martes, diciembre 29, 2015

The persistent charm of Ravel´s sortileges

           Maurice Ravel is famous for his symphonic music and his enormous talent for orchestration, but he also wrote two operatic jewels. "L´heure espagnole" is a picaresque comedy written in 1907 (though premièred in 1911) about Concepción´s failed attempts to induce into action two would-be lovers, a flighty poet and an elderly suitor, until she decides to opt for a muscled and forthright muleteer;  the Spanish hour of the title refers to the time lapse she has for herself every week when her old husband, a watchmaker, goes to maintain Toledo´s municipal clock. The music is fresh and sprightly and it lasts less than the hour, only 46 minutes.

            Many years later,  the symbiosis of a great writer, Colette, with the composer, gave us "L´enfant et les sortilèges" ("The child and the sortileges"). It is defined as a lyric fantasy and is completely "sui generis"; you will look in vain for parallels, this work is unique.  In fact the original idea began as early as 1917, when Jacques Rouche, Director of the Paris Opera, suggested to Colette a fairytale show with Ravel´s participation. It was to be a "divertissement" called "Ballet for my daughter". But the war and other circumstances delayed the project and changed its character.

         With a renewed libretto and Ravel´s most refined technique and inspiration, the opera was finally premièred at Montecarlo on March 1925, conducted by Victor De Sabata and with choreography of no less than George Balanchine. The Colón first appreciated it in 1944 conducted by Albert Wolff , produced by Josef Gielen and with stage designs by Héctor Basaldúa; this was also seen in 1945. It was also presented in 1950  produced by Otto Erhardt. My own experience up to then was the old 78 rpm recording conducted by Ernest Bour. I saw it in 1964, conductor George Sebastian, producer Louis Erlo; and then  in 1973 and 1975, conductor Antonio Tauriello, producer Oscar Figueroa.  After that, silence. To compensate, the model recordings of Ernest Ansermet and Lorin Maazel gave me much joy.

           This is a fairy tale of such subtlety that it needs for its full comprehension an intelligent child approaching puberty or an adult with sensibility. The only way to offer it with its full splendor is with the original orchestration. Nevertheless, in 1991 at the Teatro San Martín it was seen with an adaptation by Didier Puntos for four-hand piano, cello and flute. This was revived later on, and was used this year by the Colón Institute of Art for two performances at the Teatro 25 de Mayo on Avenida Triunvirato. I¨ll be quite frank, I don´t like it: most of the time my inner ear was discarding what I heard and listening to the Ravelian myriad palette. I know why they do it: it is a matter of reducing costs, but you pay an artistic price.

            However, there is an attenuating factor that makes me look at the enterprise as having merit. The Taller de Integración Operística (TIO) assembles all the careers of the Institute and the workshops of the coöperative. The Direction of the Institute proposes an opera as the special project; this goes to the Career of Operatic Stage Production; the students present their proposals and their working group. The winning project is supervised by the teachers of the Institute but their realisation is in the hands of the students. And that is what gives this version of "L´enfant et les sortilèges" its very particular character and worth.

             These are the winners: producer, Mariana Ciolfi; stage designers, Zacaría Gianni and Josefina Lettieri; costumes, Luján Assad. They are all students. On the musical side, Emmanuel Siffert coordinated well the choir prepared by Marcelo Ayub, the abundant vocal soloists, the pianists Ayub and Sebastián Achenbach, the cellist Jorge Pérez Tedesco and the flutist Claudio Romagnoli. A vast list of students helped with the stage designs, the costumes, the hairdressing and the characterisation.

            And how did it come out, considering that the production of "L´enfant..." is very difficult? Rather well. To tell it succinctly, this is the story: a boy isn´t behaving, his mother punishes him; he rebels and goes on a rampage breaking things and hurting animals. And lo, objects come into life and interact, animals speak and complain or cats meow amorously; there are two continuous tableaux, one in the house and the other in the garden; in the final minutes there´s a general row, the boy is hurt but cures a squirrel; the boy says one word, "maman", and the choir of animals sings it too; the sortileges are broken and the boy returns to his house and mother.

           Jazzy humor, pastoral evocation, a deranged clock, the Mathematics, the book  Princess the boy reveres, the courtship of  armchair and chair, the fire that threatens the child, the dialogues of the animals...all in 43 minutes of enchantment. The house  was geometric and had doors and other apertures facilitating the action; the costumes were deliberately grotesque and childish: some worked and others didn´t; there were caricaturish animal masks. The action was agile and well handled, except some details of the general row.

            The singers were advanced students. I especially liked Constanza Díaz Falú as a very florid Fire; Cecilia Pastawski as the Child; Mauro Di Bert as the Mathematics; Augusto Nureña as the Armchair and the Tree; and Trinidad Goyeneche as the Mother and the Dragonfly.

            My proposal for the Colón 2017: both Ravel operas (last done together in 1964!) separated by the ballet "La Valse"; and the vastly delayed première of "Les Troyens" by Berlioz.

For Buenos Aires Herald

The enduring magic of “The Nutcracker”

            Tchaikovsky´s "The Nutcracker" ("Cascanueces") is the world´s  bestseller of Christmas-and-kids ballets. Last year I wrote about the performances of this surefire masterpiece. Then the original choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov was revised by Lidia Segni, the erstwhile Directress of the Colón Ballet. This year in fact "The Nutcracker" wasn´t programmed: we were supposed to witness the première of "Anna Karenina", with music by Tchaikovsky (several scores in a modern arrangement) and choreography by Boris Eifman (whose "Rodin" had been presented in 2014). Alas, once again the Colón gave no explanation about important changes and scrapped it.

            And so, again "The Nutcracker", but with a foreseen twist: the revision was by Maximiliano Guerra, this year´s Ballet Director. Foreseen considering that he had done this same year his version of "Giselle" for Paloma Herrera´s farewell performances in the provinces, and replacing "Eugen Onegin" (postponed for next year)  his choreography of Prokofiev´s "Romeo and Juliet", now questioned as possible plagiarism of MacMillan´s mighty opus by his widow. And in 2016 we´ll have Guerra´s view of "Don Quichotte"... isn´t it a bit too much?

            But of course the five performances were sold out, and I, as so many grandfathers, brought three of my five grandchildren plus my wife and younger daughter to a loge (Palco Balcón) and frankly we all enjoyed it. For this is a ballet that adults of all ages can see with nostalgic eyes of infancy. My first reference will always be the "Nutcracker Suite" included in that Disney marvel, "Fantasia", which I´ve seen a dozen times since I was six.

            But I´ve had wonderful experiences with Balanchine´s choreography in New York (I was 18) and several times at the Colón, the innovative and immensely talented conception of Rudolf Nureyev, especially when he did the main masculine role (Petipa/Ivanov separate the parts of Drosselmeyer and the Prince, but Nureyev´s idea was that for the girl both were the same person due to the great influence of the benevolent magician). However, the ex Colón Director García Caffi got into a  row with Aleth Francillon, heiress of the Nureyev legacy; she made it clear in a published statement that she had been grossly treated and wouldn´t allow the presentation of any of his ballets as long as García Caffi was at the helm; will it be possible now with Darío Lopérfido and Guerra? Well, two changes of title in a season aren´t good for any institution, and many susbscribers have felt cheated this year. We´ll see...

            Anyway, this year the Guerra "Nutcracker" had five sold-out performances with three casts; the main couple was successively Carla Vincelli/Federico Fernández; Nadia Muzyca/Juan Pablo Ledo; and the one I saw, Karina Olmedo/Edgardo Trabalón. I can safely presume that the first two were quite good, and the third one certainly was. Olmedo is a veteran but she manages through her flexible and refined art to give the image of a young girl, and her technique remains admirable. As to Trabalón, he handles his powerful physique with great energy and precise steps. So I can vouch that the current Colón Ballet has first-rate principals.

            Before I go any further, an appraisal of Guerra´s revision. He promised that it would be fun (maybe having in mind that Segni´s wasn´t...) and he was partly right: there is more animation in some details, though little imagination for choreographic gags (he could take some hints from Kylián, e.g.). He also said that his corps de ballet would always dance, and that was more accurate: indeed they were quite active, especially in the long battle between the soldiers and the mice that so frightened Clara, the girl. My favorite ensemble was the exquisite Waltz of the Snowflakes, where the female side of the Corps was disciplined and beautiful.

             The automats in the First Act were interesting: a Harlequin, a Columbine and a Moor. And in the final tableau, "Confiturenbourg", the Sugar Plum Fairy was eliminated (pity) but the divertissement was quite agreeable: the Spanish Dance (a bolero), the Chinese, the Arab (languid, by a man and two odalisques), the Russian (quite effective) and what became here an elegant Pastorale by a shepherd and two shepherdesses (musically it is called "Flutes"). 

            It´s worth reminding that of the sinister side in Hoffmann´s tale little remains in "The Nutcracker"; even the battle with the mice is for kids. But its charm is undiminished.

            Martín Miranda was an elegant and tasteful Drosselmeyer. The rest of the cast is too ample to be mentioned here; suffice it to say that everything was well danced and showed that there are plenty of able professional dancers in the troupe.

            The musical side was very good: excepting some uneasy trumpet moments, the Buenos Aires Philharmonic was in top form and Emmanuel Siffert conducted with sure knowledge and well coordinated with the dancers. The Children´s Choir sang from a loge last lateral to the orchestra and sounded nice (they only intervene in the Waltz of the Snowflakes). The stage designs (Sergio Massa) and costumes (Gino Bogani) were known from last year and remain quite agreeable.

            Final remarks: this was the very last performance of the whole season: now comes the long Summer holiday until late in February. Also, the performance was seen at the Plaza del Vaticano next to the Colón in a huge screen; furthermore, it could be viewed by streaming in  TV sets. And finally, there was a closing homage to about a dozen artists of the ballet who are retiring: the right thing to do and a moving moment.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

The final concert roundup of an intense season


         This year has been incredibly intense in the field of classical music. Although Festivales Musicales is no more, the inauguration of the Centro Cultural Kirchner and in particular of its main hall, the Blue Whale, is certainly the main news of the season. Its functioning can be ameliorated (there was far too much popular music, babies cry and ticket policy is uncomfortable) but from now on the Blue Whale must be reckoned with. And as the Usina del Arte has also maintained an important amount of valuable concerts, the parallel activity of these two transformed buildings will be essential in years to come.

           The Mozarteum, Nuova Harmonia, the Coliseo, the Avenida and the Colón have been normally active, and a host of other institutions have gone on, such as the Museo Fernández Blanco, La Scala de San Telmo, AMIJAI, the Biblioteca Nacional, La Bella Música, the Bach Academy, Chopiniana, AMIA, the Facultad de Derecho, a new series at the Payró, the Sociedad Científica Argentina, the concerts of contemporary music in many venues, plus a good deal of activity in churches...

               The National Symphony (Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional) offered its final concert at the Blue Whale with a valuable concert of Argentine music conducted by the young and very able Mariano Chiacchiarini. It started with the welcome revival of Guillermo Graetzer´s Second Sinfonietta for strings, a firmly wrought Hindemithian score (our composer´s teacher). Graetzer (1914-92) was a prolific Viennese creator who became an Argentine citizen in 1939. In 1946 he founded the Collegium Musicum of Buenos Aires, an admirable educational institution.

              Then, a typical Gerardo Gandini work, "E sarà". The title alludes to the Verdian phrase "Torniamo all´antico e sarà un progresso" and the five parts evoke creators of yore in the subtle timbric and harmonic way of Gandini, one of our best composers: Frescobaldi, Rameau, a Medieval Anonimous ("Planh", a complaint), Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti.

              Ending the First Part, a world première by one of our most personal artists: Luis Mucillo. Long interested in Medieval times and mysticism, "La quête de Bronwyn" ("Bronwyn´s quest"), on poems by Juan Eduardo Cirlot, probably follows that line of action, but I must confess my frustration by the complete lack of information on the hand programme, as well as no texts either on papaer or on supertitles. And concertgoers know that without that help it is very difficult to decipher vocal song music. I want to hear it again with the proper background material, for I´m sure I understood it partially, but as always happened when listening to Mucillo´s music, I was interested all the way in the music. The four songs, in Spanish although the title is in  French (!) were dramatic and sometimes harsh; they were well sung by Susana Caligaris.

               I found the Concerto for bandoneon and orchestra by Pablo Ortiz (who lives in California) quite pleasant, with worthwhile material that avoided excesive Piazzollisms, and the soloist, Juan Pablo Jofre Romarion (a new name to me) seemed very professional. Finally,  an effective and exciting piece by Osvaldo Golijov, almost crossover: "Last Round", unabashedly Piazzollian, was played by the strings standing up and finished in a frenzy. The encore was a Capricho (I didn´t understand if it was by Golijov), an homage to the recently deceased Leopoldo Federico.

              A Telemann-J.S.Bach session at the Sociedad Científica Argentina with the ensemble Phil d´Or and soprano Cecilia Arroyo proved satisfying in its alternation of cantatas and instrumental pieces of these two great names of German Baroque. The three initial pieces were by the long-lived and enormously prolific Georg Philipp Telemann: an attractive Sonata in G minor , TWV anh 42:g (Telemann catalogue addenda) for two recorders and continuo  in the "da chiesa" disposition (slow-fast-slow-fast), admirably played by Gonzalo Juan and José Luis Etcheverry (recorders)  and the continuo (Ignacio Caamaño, Baroque cello, and Matías Targhetta, harpsichord); an l1-minute cantata, "Hemmet den Eifer" ("Control your zeal"), correctly sung though the voice is incisive in the highs, informative  because the Telemann cantatas are rarely programmed and on the basis of this one are certainly worth knowing; and a charming Duetto TWV 40:107 for two recorders.

              Targhetta offered a fine performance of Bach´s Toccata in E minor, BWV 914; and the soprano sang nicely the only aria from Cantata Nº 51 that doesn´t feature a trumpet: "Höchster mache deine Güte" ("Lord, give us Your kindness"). Then, another fine Telemann Sonata, in F, TWV 42:F7, beautifully done. And  three delectable fragments from one of Bach´s profane cantatas, Nº 208, "Hunt". More Bach in the encores: a cantata fragment, and the famous "Bist du bei mir" (now thought to be by Stölzel!) from the Anna Magdalena Music Book.

              Brief references concerning different events: 1) a rather disappointing Bach occasion at the Usina del Arte that included  mediocre performances of the Trio Sonata BWV 1038 and of the  Cantata Nº 199, which has seven parts but sounded much shorter in this version, probably fragmentary. Things went better in the scores where the choir Musica Quantica intervened, led by Camilo Santostefano, but they were less good than I hoped in the motet "Komm Jesu Komm" and in the great Magnificat, though the chief culprits there were the lamentable trumpeters; the female soloists were rather poor, and only tenor Agustín Gómez and bass-baritone Alejandro Spies were up to par.

             2) A very light crossover concert at the Coliseo basically dedicated to Italian film music: the best, Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota, plus Vivaldi, Benedetto Marcello and Offenbach. Quite  beyond the frame of the night to include Charly García and John Williams. A good small orchestra (22-strong) and an amateurish female vocal trio (Erlebnis) were well led by Roberto Flores, Santiago Chotsourian playing the piano and the accordion and explaining the programme.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

“2001: A Space Odyssey” with the original music played live

Stanley Kubrick was undoubtedly one of the most personal and interesting masters of cinema. His films were always controversial, intelligent, different from one another; he found the style for every story he told. "Paths of Glory" (1957) and "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) were strong attacks about the war methods of WWI and Viet Nam;"Spartacus" (1960) enacted the slave rebellion in Roman times; "Lolita" (1962) and "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999) explored scabrous sexual subjects; "Dr. Strangelove" (1964) was a scathing satire about the atom bomb; "Barry Lyndon" (1975) told an Eighteenth Century love story; "The Shining" (1980) was a marvelous terror film; "A clockwork orange" was a stunning version of the Burgess novel on juvenile delinquency; and "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) was his only science fiction film  and had enormous influence on other film makers.

As the hand programme of the Colón says, this film "is celebrated for its technological realism, its special effects that won an Oscar" (imagined by Kubrick and Douglas Turnbull)  "and its audacious use of music". "London´s Southbank Center worked with the British Film Institute and Kubrick´s heirs to create a remasterized version of the film  in high definition that contains the audio track excepting the music". The score accompanying the film "was put together" (from the original scores)  "by conductor André De Ridder". The London Philharmonic played it at the Royal Festival Hall in 2010.

The Colón recently presented Murnau´s "Nosferatu", and in other seasons, Lang´s "The Nibelungs" and "Metropolis" with live ad-hoc scores, but all these cases were a different thing, for they accompanied mute films. Instead, what we heard was the music selected by Kubrick, but not in the audio track: live, by the Buenos Aires Philharmonic under Christian Baldini and the amplified Estudio Coral de Buenos Aires (49-strong) prepared by Carlos López Puccio.

It was a very professional job that managed with great precision the very exact joins that were needed, so that the music was heard with the right intensity except in a couple of places where it tended to cover dialogue. Also, I felt that some tenor voices weren´t of the best quality. But the whole was convincing; it must have been tricky to mimick the original recordings; e.g., Baldini had to follow Karajan´s tempi in Johann Strauss II´s "Blue Danube". 

This is the fourth time I see "2001" since its 1969 BA première, though of course the first with live music.  It´s time to mention the musical selections and their special uses. In 1968, when the film was first seen, Richard Strauss´ "Also sprach Zarathustra" was little known compared to other tone poems of him; its metaphysical impact as the impressive beginning of "The Dawn of Mankind" and its repetition at the end provoked a rash of recordings of the complete score, soon recognised as a masterpiece.

In fact, Kubrick had initially commissioned a distinguished film composer, Alex North (who had provided the music for "Spartacus") with the score for "2001", and North duly provided it. But Kubrick´s wife made him discover György Ligeti´s works, and the filmmaker felt that he had found the cosmic music he was looking for; he was right: almost half a century after, Ligeti still is closer to what Kubrick and many others (I feel the same) think of as the sounds of space. Four microtonal creations of the composer are used: the Requiem when the monolith of an unknown alien civilisation appears for the first time; " Lux aeterna" and the "Requiem" at the second and third apparitions of the monolith; "Atmospheres" and "Lux aeterna" at the "stellar door" sequence; and "Adventures" in the cryptic final scene.

A great Kubrick idea comes when the hominid of the first scene throws a bone and it becomes, millions of years later, a spaceship "dancing" to the strains of the "Blue Danube" Waltz. It is a magical instance. What convinces me less is the Neo-Romantic Adagio from Khachaturian´s ballet "Gayaneh"; the music is nice but clashes with the images.

 I hadn´t seen "2001" for decades, and something struck me: its very title. For it indicates that Kubrick imagined (as I did) that after landing at the Moon space exploration would jump and by 2001 a manned mission to Jupiter would be logical; well, we are far from that, although unmanned probes have done wonderful discoveries  there and in other outer planets (in fact, man has arrived beyond the planets of the Solar System). Not only the USA but the rest of mankind haven´t followed through with the capitals and fortitude necessary to conquer space.

The fighting hominids remain hostile, formidable and believable, at a time when animatronics hadn´t been developed, though "Planet of the Apes" had been filmed just months before. The astronauts´ dialogue remains stilted and protocolar, and things become dramatic only when the supercomputer Hal makes mistakes and the two American astronauts decide to disconnect it...but they don´t know that Hal has read their lips. Kubrick didn´t realize that computers would go the way of miniaturisation and that human emotions are still in 2015 out of the picture.

The fascinating images of the "stellar door" are still prophetic though unrealistic for an astronaut with a Jupiter mission, and the final images are enigmatic  as the astronaut is shown at older stages of his life, to be apparently reborn  to a new world.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

Iberoamerican summit of opera directors in search of cooperation

            For the first time Buenos Aires is the city which receives a high number of opera directors from all over Latinamerican and Spain with the specific plan to articulate cooperation and reciprocity. It is a worldwide trend and a good one, for it lowers costs and permits partnerships that bring worthwhile productions to different audiences.

            The host  and President of Ópera Latinoamérica is the current Colón Director, Darío Lopérfido, and this is the seventh summit of the organisation founded at the initiative of the longtime General Director of the Teatro Municipal de Santiago de Chile, Andrés Rodríguez. He was of course present, but seven others from  Latinamerica and four from Spain were also there in the ample table prerpared for the press conference at the Colón CETC (Center for Experimentation).

            The other seven from Latinamerica: Ramiro Osorio Fonseca (Director General of the Teatro Mayor Santo Domingo at Bogotá; Alejandra Martí (Development Manager of the Teatro Municipal de Santiago); Lourdes Ambriz (Artistic Director of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, México DF); Daniela Bouret Vespa (General Director of the Teatro Solís, Montevideo); Alejandro Chacón (Artistic Director of the Ópera de Colombia, Bogotá); Gerardo Grieco (General Director of the Auditorio Nacional del Sodre, Montevideo); and Joao Guilherme Ripper (President of the Teatro Municipal, Rio de Janeiro).

            From Spain: Juan Carlos Matellanes (President of ABAO-OLBE of Bilbao); Joan Matabosch (Artistic Director of the Teatro Real, Madrid); José Luis Rivero (Artistic Director of the Auditorio de Tenerife, Canary Islands); and Jorge Culla (Administrator of the Teatro Auditorio de Escorial).

            The members of the Comisión Directiva of O.L.A. (Ópera Latinoamérica) for 2015-18 are: Lopérfido, President; Rodríguez, First Vicepresident; Osorio, Second Vicepresident; and Martí, Executive Secretary. Apart from those already mentioned, here are the other members and associates: theatres in Argentina: Argentino de La Plata; El Círculo de Rosario; del Libertador San Martín, Córdoba (I believe that Buenos Aires Lírica and Juventus Lyrica would do well to be associates); in Brazil: Municipal of San Pablo, Amazonas of Manaus, Festival Amazonas de Ópera, San Pedro; Chile: Teatro del Lago (close to Puerto Montt); Ecuador: Nacional Sucre; Perú: Gran Teatro Nacional, Asociación Cultural Romanza, Festival Alejandro Granda, Prolírica. There´s one glaring absence: Venezuela, although it has a great theatre, the Teresa Carreño.

            Lopérfido gave the main talk, in which he clearly presented the purposes of the institution and the progress they hoped to accomplish  in two days of deliberation (Saturday and Sunday). And as he mentioned projects he gave some indications of the Colón opera season for 2017. It would include a coproduction with Madrid and London´s Covent Garden of "Das Liebesverbot" ("Love´s Forbiddance"), Wagner´s first opera, written in 1836 on a comedy by Shakespeare, "Measure for Measure"; it would of course be a première.  There´s also a Latinamerican project to produce Weill´s "Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny" ("Greatness and Fall of the City of Mahagonny"). And there are plans for two repertoire operas, Verdi´s "Aida" and Strauss´ "Der Rosenkavalier". There could also be an interesting première, Villalobos´ "Yerma" on García Lorca. 

            There is also a training aspect in O.L.A.´s plans: classes, seminars, lectures. And there are contacts with Opera America and Opera Europe. Technical developments such as web platforms and social nets. Promotion of chamber opera. Search for new audiences.

            Osorio stressed the importance of having founded Teatro Mayor Santo Domingo in a decayed section of Bogotá, and how a brand new theatre has changed the borough positively. (In a way, our Usina del Arte accomplished the same purpose).

            The sessions on Saturday will be dedicated to projects of coproductions. The same subject will continue on Sunday, but leading to final conclusions.

            There have been some collaborations, especially with Chile, in recent seasons, but the trend should be intensified. E.g., Lopérfido mentioned that if in any theatre they want to present the ballet "Sylvia", they should have in mind that the Colón has the costumes and they can be rented. And there has been a recent interchange between the Solís and the Colón.

            Naturally, the financial circumstances in each country have a lot to do with the destiny of a season, and the Colón or the Argentino have had recurrent crises for such reasons. But it happens elsewhere: Valencia has great problems, New York City Opera closed... Opera is costly, and if you share between three theatres a U$S 300.000 production, it costs a third for each concern.

            However, a final reflexion: each theatre has its history and seasons must be programmed on solid artistic reasons; by all means, find a way to cut costs, but don´t sacrifice the proper planning: do the operas that are really needed, and if you can find a way to share it, alright, but otherwise, face the music and do it. Priorities are priorities.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

From Lulu to Branford: the Weimar Republic contrasted with jazz

            Alban Berg´s "Wozzeck" is recognised as a masterpiece of Twentieth-Century opera, a stark social symbol of misery reflecting the decadence of the Weimar Republic, although it is based on a Georg Büchner drama of the preceding century; but this author was prophetic, incredibly advanced for his time, and his "Woyzeck" (yes, with y) is easily transposed to that time of crisis. Berg wrote it in 1920-21, although it was premièred in 1925.

