martes, junio 30, 2009

Our orchestras do good work under bad conditions

Apart from a reference to the Buenos Aires Philharmonic´s first concert, I haven´t mentioned our two principal orchestras (the other one, of course, is the National Symphony) during these recent weeks. It´s time to take stock. The good news is that although both organisms are operating under difficult conditions, they are giving us appreciable quality and rather interesting programming. The Philharmonic is still run by Arturo Diemecke (Artistic Direction) and Eduardo Ihidoype (Executive Direction) and as it happened last year, they seem immune to the chaos that seems to touch almost everything that attains to the Colón. This year they have a better venue for their 16-concert subscription series (far too short, however), the Coliseo. The second concert was conducted by John Neschling, the distinguished leader of the Sao Paulo Symphony. The programme was quite valuable. It started with a clean and powerful version of one of Haydn´s best symphonies, Nº 88. Then we met a great player, Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen, who did a magisterial execution of Haydn´s Concerto in C, with crystal-clear articulation and intonation. However, I disagree with the avant-garde cadenzas he played, operating on a completely different sound world. Karttunen also played what was probably a premiere, “Cantique” op.77a Nº 1 by Jan Sibelius, which has a subtitle: “Laetare anima mea”, lovely music lovingly played, and an unexpected encore probably of Karttunen´s authorship, a Fantasia on a Cobián tango, “Nostalgias”. The Second Part was appropriately all Brazilian, by two of their by now historic composers: “Enchantment” by Mozart Camargo Guarnieri (1907-93), a pleasant piece, and Villa-Lobos at his best, the “Chôros Nº 6”, wildly imaginative and personal music which I had the privilege of hearing under the composer in September 1953 with the National Symphony. Under Neschling it sounded splendid. Diemecke took over for an all-Czech concert that gave me deep pleasure. Two masterpieces were played to the hilt: Smetana´s Overture to “The Bartered Bride” and Dvorak´s Symphony Nº 5, “New World”. There was a special treat between both: the premiere of the individual and very charming Oboe Concerto written in 1955 by Bohuslav Martinu, magnificently played by a talented Spanish artist, Lucas Macías Navarro, who made his debut. The debut of Bartholomeus-Henri Van de Velde started unpromisingly, when he stepped down twice from the podium because cellular phones kept ringing, but a very pleasant interpretation of Haydn´s Symphony Nº 73, “The Hunt”, put things right. Two players of the orchestra, co-concertino Pablo Saraví and Hernán Briático, leader of the second violins, gave us two Concerti, a Baroque (Vivaldi´s op.3 Nº 8, “L´estro armonico”) and the premiere of Malcolm Arnold´s Concerto for two violins and string orchestra, first played by Menuhin and Lysy at the Bath Festival in 1962. It is, as always in this composer, very agreeable, succinct and Neoclassic. The players, of different but complementary sounds, had rehearsed both pieces well and played like the fine professionals they are, and the Phil accompanied likewise, although I missed a harpsichord or theorbo in Vivaldi (I don´t believe this repertoire should be played in symphonic programs). I disagree completely with the playing of Mendelssohn´s Second Symphony, “Song of Praise”, without the sung portions, which in fact take two thirds of the original 70-minutes length. The composer thought of the work as a unity, a symphony-cantata. It should be played by itself or left alone if no choir was available. The Phil will do all five symphonies as a homage to the two-hundredth anniversary of the composer´s birth, but the programmers haven´t taken the right path. As the slow “Adagio religioso” is an introduction to the sung sections, it was a pat ending to the concert, although Van de Velde showed himself an intense and convincing interpreter and the Phil responded well. The National Symphony is condemned this year to bad acoustics for its free concerts: the Bolsa de Comercio and the Facultad de Derecho UBA have unduly resonant halls and the Bolsa is small, only 450-capacity. The NS deserves far better, but they have lost access to the Auditorio de Belgrano because the authorities didn´t pay in 2006-7 the renting of the hall, and quite rightly the Auditorio´s people have lost all faith in the Culture Secretariat. But the players have a long history of disastrous handling by the functionaries and they keep admirably their spirit. The Orchestra is still our best. It should play in the main halls and not for free, which is demeaning (the Phil is quite expensive). But it should also have the money to pay for good conductors and soloists and for scores, and it is a scandal that their budget is constantly under-used by the authorities. A not irrelevant point: there are no programme notes… The Principal Conductor remains Pedro Calderón, seventyish but still in very good form. Their concert of April 17 at the Facultad started with a well-constructed interpretation of Mendelssohn´s Symphony Nº 3, “Scottish”, but it was the Second Part that impressed me: an intimate, tasteful rendering of the tender “Il Tramonto” (“Sunset”, on a Shelley poem), beautifully sung by mezzosoprano Gabriela Cipriani Zec, and in total contrast, the fantastically colorful “Feste Romane”, played with abandon and stark strength by a NS in splendid condition and led with a master hand by Calderón. I will be back in a couple of weeks with further comments on this orchestra. For Buenos Aires Herald

domingo, junio 14, 2009

Warhorses gallop again

It is in the nature of things that opera companies of any level should prefer a select group of warhorses for their ventures, as they find a ready market for them, considering the fact that most people either have a routine-inclined temperament or simply don´t have much information and/or curiosity. Thus such operatic items are taken out of their stables and left to gallop again in the wide open prairies,

Giuseppe Verdi and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in their best-known efforts, are a cinch, even if conditions aren´t right, for another sign of the times is that people are quite ready to receive with warm applause interpretations that in more knowledgeable times would have been booed.

