lunes, mayo 15, 2017

Monteverdi´s ·The Coronation of Poppea”: music respected, wrong staging


            A new way of telling stories with music was born in Florence in 1597, when the Camerata Fiorentina went back to Greek mythology  in a "Dafne" with music by Peri, unfortunately lost, but in 1600 both Peri and Caccini wrote an  "Euridice", and these are extant; they are mostly recitative and words dominate the music. But Claudio Monteverdi showed the right way in 1607 with his "La favola d´Orfeo" for the Court of Mantua (on the same subject but giving pride of place to Orfeo rather than Euridice): "notable advances both in dramatic characterization and in musical form" (Willi Apel).

             Monteverdi moved to Venice and it was there that in 1637 opened the first opera house, Teatro San Cassiano: now what had been a courtly entertainment was seen by the common people. The composer, equally adept in sacred and profane music, went in his  life (1567-1643) from the Late Renaissance to the Early Baroque, or as he said, from the "prima prattica" to the "seconda prattica". Unfortunately no less than ten of his operas were lost, and only two (apart from "Orfeo" and the admirable fragment of "Arianna": the "Lamento") survived, and were written in his final years: "Il ritorno d´Ulisse in patria" (1641) and "L´incoronazione di Poppea" (1642). It´s a good thing that all three have been staged in Buenos Aires.

            There was no edition of "Poppea" but two manuscripts have come to us: the Venitian at the Biblioteca Marciana, and the Neapolitan, at the Conservatory San Pietro a Majella; they have considerable differences. "Poppea" is recognised as a great masterpiece. There were editions in the Twentieth Century by the likes of specialists like D´Indy, Malipiero, Krenek and Redlich.

            It was premièred in Buenos Aires at the Asociación Cultural de Conciertos, Grand Splendid, 1927, and the Colón presented it in 1938 conducted by no less than Tullio Serafin. My first experience was in 1965, when Bruno Bartoletti presented an honorable performance with a certain degree of historicism, but the Colón touched greatness with the 1996 performances led by René Jacobs, staged by Gilbert Deflo, and sung by a distinguished cast. Then, Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL) had the merit of giving a stylish staging by Rita de Letteriis and a very decent musical realisation at the Avenida in 2006.

            There are admirable recordings led by Leppard, Harnoncourt, Jacobs, Gardiner and Hickox, and it´s interesting to observe that both in them and in stagings seen in BA  some roles have been sung  by different types of voice: Nero by tenor or mezzo, Arnalta by tenor or mezzo or contralto, Ottone by countertenor or mezzo or baritone. Granted, that sort of problem is typical of the Baroque, but more  of later stages of that period when castrati reigned, nowadays replaced generally by countertenors (I don´t suppose historicism will go as far as reviving the castrati...).

            The opera is long (about three hours and a half) and most performances prune it here or there. The recent presentation was (for the first time) a joint enterprise of Nuova Harmonia (NH) and BAL, starting both seasons; the venue, the Coliseo. The initial night was that of NH (the one I saw), the other two, for BAL. Both institutions innovated: NH because it is a concert concern, BAL because its usual home has been the Avenida. Probably costs were the reason for this association. BAL will present only one opera at the Avenida (that overworked standard, "La Boheme"), and two chamber operas at the Picadero; their fifth title won´t be an opera but a concert at the Avenida.

            "Poppea"´s ample cast combines six Gods with nineteen Mortals; this version eliminates Pallade, Mercurio and Venere. The music is enormously varied: recitatives, ariosos, arias, instrumental pieces, duets, quartets, concertantes; laments, marches, brilliant and funny episodes, tragic ones (Seneca´s death). Not all of it is Monteverdi´s; e.g., the beautiful final duet of Nerone and Poppea was written by Benedetto Ferrari, otherwise almost unknown nowadays (his operas are lost). And although the instrumental music is all written out, there´s no specified orchestration. Of course, this means that they may change frrom one historicist interpretation to another, but with Marcelo Birman we were in safe hands: he has shown his worth in admirable premières and revivals of Baroque French operas with his Orchestra Compañía de las Luces (Company of Lights); Monteverdi proves to be up the conductor´s aisle. He used for the orchestra five violins, two violas, two cellos, bass, flutes, cornetto (a wooden trumpet), trumpet, three sackbuts (predecessors of trombones) and percussion. And for the continuo (in solo numbers), two harpsichords, two lutes and guitars, two theorbos, two harps, two viola da gambas and cello. The playing was excellent and the conducting, always flexible and expressive.

            Some words about Gian Francesco Busenello´s libretto, based on Tacitus´ "Annals" and Suetonius´ "Life of the Caesars". It is unabashedly licentious and cynical: here the bad ones win: Nero rejects and exiles his wife Ottavia, Poppea wins power through lust, the Stoic philosopher Seneca commits suicide by Nero´s orders (who didn´t tollerate his mentor´s sage counsels). And Ottone, clad as Drusilla, fails ridiculously to kill Poppea (whom he loves), instigated by Ottavia (the weakest moment of the libretto, otherwise interesting and well written).

            Two singers dominated: the Venezuelan bass Iván García (now resident here) was a powerful and noble Seneca; and the Brazilian mezzo Luisa Francesconi (debut, I believe) has important vocal material and gave her grieving but vengeful Ottavia much dramatic presence. I have enjoyed Cecilia Pastawski in Mozartian roles, but she lacks the arrogant sexiness Poppea requires and also some volume. Tenor Santiago Bürgi was a Nero alternately amorous and violent with less line than the Baroque requires, but he was a convincing actor. As in 2006, countertenor Martín Oro was Ottone, though this time I found him too mannered in phrasing and rather weak dramatically. Gloria Rojas, a Chilean contralto, sang Arnalta´s (Poppea´s wetnurse) lullaby expressively, but her later intervention was so absurdly marked by the stage director that I was sorry for her.  I think the same about soprano Victoria Gaeta: as Drusilla she was fresh and musical, but in the Prologue her Fortuna was so over-the-top that I cringed. The Amore of Adriano D´Alchimio was well sung but terribly kitsch, whilst Rocío Arbizu did well as Vertue and Damigella (Maiden). The others were good: Josué Miranda, Agustín  Gómez, Mariano Fernández Bustinza and Juan Pablo Labourdette. The seven dancers were accurate in the cabaret-ish choreography of Ignacio González Cano.

            As you may have inferred, I wasn´t happy with Marcelo Lombardero´s staging and kept thinking, De Letteriis come back! The Prologue (a dialogue between Fortuna, Virtú and Amore) was the wickedest sort of low kitsch.  The three acts were compressed into two; that doesn´t bother me. But the recurring near-soft-porn, the lack of subtlety, the uncalled-for grotesque (clown´s noses in the final scene), the incongruities, are so dominant that the few dignified moments hardly compensate (Seneca´s death, Arnalta´s lullaby). True, Daniel Feijóo´s stage design does have some quality, but the costume designs of Luciana Gutman are mostly ugly and absurd, and the lighting by Horacio Efron sometimes was unhelpful to understand the action.

For Buenos Aires Herald



Damrau and Testé: high point of the singing year

            Last week´s Buenos Aires Philharmonic´s concert was outside the norm, for symphonic repertoire was left aside and the orchestra, under our seasoned operatic conductor Mario Perusso, accompanied the brilliant debut of German soprano Diana Damrau and her husband, French bass baritone Nicolas Testé.

            She has a splendid twenty-year career and is a rarity: a soprano of enormous range (strong lows, stratospheric perfect highs), histrionic at all times, equally convincing in drama and comedy. She was imaginative as Rossini´s Rosina, florid and light in Meyerbeer (so rarely heard here), dramatic as Gounod´s Juliet, heart-rending in Bellini´s mad scene from "I Puritani".

            Testé was a surprise for many; not as famous as his wife, he is certainly one the best bass baritones nowadays, with a firm beautiful voice capable of fine shading but also of stark drama: from the cunning of Basilio´s "La Calunnia" (Rossini), to the comic bravado of "Pif, paf" (Meyerbeer´s "The huguenots"), the noble line from the French version of Verdi´s "Don Carlos"(clumsily not announced), the intense aria from Antonio Gomes´ interesting "Salvator Rosa" and the sinister Alvise in Ponchielli´s "La Gioconda". As contained as his wife is adrenalic, nevertheless the two combined admirably in the closing "Bess, you is my woman now" (Gershwin).

