viernes, abril 27, 2012

Orchestras and pianists, a variegated panorama

           The Ushuaia Festival, led from the beginning by Víctor Uliarte, has been in recent years a worthwhile accomplishment, for it has brought classical music to the  southernmost sizable city in the world. It has presented both the Moscow and the Berlin Symphony, along with some valuable soloists and chamber presentations.  BA always gets a “prequel” of one or two concerts before the Festival.  Some newspaper and private comments have indicated that this season´s Festival has been subpar in comparison to earlier ones. However, the concerts I saw in BA were apparently the pick of the crop of this Eighth Festival: a symphonic one and a piano recital. 
            Granted, the ad-hoc orchestra made up of players from several BA orchestras doesn´t compare with the Berlin and Moscow ones. The hand programme says: “it is made up of 66 of the best musicians from the three Colón Orchestras”, by which I assume that it also includes the youthful Academic Orchestra, and indeed I saw some quite young faces, along with  such capable veterans as cellist Carlos Nozzi (BA Phil) or oboist Rubén Albornoz (from the Colón “Estable”), but the concertino came from yet another orchestra (not mentioned in the programme): Roberto Rutkauskas from the National Symphony. 
          Apart from  the personal capacity of each player, it isn´t easy with a few rehearsals to meld artists from different organisms in  a unified whole, and I felt the strain of obtaining a similar style and level of execution. As Uliarte is a competent but hardly charismatic conductor, the results were middling. The same scores were played in two identical concerts: a free one at the Colón and a paid one at the Coliseo (which I heard). The music was all-Russian and it featured the debut of a splendid young Russian pianist, Vitaly Pisarenko, in his twenties. The mere fact that he managed to infuse freshness and authenticity in that most overworked of old warhorses, Tchaikovsky´s First Piano Concerto, is admirable. He has a powerful and precise technique; he never overpedals, keeps a firm line, manages the octaves with absolute accuracy, phrases beautifully the melodic bits, is never vulgar and avoids grandstanding. 
            The orchestral accompaniment was no more than acceptable, but at least there were no serious disagreements. Somo horn fluffs apart, the playing was better in Rimsky-Korsakov´s brilliant “Russian Easter Overture”. But the plum was the unahackneyed choice of Scriabin´s Second Symphony as the main symphonic work. The overwrought style of the five movements isn´t to everyone´s taste, but the music is certainly personal and difficult; Uliarte led it with a firm hand and the orchestra went along decently enough, though some passages were garbled. It was certainly hard to forget the magnificent version of Svetlanov with the URSS National Symphony, a true model heard almost two decades ago here. 
            The third concert of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic ran into major trouble: Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang, who was to be the soloist in Prokofiev´s immensely virtuosic Second Concerto, cancelled because “personal engagements have impeded him from obtaining the immigration papers required to access our country”, as a leaflet said; in plainer language, he didn´t get a proper visa on his passport. Negligence or a bad case of bureaucratic hindrance? Anyway, a partial refund was offered to the public.
            So we got an all-symphonic concert under Enrique Arturo Diemecke. The first score, as planned, was the 13-minute Piazzolla “Tangazo” (1969), completely typical of this composer, in a very good version. Then,  the conductor replaced the Prokofiev with Mahler´s “Totenfeier” (“Funeral Rites”), the antecedent of the first movement of the Second Symphony (“Resurrection”). In fact, as I detected with the score, they are almost identical from the rehearsal number 1 to 16; the symphony adds the passages contained from 17 to 19; and again numbers 20 to 27 are practically identical. Anyway, both versions are tremendous music and were well rendered by conductor and orchestra. A very proficient but to my mind slightly acid execution of Brahms´ marvelous Fourth Symphony ended the evening.           
            I have long known Turkish pianist Idil Biret through records and I greatly appreciate her integral Chopin. It was a pleasant surprise to find her playing at the Museo de Arte Decorativo. A mature lady of imposing poise and strength, I felt her a little too forceful in some passages of Brahms´ left-hand arrangement (very good of its kind) of Bach´s Chaconne from the Second Violin Partita, and also in some bits of Beethoven´s magnificent “Waldstein” Sonata (Nº 21), but there was no gainsaying her stunning professionalism. However, what really bowled me over was the rest of the evening: fantastic performances of two wildly difficult Etudes by Ligeti (Nos. 2 and 6 of the First Book), a welcome sample of Turkish composer Saygun´s Preludes op.45 (1967), quite attractive , and the best traversal of Chopin´s Etudes op.25 I´ve heard in recent years, with no excentricities such as Tiempo and Lisitsa provided. Plus a scintillating encore: Liszt´s etude “Gnomenreigen” (“Round dance of the Gnomes”). 
            Finally, Irish pianist Michael McHale gave a lovely recital at the Museo Fernández Blanco; he played (as last year) at the Ushuaia Festival. After sensitive versions of Schubert´s op.90 Impromptus, a first-rate account of Liszt´s “Funérailles”. A beautiful Barber “Nocturne”. Finally, charming Irish pieces: arrangements of folk songs by McHale himself, Philip Hammond´s “The bearded boy” and William Vincent Wallace´s “Roslyn Castle” in accomplished interpretations.