I¨ll start with the best of three recent revivals, that of Verdi´s "Il Trovatore" at the Argentino of La Plata. This is a singer´s opera "par excellence" and of course we don´t have artists that can compete with the best in the world, but we did have a local cast of good level with responsible artists. I was present at the fourth and last performance, and one should bear in mind that in this type of high-strung singing there can be important differences from one date to the other. In this particular one, the best interpreter was Alejandra Malvino, who sang her old gypsy Azucena with considerable stamina and character after a start that was a bit unfocussed. Gustavo López Manzitti may not have an ingratiating timbre but he sure has guts; his singing was virile and strong, with a resounding high C to his "Di quella pira". In good health Luis Gaeta is our best Verdian baritone, but he hadn´t quite recovered from a laryngitis that had forced him to sing only one act of the first performance (he was replaced then by Luciano Garay). So he sang with comprehensible caution and although there was taste and musicality, the Conte di Luna also needs blood and thunder. As to Haydée Dabusti, this sensitive soprano has had more convincing nights; she sounded clean and transparent, but you need darker shades and a sense of instinctive passion in Leonora. Ricardo Ortale, a baritone, sang Ferrando, a bass role whose range he encompassed well, but I found his interpretation too free and "verista". In the flank roles, good work from Vanesa Thomas, Sergio Spina, Claudio Rotella and Francisco Bugallo.

Carlos Vieu is probably the best resident opera conductor of his generation. True, his tempi sometimes challenged the singers and the chorus, but this is as it should be, for "Il Trovatore" needs urgency and intensity; the orchestra responded reasonably well, though there were fissures of intonation in the brass section. The very good chorus of the house, under Miguel Martínez, entered enthusiastically in the spirit of the staging.

Marcelo Perusso had already produced the piece for the Argentino in 2006 and this was a revision of that concept (he had also done a different production for Buenos Aires Lírica). I rather liked what he did, for there were several positive points: he respected the original historical context (the fifteenth-century Spanish Civil War), he managed fast and convincing adaptations of the stage pictures to the different scenes (only one interval), he imagined dramatic stage designs with an adequate lighting plot, and the costumes of his collaborator, Stella Maris Müller, were always adequate. I was only bothered by some unnecessary gruesomeness.

I´ll be brief with the other two offerings. I´m sorry to say that I can only report favorably on some of the singers and the chorus of Fundamús´s presentation of Mozart´s "The Magic Flute" at the Avenida, but I was unhappy with the production and the orchestral playing. Pride of place goes to Lucas Debevec Mayer´s Sarastro, so much deeper in sonority and interpretation now than when he did it at the Colón in 2004. Graciela Oddone sang Pamina with involvement but also with some undue strain. Maico Hsiao sang his first Tamino as alternate to Carlos Ullán; the Taiwanese tenor was likeable and sweet but lacked expansion. Luciano Garay´s Papageno was too vulgar; the character is a simple, warm man; the singing was acceptable, no more. His Papagena was the charming Laura Penchi. The Queen of Night of Natalia Quiroga was inadequate: completely undramatic and barely managing most of the notes. The Monostatos of Fabián Frías had little character. I found the Three Ladies good (Claudia Montagna, Trinidad Goyeneche and Verónica Canaves) and very dignified the Speaker, Edgardo Zecca. The others were tollerably in the picture.

The orchestra sounded unclean and imprecise under Reinaldo Zemba, and Eduardo Casullo signed one of his weakest productions, with badly chosen projections instead of stage designs and many wrong indications to the singers . Some of Mariela Daga´s work as costume designer I liked (Sarastro, Pamina´s gowns), some I didn´t (the Genii, Papageno).

When I was told that Verdi´s "Aida" would be staged at the diminutive Roma (Avellaneda) I thought it ludicrous, and I wasn´t wrong. In fact several announced artists walked out of an impossible production. Forgiving what I saw (imagined by Florencia Bendersky and Sergio Grimblat) I can report that Sebastiano De Filippi at the podium did his best (and so did the conductors of three different choirs) to solve the music´s challenges , and the main singers did have some salvageable qualities: Svetlana Volosenko, Juan Borja, Lidice Robinson and Marcos Nicastro.