            In the encores, Puccini arias from both  and a lovely duet from Bernstein´s "West Side Story".

            Perusso and the orchestra shone in orchestral pieces of Rossini, Gounod, Saint-Saëns and Bernstein.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Wagner before Wagner: “Forbidden love” premièred at the Colón

            The Colón hasn´t offered Richard Wagner´s "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" since 1980, though it is arguably the greatest German operatic comedy of the Nineteenth Century; this in a big opera house of important history is quite simply an aberration. And "Tannhäuser" isn´t staged here since 1994. The composer´s second opera, "Das Liebesverbot" ("Forbidden love"), written in 1835-6, is clearly mediocre, and the only reason to present it is that for aficionados it´s a curiosity that, warts and all, in its better fragments gives some inklings of the great Wagner revealed in 1841´s "The Flying Dutchman" (though premièred in 1843). In fact, his first opera, "Die Feen" ("The Fairies"), created in 1833-34, was belatedly staged posthumously in 1888, and there the hints of the future are more evident. And of course, in "Rienzi", on Bulwer Lytton´s novel about Rome´s last tribune, even if it follows grand opera lines; it was composed in 1838-40, and had its first hearing in 1842 at the Dresden Court Opera: Wagner´s fame got a decisive giant step.

            Wagner was only 22 when he started on "Das Liebesverbot", a free adaptation of a problematic Shakespeare comedy, "Measure for measure", transplanting it from Vienna to Palermo (Sicily). It´s one of three comedies called "bitter" or "dark", the others being "Troilus and Cressida" and "All´s well that ends well". They were written in the difficult years before and after the death of Elizabeth I (1603) and they offer "a distempered vision of the world", especially "Measure for Measure" (1604-5), "searching, unsettling and precarious play" (Encyclopedia Britannica).

            I haven´t been able to compare it with Wagner´s libretto, but I have to state that I find the latter an aberration of continuous contradiction and improbability, from the very premise: Friedrich, Governor of Palermo, imposes the death sentence to anyone that indulges in sex for pleasure, and this in the middle of Carnival celebrations. No less absurd is Isabella´s behaviour: a severe woman living in a convent, she does expose Friedrich´s hypocrisy (he desires her) but in the final scene she robs the equally hypocritical Luzio from the light-hearted Dorella (to whom Luzio had promised marriage) and leaves the convent. And so on.

            Wagner had been named conductor of the small Magdeburg opera house; facilities were few, orchestra and choir were weak and the cast very poor, but the composer wanted this ragged lot to learn a long and complicated opera in just ten days. The only two programmed performances  failed utterly (the second was cancelled!), and Wagner tried in vain to obtain the support of other cities in the following years to offer "Das Liebesverbot" (curiously he didn´t even try to get them interested in "Die Feen"). So the opera lay forgotten for more than a century; and of course Bayreuth never staged the three initial Wagners. Until it was revived in 1923 in Munich with scant success. But matters changed in 1983 when Munich Opera´s Musical Director Wolfgang Sawallisch conducted all thirteen Wagner operas celebrating the centenary of his death: the ponderous (more than four hours) "big comedy"-"grosse Komische"- was judiciously pared down to two hours forty minutes, and with fast tempi and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle´s talented staging  it became a success and was recorded live. I own that recording (edited much later, in 1995) and find it very good. It puts the best possible face on a problematic opera.

            The Colón production lasts about the same and is based on the score edited by Breitkopf & Härtel. And as so often nowadays, it is shared by several theatres to cut costs: originated in Madrid´s Teatro Real, it is co-produced by Covent Garden and the Colón. The London theatre is there for the simple reason that the stage director Kasper Holten (debut) was until very recently the Covent´s Opera Director (in a polemic tenure that allowed such things as a gory "Lucia di Lammermoor").

            In fact this comedy is seldom funny and the music is a mixture of influences that go from Bellini to Auber and Weber. There are much better German comedies in those Romantic decades, but the Colón ignores them: Lortzing´s "Zar und Zimmermann"  (1837), Nicolai´s "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (1849), Weber´s "Abu Hassan" (1811), Cornelius´ "The Barber of Baghdad" (1858). There´s some sparkle in the Wagner Overture and second Carnival scene, and a modicum of drama in the interview of Isabella and Friedrich; plus  lyricism in Mariana´s aria (the rejected wife of Friedrich) and a nice duet of Isabella and Mariana.

            I single out the  Isabella of soprano Lise Davidsen (debut, Norwegian, very tall, young and imposing): a stunning voice of ample volume  and range, managed with great skill: a Senta or a Sieglinde in the making. I wasn´t impressed by the arid timbre of tenor Peter Lodahl (debut, Danish) as Luzio, although he moves well. Our Hernán Iturralde was a sturdy and professional Friedrich. Christian Hübner (German bass, debut) did a convincing Brighella (maybe the most authentic "buffo" role), an arrogant policeman happy to arrest and judge... but he goes to the clandestine Carnival: the rough deep voice is also accustomed to the great Wagnerian villains (Hunding, Hagen). The Spanish light soprano María Hinojosa did a charming Dorella and Marisú Pavón sang with fine line her Mariana. Tenor Carlos Ullán seemed uncomfortable in the role of the condemned Claudio. The others did well, especially Norberto Marcos (Angelo); Fernando Chalabe was Pontio Pilato (what a name!), Sergio Spina, Antonio; and Emiliano Bulacios, Danieli.

            Slovak conductor Oliver von Dohnányi did an effecrtive job of preparation, obtaining  reasonable quality from the orchestra, and Fabián Martínez managed well the abundant choral music. As to Holten´s production, of course he didn´t respect the 16th Century specified in the libretto, and neon lights mixed with colorful buffo costumes and a handsome unit set full of stairs (a touch of Escher extravagance). Friedrich was ridiculed grabbing a teddy bear in bed. Stage and costume designer, Steffen Aarfing. Interesting lighting by Bruno Poet, and acrobatic choreography by Signe Fabricius (with good dancers hired for the occasion). There was a second, all Argentine cast. 

For Buenos Aires Herald


Ups and downs of National Symphony: Ministerial bureaucracy, CCK logistics

            The Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional (National Symphony, NS) is one of the two top symphonic ensembles we have in our concert life; the other, of course, is the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. The latter has its home at the Colón and is costly; the NS plays at the CCK, at the Blue Whale and is always free.  The Phil has solid financial backing, the NS depends on the Culture Ministry´s capricious and ineffective bureaucracy  with its constant problem of non-payment of conductors and soloists and just as harmful, of orchestral material. Plus the CCK´s absurd policy of being totally free (no worthy orchestra in the world plays under such conditions) and allowing babies. And being a cultural centre, it depends on the Media chief, Hernán Lombardi, instead of the Culture Minister, Pablo Avelluto. And Lombardi doesn´t give the NS what it needs to feel at home, including appropriate offices and rehearsal times.

            So the NS season proceeds with constant alarms. And the orchestra is playing sometimes below expectations. But one thing holds fast: the audience fills the vast hall; is it only because they love the orchestra or because it´s free? Well, the Phil is expensive and  generally has a close to full house. And is it because it´s free that the CCK seems unable to provide reservations to reviewers?  

            A February night of Chinese music was postponed to a later date with a different conductor, and celebrated the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Argentina. Much later, in September, the NS might visit China and Korea if both Ministries (Cultural and Foreign Relations) understand the importance of giving the NS  a foreign tour after so many years without that experience. The NS has programmed both the artists and the repertoire.

            Zhang Zheng was the conductor, and the soloists were Yuan Yi (violin), Duan Biyan (piano) and Yang Yue (erhu); all made their debut. The music was all Chinese except for Bernstein´s "Candide" Overture. To my Occidental ears the adaptation of Chinese culture to an European product such as the symphony orchestra sounds forced and superficial. It seems to veer between the bombastic and the excessive sweetness, and significantly I only found interesting ideas in the final piece, the tone poem "The Hani minority" by Shao En (the Hani are Tibeto-Burmese).                                                                 The concert started with three short works by Bao Yuankai and was followed by the fourth movement of the Erhu Concerto "The Chinese Wall´s capriccio"; the erhu is the two-string Chinese violin and it´s amazing how varied and beautiful are the sounds that come from this apparently limited instrument, played with virtuoso panache by Yang Yue. But apart from the very professional Yuan Yi and Duan Biya, I found little to like in the fragments from the Violin Concerto "The butterfly lovers" by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, and the third and fourth movements of the Piano Concerto written by six composers (!) based on the cantata "The Yellow River" by Xian Xinghai. The efficient conductor got decent playing from the NS in this repertoire almost wholly new to them.

