Op.118 Nº1 and a typical Piazzolla in skillful piano transcription.

For Buenos Aires Herald

The Juvenil San Martín sparkles in Benzecry and Sibelius

             As readers know, the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional José de San Martín is having an important season. The concert they offered last Sunday morning at the Blue Whale confirms it.  It had attractive traits on paper, and they became reality at the hands of Venezuelan clarinetist Valdemar Rodríguez and conductor Pablo Boggiano. And the programme was enticing: the première of Esteban Benzecry´s Concerto for clarinet, and Sibelius´ marvelous First Symphony.

            Boggiano studied with Mario Benzecry, founder of the Juvenil, and at the Catholic University. He went on to Europe where he had several teachers, especially the Finnish Jorma Panula.  He made an early debut at 18 in BA, and in Europe has had vast activity in Bosnia, Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine. But Vienna and other Austrian cities are. his principal working ground. He also conducted in Slovakia and with a first-rate orchestra in London: the Royal Philharmonic. And since 2010 he is invited by our National Symphony.

            Esteban Benzecry is Argentine (son of Mario); he has carved a place for himself in Paris with his personal style based on a mixture of Latin-American roots with contemporary procedures, specially emphasizing orchestral variety. The Pasdeloup Orchestra is playing this season no less than eight of his works! But some of his scores have been heard in BA, so we know what to expect.

            A clarinet concerto generally has little to do with the telluric; his is an exception, and the titles of the movements are the evidence: "Ecos del Horizonte", "Danzas Volcánicas", "Baguala Enigmática" and "Toccata caribeña". The orchestra is rather big with lots of percussion featuring typically American instruments. The Concerto starts with an introspective clarinet solo and has a big slow cadenza in the middle of the final hectic Toccata.  There is an influence of the Ginastera of such scores as "Cantata para la América mágica" or "Popol Vuh", but Benzecry has something of his own to say and by now has a thorough command of his craft.  Although there are colorful and loud episodes, the clarinet is never swamped, and the music feels American and modern.

            Rodríguez has an impressive curriculum; among his teachers were no less than Gervase de Peyer and Guy Deplus. Apart from  an intense concert life as First Desk of the famous Simón Bolívar Orchestra and as soloist, plus chamber music, he is also a distinguished teacher (Director General of the Bolívar Conservatory). Here he premièred the original version for clarinet "di bassetto" (lower than the normal one) of Mozart´s Clarinet Concerto.

            Predictably, his playing was impeccable in every sense: a master of his art. And Boggiano (after a correct Overture to Mozart´s "The Marriage of Figaro") showed his mettle with a clear and intense interpretation; the orchestra collaborated with full concentration.

            The Second Part was pure pleasure: Sibelius´ is among the very best First Symphonies in History, along with Brahms, Shostakovich , Prokofiev and Mahler. Written in 1899, the same year of "Finlandia", when at 34 his technical command was quite mature, it is personal from the very beginning and maintains  tension, variety and fresh imagination throughout its almost 40 minutes. I don´t believe in Tchaikovsky´s influence: Sibelius had a style of his own and is a major figure in the evolution of the symphony.

              This is quite a challenge for a conductor, and Boggiano showed he is ready: the speeds were logical, there was contrast and cohesion, admirable playing particularly from the brass and the tympani, and that sense of desolate drama that can only be Nordic, but also energy and excitement. An enthralling trip into a unique sound world.

            A final comment: if you sit around the tenth row the acoustics are much better than farther upstairs, where stridency appears.

For Buenos Aires Herald

The Colón Ballet Gala: renovated repertoire and great dancing

            Every year during recent seasons the Colón does in late August or early September an international Ballet Gala and it always combines it with a ballet of the Colón repertoire. The choices have mostly been very conservative, and it was time for a degree of renovation.

            This time Maximiliano Guerra chose well the Colón Ballet presentation: an attractive Nacho Duato ballet seen in June, "Por vos muero", reviewed for the Herald: Renaissance Spanish music selected by Jordi Savall and played by his group plus texts by Garcilaso de la Vega spoken by Miguel Bosé. Beautiful music and fine stylisation of old Spanish dances with attractive staging. And thirteen Colón dancers, mostly quite young and very able, in a kaleidoscope of groups and duets.

            The basic idea of Maximiliano Guerra, the Colón Ballet´s Director, was to ask famous companies to send couples in representative pieces of their repertoire, instead of calling on dancers picked by Guerra. That was the procedure except in one special case: the return of that magical "étoile", Alessandra Ferri, to the theatre where she danced often in memorable performances, particularly the Prokofiev/MacMillan complete "Romeo and Juliet" with Julio Bocca, certainly a unique experience for any ballet lover. And with her partner since she came back to the stage after a six-year sabbatical: Herman Cornejo; we saw both in the intimate "Chéri" at the Maipo. (You probably read days ago the detailed articles by Cristiana Visan on this fascinating conjunction of artists).    

            The guests started with two artists from the Hamburg Ballet, ruled for decades by John Neumeier, a prolific choreographer born in 1942 and author of more than a hundred ballets. Anna Laudere, born 1983 in Latvia, and Edvin Revazov, an Ucranian of the same age, gave us two samples of Neumeier´s creativity. First, a rather disconcerting updating of "Hamlet" premièred in 1985 and revised in 1997, using music by Michael Tippett (two "ts", not one as in the hand programme). What we saw was Ophelia´s goodbye to Hamlet, for he is going away to study. But frankly, I would never have guessed that the awkward encounter was between these characters unless I was told.

            By the way, Tippett´s music is unfortunately rarely played here; the piece we heard was the 1954 "Divertimento on Sellinger´s Round" for chamber orchestra. Two points: all the music of the gala was recorded ; some with good sound, others with gritty, noisy reproduction. And no information was given about the works; biographies of the artists, yes.

            Laudere and Revazov were equally at home in this curious "Hamlet" and in the expressive view of the choreographer on "The Lady of the Camelias"; the "Pas de Deux Blanc" from Act II has Chopin´s Largo from Piano Sonata Nº3 as the meditative background. Laudere showed flexibility in portraying that declining moment of the protagonist´s life, with her whole body seeming to lose all strength. And Revazov supported her with sensibility and dramatic presence.

