jueves, mayo 08, 2008

Our orchestras are playing well

Our compatriots have, along with a pessimistic strain, a particular resilience that allows them to fight adversity. Events in recent months and years have sorely tried our orchestras, but on the evidence of their current playing, they are reacting positively. I can't refer to the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, for due to a recent illness I haven't been able to attend their interesting cycle of three concerts conducted by young international talents, but last week I witnessed two valuable sessions: the National Symphony (Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional) offered the mighty Second Symphony ("Resurrection") by Mahler conducted by our true specialist, Pedro Calderón; and the Colón Orchestra (Orquesta Estable del Colón) gave a concert that featured Beethoven's Choral Fantasia with our great senior lady of the piano, Pía Sebastiani.

Calderón has long been a champion of Gustav Mahler and is certainly an admirable builder of sound. The conductor who tackles a symphony by this master needs two contradictory qualities: he must analyze painstakingly its complex structure and present it with clarity, but he also has to adapt to its enormous emotional contrasts and give us its everchanging moods, almost maniacally detailed in the score. In both counts Calderón is accomplished; now 75, he is in good physical shape and keeps tight control and concentration throughout. He knows the "Resurrection" inside out (I believe it's the third time he does it here) and is unerring in his choice of tempi. True, he has always played safe in the matter of pianissimi: he does them piano to prevent croaks from the winds, but on the other hand the sound comes out firm and satisfying, in always precise blocks. And the phrasing is expressive avoiding maudliness.

The Mahler Second has been a favorite of mine since I discovered it with the Vox Klemperer recording in 1951, and the years have only confirmed my love for it: as the composer wished, his symphony is a universe that goes from the initial funeral march to the glorious affirmation of resurrection of the last movement, with soprano, contralto and mixed choir.

The National Symphony has undergone a lot of frustration (and so has Calderón, its Principal Conductor) these last two years, as an obstinately unresponsive National Culture Secretariat led by José Nun has kept it paralyzed for months on end, but this year the clouds have lifted and it seems the organism will be able to carry out its artistic plans. Not all is well, of course: their venue this season will be the main hall of the UBA Law College (Facultad de Derecho), notoriously bad in its over-resonant acoustics (although even so I have fond memories of my teenager forays to the Radio Nacional Orchestra concerts of the fifties and sixties with eminent conductors). Concerts will be free because such is the age-old condition of that place, and not because of social reasons as we are told. The truth of the matter is that the house of the National Symphony for many years, the Auditorio de Belgrano, is off bounds because the Culture Secretariat either didn't pay its rental or cancelled the orchestra's concerts in recent years. And of course an orchestra that plays always for free is diminished in its projection. Add to it that there will be very few foreign guests , and not of the first rank, and also that programmes won't be as innovative as Calderón has accustomed us in other brilliant seasons, and you have what I hope is a transitional year to more important levels: better programming, a recuperated Auditorio and guest conductors and soloists according to the quality of our admirable National Symphony, so often mishandled by the Government.

Back to the "Resurrection". Apart from minimal fluffs, the orchestra played very well, with many excellent solos and great discipline. The Coro Polifónico Nacional under Roberto Luvini gave us fine singing, from pianissimo to fortissimo; there are many splendid voices . The weak point was Lucila Ramos Mané, the plummy contralto: her register sounded bruised and her histrionics didn't help in such an intimate song as "Urlicht". Cecilia Layseca's soprano isn't ideally creamy for her music, but she was expressive and accurate.

I recently wrote about a concert conducted by Carlos Vieu, the new Principal Conductor of the Colón Orchestra. Only last December the organism protested in the streets, led by their then conductor, Stefan Lano. Now they seem in good communication with Vieu, who is careful in spotlighting the soloists and the orchestral groups when the end-of-concert bows come. Vieu showed again that he is the best Argentine conductor of his generation with very well-considered readings of such standards as Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" and Dvorák's "New World Symphony". He also gave fine support to Pía Sebastiani in Beethoven's Fantasy.

The lady is now 83, but this is only statistics: she doesn't show her age either in her radiant appearance or in her firm, orthodox playing. Minor blemishes counted for very little. In fact I got much pleasure from her traversal of this strange work that starts with a big piano introduction, follows with a theme with variations (the tune has a family resemblance with the famous one from the Finale of the Choral Symphony) and ends with five minutes of mixed choir with six vocal soloists. She gave the score solidity and substance . The Colón Choir (Salvatore Caputo) was good, the soloists less so.
For Buenos Aires Herald