            I skipped the next concert, too crossover for me (symphonic rock -Emerson- and tango –Schissi), and went on to the following one, in which Günther Pichler made his BA debut as a conductor, though we knew him as a member of the marvelous Berg Quartet decades ago.  The programme couldn´t be more divergent with the two mentioned, and I enjoyed it a lot, for Pichler is a master of style and clarity, even in the score I would have thought not quite up his aisle: the  splendid Overture to "Guillaume Tell" by Rossini. But otherwise we heard Mozart, and Pichler´s phrasing was a lesson to all: the NS did its best to assimilate his teaching and accompanied beautifully that early masterpiece, Concerto Nº9, and afterwards gave us an admirable "Jupiter" (Symphony Nº41).   There was a further pleasure: the debut of Japanese pianist Yoko Kikuchi, utterly refined and precise, with interesting cadenzas. And equally notable in a contrasting encore: Liszt´s transcription of Paganini´s "La Campanella".

            Finally, after many years, the return of Yeruham Scharovsky to where he was born, after decades of professional conducting in Israel and from there to other 50 countries. The programme started with a favorite overture of mine, Weber´s "Oberon", in a middling version. But things promptly picked up when the twin clarinet players Daniel and Alexander Gurfinkel showed their fantastic technique and beautiful timbre in two works (both wrongly called in the hand programme, and as usual, with no comments on the music – another bad thing of the CCK). First, the Concert Piece (not Concerto) Nº 1, op.113, by Mendelssohn (originally for clarinet and corno di bassetto –a clarinet a third lower- and piano), a charming and typical score fast-slow-fast. The orchestration may be by Mendelssohn and at least in this version the music was a BA première.

            And so was the following work (both unannounced...): "De mis raíces" ("From my roots"), Concert variations (not a concerto) for two clarinets and orchestra, Op.41, by Aby Rojze, who was a violinist of the NS during more than four decades until his retirement some years back and during his mature years decided to start a parallel career as a composer.  It's only fair that his beloved orchestra should give him a place in their programming. These variations are tonal and pleasant, with a curious orchestration of strings, trumpets and percussion and virtuoso interventions for the clarinets. The music indeed refers to his roots, which are Jewish and Argentine, so we hear a milonga but also parts that refer to the klezmer tradition, and the main melody sounds solemn and religious both at the beginning and the end. Wonderful playing by the twins, who added as encores two klezmer pieces, and committed accompaniment by conductor and orchestra. Rojze saluted the audience.

            Tchaikovsky created not only the six numbered symphonies but also the very impressive programmatic symphony "Manfred", on Lord Byron´s antihero (who also inspired Schumann). His Op.58 (1885), the score is huge, about 55 minutes,  dominated by the ominous melody of the very start, which reappears in all movements (as its model, the "idée fixe" in the Fantastic Symphony by Berlioz). It is the doomed Manfred that is portrayed, he who has loved Astarte and lost her, he who has been damned and is in the deepest despair as he recollects stages of his life. But in the second movement , a scherzo with trio, the Alps Fairy appears under a cascade in exquisite balletic music later interrupted by  Manfred´s theme. A charming Pastorale is an interlude before the terrible, devilish bacchanale of the fourth movement, until the spìrit of Astarte is evoked with solemn organ chords and Manfred dies. The orchestral imagination is prodigious almost throughout, and the work is very difficult though fascinating. Scharovsky had a brave go at it with some ups and downs but certainly with much expressive power; warts and all, this was a worthwhile occasion to meet a major Tchaikovsky creation. And the Klais organ certainly made a difference.

            The concert was dedicated to the clarinet player Eduardo Prado, who died recently and was member of the SN for decades.

For Buenos Aires Herald


miércoles, abril 19, 2017

New conductors and renewed programming at the Phil

            The second and third concerts of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic´s subscription series at the Colón coincided in two factors: maestros that had never conducted the Phil and innovative programming. One is old, Finnish, talented and excentric; the other is middle-aged, Italian, very effective and enthusiastic.  Leif Segerstam has been here before, Claudio Vandelli made his debut, and both had soloists from the orchestra in premières.

            Segerstam has changed enormously since his debut here in 1973 conducting Mozart´s "Le Nozze di Figaro".  Then he was slim, 32 and almost at the start of his brilliant career; decades passed until he visited us at the helm of the Helsinki Philharmonic some years ago in programmes that stressed Sibelius and one of the conductor´s myriad symphonies. He was transformed into a Nordic overweight patriarch with a huge beard, but his command and musical sensitivity were quite evident. I also had the good luck of appreciating him as a Wagnerian in Vienna (February 2009) with a splendid "Lohengrin".

            Now in his late seventies, he has serious locomotion trouble and barely manages to climb the two steps to the podium, but his arms respond well and his capacity remains. He started and ended with Sibelius: the iconic "Finlandia" in a rousing performance, and the very welcome second time at the Phil for the Third Symphony, premièred by Pedro Calderón in 1973. Anecdote: at the time the programming was in the joint hands of Calderón (then Principal Conductor) and myself, and curiously he wanted to do Third symphonies and so did I; so he exhumed Mahler´s Third after forty years of its Fitelberg première and I programmed the première of Dvorák´s Third (Smetácek), played complete (not with cuts as happened in Diemecke´s integral of Dvorák symphonies).

            The Sibelius Third also had a performance (rather good) at the Facultad de Derecho by the Lanús Symphony three years ago and I was there, attracted by the chance to hear it live, for this is a neglected symphony in BA (as is the Sixth) and it doesn´t merit such negligence. Of course the first two are longer and richer but there is much beauty in the Third  within its smaller scale. It was finished in 1907 and the composer´s stamp is everywhere, particularly in the attractive melodies of the first movement and the growing tension and density of the final minutes.  It had a detailed and impressive reading.

            The first of two premières was an interesting arrangement by Luciano Berio of Brahms´ Sonata Op.120 Nº1 for clarinet and piano, converting it into a Concerto for clarinet and orchestra. Berio added apposite small introductions to the first and second movements. This is nocturnal, intimate, late Brahms composed in 1894; Berio´s orchestration is at times too loud (the music needs more matte colors, less trumpets) but considering the dearth of clarinet concertos, it is a useful addition to that repertoire. It was premièred in 1986 as a commission of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for its first desk Michele Zukovsky. Probably the execution by Mariano Rey, his counterpart at our Phil, was fully as good, for he is a virtuoso of international standing. I had the curious experience of following the music with the original Brahms score, and I found the interpretation (both soloistic and orchestral) cogent  with the marked speeds and articulations. As an encore Rey offered an expressive clarinet adaptation of Piazzolla´s slow, melodic "Oblivion".

            Can you imagine a composer-conductor presenting his Symphony Nº 302? Surely a Guinness record, that´s what Segerstam did in this work dedicated to the Colón and called "A fundamental and universal musical conscience". Carlos Singer says in his programme notes (and I agree): "he created a gigantic meta-universe  irresistible and labyrinthic, cosmic and chaotic". He uses what he calls "free pulsation", "leaving rhythmic decisions to the players". He certainly is "nonconformist, excentric and non-repeatable".  He didn´t conduct his 24-minute symphony, of very full orchestration; instead, some players got up and led a particular section from time to time; I suppose rehearsals must have been fascinating to watch, and apparently the Phil coped well. I found it intense, dissonant though tonal-based, and strange; I was left imagining the workings of Segerstam´s psyche and comparing it to other excentric and prolific symphonists such as Havergal Brian and Alan Hovhaness, both quite unknown here. It would be intriguing to have a chance to compare them live.

