lunes, mayo 18, 2015

Britten´s “Curlew River”, admirable adaptation of a Noh play

             From 1940 to his death in 1976 the acknowledged greatest Btitish composer was Benjaminm Britten. Although he was brilliant in many fields, perhaps his greatest contribution was in opera. After the operetta "Paul Bunyan" (New York, 1941) he had an enormous success with "Peter Grimes" (London, 1945), still considered the best British opera ever and offered twice by the Colón (1979 and 1986). Then followed "The Rape of Lucretia" (Glyndebourne, 1946, premièred  Colón 1954); "Albert Herring", a comedy (Glyndebourne, 1947; Colón after 1970); the charming "Let´s make an opera", for kids, Aldeburgh 1949 (offered here).

             Then, a fundamental Britten still missing here; "Billy Budd", on Melville (London, 1951) and also unpremièred in BA, "Gloriana", on Elizabeth I, London 1953. Afterwards, "The Turn of the Screw", on Henry James (Venice, 1954; BA, Coliseo, 1961); "Noye´s Fludde", 1958, a one-acter on a Chester Mystery Play, which I saw some years ago at La Plata; and the marvelous "A Midsummer Night´s Dream" (Aldeburgh, 1960, and Colón, 1961).

            And now, a great innovation: his three  parables written for an Orford church with libretti by William Plomer: 1964, "Curlew River"; 1966, "The Burning Fiery Furnace"; and "The Prodigal Son", 1968.  (Orford is a small port close to Aldeburgh, the Suffolk fishermen village where Britten founded his Festival). It was a small parish church; the composer´s idea was to start each parable with the monks singing in Latin an old hymn (Procession) before the action, and at the end going out.

            Naturally the singers are few (even those of the choir) and only a restricted instrumental ensemble can be accommodated, for of course the audience is limited by the proportions of the church. Was Orford chosen because Ellen Orford is the principal female character in "Peter Grimes"?

            Of the three "Curlew River" is rather special, for it is an adaptation of a Noh play. Britten recorded it in the Orford church. His programme notes tell us: "It was in Tokyo in January 1956 that I saw a Noh-drama for the first time, two different performances of the same play (´Sumidagawa´ by Juro Montomasa). The whole occasion made a tremendous impression on me: the economy of style, the intense slowness of the action, the marvelous skill and control of the performers, the mixture of chanting, speech, singing, it all offered a totally new ´operatic´ experience"."Surely the medieval religious drama in England would have a comparable setting?"

            Says Colin Graham, the original producer: "the emotion should never be expressed with the face or eyes but always by a rehearsed ritualistic movement of the hands, head, or body". About the Madwoman: "there must never be any question here of female impersonation: monks are representing the characters".

            As you can see, to tackle "Curlew River" is a tall order, but it has been in the minds of the founders of Lírica Lado B for a long time. Readers know that although I have disagreed with many staging aspects, I have always supported their policy of premièring interesting operas since 2009 and up to 2013. "Curlew River" is their first XXth century choice and I certainly welcome it, for none of the parables have been presented here.

            This comes after a barren year and it has some special characteristics. In a recent interview the Musical Director Camilo Santostefano explained that Faber, the editors of Britten, helped with special conditions to have the performing materials. I was surprised by the decision to give the performances for free and to finance themselves by crowdfunding. As to the venue, it is a factory reclaimed by its workers, IMPA, in a dark, 4-block street, Querandíes. Hardly the conventional place for the project and certainly not a church. But two matters explain the choice: it has good resonant acoustics (as Orford´s parish church) and it is huge, which allows the monks to come in procession from the far-off depths of the building. It may not be beautiful but it is functional. Nevertheless, I would have preferred a church.

            The plot is absolutely simple: a mad woman searches for her lost child; the boatman tells her that he died, is considered a saint and his tomb is nearby; the spirit of the child appears and talks to the woman, appeasing her pain and restoring her reason. The music is stark and moving; after the starting hymn the story develops with achingly beautiful music for the Woman, firm and solid for the boatman, narrative for the Traveller, supported by seven completely contrasting instruments that offer strange mixtures of sound.