jueves, abril 26, 2012

Verdi reigns: “La Forza del Destino” is back

            A logical coincidence: in immediate contrast two great Giuseppe Verdi operas were to be seen: "Rigoletto" at the Avenida started Buenos Aires Lírica´s season, and the Colón presented, after 27 years of silence, "La Forza del Destino". Logical, because no other Italian author has produced such a number of operas that have stayed in the repertoire. And in fact, in a couple of weeks the Roma (Avellaneda) will present a concert version of "Attila". I will only refer this time to "Forza".
            I am zero superstitious, which makes me a "rara avis". But if you are a believer, you surely know that "Forza" is the "unnameable" and that opera lovers will  mention facts such as the death on stage of baritone Leonard Warren as an example of the bad luck this particular piece is supposed to have. Well, I´ve seen six performances prior to the current ones and I´m still alive.
            I remember a few years back an estimable peroduction of "Forza" presented by Adelaida Negri, but otherwise I believe it hasn´t been seen in BA since 1985, a long time for an opera that has its flaws but whose best moments are up there in the pantheon of greatness. I won´t deny that the tremendous Romantic drama by the Duke of Rivas has aged ("Don Álvaro o La fuerza del sino") but I rather agree with Menéndez y Pelayo that it is "immense as human life...with a fatality that isn´t Greek but Spanish and that drives the principal character along with somber beauty". However, what Azorín says is also true: "incoherence or irregularity,  superficial and talky". Nevertheless, when Verdi received a succulent contract from Saint Petersburg, this is the subject he chose, and the initial libretto was written by Francesco Maria Piave. This first 1862 version was truer to Rivas´  truculence, and at the end Alvaro, after the deaths of Leonora and her brother, commits suicide (try to see the Maryinsky DVD of this initial "Forza", rarely staged nowadays).  By the time he provided a second and definitive version in 1869, not only the end had changed, now Alvaro remains alive,  but the famous Overture has been added and many other details have been modified.  The libretto had addenda and corrigenda by Ghislanzoni, and one scene is based on "Wallenstein´s Camp" by Schiller, for this is the mysterious war alluded to against the "Tedeschi".
The locales are a house in Seville, a tavern at Hornachuelos (a village close to Córdoba), a convent near it and a grotto close to the convent, and a camp near the Italian city of Velletri, close to Rome. Although the composer was anticlerical, the treatment of religion is very traditional in "Forza", very far from the condemnation of the Inquisition in "Don Carlo". And there´s the politically incorrect apology of war, as well as Melitone (a buffo baritone) thundering against the sins of the "pezzenti" (beggars). What is now generally felt to be incongruous -the free mixture of drama and comedy-  is very much a feature wanted by Verdi, who introduced the "Rataplan" ending the Third Act with Preziosilla (a gypsy fortune-teller) and the choir. And also the opera structured in contrasting tableaux, an idea that probably influenced Mussorgsky in his "Boris Godunov". So you have the sublime and the trivial inextricably mixed, and you may dislike some bits (I do), but any opera that has at least 90 minutes of great music is basic repertoire. In it Spanish honor is basic and blind to any flexibility (as in "Ernani"), and there´s a strange reference to the Inca lineage of Alvaro ("indiano").
As I feel that an evaluation of the opera was necessary after such a long time without it, I´m left with reduced space for this particular revival, but as there are two casts I will write again about it two weeks from now. First, I was angry at an arbitrary and wholly unnecessary displacement of the Overture, played after Act I instead of before (that´s why it´s an overture!). Two years ago the Colón was reopened with "La Boheme"; Renato Palumbo was the conductor and Hugo De Ana fully in charge as producer and stage, costume and lighting designer. Now we had the same combination; are they a team or is it a coincidence?  Palumbo did a good, workmanlike job, with a well-playing orchestra, and the Colón Choir was proficient, although I think its conductor Peter Burian overdid the "pianissimi". I will leave comments on De Ana for next time, only advancing that I found it controversial but interesting.
This first cast brought several debuts. That of Greek soprano Dimitra Theodossiou, who certainly knows the style but has too much vibrato; however, she was affecting, especially in the last act. The tenor was the Russian Mikhail Agafonov and he was a pleasant surprise; he can´t compete with the local memories of Tucker, Domingo and Giacomini, but he showed a frank emission with good highs and center, musicality and decent Italian, as well as correct acting. The baritone Luca Salsi lacks a distinctive timbre; however,  he sings  clearly and moves with conviction. And bass Roberto Scandiuzzi sang with authority and a slightly frayed voice a noble Guardian.
Agnes Zwierko was very disinvolt as Preziosilla but she´s more a contralto than a mezzo and the highs gave her trouble. Luis Gaeta offered a first-rate Melitone, funny with no exaggeration and finely sung. In flank roles Fernando Radó and Guadalupe Barrientos were outstanding, and the others quite good: Fernando Chalabe (deprived, as Trabucco, of a two-minute scene, only and silly cut of the evening), Leonardo Estévez and Gustavo Feulien.

lunes, abril 09, 2012

Carmen, Ivan the Terrible as ballets

                 You may think that during Holy Week the apposite programming would be sacred music, and in fact there were some interesting concerts offering the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach´s St John Passion and of Domenico Scarlatti´s  Stabat Mater. But quite profanely I spent Saturday night seeing two ballets with Maximiliano Guerra (of which more below) and Sunday afternoon seeing the last performance of Mauricio Wainrot´s “Carmen” at the Colón, inaugurating their ballet season.                 Although here in BA Wainrot mainly works with the San Martín group, of chamber proportions, elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere he has often worked with big companies, and he has also produced several ballets for the Colón. The subject had already involved him back in 2007 for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet of Canada, but then he had used an original score by Canadian composer Elizabeth Raum, which didn´t convince him. When he proposed a “Carmen” to Lidia Segni,  Directress of the Colón Ballet, he wanted to use Bizet´s music for the opera, though arranged as a ballet and within the bounds of a sole act of 80 minutes. Composer-conductor Luis Gorelik was commissioned to produce a score along traditional lines, and he did so with material mostly from the opera, though adding musics of Turina and Albéniz.
                In B.A. we are well accustomed to Alberto Alonso´s cool, angular expressionism in the “Carmen” commissioned by Maya Plissetskaya on the unusual arrangement made by her husband Rodion Shchedrin for strings and percussion. The Alonso choreography as adapted by the diva´s brother Alexander Plissetski was seen here with Maia in 1976 and had a roaring success (one of her best roles). In 2004 we also saw the interesting version by Marcia Haydée on more conventional lines. And well before that, the fascinating flamenco “Carmen” (no Bizet) by the Antonio Gades Ballet with Cristina Hoyos (also a Carlos Saura film).
                I have to be frank, the Wainrot version doesn´t compete. He chose an academic, Neoclassic language, which ill adapts to such a passionate subject, but even within that option I hoped for more imagination, based on many other Wainrot works that I find superior. The one good point is the introduction of Destiny as a main character, which concords fully with both Mérimée´s and Bizet´s essence. And “she” gets the best choreography. The bullfighter gets the worst, worlds apart from the visceral movements invented by Alonso.           The rest is very conventional, skilfully done of course, but that´s the least to be expected from a seasoned choreographer.   And it isn´t helped by Gorelik´s arrangement, workmanlike but flat (and routinely played by the Colón Orchestra under the arranger).
