lunes, junio 28, 2010

Ballet and opera: a surfeit of Manons

            I don´t know what got into the heads of the programmers this season, for 2010 isn´t a bicentenary of the original Manon or any other special date, but fact is we are seeing no less than three different stage adaptations of Prévost´s famous novel. Juventus Lyrica is currently performing Puccini´s "Manon Lescaut"; the Colón has just presented two performances of MacMillan´s ballet "Manon"; and later in the season again the Colón will offer Massenet´s "Manon". A surfeit indeed.
            Antoine-François Prévost lived between 1697 and 1763 and published his "Story of the Chevalier Des Grieux and of Manon Lescaut" in 1731 with a true "succès de scandale". It was then a good read and it remains so, for his narration gives an in-depth portrait of Franch society at the time of  Louis XV with an agile and observant pen. It had some influence on Dumas Fils´ "The lady of the camellias".  The girl is 15 in Prévost and in the ballet; Puccini´s numerous librettists put her age higher, 18, which makes the story less shocking. Still, either amoral (as Macmillan thinks) or immoral (as I view it), Manon is sensual and coquettish and  easily attracted by jewels and the good life. So she veers between the carnal pleasure of her relationship with Des Grieux, who may be a chevalier but is also a pennyless student, and the ostentatious luxury offered to her by the Treasurer Geronte (appropriately named so in Puccini) or by a misterious Mr. G.M. in the ballet. And it´s her greed, as well as the machinations of her brother Lescaut, soldier and treacherous gambler, who eventually lead her and Des Grieux to tragedy.
            Kenneth MacMillan´s marvelous choreography for Prokofiev´s "Romeo and Juliet" remains one of the very best of the twentieth century, and I cherish my memories of Bocca and Alessandra Ferri in it. For my taste, however, the choreographer´s "Manon" is in a different league, although I´ve read plenty of praise concerning this work. It was premiered at Covent Garden on March 1974 by the Royal Ballet. Here Bocca and Ferri presented it in 2006 at the Ópera, on the year of his final performances, and notwithstanding the magic of these dancers I felt disappointed. Of course there are some splendid moments, especially in the various pas de deux and in a difficult solo by "Mistress" (Lescaut´s, that is). But there´s also plenty of padding and the work overstays its welcome, especially in the First Scene of the Second Act, a colorless brothel-gambling house. There are moments of poetry,  but also tasteless ones as the scene between the Jailer and Manon.  In all, the ballet seems too pat and undramatic. The music has part of the blame; it is all Massenet from different operas (but not "Manon"!) and other scores, such as the famous "Élégie" (surely the best music and choreography), but Leighton Lucas has done an undistinguished job of compilation and orchestration, and much of it is boring and too light.
            Even if I don´t enthuse about this ballet, it is surely to be deplored that because of labor troubles (meetings during rehearsals) the public was given only two of the six planned performances. Certainly a very bad start that shows an uncomfortable truth: the Colón was reinaugurated but it is seething with internal problems. The main reason: the City Government has been so silly that it didn´t pay in time the extra fees  for the May 24 reinauguration show (it was a Monday, a non-working day for the Colón, and it must be paid double). And thus the audiences for the ballet were shortchanged but also the artists.  It doesn´t help either that the Colón has just lost an excellent ballet teacher, Karemia Moreno, due to differences with Lidia Segni, the Ballet´s Directress.
            The ballet was revived here by Karl Burnett; the general lines of MacMillan´s steps were quite recognizable, but I can´t vouchsafe on detail if there are any changes. The production came from Santiago de Chile´s Teatro Municipal, which is much smaller than the Colón, so the adaptation wasn´t easy and apart from proportions I felt that some painted parts were rather weak in execution, but the general picture by Peter Farmer was agreeable, respecting the eighteenth-century ambience. Costumes are uncredited but I suppose they all come from Santiago; they were of varied quality.
            The protagonists chosen by Burnett are quite young and had here their first great roles. The parts are long and difficult and both Nadia Muzyca and Federico Fernández have promising qualities; the acting ability of Muzyca seemed higher than her partenaire´s and she rose to the drama of the last act with great flexibility. Both Silvina Perillo and Alejandro Parente were in full form and Sergio Yannelli was a convincing Monsieur G.M. The Corps de Ballet had no less than 19 reinforcements (coming, I´m told, from Bocca´s school where Segni teaches) which shows the parlous condition of the Colón´s Ballet, where many can´t dance anymore due to age and absurd pensioning conditions. This ballet has many big ensembles and I felt they were reasonably well danced. Chilean conductor José Luis Domínguez, who had done the same job for Bocca and for Santiago, drew a fluent performance from the Colón resident orchestra.
            I will leave consideration of Puccini´s "Manon Lescaut" for next week, for I thought it worthwhile to concentrate on the Colón Ballet.
For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, junio 21, 2010

