jueves, diciembre 29, 2016

Concert panorama: Contemporary, Mozart, Mahler

            The weekly format compels me to be very succinct in my reviews. Hence, panoramas. I will start selecting from a flood of concerts of contemporary music.
            Martín Bauer has led for twenty years the San Martín cycle of contemporary music (from next season there will be another curatorial view, for Diego Fischerman replaces him) and since its inception a few years ago (during the García Caffi regime) also the smaller cycle Colón Contemporáneo, sometimes overlapping both. As this year Bauer couldn´t count with the Sala Casacuberta (ideal for the genre), due to the restoration works at the San Martín, he had recourse to different venues. However, I found this year´s programming quite weak, and am only sorry that I couldn´t hear the great German violinist Isabelle Faust (Usina).
            Bauer has had a fixation with composer Morton Feldman and it´s no wonder that Colón Contemporáneo presented the première of "Coptic Light" as the main score of a concert that doubled as Nº 13 of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic´s thirteenth concert (tough material for its subscribers). The original announcement in March gave as conductor Emilio Pomarico and except for Feldman had a different programme: Busoni and Castiglioni. However, Wolfgang Wengenroth (debut) took over with an equally attractive proposal in the First Part: Ligeti´s well-known "Lontano" and the rarely played though fundamental scores by Anton Webern: Five Pieces Op.10 for chamber orchestra (extremely short) and Six Pieces Op.6, more expansive. Plus Webern´s fascinating orchestral arrangement of Bach´s Fuga (Ricercata) from "The Musical Offering" as "Klangfarbenmelodie" (Melody of colored sounds).
            Feldman´s "Coptic Light" has one saving grace: it lasts 25 minutes instead of more than four hours like other pieces played here; but it is just as boring: the material is exposed in seemingly endless repetition and minimal variation. The whole programme had some accidents: this is hard music for the Phil, accustomed to other musical styles.
            Much better was a finely programmed concert of the National Symphony at the Blue Whale conducted with  accuracy by Fabián Panisello and featuring a virtuoso pianist, Dimitri Vassilakis, in Panisello´s "Movements", an interesting piece in four moods written with full comprehension of current trends. Preceded by Luciano Berio´s "Requies" (première, as Panisello) and followed by Lutoslawski´s great Third Symphony, we heard first-rate music created by two masters who are no longer with us but are still very relevant.
            Ginastera and Stravinsky are no longer contemporary but in some of their scores are still amazingly modern. They were combined in a percussion-based evening at the Colón: the former´s "Cantata para América mágica" (1960) and Stravinsky´s "Les Noces" ("The Wedding", 1923). The Cantata is made up of six pieces with texts from the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas of strong dramatic power, and the dramatic soprano is accompanied by two pianos and ample percussion ensemble including autochthonous instruments.  This is Ginastera at his best, expressionist, telluric and with advanced techniques (serialism, complex rhythms). Instrumentally this was a splendid performance, coordinated by Annunziata Tomaro and Ángel Frette, but mezzo Virginia Correa Dupuy isn´t the right voice: she is refined and intimate; you need here a big soprano voice of intense projection.
            "Les Noces" is very important but rarely done; born as a choreographic cantata, it has been seen here both as ballet and in concert. Based on Russian folk poems dealing with the wedding ritual, it applies the rhythmic liberation of "The Rite of Spring" to singing of enormous complexity; relentless in its demands and rarely expansive, it was a demonstration of the great professionalism of Tomaro, the Coro Orfeón de Buenos Aires (Néstor Andrenacci, Pablo Piccinni), the four pianists, the percussionists; the soloists were uneven, only María Dolores Ibarra (soprano) quite satisfactory. It was sung in the Russian translation, and that is good.
            I was glad that Patricia Pouchulu, after the unexpected interruption of a concert season at the Brick Hotel organised by her, could find the support of the Austrian and German Embassies to present a valuable Mozart concert at the Avenida. As leader of the Association La Bella Música, since 1999 she has offered with a galaxy of artists eight hundred concerts; in recent years after strict training she has started a conducting career. Funding isn´t easy nowadays and has limited some symphonic projects that require big orchestras, but a night of Mozart remains a treat when you have a solid hand-picked orchestra of 32 players and two outstanding soloists (first desks of the Colón Orchestra).
            The loveliness of the Clarinet Concerto (K 622) and of the Oboe Concerto (alternative to flute) K.314 was in the very good hands and artistry of Carlos Céspedes and Rubén Albornoz; apart from minor accidents, the playing was beautiful and  musical, abetted by the clean and stylish conducting of Pouchulu. She then tackled the crown of Mozart´s symphonies: Nº 41, "Jupiter".  With scrupulous articulation and an attentive orchestra, the music flowed naturally, only lacking some intensity and rhythmic profile in the final movement, a masterpiece of counterpoint; but the battle was certainly won.
            The marvelous Mahler Second Symphony ("Resurrection") was the major challenge taken up by Mario Benzecry and his Sinfónica Juvenil Nacional José de San Martín, plus the Asociación Coral Lagun Onak and the Coro de la Facultad de Derecho-UBA, both prepared by Miguel Ángel Pesce, plus soprano Jaquelina Livieri and mezzo Alejandra Malvino. Not helped by the resonant acoustics of the Facultad de Derecho, nevertheless Benzecry showed his deep knowledge and command and built the enormous structure with unerring hand. Both the choirs and soloists were first-rate, but the Orchestra had some problems: mistakes by the brass and rather mushy violin intonation; however,  most of the playing was good and the climaxes were tremendous.
For Buenos Aires Herald

jueves, diciembre 22, 2016

Ballet at the Colón 2017: not enough innovation

            Although the Colón Ballet had been promised more performances for 2017, this won´t happen. And the programming, rather unusually, will offer four full-length ballets, all of them revivals, though attractive. Last year I welcomed the long-overdue presentation of Delibes´ "Sylvia", beautiful music that hadn´t been  heard for more than sixty years, this time with choreography (1952) of that great Covent Garden creator, Frederick Ashton; in this case the reprise is justified, to give audiences a new chance to meet this important ballet, and it will be with the debut of Isabella Boylston, from the American Ballet Theatre.  As usual, the orchestra during the season will be the Buenos Aires Philharmonic; the conductor on this occasion, Emmanuel Siffert. April 7 to 12.
            Then, "La fierecilla domada" ("The Taming of the Shrew"), the wonderful Cranko ballet on Shakespeare´s comedy first seen here by the Stuttgart Ballet and later danced admirably by Maximiliano Guerra, the current Director of the Ballet, who certainly chose it out of justified nostalgia. But decades have passed and it will be pleasant to see it again, with music by Kurt Heinz Stolze based on Domenico Scarlatti sonatas. Conductor, Darío Domínguez Xodo. June 25 to July 1.
            In recent years we´ve seen plenty of "Nutcrackers" and "Swan Lakes", but not "Swan Lake", the longest and perhaps greatest of the Tchaikovsky ballets. The very capable Mario Galizzi has donated his revision of the Petipa original to the Colón. Guests will be our Marianela Núñez, star of London´s Royal Ballet, and Anna Ol, from Holland´s Het Ballet. Although I will never forget the presentation of the Royal Ballet at our Luna Park decades ago, I will look forward to this revival, which I hope will be complete. Conductor, Siffert. September 30 to October 6.
            Finally, "Notre Dame de Paris", choreography by Roland Petit on Maurice Jarre´s music, based on the Victor Hugo novel. Although about 15 years ago I wasn´t impressed by Jarre´s music, I liked the inventive choreography and was sorry to know that Petit wasn´t paid; the conflict lasted until his death; apparently his succession has struck a deal with the Colón. Conductor, Javier Logioia Orbe. December 23 to 29.
            So the year will pass without either new works or very necessary revivals of choreographers such as Massine or Gsovsky. And without a composite evening of various ballets.
For Buenos Aires Herald  