            Back to relative normalcy in the following concert.  The announced conductor was Alexander Vedernikov, but he fell ill and was replaced by Claudio Vandelli. What impressed me was that the programme was unchanged although it was made up of rarely played Russian music and a première.  Reading his biography I understood it: he has been invited for the last ten years by the Moscow State Symphony New Russia and is the second conductor of the Russian Youth Symphony, so he is well versed in the Russian repertoire, although he has plenty of activity elsewhere (he has conducted orchestras of great caliber).

            He started with an umistakeably Tchaikovskian score, the fantasy overture "Hamlet" (one of his three Shakespearian tone poems, for that´s what they are: the others being "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Tempest"). Written when he was occupied by his Fifth Symphony in 1888, all the hallmarks of his style are there in this unfairly ignored creation: the dark, ominous textures; the melodies charged with sorrow; the vigorous climaxes; the sense of drama. I enjoyed Vandelli´s sanguine interpretation, played by a committed Phil.

            Johann Baptist Vanhal (Bohemian) had a rather long life (1739-1813) and was staggeringly prolific: 73 symphonies, about 30 concertos, around a hundred string quartets, and  95 sacred works.  Very popular and well considered in his own time, but quite forgotten as the Nineteenth Century advanced, the vinyl catalogue after WWII and later the CD rush provoked a thirst for the expansion of the repertoire beyond the greatest names, and thus slowly Vanhal  was explored at least partially. There are few concerts for the bass, and so the two by Vanhal, purely classicist, began to be played again. The cumbersome instrument is habitually used in orchestras as the basis for rich string textures, but rarely gets solos to play, let alone concertos. So Osvaldo Dragún, first desk of our Phil, welcomed the chance of premièring Vanhal´s Concerto in D major, a pleasant twenty minutes that allowed the player to show the melodic and the virtuosic aspects of the bass. Dragún also played some of Bottesini´s Variations on the Carnival of Venice tune. A good player of charismatic appearance, he got strong applause. And Vandelli accompanied well.

            Now to another excentric composer: Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). He started as a Late Romantic but gradually he went on to an audacious mystical avantgardism. His three symphonies are steps in that sense, crowned by his two great poems: "of ecstacy" and "of fire" ("Prometheus"). The Second Symphony (1901) was marvelously done here by Svetlanov and the USSR State Symphony, decades ago. In five movements (the first two and the last two joined), the music is exalted, turbulent and ample (48 minutes).  Vandelli led with enthusiasm and command, getting a big sound out of an attentive Phil.

For Buenos Aires Herald

martes, marzo 28, 2017

Brief account of Charpentier´s Baroque Orpheus

            Marc Antoine Charpentier was a great Baroque composer but his operas were obscured by Jean-Baptiste Lully´s monopoly of Louis XIV´s opera company. Decades ago Christie´s Les Arts Florissants revealed his worth in our city. Now Andrés Gerszenzon´s Selva Vocal e Instrumental offered "La descente d´Orphée aux Enfers" ("Orpheus´ descent on Hades") at the small theatre of Hasta Trilce. Two short acts, 56 minutes, 1686, it stops when Pluto allows Orpheus to reclaim Eurydice. As H.Wiley Hitschcock says, "The little opera is full of musical charm and cunning characterization".

            The playing was very good, the singing from admirable (bass Max Hochmuth, Pluto) to deplorable (Esteban Manzano, Orpheus). The staging (Alejandro Cervera), minimalist and ugly.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

The Colón´s “Adriana Lecouvreur”: Tola saves the day

            Last week readers got the Herald´s views on the Gheorghiu affair and the announcement that in her place the audience would see and hear Virginia Tola in the four subscription series performances of Francesco Cilea´s "Adriana Lecouvreur", thus starting the operatic season. Good news: it happened and things went well.

            But before I go on, noblesse oblige: I am correcting two slips on my preceding article. One: on the seventh paragraph the "mildly positive" review was published on The Guardian, not The Telegraph. And on the final paragraph, it´s the Colón 2018 programming that will be thoroughly analysed, not 2016.

            Nowadays opinions are divided about Cilea´s opera: some believe as I do that in spite of its weak libretto the music is too good to be lost (and there are plenty of operas that are saved by the composer and remain in the repertoire); others stress the mediocrity of Arturo Colautti´s adaptation of the French original play by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé and find it too absurd and kitschy; I partly concur but still I get a lot of pleasure from good performances of it.

            Indeed Adrienne Lecouvreur was the great tragedy actress of the Comédie Française during Louis XV´s reign and she was one of the lovers of Maurice, Count of Saxony, who simultaneously had a liaison with the Duchess of Bouillon, whose husband had "la Duclos" as lover. Those were heady days for eroticism in Paris, and although the unpleasant truth is that Adrienne didn´t die by inhaling poisoned flowers sent by her rival (as in the opera) but from dysentery,  Maurice was quite a Don Juan, as well as being a brilliant military leader at the service of the King but with the ambition of getting the Baltic Duchy of Kurland, for though he was the son of Frederick August the Strong, elector of Saxony and King of Poland, he couldn´t aspire to succeed his father because he was the result of a morganatic union  that barred such a destiny.

            For some reason Colautti converts the Bouillons into Prince and Princess but we are not told of where, and also refers to "lire" as currency used in France. There are three subjects in this four-act opera: the quadrangle of lovers and their intrigues; the world of the theatre with five actors counting Adriana, and stage director Michonnet (who also loves Adriana but doesn´t dare to say it); and the military/political ambitions of Maurizio.

            Francesco Cilea was born in 1866 and died in 1950. He wrote only five operas and "Adriana Lecouvreur", 1902, is the one that still is staged with some regularity. A very strange thing is happening this week: for the first time in Argentina: another of his operas will be premièred, and in parallel to "Adriana": "L´Arlesiana" (on Daudet´s drama) will be presented at Avellaneda´s Roma Theater this Sunday at 7 pm (during the last century  the Colón announced it twice but failed to present it!).

            Back to the great tragedienne. Cilea´s music is very well written, melodic and expressive, and in the lighter moments the influence of Verdi´s "Falstaff" is felt. But the arias for Adriana, Maurizio and the Princess are the strong points, as well as the duos of Maurizio and Adriana. Both Adriana and the Princess are dramatically plum roles, particularly in their public confrontation of the Third Act, and the latter´s hate is so strong that she murders Adriana with poisoned violets.

            The Colón has given this opera in 1948, 1951, 1987 and 1994, and in recent years Buenos Aires Lírica presented it at the Avenida. Artists like tenors Gigli and Armiliato, soprano Caniglia and mezzo Barbieri  showed their mettle. This year´s first cast isn´t starry but they put on a valid show. Tola may lack some volume and theatrical presence but she was always musical and professional, with beautiful pianissimo floated notes; her fine looks also helped. Tenor Leonardo Caimi made an agreeable debut; he phrases well, the voice is fresh and pleasant and he is an adequate actor.

             The revelation of the night was Bulgarian mezzo Nadia Krasteva, who has an opulent vocal organ strong both in highs ans lows and acts with intimidating command. Veteran character baritone Alessandro Corbelli is now rather arid in the top range, but compensates with a warm, empathic interpretation of Michonnet. The other powerful singer was bass-baritone Fernando Radó as the Prince, projected with real impact. Sergio Spina found the exact inflexions to convey the malice of the Prince´s sidekick, the dissolute Abbé Chazeuil (character tenor). And the four actor friends were nicely interpreted by Oriana Favaro, Florencia Machado, Fernando Grassi and Patricio Oliveira.

            The principals of the well-chosen second cast, which I didn´t see, are Sabrina Cirera, Gustavo López Manzitti, Guadalupe Barrientos and Omar Carrión.

            Mario Perusso, now in his late seventies, remains a connoisseur of Puccini and his contemporaries and was in fine form; he obtained very good sound from an alert orchestra and phrased with taste. The Choir under Miguel Martínez did well.

            Readers know that I dislike the prevailing trend of changing time and place in opera staging, so I was happy that two longstanding members of Roberto Oswald´s team were in charge. It was the first time that Aníbal Lápiz did not only the costumes but also the stage direction, and he was seconded by Oswald´s collaborator in stage design, Christian Prego. Oswald was a consumate master of lighting design, but Rubén Conde has been chief of lighting technique at the Colón since 1988. So this is a thoroughly professional team, and it showed:  we felt in Louis XV´s time and the action was as coherent as the libretto´s flaws permit.

