domingo, junio 29, 2008

The Colon's sad centenary

As you know having read earlier articles in the Herald, the Colón situation is anything but bright. My latest on the subject was published on May 24: "A brilliant trajectory – A harsh present". Just one day later, May 25, was originally the day in which the reopened Colón was to put on stage Verdi's "Aida", the opera seen on the theatre's inauguration, May 25, 1908. I am writing this account of the centenary celebration on June 26 and the general sutuation has hardly changed. There's only one bit of news worth mentioning: the bid for the adjudication of the "new" Master Plan has been won by SYASA, a big concern that has done some ample jobs such as the recent transformation of Ezeiza Airport but has had no experience in the restoration of historical monuments. Up to now they haven't appeared at the Colón, where a skeleton structure of the earlier Master Plan still remains. The bid's almost 160-page description of the conditions puts a definitive date for the completion of the job: December 31, 2009; and it contemplates severe sanctions in case of delays. Will it work?

As to the Autarchy Law, it has met with severe opposition at the Legislature and has had at least three more versions, but there's no consensus and again the uncertainty is total. Some think it won't happen and believe it is out of place when the theatre's works are still paralyzed.

Meanwhile, the theatre has done a celebration long in quantity and rather low in quality. No less than 22 shows of diverse character took place between May 23 and June 6. Macri was absent from all of them. One important organism was left out, I believe intentionally: the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. The unfortunate idea of putting the Orchestra out of the Colón's structure has surfaced again, as it does periodically . The Center for Experimentation was also silent.

Maybe metaphorically, the celebrations started with the presentation of a book written by Amalia Pellizzari called "Francisco Saverio Pellizzari, builder of the Teatro Colón". The constructor that built under three architects during the twenty long years the theatre was in process (Tamburini, Meano and Dormal) certainly merits a recognition; why metaphorically? Because , as a prelude to numerous similar episodes during the following hundred years, he had a lot of trouble to be paid in time and correctly. Symbolically, the ceremony took place at the Colegio Nacional Buenos Aires.

The true celebration took place on the 25th, and as was Sanguinetti's desire, took place partially at the Colón. The main hall is off bounds, but for the occasion both the foyer and the Golden Hall (Salón Dorado) were used. The foyer for a Spanish adaptation and condensation of Rossini's "Barber of Seville" (the same production being offered at the Ciudad Cultural Konex) with young singers who had to contend with constant traffic of parents and kids and the subsequent noise. It was also the venue for a splendid exhibition of Colón photographs by Arnaldo Colombaroli. As to the Golden Hall, if it could be used for this occasion, why is no activity in it planned for the next months? As it was, the miniconcert of operatic music was preceded by numerous speeches, one of them to present a commemorative stamp. And the concert was good enough when Luis Lima sang ; the semiretired "Cordobés" tenor is still able to do ringing work. But unfortunately Ana María González should retire; she was certainly a valuable Colón singer two decades ago, but now almost nothing of her voice remains. Her husband, Enrique Ricci, accompanied beautifully both singers, but this was no way to celebrate.

After 5 p.m. the Teatro Ópera was guest to a marathon succession of arias without any discernible plan; no ensembles to vary the menu, except Verdi pieces by the Children's Choir (Valdo Sciammarella) and the Mixed Choir (Salvatore Caputo). The purely orchestral scores were mercifully excised (even without them the concert lasted three hours). No foreign stars or Argentine international singers such as Giménez, Álvarez, Cura or Bernarda Fink. What we heard ranged from the awful (Cassinelli in R. Strauss) to the splendid (Torres in Bellini, Almerares in Donizetti, Gaeta in Leoncavallo). Before the concert, outside a group gave out pamphlets denouncing the Autarchy Law; inside, a spokesman for the Orchestra said that this was a sad occasion, for they couldn't celebrate on their historical building.

There were other lyric concerts; I attended one consecrated to young singers accompanied by Enrique Ricci at the Auditorio de Belgrano. I would single out Gustavo Feulien, a true Verdi baritone of uncommon power and dark color. The Ballet performances were attacked for diverse problems and had a very partial success; the Ballet Director, Guido De Benedetti, said that there was no money for a stabilized floor and that the contract with the Opera was signed only 15 days before the performances.

The Instituto Superior de Arte presented scenes from Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" at the Teatro del Globo and the Orquesta Académica del Teatro Colón gave a concert at the Facultad de Derecho (UBA). The celebrations also included poor performances of Haydn's "Il Mondo della Luna" by the Colón Chamber Opera using a bad orchestration instead of the original ; this was at the Theatre of the Sociedad Hebraica because the announced one, the Teatro 25 de Mayo, refused the Colón's presence...

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

martes, junio 24, 2008

Offenbach and Haydn renovate the season

No lyric season is complete unless there’s a certain amount of renovation alongside the standards, which abound this year. That welcome leavening has been provided recently by Buenos Aires Lírica and Ars Hungarica. The former took on a major challenge: the first Offenbach operetta in French and with orchestra after 84 years! And Ars Hungarica provided a first rank novelty: the South American premiere of Haydn’s opera “L’incontro improvviso”.
The almost total silence in our scene of operetta is troublesome, for this is a charming genre and it contains masterpieces. But the fact is that in the last four decades I can only mention in the original language Lehár’s “Die Lustige Witwe” (“The Merry Widow”) sumptuously done by the Colón with Von Stade and Allen in the San Francisco production by Mansouri and a very minor production by Pigozzi for Juventus Lyrica of Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus” (“The Bat”). No Gilbert and Sullivan since the heady amateur ventures led by Alannah Delias in the Fifties and Sixties (except, I believe, a student performance at the Belgrano Day School of, if memory doesn’t fail me, “The Pirates of Penzance”).
Now specifically to Offenbach’s operettas. There was since 1950 only a “La Vie Parisienne” in Spanish by the Colón in the Seventies, and a miniproduction with piano of “Orphée aux enfers”. As the splendid Toulouse-Plasson recordings and others have demonstrated, with good casts and a quality orchestra these pieces take on a special lustre. Offenbach’s immense popularity at the time of the Second Empire (Napoleon III) would of course end with the disastrous 1870 Franco-Prussian War; satire no longer had any place after that catastrophe. But before it Offenbach, with his talented librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, made as much heady political fun as Gilbert did with Sullivan about the Victorian era.
How did Buenos Aires Lírica fare? An A for enterprise, of course. But otherwise? The piece is an animated spoof of Helen and her tryst with Paris, with Menelas very much a cuckold and Agamemnon angry enough to chase the lovers at the end (and eventually initiate the Trojan War). Two problems: a) there’s a lot of spoken bits; b) the controversial decision was to do them in Spanish, and to boot with contemporary Argentine references. I know that our local singers have notorious difficulties with French pronunciation, but I vote for drastic cutting of the spoken scenes to the strict minimum that allows narrative coherence, and then coach the artists intensively or try to find enough of them conversant in French. True, some references to local politics in the 1860s would go for nothing, but I prefer that to the incongruities of the text prepared by Juan Casasbellas and Peter MacFarlane.
As to MacFarlane’s production, he is famous for his musical comedy stagings and I wasn’t surprised that his bent spilled over to this production, which certainly had rhythm , brilliancy and humor, but sometimes quite un-Gallic and too Broadway as seen by Corrientes. There were quite effective stage designs by Nicolás Rosito and costumes by Daniela Taiana were often suggestive and funny along with some more Fellinian than Offenbachian.

