lunes, marzo 30, 2015

The promissing concert season starts

             As I wrote months ago, Summer is musically a desert and I don´t believe in seasonal culture. January was indeed a Sahara, but in February´s second fortnight a couple of oases alleviated the overwhelming sand. The Usina del Arte programmed a few classical concerts along with other activities, and the open-air Plaza del Vaticano (alongside the Colón) showed DVDs (mostly foreign) of concerts, opera and ballet in a big screen. The Colón Resident (Estable) Orchestra gave a light pop concert very late in February at the Amphitheatre of the Parque Centenario.

            Come March, and things began to come to life. I have already referred to the Beethoven symphonies by the B.A.Phil.  The National Symphony (Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional, OSN) started their usual pre-season concerts at the Stock Exchange (Bolsa de Comercio), whose big entrance hall is too resonant but serviceable. They began with a session conducted by Javier Logioia Orbe with an interesting programme. But before I go on, some paragraphs on the current situation of the OSN.

            The OSN has a great dilemma this year. If all goes well, on May 25 "The Whale" ("La Ballena") will be inaugurated. That´s  the nickname for the new Concert Hall that will be a part of the wholesale transformation of the Correo Argentino´s old building into a multiuse Cultural Center. But will it be a symbolic inauguration and after a precarious first concert months will pass before the real thing? That has been so often the case with announcements of this kind that we Argentines have become distrustful on such matters (and on many others).

            And here´s the dilemma: during the last decade "home" for the OSN has been the Auditorio de Belgrano. What would I do in this situation? Frankly, I would hire the Auditorio for at least three months, just to be sure that I won´t be left without a concert hall.  On the other hand, the Orchestra had hopes that they would be able to have at the new Cultural Center a permanent place for their rehearsals, but it seems that they will be confined (as they have for decades) to the eleventh floor of the Annex of the teatro Cervantes, barely acceptable.  Time will tell.

            Anyway, this first concert on March 13 showed the OSN in good form, under the skilled hands of Logioia. It began with a beautiful and difficult score, Dvorák´s Violin Concerto, much less played than the one for cello. The soloist was one of the second violins of the orchestra, Martín Fava, who, as often happens in our better orchestras, is quite capable of doing proficient solo work. He showed himself in command of the considerable technical difficulties and gave a satisfactory musical reading, correctly accompanied by his colleagues.

            I disliked a ten-minute world première by the Rosarino composer Marcelo Ajubita, whose title, "A noisy rocket" (in English in the original) proved an exact description. Written for string quartet, string orchestra and percussion including bells, it´s an example of the trendy sound-based scores to the almost total exclusion of other parameters. I suppose that the UNTREF Quartet played well but for me these experiments are sterile.

            I have  loved the Elgar Enigma Variations since their Argentine première by Malcom Sargent back in 1958, and I was pleasantly surprised by the carefully considered reading by Logioia and an orchestra on its toes, giving the right sense to each contrasting variation.           

            One of the better ideas of former Colón Director García Caffi has been the series of Sunday morning free concerts called "Intérpretes argentinos", twice a month. I skipped the initial one, for I have heard the Camerata Bariloche many times playing Vivaldi´s hit "The Four Seasons", but I was attracted by the Twentieth-century programme combining violin, clarinet and piano. The players are all Colón artists: Eduardo Ludueña is a member of the B.A. Phil; Carlos Céspedes is first desk of the Orquesta Estable; and Guillermo Salgado is a répétiteur of the opera staff.

            Both the clarinet player and the pianist are first-rate, with Ludueña technically good and tasteful but lacking in enough volume and presence. It was a very pleasant survey of interesting composers in rarely heard pieces: Milhaud´s charming Suite for the three instruments; Poulenc´s bittersweet Sonata for clarinet and piano; Hindemith´s severe Sonata for violin and piano Op.11 N      º 1; and Khachaturian´s folksy Trio for the above combination. The encore was a fragment from Stravinsky´s "L´histoire du soldat". A pity so many applaud between movements; and small kids shouldn´t be at the Colón.

            A particularly instructive night was offered at the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo within a cycle called "Museos en vivo", for it gave music lovers a chance to hear a true fortepiano, a Viennese instrument from around 1830. In fact, a late period for this type of early piano, which was at its best during Mozart´s time. By 1830, the pianoforte (our current piano) was fully in use, with its much bigger sound and strength. Under the hands of Carlos Gubert (an Argentine who lives in Italy) it was an extremely agreeable experience. Abetted by the excellent Gabriel Pérsico (wooden flute) and the very musical cellist María Jesús Olóndriz, they offered a typical programme of music dated 1788 to 1810: Haydn´s Trio Hob.XV Nº 15, Hummel´s Sonata for flute and piano Op.50 and Pleyel´s Sonata for trio Op.16 Nº2. Almost untrodden ground here.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

Wynton Marsalis´ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: a high-class repertoire band

            The time of great bands with a style of its own and charismatic leaders is over: Benny Goodman, Count Basie or Duke Ellington are history. The maintenance of groups that number 15 to 18 members is uneconomical under current conditions. So jazzmen now lead trios or quartets.

            But someone has to care for jazz history, and Wynton Marsalis, an admirable trumpet player both in jazz and classical music, took on that task. Himself a product of the Juilliard School, a true symbol of excellence, he founded the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra back in 1988. It remains to this day a high-class repertoire band ranging from swing to the last decade. The hot New Orleans style isn´t included, for it needs less and sometimes different instruments.

            To nitpick, I dislike the appellation "orchestra": it´s much more jazzy and true to call it a big band. Marsalis first came to BA in 1994; and then he brought his orchestra (JLCO) in 1998, 2000 and 2005. This is the first time, however, that the venue is the Colón, and I accept it because they play acoustically, without amplification. They started the subscription series invented by the former Colón Director, Pedro Pablo García Caffi, with the appellation "Fifth Anniversary Cycle", in reference to the theatre´s reopening in May 2010.