            Although Prego´s layout was based on an impressive unit set, he avoided the limitations of the concept by clever disposition of props and colors and especially because perspectives of the changing center provided (far from the proscenium) beautiful and convincing views of the theatre in which Adriana recites or of trees´ branches moved by the wind, or in the party scene at the Prince´s Palace the adequate backup for  Lidia Segni´s traditional choreography of mythological Greek-Roman Gods in the Judgment of Pâris (who´s the most beautiful, Hera, Pallas or Aphrodite?; much in vogue during Louis XV´s reign). Three dancers from the Colón Ballet and one hired, plus a supporting hired group, gave a stylised view of the famous tale.

             Lápiz showed his expertise on early Eighteenth Century French fashion with lavish and attractive costumes. And Conde´s lighting was always apposite and helpful.

            So this "Adriana..." was both watchable and musically good. Not memorable, but certainly not a letdown. 

For Buenos Aires Herald

martes, marzo 21, 2017

Colón: Diemecke succeeds Lopérfido, Herrera replaces Guerra


            The Colón Theatre has always been a tough nut to crack throughout its long history. Even when it was well run (Valenti Ferro, Renán) each day was a fight against obstacles either true or perverse. To be General and Artistic Director is a full-time job that takes its toll on health and demands deep knowledge of many ample and difficult fields, firm ethical decisions, ability to control and delegate as well as to plan ahead no less than two years, preferably three.

            As a cultured member of the audience consider what it takes to put on a fine interpretation of, e.g., a Wagnerian opera such as "Lohengrin" in a new production. First the dates for five performances, four of them by subscription: even a ten-title season is an extremely complex puzzle (although Valenti Ferro managed to present eighteen!). Crucial aspects: how many rehearsals the choir needs to memorize the music and the German text (calculated by the Choir Director); how many for the orchestra to learn the music and play it with exactitude and style (the conductor´s evaluation); nowadays productions have stage, costume and lighting designers unified by the producer´s vision: how many weeks the artisans and artists of the Colón need to realize the ideas of the production team in time for the scheduled dates? Plus the costs according to budget, the contracts, the proper cast or casts…

            Multiply all this by the total number of operas, plus similar requirements for the ballet season; add the subscription concerts of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic and its availability for the ballet nights.

            Add the concerts planned by the Colón in separate series, such as the Barenboim/Argerich festival; and the twenty dates of the Mozarteum Argentino plus a couple of Nuova Harmonia, and you have the legitimate work of a great integrated theatre. Unfortunately more and more intrusions alien to classical music have been given dates, denaturing the purpose of this theatre sometimes to ridiculous extremes (weddings, rock, pop, cinema stars, tango, folklore): there are other venues for all this and only a lack of clear thinking and a desire for juicy returns explain (not justify) these aberrations.

            During the Macri years as Chief of Government something essential was sanctioned by the Legislature: a very flawed Autarchy Law invented an absurd five-Director structure: General, Executive and three other members supposed to have "recognised cultural trajectory", one of them representing the Colón workers either from the artistic or the technical sectors. No mention of the Artistic Director (!?). Well, lawyers and accountants were named as members in flagrant violation, and the election of the representative of the Colón was delayed for years until Director General García Caffi could be sure that he had the votes for someone who wouldn´t be an independent voice.  During the GC tenure happened two things: a) after six very confused and controversial years the Colón reopened in 2010: it had gone through a massive restoration; unfortunately it was incomplete (and still is: the Institute of Art went to a separate building, and many workshops  work at La Nube, an insufficient Belgrano building); b) obeying Macri´s gravest mistake, four hundred people were  summarily either transferred or left in a limbo without any rational previous evaluation: the 1300 people were reduced to 900 (they couldn´t be fired under the stability law); now we are back at the previous number if you sum the tercerized employees.

            Come January 2015 and out of the blue GC resigned, invoking private reasons. In this surreal Colón he had been both General and Artistic Direct. Implicitly recognising that an Artistic Director is essential, Rodríguez Larreta chose Darío Lopérfido  as General and Artistic Director;he was a very negative Secretary of Culture during the De la Rúa stints as our city´s Chief of Government and then as President. To add to Surrealistic behaviour, later  Lopérfido was named Culture Minister retaining the Colón but only as Artistic Director. María Victoria Alcaraz, for some years a low profile Director of the Centro Cultural San Martín, was named the Colón´s General Director. So she was Lopérfido´s superior at the Colón but reported to him as Minister! More Surrealism of bad quality.  But Lopérfido resigned as Culture Minister for spurious reasons and came back to the Colón.

            And now he was offered by the Nation "an irresistible job" at Berlin (no details!) and resigned. Three candidates were evaluated and Enrique Arturo Diemecke was chosen as replacement, though changing the description of the job: not Artistic Director but Director of Programming and Artistic Production. Diemecke, of course, has been the Principal Conductor of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic for twelve years, and he will keep this position during 2017; in 2018 he will leave the post, previously choosing two conductors who will share the Principal Conducting.

            Lopérfido was a caretaker Artistic Director in 2015, for he respected García Caffi´s programming (only changing conductor and producer for "Parsifal"). 2016 was  programmed fully by Lopérfido, and already last November he announced 2017 in every detail, published in a booklet. The press release states that the season will take place as programmed, but Diemecke says that there might be changes in the second semester! And although Lopérfido had advanced a lot with programming 2018, if there aren´t contracts everything can change. He says that he will continue to lead Ópera Latinoamérica and hold "an international representation of the Colón", Alcaraz doubts that this will be so.

            Our colleague La Nación had interviews with Diemecke, Paloma Herrera (who takes over as Directress of the Ballet due to Maximiliano Guerra´s resignation) and Alcaraz. The latter makes two interesting statements: with reference to Lopérfido: "it wasn´t an easy relationship because we didn´t share ethical criteria concerning management and other subjects". And about the Colón use for shows outside its vocation: "Diemecke and I will decide to whom we will rent the theatre. I have my differences about how it was used recently".

            It´s worth mentioning what is known about the Lopérfido 2018 opera season. The term used in the information, "comprometido", is rather "firm offer accepted by the artist", it isn´t the same as "under contract". "Tristan and Isolde" conducted by Barenboim; "Simone Boccanegra" with Domingo; Berg´s Lulu" (conductor Brönnimann); "Aida"; "The Tales of Hoffmann" (both conducted by Ranzani and the latter produced by Zanetti); Martinu´s "Julietta", premiere (conductor Kuerti) and Janácek´s "Jenufa".  As the operas will be ten, three are missing from this list (one could be an Argentine opera by Matalón, as rumor has it). Says Diemecke: he likes the proposals but doubts if the budget for it will be available.

            In a recent article I mentioned that Guerra´s job was in danger due to great discontent with his tenure. Paloma Herrera, now 41, seems a good choice. She, like Bocca, is a product of both the Colón Art Institute and the American Ballet Theatre. As she expresses in the interviews, she will apply the same principles of discipline and perseverance of her own career to better the level of our Ballet. She wants more performances either at the Colón or elsewhere. She accepts the programming left by Guerra but wants to add to it.

            Both she and Diemecke believe in being present as much as they can, but this year they have previous engagements to honour, they will need efficient Subdirectors. And both as well as Alcaraz will have to tackle organisational reforms completely "forgotten" by García Caffi and Lopérfido: pensions, regulations, rehearsal times, and a big etc.

For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, enero 09, 2017

Witty Bernstein, Honegger Christmas and “Degenerate art”

            This is the last survey of the by now extinct musical season. Two of the five comments are about the Colón; two concern the cycles of the National Library.

            The Art Institute of our mighty theatre does a special project each year: a short opera wholly prepared, sung, staged and played by students, naturally with professors´ supervision. I find it a very rewarding and intelligent idea, for from it will come the professionals of the future, bred at the source. They call it Workshop of Operatic Integration. In 2015 it was Ravel´s lovely "L´enfant et les sortilèges", so good that it was presented again in 2016 in the series of events for children of the Colón (another interesting initiative). Claudio Alsuyet as Director of the Institute is doing a fine job, and this was proved by the December première of Leonard Bernstein´s witty 45-minute one-acter, "Trouble in Tahiti" (words and music by the charismatic American artist).