                It had a quality presentation by the same team seen in Winnipeg: stage and costume designs by Carlos Gallardo, lighting by Eli Sirlin, images by Ramiro Fernández. In the first cast (there were two) I especially liked Karina Olmedo (Destiny) and Juan Pablo Ledo as Don José. Silvina Perillo is a charming and accomplished dancer; however, she couldn´t go beyond the conventionality of Wainrot´s conception. Federico Fernández was below his best level as Escamillo; Maricel De Mitri was an appropriately sweet Micaela (well delineated by the chorographer) and Vagram Ambartsoumian, of imposing physical presence, was a fine Captain Zúñiga (murdered in this version). The others were in the picture, with some agreeable ensembles.
                Both Iñaki Urlezaga and Maximiliano Guerra are currently estranged from the Colón, probably with good reason. Both lead their own ensembles in other theatres. It isn´t easy to do so, for the Colón has resources they don´t have, but they persevere. Now Guerra with his chamber Ballet Mercosur presented in two consecutive nights a double bill at the ND Ateneo, a cozy theatre except for the uncomfortable seats.
                “Hotel de inmigrantes” is a 28-minute pleasant choreography by Nicolás Cobos and Paola Jean Jean based on a dramaturgy by Claudio Grillo and on tangos, milongas and “valses criollos” arranged by Daniel García (recorded) and with acting direction by Manuel Callau. In a rather disjointed manner it shows through small (sometimes too small) tableaux the gradual integration of the immigrants into a world of “orilleros”, “malevos” and “percantas” (my appellations) with a touch of social conflict, but popular rhythms bring enjoyment, leavened with some humorous bits. The whole group dances with gusto and some virtuosity, Guerra a “primus inter pares”.
                The “plat de résistance”, though, was the 39-minute “Ivan the Terrible”, choreographed by Guerra and Gabriela Pucci on  dramaturgy and acting direction by Callau. Inaccurately the programme mentioned “music by Paganini”; not so, most of the music is from Rachmaninov´s “Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini”, plus fragments of Ravel´s “Valses nobles et sentimentales” and the great Waltz from Prokofiev´s “Romeo and Juliet”( I think). There´s plenty of mayhem on this capsule biography, showing the Czarina Anastasia as an iron-willed leader nurturing the child Ivan until she is murdered by the boyars; eventually Ivan is crowned, marries Elena and kills his adversaries, including Count Kurbsky. Too lurid at times, and with unpleasant stage designs by Sylvia San Martín, nevertheless  this Ivan has some strong scenes.
                Fine dramatic work from Guerra, who still keeps well at 44; petite Tamara Barbadoro is fine as Ivan child; Javier Melgarejo provides a sinister presence as Kurbsky; and both Julieta Saravia (Anastasia) and Jorgelina Aguirre (Elena) were fine in their roles, all abetted by a well-rehearsed small corps de ballet.