Archive for the ‘Berlin Times’ Category

A Faust for our Times

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

By Rebecca Schmid

“If opera wants to find the connection to ‘great theater’ again, it has to adopt a flexible form that represents new theater’s most valuable qualities,” wrote Kurt Weill in 1929, one year after the Threepenny Opera premiered at Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. A recent visit to that very theater for the Berliner Ensemble in Faust I and II, which premiered earlier this season, made me realize the weight of this statement. As seen on July 9, Robert Wilson’s witty, imaginative staging, together with a score by the songwriter Herbert Grönemeyer, made for a more immersive theater experience than I can recall in any Berlin opera house this season.

Goethe’s two-volume play is condensed to just over four hours (text and dramaturgy: Jutta Ferbers), creating a fast-moving but mesmerizing series of tableaus, from the shimmering, pastel-toned angels of the prologue in heaven to the mock-rococo throne room of the emperor in the second play. Grönemeyer, drawing on a palette of organ, synthesizer, guitar and string quartet, follows suit with a collage-like pastiche, integrating everything from French baroque to Middle Eastern influences. Electronica and ambient sounds timed precisely to the actors’ every move create a filmic effect, while pop-like numbers add a touch of revue. Only the repetitive, not particularly lyrical melody of the final “chorus mysticus” praising the eternal female veered too far toward the mundane.


In Wilson’s reading, Mephistopheles and Faust are two sides of the same coin, transcending good and evil. With the conception of the Homonculus in the second part, the devil tells the sleeping Faust to never forget that he, too, loves. When the title character is united with Margaret, his bourgeois aloofness only makes the viewer empathize with the isolated Mephistopheles, ever seeking fun and pleasure, as he transforms into a ghoul. It is Mephistopheles, however, who is running the show, returning in a more human, attractive guise and handing over one of his horns to Faust in the final scene.

The actor Christopher Nell tirelessly anchored the evening as the demonic protagonist, whether singing a flamenco-like number while air-playing a guitar or hanging above the stage and puffing a cigar. Following a technical problem with the computer-controlled set in the ninth scene of the first play, he returned to tell the audience, “I had nothing to do with it,” and the show carried on with an unwaveringly high level of fantasy and comic timing.

The first act yields not one but four Faust characters and three Margarets, who not unlike the devil and his conquest form multiple parts of a single personality. It is the Faust of Fabian Stromberger who proceeds to the second part, however, easily complimenting Nell with his physical grace and earnest characterization.

One could only wish that the Berlin Ensemble’s sharp acting were possible within the often rigid confines of opera. Grönemeyer’s music may not always be the most sophisticated response to Goethe, and Wilson allows himself a dose of humor which might meet with skepticism in the opera house, but I can hardly imagine a more relevant, entertaining take on a 15th century saga.

Anna Bolena in Vienna

Monday, April 13th, 2015

Anna_Bolena_76655[1]When hearing a soprano sing the title role of Donizetti‘s Anna Bolena, it is impossible not to draw comparisons with Maria Callas, who helped ensure the work’s re-entry into the repertoire with a La Scala performance in 1957.

And indeed, the star of a revival production at the Vienna State Opera this month has been called today’s answer to the legendary singer-actress. Dark-eyed and seductive, a fierce stage animal, Anna Netrebko may loom even larger within her time thanks to globalization (although her allegiance to Vladimir Putin has sullied her reputation).

Where Callas—whom I of course only know via recording—made the 16th century Queen fragile and heartbreaking, Netrebko brings a dose of dark tragedy. The voice flows like uncrushable velvet, resigned to her fate even through floating high notes. Seen April 10, the soprano was at her peak in the final scene after being condemned to death by Henry VIII for her alleged adultery.

Unravelling in a mad scene which foreshadows that of the more mature Donizetti opera Lucia di Lammermoor, she was affecting in the slow aria “Oh! chi si duole?” in which she pines for her beloved Percy, furious in the ensuring cabaletta in which she offers her mercy to the King and the to-be-crowned Jane Seymour.

Netrebko was not convincing in the first act cavatina “Come innocente giovane,” however, failing to convey a sense of vulnerability as she lamented the loss of the King’s love. While her Italian diction has only improved over the years, her vowels often suffer from a throaty timbre that—at least to the listener—compromises the authenticity of her performances.