            Pablo Pollitzer was marvelous in his Mad Woman, all expression and intensity, and Alejandro Spies was a tower of strength both physically and vocally as the Boatman. Gabriel Rabinovich (Traveller) was correct and young Max Hochmuth revealed a splendid baritone voice as the Abbot. Constanza Leone seemed a real boy and sang very purely. The seven players  were very good (viola, flute, horn, bass, percussion, organ and harp), coordinated by Santostefano, and the voices of the choir were first-rate.

            The stage directors Diego Ernesto Rodríguez and German Ivancic, the "Barbados" (that´s what they call themselves and indeed they are quite pilous) tried to follow the minimalistic Noh-inspired action and mainly they did it well, except for the unnecessary three dancers-acolytes. I disliked the strange contraptions added to the singers´ faces.  Sober costumes and adequate lighting completed  the panorama.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Integrals, a splendid programming idea


            In recent weeks an important panorama of contemporary music was presented at the Colón. During a week, the CETC (Center for Experimentation) offered an integral of the Iannis Xenakis Quartets, a retrospective on Francisco Kröpfl´s production and an integral of Marta Lambertini´s chamber music on literary texts. And to crown it all, the start of the Colón Contemporáneo in the Main Hall gave us the complete Piano Etudes by György Ligeti played by its foremost interpreter, Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

            The idea of integrality is very formative and intellectually rich, for you can follow a creator´s trajectory in an organized and satisfying way. It works well if the numbers help: you can do the Beethoven symphonies, quartets and even the 32 piano sonatas, but an integral of the Bach cantatas or the Haydn symphonies can only be possible over many years, and such extended plans often fail. And of course the quality of the music is essential.

            But more restricted integrals such as those in the first paragraph of this article are certainly possible and useful even for veterans among the audience. I will give pride of place to the Ligeti/Aimard afternoon, for it probably was the most perfect symbiosis of admirable music and great playing we are going to have this year. And I was very glad to see the Colón almost full, mostly with young people.

             One anecdote: it started 15 minutes late "due to the agglomeration at the box office". (So said a voice to the audience). I was told that there were two queues: one for those who had bought the tickets on Internet, and one for last-minute patrons.

            Ligeti came to the attention of the wider public when Stanley Kubrick included the composer´s "Atmospheres" in his film "2001". By the way, Colón Contemporáneo ends this year with precisely that famous movie with a live orchestra playing the music selected by Kubrick.

            Ligeti´s only and controversial opera, "Le Grand Macabre", was seen at the Colón though with a reduced orchestration due to a labor conflict. And important concert creations have also been heard, placing him as the most interesting Hungarian composer of the after-WW II years.

            His three books of Piano Etudes were composed late in his career: the First in 1985, the Second in 1993 and the Third in 2001. They are probably the most valuable Etudes since the Debussy series. The rhythmic language comes from an unlikely mix: the Chopin/Schumann tradition and the indigenous music of Subsaharian Africa. Say the programme notes: these Etudes "conceive the pulse as a musical atom, an indivisible common denominator multiplied in different ways to generate rhythms".

            Matters explored include the Theory of Chaos, the Indonesian gamelan, the cool jazz of Bill Evans or the mechanical music similar to the pianola pieces of Conlon Nancarrow. Sample titles: "Autumn in Warsaw",  "The Devil´s staircase", "Infinite column", "Out of breath": they all explore to the piano´s possibilities to the hilt, with vast imagination and freshness.

            The programme also included the early "Musica ricercata" (1951-3), eleven pieces which start exploiting two notes and end up with all twelve of the chromatic scale.

            The playing was out of this world. It was Ligeti himself that chose Aimard for a recording of the composer´s complete piano music, and it is still the obliged reference, for this artist has a prodigious technique coupled with ideal understanding of the creator´s style. Memorable is the word for the experience of hearing him in this repertoire.

            I will be brief about the three CETC Integrals, but two of them were quite interesting. The forbidding language of Iannis Xenakis, the composer-architect-mathematician   , certainly takes some time to absorb, for it is uncompromising and strong. The Jack Quartet (USA) tackled valiantly this very difficult music with mostly Greek names: "Tetora", "ST/4, l-080262", "Ergma", and especially the 15-minute "Tetras".

            I have long enjoyed Lambertini´s production, one of the best composers of her generation (she is is my contemporary). Her music is humorous, fresh, accessible. She has a fine ear for beautiful textures, and so she has written for the Trio Luminar (flute, viola and harp, as in a famous Debussy Sonata). No less than five pieces were on an author dear to her, Lewis Carroll: she has written two operas, "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass", and the chosen scores for this concert belong to the same world of fantasy and refinement. Naturally, the Trio Luminar (or members of it) played them with their usual  delicacy.

            The other two pieces were vocal: on Ronsard ("Rossignol, mon mignon"), and on a different mood, the long and rather dramatic setting of "En el aura del sauce", poem by Juan L. Ortiz. Susanna Moncayo, in good voice, was accompanied by the Trio Luminar.

            Francisco Kröpfl, born in Hungary in 1931, has formed Argentine composers for several generations. His retrospective presented scores of widely divergent times: the first was from 1958, the others from 2006, 2007 and 2011. Severe, cerebral music, presented by the composer and correctly played by pianist Bruno Mesz and groups that included in one case  ("Relato") the spoken voice of Lucía Maranca.

            A strange hodgepodge of sounds, "Metropolis", "not what is usually considered as music", said the composer, was presented in its second version, with eight channels of sound. Hardly my cup of tea, but others may have more empathy for this sort of experiment.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

domingo, mayo 17, 2015

“Tosca”, the lasting attraction of pure melodrama

             During my 25 years at the Herald I´ve had plenty of opportunities to write about successive revivals of "Tosca", for the most verista Puccini opera is always being done (the same goes for "La Bohème" and –a bit less- for "Madama Butterfly"). "Tosca" is now 115-years-old, but nothing indicates that its attraction is diminishing. As in "Hamlet"  –though of course quite in another world- all the principals die. It is a gory opera in which torture for the first time is crudely shown, and a sad portrait of the Rome of 1800, where the Pope´s – and the Queen´s- Secret Police acts impunely –and immunely.

            We are in June 1800, the time of the Battle of Marengo, won by Napoleon (Consul of the French Republic) against Baron Michael Melas, General of the Austrian Army. This forced an armistice that made Napoleon the master of northern  Italy.  Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and Sicily  had taken refuge in Palermo (courtesy of Admiral Nelson!) in 1798 due to the threat of French troops, and both the French-Revolution-inspired Roman Republic and the Partenopean (Neapolitan) Republic were installed. But by 1800 a strange thing happened: the Republicans were vanquished, the Queen returned to Naples, and the Rome area, hitherto part of the ample Papal States, for some years depended (for protective reasons) on the territorial attachment to the Kingdom of Naples.

            This Queen was redoubtable and formidable.  Famous for her ruthlessness, she gave no quarter to the Roman Republicans, called the Volterran.

            So Scarpia in the opera is the Chief of the Secret Police both of the Pope and of the Queen. Mario Cavaradossi is a Volterran, and Angelotti is, as says the libretto, "the Consul of the spent Roman Republic". All this is much more clearly stated in the original drama (1887) by Victorien Sardou that became a vehicle for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt in Paris and eventually in Italy. For Sardou was very meticulous about historical backgrounds.

            The composer had as librettists the same team as in "La Bohème", Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who offered Puccini a drama full of action and suspense. The musician gave its full due to the strong dramatic effects, but also kept alive his plangent lyricism in the two tenor arias and Tosca´s "Vissi d´arte" (although, for the only time in the opera, it impedes the tragic flow of events).

            Buenos Aires Lírica started its season at the Avenida with "Tosca", and gave as its rationale that BAL had never offered it. True, but operagoers that encompass the whole area of influence of our city have probably seen the "Tosca" offered late last year at the Teatro Argentino. I didn´t need another one, but others may feel differently.

            Well, this "Tosca" didn´t lack conviction either from the principals or the conductor. And although I have serious strictures about the production, at least it respects time and place (the latter, however, suggested rather vaguely).

            I believe that Mónica Ferracani is our best soprano for this forceful role. Now in her fifties, she looks splendid, tall and beautiful, and her singing line is impeccable, as are her dramatic instincts. Enrique Folger has a big intense voice, and always sings and acts with utmost involvement; what his Mario lacks is the refinement for the quieter moments and the restraint to sing "E lucevan le stelle" straight, without added crying (the defect Italians call "piangione"). As to the Scarpia, the Cuban-Chilean Homero Pérez-Miranda is well-known here in dramatic roles; he is a seasoned performer with stage presence, firm singing and the ability to give innuendo and villainy to his vocal inflexions, but his voice projection is somewhat veiled, without the expansion needed for the crucial climaxes.

            Christian Peregrino´s Angelotti was marred by uncertain pìtch, though the voice is strong. Enzo Romano´s Sacristan was played straight, without the usual buffo relief, and with a rather arid voice. Sergio Spina shouted too much as the servile Spoletta, but the character was well acted. Walter Schwarz was a correct Jailer, and Cecilia Arroyo a fresh little Shepherd.

            Javier Logioia Orbe was a very positive conductor, who has studied the score minutely and provided at all times the right tempi and accents, as well as providing the necessary support for his singers. But there were two matters to mention: he never got from the orchestra the terrifying fortissimi that are needed at some points; and it was a miscalculation to sing on stage the Second Act cantata, for it obliterated the important dialogue between Scarpia and Mario. Good choir in the First Act (Juan Casasbellas) plus the Children Choir Petits Coeurs (Rosana Bravo).

            The positive thing about the production was the costumes of Stella Maris Müller: they were both historically accurate and in the case of Tosca´s gowns, quite attractive (white for the First Act, an appropriate red for the blood-tinged Second and Third Acts).

            Mario Perusso was producer and stage designer. He moved the singers well, but  you scarcely recognised the three places depicted: the church Sant´Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant´Angelo. And mystification abunded: Tosca´s suicide went for nothing: a blackout... Mario´s death was opportunely veiled by smoke... The torture was seen, it shouldn´t. And Scarpia´s death is precisely told by Tosca: "I planted the blade in his heart", but here she wounded him three times in different places. And so on.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

La calle de los pianistas, the Karin-Natasha relationship

            You may remember that more than a year ago I wrote an article about "Bloody daughter", the candid film about Martha Argerich and her three daughters made by one of them. It was very revealing about the real character of the famous pianist. Now, closing officially the BAFICI (although in fact it went on for another day), an enthusiastic crowd witnessed the local première of "La calle de los pianistas", a similar exercise essentially about the very special relationship of Karin Lechner and her daughter Natasha Binder. And to boot, after the viewing we were further rewarded by a compact recital by both artists. The packed Colón gave them an ovation.

            Let me enter a personal note. Karin Lechner was raised as a kid in the same building where I now live (at the time my mother was the owner)  and she was often at this flat, for she started a life-long friendship with my niece Marifé. Moreover, well before that I was a friend of Karin´s mother Lyl De Raco and of her husband Jorge Lechner. Lyl remarried with Martín Tiempo and Sergio Tiempo is their son, born in Venezuela, for that was the post of Martín, diplomat.

            Let me complete the dynasty by telling you that Lyl is the daughter of two pianists, Antonio De Raco (who died nonagenarian some years ago) and Elizabeth Westerkamp, who is still alive, centenary, and was present at the Colón!

            Why the Street of the Pianists? Well, the Rue Bosquet Nº 22 at Brussels is where the Tiempo-De Raco-Lechner have lived for decades: Lyl, her husband, Karin (now separated from Binder) and her daughter Natasha. And Sergio with his wife and small daughter, who is already at four being trained by her grandmother Lyl. AND in Nº 24 lives Argerich in a huge house with several pianos, where she nurses the careers of young pianists; though she goes playing around the world she comes back from time to time. 