            His second and last opera, "Lulu", was unfinished when he died in 1935, but only because he hadn´t finished the orchestration of the Third Act. In two acts it was premièred at Zurich in 1937. Berg was Viennese; he lived the Austria that had lost its Empire; it was an anguished country that could produce tortured painters like Egon Schiele; it was also the Vienna of Freudian psychoanalysis; and the city that gave birth to the Second Viennese School led by Arnold Schönberg, who had two great disciples: Berg and Anton Webern. Berg´s teacher brought music to atonality and then  to twelve-tone composition, radical departures.

            Berg was the author of the two libretti; he adapted Büchner in the first, and two plays by Frank Wedekind: "Erdgeist" ("Earth´s Spirit") and "Die Büchse der Pandora" ("Pandora´s box"); both make up "Lulu", created from 1894 to 1904. Says Frank Hirschback: Wedekind´s "works exude the spirit of decadence. His stage world was the demimonde of the European metropolis and the interaction betweem immoral and amoral people which he often sees as a ruthless struggle for survival".

            Two famous films were made on the subject: Pabst´s extraordinary mute opus with the fascinating Louise Brooks, and decades later,  the Neo-Expressionist view of Rolf Thiele.   I saw them both in this cinephile Buenos Aires. And then I witnessed the succesive premières of the opera: in two acts (1965), conductor Leitner, with the marvelous Lulu of Evelyn Lear; in three acts (the third orchestrated by Friedrich Cerha; 1993), conductor Stefan Lano, with the accomplished Patricia Wise as Lulu. Before 1993 I had bought the definitive recording led by Pierre Boulez of the three-act version, with the admirable Teresa Stratas.

            All this was rich experience for me, but I hadn´t seen "Lulu" for 22 years when I saw that the Met had included it in their 2015 repertoire and was programmed at the Teatro El Nacional by the Fundación Beethoven in its live transmission by satellite (a marvelous initiative of recent years: selected titles of the Metropolitan Season can be seem simultaneously here).

            Well, I´ll be straightforward: the production was quite different from the 1993 Colón one and it had its faults; neither was nearly as good as the very imaginative work of Ernst Pöttgen in 1965, to my mind an Expressionist reference of how to go about it. If José Plaza was rather cold and objective (1993), William Kentridge and Luc De Wit opted for a heavy reliance on almost continuous black-and-white projections by Catherine Meyburgh, on aesthetics that seemed derived from the American abstract expressionism of De Kooning and Hartung. They were too many and they distracted from the action. And they missed some crucial points; e.g., we don´t see Lulu as the serpent in the Prologue menagerie.        

            True, the action lacks the tightness and structure of "Wozzeck", but the music remains spellbinding. The libretto tells a grim story: Lulu, a prostitute since her teenage time, is protected by the newspaper editor Dr. Schön. He is killed by her, and two husbands die because of her infidelity.  Finally she lives a whore´s life until she is killed by Jack the Ripper! A degenerate, "an animal" as stated in the Prologue, but a charismatic "femme fatale", gets her retribution, so the opera doesn´t condone her, but it´s strong stuff.

            Marlis Petersen has sung Lulu in ten different productions, and this is her final appearance in this exhausting role. She is a major talent both vocally and as an actress, certainly one of the best. Of the others there is strong work from Johan Reuter (Schön) and Franz Grundheber (Schigolch, her delinquent "Father"). Susan Graham is better in other repertoires, the tenors seemed rather weak (Daniel Brenna and Paul Groves), and Martin Winkler sang well but lacks the "physique du rôle" (The Acrobat). The musical direction was very accurate (Martin Koenigs).

            I generally don´t cover jazz but I made an exception earlier this year for the presentation of Wynton Marsalis at the Colón, and now it seemed to me that his brother Branford Marsalis, also at the Colón, merited the exception, for he is one of the best saxophone players. He was the main figure of an ample jazz festival that took place at diverse venues.  The members of his quartet were: Samora Pinderhugues (piano), Russell Hall (bass) and Justin Faulkner (drums).

            The glorious past was represented by two Duke Ellington melodies, "In a mellow tone" and "It don´t mean a thing if it ain´t got that swing", and by that hoary New Orleans standard, "St.James´ Infirmary" (quoting at the end Chopin´s Funeral March). Otherwise we heard recent selections going from slow ballads to vertiginous uptempo items.

            Not surprisingly, the 55-year-old Branford, last heard here 23 years ago, remains an astonishing sax player, both soprano and tenor: lovely sound, absolute dexterity, fine improvisations.  Of the quartet I preferred the drumming (sometimes hectic); pianist and bassist are efficient but also showy.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

South Korea, astonishing training ground of classical music talent

                        Korea, sixty years after the war. North Korea, a pariah country of low standard of living and no liberties. South Korea, an almost prodigious example of successful capitalism with innovative industry, very high per capita income and an open society. But that isn´t all: apart from its own culture, quite impressive and distinctive, it has shown  the very Oriental capacity of absorbing Occidental culture and in the field of classical music it has produced several generations of admirable talents.

            Four artists are famous and have transcendent careers: cellist Yo-Yo Ma and two who are brother and sister: Myung-Whun Chung, one of the best conductors; and Kyung-Wha Chung, a great violinist. And a superb coloratura soprano, Sumi Jo.

            This year the Buenos Aires Philharmonic presented a great pianist, Kun-Woo Paik,  in its subscription series. Now the South Korean Ambassador, Choo Jong-Koun, commemorating the sesquicentennial of Korean immigration to Argentina and the 70th year of liberation from Japanese domination, presented the cycle Festival of Young Korean pianists. Yi Chongchul, Director of the Korean Cultural Center in Latinamerica, enlisted the help of Professor Kim Dae-Jin, who selected three young artists: Mun Chloe Ji-Yeong, Kim Myeong-hyeon and Park Jae-Hong.

            I unfortunately could only attend the third recital; the first clashed with the Mozarteum, the second coincided with the great storm that drenched me completely.  Mun is just twenty and has won very considerable prizes, such as the Busoni and the Rubinstein; she did an all-Schumann programme. Kim is 22 and studied both in Berlin and Seoul; he played Beethoven, Chopin, Granados, Ginastera and Rachmaninov´s hefty Second Sonata.

            Park is only 16; he studied at the Seoul Art Academy and won the Cleveland competition. As I heard the third and fourth movements of Beethoven´s Sonata Nº 15, "Pastoral", I already had no doubt that I was in front of a major talent (I couldn´t hear the first two due to a private matter). 

            The Bartók Sonata was simply dazzling: although I admit that he didn´t play the first movement as marked, Allegro moderato (it was rather an Allegro molto), the fantastic rhythmic precision and excitement of the outer movements and the strong phrasing of the slow middle one were the work of an already mature artist of enormous dexterity.

            The  intelligently conceived programme gave us then Debussy´s "Pour le piano", a three-piece suite that inhabits a different world of subtlety; in Park´s hands we faithfully appreciated the clean articulation of the Prelude, the solemn evocation of the Sarabande and the technical "tour de force" of the Toccata.

            To end, "Venezia e Napoli", the Annex to Italy from Liszt´s "Années de Pèlerinage". It showed again that the incredibly difficult Liszt can be played to the hilt and then it emerges as logical and convincing, even if the full paraphernalia may appear excessive. Both the "Gondoliera" and the "Canzone" (which quotes the sad gondolier song from Rossini´s "Otello") were pungently told by the pianist, who then displayed his marvelous mechanics in the final Tarantella; and it wasn´t mere display, the phrasing was always musical and sane.

            The pleasure continued in the encores: a young and tortuous Prokofiev (it sounded a lot like his "Suggestion diabolique"), a curious conflation of a Korean song with "La Cumparsita", and a beautiful Debussy ("La fille aux cheveux de lin" – "The girl with flaxen hair").  Kim should have a great career. Just one caveat: he must learn to salute the audience (the people called but he remained unseen).