But this was generally an evening of fine singing, at least for today’s standards, set against the stark but tasteful production of Eric Génovèse. A grey scaffolding conveys the sinister confines of the King’s court, while Anna’s bedroom is all warm blue tones (sets: Jacques Gabel and Claire Sternberg). Luscious period costumes by Luisa Spinatelli bring a dose of regal authenticity.

As the king, the bass Luca Pisaroni an authoritative presence, both musically and dramatically, his sculpted tone setting him apart from the rest of the cast. The Jane of Ekaterina Semenchuk, in her house debut, started out strong with fiery, booming tone but her high notes turned shrill in the second act and her diction was often muddied.

Celso Albelo brought a ringing tenor to the role of Percy, and the mezzo Margarita Gritskova was a stand-out as Anna Bolena’s smitten household musician. The Vienna Philharmonic under Andriy Yurkevych provided buoyant accompaniment, crisp strings and glowing brass making the orchestra a star in its own right during the overture, but the musicians also lived up to their reputation for playing too loudly in the opera pit.

Fore more by Rebecca Schmid, visit

A Glimpse at Jost and Aperghis

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

By Rebecca Schmid

There has been too much music to keep up with between the Konzerthaus’ Festival Mythos Berlin and the contemporary music festival MärzMusik. At the Konzerthaus, I caught the premiere of Christian Jost’s BerlinSymphonie, an homage to the German capital in all is mercurial energy. The approximately 27-minute work for full orchestra creates a vivid enough landscape, blending minimalist textures with everything from sharp modernist gestures to snatches of smooth jazz.

Pulsating brass and a low string motive repeated above the hollow wooden sounds of a marimba capture the dark, mysterious side of Berlin—the bombed out churches, the abandoned banks of the Spree river—while lyrical woodwinds evoke its embracing thrill. Jost’s orchestration strikes an unusual balance between the accessible and the sophisticated, but it also recycles not so original ideas. A solo alto saxophone which emerges throughout the work as the soulful voice of the urban individual is at best clichéd.

The Konzerthausorchester Berlin gave a strong performance under its Music Director Iván Fischer, who since arriving in 2012 has brought the sections into impressive balance and softened the edges of an ensemble which has at times struggled with technical shortcomings. Whether or not one considers Jost a ground-breaking voice, the audience’s enthusiastic applause spoke to his communicative powers.

Georges Aperghis with the Klangforum Wien (c) Kai Bienert

Georges Aperghis with the Klangforum Wien

At the Philharmonie, MärzMusik offered contemporary music of a different breed. As part of an emphasis on the Greek composer Georges Aperghis, the ensemble Klangforum Wien performed his most recent large-scale composition 23 Situations (2013) under conductor Emilio Pomàrico. Written explicitly for the 23 musicians at hand, the work exploits a virtuosic array of extended techniques and theatrical elements.

The most compelling moments emerge with vignettes for individual players, such as the siren-like sighing of the violinists, the multiphonics of heckelphone which is then slapped, the celeste player’s absurdist chanting. In passages for full ensemble, Aperghis brings forth intricate webs of variegated timbres but also cacophonic chaos that is not kind to the ear. Shrieking piccolos and the banging chords of a piano do little to enhance the drama of this approximately one-hour work.

But when the full ensemble gives a final response to the Russian-speaking interjections of the accordionist, each instrument emerges with such immediacy that one has the sense of listening to a jumbled chorus, blurring the boundaries between word and sound, theater and reality.

Fore more by Rebecca Schmid, visit

A veteran Maestro and a DSOB Debut

Monday, December 1st, 2014

By Rebecca Schmid

Last week at the Philharmonie featured the debut of the young conductor Joshua Weilerstein with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin alongside a guest appearance of Riccardo Chailly with the Berlin Philharmonic. It was an interesting opportunity to consider the qualities that can make or break a leader at the podium.

A rumoured candidate to take over the Philharmonic when Simon Rattle departs in 2018 (although he takes over as music director of La Scala this January and remains with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig through 2020), Chailly is one of today’s most sought maestros, bringing elegance and authority to repertoire from Brahms, to Puccini, to Zemlinski.

The centerpiece of the evening, seen Nov.29, was Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A-minor with piano doyenne Martha Argerich. Perhaps today’s most seasoned interpreter of this work, she kept the orchestra in tow with hardly a glance toward Chailly. A combination of acute listening skills and perceptive body language allowed soloist and conductor to wander through Schumann’s imaginary landscape with emotional freedom but also relaxed precision.