Chamber music to the fore

            Chamber music has for many decades carried a contradiction to its own denomination: written for performance in small chambers, it is now played not only in appropriately restricted spaces but also in huge theatres and concert halls. And the same person that molds his or her performance to those intimate venues has to project the produced sounds in places that hold from two thousand to three thousand people. It probably isn´t fair, but how else can a name artist play and earn a big fee?  Or how else can a big institution like the Mozarteum, with so many subscribers, give its due to this essential repertoire?
            This introductory reflexion has occurred to me as a consequence of three recent concerts: the second visit to this country of ultra-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma (this time accompanied by pianist Kathryn Stott), inaugurating the Colón´s Bicentenary Subscription Series (Colón, 3.000 capacity); the debut of the Eggner Trio for the Mozarteum at the Coliseo (2.000 capacity); and the Nuevo Trio Argentino for Festivales Musicales at the Avenida (1.400 capacity, I believe).  I have no doubt that the Avenida is the best venue for this sort of thing, but it is a fact that the Coliseo and the Colón will continue to be used for chamber music , as happens in so many other big halls in the world.
            When Yo-Yo Ma played Dvorák´s Concerto with the Philharmonic (more than ten years ago) he was already at the height of his fame. Then I deeply admired the musicality of his playing, the perfect intonation and articulation, but I missed a measure of roundness and volume, the sheer weight of the sound of Mstislav Rostropovich, who has also played that concerto here. Now Yo-Yo Ma was back at 55, and the reinauguration of the Colón is under perusal of its acoustics; we all discuss whether it is the same as it was prior to 2006. So, when I heard the cellist during the First Part playing with a small sound and deficient projection, and I even heard some slips of intonation, I was astonished.
  During the interval several theories were heard: a) that indeed he was diminished in his sound projection; b) that the acoustics aren´t as live as they were; c) that the drop curtain (for they played in front of it) absorbed too much sound (but that practice existed prior to 2006 and no one complained); d) that the piano´s top should have been lowered. Come the Second Part and matters were reversed to an impressive degree: the sound was much richer, and the artistic involvement certainly higher. Now we recognized the master cellist of yore.  Was it a matter of deeper concentration? Did somebody tell him that his sound wasn´t projecting enough? I can´t know, but for me the concert was saved by its second half, and it proved that it wasn´t the acoustics.
The concert had started with a bad artistic decision: three short pieces (played without a break) of low content: Morricone´s "Gabriel´s oboe" from the film "The Mission"; an ugly arrangement of Gershwin´s Prelude Nº2 for piano; and a very light "Crystal" of bossa nova character by Cesar Camargo Mariano. But then came a masterpiece, Brahms´s First Sonata; that at least showed that Stott, a Britisher of vast career making her local debut, is a redoubtable player and certainly dominated with impressive strength.  The Second Part started with the premiere of Graham Fitkin´s "L" (50 in Roman numbers, written for the cellist´s fiftieth birthday), an agreeable 7-minute busy piece, minimalist and of high energy, where the artist seemed to wake up. And Rachmaninov´s big Sonata provided the hoped-for transformation, with both Yo-Yo Ma and Stott playing with inspired phrasing and high technical level (she was amazing). The encores kept up the standard: Piazzolla´s "Le grand tango" and Saint-Saëns´"The Swan".
As the Trios played in two consecutive days, it made for an interesting comparison. The Nuevo Trio Argentino reminds me of such trios as the Beaux Arts, dominated by pianist Menahem Pressler. Fernando Pérez is a virtuoso player and a real powerhouse; his way with chamber music is  the right one: this is music with sinew and strength, who deserves as much commitment as the solo repertoire, and where one must not be afraid of the big sound.  But few string soloists can compete: I admire and enjoy the playing of violinist Elías Gurevich and cellist Myriam Santucci, but sometimes they were overwhelmed by the pianist. Within this limitation, however, they gave lively, intelligent and accomplished interpretations of Clara Wieck´s lovely Trio, of her husband Schumann´s First Trio and of Mendelssohn´s First Trio.
For those who enjoy a better balanced Trio and a lower level of electricity, the Eggners fit the bill. These brothers (clad in identical gray suits with no tie) are certainly good players, accurate and clean, but short in impact. Pianist Christoph blends easily but never excites; violinist Georg is always impeccable but adrenaline is kept low; only cellist Florian (histrionic also in gestures) gives stronger phrasing. They also played Schumann, but the Second Trio. They seemed more akin to the twentieth century, with a well-observed Shostakovich (the adolescent and fascinating First Trio) and the complex Ravel Trio, where they did manage some intensity at the trill-ridden ending. A piece for pedal piano by Schumann arranged by Feodor Kirchner was the curious encore.
For Buenos Aires Herald

