lunes, abril 28, 2014

Homage to Gelber, the Phil´s season

            Argentina currently has three famous septuagenarian pianists: Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim and Bruno Leonardo Gelber. All three were child prodigies, so they are having enormous careers.  As you probably know, Barenboim enticed Argerich for a musical meeting last year, and this season they will be playing together in BA in August. It  will be an undoubted hit.  But previously Gelber has received a well-deserved homage by AMIJAI, who invited him for an all-Beethoven sonata programme. So we have the rare conjunction of all three in 2014.

            Gelber has always had the hindrance of the polio that attacked him in his young years, but his iron will fought the consequences and (as is the case of Perlman) he had a very intensive career with much traveling over the decades. His repertoire has been mainly German: Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann. Maybe he has restricted himself too much, insisting on some works exaggeratingly and being reluctant to explore the Twentieth Century, so his revelations  were in the field of interpretation but not in the expanding of repertorial views. However, e.g.,  whilst he may have played the Brahms Concerti too often, I can think of no other Argentine artist that has offered them so resplendently.

             A reviewer´s painful duty is to say his truth (not necessarily  the reader will agree) and I must say that in recent years Gelber´s physical problems in my view have affected his playing, especially the thickening of the fingers, so that he has lost agility and clarity of articulation. Listening to him I feel a heaviness that goes beyond the always rotund character of his playing of the great Beethoven middle-period Sonatas in earlier days; they certainly must sound in many passages granitic and powerful, but now I heard an unevenness of weight, the left hand often overpowering the right. The beautiful new Steinway of AMIJAI can take it, but the imbalance didn´t work positively for it diminished the quality of the phrasing in some passages.

            Mind you, I´m writing about a great pianist receiving a merited homage ( a plaque was presented to him at the end with words by Eugenio Scavo, Artistic Director of the institution). But the fact is that I found him more convincing in the slower and lighter music than in the turbulent, fast passages of Sonatas Nos. 14, "Moonlight", 21, "Waldstein", and 23, "Appassionata". And, except for a blurred passage in the trio of the Scherzo, I enjoyed most the Sonata Nº 15, "Pastoral", where the sensitive phrasing and the beauty of the sound were fully those of the masterful Gelber. Many other passages of the other sonatas impressed me as well, but there were smudges and hesitations. Anyway there´s no gainsaying the vast and extraordinary trajectory of the artist, certainly one of the best musical ambassadors we´ve had through the decades.

            Ira Levin has shown his talent in recent years both in opera and in concert. In the third evening of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic´s subscription series he displayed his capacity in four different fields: conducting, piano playing, arranging and composing. He started with the world premiere of Rachmaninov-Levin´s "Four pieces for orchestra", a misnomer in the sense that they are originally piano or vocal scores orchestrated by Levin. He chose interesting and little-known pieces: "Etude" is on the Etude-tableau Op.33/5; "Vesper", in fact a Russian Ave Maria, comes from the Vespers Op.37; "Prelude" is based on Op.32/10; and "Humoresque", light and brilliant, originated as the "Morceau de salon" Op10 Nº5. The orchestrations sound very well and the Phil was on its toes.

            Mozart´s Piano Concerto Nº 14, K.449, isn´t played often. It´s in Mozart´s own words "one of very peculiar characteristics", with quirky subjects and modulations. Levin both played and conducted very professionally, but I disliked some modernisms in his own cadenzas, especially considering that for the first movement we have one by Mozart. His encore was both spectacular and flabbergasting, for I can think of nothing more opposed to Mozart´s style: Liszt´s long Tarantella from "Venezia e Napoli" (an appendix to the series "Years of Peregrination").  But the man can really play virtuoso piano.

            Dvorák´s Seventh Symphony is  his most Brahmsian and dramatic; experts believe it´s his best score on this form. Although there was some acid on the general sound, the reading was intense, concentrated and logical.