              I believe GC did a complete distortion of the Colón´s vocation, for the seven-concert series includes just two classical ones and five are given over  to different forms of popular music. However, I do make an exception for the JLCO, even if the audience had little to do with the habitual one at the Colón .         Fifteen members came in this tour: four trumpet players including  Marsalis; three trombonists; five saxophonists; one pianist; one bassist; one drummer. Two more didn´t come: a trumpeter and a saxophonist. In just one number two trombonists took turns singing. Of course the saxophonists played the whole family of those instruments: soprano, tenor and baritone; but they also added in some pieces two flutes and three different types of clarinet.

            The repertoire was announced (with a microphone) by Marsalis, and I object this procedure, although I know it´s normal among jazzmen. The JLCO is a stable outfit and even if there´s some room for improvisation in the choruses (solos) they all have scores for the riffs, introductions and postludes. Marsalis should send the day´s programme to the printers, which would allow no mistakes from the audience or us poor critics in the precise identification of what we heard. So my following description has some holes. (By the way, I was very happy that the Colón has reverted to normalcy in the design of their hand programmes: both the expensive 50-Peso and the flimsy one that went with the tip have disappeared, we now have the standard middle-sized programme of long tradition).

            Dressed in Brooks Brothers elegant light suits and ties, the members stayed put during the whole First Part.

            Marsalis started with a work of his own: two fragments (slow-fast) of his Jazz Mass; although I find no relationship to religion in the music, it´s certainly good mainstream jazz, with some unbelievably high trumpet flights from the author (he is a prolific composer); I didn´t enjoy the rather weak trombone solo. Then, a typical Dizzy Gillespie fusion number, clearly Caribbean in its ambience, featuring flute, muted trumpet and brilliant uptempo tenor sax. Afterwards, the lovely "Moody´s mood for love", with a very relaxed sax chorus and two vocals, the first  pleasant, the other sounding like an out-of-tune countertenor.

            Followed a number by their talented bass player, Carlos Henríquez, with guajira and mambo connotations, wah-wah trumpets and nice melodic touches. An unannounced fast piece ended the music before the interval; it was quirky, cool, had a fine Marsalis chorus and a small drums one, quite soft!

            The Second Part brought the strange, fascinating music of Thelonious Monk. Then, one of the older styles, the Kansas City Swing; written in 1932, I believe I understood the title as "The blue room". Followed a tribute to Wynton´s brother, Branford Marsalis, a very lyrical piece of his with soprano sax and two flutes. Then, a curious work, "Presidential speech" (based on one of Nehru´s  main proclamations, but without vocals!), written and played by the refined clarinetist Ted Nash.

            And then, what for me was the highest point: the marvelous 1930 Ellington "Mood indigo", featuring a long Marsalis solo and a trio made up of clarinet soprano, muted trumpet and muted trombone. The session ended with an uptempo creation by the great pianist Oscar Peterson, "March past" (from a suite) where both the pianist and the drummer showed their capacity.

            Encores: the first, unannounced, played just by Marsalis with the rhythm section (piano, drums, bass), showing off his extraordinary highest register. And finally, a balmy, not very jazzy, arrangement of that old Latino song, "Flores negras".

            It was an interesting cross section of styles. I especially enjoyed the trumpet players, the sax baritone of Paul Nedzela and the first-rate bassist. I do find the trombone section a bit below the high level of the rest, but as a whole the JLCO is certainly a responsive group led by a very eclectic Marsalis. He doesn´t aim to give a specific style, and he´s right: their recitals are partial histories of jazz, the strongest symbol of American music.

For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, marzo 23, 2015

Pre-season feast: the Beethoven symphonies at the Colón

             The complete Beethoven symphonies are, of course,  those that open up a new world of music after the marvels of Classicism produced by Haydn and Mozart. The "nine" Schubert ones are really eight, for Nº 7 disappeared, and only Nos. 8 and 9 break untrodden paths; alas, they were  known decades after his death. There´s a lot to admire in the five Mendelssohn symphonies and in the four numbered Schumann opuses, but the next essential advance will come with the four by Brahms. And the world of Post-Romanticism will culminate with the nine numbered symphonies by Bruckner and Mahler.  One isolated figure, Hector Berlioz, led a parallel development with his "Symphonie fantastique" : that of the programmatic symphony. Though even there, the precedent is Beethoven´s "Pastoral".

            The now departed Pedro Pablo García Caffi had a good idea when he programmed the nine Beethoven symphonies within a March week, by the Buenos Aires Philharmonic led by its Principal Conductor, Enrique Arturo Diemecke, thus initiating the tenth year of his tenure. It was a pre-season subscription series at moderate prices, which meant that we had a much younger public than at the season series, and I´m happy to report that it was a smashing success with sold out houses.

            In fact, the Phil hasn´t done the whole series for a very long time, so it was fully warranted, even if the National Symphony did it last year under Pedro Calderón, for they are almost wholly different audiences (the NS is characterised as a free season). Moreover, it was good to have them in a concentrated way, without hogging the time of the meager 15 concerts of the announced season.


              I was amazed at the high standard of the Phil after their long vacation. Confirming both the individual value of the players and the fine training under Diemecke´s always sure hand, there were precious few mistakes and many golden minutes of lovely playing.

            The programming was ideal: Tuesday, Nos. 1 and 3; Wednesday, 2 and 5; Thursday, 4 and 6; Friday, 7 and 8; Sunday, the Ninth. I don´t know how long they rehearsed, if one week or two, but the conductor´s commanding gestures were always minutely followed by the orchestra. One matter that for some was bothersome and for others welcomed: García Caffi decided that this year   the night concerts, ballets and operas will begin at 8 p.m., not 8,30 as long tradition had accustomed us. (The Ninth was at 5 p.m.).

            An important matter in these hot days: there was correct air conditioning (it hadn´t been so in December: I was roasted live seeing "The Nutcracker").  Even more valuable: there was no applause between movements during the whole cycle, and quite minimal mobile phones ringing. Hallelujah...And there were no placards protesting against García Caffi! (they were present for months late last year).

            First and Third. Don´t believe those that tell you that the First is influenced by Haydn and Mozart: Beethoven revered both, but he was his own man by the time of his First Symphony, and the nervy dynamism and strong contrasts, as well as his building abilities, are all there. As to the Third, "Heroic", I held when I was ten that it was the greatest symphony ever written and I still think so 66 years later (I may be wrong but at least I´m coherent; and frankly, I don´t think I´m wrong). This night was blessed: both the Phil and the conductor were at their very best. And for the only time , Diemecke adopted a disposition I liked: first and second violins front to front, violas close to the firsts and cellos to the seconds.  By the way, first desk players varied from concert to concert and were always good except some trumpet croaks.

            Second and Fifth. The Second is a charming score that is too often unfairly relegated; it was finely played. I have come to believe that the Fifth and the Ninth are, for different reasons, the symphonies that are most often played with blemishes. In the case of the Fifth, I don´t doubt that it is a great score, but its level of redundancy is very high as well as being relentless in its so abundant sledgehammer climaxes. To maintain that level you need a Klemperer or a Carlos Kleiber. There was also a snafu: up to then Diemecke hadn´t repeated first movement expositions but he did in the Fifth; at least two horns forgot it and entered with the first chord of the development.

            Fourth and Sixth. The Fourth is a  jolly score in the fast movements, beautifully executed, and it has a long and expressive slow one, lovingly played (to nitpick, the usually impeccable flutist Claudio Barile entered one beat ahead but I only noticed because I had the score). The Sixth, "Pastoral", is always a delight unless very badly done; the Phil and Diemecke certainly handled it very well, though without the last ounce of open air freshness.

            Eighth and Seventh (in that order, surely right). I love the Eighth, so often considered a step back in Beethoven´s production: it may owe more than others to Classicism, but its spry humor, quicksilver speed and constant surprises are Beethoven at his best.  And the Seventh is indeed, as Wagner called it, an apotheosis of the dance, probably the most often played of all his symphonies. Drawn by the audience´s enthusiasm, Diemecke at the end repeated the slow movement.

            Finally, the Ninth, the gigantic "Choral", with its fourth movement based on Schiller´s "Ode to joy". I may be on the minority, but my favorite movements are the the First for its granitic grandeur and the slow one for its sublimity, close to the last Quartets. Nevertheless, the vocal one remains very impressive, even with doubts about certain passages. For some reason (their rehearsal hours never match) this time the Colón Chorus (led by Fabián Martínez) finally collaborated with the Phil (it´s an absolute shame that there will be no choral-symphonic music in the 15-concert season series). The soloists were good, except the strained tenor Enrique Folger: Mónica Ferracani (soprano), Alejandra Malvino (mezzo) and Hernán Iturralde (bass).

            One final surprise: Diemecke, after a strong though not ideal traversal of the Ninth, proposed a karaoke with the whole audience, and we all sang the big tune so often ruined in bad arrangements; the Prestissimo coda was incongruously added. Oh well, so much was good in these five sessions that I forgot the conductor´s silly speeches and his clownish shenanigans when not making music. The public loves it...

For Buenos Aires Herald

An unusual Romantic Rossini at the Met

            Months ago I wrote about Wagner´s "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" in the staging of  New York´s Metropolitan Opera. It was a link in the chain of live operas seen via satellite in many cities of the world, a selection of their season. It is a splendid idea that has opened the hearts and minds of audiences to the excellence of that institution.

            I chose "The Mastersingers" simply because of an abstinence syndrome: I hadn´t seen it live since 1989 at the Liceo of Barcelona, and I believe it is one of the greatest comedies in music, unaccountably unstaged in Buenos Aires since 1980 (there´s something Darío Lopérfido, the new Colón Director, should remedy in 2016). The 2014-5 season, as seen in BA, presents an eclectic bunch of eleven operas and one operetta in several languages: Italian, French, German, English (a translation of the original German: Lehár´s "The Merry Widow" instead of "Die lustige Witwe"), Russian and Hungarian.

            Most titles are well-known, habitual repertoire, but three are out-of-the-way: Tchaikovsky´s "Iolanta" and Bartók´s "Bluebeard´s castle" (both have been seen at the Colón), and a première for the Met, never done here: Gioacchino Rossini¨s "La donna del lago".  I have long known it through the CDs conducted by Maurizio Pollini (first and last time in that capacity) with some admirable singers: Lucia Valentini-Terrani, Katia Ricciarelli, Dalmacio Gonzales, Dano Raffanti and Samuel Ramey. It was recorded in 1983 and it derived from the Rossini Festival at Pesaro.

            At the time it came as a shock, for I found in it clear advances of Romanticism from an author that up to then (and for many years after) was faithful to his roots in Classicism. Some dates: "L´Italiana in Algeri", 1813; "Elisabetta, Regina d´Inghilterra", 1815 (offered at the Colón in 2004); "Il barbiere di Siviglia", 1816; "Ermione", 1819, based on Racine´s "Andromaque", presented at our theatre in 1992; the same year, "La donna del lago"; several comedies and dramas still based on Classicism, such as "Semiramide" (Voltaire); and finally, in 1829, that "Guillaume Tell" based on Schiller that for the second and definitive time gave us many inklings of Romanticism.

            "La donna del lago" is an Italian adaptation by Andrea Leone Tottola of a narrative poem by Walter Scott, "The Lady of the Lake". Written in 1810, it became very popular, and for decades Nineteenth Century tourists thronged the Trossachs of Perthshire and Loch Katrine, attracted by the Romantic charm of the writing that evokes such places. Seen retrospectively, Rossini´s opera has some elements that were later developed by Donizetti in his Scott-based "Lucia di Lammermoor".

            The action happens during the Civil War between James V of Scotland and the Highlands Clan. James had a short life (1512-42) but an eventful one. King since 1513 under the regency of his mother Margaret, daughter of Henry VII of England, he  was held  prisoner by Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, from 1525 to 1528, "and in the latter year assumed control of his kingdom. He was a vigorous and just king...He waged war against his uncle, King Henry VIII of England, and was defeated at Solway Moss...His daughter, later to become Mary, Queen of Scots, was about a week old when James died" (Ruthven Todd).

            Well, Ellen is the Lady of the Lake, and the King under an assumed name falls in love with her before knowing she´s the daughter of Douglas. It so happens that he wants to marry her with the Scottish chieftain Roderick Dhu, great warrior, but she is in love with Malcolm Graeme. So three men are after her but she loves only Malcolm (paradoxically, a mezzo soprano in kilts, not quite a trouser role...). After many  episodes, the King beats the clan, Roderick dies, and James magnanimously pardons Douglas and gives Ellen in marriage to Malcolm.

            The Tottola libretto is very conventional and little remains of the colourful Scott original, but it serves the composer acceptably, and Rossini is very inspired melodically, as well as orchestrating with a knack for atmosphere and nature, even with an offstage band. It´s certainly worth knowing and there are fireworks for all the main singers.

            This sort of piece can only be done with a great cast, and it certainly has one in this case (that´s why the Met dared this première). We have admired in BA both Joyce Di Donato and Luis Diego Flórez in Mozarteum concerts. But we haven´t seen them in opera; we should, they are stunning. She not only sings with wonderful ease and beautiful timbre, she has a very winning personality and is an excellent actress. And he is a nonpareil bel canto singer, of fantastic high notes.

            Tenor John Osborn also shows abundant and stupefying highs in his arrogant Roderick, and mezzo Daniela Barcellona may not have the "physique du rôle" for

Malcolm, but she is an accomplished artist with strong dramatic projection and fluid coloratura. Eduardo Valdés and Olga Makarina give strong support.

            Of course, the Choir and Orchestra of the Met are among the best in the world, and I am happy to say that young conductor Michele Mariotti is a true find, with fine ear for balance and tempi. Paul Curran´s production respects time and place, though some psychological details escape him or seem wrong.  Stage designs by Kevin Knight and lighting by Duana Schuler seem rather murky, but the costumes are good.

For Buenos Aires Herald

A tired Neoclassic Ballet Trilogy

            Lidia Segni programmed in immediate earlier years three different combinations called Neoclassic Trilogy. This is the fourth and –I suppose- last. By now the idea is tired and tiring, although there´s some fault in the selection of the pieces. It could have been much better, e.g. with an inclusion of a Balanchine masterpiece such as the long-absent "Apollon Musagètes".

            Indeed, the appellative "Neoclassic" is quite vague, and the programme notes by Laura Falcoff make it evident. First, let us think about a rather curious fact: Classicism in ballet is LATER than Romanticism. "Giselle" is Romantic, but the Russian ballets of the Petipa School such as those by Tchaikovsky or Minkus are Classic.  Falcoff considers Mijail Fokin as the starter of a renewal eventually called Neoclassic and quotes: "In the new ballet everything must be invented, even if the bases for the invention are part of a centenary tradition". And indeed Fokin innovates: think of "Petrushka"; but... that ballet has both stylizations of the popular and markedly expressionistic aspects. I wouldn´t call it Neoclassic.

            Balanchine is then mentioned and yes, he´s the epitome of Neoclassic ballet and uses the right kind of music, always adhering with perfect musicality to it, never considering it as a mere support. There´s poise, equilibrium, exquisite taste, virtuoso moves that are never empty, a definite structure, a feeling for abstraction even when he narrates.  His is the line to follow, and some later choreographers have managed it well, especially Jirí Kylian.

            A moot point is the dilemma between choreographies based on specifically ballet music, and those that take any other material that suits the fantasy of the creators. I believe that there are lots of pieces written by composers thought for the genre, many of them excellent, and that they are being forgotten quite unfairly. But I have to admit that some choreographers have been able to create splendid ballets on concert material, such as Balanchine´s "Concerto Barocco". However, he knew how to choose apposite music for the style he wanted and his steps were almost always an ideal transposition into movement, so that you saw an integral approach. And he  respected the music. How else could he work with such a touchy composer as Stravinsky in so many ballets?

             To return to Neoclassic Trilogy IV, all three works are based on concert material: Mozart´s Symphony Nº 29  in "Sinfonía entrelazada" by Mauro Bigonzetti; Prokofiev´s Third Piano Concerto in "Diamond" by Éric Frédéric; and Rachmaninov´s "Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini" by Mauricio Wainrot. Just coincidence or Segni´s wish? I don´t know.

            Bigonzetti is now a famous Italian choreographer, known here through the visits of the Atter Balletto; he created "Sinfonía entrelazada" for Bocca´s Ballet Argentino many years ago, and we saw it now as revived by the Colombian Carlos Zamorano. In a sense Bigonzetti comes closer than the others to Neoclassicism: not only Mozart is a Classicist, but the choreographer´s spare, sober, angular lines correspond at least a good part of the time to the music. But he does something I can´t pardon: he destroys the structure of the symphony, although the music isn´t travestied as Waldo de los Ríos used to do. After steps in total silence, we hear the start of the second movement; then, the first; afterwards, the second, completed; then, silence; and eliminating the third, we hear the fourth and last.

            The dancers were good: two couples (Carla Vincelli and Federico Fernández; Macarena Giménez and Edgardo Trabalón), a single man  (Emanuel Abruzzo); and an ensemble of 13 dancers with many new names. The music was (here and in the other pieces) very well played by the Buenos Aires Philharmonic under their recently chosen interim Assistant Conductor, Darío Domínguez Xodo, who is quite competent. 

            "Diamond" has a basic failure: you can´t do a Neoclassic choreography on such Modernistic, intense and even barbarous music as that Prokofiev masterpiece, his Third Piano Concerto (correctly played by Fernanda Morello). I found the initial movement quite boring, but the  second (a theme with variations) , aided by fine lighting by Rubén Conde, allowed a well-wrought pas de deux for a talented twosome, Paula Cassano and Matías Santos. The third had glittering costumes by the Brazilian René Salazar, in accord with the symbol chosen by the choreographer (there was a diamond-shaped chandelier looming over the dancers)  and some ensembles had the required dynamism. Vincelli, Trabalón, Nadia Muzyca and Fernández did well, along with four other soloists and thirteen ensemble members.

            Mauricio Wainrot is a prolific and very professional creator who has international projection. Although the Rhapsody (wonderful music very well played by Alejandro Panizza) is Neo-Romantic, it has a very definite organisation and strong contrasts; even if the steps didn´t always agree with the character of the music (especially the turbulent ones), there were many moments well solved, and in particular in the famous slow tune an attractive pas de deux beautifully done by Muzyca and Juan Pablo Ledo. The 14-member ensemble was well disciplined, especially the women.

            On this showing, the Colón Ballet is in good shape. As Maximiliano Guerra, the new Ballet Director, was greeted with warm applause by the audience and the artists, there´s hope for better relations with the dancers. He has said that he will respect Segni´s programming (as it should be). I wish him well in future endeavors.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

lunes, marzo 09, 2015

The Repertoire System in Germany: Frankfurt Opera

            Back in July last year I visited what used to be called West Germany (thus balancing a 2009 trip to ex-East Germany) with two basic purposes: primarily visiting the admirable museums and cathedrals, but also hoping to find some attractive operatic fare. In 2009 I was at Berlin and Dresden late in September, when the season had just begun; this time I stopped in Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Munich at the very end of it.

            In fact, I visited 22 cities in 25 days, always driving, but in smaller opera houses the season had ended; so I was in such cities as Ulm or Aachen (curiously, both gave their start to Herbert Von Karajan) absorbing their wonderful monuments...but no opera.

However, the three cities mentioned above were still active, for they are in the select group of most important German opera houses.

             As we now have a unified Germany, I will include the ex-Eastern in this ranking. Undoubtedly the foremost ones are two of the three in Berlin (Staatsoper and Deutsche Oper) and the Munich Bavarian Opera.  Just one step below you have Dresden, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and the Deutsche Oper am Rhein (Düsseldorf-Duisburg). And then you have meritorious houses such as Hannover, Köln, Freiburg, Leipzig. And there are smaller outfits such as Koblenz among many others.

            They form the largest quantity of opera houses of any country in the world and they all work within the repertoire system. As here in BA we follow the Italian "stagione" scheme, it´s worth defining briefly these two contrasting ways of organising an opera house. The Colón offers a restricted number of operas that generally change from year to year and are presented during short periods; a vast gap in time, and then we have another. 

            The big houses in Germany offer no less than 25 operas a year, though they can get as high as 40 (Vienna is Austrian and follows the same system). Some operas are a yearly staple, others change. They can stage as much as five different operas in a week, which means that both the orchestra and chorus carry a heavy burden of rehearsals and performances. Furthermore, this constant turnover demands a well-oiled productive team able to put on consecutive nights extremely difficult works that go without a hitch. I often dislike the production concepts but the execution is often amazingly close to perfection. Night after night... For this you need German or Anglo-Saxon discipline (it also works at the the New York Met).

            The Frankfurt Opera is a big outfit in Germany´s financial city. The Alte Oper was used as main opera house from 1880 to  1962, when the new  house was opened; the Alte is still used but for concerts. An ample modern house, the hall consists of stalls ("Parkett") and three floors ("Rang I, II, III"). The access is comfortable and there´s a restaurant.  Prices for individual performances go from 15 to 165 E. There´s an associated experimental building for modern operas, the Bockenheimer Depot (all stalls). I was stunned to find, in the excellent yearly booklet, that there´s a total integrated staff of no less than 774 people, plus 105 guest artists, in a season that goes from late September to early July.

            Apart from opera and an occasional operetta, they do Lieder and symphonic concerts. No ballet, however. The two top people are the Generalmusikdirektor Sebastian Weigle and the Intendant (General Administrator) Bernd Loebe. As happens in all German opera houses, they have a permanent group of vocal soloists (in this case, 40), logical enough given the vast repertoire they have to cover. A final astonishing fact: there are 25 operatic subscription series!

            I have fond memories of my distant earlier visits to the Frankfurt Oper: a nice "Marriage of Figaro" in German in 1964, and in 1969 a quite good "Magic Flute" and a marvelous "Angel of Fire" (Prokofiev) with an inspired Anja Silja and her conductor husband, Christoph Von Dohnányi. This time, bingo! an almost unique opportunity to see an opera dear to my heart but rarely performed: Frederick Delius´ lovely and warm Romantic-Impressionistic "A Village Romeo and Juliet", on a Nineteenth-Century tale by Gottfried Keller. I have long cherished the Meredith Davies recording, and I recently saw the excellent film Peter Weigl made on the Mackerras CD. The live experience was

very moving, even if I disagreed with several aspects of Eva-Maria Höckmayr´s production.

            Frankfurt Opera decided two positive things: it was sung in English, as it should; and the conductor of the splendid orchestra was a talented specialist, Paul Daniel, erstwhile Principal Conductor of the English National Opera. The two protagonists are called Sali and Vreli in this Swiss version of the young lovers, and they were beautifully sung and acted by handsome young artists, tenor Jussi Myllys and soprano Amanda Majeski. The fascinating part of the Dark Fiddler was admirably taken by baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle. First-rate choral work, too.

            The technical feats of stage designer Christian Schmidt are described thus by colleague Matthew Rye: "an almost constantly mobile trio of three-dimensional structures that must have required some nifty computer-aided mechanics". Yes, but... 1) what is basically an outdoors opera was converted into an interior-dominated one. 2) Höckmeyr botches two essential points: a) the lovely interlude "The Walk to the Paradise Garden" (a tavern) is taken literally as Paradise, with the protagonists as stark-naked Adam and Eve (frontal, to boot), b) the poetic ending with the suicide in a small boat that sinks is trivialized as the two adolescents in their house take enough barbiturics to die. But the crowd scenes were fine and the idea of putting Doppelgängers of Sali and Vreli in another part of the stage whilst they were singing was intriguing and enriching. And the two warring farmers were convincing. My wish: please do this opera in BA!

            One final fact: the Frankfurt Opera stresses variety and novelties from any century in their programming. If you go there in the next months you will find such fare as Martinu´s spellbinding "Julietta", the early Baroque "L´Orontea" (Cesti), Weber´s important "Euryanthe" or Britten´s "Owen Wingrave": none has ever being staged in BA. 

For Buenos Aires Herald

Munich, unforgettable town of art and music

            The second installment about my German trip went from  Frankfurt to Stuttgart. Now I will go from Stuttgart to Munich and remain there, except for two not-to-be missed excursions.

            At only 30 km. from Stuttgart you can visit Ludwigsburg Palace, "the Swabian Versailles", built between 1704 and 1733 by order of Eberhard Ludwig, Duke of Württemberg; it is enormous, impressive and beautiful. From there to Ulm, with its imposing Cathedral, boasting the highest tower in Germany. Then, a short visit to Augsburg, in whose majestic Maximilian Strasse you can see admirable  buildings, including the house of the Fugger, the most influential bankers of the Renaissance .

            And finally, Munich (München), the capital of mighty Bavaria, after Berlin the most important city in Germany. I have loved it ever since my first visit back in 1961, for it offers everything for the culturally inclined tourist: the vast Residenz Palace, essential museums (the Old and the New Pinakoteken – picture galleries- plus the marvelous Lenbach full of Kandinskys), beautiful Baroque churches, the largest beer hall in the world, first-rate urbanisation and an intense operatic and concert life.

            As so many of German cities, Munich was heavily bombed in WWII, but it rebuilt in just two decades. In 1961 the big Neoclassic National Theater hadn´t been quite finished. But then the Opera Company functioned in the Prinzregententheater (Theater of the Regent Prince), and I saw for the first and last time that charming German version of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" written by Otto Nicolai.

            It was in 1964 that I was completely bowled over operatically: the National Theater had been inaugurated months before, and the centenary of Richard Strauss´ birth was being celebrated abundantly, including operas I saw only then: "Die Aegyptische Helena" (never done at the Colón) and the bucolic and warm "Daphne" (only seeen here in 1949). Plus "Elektra", "Salome", a fantastic "Arabella" with Della Casa and Rothenberger. And a gem in a gem: "Capriccio" at the Rococo Cuvilliés Theater contained in the Residenz.

            About ten years later, my visit was marked by a proficient rather than memorable "Marriage of Figaro" at the Nationaltheater, plus a truly memorable experience with Karl Richter´s Bach Ensemble: the St. John Passion at the  vast concert hall of the gigantic Deutsches Museum.

            A couple of paragraphs about two memorable excursions in my current trip. The first was a stroke of luck: a special connection allowed me to visit Strauss´ home at Garmisch, the lovely village in the Bavarian Alps; his grandson, an elderly doctor, led a group through this beautiful house, chockful of souvenirs and exciting material for Strauss scholars. To boot, from there I visited the highest German mountain, the Zugspitze; the belvedere is close to the top and gives marvelous views all around.

            And then, of course, the Königsschlösser in the Alps: 130 Km. from Munich, you can visit two splendid King´s Castles: Hohenschwangau, built  by Bavaria´s Maximilian II (1832-6), and the ultrafamous Neuschwanstein that Disney took as a model for Sleeping Beauty´s Castle, born of the unbridled imagination of Louis II  and with references to Wagner.

            Back to Munich and opera.  I had been there for Strauss´centenary, and on July 2014 I was there for the 150th anniversary of his birth; it was a strange sensation. Munich stages an Opera Festival every July, culminating the year´s operatic schedule. Connoisseurs combine it with Salzburg. As happens in Berlin or Vienna, they offer a mighty succession of operas during the season (late September to late July). To mention just a few standouts during July: Rossini´s "Guillaume Tell", Strauss´ "Ariadne auf Naxos" and "Die Frau ohne Schatten" , Donizetti´s "Lucrezia Borgia" with Gruberova, Verdi´s "Macbeth" with Netrebko. Plus Liederabende (song recitals) with Jonas Kaufmann, René Pape, Thomas Hampson, Anja Harteros.

            I had an exercise in contrasts: a wonderfully staged "Der Rosenkavalier" (Strauss) by the unbeatable team of Otto Schenk and Jürgen Rose, with a pretty good cast; and an absolutely horrid staging of Verdi´s "La forza del destino" with a memorable cast. The National Theater is huge: stalls plus five floors.

            The Strauss was done with impeccable taste and charm and sung by real pros. I especially liked Alice Coote as Octavian and Peter Rose as Ochs, but Soile Isokoski (the Marschallin) and Golda Schultz (Sophie) did well. A young conductor, Constantin Trinks,  showed a promissing talent.  The Orchestra is, naturally, first-rate.

            I find it amazing that this great theatre allows such a misjudged and ugly production of Verdi´s  work, signed by Martin Kusej and Martin Zehetgruber, and I pity the great singers that have to accept it (they should rebel). Under the professional but rather tame conducting by Asher Fisch, three leading singers were as good a cast as possible nowadays. Let me state it unequivocally: Jonas Kaufmann is the greatest tenor we have:  incredible musicality,  acting ability,  beautiful personal timbre: he has it all. And Anja Harteros and Ludovic Tézier are certainly powerful artists of vivid presence and splendid voices.

            Finally, this time at the Prinzregententheater, a bad staging of the first important opera in history: Monteverdi´s "Orfeo". Well conducted by the specialist Ivor Bolton, and with Christian Gerhaher as a commanding protagonist, it was ruined by a willful and silly production by David Bösch. So Munich opera is currently uneven, it doesn´t have the steady quality it showed a half century ago.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

From Frankfurt to Stuttgart: the richness of German art

              Dear reader, you probably feel as I do that the most important touristic countries in Europe are Italy, France, Spain and Great Britain. But in recent years Germany is just a step behind: not only the ex-West is chockful of wonderful cities and scenery, but now we have at our disposal such jewels as the unified Berlin, Weimar, Dresden, Leipzig, Eisenach, Erfurt, Halle, Brandenburg...

            If I had programmed this traversal for early June rather than July, I would have found practically all opera houses open; but only the big ones extend their season to July, so I could catch performances in just three cities: Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Munich. I will stray in the following paragraphs from my usual field, for I think it worthwhile to mention some highlights of my driving during 22 days through as many sites and cities. 

            From Frankfurt to the colossal Dom (cathedral) at Mainz and the fascinating Gutenberg Museum; the charming Koblenz, where the Mosel and the Rhein converge (a half-century ago I saw at their small opera house Orff´s "Die Kluge" – "The Wise Woman"); Bonn, with its Beethoven-Haus. Warning: it seems that Summer is the time for making repairs in streets and Autobahnen (roadways) and there are some nasty surprises about which the GPS seems to have no inkling. Forty Km may take an hour.

            An excursion from Bonn to Maria Laach was gorgeous; the lovely Romanic abbey stands close to one of the many beautiful lakes in the country. Köln (Cologne) is famous for its Cathedral, but it also has one of the best art museums in the country, the Wallraf-Richartz (back in 1964 I saw a first-rate "Oedipus Rex" –Stravinsky- in the modern Opera House). Then I entered the Ruhr, an immensely intricate conglomerate of industrial cities where the surprise is scant contamination and  abundance of parks. Düsseldorf´s center was in the midst of vast city works; it too has an excellent art museum, and the first-rate Deutsche Oper am Rhein (shared with Duisburg). Although few visit Essen, a big industrial center, they miss the admirable Folkwang Museum. I had no time to prolong my stay in the Ruhr, and so I sacrificed Wuppertal and Dortmund.

            One of the unforgettable visits was Aachen´s Dom with at its core the Carolingian building inspired by Ravenna´s style; Aachen is Aix-la-Chapelle or Aquisgrán. A short dip into Belgium brought me to a fast city tour of Liège, the Wallon capital, and then, advancing through picturebook scenery, the revelation of the most Roman city of all Germany, Trier. The following day, pieces of very old Germany in Lorsch and Worms. A stop in a big city, Mannheim, with a good museum and opera house (I saw the German version of Wolf-Ferrari´s "I quattro rusteghi" – "Die Vier Grobiane"- 50 years ago). And then to touristy and lovely Heidelberg by way of Speyer´s Dom.

            A very recommended city, Würzburg, with its Fortress sheltering a great collection of that fantastic sculptor, Adam Riemenschneider, and the best Rococo Palace in all of Germany. Then, the pleasant and hilly Bamberg, and Bayreuth with its famed Wagner Festpielhaus; but both Wahnfried (the Wagnerian house) and the beautiful Eighteenth-Century Margrave´s Opera House are undergoing repair.  I was bowled over by the gigantic Dom at Regensburg (Ratisbonne). And finally, a long trip from there to Stuttgart, the Württemberg Capital, close to the famed Black Forest (Selva Negra).

            Coming from the East you come into the city from a height. My hotel was close to the things that mattered for me: the very good Museum and the famous Opera House.

The Museum does  little to help the tourist: it doesn´t allow photographs and has no catalog; just a few postcards. I witnessed a sole operatic performance back in 1964, but it was outstanding: Wagner´s "The Mastersingers" conducted with sovereign command by Ferdinand Leitner, their longtime Generalmusikdirektor and a a frequent visitor to the Colón, where among many other operas he did the wonderful Wagnerian comedy about which I recently wrote.

            The old theatre isn´t big but it has very good acoustics and it feels cozy with its beautiful architecture. It is also home to the famed Stuttgart Ballet that visited us with Marcia Haydée dancing the great works of John Cranko such as "Eugen Onegin". Typical of their programming are the opening weeks of the 2014-5 season: "La Boheme", "Tristan and Isolde", Weber´s "Der Freischütz", Rihm´s "Jakob Lenz", "Ariadne auf Naxos" (Strauss) and "Khowanshchina" (Mussorgsky). All from September 20 to November 30. The season will continue changing operas all the way to late July 2015.