Gershwin´s “Porgy and Bess” in uneven South African production

George Gershwin´s sole opera, "Porgy and Bess", is a memorable achievement. Last week the Herald printed an ample interview of Esteban Colombet with Stage Director Christine Crouse as a useful introduction to the last installment of the Colón season, but it refers basically to the parallels she sees between her transposition to Soweto around 1970 and  the original setting in Charleston, South Carolina, 1930s. She admits incongruities and cuts, but stresses the sociological  resemblance. She has a point, but I certainly prefer the libretto as it was written by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin.
In both cases, there´s only one way to cast it in the main roles: with black singers.  And that´s the way it was seen in the two other productions  at Buenos Aires: a Teatro Astral by  Everyman Opera Company conducted by Alexander Smallens (who had led the Boston world première in 1935), August 1955; and the Colón by the Virginia Opera Company, April 1992.
George Gershwin was a first-generation American whose parents were Jews from Odessa, Ukraine. Hardly, one would think, the right genes for an opera on a black drama in the USA´s South. True, Gershwin had shown his affinity with jazz roots with such splendid works as "Rhapsody in blue", "Concerto in F" and "An American in Paris", but those were very much the work of a New Yorker. In the opera he penetrates the spirit of the Deep South with uncanny empathy and enormous inspiration: there are of course wonderful songs, like "Summertime", but even more admirable in this folk opera (so-called by the author) are the call and response Spirituals and the complex concerted numbers in general.
Charleston is a city of rich history: the largest Atlantic port south of Philadelphia in Colonial times; from Fort Sumter, in an island in front of it, came the spark that ignited the Civil War; and close to the sea still stands Cabbage Row, real name of the Catfish Row of the opera. Eartquakes and cyclones have ravaged it but the citizens always recover.
As depicted by Heyward, the inhabitants of Catfish Row are deeply religious (numerous mentions of the Promised Land) and a closely knit community. They are fishermen, stevedores, or cotton workers. Most are good sorts, but two characters will ruin the life of Porgy (a crippled beggar) and Bess, sensual and drug addict: Crown, powerful and murderous; and Sporting Life, a pedlar of "happy dust" (cocaine). But the people that live there, the chorus, are just as essential: this is an opera where the inhabitants sing and dance again and again, so you need choristers with swing.
There have been essential recordings of this opera: the Decca album with the highlights sung by the original cast (Smallens); the first "complete" one (with cuts) with excellent singers conducted by Lehman Engel (Columbia); and two admirable really complete recordings in CD with great conductors (Maael and Rattle) and casts. So there´s no lack of recordings that do justice to this astonishing music. By the way, there were two Deep South operas before: the charming folkish "Treemonisha" by Scott Joplin, the ragtime composer (1915), and Delius´ "Koanga" (1904, Florida plantation); both interesting but no match for "Porgy".
Now to the Capetown Opera´s presentation. Frankly, last year a horrid "Macbeth" (Verdi transported to the Congo) by a South African company had left a bitter taste in my mouth, but  fortunately this "Porgy..." even with its faults has its commendable aspects. Two singers were really good: Xolela Sixaba (Porgy) and Goitsemang Lehobye (Serena); and the chorus was always vital. Lukhanyo Moyake was a slimy, slithering Sporting Life, as he should be, but was far too free in his famous debunking Bible song, "It ain´t necessarily so". Nonhlanhla Yende acted well as Bess but vocally she was uneven, with highs that often were strident. Mandisinde Mbuyazwe as Crown looked the part but his timbre was arid.  Miranda Tini was a rotund Maria though with a broken voice. And both Jake (Owen Metsileng) and Robbins (Mthunzi Mbombela) were good. There was charm in the street vendors.
Both the choir from Capetown (Marvin Kernelle) and the Colón Orchestra (Tim Murray) were satisfactory. Christine Crouse handled the action with rhythm  and dramatic sense, though with too much noise and some licences, such as the death of Crown. Michael Mitchell´s stage designs were functional rather than attractive, though Kittiwah Island looked too much like Catfish Row; and his costumes were generally adequate. Interesting lighting by Kobus Rossouw.
Two final remarks: I was relieved that this "Soweto" wasn´t very different from Charleston; and of the several cuts, one was grievous: Porgy´s "Buzzard Song". Warts and all, this "Porgy" tips on the positive side of the balance and after 24 years it was time for its revival.
For Buenos Aires Herald

miércoles, diciembre 14, 2016

The Handel Society celebrates its 25th anniversary with “Deborah”

            The Handel Society has been led since its inception by Sergio Siminovich, and as they celebrate their 25th anniversary they must be feted, for they have given us all the oratorios written by George Frederick Handel. Most people know "Messiah", certainly the greatest, but there´s a lot to admire in many others, such as "Israel in Egypt", "Solomon" or "Samson".
             The Society has never had a steady place to present these big works and sometimes the acoustics were wrong, or the available artists weren´t quite up to the requirements. And Siminovich´s temperament, certainly a true believer, tended to exaggerations in gestures and phrasings. But in recent years he has managed to find both a more serene approach and collaborators of greater accuracy.
            In fact "Deborah" has only one recording in my CD catalogue and was quite new to me. In three parts and about two hours and a half, it tells the story found in Judges of Deborah and Jael who with the courage of male heroes defend their people against the Canaan army. The rather poor text of Samuel Humphreys belabor redundantly the same basic facts, but there are fine arias and choruses to compensate, and I was glad to hear them.
            One basic factor was for the best: they had this time the fine acoustics of the Iglesia Metodista Central, for decades the home of the Bach Academy. The choir numbered 68 and balance would have been better with not so many women, but they sang well. The historicist Baroque Orchestra, 22-strong, was good. The most experienced soloists were British tenor Philip Salmon, the veteran American bass James Marshall and countertenor Pablo Travaglino. The young fresh voice of Marita Novau as Deborah and the expressive Flora Gril as Jael were complemented by the promising Julieta Giordano and Helena Zudaire as Israelite Women. Eduardo Cavallo and Ricardo Cohen completed the cast as High Priests of Baal and Israel.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Mahler´s Symphony of a Thousand gets powerful performance