            Marianela Núñez is the Argentine  "prima ballerina" of the London Royal Ballet and will shortly be Tatiana in "Onieguin". Partnered by the Colón´s Alejandro Parente, she danced the Pas de deux of the  White Swan (Odette) from Tchaikovsky´s "Swan Lake", changing the announced "Black Swan" Pas de deux, certainly because in the Second Part she danced the "Tchaikovsky Pas de deux" by Balanchine, which uses music for the Black Swan (Odile) that wasn´t used in the 1877 première; discovered in the Bolshoi archives in 1953, Balanchine asked permission to do a ballet on it, and it was granted.  She was admirable in both, her pure classical technique and noble demeanor ideal for Odette  and the added variety on the Black Swan interpretation distinguishing Odile´s character. Parente´s Prince is basically a porteur, but the Prince is much more active in Act III, in which we appreciated the command and style of the Italian Federico Bonelli, also from the Royal Ballet.

            Elisa Badenes, Spanish, and Pablo von Sternenfels (Mexican of German descent) were brilliant interpreters of a Pas de deux from the funny and energetic ballet concocted by John Cranko on Shakespeare´s "The Taming of the Shrew" (Domenico Scarlatti sonatas much altered by Kurt-Heinz Stolze). Both have the humor and command of their body to solve the pirouettes of their amorous duel. They come from the Stuttgart Ballet, ruled by Cranko for decades until his early death.

            The Paris Opera Ballet sent the Pas de Deux from Nureyev´s vision of Prokofiev´s "Cinderella" danced by Laura Hecquet and Mathieu Ganio. They are accomplished dancers but –dare I say it- I found the choreography rather pale, and the music sounded harsh in a bad recording, when it is in fact very poetic.

            Ending both  parts, Ferri and Cornejo did two contrasting pieces. "Rhapsody" is an Ashton ballet on Rachmaninov´s "Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini"; we saw a solo by Cornejo showing his splendid technique (he is First Dancer at the American Ballet Theatre) and then a duet with Ferri, in which the 53-year-old ballerina showed the same remarkable resilience of Fonteyn or Plisetskaya at similar ages. Finally, "Le Parc", on Mozart´s marvelous Adagio from Piano concerto Nº 23, is Angelin Preljocaj´s body contact duet, almost without formal steps, culminating in a kiss in which Ferri girated wildly until she seemed to be flying. Her plasticity and expressiveness found an ideal partner in Cornejo.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Mozart´s controversial comedy “Così fan tutte” at the Argentino


            The quirky opera season at the Argentino offers only four titles and just two are repertoire: Puccini´s "La Boheme" and Mozart´s "Così fan tutte", currently on stage. The other two are Andriessen´s "De materie", not an opera (reviewed on the Herald), and Benjamin and Crimp´s "Written on skin", to be premièred in October. This reflects the tastes of Martín Bauer, the new Director (who programmes Colón Contemporáneo), but has little to do with the Argentino´s tradition.

            "Così fan tutte" was presented with two valuable casts; though I had to choose the second due to collisions with important events in Buenos Aires, I feel that both are on a very professional level. But before I go on to analyze this latest revival, it is important to know that, unlike the other Da Ponte librettos made into operas, "Le Nozze di Figaro" and "Don Giovanni", "Così fan tutte" was strongly controversial for more than a century and was gradually appreciated only in the Twentieth Century, thanks to Mahler, Richard Strauss (both as conductors) and Fritz Busch, who with his Glyndebourne Festival revival produced by Carl Ebert finally launched the success that had been elusive for so long. And it was this combination (Busch-Ebert) that finally brought it to the Colón in 1934. 

            The story of why this opera came into being is paradoxical, for it was the Emperor Josef II who indicated the subject to Da Ponte, hoping that the cynical comedy would have some influence on what he considered to be the promiscuous Viennese girls. It wasn´t Mozart´s choice, but the music he composed is wonderful and its sharp characterisation completely agrees with the details of the plot. Unfortunately, the opera was premièred in January 1790 just a week before the Emperor´s death; the ensuing Court Mourning cut off all performances.

            This is still a Rococo entertainment, but six months before the French Revolution had begun when the Bastille was taken: as Hans Redlich wrote, "audiences began to crave for lofty sentiments, political ideals and romantic moods". The key character is Don Alfonso, an old skeptical philosopher who doesn´t believe in fidelity and challenges two officers (Ferrando and Guglielmo) that in just 24 hours their paramours Fiordiligi and Dorabella will be unfaithful: the officers must maskerade as Albanian gentlemen who, seconded by Don Alfonso and the libertine maid Despina, will try to seduce the ladies (who are Ferrarese but live in Naples). Sure enough, it eventually happens, the masks fall down, the ladies repent and all ends happily.

            The main problem of the staging is the suspension of disbelief: the officers must be made up in such a way that they won´t be recognisable; and the most buffo problem is that Despina disguises herself as a Doctor and a Notary, and there´s no way to make it believable. So this opera must be taken  by the audience as an unrealistic farce and a strong attack on fidelity. As our society has plenty of free love practitioners, "Così fan tutte" is even mild nowadays.

            It tollerates much better than the two other Mozart-Da Ponte works the transposition to another time, though it can be done very well according to the original libretto: I have seen about 17 different stagings and most of them respected the late 18th century indications. For even in cynical terms, some aspects can´t be changed. But at least, a coffee bar, a room and a garden are easily modernised.

            Producer Rubén Schuchmacher put the action in the 1950s. The best thing was the stage design of Jorge Ferrari; functional and pleasant, in seconds it changed from room to garden.  He also did the costumes: the girls´  were alright, but the presumed Albanian gentlemen looked like punks. The disguised men were very recognisable, their faces hardly changed. Schuchmacher did a grievous mistake: he added ridiculous lateral hip movements in many scenes, not only gross but completely crashing with Mozart´s refinement. But the singers were agilely moved. Reasonable lighting by Gonzalo Córdova.

            The musical side was very good. Rubén Dubrovsky is an Argentine that is having a brilliant career in Vienna, particularly in the Baroque repertoire, though he is equally at home in Classicism. It was a positive decision to bring him over as conductor of this "Così...". He showed positive command, good tempi and taste; the Orchestra played well for him, except some horn mistakes in Fiordiligi´s Rondo "Per pietà". However, I question the total inclusion of the recitatives; I have always heard them with some cuts, even in recordings, for some of the stuff isn´t necessary for the narration and it lengthens the opera with uninteresting music. On the other hand, he included for the first time in my experience the charming "duettino" of the officers "Al fato dan legge".