For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, junio 08, 2009

The Big Three hold their own

Yes, the Big Three are holding their own, and this is quite a feat in a crisis year. We are still on the radar of important groups and soloists, though the institutions have to do a lot of juggling with figures and sponsors to maintain their standards.

As has been true during the last conflictive decade, the Mozarteum Argentino is bringing to us relevant personalities in this season at the Coliseo . A case in point: the presentation at the Coliseo of Concerto Köln and the mezzosoprano Vivica Genaux giving us high-profile Baroque. They exist since 1985 and are surely one of the best historicist ensembles; she comes from Alaska, of all places, and is one of the most accomplished specialists of the Rossinian and the Baroque repertoires. The players gave us some wonderful Handel and Vivaldi, the singer (beautifully accompanied) offered gems by Handel and Hasse.

First the initial suite from Handel´s "Water Music" was done as indicated by natural horns, Baroque bassoon, oboe and strings with harpsichord. It was a beautiful performance, flexible, accurate and pointed, by all 19 instrumentalists; it would be churlish to note that a few of the horn sounds weren´t perfect, it is the very devil to play. "Sta nell´ircana" is a tough aria sung by Bradamante in that fantastic Handelian opera, "Alcina", unfortunately still missing from our city´s records; it showed the qualities of the singer: a very clean resolution of the divisions, a fierce sense of character and style, enough volume, but one could cavil at the excessively baritone-ish low notes. But she was refined and dreamy in the slow, lovely aria "Cara speme" from the same composer´s "Giulio Cesare" (his only opera staged several times in B.A.), accompanied only by cello and harpsichord. Some strong Vivaldi made for adequate contrast: Concerto No.23 for cello, strings and continuo (he wrote 27!), with very good work from the soloist, Werner Matzke. A stunning virtuoso aria from Handel´s "Ariodante", "Dopo notte", allowed for an impressive display of pyrotechnics from Genaux.

Another lovely Händel, Concerto grosso op. 3 Nº 2, showed the prowess of violinists Markus Hoffmann and Stephan Sänger and of oboist Saskia Fikentscher. Then, again from "Giulio Cesare", the difficult "L´angue offeso", where again Genaux showed herself an accomplished artist. Finally, an almost unknown composer here but a great name in his time, Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783), was represented by a typical "da capo" aria, "Di quell´acciaro al lampo" from "Solimano", allowing for further display from the mezzosoprano. Two contrasting encores from the same extraordinary Handel opera, "Rinaldo" (its success determined the composer to live in London), also absent from our stages: the expressive "Lascia ch´io pianga" (Genaux at her best) and the assertive "Combatti da forte", brilliantly handled. The orchestra gave magnificent support throughout.

The London Festival Orchestra is an old friend here; they have visited us several times, always led by its founder, Ross Pople; but he used to lead from his cello first desk, now he´s a full time conductor. His current group was invited by Nuova Harmonia for its cycle at the Coliseo, and they brought two first-rate soloists, flutist Alison Hayhurst and oboist Malcolm Messiter.

Bartók´s Divertimento for strings is certainly a masterpiece and it provided a fine start, though the orchestra was marginally less accomplished than I hoped, playing at first with small intonation blemishes that were gradually ironed out. Pople is a good professional but I find him lacking in charisma and electricity, which this music needs to be at its best. As to Bach´s Suite Nº 2 for flute and strings, Hayhurst played beautifully with a clean sound and very controlled vibrato. The orchestra was very agreeable to hear; however, I missed the presence of a harpsichord or a theorbo to give more weight to the continuo.

Attributed to Vivaldi, to Benedetto Marcello and finally to his brother Alessandro, it may be that the famous Oboe Concerto in D minor (by whoever it was) is the finest that instrument has, with its magnificent Baroque melodies and harmonies. Messiter gave us a memorable version, adding very apposite ornaments and displaying a lovely timbre complementing accurate and very musical phrasing. Again no harpsichord or theorbo, however, but fine string support for the soloist. Finally, Schubert´s wonderful Symphony Nº 5 sounded in style and sweet, though the last ounce of grace escaped Pople and the orchestra was too small (just 22 players is certainly not enough for a Pre-Romantic or even for a Late Classical symphony). There was a beautiful encore: the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from Gluck´s "Orfeo ed Euridice", where Hayhurst had another chance to show her liquid tone and impeccable taste.

Festivales Musicales gave us a standard Mendelssohn night in homage to the bicentenary of his birth. Again the Coliseo was the venue; the Buenos Aires Philharmonic played (it did a similar programme in its own subscription series) and the conductor was the 39-year-old Britisher Michael Seal, who made his BA debut last year in April with the same organism. He showed himself expert and energetic, obtaining good though not outstanding results in the Overture for "A Midsummer Night´s Dream", the Violin Concerto and the Fourth Symphony, "Italian". His talented soloist was the young Argentine Xavier Inchausti, a master of execution though not quite of enough interpretative depth. He played a fine encore, Ysaÿe´s Sonata-Ballad Nº 3.

For Buenos Aires Herald