            Tahiti is only mentioned by the couple of the Thirties (Dinah, soprano; Sam, baritone)  living in New York´s suburbia. Married for ten years, their relationship is in trouble; the taut seven scenes have a sweet/sour taste but finally the unraveled becomes whole again. The music mirrors every mood, more dissonant when they quarrel, smoother when things calm down. The touch of genius (and a reminder of Bernstein´s  musical comedy side; arguably "West Side Story" is one of the very best) is that each scene is followed by a brief interlude in which a trio of singing comedians bring back the Roaring Twenties carefree cabaret style.

            The brilliant staging by Romina Almirón gave us a slice of American Zeitgeist, with talented handling of the singers and funny, à-propos projections, plus intelligent stage, costume and light designs. With first-rate support of a 15-strong chamber orchestra combining students and professors and led by Emmanuel Siffert with unerring sense of style, the couple was sung and acted with professional firmness by Vanesa Aguado Benítez and Mariano Gladic, and the trio did their bits with hand-in-glove precision (Milagros Burga, Germán Polón and Luis Asmat).

            The venue was the Teatro 25 de Mayo, nicknamed the Little Colón, a nice hall at Avenida Triunvirato.   

            At the Colón the Resident (Estable) Orchestra offered a Christmas concert which featured Honegger´s "Une Cantate de Noël", a late work (1953) which starts rather grimly with a "De profundis clamavi" but in its second part, "Peace and joy to you, Israel", becomes gradually exulting, with quotes from famous German and French Christmas carols. Both baritone Alejandro Meerapfel, the Colón Choir (Miguel Martínez) and the Colón Children´s Choir (César Bustamante)  sang with conviction, fine voices and accuracy.

            Before and after, things were aesthetically worlds apart. Brazilian conductor Roberto Minczuk, of vast career, initially had the ungrateful task of accompanying the fluffy and badly orchestrated  Concerto for oboe on motifs from Donizetti´s "La Favorita" by Antonio Pasculli (1842-1924), a mere vehicle for the virtuoso playing of Rubén Albornoz.

            After the interval the Estable, generally confined to the pit, had the challenge of Brahms´ majestic First Symphony, and both conductor and orchestra acquitted themselves with a powerful, concentrated reading of what is probably the best First  in history. Alas, at the cost of leaving aside (no explanation) the long-announced Second Symphony ("Rome) by Bizet, very rarely done and not the equal of the astonishing First of the teenager composer, but still a score of charm and freshness worth reviving.

            The National Library has a cozy Auditorio Borges of good acoustics and it is the venue of a worthy project called Plural Music (Música en Plural) organized since many years ago by Haydée Seibert and Bárbara Civita. The idea is mixing different textures in  the same concert, as a way of showing the variety of chamber music. In 2016 there were nine concerts and I could only catch the last one, although some of them were very alluring.

            In this case, a song recital by mezzo Mariana Rewerski accompanied by pianist Valeria Briático was followed by the pithy, intense Elgar Quintet for piano and strings. The singer chose well:  fast Villanelle by Cécile Chaminade, a beautiful melody by Massenet ("Nuits d´Espagne"),  Reynaldo Hahn both in French ("Paysage", very evocative) and English (three of the Five Little Songs on clever texts by Robert Stevenson), showing the versatility of this Venezuelan who spent most of his life in Paris; "Dream Valley", one of the numerous songs by the Britisher Roger Quilter; and two fine Argentine choices: "Cita" by Guastavino  and "Canción de la luna lunanca" by Ginastera. Both artists are accomplished professionals who sing and play with style, good taste and accuracy.

            The Quintet (1919) is mature Elgar at its best, written immediately after his Quartet (1918): dense  Postromanticism with real substance and structure, it was admirably played by Graciela Reca (piano, from Entre Ríos) and string players of true knowledge and sound technique who happen to be great friends: Haydée Seibert Francia and Gustavo Mulé (violins), Elizabeth Ridolfi (viola) and Myriam Santucci (cello).

            Civita and Seibert Francia had another splendid idea at the same venue: two concerts, one instrumental and the other vocal with piano, called "The forbidden sounds", centering on the music that Hitler and Goebbels called "Entartete Musik" ("Degenerate Music"). I could hear the second, with Susanna Moncayo (mezzo), Víctor Torres (baritone) and Pierre Blanchard (piano).

            The first group, with Moncayo, was a selection of music from Terezin, the concentration camp of Jews in Czech territory used by the Nazis to mock UN envoys by making them believe that the inmates could create plays and pieces of music and were well treated, when in fact after the visit they were sent to Auschwitz...The hymn and the song of Terezin plus a couple of cabaret songs by Karel Svenk and Adolf Strauss were heard in this concert.

            Than, those composers considered degenerate but  in exile. Schönberg is the man who invented the twelve-tone system, but his funny Brettl-Lieder (Cabaret songs) are tonal and sarcastic and quite early (1901). Finally, the  songs of Berlin leftist composers who lived the decline of the Weimar Republic: Hanns Eisler, Paul Dessau ("Song of the great capitulation") and Weill: "The ballad of sexual submission" from "The twopenny opera", plus "Abschied" ("Farewell") , by Moncayo. Cynical, harsh, disenchanted songs.

            I was surprised that they ended with a funny Fred Raymond duet, for he belonged to the different world of light operettas during the Third Reich. But the afternoon was interesting, with Moncayo´s crossover way opposed to the more classical Torres, both finely accompanied by Blanchard.

            Have you ever wondered about whether there were cantatas extolling Hitler, paralleling those written for Lenin and Stalin? I have never found any reference to them; how strange in a megalomaniac regime if they were absent...

For Buenos Aires Herald


Buenos Aires Lírica and Juventus Lyrica announce their seasons

            The two principal private opera seasons have announced their programmes for 2017. Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL) innovates: only two titles will be presented at their tradiitional venue, the Avenida;  two will be at the Teatro Picadero, and one will be done jointly with Nuova Harmonia at the Coliseo (coproduced with the Teatro Regional de Rancagua, Chile).  Juventus Lyrica will stick to the Avenida and will stage just three operas.

            At the Coliseo: Monteverdi´s "L´incoronazione di Poppea" (produced by Marcelo Lombardero). April 22 and 23. At the Avenida: not an opera but incidental music to plays: Beethoven´s "Egmont" and Mendelssohn´s "A Midsummer Night´s Dream". June 4, 8 and 10. Picadero: Rossini´s "La scala di seta". Mondays: June 12, 19 and 26; July 3, 10 and 17. Avenida: Puccini´s "La Bohème", coproduction with Rosario´s El Círculo. August 11, 13, 17 and 19. Picadero: Offenbach, Ba-Ta-Clan. Mondays: October 16, 23 and 30; November 6, 13 and 20.

            Juventus Lyrica (JL). Bellini´s "Norma". May 12, 14, 18 and 20. Conductor (C): Hernán Sánchez Arteaga. Producer: Florencia Sanguinetti. Puccini´s "Turandot". September 1, 3, 7 and 9.  C: Antonio María Russo. P: Ana D´Anna. Rossini´s "Le Comte Ory". November 3, 5, 9 and      11. C: Hernán Schvartzman. P: María Jaunarena.

            Comments on BAL: two coproductions; Picadero on Mondays; inclusion of an operetta.  Applied to both BAL and JL: Puccini´s orchestra has to be strongly reduced due to the Avenida´s small pit.

            Suggestion: if BAL and JL can work with the Coliseo, in the future they should take advantage of that theatre´s big pit.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Great piano recital and closing concerts of the Phil and the National Symphony

            By the time to read this the season will be over. So here are the parting shots divided in two articles each covering five events. A Monday benefit concert provided the unexpected pleasure of witnessing a piano recital by one of the remaining great veterans: the Brazilian Nelson Freire, an old friend of this theatre, in his middle seventies still a redoubtable virtuoso of magnificent technique and style. Presented by Dar Cultura, Fundación de Acción Social de Jabad, Freire gave a masterclass, so to speak, in  his traversals of two fundamental Nineteenth Century Sonatas: Brahms´ Third, Op.5, and Chopin´s Second, Op.58.

            The Sonatas were played with scrupulous respect for the composers´ indications, readings of marvelous continuity, tonal beauty and control, which revealed the transcendent quality of both composers at their best. Before Brahms, some Bach (an Organ Prelude) arranged by Siloti; and before Chopin, Freire´s ideal way with the music of Villalobos: the beautiful Prelude from Bachianas Brasileiras Nº4 and three pieces from "A prole do bebé" ("The baby´s family").