            A group of artists of the Ensemble Phil d´Or organised a trio of concerts called "Spring Bach-Telemann" at the Auditorio Ameghino of the Sociedad Científica Argentina.  Their first concert, which I couldn´t cover, was all Telemann. The harpsichordist of the Ensemble, Matías Targhetta, in the second concert had the artistic courage to measure himself with one of the greatest challenges of the repertoire: J.S.Bach´s Goldberg Variations.

            This score has an aria (theme), thirty variations and at the end the repetition of the Aria. Nine of the variations are canons, from unison to the ninth. One is an Overture slow-fast, the last one is a Quodlibet (a mixture of tunes). Some are fast and virtuosic, others ruminative, or severely contrapunctal. The best of Bach is in this magnum opus written in 1741 at the instigation of Count Hermann von Keyserling and for Johann Goldberg; he played some of the variations during sleepless nights of the Count. The Variations appeared in 1742 as part IV of the Clavier Exercise ("Clavierübung").

            The work can be played either on the harpsichord or the piano, for Bach knew by then the latter instrument, still rather primitive. I prefer the harpsichord for it is closer to the Baroque spirit. However, its volume is low (it needs a cozy venue such as the Ameghino) and you have to accept that the sound is very even (no crescendo-diminuendo).

            Buenos Aires has had excellent players through the decades; harpsichordists such as Karl Richter, pianists such as Rosalyn Tureck and Daniel Barenboim. Now for some years the harpsichord version wasn´t heard, so I welcome Targhetta. He decided to play all the repeats, and it´s a difficult decision: either it lasts 45 minutes (no repeats) or it goes on for 90 minutes: very intense concentration for player and audience.

            My impression: he is a conscientious, studious artist of good technique; however, he took some rhythmic liberties and wasn´t completely clean. A plausible Goldberg but with maturity it will be even better.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

Marvelous programming reveals intellectual maturity

            Few things are more revealing of intellectual maturity than imaginative, constructive programming: one that instructs but also warms the heart.  Two shining examples happened on the same Sunday: at the Colón in the morning, the sterling Estudio Coral de Buenos Aires gave one of its inimitable concerts concocted by that incredibly talented man, Carlos López Puccio; and in the afternoon, a programme baptized "Le voci sottovetro" combined Renaissance and Twentieth-Century Music in an ideal way.

            The Estudio Coral presented a nonpareil combination of works by great composers of the preceding century. With the exception of the admirable "Scenes of Matra", by Zoltan Kodály, relatively well-known, all the rest was either rarely done or a première, and all was interesting and worthwhile.

            The Schönberg piece was surprising for it is diaphanously tonal but was written in 1929, at a time when he had invented the twelve-tone system and was considered a revolutionary; the third of a set of Folksong Pieces, "Schein uns, du liebe Sonne" ("Shine for us, dear Sun") is lovingly harmonious.  Then, two fragments from Darius Milhaud´s "Cantique du Rhône", 1936, full of Mediterranean joy, on words by Claudel.

            Followed an expressive piece by Aaron Copland, "Lark",  1938, with the manly solo voice of Martín Caltabiano. One of the last choral pieces by György Ligeti was the "Hungarian Etudes", 1983, written for 16-part voices (!); we heard the complicated but fascinating Nº 2, "A line of shadow on the prairie".

             The première of Leos Janácek´s  Three Songs for mixed choir gave us young music, folk-inspired and far from the innovations of his later production, but very beautiful.  Then came innovation indeed: Charles Ives, the American that was the greatest pioneer of modern music, gives us in "General William Booth  enters into Heaven" (1914, première) an astonishing mixture of atonal piano (Diego Ruiz), unconventional solo singing (bass-baritone Pol González) and tonal hymning (the chorus).

            As López Puccio did last year, he now presented a Richard Strauss première: "Die Göttin im Putzimmer" ("The Goddess at her boudoir"), 1935, for eight voices, a humorous and intricate takeoff on coquettish women on a text by Rückert. And finally, the mentioned Matra pieces, Kodály´s homage to a gorgeous region of Hungary.

            This choir is the best selection of professionals and has the almost unfailing hand of López Puccio guiding them.  The director explained some of the pieces in his fast, funny and nervous way, and then presented the two Latin-American encores, two joyful and artful pieces: the "Huahuancaglia" (mixture of huahuanco and passacaglia!) by Roberto Varela, and a merengue by Juan Pablo Correas.

            The venue for "Le voci sottovetro" was the Centro de Arte Experimental de la UNSAM, a big warehouse of reasonable acoustics placed in Almagro. It was a concert of the Ciclo de Conciertos de Música Contemporánea of the Complejo Teatral de Buenos Aires but in this case the curator wasn´t Martín Bauer; the post was taken by Lucas Urdampilleta, who had a brilliant idea admirably executed. And by the way, both concerts were for free.

            The afternoon started with that Late Renaissance masterpiece, "Semper Dowland semper dolens", l604, by John Dowland and for viola consort. The five-member Periwinkles Consort, led by Hernán Cuadrado, was quite faithful to the style. "Periwinkles" ("caracolillos marinos") are mentioned along with many other edibles in that special sort of madrigals called "cries", in which five voices evoke in counterpoint and popular inflexions "The cries of London", such as the emblematic Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) score called thus. The Nonsense Vocal Ensemble of Soloists led by Valeria Martinelli accompanied by the Periwinkles solved well the musical problems but didn´t have the  required idiomatic feeling  (compare The Deller Consort).

            And then, Luciano Berio´s "Cries of London", 1976. His model is Gibbons but his language is wholly contemporary and quite interesting; I only cavil at its sectionalized realisation; Gibbons is continuous, as life commands. The eight voices (unaccompanied) of the Nonsense Ensemble were much more comfortable in Berio.

            Carlo Gesualdo was certainly the most advanced of Italian compòsers of late madrigalism, with incredibly expressive dissonances, witness "Tu m´uccidi, o crudele" and "Moro, lasso" (both 1611), admirably sung by a vocal quintet that included such first-rate singers as Graciela Oddone, Mariana Rewerski and Hernán Iturralde; they call themselves Capella del Fin del Mundo . I disagree with the decision of placing them in a left corridor of the first floor: they should have been in the ground floor and fully in view of the public.

            I generally dislike Salvatore Sciarrino but this time I rather enjoyed "Le voci sottovetro" ("Voices under glass"), where he transcribes for countertenor and modern ensemble four pieces by Gesualdo: two dances and the same madrigals we had just heard. I found it imaginative and it gave Damián Ramírez a chance to show how stronger the voice is now; his musicality has grown too. The seven-member Ensemble Sonorama played very well (Urdampilleta at the piano).

            But the acme of perfection in music and performance came with that amazing motet by Thomas Tallis, "Spem in alium" ("I have never founded my hope on any other than thee, O God of Israel"), 1573, incredibly written for 40  voices who each have their own part, an apotheosis of counterpoint. The CD by the King´s Colege Choir revealed this music to me, but it was an enormous thrill to hear it in this concert and I understood why the "warehouse" was chosen: twenty voices in groups of five at each side of the vast venue. The multiphonic effect was overwhelming and the music is the greatest of that period in England. Beautifully sung and led by Urdampilleta, paradoxically it will stand as the best thing of this "Contemporary" Cycle.

For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, noviembre 16, 2015

The richness of the Baroque in two splendid concerts

            This is an article about two admirable concerts of the Baroque, but first, an intruder I couldn´t include for lack of space in an earlier issue: the penultimate concert of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic´s season. It was conducted by Enrique Arturo Diemecke and had as a special attraction the presence of two gifted artists who are a married couple: pianists Lucille Chung (Canadian, debut) and Alessio Bax (heard recently in Mozarteum recitals). They were supposed to play Bartók´s Two-Piano Concerto, based on his Sonata for two pianos and percussion, but -perhaps because the latter has been played  this season by Argerich and Barenboim-  they programmed instead Mozart´s Two-Piano Concerto. I didn´t mind, for I prefer Bartók´s original.

            In a well-conducted version with beefed-up orchestration  (Diemecke explained that he found an edition that adds clarinet, trumpet and tympani and he thinks –I agree- that it doesn´t harm the music) the pianists showed that they are not only virtuosi but also stylists of the first rank; it was a pleasure to hear them. Their encore was a difficult arrangement with crossed hands of Piazzolla´s "Libertango", which went like quicksilver in their hands.

            The second part gave us a ten-number selection from Suites 1 and 2 of Prokofiev´s wonderful ballet "Romeo and Juliet", which showed conductor and ortchestra at their best. Well, as you may remember this ballet substituted "Eugen Onegin" for Paloma Herrera´s goodbye performances, but Diemecke couldn´t know it . 

            And now to the Baroque and the first period of Classicism (after 1750). Nuova Harmonia ended its season with the presentation at the Coliseo of Il Gardellino (local debut). The name comes from a Vivaldi Flute Concerto and is the Venetian form of Il Cardellino (The Linnet). It was founded in 1988 by Marcel Ponseele (oboe) and Jan De Winne (flute), and they are still with the Ensemble.  The short biography in the hand programme doesn´t state whether they are Dutch or Flemish Belgian.

            Apart from those mentioned, the main members in this tour were the first violin, Julien Chauvin; and the harpsichordist, Shalev Ad-El (Israeli). As this is quite a small group (no instrument is doubled), the others were Joanna Huszcza (second violin), Kaat De Cock (viola), Ira Givol (cello) and Benoit Van den Bemden (bass).

             They chose a varied programme of six authors, avoiding the hackneyed and providing different textures. Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-95) is the least known of Johann Sebastian´s composer sons. His Symphony for strings in D minor , Wf I:3, is one of seven that have come down to us and dates from 1768; Wf is the catalog compiled by Hansdieter Wohlfarth.  The score is quite interesting, although I was surprised by the abrupt ending of the initial Allegro.

            Georg Anton  (or Jirí Antonin) Benda, though Bohemian, worked in Prussia. He wrote about ten harpsichord concerti, such as the one in F minor we heard, a typical transitional piece with some Baroque in it but also with inklings of Classic writing. I believe Il Gardellino misjudged the vastness of the Coliseo; although I managed to hear Ad-El, his harpsichord should have been moved upfront and have had a discreet amplification.

            The Concerto for oboe d´amore, strings and continuo in A by Telemann was sheer pleasure and Ponseele showed himself an exquisite player. De Winne was also a complete professional in Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach´s Concerto for flute in D Wq.13.

            And then came the surprise: the dramatic, dissonant five-minute Sinfonia "al Santo Sepolcro" for strings by Vivaldi, surely one of his most radical creations. The session ended with the almost contemporary of J.S.Bach, Johann Friedrich Fasch, who in fact rejected the post at Leipzig that was then offered to Bach.  His Concerto for flute, oboe, strings and continuo in B was good solid Baroque, beautifully played by all concerned. In fact, the whole ensemble is first-rate and plays with consistent high level. The encore was from another Benda Harpsichord Concerto (in G), a vertiginous final Allegro deftly solved by Ad-El.

            The Bach-Händel concert offered at the Blue Whale by the Camerata Bariloche under Mario Videla with the very special participation of Bernarda Fink will remain a high point of the season. She is our most talented mezzosoprano and in this advanced period of her career she keeps her vocal means admirably. She has  natural poise, perfect style and taste.

            Videla, of course, is our foremost Bachian. His natural affinity with this music plus his talent as an organ  player were evident once again. Händel´s pomp and brio are also within his sympathetic interpretations. The Camerata Bariloche collaborated with fine discipline.

            The first half was all-Händel: the three-part Overture to the oratorio "Solomon" (including the Queen of Sheba´s music); then Fink sang little-known pieces: a recitative and aria from the Cantata Mariana; a slow dramatic aria, "Pena tiranna", from the opera"Amadigi"; and the aria from the oratorio "Theodora" "Lord thee, each night and day", noble music indeed. Then a chorus from "Theodora" sung agreeably by the Grupo de Canto Coral (Néstor Andrenacci).

            The Bach section started with a good interpretation by Andrés Spiller of the Oboe Concerto, BWV 1056R, and then, the lovely Cantata Nº 169, "Gott soll allein mein Herze haben" ("Only God will have my heart"), with sterling  work from Fink and a difficult organ obbligato part played by Videla. The final chorale was sung by the chorus and the audience!

For Buenos Aires Herald

“Carmen”, an evergreen staged too often

            It happens not only with opera, also with concert music: some masterpieces are so insistently staged or played that habitués can only have one reaction: yet another! And they become easy-way-out for organisations that want to have full theatres, for unfortunately curiosity isn´t the strong point of audiences and there´s always a majority willing to seat through the umpteenth "Traviata", Vivaldi´s "The Four Seasons" or Beethoven´s "Moonlight Sonata".

            Well, of course Bizet´s "Carmen" falls into that category, and all opera concerns have presented "their"  "Carmen" in the last five years now that Juventus Lyrica ended its season with it. 

            I won´t rehearse again my views on "Carmen", so often stated at the Herald in preceding articles. So I will go on straight to this new presentation. It´s a mother/daughter collaboration in the by now longstanding style of Juventus: Ana D´Anna and María Jaunarena   know how to infuse enthusiasm and freshness in the crowd scenes and to give an adequate account of diverse psychologies.

            However, there are finer points that escape them. E.g., to simply respect the libretto: a) at the very start after the prelude, the curtain rises on a group of soldiers, and what do they say?  "On the square people come and go", but here that didn´t happen, making nonsense of the scene; b) In the final seconds of the opera, Don Jose says: "you can arrest me, I killed her", but there´s no one else on stage...

            There´s also the complication of the unit set, the plague of current stagings: obviously it responds to economic reasons, not aesthetic, and in operas that change ambience drastically from act to act it leads to absurdities. Here a big wooden structure, rather attractive in itself (the work of mother/daughter plus Constanza Pérez Maurice) covers the whole farther side of the stage. The problem is that, according to the libretto, you need two opposing buildings, that of the cigar factory and that of the guard post. So the action becomes confusing.

            The set works acceptably for the tavern of Lillas Pastia (Second Act) with some added chairs and tables. Of course it has to be dismantled for the mountain pass of the Third Act, so you see the pieces of wood in a pile at the left, but there´s little suggestion of the Sierra Nevada. And the Fourth Act is botched, for the rebuilt stucture doesn´t look at all like a bullfight ring.

             Of course, "Carmen" is a big opera with an ample mixed choir plus a children´s choir plus the vocal soloists plus a whole lot of actors, and the Avenida´s stage is rather small and has almost no flies, so it´s quite a problem to accommodate all these people, especially when the choir is supposed to sing offstage. So the wooden structure has to be moved halfway upfront  to be able to place the choir behind it whilst Don Jose and Carmen sing the dramatic dialogue that will lead to her death. But before that  you will have all the varied parade that involves the common people, the quadrille of toreros and entourage, the mayor and so on. And so the producers have to resort to something very habitual at the Avenida: they use the corridors that lead to the restricted stage.

            The producers manage to stage a very animated fight between the cigar workers for and against Carmen (First Act) and the Second Act "Dance bohème" is soberly handled by a good Flamenco dancer (Claudio Arias). But they  abuse a favorite Juventus ploy: the violent throwing to the ground of men and women. The  smugglers´movements in the mountains are quite contrived. And Zúñiga (the officer) is badly manhandled contrary to what the libretto says (it even looks like they killed him).

            Jaunarena´s costumes were functional rather than attractive. The lighting by Gonzalo Córdova was uneven: good enough in the first two acts and the fourth but unhelpful in the Third.

            One important fact before I go further: they chose the opéra-comique version: that is, a lot of spoken words between sung parts; I much prefer the adaptation for the Paris Opera with the effective recitatives by Ernest Guiraud; they complement Bizet very well, and you avoid the horrid spoken French  which Argentine casts always provide.     

            The cast was no more tan acceptable. The best was Florencia Machado as Carmen; the voice sounds well and she sings with reasonable style; however, the dramatic communication was rather cool. Nazareth Aufe, on the other hand, has the temperament for Don Jose and negotiates acceptably the vocal hurdles, but the voice in itself lacks power and roundness. I was a bit disappointed by bass-baritone Juan Salvador Trupia y Rodríguez as Escamillo; after singing well his Toreador Song, he was much less convincing in the remaining acts.  María Goso as Micaela was strained in the highs, and she doesn´t have the "physique du rôle".

            Alberto Jáuregui Lorda is by now too veteran in voice and appearance for Zúñiga. Carmen´s friends were nicely done by Ana Sofía Romagnoli and Verónica Canaves. The smugglers were well taken by the seasoned Sebastián Sorarrain and the humoristic Pablo Urban. And Morales was a sprightly Mariano Gladic.

            Hernán Sánchez Arteaga did a brilliant job both as conductor of a very professional orchestra and as director of the Chorus (the Children´s Chorus under Federico Neimark was charming and accurate): he has an unfailing feeling for proper speeds and phrases very musically.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

jueves, noviembre 12, 2015

Tannhäuser, Nosferatu, Thatcher and Pinochet: what a mixture!

      Yes, indeed, what a mixture. In just eight days I revisited Murnau´s "Nosferatu", the greatest horor film in history; I wallowed in the rich Romantic music of Wagner´s "Tannhäuser" in the Met´s admirable directly transmitted presentation at the theatre El Nacional; and I suffered through an unpalatable opera, "Aliados".

            I will start with Wagner. I don´t go to every HD Live performance of the 2015-16 season of New York´s Metropolitan Opera, but I very much looked forward to "Tannhäuser", the third title, a necessary choice for "porteños" considering that the Colón last offered it in 1994 and that it´s a marvelous opera, even if I dislike its manicheistic aspects. 

            Back in 2010 I had the very special experience of seeing "Tannhäuser" in Berlin, and a few days later of visiting the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach and there I was, in the famous room of the contest between the Minnesänger (knights who sang about chaste love): the Second Act of this opera.

            And that brings me to the great protagonist of this Met revival: the wonderful production by Otto Schenk, decades old and liberated from the current pest that´s ruining opera, the "concept productions".  He keeps to Wagner´s indications and gives us beauty and truth, abetted by Günther Schneider-Siemssen´s nonpareil stage designs and the perfect period costumes by Patricia Zipprodt. Even the choreography (Norbert Vesak ) manages to be insinuating but not gross.

            There are two versions of this opera: Dresden (1845) and Paris (1861); the Met wisely chose the second, which expands the Venusberg bacchanale and is more advanced harmonically. The Pagan world (Venus) contrasts with the severely Christian court of Hermann, Count of Thuringia. Sin (free love), honor, the faith of the peregrines to Rome, the rejection of the courtiers, Elisabeth´s pure love, are the elements of this drama that ends with her sacrifice redeeming Tannhäuser after he was rejected by the Pope (not even he can pardon the Minnesänger for being Venus´ lover).

            The music has great arias for Elisabeth, Tannhäuser and Wolfram,  magnificent choirs, big duets for Tannhäuser with the Goddess and Elisabeth and the sumptuous pageant of the Second Act. At the helm after 45 years at the Met and 2500 performances (!)  was the ailing but enthusiastic James Levine, grimacing from his wheelchair but still a first-rate Wagnerian and leading what is the best opera orchestra in the world. The excellent Chorus under Palumbo was stalwart throughout.

            Johan Botha is overweight but he has the stamina and good musicality to be a good Tannhäuser, one of the most trying parts in all Wagner along with Siegfried and Tristan. Eva-Maria Westbroek was an intense Elisabeth of sensitive acting; Peter Mattei sang admirably his compassionate Wolfram; Michelle DeYoung was a Rubensian Venus singing with ample voice; Günther Groissböck was a noble Hermann (bass); and the young soprano Ying Fang showed  fresh timbre and fine line as the Shepherd.     

            The images had fine resolution and the sound was quite clean although the orchestra was a bit relegated.

            I have seen "Nosferatu" four times counting this one, and I remain convinced that along with "Faust" it is Murnau´s most imaginative work. Nosferatu means The Bird of Death, and Murnau called his picture thus although it is clearly based on Bram Stoker´s Dracula. Klaus Kinski was Nosferatu in Herzog´s film, and Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee were Dracula later; all very good, but the only one that has impressed me as much as Murnau´s Max Schreck (what a name! Schrecken means horror) was Willem Dafoe as Schreck in Merhige´s "Shadow of the Vampire", based on the idea that he was a real vampire!

            Both Schreck and Alexander Granach as his acolyte are great Expressionist actors, but what matters most is the  filming , such as those scenes in that fascinating city, Lübeck. But why am I writing about a film in a musical column? Because the 1922 masterpiece was offered at the Colón, with live music composed and conducted by the Spanish José María Sánchez-Verdú with the Orquesta Filarmónica de Montevideo and the unnecessary import of accordeonist Iñaki Alberdi .  All made their local debut.

            The Colón has done similar combinations with Fritz Lang´s "Metropolis" and "The Nibelungs", and both were better than this one, for I found Sánchez-Verdú´s music repetitive and obvious, with little ambience save certain passages. It was apparently played well, and I wish the Montevideans a return visit so that we can hear them in symphonic repertoire. The bad hand programme gave no information on the film!

            I will be brief  about "Aliados, una ópera en tiempo real", music by Sebastián Rivas and text by Esteban Buch, both Argentines resident in Paris. It is a grotesque pamphlet about the meeting in London of the exiled Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet (ailing and soft-brained) and the ex Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, both in wheelchairs. Although the staging by Marcelo Lombardero was imaginative, I disliked the videos of poor quality and biased thinking. And what we heard was a sorry beginning for the 19th Cycle of Contemporary Music curated by Martín Bauer.

            I admired the fine work of Eugenia Fuente, well abetted by Leonardo Estévez, Alejandro Spies, Patricia De Leo and Mateo De Urquiza, and the instrumental group played well under the sure hands of Pablo Druker. I don´t admire the originators of the project in Paris, the group called Manifest.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

Sesquicentennial of the Welsh arrival to Chubut

Musical ambassadors:  BBC National Orchestra of Wales and National Youth Choir of Wales.


            About 50 years ago  I traveled with my father to Chubut  and in successive days

we visited Trevelin near Esquel and then, across the immense Patagonia, Gaiman, Dolavon, Trelew and Rawson. It was a wonderful experience.

            And in 1995 I visited for just one day the Welsh North, with stops at the fascinating castles of Caernaerfon and Conwy and the visit of the gorgeous Snowdonia area. Unfortunately I couldn´t go to the South and so I missed Cardiff and Swansea. But what I saw made me  nostalgic of a longer visit which alas never came.

             I have a natural empathy for the Celts: Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, and in the continent, Brittany (France) and Galicia (Spain). They have a refreshing frankness. imagination and charm and I respond to it. So I was very glad that the sequicentennial of the Chubut arrival of the Welsh people was beautifully commemorated with the visit of a first-rate orchestra and a charming choir.

            The Mozarteum Argentino ended its season at the Colón with the first visit of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Grant Llewellyn (debut); they did two different programmes. An unforeseen illness of harpist Catrin Finch forced the last minute replacement in the initial concert of Ginastera´s Harp Concerto with  Mozart´s Fourth Concerto for horn with the first desk of the orchestra, Tim Thorpe. But she recovered for the second session and then she played the Ginastera replacing the announced Glière Harp Concerto, a comprehensible decision considering that they wanted to pay homage to an Argentinian composer and commemorate in advance the centenary of his birth (2016).

            Llewellyn is Welsh; currently he is Principal Conductor of the North Carolina Symphony and of the Flemish Royal Philharmonic, Principal Invited Conductor of the Stavanger Symphony (Sweden) and Invited Associate Conductor of the Welsh BBC Orchestra. You will remember thatb the English BBC Orchestra came some years ago and gave splendid concerts with Andrew Davis; the Welsh BBC is almost in the same rank, which is saying that it is a very good organism. Its Principal Conductor is Thomas Sondergard since 2011. They do a lot of radio work and concerts in Cardiff and Swansea, plus their annual presentation in the Summer Proms at London´s Albert Hall. The Orchestra isn´t big (73 players) but as they play with great intensity their sound seems larger, even overbrilliant at times.

            In the first concert they included two Welsh composers: William Mathias (1934-92) wrote a very agreeable Dance Overture (première)  in 1962, alert music with a touch of Malcolm Arnold and Walton.  And Huw Watkins (born 1976) wrote intelligent and rather quirky arrangements of Three Welsh Songs (also première). But both pale in comparison with a Britten masterpiece, the "Four Sea Interludes" from his opera "Peter Grimes". In all this music both conductor and orchestra showed a high degree of professionalism.