            On the following date Enrique Arturo Diemecke was back, and I welcome that he conducted a great choral-symphonic creation, for this has been a notoriously weak field in the Diemecke years.  Again I was impressed by his fabulous memory, for he used no score as he traversed Brahms´ "German Requiem", about 75 minutes of dense, beautiful Romantic music on texts from both Testaments in Luther´s translation. And his reading was quite traditional, obtaining from both the orchestra and the combined choirs a noble Romantic mahogany-hued sound.

            The work is predominantly choral, as four fragments are purely for massed voices and the others alternate the soloist (baritone or soprano) with the choirs. On the occasion, Miguel Ángel Pesce combined the 73 voices of the Asociación Coral Lagun Onak with the 35 of Cámara XXI for a grand total of 108, really huge. They sang as one, with well-trained voices and sane phrasing. Carla Filipcic Holm was exquisite in her intervention, whilst Lucas Debevec Mayer (replacing the announced Fernando Radó) sang with great expression but not without effort.

For Buenos Aires Herald

viernes, abril 11, 2014

Is a Summer Season possible?

            For those of us who are veterans with long memories, the answer is yes: a Summer Season is possible. In fact, we had it during decades, until wrong thinking obliterated them. Those seasons were never international, exceptions apart. But they did alleviate the warm musical desert of summertime, were most welcome and attracted crowds. Even this sad Colón we are going through tried it for a very limited time at the Centenario Amphitheatre some years ago.

            This year there was a positive but little-known contribution from the new Usina del Arte, and it was a step in the right sense: some varied concerts of good quality. And a quartet of ancient music concerts in Northern Greater Buenos Aires   also helped. But both things were much too little, and too late in the season. A lot more could be done and from various angles. The Colón started late with repeats of last December´s "Swan Lake" and one Philharmonic concert.

            Let´s see. What are the problems? Well, the essential one is that public institutions with orchestras, choruses or ballet ensembles all have an extended holiday period such as Europe  certainly doesn´t have. And they are sacrosanct as acquired rights. But there are ways to circumvent it without affecting those rights.

            Musicians always complain that they don´t earn enough, so they should welcome -after reasonable rest- any possibility to increase those emoluments, provided (if they are ethical) that the project seems viable and has quality. There is also the matter of cooperatives in which the artists involved take it upon themselves to assume at least part of the risk, for otherwise we again have the difficulty of obtaining sufficient sposorship.

            Mind you, in the good ol´ times the Colón managed to observe the extended holidays and even so in the 60´s  the Colón Chamber Opera provided as much as three brand new productions from late February to the end of March. They really worked then, but an expert was in charge: Enzo Valenti Ferro. And they were offered in air-conditioned theatres. There´s no reason for not replicating this nowadays.

            Before air conditiong, the Colón gave open-air Summer Seasons, first at the Sociedad Rural, then at the Centenario Amphitheatre, until it burnt down. But after a prolonged lapse of time opera returned (without the Colón´s auspices) at the Centenario, and I especially remember a talented version of Gluck´s "Orfeo ed Euridice" with Bernarda Fink. At the Anfiteatro, local casts in popular operas prevailed, at low prices. Quality wavered, though the general result was positive. I believe the installations at the Centenario would be amenable to opera, operetta and zarzuela, plus ballet and concerts,  with local artists, if orchestras and choruses could be assembled under contract. And I think they could be.

             Other places in the city could serve for ballet and some operas with lesser requirements. I remember seeing opera at the Rosedal or at the Av. Alvear´s curving ascent from Libertador. And chamber music could be offered at many venues with air conditioning.

            Dreaming is cheap, but I believe that if enough people put their mind to it a grand Summer Plan could contain: 1) Big popular operas for which we have the singers, 2) Chamber operas; 3) Operettas and zarzuelas, very adequate for the light Summer times; 4) Symphonic concerts with an intelligent selection of good light classical music, such as Fiedler´s Boston Pops used to do (most of it never gets played for programmers wrongly think they shouldn´t be included in the other seasons of the year). Plus chamber and instrumental music, and ballet.

