viernes, abril 22, 2016

The Phil pays homage to Ginastera in the centenary of his birth

            Alberto Ginastera is the most important Argentine composer and this year we honor the centenary of his birth. As is logical, Enrique Arturo Diemecke, Musical Director of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, has programmed numerous scores of our artist, including the whole of the third concert of the subscription series at the Colón.  To the four works of what in Spain they call a monographic concert, three others will be played  much later in the season.

            Let me intersperse a personal reminiscence. When I was a teenager I had a favorite radio programme at Radio del Estado: in it Ginastera gave a learned and eclectic panorama of Twentieth Century music with excellent recordings: I owe him a good deal of my early interest in contemporary music. In my  Twenties I started my career at the Music College of the Catholic University (UCA); this was founded by Ginastera, and I briefly had him as a methodical and open-minded professor before he departed for another very valuable project: the classes of music of our time organized by him at the now mythical Instituto Di Tella, bringing famous composers to our city. A man of impeccable courtesy,  I had the occasion to chat with him in various circumstances and absorbed from him some of his vast knowledge.

             He had a clear auto-analysis of his production and he divided it in a way that has been accepted by Pola Suárez Urtubey, authoress of books on the composer: objective nationalism, subjective nationalism, neo-expressionism and final synthesis. He said to me: "I am a slow worker, my production isn´t big". There were reasons for that: the constant search for new approaches  and the dogged artisanship of all his scores in whatever style: it had to be always technically perfect. And there were two sides on his personality: one was the  contained and controlled public image, the other a wild telluric impetus and an empathy with the mysterious and even terrifying aspects of the human being. Although this is most visible in his operas, it can be felt also in his orchestral music.

            The chosen programme mixed two very well-known works, the Overture to the Creole Faust and the suite from the ballet "Estancia", with what Diemecke called a jewel (and I agree), the uncharacteristically Neoclassic "Concertante Variations", and the second performance, after the première in 1965, of the Violin Concerto, a Neo-Expressionist, twelve-tone composition.

            Of course, the Overture is the composer´s clever take on Estanislao del Campo´s humorous account of a gaucho´s reaction to a Nineteenth Century performance of Gounod´s "Faust", with transformed quotes of several passages, combining academic counterpoints with sonorous climaxes and strong rhythms. As to the suite from "Estancia", one good thing was that it included a virile piece called "Los peones de hacienda", often cut. The closing Malambo, with its insistent repetition of the main theme contrasted with powerful accentuations and a noisy but effective orchestration, is undeniably dynamic and the most overplayed Ginastera music.  Both were well played by the Phil and  this repertoire goes well with the conductor´s sanguine temperament.

            But both Ginastera and Diemecke are capable of refinement, and there´s no truer proof than the beautiful interpretation offered by the Phil of the "Concertante Variations".   It was premièred under Igor Markevich on June 1953; I was there and in many other subsequent interpretations, savouring the thousand details of the score. A meditative theme of Ginastera´s inspiration is stated by cello and harp, and then, after an Interlude for strings, there are seven contrasting variations for different instruments (always surrounded by the rest of the chamber orchestra). A new Interlude but for the winds; the theme again, but this time by the bass; and a final brilliant Variation as a Rondo for the whole orchestra. Masterly in every way, many feel that it is the very best of Ginastera. And it brought the best from the players, especially the bassist (Osvaldo Dragún, who played it after some seconds of homage to his recently deceased colleague Luis Tauriello.

            And now to the Violin Concerto, finally getting a chance to be heard here after such a long time. This is a tough, difficult and harsh score, as often are the works created by composers that have followed the trend of twelve-tone music. For Ginastera this was new, and as was his manner, he innovated, for the form of the Concerto is quite sui generis. Cadenzas usually come at the end of movements; not here: the bruising five-minute cadenza comes at the very beginning, as a prelude to the first movement, again special, for it is a group of five Etudes (a modernised Paganini) before the Coda. The Adagio for 22 soloists is one of the few lyric fragments.

            And then, something very typical of Ginastera´s aural imagination: a Scherzo pianissimo, "always flighty, mysterious and on the verge of silence". And a short virtuosic concluding "Perpetuum mobile". Both the violin and the orchestra have a lot of hurdles to vanquish. I don´t have a score, but both the conductor and his brother Paul (who some years ago premièred the Concerto by Chávez here) seemed on top of the situation.  I counted ten percussionists! The  half-hour of music was worth hearing, even if one prefers other styles of Ginastera; his daughter Georgina does, as she stated in an interview.  

For Buenos Aires Herald

Gounod´s “Faust”, a Gallic view of Goethe´s mighty opus

            Faust is certainly one of the most famous characters in European literature. It seems that there was an alchemist named Johann Faust who lived between 1480 and 1540; he apparently died because his laboratory blew up. It was a time when science was attacked by superstition and religion, linking it to demonic powers. In 1592 Christopher Marlowe wrote "The tragic story of the life and death of Doctor Faustus", first important literary expression on the subject. On it Busoni wrote his best opera, "Doktor Faust", in 1925; it was premièred at the Colón in Italian in 1969.