martes, junio 15, 2010

Our main orchestras retrieve their home acoustics

            Of course the big show these last few weeks has been the Colón´s reinauguration. But today I want to stress a point: its two orchestras were home again, in those irreplaceable acoustics, after years of suffering the mediocrity of the Gran Rex, and to a lesser degree the shortcomings of the Ópera (I will keep calling it so, not Citi) and the Coliseo.  And I must add another retrieval almost as important: the National Symphony is "home" again too, so to speak, for they tollerated the intollerable for three long years, working at the Facultad de Derecho (UBA) or at the Bolsa de Comercio, both with terribly over-resonant acoustics. But now, after long negotiations, they are back at the second best acoustics in town, the Auditorio de Belgrano.  So these are encouraging good news .
            The Buenos Aires Philharmonic, our Phil, started its subscription series at very high prices quite unwarranted, but almost everything is extremely expensive at the current Colón, as a result of the policies of the City´s Government and of García Caffi, the theatre´s General Director.
            Enrique Arturo Diemecke, the successful Mexican conductor of the last seasons, remains at the helm as Artistic Director, but he has lost an important helper, for Eduardo Ihidoype is no longer the Orchestra´s Executive Director, as he is now the Director of the Colón´s Institute of Art; he hasn´t been replaced at the Phil .
            The big attraction in the first concert (June 3) was the debut of pianist Natasha Binder, 9-years-old! This prodigy comes from a long line of pianists, some of them prodigies in their own right: her mother Karin Lechner, her half-uncle Sergio Tiempo. Her grandmother is Lil de Raco de Tiempo, her great-grandfather was Antonio De Raco, her great-grandmother is Elisabeth Westerkamp. And all the family has long been very much a part of Martha Argerich´s milieu (no kin). Natasha played Beethoven´s First Concerto and in this case I often closed my eyes to be able to maintain my objectivity. For at a subscription program of the Phil there can be no double standard, and I can´t write "considering her age". Well, she did a very creditable Beethoven, mostly with clean articulation and adequate style. Shortcomings: some smudges; a need for stronger statement;  an interpretation lacking a personal feeling. True, she wasn´t well accompanied; in what sounded like an under-rehearsed orchestra there were plenty of misadjustments and a rather gray sound. She played eagerly two encores, a well-known D. Scarlatti sonata and the sparkling "Polichinelle" by Villa-Lobos, with very accurate fingers. Alrthough at this age she is less assertive than her mother and half-uncle were at the same age, Natasha should have a good career, for she is obviously a result of fine schooling and great natural gifts.
            Beethoven was preceded with what for me was an unnecessary premiere (there´s an enormous amount of worthwhile stuff unaccountably waiting in the aisles): "El sueño de Cristóbal" by the Argentine Ezequiel Viñao, 50-years-old, who lives in New York. As "Cristóbal" is Colón, I suppose the piece was chosen symbolically for the reinauguration of the theatre. But it is arid and repetitive, with little to enjoy. Fortunately, the concert ended with R. Strauss´ magnificent (and very difficult) "Also sprach Zarathustra" ("Thus spake Zarathustra"). The beginning is famous ever since it was used in Kubrick´s film "2001", but the whole piece is tremendously inventive and luxuriously orchestrated. Diemecke showed his uncanny memory and easy rapport with the Phil, but I found his interpretation a bit too Hollywood; the score needs  deeper phrasing. The orchestra was in good form, but the really important fact was that in this work the whole extent of the acoustics can be judged, and I least where I was located in the third floor of loges ("palco alto") and center left, the sound was as I remembered, clean but warm, clear but with aura and roundness. And this with a not quite adequate interim acoustics chamber (the old one was cut to pieces, the new one isn´t ready…).
            The second Phil concert had several attractions: the debut of a 35-year-old Korean conductor, Shi-Yeon Sung; the rentrée of Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing this time Gershwin´s Piano Concerto; the premiere of "Rocaná" ("Space of light") by the Korean lady composer Unsuk Chin (1961). And a surprise: an encore for piano and orchestra, the José Carli arrangement of Horacio Salgán´s "A fuego lento", with the composer present.
            The Gershwin had the misfortune of a bad trumpet solo in the second movement, but otherwise it was agreeably played by the orchestra and beautifully by Thibaudet within his very French, Ravelian style. I do prefer a stronger and more swinging approach, such as Ralph Votapek presented at least twice in this city, but it was nice to hear. The 22-minute score by Chin is perfectly defined by her: "it is a reflection of my dreams with its visions of immense light and an incredible magnificence of colors". She is a disciple of Ligeti and it shows; her music is sensitive and transparent, and it was conducted with virtuoso ability by Sung, a fine specimen of the redoubtable women conductors of her generation. She again showed her mettle and fine musicianship in Franck´s splendid Symphony, quite well played.
            Lack of space forces me to leave a comment on the National Symphony for a future occasion.
For Buenos Aires Herald