Chailly infused the playing of the Philharmonic with fiery passion while never allowing focus to wane. The opening Allegro, vacillating between chamber-like dialogue and triumphant Romantic outbursts, captured the now playful, now demonic qualities of the work. Argerich’s gentle but incisive playing might have found a rounder counterpart in the strings during forte passages, but Chailly struck an ideal blend in the following Intermezzo, sculpting lines of beauty and tension.

In Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas, a short overture based on the eponymous Victor Hugo play about the love story of 17th century Spanish Queen and her slave, the orchestra performed with an unusual level of enthusiasm and focus, clearly inspired by the maestro’s serene but firm air.

In Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony, which closed the program, he drew shapely phrases while maintaining incisive rhythms in this often densely contrapuntal score, now using swooping, downward gestures to keep energy flowing in the strings, now standing erect and thrusting his hands upward for blows in the brass.

While the composer’s musical ideas tend toward the long-winded, the score is a moving testament to his personal conflict in American exile, vacillating between mourning and exaltation, late Romanticism and neo-primitive simplicity. The macabre dance of the inner Adagio seethed with tension through every false cadence until the music wound down like a clock back to an earthly realm, with allusions to Orthodox church song in the plucked strings.

DSOB Debut

If the evening emphasized mature artistry at the highest level, the DSOB concert on Nov.26 was a test of young talent. Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, as performed by the up-and-coming soloist Diana Tishchenko under Weilerstein, emerged with mixed results.

Tishchenko revealed an intuitive grasp of the work, from her dark tone and understated vibrato in the searching lines of the opening movement, to her sweet sound in counterpoint with the woodwinds in the inner Passacaglia and her stamina through the harsh harmonics of the Cadenza, even if there were occasional intonation problems.

Weilerstein, despite holding the orchestra together with crisp rhythms and drive through fast passages such as the closing Burlesque, was not as confident a presence. The strings were not as homogenous as I have heard it on other occasions, particularly during the opening Nocturne, when he beat his baton with little emotional investment.

In Schumann’s Concert Piece for Four Horns and large Orchestra, he coordinated well with the soloists (Maciej Baranowski, Peter Müseler, Bertrand Chatenet, Juliane Grepling, blending impressively but with recurrent intonation problems) and built fine climaxes in the final movement. The strings’ flowing legato in the opening Lebhaft, however, had little to do with his gestures.

The programming of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini was an unfortunate choice, as Weilerstein—at least based on this performance—does not yet have the emotional maturity necessary to shape this profound, sensuous work. The orchestral sections were not particularly well blended in the opening Andante (the blaring brass seemed intent on showing the young maestro who is boss throughout the work), and the music only scratched the surface of the story’s hellish passion.

Matters improved in the final two movements, with moments of tenderness in the Andante cantabile and elastic phrasing in the final Allegro which finally allowed Weilerstein’s musicality to shine through. Young conductors may need of opportunities to learn, but based on his insecure expression, Weilerstein did not appear to be enjoying himself—and surely that is an important ingredient in good music-making.

At the Majestic, in Casual Concert

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Terry_Riley_224_(c)_Chris_Felver_14122461123By Rebecca Schmid

“This is not a minimalist piece,” announced Cameron Carpenter in onstage discussion of Terry Riley’s At the Royal Majestic, an organ concerto which made its German premiere with the Deutsches-Symphonie Orchester Berlin (DSO) at the Philharmonie on Oct.9. His feet laced up in knee-high converse sneakers, Carpenter proceeded to play an excerpt revealing what he perceives as the influence of late Romantic composers Vierne and Widor.

Riley’s approximately 35-minute work, as conductor Giancarlo Guerrero next demonstrated with the orchestra, wearing daily dress for the DSO’s Casual Concert series, nevertheless has passages revealing the roots of the minimalist master, with repeated, almost primitive rhythms in the strings. The composer, present to dissect the music before it was performed in entirety, said with a laughing, Buddhist air of reflection that he was interested in anything that led the way to “ecstasy.”

Riley weaves together a huge spectrum of material, from ragtime, to rock, to neo-Romanticism, into a nearly cinematic spectacle that is tailor-made to Carpenter’s virtuosity and showmanship. The opening movement is inspired and named after the drawing “Negro Hall” by Swiss artist Adolf Woelfli, whom the composer imagined encountering black American culture for the first time.

A gospel-like passage on the organ gradually ushers in the orchestra, from chimes, to percolating woodblocks, to a drum set creating an Ives-like parallel realm. The ensemble comes together briefly in atmospheric swirls of color until the music takes on sharper edges, with shifting rhythms, protesting chords from the soloist and a stand-off in the woodwinds.

The inner “Lizard Tower Gang”—named, quite literally, after a tower the composer built for the reptile creatures in his backyard—emerges with eerie glissandi, chirping winds and polytonal layers that, as the composer articulates in program notes, “juggle chaos and symmetry.” It is the shortest and most mysterious movement, ending in a cadenza-like teaser that yields to atmospheric strings and inquisitive bassoons, as if marveling at the infinity of nature.

The final movement evokes a pilgrimage to the sacred mountain of Kailash in Tibet with a winding collage of textures, culminating in a monumental chorale of organ and brass. As Carpenter noted in his introduction, however, the soloist has the last word, with a swipe across the entire top keyboard and booming pedal clusters that yield to a slinky, jazzy melody—minimalist in its utter brevity—before the instrument fades out into nothing.

The performance was all the more powerful given the intimate introduction by the performers and composer in the DSO’s relaxed setting. Downstairs in the foyer, where pink lighting lent a club-like atmosphere, the young German band Xul Kolar and the DJ Johann Fanger played for the after party. I mostly saw 40-somethings dancing rather than the younger folk presenters are scheming to attract, but still, shouldn’t every concert feel this fresh?

Musikfest Berlin takes German Focus

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

Daniel Barenboim / Gustavo Dudamel / Berliner StaatskapelleBy Rebecca Schmid

The annual 20th-century music festival Musikfest Berlin (Sept.2-22) this year undertook the ambitious agenda of exploring the evolution of the orchestra from Brahms and Strauss to Lachenmann and Widmann. Intriguing programs have emerged at the Philharmonie, with a roster of guest ensembles ranging from the Munich Philharmonic to the Cleveland Orchestra alongside local institutions. But the event’s Germanic focus eschews a plurality in modern music that is impossible to ignore.

References to the German capital’s central role in history abound in program notes—“Music belongs without a doubt to a particular Berlin tradition,” writes Culture Minister Monika Grütters in an opening greeting, and we are told that Felix Mendelssohn was still a “genuine Berliner” when he wrote his Trumpet Overture, op.101. But the attempt to tie contemporary composers inextricably to a monumental classical-romantic tradition ignores irreversible cultural-historical shifts of the 20th century.

Although the programming explores the toppling and reconstruction of orchestral form, we are left with a sense that everything somehow circles back to Bach and Brahms. A concert of the Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin under Vladmir Jurowski segued nicely from a focused, authentic performance of Mendelssohn’s Trumpet Overture into Magnus Lindberg’s Chorale, an eerie setting of J.S. Bach’s of Es ist genug, with monumental brass that fight in vain to break through the sea of strings.

Schönberg’s masterfully orchestrated but pompous setting of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue for Organ in E-major provided tonal respite from the Chorale’s dissonant uncertainty and spiritual ambiguity before Schnittke’s Third Symphony deconstructed western tradition even further with distorted, at time cheeky references to Wagner, Strauss, Mozart and more.

When a cembalo attempts to have its word with a a Bach keyboard prelude in the inner Allegro, only to lose out to a sardonic waltz bass line on the harps, and then an organ cluster that crashes from above, the message is clear. Schnittke moves at will in and out of modernism and post-modernism, searing dissonance and tonal clarity, with minimalist textures that cede to a post-Romantic lament in the final Adagio before the music ends in an irresolute nether. Jurowski presided over the 111-strong ensemble with sinuous gestures and unforced precision.

A program of Reger, Strauss and Lachenmann with the Bamberger Symphony followed similar dramaturgical contours, emphasizing the line from Reger’s war-traumatized, at time proto-serial dissonances, to Strauss’ forward-looking harmonies, to Lachenmann’s reinvention of timbre and structure. “As radical as the music after 1945 may seem, a reference to the classical-modern tradition usually established itself,” we are told.

Lachenmann’s Ausklang, which ended the program, adheres to the binary opposition of piano and orchestra that defines a concerto, building itself around the soloist’s attempt to break through with a single tone. There is even a second piano onstage, where the player is armed with a hammer to respond to the protagonist’s insistent gestures. After the orchestra is reduced to ghostly, hollow sounds—an example of Lachenmann’s ability to turn timbre literally inside-out—a string melody breaks through, and sounds ricochet throughout all sections of the orchestra in a kind of da capo reference to the work’s opening. In the end, the soloist wins with two major, triadic chords.

The pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a seasoned performer of this work, gave a tour-de-force in fierce virtuosity and playful dramaticism, while the orchestra realized the range of extended techniques with admirable control under Jonathan Nott. The program opened with a polished account of Reger’s Fantasy and Fugue for Organ in d-minor, as performed by Christian Schmitt. The shades Bach and Brahms, thwarted by shattering dissonances, provided an interesting bridge into the dreamy but devastated world of Strauss’ Four Last Songs in an enchanting if underpowered performance by soprano Genia Kühmeier, who jumped in for Christine Schäfer.

The Munich Philharmonic, despite the recent loss of its Music Director Lorin Maazel, made a fine ambassador for its long Strauss tradition with a program of two of his best-known tone poems, Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, and the Horn Concerto No.2. If the Staatskapelle Dresden owns this music with a round glow and sensuous line, the Munich players bring a staggering level of detail and exactitude to the inner voices.

Semyon Bychkov presided with a clear, sophisticated baton technique that was balanced by calm and restraint. Soloist Jörg Brückner brought masterful articulation and breath control to the Horn Concerto, particularly in the lively final Rondo. What a shame that the hall was half-empty.

That was not the case for the opening concert of Brahms’ First and Second Piano Concertos with Daniel Barenboim as soloist alongside the Staatskapelle Berlin, which performed not under his direction but that of guest conductor Gustavo Dudamel. The audience went wild despite the musicians’ awkward coordination and Barenboim’s under-rehearsed performance.

Dudamel beat his baton mechanically and attempted to keep the orchestra together with the the pianist’s willful, elastic phrasing, which included its fair share of smudges. Both soloist and orchestra achieved a melting pianissimo in the inner Andante of the Second Concerto, and Barenboim’s tireless trills and sensitive dynamic shading nearly compensated for the lack of precision elsewhere, but Dudamel’s tense presence belied the imbalance of the situation.

The evening, meanwhile, only underscored the contradiction of centering a 20th-century music festival around the temple of German music. Even if one ascribes to Schönberg’s theory that Brahms was a “great progressive,” one must still account for Dvořák, Lalo, Sibelius, Stravinsky. . .particularly in a city that claims to have rebuilt itself as a cosmopolitan capital for the arts.

The Red Heifer at the Konzerthaus; Macbeth haunts the Staatsoper

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

By Rebecca Schmid

A saying goes that where words stop, music begins. Trite as this may sound, The Red Heifer, a one-act opera by Iván Fischer which made its German premiere at the Konzerthaus last week, serves as a powerful example. As a reaction to right-wing politics in modern-day Hungary, Fischer’s home country, the work speaks through a mixture of forewarning, humor and spirituality without ever banging its audience over the head.

A range of musical pastiche serves to illustrate a true story about accusations in the late 19th century that a Jewish community in North Hungary had murdered a young girl and used her blood for ritual in synagogue. As seen June 29, the narrator (Jozsef Gyabronka) recites his text to accompaniment directly evoking J.S. Bach’s Passions, while the loud-mouthed hostess of a hotel-restaurant called The Red Heifer (Orsolya Sáfár) breaks out into a bel canto idiom above the chanting of her male admirers.

Both the montage-like structure and the didactic nature of The Red Heifer place it straight in line with a tradition of Weill-Brechtian theater which Fischer, as he explained in a moderated discussion, was inspired. In what could easily lend the work to performance in schools, the conductor casts children in the roles of the victim, Eszter (Kyra Varg), and the young Jewish boy, Moric (Jonatán Kovács), who betrays his community to give a false testimony.

Fischer here has the protagonist spit his words above a rollicking orchestra while a group of children cheer him on with soccer-inspired patriotic regalia and blast plastic horns that, appropriately, evoke cows (a red heifer is a young cow that appears in the Book of Moses). Faced with a lack of other witnesses, the judge (Jozsef Csapo) ultimately pardons the synagogue, and Moric—sitting on the train with his father, presumably in order to flee—has a vision of a red heifer through which he is purified from sin.

Above a snare drum which recreates the rhythm of the locomotive, a reprise of the pseudo-devout melody sung by the men of the Jewish community after the courtroom verdict explodes into a desperate plea, only to find resolution in a winding violin melody with hints of Mozart’s Requiem.

The wide musical palette, even if it doesn’t blend into a consciously personal style, only serves to underscore the tensions in the story, from folk dance to string trio and cimbalom to a jazzy number for Moric’s father (Tamas Altorjay). And Fischer reveals himself a fertile mind of melodic invention as he spins off the various sounds of Hungarian tradition, both high and low.

