miércoles, enero 15, 2014

“Bloody daughter”, candid analysis of Martha Argerich

            "The Martha Argerich case"  might be an alternative title of "Bloody daughter", the documentary by Stéphanie Argerich programmed at the MALBA cinema for January and February Saturday nights. Indeed, her mother´s enigmatic personality, always so elusive and fascinating, needed this personal view, certainly interesting not only for music lovers but also for the public at large.

            Now in her early 70s, she holds a unique place in the world of piano interpretation. Child prodigy, and then prodigious adolescent, her concerts amazed the great European centers and as she came of age she recorded the first of many magnificent records for Deutsche Grammophon. She had all the qualities:  acute intelligence, lovely tone, a fantastic mechanism of seemingly inexhaustible possibilities and a sense of style which allowed her to adapt mercurially to authors as different as Chopin and Prokofiev.

            At the time (the Sixties) some very conservative critics felt she was too free and were disconcerted by her immense stamina and the electricity that emanated from her, but once and again she was capable of catching the essence of very simple and easy music quite as easily as the most virtuosic, and both the public and the reviewers soon adopted her. She was a force of nature.

            At that time she visited Buenos Aires in 1965 and I had the great pleasure of interviewing her; although she was shy and disliked talking about herself, she was pleasant and charming, and after an hour it seemed I had known her for years. She gave their due to her teachers (Scaramuzza, Gulda, Madeleine Lipatti) and in a very characteristic phrase she said that she played before older pianists (Stefan Askenase) but also of her own generation (Fou Ts´ong) because interpretations are always improved by the exchange of views with other pianists.

            Later, in June 1967, I had an informal chat over dinner with Argerich and her then husband, conductor Charles Dutoit, after a concert for the Prague Spring Festival, and she was completely relaxed. Others have complained of her boorish ways, and I suppose that her moods have varied widely, so I may have been lucky, but I can only report that her charisma is great.

            But let´s go back to Stéphanie Argerich. You may think that the rather startling title of the movie refers to the mother-daughter relationship, but when about half of the picture has elapsed you will learn that "bloody" was used as a curious tender epithet by Stéphanie´s father, pianist Stephen Kovacevich (Bishop Kovacevich in the early stages of his career), and there are several long sequences between them, including the rather harsh one about why he never recognised her.

            Stéphanie has two half-sisters: Annie Dutoit and Lyda Chen. The latter was the unplanned issue of a shared night between Martha and a Chinese musician. So you see that Martha´s private life was unstable and sometimes stormy. But this film is astonishing, for Stéphanie managed to convince her mother to expatiate freely on various matters (often not musical), vanquishing her notorious secretiveness and showing her indecisions frankly. And considering that her three daughters have had long periods of incommunication with their mother, it is rather wonderful to find them all together and feel that there´s real love among them all.

            Stéphanie evokes her infant years following her mother in tours, and vintage clips of Martha´s interpretations are moving for those spectators that admire her (as I do). Mind you, Martha has always had a deep insecurity and stress before a concert; once she is in front of the public it doesn´t show, and she plays with adamant firmness. It is interesting that this is vouchsafed by her longtime agent, who appears in some sequences.  And it explains that strange syndrome; after her youthful years, she no longer offered recitals nor did she record piano solo scores: she exclusively played concerti with orchestra or chamber music with friends. No other world class pianist has managed to keep a high-profile career without solo recitals! A great pity,  for her recitals were marvelous and her solo records are few.

            Talking about music Martha isn´t articulate, she even thinks that nothing useful can be said about it, that you just have to feel it; curious, because her interpretations have always been deeply thought out. She admits a tendency to fast tempi (and age hasn´t abated that trait) but keeps coherence at all speeds.  The film has some serious omissions: it is good that it concentrates on the mother-daughter relationships, but it should at least mention some of her great friendships, such as the De Raco-Lechner family, who live next door to her in Brussels. And it would be nice to see her talking with some of her musician friends who play with her (e.g., Nelson Freire, Misha Maisky, Gidon Kremer).

            The film is reasonably well made, and gives us an honest glimpse of the private Martha, who now looks her age. It is dated 2012, before the memorable encounter Barenboim-Argerich in Berlin.  Martha was seriousy mistreated by the Buenos Aires Philharmonic years ago in the last Argerich Festival, and it took some years to convince her to come back; but when she did last year, she played in Rosario and Paraná, not here. Now music lovers can look forward to appreciate that formidable combination next August at the Colón: two great Argentines will play together for the first time here.