            Firmly backed financially by enlightened sponsors, such projects must be put in experienced hands leading mostly young talented people that aren´t in the major orchestras and professional choruses. They would provide very welcome experience and funds to such people, and would give some necessary joys to city dwellers that can´t travel and believe, as I do, that culture is a fulltime thing. In Europe they have no problem, they can make their trajectory through an enormous maze of Summer Festivals of the most varied types. Here, the Sahara with very few oases...


            A postcript on two different subjects. You may remember the case of Claudio Espector as coordinator of the children and youth orchestras of our city; a couple of months ago I denounced the intention of the Macri Government to demote him from his post with no good reason, as he was staunchly defended by our musical milieu for his positive work of many years. Well, now a judge has ordered that Espector should be reinstalled at his post. I hope this will be the end of a silly and unfair conflict.

            A press conference recently presented a plan for the sprucing up of the Coliseo. What we saw was two immaculately white foyers (ground floor, first floor) looking very clean and very cold, as a freshly conditioned hospital. It isn´t to my liking but others may feel differently. We were told that the first lap of renovation had also included some improvements in the stage facilities, but they weren´t specific about it. There will two more periods in succeeding years until the renovation is complete, but all was very vague. I do hope they will ameliorate the flies and deepen the stage so that operas with big choirs can be staged. They have a 100-player pit already.

For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, abril 07, 2014

“Caligula”, revulsive opera by Glanert: was it necessary?

            It is a fact that the Colón´s season is very restricted: just eight operas when we used to have eighteen back in the Sixties. This should change, but there´s no sign of any amelioration. So the rate of turnover is miserably low, and the Colón is very far from the standard of any of the other great opera theatres of the world. The result: much lower culture.This is why each choice has great weight.

             Although I found that "Caligula", by Detlef Glanert, has certain interesting aspects, I believe that it would be justified if we would still be offering the wealth of choice we had fifty years ago, but not now. Indeed, let´s circumscribe the field to Twentieth-Century German-Austrian opera, and this is what we find: the Colón has never offered full-evening operas by the two greatest German authors other than Richard Strauss: Paul Hindemith and Hans Werner Henze. And you could add other worthwhile creators such as Gottfried Von Einem, Werner Egk, Aribert Reimann.

            But since "Caligula" has been on offer, let´s see what it gives us. It is based on a magnificent play by Albert Camus, profusely staged in BA, with such artists as Ignacio Quirós and  Imanol Arias; in TV with Duilio Marzio and Alfredo Alcón.   The French original was adapted as a German libretto by Hans-Ulrich Treichel. The opera has been staged only in Frankfurt (2006) and London (2012, in English, by the English National Opera). Here, of course, it was done in German.  By the way, there´s a porn film on "Caligula" with no less than Malcolm MacDowell and John Gielgud!

            The four acts last two hours and here it was given with one interval. The composer is a disciple of Henze and has written about a dozen operas, although he has also created symphonies, concerti and chamber music. He has a strong ear for effect, and in fact it was the orchestration that attracted me, rather than the vocal writing, generally nondescript, with the exception of an attractive introspective trio.

            The libretto is convincing in the first two acts, but notoriously declines in the third and fourth. Intermittently, when it stays close to Camus, we hear violent and tremendous phrases, some of them memorable. It is a curious thing that this hideous Emperor hasn´t attracted more composers, and paradoxically the only main one I can recollect is Fauré, one of the meekest temperaments, who wrote incidental music to Alexandre Dumas´ play (that intrigues me).

            The same deplorable decision I recently commented on for concerts is now applied to opera: the audience is given a miserable slim programme that only has the cast and the plot; otherwise it has to pay  50 pesos for the complete programme, in this case full of relevant information and even the libretto. It includes a revealing interview with Glanert plus the list of his operas,  words by Camus himself, and especially the terrifying portrait of Caligula by Suetonius in his "Life of the twelve Caesars".

            Camus stresses that his work is by no means philosophical; instead, it is a portrait of unbridled power used in the worst way. What Caligula does seems irrational to onlookers but not to him: he does what he pleases uncontained by any moral issue. Incestuous libertine, murderer to the point of genocide, nevertheless two people remain loyal: his wife Cesonia (who he will eventually strangle) and the slave Helicon. The light of Caligula´s life was his sister Drusilla, and after her death his behavior changes totally; her phantom (materialized during the opera as a fully naked figure) deambulates during the four acts. Only Quereas, the State´s Procurer, understands fully Caligula´s character: he can tell the truth to the Emperor for he knows that it makes no difference: Caligula would kill him anyway.  It´s surprising that Caligula would have accepted that nickname ("little boots") instead of his true name, Caius  Caesar. 

            The opera starts with a desperate shout for Drusilla´s death and a fortissimo 25-tone chord and finishes with the Emperor killed by a crowd; for the self-deified Caligula forgot that if he was free to act, so was his people. I have always felt what a curious destiny the Roman Empire had: at the moment of its greatest glory it had the two nastiest dictators, Caligula and Nero.

            The Colón production gave us good interpreters and two valuable singers: the countertenor Martin Wölfel and the mezzosoprano Jurgita Adamonyté (debuts). Two artists from the London production learnt their parts in English: the protagonist, Peter Coleman-Wright, and Yvonne Howard as Cesonia (both made their local debut); not interesting vocally, they were very convincing as actors, although Coleman-Wright lacks the "physique du rôle": a portly fiftyish man isn´t the right image for a man who died at 30 years-old.

            Argentine singers filled their parts adequately: Héctor Guedes, Víctor Torres, Fernando Chalabe and Marisú Pavón. Lara Tressens exhibited her marvelous beauty as Drusilla. Although it avoided excesses of gore and sex, I disliked the production by Benedict Andrews, taken from the English National Opera, with a boring unit-set of a Roman stadium by Ralph Myers and mostly ugly modern clothes by Alice Babidge plus voyeuristic presence of unnecessary people and scenes that were lukewarm dramatically.

            No doubt the heroes of the night were the splendid Orchestra, admirably conducted by Ira Levin, and the very good choir under Miguel Martínez.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Our main orchestras show their paces

            As I was traveling, I missed the first subscription concert of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic at the Colón. But I have references of what happened. First, we were supposed to have Bernhard Klee as the conductor, but somehow the artist didn´t come. A pity, for it would have been one of the very scarce debuts of this season, and Klee has a substantial career.  As usual, the Colón gave no explanation.

            He was substituted by Ira Levin, well-known here in recent years. Fortunately the soloist was maintained, the talented Karin Lechner in Mendelssohn´s First Piano Concerto. And there was a good change in the first score of the programme, for the charming but overplayed "Fledermaus" Overture by Johann Strauss II was put aside, and Levin conducted an interesting and rarely played piece, Wagner´s "Faust Overture". Brahms´ Second Symphony wasn´t changed.

            The second concert had Enrique Arturo Diemecke, again Principal Conductor for this season,  at the helm, and there were two distinct levels of quality in a run-of-the-mill programme. Russian pianist Leonid Kuzmin came back after a long time and played Beethoven´s Fifth Concerto, "Emperor". 

            Kuzmin did have some nice quiet moments but this is a majestic work; it needs strength and very precise articulation; there were too many smudges as well as rather wan passages. And the orchestra played negligently; Diemecke was uncharacteristically  nonchalant.

            But things changed in the second part, for Diemecke has always been a relevant Richard Strauss conductor, and this is the year of the 150th anniversary of the composer´s birth. The chosen pieces are quite well-known but no less pleasant to hear. As a colleague said, after the end of the Second Part, in it "we had an orchestra", and it responded beautifully in "Till Eulenspiegel´s merry pranks" and in the Suite from "Der Rosenkavalier" (except in the latter for a horn croak).

            The opera is an absolute marvel, but the suite, done much later, though wonderful most of the time, does have some bad joins and I dislike the tumultuous ending, instead of the delicate and tasteful one of the opera.  Diemecke was brilliant as well as flexible and humorous in both works, as well as tender in the Trio or gloriously schmaltzy in Ochs´waltz.

            But there was a novelty that gave me a bad case of anger: traditionally the hand programme was part of the usher´s tip; now we have two "models": one is the usual, with full biographies and comments on the scores; the other is ultraslim and only offers the bare facts. For the "usual", you will now have to pay 50 pesos plus tip; as it has no less than ten adds, its cost is surely covered. As the tickets are quite expensive for a country in the middle of a crisis, the new procedure seems to me unwarranted and wrong. I, as reviewer, get it for free, but my anger is on behalf of the music-lovers at large.

            I have written often about the shortcomings of the National Symphony (Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional): not the players, which are generally quite good, but their mismanagement by the Nation´s Cultural Secretariat decade after decade. This year is more of the same: free concerts (which diminishes any orchestra) in their main cycle, not only on the secondary venues; only a couple of foreign conductors (why should they

accept to come when they don´t get paid?); rather poor programming (they always pay late the rented scores which means that some editors refuse to collaborate), including conceptual errors such as the programmes dedicated to Bacalov and Waldo de los Ríos, not worthy of such an honor; underuse of voted funds, as has happened in recent years.

            Apart from being absent in their first two concerts (the first, a pop open-air concert at the Villa 31! ; the second, all-Russian, at the Bolsa de Comercio), I had to miss their third one, also at the Bolsa, for it clashed with "Anna Bolena". Last Sunday I wanted to go to a very special concert, for the programme was the Berlioz Requiem, famous for its huge forces: a full orchestra augmented by 4 bands, plus a big chorus and a tenor soloist. The open-air venue was chosen for political reasons: the Regimiento de Patricios, for it was attended by the Minister of Defense and the Army Chief; indeed, it was a solemn celebration of April 2, and the same work had been offered in recent years at other places such as Mar del Plata with identical purpose. And it was to be televised, including our Hymn and the "Canción a la bandera" from Panizza´s "Aurora", sung of course by Darío Volonté.

            But rain intervened, and the concert was postponed for the following Monday, and at 8 p.m., not 7. I was there early, so I saw and heard the sound tryouts.  And apart from the lack of style of Volonté in Berlioz, all went smoothly if you accept open-air sound (microphones were well-adjusted but there was a continuous low rumble of traffic).

            Guillermo Becerra conducted with full control and excellent phrasing; the National Symphony was splendid and it was admirably abetted by the four bands from the Army, the Marine and the Air Force. The choirs sang powerfully  the difficult score: Coro Polifónico Nacional (Roberto Luvini) and Coro Nacional de Jóvenes (Néstor Zadoff). The incredibly inventive music was well served.

For Buenos Aires Herald

BAL´s “Anna Bolena”, a travesty of bel canto values

             Gaetano Donizetti´s "Anna Bolena", composed when he was 33, was already his 32nd opera. And it became his first great success, as well as starting the trilogy of British Queens, continued with "Maria Stuarda" and ended with "Roberto Devereux".  The decline of Donizetti´s star during the "verismo" years  was followed after WWII with a revival of many unduly forgotten titles. For "A.B.", the triumph of Callas and Simionato in 1957 with Gavazzeni´s conducting and Visconti´s producing was instrumental in providing a model for future revivals. Later Callas recorded marvelously the final scene, a masterpiece.

            By the time it arrived at the Colón in 1970 I was thoroughly familiar with the music, and I enjoyed it hugely in the beautiful production of Margherita Wallmann with Nicola Benois´ fantastic stage designs evoking powerfully the times of Henry VIII. And the cast was important, with Elena Suliotis, Fiorenza Cossotto, Gianni Raimondi and Ivo Vincò, plus the thorough conducting of Oliviero De Fabritiis. Still later the vinyls of the complete "A.B." were edited here, with Beverly Sills, Shirley Verrett, Stuart Burrows and Paul Plishka, conducted by Julius Rudel. I also had the pleasure of seeing it at the now-disappeared New York City Opera, with Olivia Stapp and no less than Samuel Ramey as Henry.

            The Colón didn´t return to the piece (in fact, it has miserably neglected the Donizettian repertoire since then). But about eight years ago, there was a decent production presented elsewhere by Adelaida Negri where the style was respected both vocally and stagewise. Negri´s voice had its problems; however, the lady looked regal and she sang with true understanding.

            All this is by way of giving a background to the certainly awaited revival by Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL) at the Avenida, starting its season. The opera has a libretto by the celebrated Felice Romani, based on "Enrico VIII ossia Anna Bolena", by Ippolito Pindemonte, and "Anna Bolena" by Alessandro Pepoli: two Italian sources for an English historical libretto. But in fact what we have leaves aside the political aspects to concentrate on an alcove plot: quite simply, Henry has grown tired of Bolena and now covets Jane (Giovanna) Seymour, who will become his third queen after Ann´s decapitation. She is falsely accused of adultery with an old flame, Percy; and Romani adds a subplot with the page Smeton caught red-handed with Ann´s portrait in his (her, for it is a mezzo trouser role) hands. 

            The music is melodious and acquires true dimension in the great Ann-Jane duet and in the ample final scene. Done with dignity and taste, it can provide a fine night at the opera. Alas, this wasn´t the case. The distortion of bel  canto values by the producer Pablo Maritano was so deep that the dramatic or tragic instances became ridiculous, and it fatally affected even the considerable quality of singing of the three female singers. Indeed, Ann smirked her way almost to the last minute, Jane was endowed with what looked like Minnie Mouse ears  and Smeton seemed attacked by delirium tremens.

            The men, excepting Lord Rochefort (Ann´s brother) fared much worse. Henry looked like a Mafia don in absurd white costume, and although the Henry of that time wasn´t yet obese, he certainly wasn´t thin. And poor Percy, certainly not helped by his short stature, was so horribly marked by the producer that his acting seemed that of a spastic, provoking suppressed mirth in the spectator in all the most dramatic moments.

            Maritano has explained in an interview that his view of the piece is violent and from the start he portrays Henry has a sadistic s.o.b. of unbridled lascive instincts; Jane is certainly impressed by his animal side and in the last instance her remorse gives way before her sensuality and the offered pomp and power. Of course, Henry was a complex man and he had drastic methods of doing things, but the times of constitutional monarchy are still far off during his reign; he was ruthless but  also a man of refined tastes, who composed and spoke good French. Maritano certainly gave instructions to his team and Sofia di Nunzio´s incredible accoutrements for the King and for Percy aren´t completely her fault. The producer even brought photographers to close one of the scenes.  The scarce stage designs of Andrea Mercado give little ambience to the action. The whole thing lacks taste, sense of drama and I would even say knowledge of time and place. The nadir was the scene of a hung stag dripping blood whilst Ann sang along.

            The good things were the singing as such (forget the drama) of Macarena Valenzuela, certainly a fine voice, but don´t compare with Callas or Sills! Florencia Machado was quite intense as Jane, the best artist of the night. The debut of Luciana Mancini (she is Chilean) as Smeton showed a well-timbred voice skilfully used. The men were another story. Except Walter Schwarz as a fluidly sung Rochefort, I got little pleasure musically either from Christian Peregrino (a big bass voice but with woolly intonation) or from Santiago Ballerini, where only his facility to reach high notes was a plus; I heard  badly managed phrasing and a timbre with little beauty.

             Further good points were the conducting of Rodolfo Fischer and the correct singing of the choir (Juan Casasbellas) but they couldn´t save the night.

For Buenos Aires Herald