            Encores: a lovely performance of an especially expressive Chopin Mazurka (Op.17/4) and a brilliant one of Grieg´s "Wedding Day in Troldhaugen", one of his most joyous pieces (he lived there).

            The penultimate concert (Nº 14) of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic was one of the best. We had the revelation of a talented conductor, Carl St Clair, and the best Argentine pianist of his generation, Nelson Goerner, playing Tchaikovsky´s First concerto with amazing firmness. St Clair is a Texan disciple of Bernstein and in his early sixties (I believe) he conducts with the intensity and concentration of his mentor. His career has had two very different high points: Principal Conductor in Weimar and in Berlin´s Komische Oper;  and for twenty years the PC of the Pacific Symphony; plus guest conductor with a host of first-rank orchestras. And he has recorded all the Villalobos symphonies.

            He started with what may be a local première, Bernstein´s "Slava!", subtitled "a political overture", a 4-minute dazzling homage to the composer´s great friend nicknamed Slava, cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, revered here in both capacities. Why political? Because his being named PC of Washington´s  National Symphony was a way to recognize both his musical talent and courageous anti-Stalin attitude; and at the time the Cold War was still on. St Clair made the Phil sound like a top rank USA orchestra.

            Goerner, as unassuming and non-charismatic as ever, played a supervirtuoso concert with such aplomb and exactness that one could only hear open-mouthed at such a display, always very musical; in some passages  the only thing lacking for perfection was the mercurial hobgoblin touch of Argerich. And St Clair galvanizing the Phil to offer Goerner the right give-and-take and rhythmic strength he needed to shine as he did.  The encore was a beautiful performance of Chopin´s Nocturne Nº15, Op.55/1.

            St Clair talked to the audience after the interval, an impassioned defense of Shostakovich´s Tenth Symphony as the expression of his pent-up suffering during the Stalin years. And the conductor then proceeded to prove it with an enormously concentrated and beautifully played performance of what is arguably the composer´s most important symphony. The impact of this great work in St Clair´s reading was one of the great moments of the year. He should come back.

            An unfortunate medical delay allowed me to hear only the second part of Leonid Grin´s concert with the Phil (last of the season, Nº 15). So I missed Weber´s "Oberon" Overture and Tchaikovsky´s Concerto with the Phil´s concertino Pablo Saraví, but I could hear a thrilling interpretation of the best Glazunov Symphony, Nº 5 (1895), warm, melodic and admirably structured music. Grin is Ukrainian, a disciple of Kyril Kondrashin, now in his early sixties. He has held posts at Saarbrücken, Tampere (Finland), San José Symphony (California) and currently at Santiago de Chile. Two decades ago he visited the Phil repeatedly. His solid métier and natural empathy with the Russian repertoire provided an exhilarating ending to the symphonic year.

            The special interest of the National Symphony´s concert at the Blue Whale conducted by Christian Baldini was the inclusion of  essential Sibelius: his last Symphony, Nº7 (1925), rarely done here; just one vast movement of consumate organic cohesion dominated by an unforgettable trombone theme, it crowns the career of the most eminent Nordic symphonist. After good performances of two standards (Beethoven´s Violin Concerto with the National´s concertino Luis Roggero and Sibelius´ "Finland"), Baldini showed his insight and fine technique in the Seventh, abetted by a great trombone player and a responsive orchestra.

            The final concert of the National Symphony was conducted by the Chilean  Francisco Rettig, much appreciated as a Mahlerian. He closed the season with some of Mahler´s extraordinary Lieder with orchestra, certainly the best in history. The orchestral work and Rettig´s sensitive conducting gave much pleasure, but alas, the baritone Luciano Garay showed a startling decline of his vocal means both in the wonderful "Songs of a wayfarer" ("Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen") and in the songs allotted to him in the endlessly varied "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" ("The magic horn of youth"). Mezzo Alejandra Malvino was her reliable, musicianly self both in her participation in "DKW" and in the "Rückert Songs" that end with a marvel, "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" ("I have retired from the World"), though more volume came amiss at several points.

            A sour note: the unacceptable policies of having no comments on the hand programme and even worse, no subtitles; this is the CCK´s fault, not the NS´, and I hope it is revised next year.

For Buenos Aires Herald


jueves, diciembre 29, 2016

Concert panorama: Contemporary, Mozart, Mahler


            The weekly format compels me to be very succinct in my reviews. Hence, panoramas. I will start selecting from a flood of concerts of contemporary music.

            Martín Bauer has led for twenty years the San Martín cycle of contemporary music (from next season there will be another curatorial view, for Diego Fischerman replaces him) and since its inception a few years ago (during the García Caffi regime) also the smaller cycle Colón Contemporáneo, sometimes overlapping both. As this year Bauer couldn´t count with the Sala Casacuberta (ideal for the genre), due to the restoration works at the San Martín, he had recourse to different venues. However, I found this year´s programming quite weak, and am only sorry that I couldn´t hear the great German violinist Isabelle Faust (Usina).

            Bauer has had a fixation with composer Morton Feldman and it´s no wonder that Colón Contemporáneo presented the première of "Coptic Light" as the main score of a concert that doubled as Nº 13 of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic´s thirteenth concert (tough material for its subscribers). The original announcement in March gave as conductor Emilio Pomarico and except for Feldman had a different programme: Busoni and Castiglioni. However, Wolfgang Wengenroth (debut) took over with an equally attractive proposal in the First Part: Ligeti´s well-known "Lontano" and the rarely played though fundamental scores by Anton Webern: Five Pieces Op.10 for chamber orchestra (extremely short) and Six Pieces Op.6, more expansive. Plus Webern´s fascinating orchestral arrangement of Bach´s Fuga (Ricercata) from "The Musical Offering" as "Klangfarbenmelodie" (Melody of colored sounds).

            Feldman´s "Coptic Light" has one saving grace: it lasts 25 minutes instead of more than four hours like other pieces played here; but it is just as boring: the material is exposed in seemingly endless repetition and minimal variation. The whole programme had some accidents: this is hard music for the Phil, accustomed to other musical styles.

            Much better was a finely programmed concert of the National Symphony at the Blue Whale conducted with  accuracy by Fabián Panisello and featuring a virtuoso pianist, Dimitri Vassilakis, in Panisello´s "Movements", an interesting piece in four moods written with full comprehension of current trends. Preceded by Luciano Berio´s "Requies" (première, as Panisello) and followed by Lutoslawski´s great Third Symphony, we heard first-rate music created by two masters who are no longer with us but are still very relevant.

            Ginastera and Stravinsky are no longer contemporary but in some of their scores are still amazingly modern. They were combined in a percussion-based evening at the Colón: the former´s "Cantata para América mágica" (1960) and Stravinsky´s "Les Noces" ("The Wedding", 1923). The Cantata is made up of six pieces with texts from the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas of strong dramatic power, and the dramatic soprano is accompanied by two pianos and ample percussion ensemble including autochthonous instruments.  This is Ginastera at his best, expressionist, telluric and with advanced techniques (serialism, complex rhythms). Instrumentally this was a splendid performance, coordinated by Annunziata Tomaro and Ángel Frette, but mezzo Virginia Correa Dupuy isn´t the right voice: she is refined and intimate; you need here a big soprano voice of intense projection.

            "Les Noces" is very important but rarely done; born as a choreographic cantata, it has been seen here both as ballet and in concert. Based on Russian folk poems dealing with the wedding ritual, it applies the rhythmic liberation of "The Rite of Spring" to singing of enormous complexity; relentless in its demands and rarely expansive, it was a demonstration of the great professionalism of Tomaro, the Coro Orfeón de Buenos Aires (Néstor Andrenacci, Pablo Piccinni), the four pianists, the percussionists; the soloists were uneven, only María Dolores Ibarra (soprano) quite satisfactory. It was sung in the Russian translation, and that is good.

            I was glad that Patricia Pouchulu, after the unexpected interruption of a concert season at the Brick Hotel organised by her, could find the support of the Austrian and German Embassies to present a valuable Mozart concert at the Avenida. As leader of the Association La Bella Música, since 1999 she has offered with a galaxy of artists eight hundred concerts; in recent years after strict training she has started a conducting career. Funding isn´t easy nowadays and has limited some symphonic projects that require big orchestras, but a night of Mozart remains a treat when you have a solid hand-picked orchestra of 32 players and two outstanding soloists (first desks of the Colón Orchestra).