domingo, junio 13, 2010

New and old: Ainadamar” and “Madama Butterfly

            Undoubtedly La Plata´s Teatro Argentino did the best musical homage to the Bicentenary: it combined one of our classics (Ginastera´s "Estancia") with a premiere by the currently best-known Argentine composer with residence in the United States: Osvaldo Golijov. His "Ainadamar" is a homage to García Lorca and has had a big success in the North, including a Grammy. On the other hand Buenos Aires Lírica put on (no connexion with the Bicentenary) a great Puccini opera: "Madama Butterfly"; and they did justice to it.
I unfortunately missed "Estancia", an eight-dance suite choreographed by Carlos Trunsky, due to a snafu on starting time.
            "Ainadamar" means in Arabic "fountain of tears" and certainly applies to the place in Granada where the great poet was shot. It is the first opera by Golijov, a "platense" composer born in 1960 who studied in Argentina with Gandini, in Israel with Mark Kopytman and in the States with Crumb and Knussen. The text was written by David Henry Hwang, author of "M. Butterfly" (no relation to Puccini´s work!), which has a Chinese locale. It is a chamber opera lasting about 80 minutes (not 45 as wrongly stated in the hand programme of the Argentino) evoking the poet through the memories of the great actress Margarita Xirgú. The libretto was translated into Spanish by Golijov and is organized in "three images" that are presented in a continuous single act.
            The First Image, "Mariana", refers to García Lorca´s play "Mariana Pineda", the revolutionary executed in 1831. Montevideo, 1969: the old Xirgú tells her young pupil Nuria (Espert?) about her first meeting with the poet and his ideas of freedom. The Second Image , "Federico", tells us about Xirgú´s last encounter with García Lorca, when she tried to convince him unavailingly to travel with her company to Cuba, but he wanted to stay in Granada and accompany the Republican cause; the Falangist  Ruiz Alonso later in the Image leads the poet to the solitary place of execution. The Third Image, "Margarita", brings us back to the closing minutes of Xirgú´s life; the spirit of the poet accompanies her and they both enter into a visionary transformation.
            A moving story, then.  Golijov´s music is very trendy: a vast array of elements  both classic and popular (at times it might be called "fusion")  are mixed: the basic language is tonal with just enough audacity to be called contemporary, but always with a strong Spanish tint, reinforced by the presence of a Flamenco "cantaor" and two guitarists; and there´s electronic transformation of words and sounds to submerge us in the tragic atmosphere of the Civil War. The technical skill is always  evident and in two extended vocal trios Golijov shows that he has a real gift for melody and euphonic sounds. The choral writing is also very effective. True, the whole thing is overextended and with too much redundancy; but I still find it an attractive musical-theatrical experience.