            I was left rather cold by their version of Gluck´s "Orphée et Eurydice", the French adaptation of the composer´s "Orfeo ed Euridice". I deeply enjoy the beauty of this music on Pierre-Louis Moline´s text, and it follows the French tradition of adding a lot of ballet, including the famous "Dance of the Furies". The musical interpretation was nice, with young singers of good standard (tenor Stuart Jackson, sopranos Irma Mihélic and Maria Koryagova (all members of the Opera Studio of the institution), and correct conducting by Nicholas Kok. But the production and choreography by Christian Spuck, minimalist in its conception, took an intollerable liberty by transforming the dramaturgical ending: in the opera Orpheus and Eurydice exult with joy in an apotheosis of ballet music, but Spuck contradicts the music by inventing Eurydice´s death.

For Buenos Aires Herald

The sad karma of the Colón: García Caffi succeeded by Lopérfido

            Public institutions such as the Colón Theatre depend on functionaries that may or may not have the savvy to make good choices in cultural matters. Mauricio Macri is a prime example of inadequacy: apart from naming Lombardi as Minister of Culture, he went wrong with his three choices for Colón Director: the nullity of Horacio Sanguinetti, the very mixed balance of Pedro Pablo García Caffi´s six years, and now the jump into the abyss, the recently chosen Darío Lopérfido.

            I will attempt in these paragraphs to sketch succinctly the results of GC´s tenure, and afterwards give a short possible prospective on DL.

            GC started very wrongly, and the culprit was as much GC as Macri himself, for what the Colón´s Director did about the personnel was on direct orders of the Chief of Government. For GC was told that he had to reduce 400 people from the total of about 1300, simply because 900 was the number at La Scala, and Macri after returning from Milan felt convinced that the Colón had too many people. He didn´t realize the deep differences between both institutions, or the fact that the current Scala has lost much prestige.

             Arguably at the Colón some pruning had to be done, but only after a conscientious study; nothing of the sort happened: whole sections, even Administration (!) were eliminated; about 120 were transferred to hospitals (!) and the like, and the rest were left in a limbo. But those that were permanent members ("estables") couldn´t be fired without just cause, so they kept on getting their salaries, whilst the Colón had to contract new people in many areas, often less able than those transferred; the end result: chaos and greater costs.

            It was the gravest attack on the personnel in the Colón´s long history. Many sued and generally won, some went back to the theatre, others had to look for new horizons. Those who remained found a heavy work atmosphere, with little dialogue and authoritarian leadership.  It jelled into ill-advised strikes that cancelled performances and took the audience as hostage and it led to new suits, this time against the strikers, attacking labor immunity as well.

            The two orchestras were still on strike when Plácido Domingo came to offer an open-air concert; his artistic stature allowed him to form an orchestra made up of members from four orchestras, including those from the Colón. When he was gone, the orchestras were promised a solution but what they got was heavy sanctions. The calm of submission followed and lasted years. Until late in 2014, when even SUTECBA (the municipal labor organisation, much more amenable than ATE, who had kept the embers burning) finally reacted, but this time with no strikes: placards with the inscription BASTA and SALARIOS DIGNOS. Was this a factor in the unexpected decision of GC to resign? Maybe.

            GC is wrongly credited by some colleagues with the reopening of the Colón after its prolonged restauration. It wasn´t him but a team from Minister Chaín that brought it about, and it was partial: a lot remains undone. A good deal of the stage work is still being worked out at La Nube, an uncomfortably small atelier ni Belgrano. The library is still in containers since 2006, of the museum there is no notice, and a big block within the main building remains untouched (Chaín didn´t even include it in successive budgets).   

            The Ballet under Lidia Segni had its own troubles when both Segni and GC refused to comply with the demand for an adequate floor; the dancers went on strike until they got the required dancing floor. Afterwards things came slowly back to normality.

            On the artistic side, there was good and bad. Opera: very low productivity (seven operas against the eighteen of the Sixties), uneven casts, some interesting programming choices and others merely excentric. And offbeat productions following European bad trends.

            Ballet: it is currently at a decent level, but it needs much renovation of repertoire, especially the comeback of great Twentieth century choreographers and scores. Also, we should have important guest dancers.

            Colón Contemporáneo: this has been a positive innovation, with valuable concerts of works by Xenakis, Ives, Nono and Berio. The Buenos Aires Philharmonic under the charismatic Enrique Arturo Diemecke fills the theatre and is playing very well, even if the programming can be bettered and there´s too much dominance from the Principal Conductor. Sunday free concerts with Argentine artists: certainly in the positive side. The Barenboim/Argerich marathon: an undoubted mediatic hit of high quality. There were other Grade-A recitals, such as those with András Schiff.

            But there were also Charly García, Las Elegidas and Los Elegidos...and this year the presence of popular music that shouldn´t be at the Colón has been strengthened.

            Now to Lopérfido. He was De la Rúa´s Culture Secretary both in our city and the Nation, with bad results. His control over the Colón in 1996-7-8 brings bitter memories to longstanding members of the institution. His tastes go to experimentation, as shown by the FIBA (Festival Internacional de Buenos Aires), theatre weeks filled with often extravagant offerings (he will continue at the helm), and he isn´t known for his operatic or classical music proficiency.

            He says that in December the new Government will decide whether he stays or goes, and that he has two aims: to fulfill GC´s plans for 2015 (surely commendable) and plan the 2016 season. Salaries: wait for the "paritarias"(labor talks with the Government). Plenty of popular music added in 2015 plus synergies with the FIBA  and the BAFICI. 

            He is married to Esmeralda Mitre and was a member of the "sushi group" of the Alianza; his designation is considered more political than artistic. I only hope that he will have a knowledgeable adviser.