            Liszt based several piano and orchestral pieces, especially the famous Mephisto Waltz, on Lenau´s "Faust", but it was Goethe´s fundamental "Faust" that inspired the composer his enormous and admirable "Faust Symphony".  The sprawling literary mighty opus started with a long poem in 1790, to which the writer later added  a tragedy in two parts  (1808 and 1832).

            One side, the metaphysical in the purest sense, vividly comes to life in Mahler´s Eighth Symphony and in certain parts of the beautiful "Scenes from Faust" by Schumann. The other one, old age, love, youth and sin, and the pact between Satan´s servant Mephisto and Faust, is evoked in three powerful works: the most innovative and fantastic, "La Damnation de Faust" (1846) by Berlioz; the personal and intellectual "Mefistofele" (1868) by Boito includes the challenge to God by Mefistofele in the Prologue  and the love of Faust with Helen of Troy.

            But by far the most famous is the Gallic view of librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier and composer Charles Gounod. First he wrote it as an opéra-comique (spoken alternating with sung text) in 1859, but in 1869, adding a Valentin aria and the ballet "La Nuit de Walpurgis", he converted it into an "opéra lyrique". It had an enormous success and by the end of the century was among the most staged operas in the world (not always in French). The Paris Opera staged it up to 1975 in 2.350 occasions! (and the Met, inaugurated in 1883, played it often).

            Here it was premièred in Italian in 1866 (Estanislao del Campo wrote then his satyric poem on the impressions of the gaucho Anastasio el Pollo; many decades later Ginastera wrote his "Obertura para el Fausto criollo" which we will hear next Thursday at the Philharmonic concert) ; and in French at the Colón in 1916. After WWII  the reference interpretation in 1971 had a wonderful cast (Gedda, Ghiaurov, Harper, Massard), conductor (Gavazzeni) and stage designs (Schneider-Siemssen). The last Colón revival is far back, in 1998.

            Buenos Aires Lírica offered it in November 2006, and now it gives us a new staging by producer Pablo Maritano, with Enrique Bordolini as stage and lighting designer and Ramiro Sorrequieta designing the costumes.

            This version, as the earlier one, eliminates the Walpurgis scene, for two reasons (I surmise): the stage is rather small for a complicated witches Sabbath´s ballet, and it is expensive (dancers, costumes). Pity,  the music is very good of its kind. And it also cancels the scene of the spinning wheel, in which Marguerite sadly remembers her love (Schubert´s famous Lied musicalizes the same situation).

            The melodies are still charming, though there is often some blandness; however, the Church scene, in which Marguerite´s prayer is interrupted by Méphistophéles´ "Be damned!" is quite impressive, and so is the Prison scene. There are fine choirs, and the waltz still captivates.The final minutes, however, feel more sanctimonious than sacred nowadays.

            Although the librettists place the action in Late Medieval Germany, there´s little in the text to pinpoint it. Maritano , apart from some unnecessary licenses (the joyous Soldiers Chorus is sung by very damaged guys; and again the silliness of replacing swords with guns in Valentin´s death duel) basically respects the libretto, though without special insights.  Bordolini´s stage pictures are simple but effective, and his lighting adequate. The costumes seem to place the action in the 1920s, with nothing particularly German. But this is a very Gallic Goethe... (Nothing particularly French either). The same production was seen at Rosario´s Teatro El Círculo last year.

            The star of the evening was Hernán Iturralde as Satan´s envoy. Far from the traditional image, we saw a bald man in impeccable festive attire, acting with satiric courtesy, and singing with a splendidly responsive voice in all registers; his French was perfect, a rare thing here. Veteran Argentine tenor Darío Schmunck started very well, with an expressive old Faust, though as a young one he didn´t cut the ideal figure, but he acted and sang with great professionalism, apart from a couple of fixed high notes.

             Marina Silva has dramatic presence as Marguerite; however,  vocally she shows some flaws both in florid passages (the Jewels aria) and in very high notes; she compensates by vivid acting and she conveys the meaning of the words. Marguerite´s brother Valentin was sung by Ernesto Bauer, rather nondescript in his aria but good in the death scene. Siebel, Marguerite´s young suitor, was nicely sung by Cecilia Pastawski. Virginia Correa Dupuy was an exaggeratedly grotesque Marthe, Marguerite´s wet nurse,  probably marked so by Maritano. Juan Font completed well as Wagner, a friend of Valentin.

            The 47-strong Orchestra responded satisfactorily to Javier Logioia Orbe´s well considered reading, and the Chorus had an excellent night under the wise preparation of Juan Casasbellas.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Modern Philharmonic versus good old Vienna

             The second  concert of the subscription series of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic at the Colón gave us three contrasting views of the ways of organized sound before and after World War II. The following day was the inauguration of Nuova Harmonia´s season at the refurbished Coliseo in a programme of  Viennese music .

            It was a pleasure to witness the debut of Chinese conductor Zhang Guoyong. A disciple of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, he is at 51 the Artistic Director of the Shanghai Opera (he was born in that splendid city). The concert was short (just an hour) but it included two premières and a very tough symphony rarely done: a lot of music to study for the Phil´s players.

            You may remember that last year the Phil included some Chinese music and that I wasn´t enthusiastic: China is enormously separated by their millenary culture from us Occidentals, and their own traditional orchestra has very little to do with our symphony orchestra. The adaptation of their pentatonic tunes to our culture felt artificial and the brilliant orchestration had little distinctive touches.

             Yuankai Bao was born in 1946 and his succinct Chinese Suite (just 12 minutes) is certainly pleasant; the titles of the pieces are quite representative of the Chinese trend of extolling Nature: Happy sunrise; Going to West Gate; Song of Riddles; and Dialogue of Flowers. To my ears it sounded tonal, rather than pentatonal; the music veered between showy and sentimental. It was clear from the start that Zhang Guoyong dominates his profession thoroughly, and the Phil responded well.

            Bernd Alois Zimmermann had a short life; born in 1918, he committed suicide in 1970. He is famous in Europe for his enormously complex opera "Die Soldaten" ("The Soldiers") and this year we will have it on the Colón stage for the first time; quite a challenge, perhaps the première of the year. The brief Concerto (rather a Concertino, 15 minutes) for oboe and small orchestra is dated 1952. Although based on the twelve-tone technique, the first movement pays homage to Stravinsky and later there´s some Bartokian touches. Tough music but well wrought.

            The solo part has virtuosic hurdles , negotiated with firmness by Néstor Garrote, the Phil´s first desk. The orchestral contribution sounded accurate under the clear  gestures of the conductor.

            Last year the revival of Prokofiev´s opera "The Angel of Fire" produced a deep impact in at least a section of the audience for its powerful depiction of hysteria and massive possession. Now we heard its perfect foil: his Third Symphony (1928) is based on material from the opera and has obsessive tension during most of it, though the second movement also offers some minutes of persuasive lyricism. Machinistic, dissonant, orchestrated with memorable punch, it may lack cohesion but it is music of strong personal seal.

            Zhang Guoyong demonstrated here that he has the control and intelligence to make sense out of this seething musical tornado, and the Phil responded well, especially the first trumpet. 

            The Cappella Istropolitana is the Chamber Orchestra of Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, just an hour away from Vienna.  Istropolitana means "city on the banks of the river" (the Danube). Born in 1983, the Cappella is an efficient organism; it has recorded 120 CDs and visited us once. Its concertino-conductor is Robert Marecek, a longtime member.  Mezzosoprano Angelika Kirchschlager, a native of Salzburg, graduated at the Vienna Academy in 1984;  she also visited us some years ago.

            First Part, Franz Schubert: his youthful Third Symphony and four Lieder in string ensemble arrangements. The composer´s first six symphonies are fresh, personal and accomplished. The performance we witnessed was charming and accurate, 29 players responding easily to Marecek´s intermittent gestures (he also played).

            The Lieder were a wrong decision from both conductor and singer. They sound wonderful in their original form with piano; the arrangements were mediocre and uncredited. Two of the songs are for men: "Der Lindenbaum" ("The linden tree") from " Winterreise"; and the dramatic "Erlkönig" ("King of the alders"). "Im Frühling" ("In Spring") and of course the Ave Maria, were well chosen (by the way, the Ave Maria is Ellen´s third song from Scott´s "The Lady of the Lake" translated into German, not a sacred song!).

             This singer has serious limitations: although her high range is good, she loses color and volume as the voice goes to lower regions; and as an interpreter she is in this repertoire rather nondescript.

            The Second Part showed her in much more congenial circumstances: not only she understands operetta but her voice was well suited to the pieces and she also has a humorous acting gift, as demonstrated in the "Schwips-Lied" ("Drunken Song") from Johann Strauss II´s "A night in Venice". She was also good in two Robert Stolz songs, one from his operetta "Der Favorit", and the other typically Viennese, "On the Prater the trees are flourishing again", and in Heuberger´s delicious  "Ins Chambre séparée" (from "The Opera Ball"). The Orlofsky aria from Johann Strauss II´s "The Bat" was no more than correct, but Sieczynski´s plangent song "Vienna, Vienna, only you" was mellifluous. The encore was an acceptable "Vilja Song" from Lehár´s "The Merry Widow".