            The two sisters were admirable: Daniela Tabernig (Fiordiligi) and Florencia Machado (Dorabella) sang their duets in perfect blend and their arias with fine vocality and style. Cecilia Pastawski was a pert and accurate Despina. The men were also satisfactory. Santiago Bürgi sang Ferrando with a firm line, including the rarely done "Tradito, schernito". Alejandro Spies, who has generally sung premières of old and new operas, this time was given the chance to do Mozart, and he did so with accomplishment. And Luciano Miotto again proved to be a master of buffo style. All acted well.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Triumphant return of Krzysztof Penderecki at the Blue Whale

            An old friend of our city came back after a long period and got an ovation at the packed Blue Whale of the CCK: Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, aged 82. In the Seventies two scores of his made a vivid impression here: the Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, and the St.Luke Passion (conducted by Henryk Czyz, and unfortunately not played since). Later Penderecki came here in several seasons conducting his own works, and in one visit with a Hamburg orchestra, the standard repertoire. He became a respected and admired artist in Buenos Aires.

             Along with Witold Lutoslawski, Penderecki was clearly at the head of the astonishing Polish composers of the period after World War II. Having gone through terrible experiences during the war, they and many others found the sounds for a new era. They did it in parallel to the great film makers led by Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Roman Polanski,  who  communicated the transformation of an injured society in unforgettable images.

            Unfortunately the hand programmes of the National Symphony contain no information on the scores, which is unfair to both the audience and the composer. So I did some research. Picture the young years of Penderecki after his musical studies at Cracovia (Poland´s most lovely city) during the Iron Curtain. Even in those years the Occidental avantgarde creeped in, and Penderecki knew Stockhausen, Nono and Boulez. After having a traditional musical education, he decided to experiment with sound and soon he was producing some of the most radical and imaginative works of what an analyst called "Sonorism":  "Fluorescences", "Polymorphia", "De Natura Sonoris" I and II, represented his position at the time; he wrote in 1962: "all I´m interested is liberating sound beyond all tradition".

            But by the time he was forty he felt differently, and when he was a professor at the Yale School of Music (the same institution that was illustrated decades before by the presence of no less than Hindemith) he said: "This experimentation and formal speculation is more destructive than constructive. I was saved from the avantgarde snare of formalism by a return to tradition". How curious that he should attack Occident for formalism, the same grave fault according to the Soviets of  composers that were very different indeed from the avantgardists: Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

            My own idea is that, after being genuinely innovative, he didn´t burn the past as others did but incorporated it, for our present is the summing up of all our pasts. And he felt, as others did, that you can give a personal stamp to tonal music. Indeed, Penderecki´s music of all his styles is intense, dramatic and searching. When tonal it has  plenty of dissonant climaxes, and  dense, complicated textures.

            But his experimental music obviously touched a nerve, for such film makers as Kubrick, Lynch and Scorsese used it. And the later Penderecki wrote the music for the tremendous Wajda film on Katyn, the Soviet massacre of Polish officers. The composer´s ability to create dramatic music shows in his operas "The Devils of Loudun" (on witchcraft) and "Ubu Rex" (premièred at the Colón in 2004), an antecedent of surrealism and the theater of the absurd.

            The results of his new views on music showed on many fields. Penderecki is a devout Catholic and has written many important works apart from the mentioned Passion (Magnificat, Stabat Mater, etc.). But he has been equally prolific in writing concerti and symphonies, and that´s the field he showed in this visit.

            He started with the Adagio movement from his Third Symphony, in the arrangement he made for strings. The score has several other movements. The Adagio is very tonal and shows a perfect command of textures. It lasts ten minutes and grows gradually to a potent climax before subsiding into calmer fields.

            The Concerto grosso is  a sui generis work written for three cellos and big orchestra, a combination I´ve never heard before. Baroque Concerti grossi are generally for two violins, cello and string ensemble, and Stravinsky´s Neoclassic one is for strings and short. Instead,  Penderecki wrote six movements all joined to each other and in contrasting speeds, where the three cellos combine their phrases but find themselves in dialogue with multiple soloists from the orchestra: violin, viola, cello, bass, winds. The contrapunctal writing is masterly and the variety of colors fascinates. It was admirably played by Eduardo Vasallo, Jorge Pérez Tedesco and José Araujo. Vasallo was a guest for although he is Argentine he has been first cello of the Birmingham Symphony since 1989.  The National Symphony collaborated with great concentration and good solos and Penderecki showed that at 82 he maintains his fine control as conductor.

             He has written eight symphonies by now, although the Sixth is still in progress. The Fourth is named "Adagio", for that is the principal tempo, but it contrasts with two long faster movements (II, Più animato; IV, Allegro). The five movements again form a continuous block, 35 minutes of coherent and powerful music in which I felt a Shostakovich influence though with Penderecki´s personal character. Three trumpets were placed far from the orchestra at the entrance of the hall and gave intense interventions with the main orchestra, of continuous variety of moods and colors.

            The orchestra responded well to the composer´s firm indications. Welcome back, Krysztof Penderecki premièring his own creations.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Première of operas on Puss-in-Boots and the nymph Calisto


            The variegated and enormous history of opera provided two very different premières last week-end. In the context of the Colón´s project "My first opera" (Mi primera ópera) within the wider idea of "Let´s go to the Colón" (Vamos al Colón) there was a  performance of "El gato con botas" ("Puss-in-boots"), an hour-long creation of Xavier Montsalvatge on the Charles Perrault tale. And La Plata´s Argentino recuperated an interesting project that was interrupted several years ago, the Ópera Estudio, and chose a very interesting item by Francesco Cavalli, "La Calisto".

            "El gato con botas" started badly: the 4 p.m. show started an hour late, with families getting wet in a rainy day and many fleeing to the Petit Colón café to pass the time in pleasanter ambience.  As an elderly reviewer I was a fly in the ointment for I was surrounded by kids and parents, and of course the normal code of behavior in opera had changed...a lot. For we are in the age of permissiveness and there was plenty of uncomfortable behavior,

             This undisciplined crowd, to be fair, was enthusiast with the singers and gave them quite an ovation at the end. The experienced artists generally sing adult opera, but they got into the spirit of the story and communicated easily with the crowd. Will they go to the opera when they grow up? That´s a moot question: opera for kids has been offered during decades, especially by Konex, but the audiences still have a great majority of grey heads. 