            Insonorisation doesn´t seem to be very effective, for Argerich hears Natasha play at one point in the picture, and it´s one of the high spots of it: the 14-year-old is giving her personal interprtetation of the last number, "The Poet speaks", of Schumann´s "Scenes from Childhood", and Martha´s face is eloquent in her appreciation of the girl´s talent.

            Lyl, who plays occasionally, could have had a big career as a concert pianist, but she developed a strong teaching vocation and was the mentor of her children from very early ages as well as many other pianists. In fact, her own parents taught legions of young charges through the decades. Lyl in her youth was already a redoubtable pianist; she played marvelously a Chopin Scherzo in my Pleyel at my earlier abode, five blocks from where I live now.

            As the decades went by, I often heard Antonio de Raco, who could be splendid though variable. And then I started following Karin´s career, who recorded a lovely record when she was thirteen and came often. And then, the revelation of the uncanny facility of her half-brother Sergio Tiempo. Still later, the combination of the two, and also with Lyl in Mozart and Bach. Finally, the astonishing precocity of Natasha, who played as a pro at nine-years-old with the B.A. Philharmonic, and came back two years later. So I wasn´t surprised that now  she plays in an equal high rank with her mother Karin in four-hand and two-piano music.

            But let´s get back to the pìcture. It is a labor of love by Mariano Nante, born in B.A., 1988. He was the director and the co-writer of the script with Sandra de la Fuente, and had as main collaborator the cameraman Juan Aguirre. But "script" in this case should rather be substituted by "planning" and "coordination", as well as "editing", for basically the film shows an extensive range of dialogues between mother and daughter. They are both in love with the piano, as is the whole dynasty and their illustrious friend next door. But, although it ´s plain that Natasha has a strong character and they quarrel a good deal, it very easily transpires to the viewer that they care for each other very much.

            This is a phenomenally gifted family, and Sergio´s daughter is already beginning to play, led by "Babasha" (Lyl); and she wants to do it by herself; her grandmother tries to help and the girl testily tells her not to intrude...

            The film also shows family meetings in which  the jovial nature of Sergio engenders  funny repartees; it´s a good thing that brother and sister have such rapport, not only musically (they are wonderful playing together). There´s a good deal of music in these 87 minutes, and "The Poet speaks" keeps coming back to show different interpretive approaches; they weigh every chord, every silence, and articulate in words why they do it so. It´s not about technique but expression. They scarcely comment about tricky technical moments, it´s all so easy for them...

            With no interval after the movie, two pianos rose from the pit and Karin  and Natasha, in identical red gowns as those they wore in a Brussels concert seen on the film, attacked with marvelous dexterity and perfect style pieces by Milhaud, Fauré, Ravel, Bach-Hess, Bizet, Piazzollla and Brahms. A wonderful half-hour of fine music. And a  special overall experience.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Out-of-the way repertoire from two orchestras and the Promenade Quartet

            The National Symphony (Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional) ended its pre-season series at the Bolsa (Stock Exchange) main hall with an uneven though interesting concert. Not many months ago the same orchestra but with a different chorus had offered that strange Mendelssohn score, "The First Walpurgis Night", on an equally intriguing text by Goethe. Now they played it again but with the Coro Polifónico Nacional  de Ciegos directed by Osvaldo Manzanelli. The conductor was Facundo Agudín, a Swiss-based Argentine.

            Although I wrote about it in that previous occasion, I think it´s worth recapitulating the main facts. The legend tells about a festival of witches and devils on the mountains of the Hartz, on the Brocken, and it is integrated to "Faust" (you also find it in Gounod´s opera), but in this adaptation the Pagan cult of the Druids takes place, and as a way to vanquish the Christian foes they masquerade as demons. The Chorus Nº 6 is an astonishing piece, certainly the wildest ever wrote by the usually restrained Mendelssohn. There are nine numbers and three soloists: a Druid Priest (baritone, the excedllent Alejandro Meerapfel), a Druid and a Christian Guard (tenor Ricardo González Dorrego, very good) and an aged Woman (the experienced contralto Alejandra Malvino).

            I was very impressed by the work of the Coro Polifónico de Ciegos: resonant, full voices, and enthusiastic attack. It was a matter for speculation  their method of learning, considering their condition: I didn´t detect any special way of communication! But I must suppose it exists.  The ability of Manzanelli to impart precise instructions based on sound alone was admirable. Agudín did an intense interpretation that kept the interest alive throughout, and the Orchestra responded fully.

            Juan Carlos Zorzi  was three times Principal Conductor of the National Symphony and of course veteran players and music  lovers fondly remember him. As a composer he had ups and downs, and I´m afraid that "Epopeya" ("Epopee") lands in the second category. It was premièred in 1988 and apparently hasn´t been played since; it lasts 17 minutes and I found it vacuous and rhetorical.

            But Wagner came to the rescue with the magnificent ending of "Die Walküre", in which Wotan says goodbye to Brünnhilde and surrounds her with a wall of fire; left in deep sleep, only a hero will claim her in the future: it will be Siegfried.  Meerapfel did a very creditable job, and so did the conductor, but this is the sort of piece that evokes the highest memories and for me it will always be Hans Hotter with Ferdinand Leitner at the Colón (1960).

            Alas, after this concert there will be no activity of the National Symphony until the auditorium nicknamed "The Whale" will be inaugurated at the transformed Correo (Post Building) on May 25. This is unconscionable and still another proof of the mediocrity with which this important orchestra is handled by the Culture Ministry.

            The Buenos Aires Philharmonic welcomed back the first-rate Polish conductor Antoni Wit for a programme whose import came from the revival of the long-awaited Concerto for orchestra by Witold Lutoslawski, to my mind the most valuable Polish composer of the second half of the Twentieth Century. This three-movement score was premièred in November 1954 after five years of elaboration by the brilliant Witold Rowicki; here, our nonpareil Juan José Castro was again the pioneer when he conducted it with the National Symphony in 1957.

            Three pithy movements conform it: an "Intrada", a flighty "Capriccio notturno" followed by a contrasting and brassy "Arioso", and a lengthy final movement made up of an intricate "Passacaglia", a  forceful "Toccata" and a Chorale that leads to an energetic coda.  Admirably conducted from memory and well followed by an attentive orchestra, it was a fascinating experience.

            However, the First Part didn´t satisfy me. Henryk Gorecki certainly wrote more relevant stuff than his pleasant 9-minute "Three pieces in olden style" for strings, and some acoustic trick provided me with a disagreeable unwritten sizzle. As to Khachaturian´s Violin Concerto, it is a  work with attractive passages followed by vulgar ones; in the hands of David Oistrakh it provided some virtuosic and exciting moments. But Jean-Pierre Rampal had the wrong idea of modifying it as a Flute Concerto, maybe the longest (37 minutes), and it doesn´t jell: the orchestration is very heavy for the flute and the writing is meant for the violin.

            Claudio Barile is the much-appreciated first desk of the B.A.Phil, and of course he is a good player, but on this occasion I found him too flashy and birdlike, and his role isn´t that of a co-conductor as his theatrical gestures seemed to imply. Well accompanied as he was, I kept hearing Oistrakh in my inner ear. As an encore Barile made a demonstration of tin whistle playing.

            The Promenade Quartet played a splendid programme starting the season of the Sofitel Soirées musicales Premium organized by Patricia Pouchulu, President of La Bella Música. The combination of Antonio Formaro (piano), Grace Medina (violin), Claudio Medina (viola) and Pablo Bercellini (cello) was fully up to the requirements of difficult and beautiful music. I was particularly impressed by the pianist and the cellist.

            Frank Bridge´s "Phantasy" is warm Neo-Romantic music, whilst Brahms´ Piano Quartet Nº3 is simply a masterpiece. As to the rarely done Second Piano Quartet by Saint-Saëns, it was a positive surprise in its fluid writing and charming ideas. 

For Buenos Aires Herald