            What a gigantic change since my teenager years in the Fifties: then the Gustav Mahler vogue was just starting, propelled by the long-playing records. By the time the CDs arrived around 1985 the battle was won, with several integrals of the symphonies available, and our city had heard all of them. Nine  plus the initial Adagio of the Tenth written from 1888 to 1910, all of them in a style completely his own and each building a sonorous world of astonishing innovation in the final stretches of the Post-Romantic period, just before tonality would be smashed by Schönberg, starting a new era.
            Four of the symphonies add voices to the always big orchestra: Nos. 2, 3 and 4 require them in some movements, the Second having a stupendous Finale for soprano, mezzosoprano and an ample choir; but only the Eighth is completely vocal-symphonic and with the most vast array ever written up to that year (1907): eight soloists, two mixed  choirs and a children´s one. I know of only one symphony that even exceeds it: Havergal Brian´s "Gothic Symphony" (1927), never done here and recorded at least once.
            Mahler was a great conductor and his genius for orchestration comes from that absorbing profession; but he also knew everything about singing for he was the head of the Vienna Opera. The Eighth demands three sopranos, two contraltos, tenor, baritone and bass; everyone is sorely taxed by the composer but not beyond the frontier of possibility.
            There are only two parts, each enormously complex: the first, "Veni Creator Spiritus", on a hymn by the Medieval priest Rabanus Maurus, is an exalted motet of extremely difficult counterpoint and lasts about 25 minutes. The second takes an hour and is based on the last scene of Part II of Goethe´s "Faust"; its content is clearly metaphysical, and it´s worth consigning the Latin appellations of the soloists, although they sing in German: the sopranos: Magna Peccatrix, Una Poenitentium, Mater Gloriosa; the contraltos, Mulier Samaritana and Maria Aegyptiaca; tenor, Doctor Marianus; baritone, Pater Ecstaticus; bass, Pater Profundus. The music goes from the first slow, pianissimo minutes, to ever greater expansion until the glorious final chorus.
            Of course both the logistics and cost of putting on the Eighth are daunting. If I remember right, this was only the fourth time it was presented here: our great Mahlerian, Pedro Calderón, managed the prowess twice, decades ago; and Alejo Pérez, with the Argentino forces, dared the challenge both at La Plata and at our Luna Park. All three were meticulously prepared and much to the credit of the conductors. Now it was Enrique Arturo Diemecke, who has shown his mettle in Mahler both with the BA Philharmonic and the National Symphony, who was at the helm of the Colón Estable (Resident) Orchestra.
             Franz-Paul Decker was twice frustrated for there was no way to conciliate the rehearsal hours of the Philharmonic and the Colón Chorus. The way out was used now: the Estable has no such problem. As to the second chorus, current political conditions allow the collaboration of the Coro Polifónico Nacional.
            Diemecke again marvelled with his superlative memory and conducted by heart, always in command of even the toughest moments. The phrasing and tempi were mostly right and the inexactitudes few, and as he communicated his enthusiasm to all concerned, this was quite a success. I did feel that that the second choir was acoustically  relegated but I see no solution for that; perhaps the upper floors heard it differently, as the sound rises.
            The Coro Estable was prepared by Miguel Martínez; the Polifónico, by Darío Marchese; and the Children, by César Bustamante; all did their best. And the Orchestra was very good; concentrated, they responded with "esprit de corps" to the conductor.
            The soloists were surely the best that can be assembled here. Both Jaquelina Livieri and Daniela Tabernig rose to the frequent high Cs of the hymn and gave expression to their music in the Goethe characters; the short appearance in a loge of Paula Almerares  as Mater Gloriosa was purely sung. Both Guadalupe Barrientos and Alejandra Malvino were very accomplished in their contralto parts. Enrique Folger was strongly voiced though rather forced as Doctor Marianus; Alejandro Meerapfel sang nobly as Pater Ecstaticus; and Fernando Radó was splendid as Pater Profundus (he is having an important European career).
            The Eighth was offered twice, as is logical considering the effort, and will stand as a high point of the season.

For Buenos Aires Herald