             "El gato con botas" is agreeable but it has some flaws. First, the libretto by Néstor Luján is written in rather complex Spanish and with too many metaphors. Second, the Perrault story has some bad values hardly edifying for kids: the cat steals, the King extols war, the ogre praises drunkenness, and the Miller´s conversion into the Marquis of Carabas is a hoax. In fact, the cat is a good example of the "piola porteño".  And the music isn´t always as bubbly as the action requires; particularly the interludes are mostly slow and quiet.   

             It got an impressive production presented once at the Colón but twice in other theatres for school children.. The stage design by Verónica Cámara was colorful and imaginative, with witty technical effects and perfect aesthetics for kids. And it was certainly well complemented by the video animation of Natalio Ríos. The stage movements by María Armanini were generally adequate although the mouse transformation of the Ogre was botched. Good costumes by Estella Maris López and lighting by Rubén Conde.

            The cast was dominated by the splendid voice and funny acting of Guadalupe Barrientos, a convincing cat although without the "physique du rôle". The doddering  King of Salvador Trupía was paradoxically  sung with great power. The Ogre of Cristian De Marco wasn´t helped by poor makeup but he sang well. Laura Polverini was a nice Princess; Nazareth Aufe (Miller-Marquis-Prince) was weak in the low range but good in the highs; his acting needed more pep.  Five lady dancers from the Colón did their own charming choreography as Rabbits and helpers of the Chamberlain (Mike Amigorena, mimed role). And César Bustamante got correct results out of the 16 practiced players.

            Back in 1970 the Colón presented for the first time in BA an opera by Francesco Cavalli (1602-76), the best Italian opera composer after Monteverdi´s death (1643). From 1639 to 1669 he wrote 42 operas; 28 are extant. "L´Ormindo" (1644) proved to be a beautiful opera, fresh, fast and ingenious, in the Leppard version. But as far as I know, that was that: no more Cavalli since then!  I saw a very funny DVD of "La Calisto". The latter was the choice at La Plata.

            The librettist is the same as in "L´Ormindo": Giovanni Faustini. Venice was a very liberal city, and that´s why the plot of "La Calisto" was accepted by a society that was licentious. It is based on Ovid´s "Metamorphoses" and its mythological Roman-Greek story has sex of all kinds to the fore: hetero, homo, lesbian, bisexual. Jupiter-Zeus made Juno-Hera the most cuckolded wife on earth; but being a god he could impregnate earthly women in the most fantastic ways: as golden rain with Danae, as a swan with Leda, or giving himself the looks of another goddess, Diana, and seducing the nymph Calisto. There are subplots involving Endymion, Mercury, Pan, Linfea (servant of Diana), Satirino and Silvano (Pan´s acolytes and lovers).

            The music flows irresistibly, full of character and melody. The best thing was the historicist ten-member ensemble led admirably by Manuel de Olaso. Both Rocío Arbizu (Diana) and Constanza Díaz Falú (Calisto) were fully in command, and the young voices of Felipe Carelli (Mercury) and Mauricio Meren (Silvano) are quite promising. Gabriel Carasso (Jupiter) sang well in his normal baritone range, but went over the top as "Diana". The others were on a lower level: Esteban Manzano, Lucas Villalba, Cintia Verna , Fernando Ursino and Stefania Cap.

            "La Calisto" was offered in the Sala Piazzolla, which has a small stage. Pablo Foladori´s production was irritating due to basic mistakes: supertitles that could hardly be read; Jupiter and Mercury very ungodly in modern uniforms; silly typewriters and constant pointing of guns. However, apart from a profusion of kisses, the rhythm of the action was fast and at least spared us the exhibition of bottoms and breasts.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Sixth Ars Ballet Gala brought stunning Momix dancers

            By now the annual Ars Ballet Galas at the Coliseo are as much a fixture as the rival Gala of the Colón, which will be seen eight days later. Ars is a society formed by Martín Boschet, Liana Vinacur and Diego Radivoy. From the start they have striven to give a balance between the traditional ballets and the contemporary dances, and have invited for the first time many artists of value coming from widely spread companies and aesthetics. And they have always included some Argentine dancers either living here or abroad.

             Each Gala has left some outstanding  memories. This year two Momix dancers and a free-lance artist with the pseudonym of Lil Buck were the most stimulating, plus the inventive multimedia choreographies of David Middendorp.

            Decades ago our city received visits of a fascinating group called Pilobolus. Its founder and choreographer was Moses Pendleton, and he concocted exhilarating shows of great speed and precision as well as healthy humor. In 1980 he created Momix, a company of illusionist dance (it is thus defined in the hand programme), and it is still going strong.

            Apparently Momix holds a special attraction for its dancers, as they tend to stay for many years. Such is the case of the two that came here: Steven Ezra Marshall entered the company at 18 in 2003; and Rebecca Joy Rasmussen is there since 2006. Both are exceptional artists, as they revealed in duets from"Tuu" and "Dream Catcher". Pendleton works with other choreographers: Tin Acito and Solveig Olsen in the first, Craig Berman and Brian Sanders in the second. Pop music accompanies both.

            In "Tuu" both bodies are in close contact for several minutes and assume different shapes giving the illusion of abstract forms; the millimetric coordination and physical condition were astonishing. In "Dream Catcher" they mimetize with a geometrically complex sculpture (by Alan Boeding); they constantly interact with it with perilous climbs, at the end throwing it from one end of the stage to another with uncanny exactitude. Beautiful and intriguing.

            Lil Buck is really Charles Riley, a 28-year-old Chicagoan who has created a sui generis sort of street dancing. He doesn´t belong to any group. He has an incredible muscular control and his whole body seems to ripple. And he uses big white sneakers with which he performs prodigies of feet elasticity. Naturally he is his own choreographer (no one else does what he does). I don´t know what "Brostjour" means but that´s the name of his solo in the First Part, with completely monotonous cello music by Olafur Arnalds.

            In  the Second Part we saw a strange hybrid: the famous Saint-Saëns "Death of the Swan" where one sees the (uncredited) Fokin choreography (with some changes) by Carolina Basualdo (from Bahía Blanca´s Ballet del Sur) interspersed with Lil Buck´s own version; the final thirty seconds are danced by both, each with a different choreography. I felt it was more a curiosity than a viable alternative, but it isn´t a parody, like last year´s Trockadero spoof. Good dancing by Basualdo, and in the only live performance of the evening, fine playing by cellist Lucas Caballero, accompanied by pianist Joaquín Panisse.

            And now, the Middendorp choreographies, both danced well by Violet Broersma and Antonino Milazzo: on  unattractive pop music, the intense duets "Blue Journey" and "Flyland 2" got an extra dimension with admirable multimedia projections combining aerial dancing  with imaginative elements from nature or geometrical forms , giving dynamism  to the images.

            Lucio Vidal is an Argentine dancer who worked with Nacho Duato in Madrid, and now the choreographer has invited him to be a member of Duato´s new post, the Staatsballett Berlin. Vidal´s personality has no affinity with traditional ballet, as he showed in Duato´s "Herrumbre" ("Rust"), a tense duet with Japanese dancer Kayoko Everhart (from the Compañía Nacional de España, run by Duato during a long period, 1990 to 2010). Although I disliked the music (Pedro Alcalde, Sergio Caballero and David Darling), the piece has impact and the dancers responded with solid command and contemporary awareness (though the presumed connexion with the Atocha massacre escaped me).

            Vidal is his own choreographer on a solo, "Alien", on grating music by Mikey Woodbridge, with video projections. Unremittingly harsh, the dancer is strongly expressive and reflects  the current disconcerted Europe.

            Two Colón artists, Gabriela Alberti, danced (in inverted order of what the hand programme said; no one announced it) the adagio Pas de Deux from Tchaikovsky´s "Swan Lake" (the Prince merely assists the Swan, interpreted with excellent technique) and a curious tango by Piazzolla, "Quicho", where the star is the bass (homage to Quicho Díaz); the artists did well in the adequate Julio López choreography.

            The "Carmen" Pas de Deux (Bizet arranged by Shchedrin) comes from the famous Alberto Alonso choreography in which Plisetskaya shone; based on the Flower Aria, it isn´t the best fragment and was routinely danced by Adiarys Almeida (from the Cuban Alicia Alonso technique) and Joseph Gatti (from the Orlando Ballet).

            Finally, two hoary and celebrated Petipa items: the lovely Second Act Pas de Deux from Adam´s "Giselle", poetically danced by Julieta Paul (of the Teatro Argentino) and Matthew Golding, a tall Canadian of the Royal Ballet. And the spectacular Trio from "The Corsair" (music by Adam and Drigo), where Almeida and Gatti were very good and Golding a bit less.  

            A  Gala with plenty of renovation.

For Buenos Aires Herald






domingo, agosto 28, 2016

The unique case of the De Raco piano dynasty


            You may remember that last year I reviewed a film called "La calle de los pianistas" ("The pianists´ street") about the particular relationship of a family of pianists who live in Brussels next door to Martha Argerich´s house. It centered on the dialogues of a mother, Karin Lechner, and her daughter, Natasha Binder, plus interventions of the teenager´s uncle, Sergio Tiempo, and of Argerich. All of them are inhabited by music and the piano, and have been so since they were almost babies.

            Let me introduce some personal notes, for  their past mingled with mine in two periods.  This is the dynasty founded by Antonio De Raco, one of our best pianists, and Elizabeth Westerkamp, pianist and teacher and still alive at 102. They had two children and one of them was Lyl De Raco, a talented pianist who oriented her life to teaching of a special kind: children, including her own. When she was eighteen she had a friendship with my sister and played at our Pleyel.

            Afterwards she married Jorge Lechner, an admirable pianist who was an important repetiteur at the Colón, and their daughter was Karin. Antonio De Raco then lived at the same Palermo building of my mother, and Karin was about seven when she became inseparable with my niece, who lived with my mother; forty years later they are still close friends.

            Lechner had an untimely death, and Lyl remarried, with the diplomat Martín Tiempo (son of the writer César Tiempo). He was posted to Venezuela, and it was there that Sergio Tiempo was born. And of course, he too was a pianist. And then Karin grew and married; Natasha Binder was born and followed the same road as her mother, grandmother and uncle. And Lyl took Natasha as a special pupil.

            Karin and Sergio, either separately or together, made frequent tours to BA. And then came the surprise: Natasha Binder, nine years old, inaugurated seven seasons ago the BA Phil´s subscription series with Grieg´s Concerto, amazing the audience. Now she is sixteen and her career is launched.

            Enrique Arturo Diemecke, in his twelfth year as Principal Conductor of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, had the idea of giving all five Beethoven piano concerti with different pianists. Two veterans played Nº 1 (Philippe Entremont) and Nº4 (Bruno Gelber). And in the Colón concert of August 25 we heard Nº2 with Binder, Nº3 with Tiempo and Nº5 with Lechner.

            For some reason the half-brothers interchanged concerti, for Sergio was supposed to play Nº5 and Karin Nº3 ; Diemecke announced it.

            This concert was an interesting experience, for it allowed the public to appreciate three Beethovenian compositional styles, but also because three players of formidable technical ability and of the same family gave very diverse readings.

            As the aforementioned film makes clear, there´s great love between mother and daughter, but Natasha has strong temperament and in the final analysis, although she hears the wise counsel of Lyl and Karin, she plays what she feels. By the way, Nº 2 is a favorite of Argerich and she played it last year with Barenboim. Contrary to what many say, it has little influence of Mozart and is already unmistakeably Beethoven, although it was written when he was in his late teens (the big cadenza was certainly added much later; it is in the dramatic style of  the "Pathetic Sonata").

            Natasha was firmly in charge fron the very beginning, with clean strong playing, perhaps too assertive but always musical. She managed the cadenza with bravura. The slow movement was sensitive, with delicacy of touch. But I differ with her very fast tempo for the final Rondo, marked Molto Allegro, not Presto as she played it. With so much speed the music lacks air and the orchestra has a hard time.

            Sergio Tiempo has immense technical ease and shines with authors like Liszt, Ravel or Prokofiev,  but his very modern and idiosyncratic ways go against the grain of Beethoven´s requirements. Yes, Nº3 is dramatic and powerful, but not willful, and that´s what we heard: a constant adding of extemporaneous accents, rushing, disregarding the score. He calmed down in the slow movement, where he showed his fine toucher. It was an oasis before the final Rondo; after leaving no space between second and third movements (ugly harmonic clash),  a headlong run, dazzling but empty.

            It remained for Karin to put things right and she did, in a beautifully balanced and played Nº5 ("Emperor"), scrupulously faithful to the score and immaculate. She even gave a perfect  reading of the strange galloping rhythm of the final Rondo. In fact, her Fifth has my vote as the best performance of the whole cycle.

            Diemecke adapted himself to the contrasting styles of the performers and conducted solidly the extensive orchestral introductions, notwithstanding some poor solo playing (e.g., the bassoon).

