lunes, agosto 27, 2007

The Argentino's solid season

La Plata's Teatro Argentino is having a good, solid season. This is something to celebrate for three reasons: a) its status as second opera theatre of the country weighs heavily in a year in which the Colón is impaired by its dependence on other theatres; b) it had a labor conflict last year that laid waste the first half of the year; c) a further conflict, this time with the Chorus, menaced the performances of "Carmen", but it was solved in the eleventh hour.

Those who still don't know the Argentino's new theatre may well be impressed when they visit it: it may be modern-ugly as a building, but the main hall, named Alberto Ginastera, is quite big (about 2.200 capacity) : seven levels, harmonious colors, an immense stage. It does have some ergonomic and acoustical problems, but still it is an important venue, one that seems to demand first-rate programming. The Argentino is fully integrated, with valuable production facilities, and it offers three different seasons at the Ginastera: opera, ballet and symphonic concerts. And there are also valuable concerts and stage performances at the smaller Piazzolla hall. So, now that with the roadway you go from Palermo to the Argentino in exactly one hour, there are plenty of "portenos" that find it worth their time to follow the activities of this theatre. And the Platenses are going to their theatre in droves.

Earlier in the season I wrote about their satisfactory revival of Bellini's "Norma". Two other standards followed and were quite successful, as I know from colleagues, but I decided not to go because casts were identical to those of performances that I reviewed for the Herald in recent seasons: Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" featured as the protagonists those of last year's Luna Park run : Eiko Senda and Gustavo López Manzitti; and Verdi's "La Traviata" repeated the three principals of the Argentino's 2005 revival: Paula Almerares, Carlos Vittori and Luis Gaeta.

Bizet's "Carmen" has been done often in recent years so there was no need for it, but it always draws huge audiences and the theatre was packed on the Sunday I went. Reinaldo Censabella, the Argentino's Artistic Director, was quite candid when I objected the hackneyed programming in a press conference: "I want full houses"; well, he got them. One of the good things about Censabella's tenure is that he has called back conductors and producers that were Artistic Directors in other periods, which is only fair, a rather scarce quality in our official theatres.

There was one bit of bad luck: Kate Aldrich, who had been an interesting Dulcinée in Massenet's "Don Quichotte" at the Colón, was to make her Argentino debut as Carmen, but she cancelled and went on to replace Veselina Kassarova at the Salzburg Festival. So the first cast Carmen was Virginia Correa Dupuy . I have great respect for this singer but I don't count this interpretation as one of her best. In purely vocal terms, she lacked decibels and richness of timbre; as an interpretation, too many discontinuities in the phrasing and an artificial stance in her gestures diminished the final result, although of course there were many moments of good singing.

Luis Lima came out of retirement to offer a deeply involved and dramatic Don José, though with "verista" excesses, especially in the final scene. His voice sounded big, raw and harsh and I had the feeling that he might be amplified. María José Siri had too much vibrato as Micaela, but she gave intensity to a very weak role. Emilio Estévez , a tall burly Escamillo, was uncomfortable in the high register though otherwise did well. Curiously enough, the best results were in the minor parts: the two smugglers were sung and expressed convincingly by Gabriel Renaud and Sebastián Sorarrain; Carmen's friends were voiced accurately by Ana Laura Menéndez (notwithstanding a touch of stridency) and Mónica Sardi; and both Zuniga and Morales were sung with firmness by Mario de Salvo and Norberto Marcos. Rather poor French from all the cast. I didn't hear the second cast (Alicia Cecotti and Gustavo López Manzitti were the protagonists). The Chorus under Sergio Giai proved again its outstanding vocal quality and acted with true involvement, although due to the conflict they had little rehearsal. The Children's Choir under Mónica Dagorret was fresh and appealing. And Perusso conducted an orthodox and clean interpretation well abetted by the Orchestra. A bit more passion would have been welcome.

Daniel Suárez Marzal, the producer, has lived and worked in Seville for a long period; this gives him an authenticity of feeling that is a definite plus. He asked his stage designer Jorge Ferrari to give him a unit set adaptable to different places; basically a big tilted platform for dancers and choristers and a wide curved staircase that permitted the placement of other members of the chorus and gave perspective to the music; it worked well in the First Act city square and in the outer view of the bullfight arena in the Fourth Act, less so in the Second Act tavern and not at all in the Third Act mountain pass. A lot of the stage action was convincing although there were some mistakes. The choreography by Omar Saravia was "ethnic" and somewhat repetitive. Ferrari's costumes emphasized black as an omen of tragedy. In all, this was a very acceptable "Carmen".

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

Zukerman and Goerner: highlights of the season

Music lovers hear every year a number of good concerts along with mediocre ones. A few are outside the norm: or downright bad or exceptional. In the latter category, never abundant, I place the Zukerman Chamber Players and Argentine pianist Nelson Goerner, both at AMIJAI, a venue that this year is offering highlights of the season, along with less exalted occasions.