The musical side was quite good. Dante Ranieri had the style well in hand and got pleasant results from the orchestra, and Casasbellas knew how to extract involved singing from his young and flexible choir, quite amenable to acting MacFarlane’s lively indications. Mariana Rewerski is beautiful, sings well and lives in Europe; she has good French. So a lot of her Helen was right, except for her exaggerated acting, which I put at MacFarlane’s door, and the lack of enough character to her voice. Carlos Ullán’s Paris is personable enough for the part of Helen’s vainglorious lover, and he sang with agreeable timbre, but there was (as often with this singer) a diffident side to his interpretation. Osvaldo Peroni has the right small roly-poly physique for Menelas and was clad in barrel-like ridiculous clothes; his every appearance was funny . Leonardo Estévez was a strong if metallic Agamemnon and Vanessa Mautner sang well a travestied Orestes right out of Fellini’s “E la nave va”, surrounded by two courtesans (Gabriela Ceaglio and Andrea Nazarre). I liked Walter Schwarz’s Calchas, Jupiter’s Great Augur, firmly sung and acted with true humor. Pablo Pollitzer was a weak Achilles and Carlos D’Onofrio and Gustavo Zahnstecher were correct as the two Ajaxes. Rocío Arbizu was absurdly characterized as a Paraguayan maid . Good music-hall dancing by an animated group in a choreography by Carina Vargas. Mariano Caligaris was funny as Philocome, Calchas’ servant (an actor’s part). The venue was the Avenida, as usual.

A brief chronicle of Haydn’s opera, a charming and beautiful rescue opera, a “dramma giocoso” in purely Classical style dated 1775 and written for Prince Esterhazy’s court opera. As I was directly involved, I can’t review it, I can only chronicle the event. It was staged at the Museo de Arte Decorativo by the sisters Perre, with a historicist orchestra led by Sylvia Leidemann. This was the double cast: Soledad de la Rosa/Laura Penchi, Carlos Natale/Ricardo González Dorrego, Norberto Marcos/Sergio Carlevaris, Ricardo D’Onofrio/Maico Hsiao, Marcela Sotelano/Cecilia Layseca, Elisa Calvo/Silvina Martino, Mariano Fernández Bustinza and Enzo Romano. This is so far the only premiere of the season. It merited more attention than what it got from my colleagues, mostly absent.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

martes, junio 17, 2008

Festivales Musicales and Academia Bach: Innovative programming

Festivales Musicales de Buenos Aires and its daughter, the Academia Bach, have symbolized good programming for 30 (Festivales) and 25 years (the Academy). In a way they have been the continuators of that wonderful Asociación Amigos de la Música of the Fifties and Sixties. Mario Videla has been throughout the Artistic Director of both and has always done a conscientious and positive job, with the invaluable collaboration of Presidents Leonor Luro and now David Martin, who have given their talent to solve the financial and practical problems of ambitious seasons. In recent years sponsors have been harder to get and some plans have had to be curtailed, but by and large the high quality has been maintained. In 2008 there are fewer foreign artists but most of the sessions are still quite attractive.

Due to illness and other factors I unfortunately missed the initial installments of the respective seasons of both institutions. Thus in Festivales I couldn't hear that marvelous chamber choir, the Estudio Coral de Buenos Aires under Carlos López Puccio, in a very commendable and difficult programme that accorded fully with the year's Festival theme, "Bach and the Twentieth Century": Debussy, Ginastera, Schoenberg, Penderecki, Poulenc, Ligeti and a Bach motet. Nor could I attend a less interesting concert by the Quinteto Filarmónico de Buenos Aires (the players are excellent but I found their programme rather light). As to the Bach Academy, I was deeply sorry to be unable to hear their initial concert; this year, apart from Bach of course, they are featuring a distinguished contemporary of Bach's, Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758). But what attracted me the most was Bach's Cantata No.21, "Ich hatte viel Bekuemmernis", one of the truly great, rarely done here, and a first for the Academy (not a premiere, as wrongly announced).

Now to what I could hear. The third Festivales concert let us meet the Verdehr Trio (debut) at the Avenida, and I was deeply impressed. The players are: Walter Verdehr (violin, Yugoslav), his wife Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr (clarinet, apparently USA-born) and the much younger Argentinian pianist Elsa Roederer , the only one that isn't a founder of this chamber group with more than thirty years of activity. They have commissioned an astonishing 200 scores from composers all over the world , singularly expanding a not overlarge repertoire for this very attractive combination.