            It was handsomely presented. Claudia Billourou, who had been so wrong last year in "Lucia di Lammermoor",  gave real Andalousian flavor to her staging, with expressive grouping of women in black (she was also costume designer), an interesting use of projections (especially a dancer) and coherent aesthetics. With stark stage design and lighting plot from Juan Carlos Greco, the staging was of a piece.
            The musical side was equally satisfying. Excellent conducting from Rodolfo Fischer, first-rate singing from the feminine chamber choir, and admirable lead singers. Marisa Pavón replaced the announced Graciela Oddone as Margarita, and gave to her singing and acting a deep telluric strength. Franco Fagioli sang with great intensity his García Lorca (Golijov wrote the part for a mezzo but he admitted a countertenor for the La Plata premiere, and I feel it´s much better this way) and Patricia González sang with free and fresh expansion her Nuria.  Good jobs from the cantaor Jesús Montoya and the bass baritone Víctor Castells.  One controversial aspect: such is the variety of sounds on stage that amplification is needed; it worked generally well, but Fagioli had the bad luck of having his microphone maladjusted and some wrenching sounds emerged; no matter, "Ainadamar" was a success.
            A shorter review of "Madama Butterfly", to my mind the very best Puccini. Buenos Aires Lírica had included it on their  first season, with Mariela Schemper. They decided to do it again, and with a young talented singer, Florencia Fabris. I´m glad to state that she coped well with the enormous role in every sense; although she´s a big girl, by dint of well-studied movement and adequate makeup she was a believable Cio Cio San, and she sang with a healthy, beautiful voice, quite well used.  Enrique Folger was a splendid Pinkerton, probably the best we have, with fine timbre and style. Ernesto Bauer lacked some volume and color as Sharpless, but sang and acted correctly. The smaller parts were quite good: Vanesa Mautner as an ideal Suzuki, Santiago Bürgi doing an outstanding Goro, Walter Schwarz sonorous and impressive as the Bonze, Mariano Fernández Bustinza as a pleasing Yamadori.
            Fine conducting by Carlos Vieu of the Panizza reorchestration for chamber orchestra, nice choral work led by Juan Casasbellas. And an agreeable production from Crystal Manich (debut, USA-born) with fine stage designs (originally from the Theatro El Círculo of Rosario) by Nicolás Boni and very beautiful costumes by Lucía Marmorek.   
For Buenos Aires Herald