Pinchas Zukerman has visited us often during his long career, as violin virtuoso, chamber player or conductor of the St Paul Chamber Orchestra. Apart from his purely technical accomplishment, Zukerman has always been deeply musical, an artist and artisan, a master of easy but compelling dialogue with his fellow players, always very well chosen. At 59 he's as good as ever and still has the knack of finding quality collaborators, witness the wonderful results of the first concert of the Zukerman Chamber Players (I couldn't attend their other concert). The same characteristics prevailed in the three attractive scores they played: a consistently admirable technique blended with a natural sense of style and an evident pleasure in playing together, true conversations in music.

Zukerman and a talented lady cellist, Amanda Forsyth, started the session with Kodály's fascinating Duo , a prickly piece of considerable modernism, perhaps the composer's point of greatest affinity with his friend Bartók; both players were full of character. Then, one of the two best String Quintets by Mozart (two violins, two violas, cello), K. 593, a past master of this medium, where one could appreciate the excellent work of the other players: Jessica Linnebach (violin), Jethro Marks and Ashan Pillai (violas). The same group gave us Dvorák's Quintet op.97, a sterling work rarely heard. The encore was the charming second movement of Mendelssohn's Quintet op.87.

I have long held the opinion that Nelson Goerner is the best Argentine pianist of his generation; both the recital I'm about to comment and his appearance with orchestra playing Beethoven's Concerto No.3 (on which I will soon write) were stunning affirmations of artistry in a superior level. Even the programme testified to the player's astonishing versatility, avoiding the hackneyed but giving us worthwhile music by great composers. He started with Janácek's only Sonata, a two-movement score of dramatic intensity, the composer's reaction to an act of political repression: the two pieces are called "Presentment" and "Death" . The second work was Schumann's "Humoreske", less known than other series of micropieces by this composer but an original and fresh score of many moods, magisterially exposed by the player.

The piano music of Franz Liszt is both innovative and rhetorical; the player must have the big guns to play it accurately (always a feat in this composer) but also the style to go beyond the technical hurdles and find the poetry in the scores; this was ideally encompassed by Goerner's performances of the stirring Ballad No. 2 and of four "Transcendental Etudes" of terrifying difficulty. I have very seldom heard blind octaves at speed played flawlessly as in this instance, but the deeper sense of the music was always there at well. The pleasure was prolonged in the encores, two impeccably done Chopin pieces: Nocturne No. 8 and the "Revolutionary" Etude. What a pity that the audience was too sparse .

On a less exalted level but very good by any standard were two Midday Concerts, the free series the Mozarteum offers at the Gran Rex. The Moreno-Capelli Duo has been for decades an exemplar of fine four-hand playing; Héctor Moreno and Norberto Capelli are Argentine but reside in Florence. Both have accomplished techniques and finely honed taste. Their interesting programme started with an intimate Schubert score, "Divertissement a l'hongroise", perhaps overlong for its material; they followed with the "War Pages" by Alfredo Casella, frankly descriptive music , and finally offered a good transcription by Liszt of his own tone poem "The Preludes", played with virtuosity.

The Sarastro Quartet resides in Winterthur, Switzerland; the sage priest of Mozart's "Magic Flute" was chosen for the ensemble's name. They are refined players with a beautiful intimate sound hard to appreciate in the vast expanses of the Gran Rex. They feature unfamiliar music stressing contemporary Swiss composers but also an Argentine, Constantino Gaito, whose two quartets they recorded for the Tradition label. Their unconventional programme started with an early Mozart Quartet (No.4, K.157), followed with Fabian Mueller's Quartet, a Swiss born in 1964, and ended with Gaito's Quartet No. 1. Mueller's score is tonal and melodic, well-written and expressive, whilst Gaito's 1916 work manages to steer clear of the prevalent folkloric stance of his time and gives us well-argued and pleasant music. The encore was Puccini's lovely "Chrysanthemums". All was played with distinction. The Sarastro also gave two concerts for the Festival of Encuentros de Música Contemporánea, which I couldn't attend.