Both the smooth and musical violinist and the precise and sensitive pianist are very likable but for me the real star is the lady clarinettist, of stunning technical quality and great power of expression, as well as absolute concentration. The hand programme should have stated that all works except Bartók's "Contrasts" were premieres here. At least two are commissions by the Verdehr: the charming and imaginative Trio written by Gian Carlo Menotti at the ripe age of 85 and the Suite (1992) composed by the Armenian Alexander Arutiunian in 1992 with great fluency and ethnic character. I liked Jennifer Higdon's "Dash" (1992), which is just that, an exhilarating six-minute dash with witty ideas. However, William D. Brohn's "I got variations" (1999) seems to me a too thin exploration on Gershwin's variations on his song "I got rhythm". "Contrasts" is of course a masterpiece and was given its full due.

The fourth concert had two attractions: the "rentrée" of the beloved conductor Franz Paul Decker, now 85!, at the helm of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic; and the predictably brilliant presence of pianist Horacio Lavandera playing Gershwin's Concerto in F major. There was a downside: the same concert had been offered in the Phil's subscription series the day before; thus a friend who had both series (Festivales and the Phil) attended twice this programme.

Forty years have gone by since Decker made his very special debut here premiering Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 . He has been responsible for dozens of memorable nights since then, both in concert and opera, combining technical acumen with stylistic knowledge and that difficult-to-define quality called charisma. We owe him wonderful programmes, such as one that combined three visions of Pelleas and Melisande (Schoenberg, Fauré and Sibelius), and the Phil has always respected him. How did he fare in this latest visit after several years of absence? He looks admirably spry and fit , his gestures are clear and decisive, he is still a connoisseur of many different musical ways. But...did the Phil lack enough rehearsal or is it going through a period of internal turmoil? For the fact is that I heard quite too many slips of intonation and attack throughout the evening.

I wasn't happy with his choice of the Edward Elgar arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach's Fantasy and Fugue in C minor; it sounds inflated and quite un-Bachian and it was poorly played. Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler" Symphony is his masterpiece taken from the homonymous opera on Matthias Gruenewald, the great Renaissance expressionist painter; this is powerful and tightly constructed music. Decker understands it well but the failings of the orchestra precluded the achievement of a fully rounded interpretation.

Ginastera's "Overture for the Creole Faust" had been played recently under Diemecke and fared better. Gerswin's lovely Concerto was beautifully swinged by Lavandera, with dazzling technique; he does lack however a deeper, stronger sound and I remembered Votapek's model performances. The Phil was collaborative but the trumpet had an off night.

I leave the Bach Academy for another review.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, junio 09, 2008

Nuova Harmonia presents cosmopolitan season

Harmonia had a long and meritorious trajectory prior to the great crisis of 2002. The impact was such that it almost foundered, but it was rescued by the Italian Government, for the institution has always been rooted in our big Italian community and its venue, the Teatro Coliseo, is owned by that country’s Government. Nuova Harmonia, as Harmonia before it, is the brainchild of the Fundación Cultural Coliseum, “created with the aim of tightening the bonds between Argentina and Italy”. But also, “since its beginning, its purpose was to make available to our country the main manifestations of universal art”. Well, it wasn’t quite so in the initial years after the start of the crisis, when the offerings were overwhelmingly Italian, but in recent years Dino Rawa-Jasinski, the Coliseo’s Director General and the unnamed but true Artistic Director of both Harmonia and its successor organization, has managed to offer a more balanced and cosmopolitan diet, although maintaining a heavy influx of Italian talent (logical enough under the financing circumstances and justified in artistic terms). The three initial 2008 offerings are convincing proof of the rightness of the policy.

The Bamberg Symphony is one of the best German orchestras, only a notch below the very best. In Buenos Aires we have had the privilege of three previous visits of this admirable organism: in 1962 under Joseph Keilberth, and in successive decades, conducted by Horst Stein and Witold Rowicki. Now since 2000 its Principal Conductor is the Britisher Jonathan Nott (local debut), also Principal Invited Conductor of the Ensemble Intercontemporain (he’s had prior posts in Frankfurt and Lucerne). The chosen programme was at a time difficult and hackneyed. The two scores are in themselves “pieces de résistance”; it’s a challenge to play both in the same evening, but the fact remains that Brahms’ Second Symphony and Mahler’s First are very much habitual repertoire. This stated, I have to report that I enjoyed myself mightily in both cases.

I heard comments in the interval praising the orchestra’s quality but attacking the low electricity of Nott’s account of the Brahms symphony. I can’t agree: this is the most serene and pastoral of his four works in the genre and I feel that the conductor is in the right track by not being stressful, respecting nevertheless the marked velocities and intensities and showing a clear sense of form. And the sound was beautifully mellow and German.

I can understand, however, the general preference people showed for this Mahler First, for it was one of the best ever heard here. Extremely careful and faithful to the composer’s myriad indications, Nott managed to instil both impetus and control to the variegated music , with a sense of drama and climax that gave its full due to the narrative aspects. The orchestra responded with virtuoso playing and the whole thing was beautiful and exciting.
The encores were wonderful: Dvorak’s fast Slavonic Dance op.72 No. 7 (exhilarating) and a major find: a movement from Ligeti’s “Romanian Concerto” (1951) which sounded like a wild cross between an Enesco Romanian Rhapsody and late Bartók and was incredibly well played and conducted.

The debut of the Orchestra d’Archi Italiana conducted by Mario Brunello left me with mixed feelings. The 19-piece group is competent but far from virtuosic, and the programme was very strange. The Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 was played quite fast in the outer movements, and the unexistent second movement (just two chords) was “provided”, with a curious short concoction for three celli that didn’t sound like Bach to me. Followed the 32-minute premiere of Giovanni Sollima’s “Spasimo”, written in 1995 “for amplified cello and ensemble”, though the cello didn’t seem amplified. The composer, born in 1962, adds an important percussion to the strings (Pietro Pompei was the first-rate player) and recorded spoken voice evoking a tragic episode in the history of Palermo’s Spasimo church (hence the title) when it was used as a leprosarium. The attractive tonal music is overlong and sometimes repetitive, but it has its points and was well played by Brunello, an efficacious cellist as well as conductor.
I disagree with the choices of the Second Part. Decidedly, Mahler’s one-movement Quartet Piece (for piano and strings) doesn’t work well solely in strings, and Mendelssohn’s marvelous String Octet loses point and precision with every part doubled. Encores: or should I call them “of course”?: the 3rd movement of Mozart’s Divertimento K. 136 and Piazzolla’s “Adiós Nonino” in an elaborate arrangement with long cello introductory cadenza.

The curiously named Ensemble Punto It (debut) can have diverse personnel; it came to us as a piano quintet and with one change, Franco Mezzena instead of Nicola Lolli as second violin; but as Mezzena is a regular member, it didn’t amount to much (the integration problem didn’t present itself). I was disappointed by the programme, for they simply did the two most overplayed piano quintets of the repertoire: Schumann’s and Brahms’. Masterworks both, but was it necessary to play them together? I was also nonplussed by the totally unnecessary spoken explanations by the pianist Filippo Faes; fortunately, once he sat down before the piano he executed with fortitude and accuracy. The string players were uneven: in decreasing order, cellist Piero Bosna, violinists Mezzena and Paolo Ghidoni and violist Anna Serova. A nice encore, where Serova somehow played much better: the Dumka from Dvorák’s Quintet.
Para el Buenos Aires Herald

viernes, junio 06, 2008

Barenboim and the Berliners top of the year

Fotos Geraldine Bardin

You may think that I’m rash in proclaiming in early June that Daniel Barenboim and his Berliners are top of the musical year, but I feel pretty sure that nothing else of the season will dislodge them from that position. The love affair of the Argentine-born –but thoroughly cosmopolitan- artist with his country of origin has been growing steadily in recent years, as his own fame has ballooned to stratospheric heights the world over and distinctions of all kinds keep being showered over him.