            The loveliness of the Clarinet Concerto (K 622) and of the Oboe Concerto (alternative to flute) K.314 was in the very good hands and artistry of Carlos Céspedes and Rubén Albornoz; apart from minor accidents, the playing was beautiful and  musical, abetted by the clean and stylish conducting of Pouchulu. She then tackled the crown of Mozart´s symphonies: Nº 41, "Jupiter".  With scrupulous articulation and an attentive orchestra, the music flowed naturally, only lacking some intensity and rhythmic profile in the final movement, a masterpiece of counterpoint; but the battle was certainly won.

            The marvelous Mahler Second Symphony ("Resurrection") was the major challenge taken up by Mario Benzecry and his Sinfónica Juvenil Nacional José de San Martín, plus the Asociación Coral Lagun Onak and the Coro de la Facultad de Derecho-UBA, both prepared by Miguel Ángel Pesce, plus soprano Jaquelina Livieri and mezzo Alejandra Malvino. Not helped by the resonant acoustics of the Facultad de Derecho, nevertheless Benzecry showed his deep knowledge and command and built the enormous structure with unerring hand. Both the choirs and soloists were first-rate, but the Orchestra had some problems: mistakes by the brass and rather mushy violin intonation; however,  most of the playing was good and the climaxes were tremendous.

For Buenos Aires Herald




jueves, diciembre 22, 2016

Ballet at the Colón 2017: not enough innovation


            Although the Colón Ballet had been promised more performances for 2017, this won´t happen. And the programming, rather unusually, will offer four full-length ballets, all of them revivals, though attractive. Last year I welcomed the long-overdue presentation of Delibes´ "Sylvia", beautiful music that hadn´t been  heard for more than sixty years, this time with choreography (1952) of that great Covent Garden creator, Frederick Ashton; in this case the reprise is justified, to give audiences a new chance to meet this important ballet, and it will be with the debut of Isabella Boylston, from the American Ballet Theatre.  As usual, the orchestra during the season will be the Buenos Aires Philharmonic; the conductor on this occasion, Emmanuel Siffert. April 7 to 12.

            Then, "La fierecilla domada" ("The Taming of the Shrew"), the wonderful Cranko ballet on Shakespeare´s comedy first seen here by the Stuttgart Ballet and later danced admirably by Maximiliano Guerra, the current Director of the Ballet, who certainly chose it out of justified nostalgia. But decades have passed and it will be pleasant to see it again, with music by Kurt Heinz Stolze based on Domenico Scarlatti sonatas. Conductor, Darío Domínguez Xodo. June 25 to July 1.

            In recent years we´ve seen plenty of "Nutcrackers" and "Swan Lakes", but not "Swan Lake", the longest and perhaps greatest of the Tchaikovsky ballets. The very capable Mario Galizzi has donated his revision of the Petipa original to the Colón. Guests will be our Marianela Núñez, star of London´s Royal Ballet, and Anna Ol, from Holland´s Het Ballet. Although I will never forget the presentation of the Royal Ballet at our Luna Park decades ago, I will look forward to this revival, which I hope will be complete. Conductor, Siffert. September 30 to October 6.

            Finally, "Notre Dame de Paris", choreography by Roland Petit on Maurice Jarre´s music, based on the Victor Hugo novel. Although about 15 years ago I wasn´t impressed by Jarre´s music, I liked the inventive choreography and was sorry to know that Petit wasn´t paid; the conflict lasted until his death; apparently his succession has struck a deal with the Colón. Conductor, Javier Logioia Orbe. December 23 to 29.

            So the year will pass without either new works or very necessary revivals of choreographers such as Massine or Gsovsky. And without a composite evening of various ballets.

For Buenos Aires Herald  

Gershwin´s “Porgy and Bess” in uneven South African production

George Gershwin´s sole opera, "Porgy and Bess", is a memorable achievement. Last week the Herald printed an ample interview of Esteban Colombet with Stage Director Christine Crouse as a useful introduction to the last installment of the Colón season, but it refers basically to the parallels she sees between her transposition to Soweto around 1970 and  the original setting in Charleston, South Carolina, 1930s. She admits incongruities and cuts, but stresses the sociological  resemblance. She has a point, but I certainly prefer the libretto as it was written by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin.

In both cases, there´s only one way to cast it in the main roles: with black singers.  And that´s the way it was seen in the two other productions  at Buenos Aires: a Teatro Astral by  Everyman Opera Company conducted by Alexander Smallens (who had led the Boston world première in 1935), August 1955; and the Colón by the Virginia Opera Company, April 1992.

George Gershwin was a first-generation American whose parents were Jews from Odessa, Ukraine. Hardly, one would think, the right genes for an opera on a black drama in the USA´s South. True, Gershwin had shown his affinity with jazz roots with such splendid works as "Rhapsody in blue", "Concerto in F" and "An American in Paris", but those were very much the work of a New Yorker. In the opera he penetrates the spirit of the Deep South with uncanny empathy and enormous inspiration: there are of course wonderful songs, like "Summertime", but even more admirable in this folk opera (so-called by the author) are the call and response Spirituals and the complex concerted numbers in general.

Charleston is a city of rich history: the largest Atlantic port south of Philadelphia in Colonial times; from Fort Sumter, in an island in front of it, came the spark that ignited the Civil War; and close to the sea still stands Cabbage Row, real name of the Catfish Row of the opera. Eartquakes and cyclones have ravaged it but the citizens always recover.

As depicted by Heyward, the inhabitants of Catfish Row are deeply religious (numerous mentions of the Promised Land) and a closely knit community. They are fishermen, stevedores, or cotton workers. Most are good sorts, but two characters will ruin the life of Porgy (a crippled beggar) and Bess, sensual and drug addict: Crown, powerful and murderous; and Sporting Life, a pedlar of "happy dust" (cocaine). But the people that live there, the chorus, are just as essential: this is an opera where the inhabitants sing and dance again and again, so you need choristers with swing.

There have been essential recordings of this opera: the Decca album with the highlights sung by the original cast (Smallens); the first "complete" one (with cuts) with excellent singers conducted by Lehman Engel (Columbia); and two admirable really complete recordings in CD with great conductors (Maael and Rattle) and casts. So there´s no lack of recordings that do justice to this astonishing music. By the way, there were two Deep South operas before: the charming folkish "Treemonisha" by Scott Joplin, the ragtime composer (1915), and Delius´ "Koanga" (1904, Florida plantation); both interesting but no match for "Porgy".

Now to the Capetown Opera´s presentation. Frankly, last year a horrid "Macbeth" (Verdi transported to the Congo) by a South African company had left a bitter taste in my mouth, but  fortunately this "Porgy..." even with its faults has its commendable aspects. Two singers were really good: Xolela Sixaba (Porgy) and Goitsemang Lehobye (Serena); and the chorus was always vital. Lukhanyo Moyake was a slimy, slithering Sporting Life, as he should be, but was far too free in his famous debunking Bible song, "It ain´t necessarily so". Nonhlanhla Yende acted well as Bess but vocally she was uneven, with highs that often were strident. Mandisinde Mbuyazwe as Crown looked the part but his timbre was arid.  Miranda Tini was a rotund Maria though with a broken voice. And both Jake (Owen Metsileng) and Robbins (Mthunzi Mbombela) were good. There was charm in the street vendors.

Both the choir from Capetown (Marvin Kernelle) and the Colón Orchestra (Tim Murray) were satisfactory. Christine Crouse handled the action with rhythm  and dramatic sense, though with too much noise and some licences, such as the death of Crown. Michael Mitchell´s stage designs were functional rather than attractive, though Kittiwah Island looked too much like Catfish Row; and his costumes were generally adequate. Interesting lighting by Kobus Rossouw.

Two final remarks: I was relieved that this "Soweto" wasn´t very different from Charleston; and of the several cuts, one was grievous: Porgy´s "Buzzard Song". Warts and all, this "Porgy" tips on the positive side of the balance and after 24 years it was time for its revival.

For Buenos Aires Herald