            It is a curious thing that Karin and Sergio have very different styles playing separately, but are completely unanimous when they give two-piano programmes. Both look much younger and have a playful disposition. It was a nice idea to give us as an encore, along with Natasha,   four-hand Ravel: "Les entretiens de la belle et la bête" ("The conversations of beauty and beast") from "Ma Mère l´Oye" ("Mother Goose"), displacing each other from the stool in a funny way, for all three played in turns, and beautifully.

For Buenos Aires Herald


Mahler´s enormous Third Symphony crowns Israel Phil´s visit

             Readers know already the magnificent results of the rentrée concert at the Colón of the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. The same programme was repeated last Tuesday at La Plata´s Argentino with huge success. For that theatre it was a very special event, for they hadn´t received such a high-powered combination since 1923, when no less than Richard Strauss and the Vienna Philharmonic were there.

            I have partial information about a closed benefit concert presumably on Monday, which included a rare and difficult work: Schumann´s Concert Piece for four horns and orchestra.

            Apparently both conductor and orchestra are tireless, for in their second concert at the Colón for the Abono Verde (Green Subscription Series) they tackled no less than Gustav Mahler´s enormous (95 minutes) Third Symphony. Mehta brought along mezzosoprano Lioba Braun (debut) but the session was possible because the Colón contributed the women section of its Resident Choir (Fabián Martínez) and the Children Choir (César Bustamante).

            By the way, it is a curious circumstance that no less than four concerts of the Abono Verde happened in August, and two of them in consecutive days: Lang Lang and Jonas Kaufmann. And I have to mention that the best tickets were very costly, equivalent to about 300 dollars; the current economic situation makes such prices almost prohibitive, and even if they were famous artists, it showed in empty seats.

            And now to the Mahler Third. It was an audacious act by Gregor Fitelberg to première it in the early Thirties at the Colón, for the Mahler enthusiasm was forged in the Fifties worldwide thanks to the LP (long playing) record. My generation owes it to our great Mahlerian Pedro Calderón to have heard the whole lot, even the Tenth completed by Deryck Cooke. In 1973 Calderón and myself programmed the Buenos Aires Phil´s cycle, ad referendum of Artistic Director Antonio Pini; the conductor proposed to exhume the Third to launch the cycle, I agreed and Pini took the still audacious plunge: it was a complete success and the battle was won.

            Calderón repeated it in 2011 with the National Symphony and last year Rettig did it with the same orchestra. Franz-Paul Decker also conducted it in his almost complete cycle with the BA Phil. But no foreign orchestra ever ventured it here until now. And with all the undoubted merits of the previous occasions, we had the most radiant Third that BA has heard live.

            The Third was never recorded before the LP era: too long for the 78rpm times. Charles Adler had the privilege of the first recording in 1951, and after him, a cataract of 28 recordings up to 2000  (that´s as far as my RER catalogue goes) from most of the great conductors, including Mehta with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1978).

            So all Mahlerian aficionados know it well by now, but its complexity leads to less frequent programming than others such Ns. 1, 4, 5 and 9. Mahler was a Summer composer; for the rest of the year he was one of the main conductors of his era. The continuous contact with orchestras allowed him to invent new textures, and in fact as an orchestrator his only rival was Richard Strauss.

            The period that goes from 1890 to 1910 is the last stretch of Postromanticism, gigantic and harmonically advanced. For Mahler, each symphony was a world, and in the Third his ambition was to reflect the world of Nature in seven movements; eventually he decided to postpone the seventh; he used it as the closing song of his Fourth Symphony.

            The first Movement is problematic due to its inordinate length (about 35 minutes) and loose construction, and –as all his symphonies- it includes a funeral march (he had a fixation with death). But that is contrasted with the very affirmative initial melody played by the massed horns; later two elements are essential: a solemn trombone solo and turbulently joyful music. Mehta followed scrupulously every instruction of the score; he doesn´t hurry the morose passages but knows how to grade the climaxes so that they seem the natural issue. In the impeccable playing two things are worth remarking: the clean unanimity of the horns and the admirable trombonist (Nir Erez).

            The lovely Second movement, Tempo di menuetto, in fact has plenty of variety in its rhythms and is supposed to portray the flowers. The phrasing and playing was simply exquisite. The Third is one of those inimitable Mahler scherzi of immense resource; its Trio is a long posthorn melody similar to the Carnival of Venice. I don´t think we heard a posthorn but the offstage trumpeter played pianissimo with the utmost delicacy and beauty.

            The Fourth incorporates the mezzo voice in a typical Nietzsche text, the slow and metaphysic "Night Song". The Fifth is the world of angels and bells; bim-bam sing the kids whilst the women give us  "Three angels sang" (poem from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn") interrupted by the mezzo evoking Peter´s remorse and Christ´s pardon. Lioba Braun sang well though her timbre isn´t the most alluring, and both choirs did nicely.

            But it is the sublime last movement that stays in the memory, for it concerns the love of God. The music is slow, noble and moving , gradually coming to an intense final climax. Mehta was masterful and the orchestra responded with total concentration. A memorable end to a great experience.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Gluck´s “Orpheus and Eurydice”: Juventus presents sad travesty

            Some operas have changed musical history: Christoph Willibald Gluck´s "Orfeo ed Euridice" is one of them. Born in 1714, his operatic career started in typical Italian form following the Metastasio model of "opera seria" based on myth or ancient history: recitatives and florid arias generally sung by castrati and sopranos; almost no duets or choirs or ensembles. From 1741 to 1760 he wrote 22. And from 1755 to 1761 a series of nine French comedy operas mainly for Schönbrunn, in a very different style from the Italian ones.

            So when we arrive to 1762 he had already created 32 operas in the two predominant styles of those times. He was 48 years old, a mature man.  It´s worth mentioning that in 1761 he had composed an astonishing "ballet d´action", "Don Juan" , scenario by Angiolini based on Molière, with very dramatic music  in the scene where Don Juan  falls to Hell. This showed that the right literary stimulus could change Gluck´s music, and in fact it was the poet Raniero Calzabigi´s libretto on the old Greek myth that compelled the musician to write differently.

            Indeed there are basic changes: the melodies in the arias are simple but expressive, with little ornament; there´s a lot of choral writing; and the "recitativo secco" (only with harpsichord) is substituted with the "accompagnato" of strings. The opera is short in three succinct acts, not overlong as many "opere serie" were. There´s a French influence in the inclusion of dances. But Orfeo is still a contralto castrato, not a tenor.