For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, enero 13, 2014

The Colón: an evaluation of its current condition


            The Colón Theatre has been for 106 years the great center in Buenos Aires for opera, ballet and concert life. During that long period it has had its share of polemics: a partial shutdown in 1957 due to a labor conflict; a total closure of four years (late 2006 to May 2010) for ample restoration work whose results are still being discussed. But even in those years there were at least two seasons at the Coliseo (2007, 2009) with the Colón forces, and in 2008, a few concerts and some chamber opera elsewhere.

            After heavy newspaper flak Mauricio Macri decided that the controversial Master Plan had to somehow reach its end, the reinauguration of the theatre; and with a complex support from two other organisms the long-awaited day arrived: May 25, 2010. It was  a political necessity, for in fact the works were supposed to finish in 2008. For the general public it was a great success, for the theatre looked well (though some specialists insist that the restoration won´t last) and there was real hunger to have a fully functioning Colón. And apparently it was so, at least in opera and concerts (there was trouble with the ballet due to the lack of an adequate flooring and half the season was cancelled).

            But alas, neither many members of the audiences nor superficial observers  that should have known better realised that there were terrible flaws in other aspects. First, the idea was sold that the theater´s restoration was finished: false. It was left incomplete in vital aspects and people weren´t told that most of the production was done elsewhere at a space in Belgrano called La Nube, much smaller than the original stage design halls at the Colón now used for rehearsals.

             Even now, when some cellars below the Plaza Vaticano have been recovered for certain production aspects, the integration of the Colón as it was before is far from complete, and a big block in the main building remains unused and unreformed. And people don´t seem to appreciate the cultural disaster symbolised by the unavailability of the Colón Library, whose invaluable materials remain in containers since 2006.

            But the human side is even worse. On Macri´s instructions (based on a wrong imitation of Milan´s La Scala "innovations"), the Colón´s Director Pedro Pablo García Caffi transferred 400 people partly to hospitals and partly to a limbo where they would be evaluated by an obscure office which never did the job...all to  reach a staff level of 900, disrupting careers and eliminating wholesale such necessary sections as Administration; surreal but sadly true. So we now have this ridiculous situation: about 900 are staff, but the total number is still about 1300...for most of those jobs were indispensable and are covered by people from outside the theatre ("tercerization"); and the theatre is more costly than it used to be.

            There were also strikes and performances that were cancelled with the audience inside the theatre, and in this the Colón workers were surely wrong although they had great and true grievances; followed a long series of law suits, most of them favorable to labor, and they will continue during 2014.

            Some things were ameliorated after 2010: although still far from ideal, the integration of the orchestras, the choir and the ballet allowed a lot of necessary young blood to show their capacity, even if not always done following orthodox competitions. Much remains to be done, however, in the structuring of the workshops, hindered by the lack of facilities mentioned above.

            One factor has caused a lot of protestations from the music lovers: the very high prices in a state-funded theatre. True, operatic prizing is high also in Europe, but their standard of living triples or quadruples ours. The lack of special discount for students or pensioners is also bothersome.

            On the purely artistic side veteran Colón goers agree that we are operatically very far from the halcyon years of either the Renán or the Valenti Ferro seasons. Gross mistakes such as the Colón-Ring are very much in the debit side.  Few first-rate singers have visited us. On the credit side, we´ve had some interesting premières (even too many in 2012). The ballet seasons still have a poor repertoire but the quality of dancing has picked up a good deal.

            Concerts: the "reflected glory" from many splendid concerts by private institutions (Mozarteum, Nuova Harmonia, Festivales)  have given us great Colón nights, but the theatre has also offered admirable soloists in 2012 such as András Schiff, or first-rate orchestras in 2013 (Simón Bolívar, Israel Philharmonic). Plus the Scala Verdi performances. And the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, under the charismatic Enrique Arturo Diemecke, has had successful seasons. I also commend the evenings of difficult but valuable Twentieth century composers (Varèse, Xenakis, Nono). For 2014 we have the extraordinary conjunction of Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim.

            A moot point on which I have strong views with which you may not agree: I find it wrong policy to offer popular music at the Colón. This is a classical music theatre of famous acoustics; it is demeaned by amplification.  It is no place for Las Elegidas or for Charly García. And I also feel that their artistic quality is simply not comparable to any of the above. But Macri and Minister Lombardi seem to feel it´s good politics...

For Buenos Aires Herald