            Apart from accompanying her very well, the Cappella gave us fine interpretations of two Johann Strauss II´s standards: the Overture to "The Bat" and the lovely waltz "Viennese blood"; the players really have the ideal give-and-take.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Curious “Don Giovanni” without Stone Guest

            In the world of opera the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy is frequently staged, and Buenos Aires is no exception. In  recent years we have seen "Le Nozze di Figaro", "Don Giovanni" and "Così fan tutte"at several venues, and no wonder, for all three are masterpieces.

            Many years ago there was in BA an international colloquium about "Don Giovanni"  in which I participated; alas, the performances at the Colón were cancelled due to labor troubles, but a variegated group of people dialogued, and the surprising thing was the opposed points of view on aspects of the libretto and the music: the complicated psychologies of the Don and of both Donna Anna and Donna Elvira were particularly debated.

            Sergio Renán put on stage the trilogy at the Colón between 1990 and 1993.   In recent years Renán was active in spectacular stagings of "The Magic Flute" (again Mozart) and "L´elisir d´amore" (Donizetti), his last production before his lamented death. For 2016 he was supposed to stage "Don Giovanni", probably with the same team (Emilio Basaldúa and Gino Bogani) but it was not to be.

             However, "Don Giovanni" was already programmed by Darío Lopérfido for 2016, opening the official season; so he brought a new team led by producer Emilio Sagi, well-known here and a veteran of dozens of European stagings. There was reason to expect a good job from him, but what he gave us was an enigma: the total elimination on stage of an essential character, the Stone Guest.

            The Da Ponte libretto draws heavily on Bertati´s for Gazzaniga´s homonymous opera, offered at the Colón some seasons back; it proved to be a very lightweight concoction. Both take elements of the legend from Molière and Tirso de Molina. The paradox about this particular final night in the life of the libertine is that he fails in all his "piacevoli proggetti" (pleasant projects), as he says in one of the scenes, but he certainly tried hard though he was always foiled by Donna Elvira.

             This "dramma giocoso" progresses steadily towards punishment, and two scenes are basic: one is at the cemetery, where the statue of the killed Commendatore (Knight Commander, father of Donna Anna) talks to Giovanni and the frightened Leporello (the comic relief) and accepts the Don´s invitation to dine: it is the irruption of the otherworldly. The other is the dining room of Giovanni, where the joyous goings on are broken first by Elvira, who asks him to repent  (he jeers at her), and then by the Stone Guest; even under the severest admonitions the Don is steadfast: he may be a libertine but he is courageous. Hell opens up and he falls into it.

            That´s what is supposed to happen, not what we saw. The cemetery should be of the old kind: burials on the ground and the occasional mausoleum or statue; what we had was a niche wall as at the Chacarita and no statue, but Leporello says "O statua gentilissima" and speaks to it... And at the dining room, the Commendatore-statue is supposed to come heavily stepping, as Leporello specifies. Here we had his amplified voice coming from the heights to the right and incongruously supported by the choir from hell, also amplified. Wrong both musically and stagewise.

            The stage designs by Daniel Bianco were showy. The whole stage was contained by a golden picture frame, as if it were a painting. What happened inside it , apart from the two scenes already mentioned, was in a wild variety of styles. The costumes by Renata Schussheim looked 1950s, the chairs were Louis XV, Giovanni sang his serenade to a golden wall which looked like a bank, a staircase identical to those used to board a plane  was incomprehensible, and the very last minutes showed all the characters singing the conventional moral in front of Giovanni´s body (for he died over the dinner table) and  throwing pieces of what looked like cake over him (??).

            It was good to have Erwin Schrott as Giovanni, for he is famous in this part; his bass-baritone flows smoothly and he has an ample register, including a stunning final note. He departs from the text and the music unnecessarily (perhaps because he has sung it so often) but he is certainly convincing. And he had a good Leporello, Simón Orfila, a firm bass with acting ability. Jonathan Boyd had sung here Massenet and Britten; he was an able Don Ottavio, although some bits of "Il mio tesoro" proved taxing. Mario De Salvo did a professional job as the peasant Masetto, and Lucas Debevec Mayer was in fine voice as the "Commendatore".

            Jaquelina Livieri sang and acted nicely as the peasant Zerlina. Paula Almerares was uneven as Donna Anna; her voice is changing and lacked the needed clarity of delivery. María Bayo, who had been splendid as Zerlina back in 1993, unfortunately is now in a sorry decline: in this Elvira the voice has become acid and she constantly recurred to slides. There was a second cast, all-Argentine.

            Marc Piollet was a correct conductor with adequate speeds but the Orchestra should have been more crystalline in its articulation. The small orchestral groups at the end of the First Act were too far back, and in the dining room scene should have been on stage, not in the pit.  The Chorus under Fabián Martínez was acceptable when not amplified.

For Buenos Aires Herald