            Of course the Orphic myth was essential  when opera was invented by the Camerata Fiorentina: Jacopo Peri´s "Euridice", dated 1600, is the first opera that survived those seminal birth years. And Claudio Monteverdi´s "La favola d´Orfeo" (1607, Mantova), was a giant step forward.

            Gluck´s "Orfeo..." was called a reform opera, but he came back to Metastasio´s model several times. However, his "Orfeo..." had an impact, even if most composers followed the old model, and in 1767 Calzabigi spurred him on and the composer wrote "Alceste" for Vienna, going far beyond the reforms of "Orfeo...". As Gluck wrote in the preface: "I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression  and by following the situations of the story".

            And then, from 1774 to 1779, came his period in Paris, where he succeeded Rameau as the greatest creator of French tragic operas, including an adaptation by Moline of Calzabigi´s "Orfeo...". There Orfeo is a tenor, and some wonderful pieces are added: the Dance of the Furies (derived from the closing pages of "Don Juan") and the beautiful Eurydice aria, "Cet asile aimable et tranquille", plus an expansion of the dances in the final Tableau.

             Berlioz adapted in 1859 the tenor part to the contralto voice of Pauline Viardot, and a new tradition began. This transposition soon was used also for the Italian version. In fact, many recordings have opted for this change (e.g., Horne with Solti), until more recently historicism tried something else: a countertenor substituting for the castrato. But baritones (Bacquier in BA, Fischer-Dieskau on records) have also sung the part, attracted by its serene beauty. The numerous recordings still list more contraltos than countertenors, and at the Colón from 1924 to 1953 sang contraltos or mezzos; then, Bacquier in 1966 and mezzo Zimmermann in 1977. But in 2009 Franco Fagioli sang the countertenor version at the Coliseo, where the Colón did its season.

            And this brings me to the musical side of the current presentation of "Orfeo..." at the Avenida by Juventus Lyrica, for they opted also for a countertenor, Martín Oro. Eurydice has always been sung by sopranos, and Amor is a light soprano,  also as usual. The 37-member historicist orchestra conducted by Hernán Schvartzman was very good; it included a cornetto and chalumeau (an early clarinet). Although Oro sang unevenly, with hooty highs, he knows the style; as Maria Goso (Eurydice) showed great improvement compared to her Merry Widow and Victoria Gaeta was sprightly and accurate, and furthermore the Choir under Hernán Sánchez Arteaga was enthusiastic, we seemed to have the makings of a correct evening, but it wasn´t so. A poor version, far too fast, of the famous "Che farò senza Euridice", didn´t help.

             Again the culprit was the production, for María Jaunarena had an unfortunate wrong concept. Instead of respecting Calzabigi and Gluck, she invented an ugly transposition to current times. At the start, Orfeo composes helped by a violin. Eurydice salutes him, goes out; a screech and crash: she is dead. Then a medical team attempts to revive a naked girl quite unlike Goso, to no avail, whilst heavy pseudomedical data is both yelled and projected, interfering the brilliant Gluck Overture.

            And then, the opera starts, interrupted many times, for Jaunarena has incorporated orphic texts and writings on the Orpheus myth, mostly recited by  Oreste Valente in clear Italian, plus several men and women; a particularly tasteless frequent parading of the dead girl was irritating. About twenty minutes of the music are ruined, and as several dances are cut (presumably to spend less), not much was left to be enjoyed.  The costumes by Jaunarena are nondescript, and both the lighting and stage designs of Gonzalo Córdova were negative. When you can´t recognize an opera looking at the stage something is  seriously amiss. And it was.

For Buenos Aires Herald

80th anniversary of Mehta and Israel Phil finds them in full form


            Zubin Mehta was recently eighty-years-old. His father Mehli Mehta was the founder of the Bombay Symphony and gave Zubin his first training, but he was promptly sent to Vienna to study with the famous Hans Swarowsky. Mehta soon won competitions in Liverpool and Tanglewood, and at the incredible age of 25 he had conducted the Philharmonics of Vienna, Berlin and Israel!

            Well, just one year after (in 1962) he was in BA conducting the Orchestra of Radio Nacional and that of Amigos de la Música; with the latter he included no less than Schönberg´s First Chamber Symphony. It would be the beginning of the enormous amount of visits we had from him, certainly the most assiduous of the great conductors. He had already been named head of the Montreal Symphony (1961-7) and of the Los Angeles Symphony (1962-78).

            In quick succession he became musical director of the Israel Philharmonic (1977) and the New York Philharmonic (1978-1990). From then on  he came innumerable times with the Israel and several with the New York. From 1985 to next year will have been his tenure at the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, which he also brought to BA.

            One aspect of his intense life didn´t reach us: his strong connexion to opera, both at the MMF and from 1998 to 2006 Musical Director of the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). And of the mediatic connection as conductor of open-air concerts by the Three Tenors (Domingo, Pavarotti, Carreras). A gigantic career with special emphasis on Israel, as he is conductor for life of the Israel Phil.  In recent years he has been interested in promoting young talents at the Bombay Mehli Mehta Musical Foundation and at the Tel Aviv Buchmann-Mehta Music School.

            And now, the other important anniversary, that of the Israel Phil. It was created in 1936 by Bronislaw Huberman and no less than Toscanini conducted the first concert. Surely an act of faith in a then not existing country prior to WW II; after it there were the turbulent times of the creation of the State of Israel and the orchestra stood fast, always accompanying the growth of an identity and building up a reputation as one of the great orchestras of the world. I witnessed in 1972 a splendid concert at the modern Tel Aviv Mann Auditorium  (very good acoustics) in a memorable combination of Claudio Abbado and Isaac Stern.

             The players were admirable then, and generations after, with the influx of Jewish Russians but also of young Israelis, they keep their high standards and show love and discipline to their longtime Principal Conductor, now seconded during the season by the talented Gianandrea Noseda.

            Mehta has always shown a proclivity for the Late Romantic repertoire and the Impressionists, for in them an orchestra can fully show a variety of colors and textures, and the conductor has  a sharp perception of such music. Also, he has a dynamic and  strong personality that communicates enthusiasm to the players. But Mehta also adds a sense of form, a clarity of gesture that makes complex pieces transparent. He may not have been as attuned to the early German-Austrian School as to Tchaikovsky or Ravel or Strauss, but he has generally stuck to what he does best. In recent decades he has shown a growing interest in Mahler (I remember a memorable Second).

            At 80 he looks much younger and the stamina is still there, though with more controlled gestures. And the memory is still perfect. What he did in this concert was magisterial and he chose a programme that fits him ideally. More serene but with no loss of control or intensity, he brought to us the joyful "Carnival" Overture by Dvorák, the Second Suite of Ravel´s "Daphnis and Chloe" and Richard Strauss´ tremendous "A Hero´s Life" ("Ein Heldenleben").

            Dvorák´s lust for life and exuberance makes this Overture a favorite, and it has a contrasting nostalgic melody. In fact it is the first of three contrasting overtures that form a beautiful cycle; the others, much less done but quite interesting, are "In the Reign of Nature" and "Othello".

            The "Daphnis" Suite is the absolute masterpiece of Impressionism, almost a miracle, and has often been done wonderfully in BA during the last half century. We can now add that of Mehta and the Israel players. The marvelous subtlety of dynamics and color, the virtuoso solo playing (Yossi Arnheim), the dionysiac final dance, were memorable. And I recall Mehta conducting the same piece with the Vienna Philharmonic in February 1964 with as great a comprehension and control as now!

            I know that "Ein Heldenleben" (1898) will always find its detractors for it is an egocentric act: the hero is Strauss... But it is also a 46-minute marvel of six connected fragments of sustained inspiration and orchestral science, fantastically orchestrated and with a command of intricate counterpoint with no paragon. It is a thing of beauty as well as a testimony of enormous intelligence. Mehta´s version was among the best I ever heard live. The long violin solos of Ilya Konovalov were ideal, and so was the last dialogue between him and horn player James Madison Cox. And the cohesion and precision of the whole with no loss of impact deeply moved me.

            Two encores, Dvorák´s Slavonic Dance Op.46 Nº 8, and Mozart´s Overture for "The Marriage of Figaro", ended  an unforgettable evening.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Tosca: success of Marcelo Álvarez in long-awaited return

            This "Tosca" isn´t one more: Marcelo Álvarez was back after 19 years; in his Colón debut he had sung very well the  Duke of Mantua in "Rigoletto". He  had been flanked by Sumi Jo and Leo Nucci; also there was the revelation of Erwin Schrott as Monterone! And then, no more: our tenor, born in Córdoba, developed a splendid career in Europe and the USA, but no Colón Director either showed interest or managed to come to terms with Álvarez. 

            I won´t speculate about the reasons of this sorry state of affairs; Álvarez is an international star and demands to be treated as one. He says that he called Lopérfido and found him receptive. He is now 54 and feels that he is at the top of his form; he hopes to make the Colón one of his favorite theatres along with the Met and the Covent Garden.

            There are further reasons to welcome this "Tosca": foremost, that it is the first decent international cast in an Italian repertoire opera in a long time. In other words, one that could be seen in the mentioned houses, where they have that privilege very often. So it is one step (just one!) in the uphill recuperation of the Colón´s prestige.

            The other main reason is the homage to Roberto Oswald: his longtime collaborators, Aníbal Lápiz and Christian Prego, have presented with great care the production that had been seen in 1992, 1993, 1998 and 2003, with some changes along the way. For in these sad days to see a production that respects the libretto is a rare pleasure after so many disasters. The costumes designed by Lápiz are admirable and fully in accord with the Rome of the early Nineteenth Century. And the Te Deum that closes the First Act is stunning.  

            "Tosca" must happen in the places specified by librettrists Illica and Giacosa; First Act, the Church Sant´Andrea della Valle; Second, the Farnese Palace; Third, Terrace of the Castel Sant´Angelo. Oswald´s conception of the Church is very beautiful and well distributed; the only reservation is that the supposed painting looks like a fresco. The Farnese is impeccable and functional. But the Castel as imagined by Oswald, dominated by a spectacular statue, doesn´t have a nook in the wall that should serve for Tosca´s suicide jump, as has been traditional.  The solution he initially found wasn´t liked by the audience: breaking with the realistic style of all the rest, she didn´t  jump and a luminous halo surrounded her. On the following season he found an alternative, the one we saw now: she jumps, yes, but into a big hole on the terrace.

            And a final reason for the interest of this "Tosca" was the debut of an important Dutch soprano: Eva-Maria Westbroek. She sings Wagner, Puccini, Shostakovich, Janácek, Berlioz, Verdi, Strauss, in all the great theatres and with major conductors.

            How did this "Tosca" come out in its first performance (Gran Abono) on a Saturday? First the singers.

            Obviously this was a very special day for Marcelo Álvarez. He has measured up to big challenges during all these years and feels quite sure of his means, but there was a surcharge of emotion being in front of the Colón audience after so many years. However, he is a seasoned professional and showed no hesitation.

            First Act: he took no chances: his singing was extrovert, his gestures were expansive. The voice sounded firm and healthy, the musical phrasing attempted no subtleties. The good applause after his aria was reassuring.. Second Act: his Cavaradossi grew in intensity and there were some interesting details; e.g., after his frank attack on "Vittoria!" he had the stamina for the following denunciation of tyrants. Third Act: a very good "E lucevan le stelle" (great applause) and a duet with Tosca where he knew how to subdue his voice and find the soft shades that enrich an interpretation. He had won the battle. A personal reaction: I don´t find his timbre distinctive in the sense of being easily recognisable, as happens with Domingo or Björling or Pavarotti.

            Westbroek: I knew her from DVDs in which the big voice and strong presence made an impact. The same factors were there in her live performance of Tosca, but she was more uneven than I remembered: too much vibrato at certain points, and particularly two high notes that went awry (especially in that dangerous attack on "Io quella lama" when she narrates how she killed. It raised eyebrows of preoccupation as to her current vocal condition. But make no mistake, she is an artist of quality.

            There was another Álvarez, Carlos, the efficient Spanish baritone that had sung Iago with Cura some years ago. His Scarpia was well sung and acted though short on volume and dramatic projection.

            The seasoned Sacristan of Luis Gaeta was as good as ever; Mario de Salvo was correct as the fugitive Angelotti; Sergio Spina was properly slimy as the bailiff Spoletta; and there were fine voices even for Sciarrone (Fernando Grassi) and the Jailer (Carlos Esquivel). Julieta Unrein sang prettily as the offstage Shepherdess.

            Carlos Vieu conducted with the firmness and knowledge that make of him a guarantee of style; the Orchestra responded well, and both Choirs (adults and children) sang with ease and character.

            There will be a promising second cast with Eiko Senda, Enrique Folger and Fabián Veloz.

For Buenos Aires Herald