            Tim Thorpe was wholly admirable as soloist in the Mozart Fourth Horn Concerto: beautiful timbre, perfect intonation and stylish phrasing provided sheer listening pleasure; he was well accompanied.

            Dvorák´s Seventh Symphony was the "pièce de résistance":  marvelously wrought symphonism in a large scale and with a very personal language, even if Brahms is an influence. Conductor and orchestra showed here that they are strong, tasteful and knowledgeable.

            But as the encores went by, the aesthetics of the concert took several steps down, and I don´t commend Llewellyn´s choices, except the first, a truly symphonic arrangement of that excellent tango by Gardel, "Por una cabeza". But Schifrin´s "Mission: Impossible" main theme is crossover stuff, and a bad semi-mambo sent me away rather disgruntled.

            The second concert was to be all-Russian, but as I mentioned Ginastera replaced Glière. Catrin Finch is a splendid harpist; she plays a magnificent instrument complementing her virtuoso technique and phrases with uncanny refinement. The work is complicated and I find the orchestra pretty heavy for such a delicate-sounding instrument; there´s too much malambo in it, but there are interesting moments.

            I enjoyed the Russian side very much, for we had robust and well-played, orthodox readings of Mussorgsky/Rimsky-Korsakov´s "A Night in Bald Mountain", phantasmagory at its best, and of Tchaikovsky´s mighty Fifth Symphony, done with fortitude in the big moments but much beauty in the lyric melodies, such as the famous horn solo of the Second movement.

            Encores: again Gardel and Schifrin, but this time preceded by a good version of Piazzolla´s "Libertango", with Finch as soloist.

            The National Youth Choir of Wales had two directors: Nia Llewellyn Jones and as a guest the Argentine Camilo Santostefano. It was the last Concierto de Mediodía of the season at the Gran Rex, organised by the Mozarteum. The choir is disciplined and musical, though the voices are somewhat light. There were two valuable Argentine scores led by Santostefano: Ginastera´s "Lamentaciones de Jeremías" and Fernando Moruja´s "Lux Aeterna".  And an odd-man-out: Hernán Crespo playing two chamamés in a Welsh Patagonian context! Incomprehensible.

            It was interesting and useful to hear Welsh material:  Mathias, Mervyn Burtch, Mansel Thomas, Paul Mealor, Hilary Tann and an Argentine of Celtic extraction, Hector MacDonald. All this was nicely sung.  

            It´s worth mentioning that before the BA concerts there was a week-long seminar in Chubut with members of the orchestra and the choir training Argentines of Welsh extraction. Back to their roots!

For Buenos Aires Herald

“The Fiery Angel”, Prokofiev´s disruptive opera about possession

            Strange destiny that of Sergei Prokofiev. He was fascinated with opera since his tender age:  "The Giant" at ten, and then "On Desert Island" (twelve), "A  Banquet during the Plague" after Pushkin (thirteen) and "Undina" (sixteen): none are extant, unfortunately. But "Maddalena", created as a Conservatory student at twenty (1911), was rescued by the great conductor Edward Downes, who orchestrated the final three tableaux and premièred it in 1979.

            Then came "The Gambler" (1916), on Dostoyevski, an intense portrait unstaged at the Colón; "The Love for Three Oranges" (1919), that wonderful musicalization of a Gozzi fable,  fortunately seen at our theatre in several seasons; and then, "The Fiery Angel" ("Ognennyj angel"), eight years in the making, finished in 1927.  Then came the Soviet period, with four operas, including  "War and Peace" (1952), the only one done at the Colón.  In all of these, success never came or took a long while in arriving, but the composer persisted. Yes, strange destiny.

            Back to the troubled "Fiery Angel". Bruno Walter in Berlin, Albert Wolff in Paris, tried to bring it to the stage but to no avail; Serge Koussevitsky conducted parts of the Second Act to stimulate interest, again with no success. After WWII the score was unearthed by Hans Swarsenski of Boosey and Hawkes, the firm that had bought the Koussevitzky catalogue, Éditions Russes de Musique. The first complete concert performance was in November 1954 in Paris under Charles Bruck, who did the first recording (in French). But the staged premiere was in Italian, Venice, september 1955, under Nino Sanzogno. Prokofiev had died in 1953, precisely on the day of Stalin´s demise...

            After that the opera started traveling to many cities, including Buenos Aires in 1966 and 1971. Here it had a great impact; it was offered in Italian, conducted admirably by Bruno Bartoletti, and its 1966 protagonist was the stunning Marie Collier. The second production, in 1971, boasted the talents of Ernst Pöttgen and Roberto Oswald. So the current revival arrives after 44 years, two generations.

            And what is "The Fiery Angel"? It is the adaptation of a novel by the most important Russian symbolist, Valery Bryusov; the text is Prokofiev´s own and the opera, lasting two hours, is divided into five acts and seven tableaux. As described by Richard Taruskin, "it is a 16th. Century romance set in Renaissance Germany, where burgeoning humanism coexisted uneasily with a highly rationalized, scholastically elaborated occult lore". Based by Bryusov on his real life triangle with his lover Nina  Petrovskaya and  her poet husband Andrey Bely, it is the story of a strident hysteric named Renata, enamoured of the Devil "appearing in the image of a Spirit of Light   and seducing her to many sinful deeds and  ungodly practices" (Bryusov).

            Cologne, 1534. Ruprecht, a soldier of fortune, falls in love with Renata and helps to find Count Heinrich, for Renata the incarnation of her Angel, really an aristocrat that had lived with her in a castle and left her , bothered by her delusions. In a fantastic scene, Ruprecht seeks the advice of the magician Agrippa Von Nettesheim, but he refuses to help the soldier and purports to be a practitioner of science; but three skeletons call him "liar!"  Later on Renate and Ruprecht find Heinrich; she wants Ruprecht to kill his rival, they duel but the soldier is gravely hurt; afterwards he recovers. She vows to love him but later decides to confine herself in a convent; before that there´s a grotesque scene with Mephistopheles and Faust. The final tableau is a terrifying climax, as the Angel of Fire enters the convent and infects all the nuns, who even attack the Inquisitor; he declares Renate a witch and she will be burned.

            The music is based on Leitmotivs depicting Renate, Ruprecht and Madiel (the Angel) in a predominant arioso of wide range. Apart from the two great monologues of Renate, the most surprising moments of this Expressionist and wild music are the Agrippa scene  and the Interlude accompanying the duel, both in orchestral fortissimo, and the special masterpiece of the final Possession tableau, of almost unbearable tension. This Colón version was in the original Russian.

            Renata is an enormous role (she is on stage during 90 minutes); it needs not only stamina and a big voice, but also the ability to sustain the hysteria that has overcome her soul. Although Elena Popovskaya did a commendable job, she was far from the electricity that sustain the role, but she sang well. In his long and thankless part (Ruprecht) bass-baritone Vladimir Baykov was stalwart and clear. The stunning voice of tenor  Roman Sadnik and his acting ability gave full relief to his Agrippa (amplified as Prokofiev wanted to give an otherwordly feeling) and Faust. And although one hardly expects a black man to sing a German Renaissance Inquisitor, Iván García was very firm as the Inquisitor. (The first three principals I mentioned made their local debut).

            The roster of first-rate Argentine singers was impressive in the many smaller parts: Cecilia Díaz, Hernán Iturralde, Alejandra Malvino, Guadalupe Barrientos, Duilio Smiriglia and many others, including the comely Novices and Nuns.  And the Chorus under Miguel Martínez made a good contribution in the final scene.

            The orchestra under Ira Levin was the great center of interest: if the tension was sometimes lacking on the stage, it was surely present in the strong work of the conductor with his responsive players: the music came out colorful, rhythmic, always interesting and alive.

            Unfortunately the debut as producer of Florencia Sanguinetti, a veteran of 24 years at the Colón, wasn´t a success: the typically spooky Sixteenth Century story was transposed to our times, where the whole thing becomes absurd. The symbols generally fell flat (the merry-go-round evoking Renata´s infancy), the duel and Mephistopheles´ antropophagy were botched, the doubles for the principals were confusing, there were many missed opportunities for creating phantasmagories. The final scene, however, was much better and even its audacities (the bare-breasted nuns) made sense; but it wasn´t enough.

            The vaguely church-like stage designs of Enrique Bordolini had some suggestive power, as had his lighting, but not the dull costumes of Imme Möller.

For Buenos Aires Herald