Finally, the Stanislas Quartet from Nancy , France. The venue was the concert hall of the National Conservatorium López Buchardo, where they gave a master class earlier in the afternoon. It is a solid, serious ensemble, more at ease in Ravel's only Quartet than in Beethoven's last, No. 16. They included an interesting item; Guy-Ropartz (1864-1955) was a distinguished composer resident in Nancy in the interwar period and is rarely programmed nowadays, which made the audition of his Quartet No. 5 useful as information; fortunately it proved to be good music well worth the listener's time.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

martes, agosto 14, 2007

Wagner and zarzuela: the amazing range of the lyric theatre

Our two main private opera companies proceeded with their seasons at the Avenida with as opposite a pair of creations as can be imagined. Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL) took a giant step by offering a Wagner opera for the first time in their trajectory, whilst Juventus Lyrica incorporated a zarzuela, also a first for them. In their very different ways, both ventures fell on the positive side. BAL chose well, for "Der fliegende Hollaender" ("The Flying Dutchman") is more amenable to the resources of the company than any other of the ten Wagnerian mature works . It was a bold step and it proved a successful one. Juventus , on the other hand, offered Amadeo Vives' "Dona Francisquita", following the vote of their subscribers ; by accepting the majority view in three of their four 2007 choices Juventus has relinquished the right of the artistic direction to define a repertoire, and I can't agree. An enlightened programming policy can never be based on polls. Nevertheless, the zarzuela was agreeably served and I spent a pleasant night, though not a stimulating one.

"The Flying Dutchman" (1843) is a Romantic opera in which Richard Wagner transcends the influences of Weber ("Der Freischuetz") and Marschner ("Hans Heiling") and finds a style of his own. It is amazingly advanced in some parts ( the Dutchman's monologue, the Choir of the damned sailors) but is also conventionally melodic in the steps trodden by such German composers as Lortzing or Kreutzer , incorporating folksy and straightforward tunes on the choruses of Norwegian sailors and weavers.

I was among those who disagreed strongly with the Colón's production by Suárez Marzal on the Kuitca settings, so I longed for a return to sane concepts and good tradition. I do have some reservations, but the BAL staging had some relevant points. It was the work of an artist who made his local debut on this occasion: Fabian Von Matt, who studied here and in Vienna, and has been assistant producer in the Luebeck "Ring". He solved well the apparition of the phantom ship (effective red lights from Eli Sirlin) and he understood the psychology of the main characters. However, he introduced an extraneous element , an Angel, who intrudes at various instances and is instrumental in the redemptive close ; but even with the charming appearance of actress María José Iglesias, it felt superfluous. There were wrong details, such as giving poor Erik, a hunter, the black sleeves of an office boy. The Norwegian setting was respected, though transposed to the early 20th century . The settings by Pilar Camps (apart from the damned ship) were rather poor, especially the panels with waves. Sofía Di Nunzio's clothes were mostly adequate, although I found not only Erik's sleeves wrong but also the Dutchman's attire didn't feel right. In Von Matt's work the final minutes were the weakest.

The musical side was quite strong. Homero Pérez –Miranda (a Cuban living in Chile) was a properly saturnine and haunted Dutchman, singing firmly (although lacking weight in low notes) and projecting the words with dramatic sense. Mónica Ferracani, an attractive blonde tall Argentine soprano with an important trajectory, was an impressive Senta, musically sound and sung with generous voice; it is her first Wagner and she surmounted with ease the challenge. Perfect is the word for Hernán Iturralde as Daland the mariner: his years at Stuttgart surely tell in the quality of his style and the voice is exactly the needed type. The others were some cuts below: Enrique Folger as an overheated Erik, Marta Cullerés with a frayed voice though used with authority, and Santiago Burgi on the other hand ingratiating bur rather green as the Steersman. The Choirs under Juan Casasbellas gradually found their feet (it didn't help that they were constantly knocked about by the producer); they were enthusiastic but raw. The Orchestra under Guillermo Brizzio's knowledgeable conducting was disciplined and correct, though the pit is much too small for the Wagnerian orchestra and the brass felt stifled.

"Dona Francisquita" is one of the two most often staged "zarzuelas grandes" (the other is, of course, "Luisa Fernanda" by Moreno Torroba). It is certainly the best work of Amadeo Vives. Written in 1923, it comes from the last brilliant period of the genre, the Spanish form of operetta. There are popular touches incorporating the "rondalla", an instrumental group based on guitars; a bad mistake of the production was to mime them on the stage whilst the sound came from the pit. But the staging by Oscar Barney Finn was pleasant and it boasted nice stage settings by Emilio Basaldúa, a tasteful orgy of decorative fans. Mini Zuccheri designed agreeable period costumes.

There were two casts, I saw the first. Fabiola Masino was too mincing and strident in the title role, though professional; Gerardo Marandino sang with some beauty and was well abetted by Pablo Skrt as his sidekick Cardona. Susanna Moncayo as Aurora combined uneasily operatic and popular voice projection. Good work from Alberto Jáuregui Lorda and Marta Cullerés as the aging couple and some young voices were heard to advantage in bit parts (Sebastián Russo, Iván Maier). The Choir under Miguel Pesce was in the picture, the dance led by José Zartmann with Mabel Espert was convincing and the orchestral side was well attended to by conductor Susana Frangi.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

martes, agosto 07, 2007

About pianists and chamber groups

Piano recitals aren't as abundant nowadays as they were three or four decades ago and the country's devaluation certainly hasn't helped in recent years, for the big names are quite expensive, but we do get some valuable visitors. Such is the case of the French artist Alexandre Tharaud, who was invited back by Festivales Musicales after his successful local debut last year. His task this time was very interesting: the complete traversal in two sessions of Maurice Ravel's creations for solo piano. I don't recall such a project being performed in recent years by any pianist, local or visitor, and it certainly is worthwhile. There were even two, perhaps three, premieres. And Tharaud has recorded the lot, so his concerts were promising. I could only hear the first, at the Coliseo, and I think Festivales has made a good choice.

In his piano music Ravel is at times Neoclassical ("Menuet antique", "Le tombeau de Couperin") but his most important music is Impressionist: "Jeux d'eau", "Miroirs". And his masterpiece, "Gaspard de la Nuit", is Impressionist in "Ondine" but Expressionist in "Scarbo". There's no end to his harmonic inventiveness and sometimes the music is devilishly difficult, taking the Lisztian grand manner as a starting point for adventurous forays into shimmering transparencies.

Tharaud is a typical pianist of our times: he has acquired a splendid technique and he can surmount any hurdle, but he doesn't get the equilibrium that famous Ravelians of yore knew how to obtain: Walter Gieseking, Monique Haas, Marguerite Long. He is at times too brusque ("Scarbo"); but he does obtain splendid coloristic hues and is certainly very professional. Some commented unfavorably that he read from scores, when habitually solo players know the music by heart, but I felt that it was just an "aide mémoire" and it didn't bother me, for it didn't affect his firm playing.

The concert I heard started with four short pieces, including the "Grotesque Serenade", his first piano work (1892-3), which may have been a premiere. Then, what is certainly one: "La parade", 1896, a curious quilt of waltzes, marches and a mazurka written for an intended ballet , and the disconcerting thing is that there seems to be a strong Satie influence (unique in Ravel's production). To close the First Part, those admirable "Valses nobles et sentimentales" evoking loosely Schubert but clearly Ravelian in its mix of Neoclassical and Impressionist; they were played with elegance and accuracy.

The Second Part started with the charming "Pavane pour une infante défunte" and closed with "Gaspard de la nuit", where I especially liked "Ondine". I disliked , however, the encores: an unnecessary Bach-Busoni Prelude and a fast and percussive piece by Rameau played too harshly. But the main thing was accomplished with distinction: a splendid panorama of Ravel's genius.

Chopiniana is a series of piano concerts taking as reference Chopin's music and organized by Martha Noguera. Thanks to her initiative our city has heard many valuable artists in recent years. In 2007 there will be two series; the first has started at a new venue, the hall "Los Jardines" at the Panamericano Hotel. It proved to have decent acoustics ; the seats are comfortable and the place looks nice. Curiously enough, the initial presentation included no Chopin, although the chosen composers were great admirers of the Polish composer: Schumann and Grieg. The player was Daniel Levy, a 60-year-old Argentine with a big European career and many recordings . He too read from the scores. Also, he expatiated at length on the music, which perhaps had some logic in this case for there was no hand programme: the pieces were announced by Noguera.

Levy chose no less than 21 of Grieg's vast amount of "Lyric Pieces", which seems too much of a good thing; probably a round dozen would have been enough to extend proper homage to the Norwegian composer , whose centenary of his death is being commemorated in 2007. From Schumann, his "Children's Scenes" op.15 showed Levy at his poorest level: excessive "rubati", a plethora of unmarked arpeggios, lack of rhythmic pulse, no regard to specificied dynamics and attacks that were too massive and harsh. Some pleasant moments didn't compensate. But although there were faults in Grieg (exaggerated rhythms, a shortage of delicate evocation) the pieces were generally well played and chosen. More Schumann to conclude: the "Intermezzo" from "Viennese Carnival" in a rather wild performance and the First Novellette, to my mind much better played than the other Schumann scores. The encore was a short Prelude by Scriabin.

Nuova Harmonia presented at the Coliseo the debut of the David Trio, founded recently (in 2004) . Two players are Italian: pianist Claudio Trovajoli and violinist Daniele Pascoletti; the cellist Philipp Von Steinaecker probably isn't. Their integration is very good and in their best moments the results were impressive. However, there was an excess of incisiveness in the violin and the high-lying harmonics of the cello in Shostakovich were flawed. The pianist was a tower of strength throughout. Haydn's Hob XV.14 had an interesting performance, with added ornaments and cadenzas, but the players seemed to go too far at some junctures. The splendid Shostakovich Trio op.67 had its gripping moments, and the artists found their full form in Brahms' marvelous Trio No.1, op.8 but later revised. The encore was a fine performance of the last movement from Dvorák's "Dumky" Trio.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald