sábado, abril 23, 2011

The Colón Ballet is back

            We have two big state-run ballet companies within a 70-km. range: the Colón and the Argentino. The first had been in sore trouble during 2010; the second had a normal season. Now auspiciously both are active. ( I will write about the Argentino in another article).
            As readers are probably aware, the Colón Ballet had a horrid year, with cancellations all over the place and open conflict. The main problem was the quality of both floors: those of the stage and of the rehearsal space. The dancers insisted that they were too hard and inflexible and that they produced lesions, and a big group refused to dance under such conditions. Colón Director Pedro Pablo García Caffi didn´t accept the claim and cancelled the remaining season after the second title of the year.  But later (too late) he had second thoughts and said that although the dancers were not right, he would import two state-of-the-art Harlequin floors. Well, one of them arrived and was installed; the other languishes in our customs in one of those recurring and maddening episodes of administrative silliness through the decades.
            This year the orchestras are in conflict, although they are now finally playing, but as I told in a recent article, matters aren´t solved and could become unhinged again any moment. And the "light at the end of the tunnel" is getting dimmer, as weeks go by without a solution and frustration grows. In early March García Caffi said in a press conference that there would be no subscription series for opera, ballet or the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. But he did say that there would be ballet performances, if necessary with recorded music. As it happens, the precarious arrangement with the orchestras provided the ballet with the Resident Orchestra (Orquesta Estable) for the first title of the year, the Triple Bill called  "Neoclassical Trilogy".
            Meanwhile, the fact of having just one new floor complicated matters; it seems the floor is adequate for there have been no complaints from the dancers, but the same Harlequin has had to be used for both the rehearsal room and the stage; blessedly, it can be transported, otherwise we were in trouble. However, and showing again what arbitrariness prevails at the Colón, dancers did complain of insufficient rehearsal because apparently the authorities were waiting for the conflict with the orchestras to arrive at the present arrangement. What is the credibility, then, of the Colón´s Director saying that rehearsals and performances would take place anyway, with or without the orchestra? And as the programme was quite interesting but difficult, some leniency is in order in this review.
            Once all this is said and taken into account, however, I must say I enjoyed the show and that it was moving to see with what enthusiasm the whole Ballet intervened. The concept was right: three Neoclassical pieces (one of them a premiere) by valuable choreographers, all of them dead, put on by reliable specialists in their styles. I have pleasant memories of the distant Colón premiere of "Nuestros valses" by the Venezuelan Vicente Nebrada, on charming waltzes by his compatriot Teresa Carreño. Five pas de deux interlaced by transitions led by a couple in red (there´s a different color for each couple) give us a tasteful and charming succession of refined salon dancing. And they were very nicely done, especially by Silvina Perillo and Federico Fernández (red) and by Natalia Pelayo and Alejandro Parente (I saw the cast of April 19). Leonardo Marconi was the good piano player, and the revival was in the hands of Zane Wilson and Yanis Pikieris.
            "Marguerite and Armand", the premiere, was Sir Frederick Ashton´s tribute to the art of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and it tells of course the story of "The lady of the camelias", taking as musical basis the Liszt Sonata in an arrangement for piano and orchestra by Dudley Simpson where the orchestra has little to do. The problem is that (as often with music thought for another use) the dramatic action and the music don´t always correspond. The second problem is that the Neoclassical style is too cool for such a Romantic story. But Ashton was a resourceful choreographer and the piece is worth knowing. The lovers were interpreted with intensity and fine technique by Sofía Menteguiaga and Fernández; it is futile to imagine what Fonteyn and Nureyev might have done with this material. The excellent pianist was Iván Rutkauskas, and the Orquesta Estable was conducted by Carlos Bertazza. Grant Coyle was the transmitter of Ashton´s ideas.
            George Balanchine is my favorite choreographer of all time, so I´m partial. I find "Symphony in C" (on Bizet´s symphony), either with this later title or the original ("Crystal Palace" for the Paris Ballet de l´Opéra, with lovely stage designs by Leonor Fini) –I´ve seen them both- one of his best works, the epitome of a choreographer´s musicality, meaning that every single trait of the music is faithfully reproduced by the dance steps, and also of his inexhaustible ingenuity. The principal dancers were Karina Olmedo and Juan Pablo Ledo in the first movement; Gabriela Alberti and Parente in the second; Carla Vincelli and Edgardo Trabalón in the third; and Maricel De Mitri and Gerardo Wyss in the fourth. But the Corps de Ballet has enormous work to do, and when all these fine soloists and members of the corps danced together in the final stretches of the work, the result was astonishing and exhilarating. Victoria Simon was the faithful heir of the choreographer´s imagination. More rehearsal would have avoided small hesitancies, and the Colón Ballet isn´t Balanchine´s New York outfit, but the result was very honorable. The Estable played no more than correctly under Javier Logioia Orbe; however,  the dance was the thing,  and I´m happy to welcome the Colón Ballet back.

viernes, abril 22, 2011

The world of three orchestras

            An orchestra is a small world. About a hundred people live a communal life led by a Principal Conductor, and they depend on a complex public and/or private administration and sponsorship. Theirs is a busy, sometimes hectic life, in which they are in close contact with the transforming marvels of music but also with the miserabilities of practical problems, psychological tugs-of-war both internal and external and the communicative give-and-take with their audiences. 
            Three orchestras with different characteristics were heard in our city during recent weeks: the Moscow Symphony under Jorge Uliarte at the Coliseo, the Buenos Aires Philharmonic conducted by Jorge Bertazza at the Colón, and the National Symphony led by its Principal Conductor Pedro Calderón at the Auditorio de Belgrano. I will start with the Muscovites.
            Moscow has almost always been a city with plentiful professional orchestras, at least half a dozen and sometimes more. They were strongly impacted by the implosion of the USSR; some survived, others went under and still others were born, to a new world where state funds had dwindled precipitously; but gradually private sponsors appeared and state support augmented.
            The Moscow Symphony was founded in 1989 and is, according to its "biography" included in the hand programme, "the first Russian independent orchestra developed exclusively with private resources".   Their main sponsor isn´t a Russian concern but Nestle (!). The MS has made more than a hundred recordings and has often been abroad.
            Their visit to BA is the result of the vast organizational and persuasive powers of Argentine conductor Jorge Uliarte, founder of the astonishing Ushuaia Festival, and their concerts (two with different programmes) were an anticipation of their six evenings in Ushuaia, where they played among other things the complete Tchaikovsky symphonies. The MS is an accomplished outfit, as shown in their second night, an all-Russian combination of standards: the Overture to Glinka´s "Ruslan and Ludmilla", the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto with Vitaly Pisarenko and Tchaikovsky´s Fourth.
            I feel that Uliarte (who also brought here the Berlin Symphony in recent years) is a well-grounded, correct maestro, lacking the vital spark that separates the average from the upper level.  The MS is very Russian in its sound, rather brash and with a touch of stridency in trumpets and trombones, but it also has communicative, well-tuned strings. The very clipped phrasing of Uliarte and some slow tempi robbed the Fourth of some dramatic values.
            I was well impressed by the young Pisarenko (no biography in the programme), who did Rachmaninov with very adequate command and good taste, although some bits could have sounded more exciting; the rather disheveled accompanying didn´t help him much.  The encore was the First Act Waltz from Tchaikovsky´s "Swan Lake" and it was a very pleasant ending. Their other concert was comprised of three orchestral  pieces: the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin´s "Prince Igor", Liszt´s "The Preludes" and Tchaikovsky´s lovely and seldom played First Symphony ("Winter Dreams").

            The vicissitudes of the two Colón orchestras are well-known to Herald readers. As I said in my latest article, althought the conflict persists they are now rehearsing. However, the first session of the B.A.Philharmonic, dubbed as "Aperture Concert", was utterly changed compared with the original planning: Arturo Diemecke, its Principal Conductor, didn´t come, and the Assistant Conductor, Carlos Bertazza, was in charge. Moreover, the very interesting programme was wholly scrapped: Mahler´s Sixth Symphony ("Tragic") and Michael Torke´s "Rapture" with Ángel Frette as percussion soloist. And it was replaced by a hackneyed and shortish late-Nineteenth Century French programme: three pieces from Bizet´s "L´Arlésienne", the Overture to Offenbach´s "Orphée aux Enfers" (as concocted by Carl Binder; it includes the famous Can-Can), and the Franck Symphony (included in last year´s subscription series).
            The only enticing fact was that finally the Phil was playing, but as time went on, I began to feel rather happy, for personable young Bertazza, certainly anxious to please the players and the audience, proved to have the preparation and the conviction to give us a very well-wrought interpretation of the dense, powerful Franck symphony, as well as the brio for Bizet´s "Farandole" (in the Prelude there were misadjustments in tricky places). It was a nice night, after all. Who knows what will happen next, however.
            After a pre-season concert at the Bolsa de Comercio, the National Symphony (Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional) started in earnest at their recovered (in 2010) home, the Auditorio de Belgrano, with its fine acoustics. Always with Calderón at the helm (still reasonably fit in his late seventies), the programming for the year has had minimal publicity, and already there have been changes in the first three concerts, one of them as the result of an odious practice which I ingenuously thought had been abolished: the accumulation of debt with the main provider of scores, Melos (exRicordi). Concerts are still free, simply because they have no structure to build a subscription series.
            But the orchestra remains good, sometimes very good. After the rather too prolix Second Overture (1892) by Alberto Williams, there was a beautiful performance of Schumann´s Piano Concerto by the sensitive Agustina Herrera, notwithstanding a minor accident in the treacherous last movement. And the concert ended with a Calderón specialty, Mahler´s First Symphony, masterfully built and detailed by the conductor. Apart from some horn fluffs and the lack of true "pianissimi", it was a powerful performance in this Mahler year (centenary of his death).

martes, abril 12, 2011

The Colón: light at the end of the tunnel

            My last report on the Colón situation was published three weeks ago and it was called "Is the Colón´s sad decline deliberate?". Since then, though matters aren´t solved and there are major points to be cleared up, there have been some advances that allow me to mention in the title of this article that there´s light at the end of the tunnel. This has come about among gross contradictions between what the City Government´s "actors" have expressed, Mauricio Macri on TV calling "vandals" some employees and attacking judges that emitted unfavorable sentences, Colón Director Pedro Pablo García Caffi keeping adamantly to his confrontation line; but Minister of Culture Hernán Lombardi made some conciliatory statements, and Secretary of Human Resources Andrés Ibarra agreed to talk with Roberto Arrechea (labor union ATE´s  Buenos Aires Secretary General) with the condition that rehearsals would be resumed; and they were.
            As we go to press this much is confirmed: the Buenos Aires Philharmonic starts its season next Thursday and the ballet will offer next week a triple bill accompanied by the Colón Orchestra and two pianists. True, the Phil´s concert is a mere stopgap conducted by the Orchestra´s assistant conductor, Carlos Bertazza, replacing the originally announced Principal Conductor Arturo Diemecke, and with an utterly changed programme from an innovative and difficult combination of Mahler´s Sixth Symphony and a premiere by  Michael Torke ("Rapture", with percussionist Ángel Frette) to a run-of-the-mill French  late-Nineteenth Century mixture.  But at least they are playing. And the ballet won´t have recorded tracks as accompaniment.
            Previous to all that, however, the Government emitted still more ominous signs, perhaps as a strategy to demoralize the orchestras and force them to accept rehearsals. And the City´s functionaries again showed a disconcerting behavior. In February (this wasn´t publicly known at the time) they  called a competition to cover vacant posts in the orchestras, a good thing in normal times but absurd in the middle of a conflict; at the very end of March they called the competition off. Also, they threatened to apply 50% discounts on the salaries of dissidents.
            Coupled with this, also at the end of March they proceeded to advise 4l players that had been under contract last year both at the Phil and at the Colón Orchestra that their contracts wouldn´t be renovated, because the orchestras weren´t playing.  However, after the first talk between Ibarra and Arrechea it transpired that they would be re-hired.
            The Attorney General recommended the exoneration of the eight employees delegates of the labor union ATE that are the target of the $ 55 million trial, now pending appeal. This certainly makes negotiations more difficult, for Arrechea represents the opinion of the Colón Assembly, and they demand the following points: a) the suspension of any sanctions; b) the renovation of contracts; c) a salary raise of 40% compared to December; d) elimination of the discounts on salaries; e) reimbursement of salary days suspended because of strikes.  
            Some repercussions are worth mentioning: a) Sadem (Argentine Music Syndicate) considers García Caffi "persona no grata". b) The orchestras played the National Anthem at Vélez Sarsfield in the interval of a soccer game to dramatize their plight. c) The Phil sent a letter to García Caffi complaining that a security guard had been hostile and menacing to a member of the orchestra, and considering that they now feel watched as if they were delinquents. They write of "patovicas" and "police state" behavior. d) Various provincial orchestras have expressed their solidarity with the Colón orchestras. e) A Télam agency dispatch states that Lombardi wants García Caffi´s resignation. And also says that Ibarra promised "not to advance with sanctions"; but Ibarra can do nothing about the judicial and adminstrative instances against "the eight" or "the twenty-five" (for lesser sanctions have been asked against a larger group that includes those eight).
            Tomorrow a new encounter between Arrechea and Ibarra will include the above points; it remains to be seen if they are resolved. The results of the talks will be analyzed in a new assembly. The main problem is Macri´s lapidary statements; Ibarra or Lombardi may be amenable to a settlement, García Caffi may be replaced or overruled, but if their chief puts his thumb down, the Colón will remain in trouble. And even if the Executive seems in the last instance conciliatory, there are still judicial and administrative rounds to be dealt with, and their timing may be too slow for comfort.

martes, abril 05, 2011

A brilliant “Grand Macabre” and a break-dance “Carmen”

            György Ligeti´s "Le Grand Macabre" is weird in itself, but the conditions of its local premiere have been weirder. As a result of the unsolved conflict between the Colón orchestras and the authorities, there was no orchestra, an essential matter for a composer whose sense of color was enormous. Of course it was a foregone conclusion, for the City Government has shown no signs of a favorable disposition to arrive at a solution. But the Colón´s Director Pedro Pablo García Caffi went full speed ahead and sent the airplane tickets to the technical staff of La Fura del Baus, the numerous foreign singers and the conductor. Thus the forced compromise of presenting it in an arrangement based on two pianos and percussion and the decision to offer four free performances called "rehearsals with public"; pride of place for the tickets went to the opera subscribers of 2010.
            This first opera of the season may well be the last. Anyway, "rehearsal" was an improper name, for the performances were fully adjusted and professional. Of course, the famous avantgarde Catalan company has done the piece elsewhere with great success, and all the singers have interpreted their parts before. The only "new" factor was that the accompaniment was different; however, I found it didn´t come out so badly in comparison with the Salonen-conducted CDs, for in fact there were six players producing a vaster sound than originally announced: two pianos and percussion, but also celesta, organ and especially synthesizer, which can imitate brass sounds.  Nowhere in the programme was a basic fact cleared up: was this version concocted by Ligeti? And if not, by whom? Conductor Baldur Brönnimann?
            It is very seldom that I can write this statement: the production was better than the opera. But it so happens that the extravagance of the libretto found its match in a display of visual imagination never seen before at the Colón. You can dislike some ideas of La Fura, but the technical accomplishment is astonishing: a gigantic doll in prone position opens its orifices or whole parts of its anatomy, changing color and expression with hyperrealist  verisimilitude. In fact, it is so fascinating that it makes less visible the dramatic grossness of the libretto concocted by Ligeti and Michael Meschke on the original 1934 play by the Belgian surrealist Michel de Ghelderode. It is always dangerous to treat profound subjects as a grotesque, and the end of the world announced by Nekrotzar, an "angel of Death", has to be much scarier than in the pat and unwitty scenes concerning sadomasochism or politics.  I find the final  "happy end" scenes particularly disappointing. A change to cataclysm might have made the piece more relevant, although it wouldn´t save its irremediable weakness. Only the charming duets of lovers are a relief in this silly world.
            Of course, Ligeti could be a great composer, but I find him here only intermittently so: in those duets, so fluent and iridiscent; in some interludes that attain terrible repercussions on the listener´s psyche; in the richness of the offstage choirs. But by and large, I don´t accept "Le Grand Macabre" as a great opera.The original version was premiered in 1978; the revision, in 1997.  
            La Fura´s people must be mentioned: the co-producers Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco (she is Argentinian); the marvelous design of the doll by Alfons Flores; the costumes by Lluc Castells, sometimes too grotesque; the marvelous lighting by Peter Van Praet; and the strong video images of Frank Aleu, redolent both of concentration camps and the vivid  world of Pieter Brueghel (well, supposedly everything happens in "Brueghelland").
            The musical side went very well, the six players responding  professionally to Brönnimann´s conducting, and the singers versatile and in full accord with the staging. Splendidly ringing tenor Chris Merritt, still in full form; Roderick Earle as the baritone Nekrotzar, giving his best to a nondescript character; Brian Asawa in full sweet voice as the countertenor Prince Go-Go; and the stratospheric soprano Susana Andersson dealing handsomely with the awesome fireworks of the Chief of the Secret Police. Nice work from soprano Ilse Eerens and mezzo Frances Bourne as Amanda/Amando, and from Gustavo De Gennaro (The White Minister) and Javier Galán (The Black Minister). The ungrateful parts of Astradamors and Mescalina were well taken by Wilbur Pauley and Ning Liang.
            It was a great success with the very mixed public of subscribers, "Fureros" and general audience attracted by being able to watch a Colón show for free.
            I will be brief concerning "Carmen", which opened Buenos Aires Lírica´s season at the Avenida. They interestingly chose the rarely done original version as an "opéra-comique": with spoken dialogue  instead of the recitatives added by Ernest Guiraud. The artists managed to sing in tolerable French.
            I liked the conducting of Alejo Pérez, always alert and well-contrasted, although I found the "Danse bohème" too slow. The choirs were less polished than their usual standard under Juan Casasbellas, but acceptable, whilst the Teatro Argentino´s Children Choir under Mónica Dagorret was spontaneous and in tune. The find was Brazilian tenor Martin Muehle (debut), a Don Jose of firm timbre and convincing projection. Mezzo Adriana Mastrángelo, whom I usually like a lot, seemed less involved as Carmen, though she sang well. Oriana Favaro was a refined and sensitive Micaela. Leonardo Estévez was unconvincing as Escamillo, with a disagreeable top. Of the rest I would only single out the clearly sung Zúñiga of Walter Schwarz.
            Unfortunately, I found Marcelo Lombardero and his team at their worst in a "Carmen" that seemed out of time and place: break-dance in something like Villa Soldati isn´t my idea of "Carmen"; or innkeeper and smugglers openly gay; or a badly conceived stage picture for Act I, with a graffiti-laden wall officiating as a police quarter with an absurd incident at the very beginning, and then the chorus "Sur la place" went for nothing, for obviously the officers couldn´t see the alluded square.  The Third Act was terrible, with a crummy urban depot substituting for the required mountain pass. And the projections in the Fourth just a way to spend less in actors. Diego Siliano did the stage designs, Luciana Gutman the costumes, Horacio Efron the lighting. A couple of well-observed dramatic touches by Lombardero didn´t save the night.