There’s an important background to this particular visit with the Berliner Staatskapelle. Three years ago Aníbal Ibarra, then the City’s Chief of Government, visited Berlin and signed with the local authorities a “bond of brotherhood” between the German city and Buenos Aires. It was then announced that the full Berlin State Opera (Unter den Linden) would visit our city and would present two operas under Barenboim’s leadership during the Colón centenary season in 2008. Only a few months later Marcelo Lombardero, then the Colón’s Artistic Director, said that it wouldn’t happen, that it was much too expensive and that Barenboim understood the situation... All this many months before the Master Plan exploded and the truth came out: the Colón would be closed in 2008.

But the Mozarteum Argentino, that marvelous institution that had been the channel of all recent visits by Barenboim (both as pianist and conductor), knew that he wanted to come; if the full Opera couldn’t be here, at least the Opera’s orchestra, the Staatskapelle, would be present. When late last season the Mozarteum announced this visit, I was overjoyed, for the orchestra had played Beethoven here with Barenboim long ago and it had been a halcyon occasion. As the programs were announced, I was stunned: in two subscription concerts and one non-subscription, at the Coliseo, the three last Bruckner symphonies each coupled with a substantial Schoenberg score. An immense intellectual and musical challenge of high technical, aesthetical and emotional level, these sessions also showed great confidence in the maturity of the Mozarteum’s audiences, for the works are certainly anything but easy.
I have only one quibble and I want to get it over with: unfortunately one of the Schoenberg pieces was eliminated, “Transfigured night”, which was supposedly coupled with Symphony No. 7; instead we heard the “Five orchestral pieces” op. 16 , originally coupled with Symphony No. 8, and the latter was left all by itself in the second programme. Apparently Barenboim felt that the load of work was too high and changed his mind very late in the game.

I have long been a convinced promoter of the Bruckner symphonies and I have no doubt that the last three are the best. As a reviewer I had the privilege of hearing the complete sequence and I was left full of admiration for the music and the interpretation. These scores have their problems of access due to their particular construction: an amazing buildup of tension to a climax followed by a “pianissimo” chamber episode which eventually leads to another culmination, and so on. A succession of waves rather one big wave. They crucially depend on the conductor’s ability to give coherence to the disparate parts, and this was Barenboim’s strongest point: the way he administered tensions and releases with total naturalness , the sensibility of his phrasing in melodic passages coupled with granitic strength in the climaxes, the unerring choice of tempi. But all this could happen because his orchestra is so very talented (of course most members have been chosen by the conductor, whose tenure is already long, since 1992). Strings of surpassing richness and perfect intonation, clean and precise woodwinds, a brass section capable of going from “pianissimo” to “fortissimo” without losing quality, a fantastic timpani player. Sure, there were a few fluffs, quite unimportant in the deeply satisfying totality.

And Schoenberg? Well, he’s a tough one. The expressionistic Five Pieces are almost centenary (1909) but their atonality remains difficult for most listeners; however, listen with open ears and without prejudice and they are fascinating in their kaleidoscopic colors and contrasts. The Variations op.31 are even harder, purely twelve-tone, cerebral, harsh at times but also lyrical in astonishing ways. Barenboim was both analytical and passionate and he conducted all with the total command of his incredible memory; the orchestra played with clarity and involvement. There were no encores in the series of concerts and none were needed.
An extra concert was somehow concocted and presented at the Luna Park as a homage to the Colón. With acceptable amplification, but of course the acoustics are bad. Wagner in the First Part: perfect interpretations of the Overture to “The Mastersingers” and the “Prelude and Love-Death” from “Tristan and Isolde”, operas which Barenboim “owns”, so to speak. And the Mahler Fifth Symphony (which he had done here in the ‘80s with the Orchestre de Paris), whose colossal hurdles were sorted out with admirable skill by conductor and orchestra. A surprise at the end: strong words by Barenboim summoned “the responsible and irresponsible that have kept closed the Colón” to have the theatre ready in 2010, when he and his orchestra would be willing to come back. He then made reference to our hymn, and he said : “the laurels must be conquered very day!”. And he conducted a beautiful execution of the hymn.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald