viernes, agosto 29, 2014

The Coliseo Ballet Gala, featuring Herman Cornejo


            Fourteen solos or duets by fifteen dancers, the long-awaited "rentrée" of Herman Cornejo and a varied selection with several new dances: an interesting Coliseo Ballet Gala, the fourth since its inception in 2011. The Grupo Ars, with production by Liana Vinacur, Diego Radivoy and Martín Boschet, has the sponsorship of Galicia Éminent.

            I dislike the marketing side of this enterprise, with unnecessary videos of the dancers saying generally uninteresting words prior to their dancing, but apart from that the selection of artists was done with a fine eye for talent, and some of the pieces were worthy of local premières. The music was recorded in generally good sound, though sometimes overbright.

            There were two old Petipa standards, pieces of long trajectory of the Twentieth Century (Vaganova, Vainonen, Neumeier, Cranko) and six new ones. Although the latter were all effective, the majority had recourse to gimmicks that were more like variety numbers with dancing expertise than really creative choreography.

            Cornejo has recently won the Benois trophy, as it were the Ballet´s Oscar, as best dancer of the world. Another artist, Joaquín de Luz, Spanish, obtained the same distinction years ago, and he also was a part of this feast of movement. Cornejo, Argentine, has long been absent from Buenos Aires, absorbed by his international career. 

            Things started in the right direction with the expressive and beautiful duet from "Spartacus" (music by Khachaturian, choreography by Attilio Labis), admirably danced by two members of the Colón Ballet: the veteran Karina Olmedo in her best level and the young and powerful Nahuel Prozzi.

            I disagree with Neumeier´s parodic style for Delibes´s "Sylvia";I feel that it does scant justice to an open-air Greek mythology ballet, shamefully neglected by the Colón for the last seventy years for it has fine music, as good as "Coppélia" ´s. The two fragments (a famous Pizzicato and a sentimental piece with violin solo) were done with fine technique by two Argentines that are a part of the Hamburg Ballett: Carolina Agüero and Darío Franconi. By the way, we were given a luxurious booklet with full references on the dancers plus some interviews (especially about Cornejo), though not free from misprints.

            The short athletic male variation from "The Corsair" (Petipa and Drigo, on Lord Byrón´s book) was promisingly danced by the 18-year-old Nicolai Gorodyskii, a Ukrainian bred in Argentina and currently at the Croatian National Ballet. Then came "Kübler Ross", a sensitive choreography by Andrea Schermoly on a slow movement from a Vivaldi Violin Concerto, where we had the revelation of two world-class dancers: the Russian Maria Kochetkova, from the San Francisco Ballet, and Joaquín de Luz, from the New York City Ballet.

            I couldn´t fathom why the following piece is called "Mona Lisa"; a rather ugly music by Thomas Höfs had a choreography by Itzik Galili which seemed to have been molded on the singular flexibility of Spanish dancer Alicia Amatriain, capable of almost supernatural contorsions but also of intense, poetic communication. Her very good partner was Jason Reilly, and both are members of the Stuttgart Ballet.

            On Oriental music by Deval Premal we saw a curious solo, "Aqua Flora", where the female dancer (Nicole Loizides) constantly manipulated a contraption that covers her in diverse ways; it is typical Moses Pendleton, and both choreographer and dancer are from the  Momix group; Pendleton was a part of that marvelous company, Pilobolus. He isn´t in the same league as either that company or Alwin Nikolais, but he is fun.

            And then, the spectacular Pas de deux from "Diana and Acteon", Agrippina Vaganova´s famous virtuosic choreography on Drigo´s music. Both Cornejo (from the American Ballet Theatre) and Lauren Lovette (from the New York City Ballet) are dancers of great level and wowed the audience with their dexterity.

            The Second Part started with a short flashy Sovietic solo from "Flames of Paris" (on the French Revolution), music by Boris Asafiev, choreography by Vasily Vainonen, danced with proper impetus by Gorodyskii. Then came the humorous take on gender violence, where the dancers were also choreographers: the Argentine Candelaria Antelo and the French Arthur Bazin are the two sole members of HuryCan. With marvelous ability they enacted perilous hostile physical contact always avoiding disaster by millimeters. More acrobatic dance than choreography, but original and difficult.

            "Adagietto" is an accomplished piece by Neumeier on the famous movement from Mahler´s Fifth Symphony; it was very well done by Agüero and Franconi. The duet "Millenium Skiva" is indeed based on a gimmick: the two excellent dancers (Loizides and Steven Ezra, from Momix), clad with a metallic appearance, are on "skis", and show their abilities counterweighted by them. Choreography by Pendleton on nondescript music by Alberto Bertapelle.

            Based on a Bach Violin Concerto fast movement, choreographer David Fernández imagined "Five variations", elegant moves wonderfully danced by De Luz. Then  came, added to the programme and replacing "101 steps" (music, Jens-Peter Abele; choreography, Eric Gauthier), the very welcome final duet from Cranko´s "Eugen Onegin", so expressive of the anguish of love, with the emotional intensity and charisma of Amatriain and Reilly (music based on Tchaikovsky piano pieces and on "Francesca da Rimini", not on the "Onegin" opera, arranged by Kurt-Heinz Stolze).     

            And to cap it all, the admittedly overdone "Don Quixote" Pas de deux (Minkus-Petipa) in a memorable version by Kochetkova and Cornejo. We know every step but what a pleasure to see them done with such exultant joy and refinement.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Competing dance galas from Colón and Coliseo

             As was the case in recent years, both the Colón and the Coliseo staged ballet galas; this time it was in consecutive Saturdays and the Colón was chronologically first. But the implied competition was won by the Coliseo and it will continue to be so in forthcoming years if Lidia Segni, the Directress of the Colón Ballet, insists on the idea of offering a gala in the First Part but putting on stage the Colón Ballet in the Second Part. It is in fact half a gala. I am far from thinking that the house Ballet is mediocre; it is in fact quite good and has improved a lot. However,  the whole idea of an international gala is diminished with Segni´s decision.

            A good gala combines different styles and fine dancers from many places. Some pieces are repeated "ad nauseam" (frankly I´m fed up with the "Don Quichotte" pas de deux).   The mixture in both galas gave us old standards and novelties. A huge gap was felt: the great innovators of modern dance are missing; we need Béjart, Bausch, Graham, Limón, Jooss, and also those great creators of the Twenties and Thirties such as Nijinska, Massine, T. Gsovsky. And we see far too little of Balanchine and Robbins. The organisers should select not only dancers but also repertoires.

            Precisely because it was half a gala, the Colón presented eight dancers; the Coliseo, fifteen. At the Colón the "classics" were the minority, the first two choreographies out of nine (leaving out the Second Part): the pas de deux from "La Esmeralda" comes from Nineteenth Century creators, Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa, music by Cesare Pugni, and was nicely done by two artists from the Rio de Janeiro Teatro Municipal: Márcia Jaqueline Araujo (with tambourine) and Moacir Emanuel (as the hand programme offered nary a word on the selected ballets, I add that it refers to the Esmeralda of Hugo´s "Notre Dame de Paris").

            The other was the "Coppélia" pas de deux (Delibes-Petipa) with two fine dancers from the Holland National Ballet: Jurgita Dronina (Russian) and Valentino Zucchetti (Italian), which goes to show that fine companies are cosmopolite. All the music of the First Part was heard in recordings, some of them (like the Delibes) deficient.

            The third piece brought a welcome change of pace: "Pas de Duke" is a choreography by Alvin Ailey on music by the incompàrable Duke Ellington. It follows the traditional form of Adagio, male variation, female variation, and fast final Pas de deux, but with the swinging flexibility of Ailey´s steps, wonderfully danced by Linda Celeste Sims and Kirven Douthit-Boyd; their particular plasticity is typical of the best black dancers, and I kept reminding myself of the splendid visit in recent years of the full Ailey Ballet.

            I am of two minds about "Third Symphony", mostly beautiful steps by the longtime choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet, John Neumeier, for it tears apart the musical integrity of the sixth and final movement of Mahler´s Third Symphony, one of his sublime inspirations and by far the best music of the evening: Neumeier starts the dance several minutes after the music has commenced and interrupts it abruptly a good deal before the intense ending. But I admit that it was splendidly danced by two Hamburg ballet artists, Hélène Bouchet and Carsten Jung            (of imposing physique).

            I didn´t enjoy "Precipitation" on tiresome music by Philip Glass and mechanistic choreography by Éric Frédéric (plus missiles in projections!); Araujo and Emanuel did well their thankless job.  Even more thankless was Dronina´s work in "Tectum", on horrid noises by Machinefabriek and boring choreography by Juanjo Arques. But I did find originality in "Jacobson´s Vestris", where Zucchetti danced and acted admirably in an evocation by Leonid Jacobson (with agreeable pseudo-Baroque music by Gennadi Banchikov) of the late Eighteenth-Century dancer Gaetano Vestris, for he was the first to eliminate masks that previously dancers used. As if he were Marcel Marceau, the white-faced Zucchetti assumed the character of diverse masks.

            Now a bit of silliness: the programme defined "Unfold" as having music "by Leontyne Price"! Not so: she sang Charpentier´s beautiful aria for Louise, "Depuis le jour", completely inadequate music for the Ailey company with a poor choreography by Robert Battle, well danced by Sims and Douthit-Boyd. Finally, a pleasant creation by Neumeier, a pas de deux named "The bench" on sugary music by Michel Legrand, where a hobo and a girl flirt, nicely danced by Bouchet and Jung.

            Many years ago the Colón staged an evocative Venezuelan ballet, "Nuestros valses", with choreography by Vicente Nebrada and sentimental music by the great pianist Teresa Carreño. As it falls easily on the ear and the choreography gives a good chance to five pairs of dancers identified by color, it stayed on the repertoire for some seasons. This was the piece chosen by Segni for the Second Part, with the accomplished participation on stage of pianist Iván Rutkauskas.

            Both because they danced longer than the others and red makes a strong impact, the couple of Federico Fernández and Nadia Muzyca dominated the proceedings, but the other pairs danced well, especially Macarena Giménez and Juan Pablo Ledo. The three remaining duets: Luciana Barrirero and Edgardo Trabalón, Natalia Pelayo and Maximiliano Iglesias, and Carla Vincelli and Emiliano Falcone.

            I have no space to analyze the Coliseo gala, you will soon read my report on it.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Great art from Di Donato plus good chamber music

             Two years ago the Mozarteum Argentino presented with great success the local debut of American mezzosoprano Joyce Di Donato. Now, again at the Colón and for the Mozarteum, she made a trumphant return. She is, no doubt, one of the best of the bel canto mezzos of the world, along with Elina Garança and Cecilia Bartoli. Di Donato is currently one of the big stars at the New York Met, especially as Angelina in Rossini´s "La Cenerentola", and she culminated her recitals here with the final scene, "Nacqui all´affanno".

            As in 2012, she had the ideal accompaniments of French pianist David Zobel, who, apart from immaculate playing, is an admirable stylist who can make convincing the absence of an orchestra.

            Di Donato, tall, extrovert (she loves talking to audiences), blonde, in her early forties, probably is a good actress, for her voice alone manages to express a world of emotions.  I believe she is at the top of her career, and I hope we can have her eventually in an opera.

            I also welcome the intelligent programme she offered, although one could cavil at the fact she sang only in Italian, except for the second encore (De Falla´ s "Nana", of course in Spanish, and very sensitive). But she does what she knows is best for her voice and instincts, and gave us welcome rarities along with famous pieces.

            People that sing Rossini have precise, accurate, flexible voices, and she has these qualities, but she adds a rare ingredient: volume. The impact of her full voice is great and she filled the vast hall many times. Also, she has an a powerful centre and very good highs; the lower tones, however, are less substantial (that´s why she has avoided -and she´s right- the heavy Verdian parts). But I am curious about whether she wouldn´t be right in some French parts such as Charlotte in Massenet´s "Werther", for the timbre can be warm and she has a fine line in slow "cantabile" music.

            The classic maturity of Joseph Haydn is fully expressed in his cantata "Ariadne auf Naxos" (two recitatives, two arias). Fortunately the programme contained full texts of all the pieces, as it always should be but often isn´t. And she gave such intensity to Ariadne´s despair that it made evident that Haydn´s way is dramatic; at times she makes her voice incisive, in a deliberate gamble to lose natural beauty but gain emotional communication.

            One of her CDs is "Drama Queens"; from it, three selections: Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783) was immensely popular during his life, and in recent decades he is being taken out of the obscurity in which he had fallen. She chose an aria from the serenade "Marc´Antonio & Cleopatra" sung by the Egyptian Queen, originally sung by the castrato Farinelli. Then, the other Cleopatra, from Händel´s best opera, "Giulio Cesare in Egitto", in fact for soprano but she managed it well: "Piangerò la sorte mia". And finally, the exciting and difficult "Dopo notte" from "Ariodante", also a castrato part; the protagonist is vassal prince of the King of Scotland. I do have a soft spot for the marvelous Janet Baker in this music and I prefer her to Di Donato, but still it was well worth hearing.

            The Second Part amazed me initially, for the aria "Dopo l´oscuro nembo" has such a strong personal style that I couldn´t believe that "Adelson e Salvini" was Bellini´s first opera (1825); its melancholy long line can be no one else´s and was very beautifully expressed, with touching pianissimi. Then, two Rossinis, an unknown and quite operatic song, "Beltà crudele", and then, the famous tarantella "La danza", done with infectious brio.

            A surprise. What is surely a local première and a complete change of pace: "I canti della sera" ("The songs of the afternoon"), by Francesco Santoliquido (1883-1971), four sweet, pleasant songs with a Puccinian tinge by a composer that lived mostly in Tunis. She sang them warmly and in style, showing quite another aspect of her art.

            And finally, "La Cenerentola" ("Cinderella"), where she was predictably wonderful, with much ornamentation not generally heard (perhaps her own contributions?). As first encore, more Rossini but unknown: "Riedi al soglio" ("Return to the throne") from "Zelmira", of course terribly difficult and stunningly sung. And to quiet things after the fireworks, the aforementioned "Nana".

            The presentation of the "Trio Franco-Argentino" at the Soirées Musicales Premium of the Sofitel organized by La Bella Música was a positive surprise. The string players are French: Guillaume Barli (violin) and Arthur Lamarre (cello); the pianist, Roberto Buffo, is Argentine. They accomplished the tour-de-force of playing the 55-minute complete version of Tchaikovsky´s enormous Trio Op.50 (the "Pezzo elegiaco" and the Tema con variazioni" in which generally the Fugue and part of the final variation are cut). Many notes and sometimes too many, but important Tchaikovsky done with true professionalism by three solid musicians.

            The rest was well-chosen and little known. A charming "Promenade sentimentale" by Théodore Dubois, the concise Trio Nº 2 by Joaquín Turina and the well-developed "Danzas españolas" by Enrique Fernández Arbós, generally known as the orchestrator of famous pieces by Albéniz. The encore: "La muerte del Ángel" by Piazzolla arranged by José Bragato.

            These are sensitive players that have full command of their instruments. They provided an interesting night in the cozy ambience of the small hall.

For Buenos Aires Herald

martes, agosto 19, 2014

The B.A.Phil´s high level and the National Symphony´s dilemma

            The Buenos Aires Philharmonic is traversing a happy period, with juicy programmes and the consistent fine work of their Musical Director Enrique Arturo Diemecke. I do have some objections: the conductor dominates the season leaving too little time for other artists (except Ira Levin, strongly promoted by the Colón´s Director Pedro Pablo García Caffi); the Phil should offer more concerts, at least 24 (this probably is a restriction imposed by García Caffi, not by Diemecke); and although we get plenty of symphonic Late Romantic blockbusters, there are whole areas of repertoire that are left untouched, especially the Schönberg-Berg-Webern school, or are poorly represented; some programmes have mixed very unlikely partners; many interesting conductors aren´t invited; premières are quite insufficient; second performances too; prices are too high.

            By now Diemecke´s tenure is long (nine years, I believe) and there are two indisputable facts: both the orchestra and the public like him. There is an old adage: don´t change if things go well. It has been applied in the United States for many decades, and orchestras have been identified with their conductors (Philadelphia/Ormandy, Boston/Koussevitzky, Cleveland/Szell). Karajan was conductor for life of the Berlin Philharmonic.

            But there´s another point of view: Buenos Aires has the possibility of having an artist of similar rank as Diemecke but with different concepts as to repertoire, one that will give us Berg and Hindemith  along with Berio or Ligeti, one that will show more interest in Mozart and Haydn, that will seek out the premières we need (we still don´t know essential works from the likes of Delius, Ives, Vaughan Williams, Prokofiev).

            Diemecke has admitted that he wants to do more choral-symphonic work (the Phil´s record is very mediocre in recent years) although, as he can not count with the Colón Choir (no way to conciliate their rehearsal hours), he will have to work with either private concerns or with the excellent Coro Polifónico Nacional or the Teatro Argentino´s fine voices. Or course if a new Musical Director would take over, the Colón´s Direction should intervene so that Diemecke would continue to come as guest, for he deserves it.

            Indeed, once we tollerate his clownish aspects saluting the audience, the truth is that Diemecke merits to be treated as a very talented and complete musician, with very clear strategy (he is a master of the long lines and structure) and tactical ability (perfect ensemble, clean details) as well as absolutely phenomenal memory. His most recent concert again showed his best qualities in Bruckner´s monumental Eighth Symphony, perhaps the most accomplished from this very personal creator. I have lasting reminiscences of its BA première, by the regretted Franz-Paul Decker (so admired by the Phil´s audience) with the Radio del Estado Orchestra in 1963, and I asked Gerd Albrecht to include it when he made his debut with the Colón Orchestra in April 1973.

            Along with these references and some sterling performances I heard in Europe (Klemperer, Blomstedt) I will treasure this Diemecke Eighth, which followed the Novak Edition except for two small cuts in the Finale, for its concentration, fine playing by all concerned, coherence, intelligent tempi and spine-tingling climaxes, as well as beautiful solos in the numerous chamberlike fragments.

            Before the interval, we had the rare and welcome chance to hear Richard Strauss´ very late and delicious Duo-Concertino for clarinet, bassoon and strings. Beautifully played by Mariano Rey and Gabriel La Rocca and lovingly accompanied by the conductor, it showed the sunny side of the octogenarian great composer under its best light.

            On the other hand, the National Symphony´s Beethoven "Choral" Symphony was an alarming disappointment. Ending the complete symphonies under the NS´ Musical Director Pedro Calderón, the sound was harsh, unbalanced, with plenty of wrong entries or mistakes. Some fragments were better than others, but neither conductor nor orchestra were in a good day (or week). The Coro Polifónico Nacional under Roberto Luvini did well; the lady soloists (soprano Paula Alnerares, mezzo Guadaluype Barrientos) were quite good, but the men were below their usual level (tenor Enrique Folger, bass-baritone Lucas Debevec Mayer).

            The NS´dilemma: is Calderón approaching the end of his enormous career, started at 20 (he is now 80)? He doesn´t look physically fit, and considering that we owe him so much through the decades I wonder if the time has come to pronounce him Conductor Emeritus and start looking for a successor.  But perhaps it is just a bad patch and he will recover.

            Anyway it is a fact that the NS played very well in the following concert, dedicated to great Twentieth-century authors: Béla Bartók´s long and pithy Violin Concerto (44 minutes) and Paul Hindemith´s magnificent Symphony "Mathis the painter" (on the famous Grünewald triptych at Colmar). The young conductor Darío Domínguez gave good, sane readings, fully in command, and the orchestra was transformed.

            Plus the amazing Xavier Inchausti, playing with absolute control and intellectual grasp very difficult music, with an objective type of sound that fits Bartók. But in the ample encore, Ysaÿe´s Third Sonata-Ballade, he showed a much juicier sound according to the Late Romantic aesthetics of the admirable piece; it was a masterly peformance.

            As to the NS´ future, recently it was confirmed that in May 2015 the new Center at the ex-post Office (Correo) will be finished, with its 2.000-people auditorium, definitive house for the orchestra. 

Let´s cross our fingers...


For Buenos Aires Herald

The end of the Barenboim marathon: a summing up

      The 2014 Daniel Barenboim saga began on August 3 (Sunday) and finished on August 13 (Wednesday), for a grand total of ten concerts and a dialogue with Felipe González, an exhausting schedule even for such an incredibly energetic 72-year-old musician and for his young West-Eastern Divan Orchestra..

           As is well-known, Barenboim´s career in Argentina has been indelibly associated with the Mozarteum Argentino, and of course now there were two concerts (with identical programme) for their cycles. Either as conductor or as pianist, he was here as a

 Mozarteum artist in 1980, 1989, 1995, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2010. Those of 2005 and 2010 were with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, present now in all but one of the concerts (the joint piano presentation of Martha Argerich and Barenboim; she was a part of two other concerts). He also squeezed in a visit to the President joined by González. All events were at the Colón, except an unscheduled short Ravel concert at Puente Alsina (open-air and rather bad weather).

            The programme for the Mozarteum repeated most of what had been heard at the first concert of the Barenboim raid, for it included the Overture to Mozart´s "The Marriage of Figaro" and the four Spanish-inspired pieces by Ravel: Spanish Rhapsody, Alborada del Gracioso, Pavane for a dead infanta and Bolero. The difference was that in that initial session Argerich played Beethoven´s First Concerto, whilst at the Mozarteum we heard two world premières: "Resonating sounds" by the Israeli Ayal Adler, born 1968, and "Ramal" by the Syrian Kareem Roustom ( b. 1971). Even the encores were similar: the Prelude to Act 3 of Bizet´s "Carmen" and the tango "El firulete" as arranged for brass by José Carli.

             Of course, the premières were a Barenboim gesture following his integration policy, and the composers were present. Frankly I didn´t find them of special quality and probably many people felt that there are plenty of masterpieces waiting in the aisles, but I understand the sense of what the conductor did, and the composers are good professionals with experience outside their own area: Adler has a Doctorate from Montreal´s excellent McGill University, and Roustom is an eclectic creator that has worked with both the Philadelphia Orchestra and Shakira, as well as being the author of

music for films and TV, but also has an interest in Arabic traditional music.

            As the composer explains, "Resonating sounds" refers to the echo or sound reminiscence persisting after  vast chords that slowly vanish. It is divided into two sections plus a final recapitulation. Clusters, contrasts, variety of timbres...all techniques quite common in contemporary usage.  On the other hand, "Ramal" refers to one of the sixteen  metric patterns utilized in pre-Islamic times in classical Arabic poetry; applied to music, it is the following metric succession: 7/8, 5/8, 7/8, 8/8. The music seeks violent rhythmic effects, and according to the author reflects "Syria´s devastating current situation".

            Without a score I can´t vouchsafe for the exactness of the interpretations, but Barenboim´s gerstures seemed to have an immediate response in the musicians and I venture to say the pieces sounded much like what the composers pretended.

            The rest of the music sounded very well with practically no change from what I had heard in the  first  Barenboim concert; the Orchestra again showed that apart from transparent fortissimi it has very good soloists in melodic material, and Barenboim´s affinity with Impressionism and with such a different style as  Mozart was again evident.

            Make no mistake, I am a great admirer of Barenboim, but I don´t always agree with his decisions, and in this series I have had some serious reservations:

a)     As I intimated already, I would have preferred more important pieces in the First Part of the Mozarteum concerts.

b)     They played the Ravel combo no less than four times, not taking into account that many Mozarteum subscribers had also bought the Colón´s Abono Especial for they also wanted to hear Argerich, thus duplicating the Ravel pieces.

c)      Although I respect the high quality of the compressed concert "Tristan", I repeat that this is the third consecutive year that we don´t hear a complete Wagner at the Colón.

d)     A strange Barenboim whim added Mozart´s Concerto Nº 27 to the last "Tristan" performance. I knew of this on Monday and he played it the following day; I didn´t hear it for I had a previous engagement, but I don´t doubt that he played it beautifully. However, that isn´t the point: a completely alien element was introduced into an opera subscription series, and only one of these series had the privilege.

            We are already promised Barenboim festivals for 2015 and 2016 and of course there are still no details. Probably again with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Please let us have more varied symphonic programmes. Would Argerich come back? Naturally it would be again the hit of the year. Time will tell.

            A final reference to Barenboim´s astounding stamina: in 24 hours he played and conducted with Argerich and Les Luthiers, conducted the open-air concert at Puente Alsina, did the compressed "Tristan" and the González Dialogue on the Israeli-Palestine problem. I am tired by just imagining this sequence...

For Buenos Aires Herald

Argerich, Barenboim and Les Luthiers: a fun night

            As part of the Barenboim-Argerich marathon, the subscribers to the Colón´s Abono Especial were promised a fun night, and they got it: Les Luthiers joined them in Stravinsky´s "L´histoire du soldat" and Saint-Saëns´ "Le carnaval des animaux". Predictably, they weren´t done in an orthodox way, they got the Luthiers treatment, but Barenboim and the members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, plus Martha Argerich, were there to ensure that the music´s quality was respected: impeccably in the case of Stravinsky, and with considerable leeway as concerns Saint-Saëns, but the piece can take it.

            "L´histoire du soldat" ("The Soldier´s Tale") is a morality fable with a bad ending written in the last year of World War I in the neutral country: Switzerland. Ernest Ansermet conducted and the purpose was to have a cheap-to-produce show and bring it over Swiss cities to provide much needed money to the artists and the composer. The instruments are few: violin, bass, cornet, trombone, bassoon, clarinet, percussion. They are admirably used, with difficult music that requires rhythmic accuracy and perfect ensemble. The violin, following the plot, is the leader .

            The French text by the Swiss Charles Ramuz is based on a Russian tale by Alexandr Afanasiev. It involves three spoken parts: Narrator, Devil, Soldier, and a dancer as the Princess. The soldier´s violin is coveted by the Devil, who gives the Soldier richness in return for the possession of the instrument; but later the Soldier recovers the violin and playing it he cures an ailing Princess, thus becoming heir to the realm according to the King´s promise. However, the Soldier´s  power is lost when he goes beyond the frontier; the Devil wins the Soldier´s soul.

            Three Luthiers in their usual garb were seated at the left of the players; Marcos Mundstock impersonated the Devil with his habitual skill to color his voice as an Old Man or an Old Woman (always the Devil); Daniel Rabinovich played his Soldier straight, not finding the inflexions that would have given character to the part; and Carlos López Puccio was a whimsical Narrator, posing incongruous questions added to the original text (translated by Les Luthiers).

            I was surprised that the hand programme didn´t mention a dancer; eventually, as the first of the three Dances started (a Tango) an insinuating woman appeared, later joined by a man, both in conventional (uncredited) steps; but by the middle of the Waltz Barenboim, essaying some steps of his own, led them both out of the stage, and the Ragtime remained wrongly un-danced. Only the Princess should dance, and should look like one. The following day after the performance the Press Office sent me spontaneously the names of the dancers: Jésica Gómez and Krishna Olmedo.

            The playing was very good, and Michael Barenboim executed the violin´s music very accurately, less reticent than when he played with his mother Bashkirova two months ago in the Jerusalem Chamber Ensemble. The tough challenges for other instruments such as the cornet were met with professionalism. Daniel Barenboim conducted with perfect style and firm control of the rhythmic structure.

            "The animals´ Carnival" is defined by the author as a "great zoological fantasy for eleven instrumentalists" and is made up of fourteen descriptive fragments, including quotes from himself and others. Dated 1886, the composer wrote it as a "divertissement" for himself, and allowed its publishing only after his demise. It is an accomplished humorous score except for one piece, "The swan", that led Michel Fokin to choreograph it as a very famous short ballet, "The swan´s death".

            Central in the orchestration are two pianos; Martha Argerich played the first and Daniel Barenboim the second, as well as coordinating the whole thing. The other instruments are: flute and piccolo, clarinete, Glass Harmonica (rarely heard, it gives an ethereal sound), xylophone, two violins, viola, cello and bass. The virtuoso pianists had a field day and I can safely say that I never heard their music executed so swiftly and exactly, except in "Pianists", where (as Saint-Saëns wanted) they played as badly as possible the parody on Hanon and Czerny. Two other players in the very good ensemble deserve mention: Guy Eshed in flute and piccolo, and Hassan Moataz playing incredibly well the rudimentary "cello" presented to him by López Puccio.

            Mundstock presented each number as a sarcastic comment made by Johann Sebastian Mastropiero demolishing Saint-Saëns´s music. A lot of it was witty, though some remarks fell flat and one, a play on the "f" word and Fokin, was not the sort of thing one should hear at the Colón.  And in various numbers (fortunately played in the right order although the hand programme suggested it might not be so) the battery of "instruments" invented by Les Luthiers with some help from others made their hilarious entry, superimposed on the Saint-Saëns music.

            To mention a few in literal translation: donotforgetmebidet, natural gum-horn, dactilophone, coconut marimba, bass-pipe, piston organ, ball harmonium. Barenboim and Argerich seemed quite amused and so was the ensemble. And the audience at times laughed so loud that the music couldn´t be heard, especially when all five (the others are Carlos Núñez Cortés and Jorge Maronna) "danced" a ludicrously slow can-can (taken much slower than marked by the musicians).

             Curiously the only encore was done by Les Luthiers, a "gato" called "El explicado", in their inimitable style.

            A fun night with good music splendidly played.

For Buenos Aires Herald

domingo, agosto 10, 2014

Argerich and Barenboim made magic together

            And it finally happened in our city, a long year after Berlin had the privilege of hearing Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim playing together. And yes, they produced musical magic. Their technique seemed ageless, fresh and perfect, with no trace of the passing of years. And their charisma (especially hers) conquered an enormous audience, with about 150 people on stage and lots of standing music lovers (it was forbidden during the last decade). The Colón seemed to burst at the seams, and certainly many hundreds were frustrated in their search for tickets.

             The great hall was filled with anticipation, for they were  witnesses of the event of the year. And the results fully met the  joy of communicating music, so that three thousand people seemed to be blended in one  emotion. That´s what great concertizing is about.

            The pianos were placed side by side, not opposed as is traditional in two-piano music. But it made sense, for we heard music either for two pianos or  four-hand. In the jargon the artist that plays Primo concerns himself with high-lying music, whilst Secondo deals with the lower section of the instrument. For some reason Barenboim played Primo  in the two four-hand scores, and first piano in two-piano music.

             The quality of the instruments may have something to do with this decision: Martha played the older, warmer piano, and Daniel the brighter, more metallic one. But it did have the consequence of relegating Martha´s sound, thus producing some degree of imbalance.

            They started with Mozart´s sole Sonata for two pianos (he has several for four-hand), K. 448, a sunny score with a beautiful slow movement, played with great sensitivity. In the fast ones Daniel was brilliant but slightly too emphatic, compared with Martha´s delicacy of touch.

            Then came the composer most identified with four-hand music, Franz Schubert: the lovely Variations on an original theme Op.35, D.813. The fluid interchange of both artists was essential in transmitting the work´s charm and imagination.

            After the interval, a mighty challenge: the four-hand version of Stravinsky´s "Rite of Spring".  For reasons –I suppose- of physical comfort, the artists used two pianos: Daniel as Primo in one and Martha as Secondo in the other. It seems that the four-hand version pre-dates the orchestration and that the composer often played it. Although I kept hearing in my mind his marvelous orchestral colorings, this four-hand version, monochromatic, stresses even more the rhythmic revolution the "Rite..." produced.

            Their bodies transformed into vehicles of blunt rhythm, the artists offered an amazing tour de force of extraordinary accuracy and punch and the whole theatre vibrated with them. This was the sort of memorable experience that you keep hearing in your inner self long time after it occurred.

            And then the generous encores, which amounted to a Third Part. The first choice was quite a surprise: two cellists and a horn player from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra came to the stage, and Barenboim announced the original version of Schumann´s Andante with variations, for the two pianos were enriched by the added timbres. The piece, much longer than the average encore, is well worth knowing for its melodic beauty and the well-contrasted variations, and here Martha played  first piano in an admirable interpretation (she recorded the piece back in 1994).

            A scintillating fragment (the Waltz) from  Rachmaninov´s Suite Nº2 for two pianos had Martha again in first piano in a coruscating friendly duel with Daniel. Then, the easy charm of Guastavino´s Bailecito, and finally, the humorous first piece from that favorite of the two-piano repertoire, Milhaud´s "Scaramouche", redolent of Brazilian rhythms and inflexions. The players weren´t quite as idiomatic as the Labèque sisters, but still it was very enjoyable.          

            The party was over and a satisfied crowd slowly went out. The artists, especially Martha, seemed happy and relaxed; she was back at her dear Colón in full glory. And Daniel always took her by the hand and seemed to protect her. 

            Their  Berlin recital with the same programme was recorded; don´t miss it!

For Buenos Aires Herald

miércoles, agosto 06, 2014

Sadly curtailed version of “Tristan und Isolde”


            As part of the Barenboim Festival the Colón is offering  performances of a heavily curtailed Wagner "Tristan und Isolde". They are included in the four opera subscription series.  I am of two minds about this event: on the one hand we heard a valuable Wagnerian concert; on the other I find it a serious mistake.

            The Colón is supposed to be one of the major opera houses of the world; to merit such a concept it surely must have in every season at least one opera of the three greatest opera composers: Verdi, Wagner and Mozart. But after  2011, when we were offered "Lohengrin", the Colón has mistreated Wagner: in 2012 we had the horrendous Colón "Ring" (16 hours reduced to 7); in 2013, the year of the bicentenary of his birth, nothing at all!; and now, a concert version with roughly 40% of the music of "Tristan...".  It just won´t do.

            As things stand today, the Colón is heavily below a reasonable commitment to Wagner´s essential production: no complete "Ring" since 1967; last "Mastersingers", 1980 (!); "Parsifal", 1986; "Tannhäuser", 1994.  The matter is less serious in the case of "Tristan...", for the last was in 2000, and those that went to the acceptable "Tristan..." of La Plata´s Argentino (2011) satiated their Wagnerian thirst. But in fact at the Colón, although it revived this great lyric drama during the last half century also in 1966 and 1977, the only memorable one was the 1971 combination of Nilsson and Vickers, conductor Stein.

            This time not even the orchestra was the Colón´s own, for Daniel Barenboim conducted his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. And what we were offered was completely arbitrary: the Prelude to the First Act, the whole Second Act and Isolde´s Love-Death. An uncut "Tristan..." with rather fast "tempi" lasts four hours (like Böhm´s Bayreuth performance with Nilsson and Windgassen).

             Generally the Colón has cut about ten minutes of the great Love Duet of the Second Act, and ten more minutes during the immense delirium of Tristan in the Third Act. Paradoxically, this time we had at least the advantage of hearing the complete Love Duet, even if I admit that the complaint about the Day (for the Night protects them, the Day breaks their intimacy) isn´t the best music of the score.

            There is a precedent for a concert version by a visiting company: Barenboim´s  "Aida" with La Scala forces; but then we had the whole opera. This maimed "Tristan..." didn´t satisfy me, even if the singers recruited have had long and important Wagnerian careers and Barenboim is certainly a devoted interpreter of the highest caliber.

            As he did in "Aida", Barenboim placed his singers in a raised platform behind the orchestra; it worked well acoustically. But I have heard other unstaged operas where the singers are placed closer to the audience and in front of the orchestra and it sounded better.

            As to the performance, I give pride of place to the orchestra and Barenboim, and to a splendid bass (perhaps the best nowadays) singing King Marke: René Pape making his long-awaited local debut. It was quite a feat for the conductor to obtain from his Israeli/Palestine/Spanish orchestra such true German sounds, with beautiful string ensemble and  admirable soloists as the bass clarinet player. The music surged and blended with the voices as if they were one. And Barenboim´s choices of tempo and phrasing were unerring: after all, he holds the record in the number of presentations of "Tristan..." in Bayreuth. And there are splendid DVDs with both Meiers, Johanna and Waltraud. 

            I have to say it, Waltraud Meier is no longer in her best voice; she sang here as Fricka back in 1981 at the start of her great career but later on we missed her halcyon years. A dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerite, she was certainly authentic in her phrasing, but the beauty of her timbre has diminished and the highs are troublesome. Her Tristan, Peter Seiffert, made his local debut. He is one of the few reliable Heldentenors and I enjoyed back in 2009 his Berlin Tannhäuser and Viennese Lohengrin; a huge man, he sings with fortitude and good timbre, although he lacks the intensity of interpretation of Vickers.

            Ekaterina Gubanova is a young Russian mezzo of ample and pleasant tone; she showed her mettle years ago as Amneris in the afore-mentioned "Aida", and now she adapted well to the German style with a very  competent Brangäne. But the great voice and style was Pape´s, admirable in such varied roles as Filippo, Boris  or Marke; this was noble, expressive singing of the highest level.

            The traitor Melot was sung with firm tone by tenor Gustavo López Manzitti in a part that can also be sung by baritones. I missed Kurwenal´s "Rette dich, Tristan" ("Save yourself, Tristan"), his only phrase in the Second Act but an important one; why eliminate this character when it could easily have been sung by one of our local baritones?

            A final observation: as you probably know, there is a ban in Israel on Wagnerian performances due to his antisemitism. Barenboim has always thought that the musical importance of Wagner must prevail and conducts his music regularly. In his orchestra there are many Israelis; I wonder how they feel about this matter. Anyway, they chose to remain in the orchestra. It is a moot and difficult point.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Argerich-Barenboim, the ideal combination

            And the long-hoped day finally came: the reunion for the first time in their fantastic careers in the city where they made their debut. Now in their early seventies, they haven´t lost their exalted qualities: Martha Argerich remains a unique phenomenon in the world of women pianists, and there´s no other musician than  Daniel Barenboim to be at the pinnacle both as pianist and conductor. And both are Argentine. At least in musical interpretation the country has produced undisputed immense talents.

            The trajectory of Argerich is a strange one: she is the only great pianist that decided long ago to play solely concerti with orchestra or chamber music with friends; I was fortunate enough to hear her in solo recitals before she took that strange decision adopted for psychological reasons: she needs to feel that she makes music with fellow artists. She may play a solo piece as an encore but that´s as far as she goes. Even with this singular restriction, her name attracts multitudes all over the world as an uncanny blend of technical perfection and intense, personal interpretation.

            As to Barenboim, he is probably the most important figure in purely musical terms both as pianist and conductor, and he also has been for decades an outspoken leader for peace;  the organism he created has become the best symbol: the West Eastern Divan Orchestra is based on Israelis and Palestines, and in recent years, also Spanish players, for the organisation is supported by the Junta de Andalucía. What better example of harmony between people that unfortunately have been at war for decades?

            More than a year ago something very special happened in Berlin. Although Argerich and Barenboim  had for decades deep respect for each other, they had led separate careers; but somehow they met, and admiration became friendship and a will to collaborate artistically. They arrived at a scheme of an orchestral concert in which she would play with the Divan Orchestra Beethoven´s First Concerto, and then they would be partners in two pianos and/or in piano four hands. The concerts were a howling success and had repercussions at the Colón; Director Pedro Pablo García Caffi saw the opportunity for what would surely be the hit of the year, and with the agreement of the artists it became a reality.

            Both artists were child prodigies; Martha (born 1941) played concerti publicly in 1949 and by 1952 she made her debut at the Colón; Daniel (born 1942) played in public on the same year of Martha´s debut. Yes, they are here together 65 years later! Daniel added conducting in 1967 and has  led the Orchestre de Paris, the Chicago Symphony, since 1992 the Berlin Deutsche Staatsoper and since 2011 has been the Milan Scala´s Musical Director.

            Both were absent from Buenos Aires for decades, but Martha came back for Argerich Festivals in the period 1999-2005; unfortunately, she was a victim of labor conflicts and  grossly treated. As a result, she didn´t come back to BA, although last year she played in Rosario and Paraná. With Barenboim the problem was of a different sort; as his family went to Israel when he was a boy, he didn´t want to come to Argentina to comply with military service; if he had visited us he could have been arrested, but eventually that threat was waived and he appeared with the Orchestre de Paris in 1980 for the Mozarteum. It was the first of a whole series of visits as pianist or conductor of the Chicago Symphony, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Scala Orchestra and the West-Eastern Divan.

            Barenboim founded the West-Eastern Divan with Edward Said in 1999 and eventually brought it to BA. The Orchestra is young, fresh and fully professional, a pleasure to hear, though without that special sound of the truly great orchestras.

            Barenboim´s energy is gigantic, and he has committed himself to the Colón for three consecutive years of activities called "Music and Reflexion".  In less than two weeks this year he will conduct three orchestral concerts and four performances of a reduced unstaged Wagner ("Tristan and Isolde"), plus a two-piano recital with Argerich and a strange concoction: members of his orchestra plus Les Luthiers in Stravinsky and Saint-Saëns. And a dialogue between Felipe González and the musician (that´s the "reflexion" aspect).

            The initial concert for a huge crowd (the most coveted tickets of the year) promised high quality and delivered it. After a nice traversal of Mozart´s Overture to "The Marriage of Figaro", Beethoven´s First Concerto had  one of its best interpretations in the Colón´s history. The charisma of Argerich remains unblemished, her wonderful precision coupled with sensitive phrasing and beautiful timbre, and the orchestra accompanied with care and taste. She played a welcome encore: "Träumeswirren" ("Unquiet dreams"), the virtuoso Nº 8 of Schumann´s "Fantasy Pieces".

            The Second Part was fully coherent: Ravel scores connected with Spain. "Spanish Rhapsody", "Alborada del Gracioso", "Pavane for a defunct Infanta" and "Bolero". All of it played with transparence and beauty, Barenboim´s ear accutely reflecting the composer´s evocative atmospheres.

            The encores: as he did with the Orchestre de Paris, the four Preludes from Bizet´s "Carmen". And then, to finish, the conductor´s affinity with our tango: "El firulete", in a fine arrangement for winds by José Carli (years ago Barenboim had conducted the Buenos Aires Philharmonic in an open-air concert of symphonic tangos).

            A great occasion indeed.

For Buenos Aires Herald