sábado, junio 05, 2010

Positive concert-going in recent weeks

            The two weeks preceding the May 25 Bicentenary celebrations were rather meager in quality concerts, but before that stagnant period and after the long-awaited date classical concerts were abundant and offered some memorable moments.  None better than the presence of Argentine cellist Sol Gabetta (Córdoba, 1981) with the Basel Chamber Orchestra at the Mozarteum (Coliseo).  This girl is radiant in every sense, a strong but charming personality, a fantastic player, a strange beauty and charisma; a real star.  Her technique is simply amazing but what matters is her intense musicality; rhythm possesses her, and she has a natural instinct for phrasing arcing melodies with maximum effect. Her sound is lean and terse, ideal for the eighteenth century concertos she chose on this occasion.
            Leopold Hofmann (1738-93) is little-known but worth the acquaintance: his Concerto in D major, Badley D3, may fall into the rococo period but it has an urgency and character that go beyond the easy charm of that style; it was probably a premiere here. Two cello concerti have been authenticated as Joseph Haydn´s ; the one in C major is less played than its companion, for it was found later, but fully its equal: we have here Classicism at its best, with a devilishly arduous last movement, played stunningly by Gabetta. She gave as an encore the same eerie piece by  Peteris Vasks (1946, Latvia) I heard her play in Vienna, "Dolcissimo", featuring a passage in which she sang sweetly and purely. It was pure magic.
            But the success of the concert went beyond the soloist, for the Basel Chamber Orchestra proved first-rate. It was born in 1984 and it currently has as concertino Andrés Gabetta (yes, Sol´s brother!) , who proved to be quite a player and an excellent leader of a very homogeneous and young orchestra numbering 27 and including not only strings but two oboes and two natural horns (which gave its rightful bite to Hofmann and Haydn). And with a very interesting sense of contrast they played Bartók before both eighteenth-century composers: the famous "Six Romanian folk dances" and the splendid Divertimento, of much greater density of thought than that associated with the genre. Although very accurate, I did feel some deficit of intensity in the latter work, and in the dances the risky solo in harmonics sometimes went awry. The Orchestra accompanied the soloist splendidly in the Concerti, always hand-in-glove in phrasings and details, and with clear, clean sound. The style, impeccable of its kind, might be called "moderately historicist".  
            On the following day (May 26) of the Gabetta concert I attended, a valuable group made its unexpected debut, for they were replacing another ensemble for Nuova Harmonia (also at the Coliseo) and at a different date. They call themselves the Russian Virtuosi of Europe because they are Russian expatriates; they were born in London rather recently (2004), with the leadership of concertino Yuri Zhislin, who is still with them.  As they are only eleven players, they do lack some body, but as all are excellent players with fine timbre, one may feel that these eleven amount to more. Their interpretations are polished, in fine intonation, very euphonic, but they do lack some brio in their accents and dynamics (never a true fortissimo). And as they are only strings, one feels at times that it would be useful if they traveled with, say, an oboist playing a concerto, to provide some contrast.
            I was sorry to hear Bruckner´s Adagio (arranged from his Quintet) from outside the hall (that darned B.A. traffic!). Johann Sebastian Bach´s Concerto for two violins had a very smooth performance, with  discernible contrapunctal lines, and I agree with the idea of having soloists that match each other: the musical lines need this, not different colors. Both Zhislin and Natalia Lomeiko played beautifully. Then –a coincidence- Bartók´s very same Romanian dances of the day before, but in an interesting comparison they gave different accents to certain passages, and I found them equally convincing.  The Second Part was all-Tchaikovsky: an arrangement of the lovely Andante cantabile from his First Quartet, and the justly celebrated Serenade, certainly one of the very best string musics ever written. The interpreters are Russians, and they feel this music deeply; I especially liked their gracious Waltz and the melancholy Elegy. Zhislin in good Spanish (he is Artistic Director of the International Festival Evaristo del Valle, Spain) announced the obligatory Piazzolla encore, but a good one: the expressive "Oblivion", with the concertino playing subtly.
            With one exception, our historicist ensemble La Barroca del Suquía gave us an all-J.S.Bach concert at the Auditorio de Belgrano for Festivales Musicales, and it was as good as I supposed it would be, for this ensemble is of truly international quality. Not only its wonderful concertino Manfred Kraemer but all of them : 14 outstanding players of fine style doing authentic Bach; quite a treat. They too did the Concerto for two violins (Kraemer, Hebe Asrin). But the occasion also provided a chance to hear Dutch flutist Jed Wentz in Telemann (Concerto in E minor TWV 51 e3), Bach´s Brandenburg Concerto Nº 5 and the Second Suite (for flute and strings), and italian harpsichordist Luca Guglielmi as part of the continuo in all pieces  and as soloist in the Brandenburg Concerto. Both were very good, though their tenuous sound sometimes didn´t register enough in the big Auditorio.  
For Buenos Aires Herald