The production emerged with a mix of unaffected directness and professional polish, thanks to strong characterizations and musical delivery of the both the child actors and opera singers on stage. Fischer drew sensitive but vigorous playing from an ensemble mixing players from the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the Konzerthausorchester Berlin.


Around the corner, on the construction site of what will be the multi-million Euro renovated Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Intendant Jürgen Flimm brought the season to a stirring close with his own new production of Sciarrino’s Macbeth. As seen June 28, a war zone covered the concrete floor of what was and will be the intendant’s headquarters, period costumes merging with 18th-century architectural details such as a fireplace which is lit by a victorious Macduff at the end of the opera.

The staging–which consists of little more than a small pool of water for Macbeth to wash his hands; a pile of rugs; and period furniture–takes on a surreal quality that only heightened the ghostly whispering and wilting tremoli of the score. With the death of Banquo and the appearance of his ghost in the Second Act, the chorus of Voci (voices)—now furies, now monks scattering ashes after Macbeth’s decapitation—change into costume as towering demons, haunting the unfinished bowels of the opera house.

The atmosphere was more than rife for the orchestra’s quotation of the Commendatore’s return in Mozart’s Don Giovanni—here accompanied by red light and smoke—followed by an aria exalting “la patria” (the homeland) from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. The moment is so climatic, however, as to make Sciarrino’s palette in the final act grow static (unlike in his shorter works Infinito Nero, Vanitas or Lohengrin).

The libretto, meanwhile, bypasses the prophecy of the three witches to plunge into the violence and insanity around Macbeth, a nightmare from which he can’t escape. By placing the audience on either side of the action, Flimm brings the spectator uncomfortably close to the raw human brutality (one woman had to be escorted out as Lady Macbeth washed her husband’s hand with a rag soaked in fake blood after Duncan’s murder).

The disembodied tones of the score nevertheless created a powerful sense of suspended reality which was heightened by having part of the ensemble, Opera Lab Berlin, placed outside the room to create a phantom-like ricochet. David Robert Coleman led with precision but also elegant musicality. Alongside Otto Katzameier in a potent portrayal of the title role and Carola Höhn as the hysteric Lady Macbeth, baritone Timothy Sharp, tenor Stephen Chambers and the small chorus maintained sharp dramatic focus, even if Italian diction could have stood improvement.

Krzysztof Urbanski makes Berlin Philharmonic Debut

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

By Rebecca Schmid

If Krzysztof Urbanski’s debut with the Berlin Philharmonic late last month should serve as any indication, this is a conductor whom we can expect to hear again soon at the Philharmonie. The young Polish native, quickly on the rise on the both sides of the Atlantic, presided over an all-Czech program on May 25 in which his fluent virtuosity and wise modesty were equally on display.

In the opening movement of Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, a less-often performed worked commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society in 1884, he managed to give fierce attacks before allowing the music to release into the players’ hands. When the light pours into this predominantly melancholy work with the entrance of a solo horn in the following Poco Allegro, Urbanski created a buoyancy that distracted from the work’s Brahmsian influence.

The Scherzo was furious but elegant through pounding dance-like rhythms, and he created a powerful tension in the apocalyptic moments of the final movement that recede again into melancholy. Curving his fingers into gallant gestures with his left hand while using the baton in his right hand to phrase with clear, sweeping movements, he kept the orchestra on its toes as the piece drew to a majestic close.

The Philharmonic’s dark strings, clean brass and chiselled woodwinds were at natural service of the drama, even more so than in two symphonic poems from Smetana’s Ma vlast cycle, which opened the evening. While the ripples of the Moldau emerged elegantly in the second poem, recalling Wagner’s music for the Rhine in the Ring cycle with the entrance of the brass, the soaring main melody evoking the composer’s Czech homeland sounded tense despite the violins’ rich tone (concert master Andreas Buschatz).

The following portrayal of the mythic figure of Sarka in the third poem bounded forth with authentic folk rhythms, elegant clarinet solos from Andreas Ottensamer, and frenzied strings but also gentle lyricism in the inner Moderato section. Urbanski at times danced on the podium but knew when to dig in with his baton, such as in the following fugal passage which he held together with fierce precision.

The evening’s most exciting bit of programming was Martinu’s First Cello Concerto featuring Sol Gabetta, whose visceral exchanges with the Philharmonic captured the chamber music underpinnings of the work, revised and expanded by the composer for full orchestra following its 1938 premiere. She was not afraid to draw harsh sounds from her instrument but also moved seamlessly into a gentle, lyric pianissimo during the cadenza-like passage that closes the first movement.

Picking up the melody of the winds that open the following Andante, she captured the music’s introspection while allowing her fiery personality to shine through. The orchestra’s strings created a gentle bed beneath her, Martinu’s harmonies shifting like shades of color in a watercolour painting.

Gabetta moved with playful ease through the freely conceived rhythms of the final movement while remaining on point with the orchestra’s pizzicati and fragmented responses. Her coordination with was so Urbanski natural as to be barely perceptible.

Strauss and a Touring Organ at the Dresdner Musikfestspiele

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

By Rebecca Schmid

Richard Strauss was a man of many masks, from his intimate piano songs to the demonic outpourings of his stage works and tone poems. Following a semi-staging of his second opera, Feuersnot, in Dresden, where it premiered in 1901, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig came to the Saxon capital on June 9 to stake its own claim to the early Straussino.

From the opening chords of the overture to W.A. Mozart’s Idomeneo, Riccardo Chailly and the musicians made clear that the morning program at the Semperoper would not easily fade from the audience’s memory. Incisive attacks, fleet but sumptuous bowing and vibrant dynamic contrasts created a sense of excitement and pathos.

In Brahms’ Serenade Nr. 2, a chamber work dedicated the Clara Schumann, Chailly shaped every phrase lovingly, creating a buoyancy that counteracted the music’s ponderous nature. The understated passion of the inner Adagio unfolded with elegance before breaking out into a nearly fervent plea in which the woodwinds glowed against the accompanying strings.

The transparency which Chailly has cultivated from the orchestra only seemed an asset throughout the program, drawing attention to a vibrancy in every inner voice. The Gewandhausorchester’s dark strings nevertheless brought a sense of weight to Tod und Verklärung, a tone poem Strauss wrote at the age of 24, now battling with threatening brass, now rejoicing in the triumph of life.

Crescendos rose in a sleek line rather than an oceanic swell, creating a more etched than brushed tableau in which the score’s subject, a sick patient lying in bed, fights against the hour of death. Wind solos emerged seamlessly between violent phases of the emotional journey before joining the strings in a serene ascent toward the final destination.

The parable of Till Eulenspiegel ends in a similar place, although in Strauss’ eponymous tone poem, the trickster makes a quick, if temporary escape, from his persecutors. Chailly did not allow the energy to slack for an instant through the work’s vivid storytelling.

Even if the central horn motive representing Till was not always immaculately intoned, every voice in the orchestra conveyed a sense of character, from a protesting violin solo to a squealing oboe. Brief dance-like passages unfurled with joie de vivre before the orchestra transformed into a merciless war machine, only to move into a sublime realm of Till’s invincibility.

A hot Organ Concert…

Across town in Dresden’s Neustadt (“New City”), some surprises were in store at a converted Schlachthof (slaughterhouse or butchery) the previous evening. The new touring organ of Cameron Carpenter hulked onstage in colored lighting, lending a rock-star atmosphere which the organist rounded out in his trademark sequined shoes and punkish hairdo.

In a further rebellion against classical concert conventions, Carpenter changed the program at will, replacing a Bach Prelude and Fugue with the Trio Sonata in G-major; opening the second half spontaneously with an arrangement of the ouverture to Bernstein’s Candide; and even breaking out into works without any announcement whatsoever.

His mind-boggling foot- and finger-work and seamless stop-pulls were on display throughout, although the Trio Sonata—a work originally written for organ—was dispatched with more musical elegance than an arrangement of two movements from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D-major. Here Carpenter had a tendency to rush the end of phrases.

Carpenter’s own work, Music for an imaginary Film, explored the organ’s full range of timbres, from church bells to something resembling a high-pitched synthesizer. The free-formed structure evolved from waxing lyricism to clustered harmonies before ending on a playful note.

Carpenter’s humor was also on display as he braved the sweltering heat of the concert space. At one point, his blouse soaked through, he raised a glass of water to the audience and said “Prost!”

While the organ’s digital timbres—now resembling a caroussel tune, now twinkling like a soundtrack to a cartoon—lent something of camp feel to works by Franck and Albeniz, Carpenter’s ability to work the crowd left no doubt of his powers to revolutionize an instrument which most people associate with church services—suffocating heat aside.

Artists on the Rise at the Deutsche Oper and the Konzerthaus

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

Deutsche Oper Billy BuddBy Rebecca Schmid

The story of Billy Budd, a Herman Melville story which became the basis for Britten’s now classic opera, revolves around a seaman whose allure is so strong that John Claggart, the Master-at-arms on an 18th century war ship, conspires to eradicate his presence. Fate takes a strange twist when Budd, reduced to a stammer at accusations of mutiny, accidentally kills Claggart and is sentenced to death.

The title character is so full of vitality and good will that the ship’s captain, Edward Fairfax Vere, knows he has sentenced an “angel of God” to hang. Amid the shadows of imminent death, the infinite seas where victory is nowhere in sight, the whipping of sea men conscripted again their will, Budd carries the potential to reverse the gears in a machine of war that has trumped the human ability to love.

The Deutsche Oper made a bold move by casting its young ensemble member, John Chest, as the title character in a David Alden staging which premiered in the German capital on May 22. The 28-year-old American baritone, in his role debut, does not have the vocal heft of more seasoned cast members (the menacing bass of Gidon Saks as Claggart, or the piercing, almost angelic tenor of Burkhard Ulrich as Vere).

But he projected the charisma and rugged innocence that convey how this character is able to throw an entire ship off course, now jockeying with the chorus of seamen in the first scene of Act Two, now singing a stoic farewell. The all-male cast held itself to high standards in matters of both sound quality and diction, with stand-outs including Tobias Kehrer as Lieutenant Radcliffe and Thomas Blondelle as the Novice, who tries to convince Budd to stage an uprising.

The chorus of the Deutsche Oper struck a powerful blend with the orchestra while executing Alden’s finely-tuned directions (and choreography by Maxine Braham) during numbers such as “O heave” and “Yes, lost forever on the endless sea,” as they tugged giant ropes across the stage. Sets by Paul Steinberg capture the doomed circumstances with towering wrought metal barracks, penetrated only by the all-white chamber of Vere which tunnels in seamlessly.

It is was a surprise that the wheels of a rusted, concave wall representing the ship’s cabin were so loud as to disturb the sea of brass during the interlude between the final two scenes. That being said, the brass struggled with clean articulation and synchrony in Britten’s percussive scoring. The orchestra’s dark-hued strings, under Music Director Donald Runnicles, compensated with a gripping atmosphere both in brooding undercurrents and eerie interlocking counterpoint.

At the Konzerthaus…

The Berlin Piano Festival, in its third annual iteration, offered a rare occasion to hear the up-and-coming pianist Francesco Piemontesi in his home city on May 19. He performed to a full chamber music hall of the Konzerthaus despite competition in the main hall, where Igor Levit performed a Beethoven Sonata as part of the series Zwei Mal hören (“Hear it Twice”).

To be sure, Piemontesi is also a young pianist with a lot to say. He combines meticulous technical assurance with a nearly philosophical introspection and attention to emotional nuance that is wonderfully suited to the so-called Wiener Klassik.

His interpretative skills were at their height in Schubert’s Sonata in C-minor, D.958 as he conveyed the mystery, joie de vivre, and eternal longing that smolder beneath the deceptively simple musical elements. He made the piece his own from the moment he tore into the chords of the opening Allegro, effortlessly moving into a world of dreamy reflection.

His use of rubato and pauses allowed the music to speak for itself without a hint of artifice—perhaps the greatest challenge for a performer. In the spritely but death-intoned Menuetto, he revealed a naïve joy and complete absorption in the music’s ambiguities.

In Mozart’s Sonata in F-Major, KV 533/494, Piemontesi created a nearly operatic drama, moving from exasperation to childlike delight in the minor mode reprise of the opening Allegro, then desperate beseeching to adamant supplication in the slow inner movement. Both the emotional depth and bold attacks revealed the influence of his mentor, Alfred Brendel.

While this listener prefers a rounder touch for forte passages, particularly in Mozart, Piemontesi captured the sense of desperation beneath the notes. His temperament was even better suited to Beethoven’s Sonata in E-major, Op.109, with its fiery outbursts and resigned calm expressing an infatuation with Maximiliane Brentano, the daughter of the composer’s friend Antonie Brentano.

Piemontesi rounded out the program with a selection of Débussy Préludes displaying his clean virtuosity and powers of imagination. He recreated the angry wind of “Ce qu’a vu le vent d`ouest” with vivid strokes while also bringing a gentle touch to the floating chords of “La cathédrale engloutie,” even if one might have wished for more impressionist pedalwork.

For more by Rebecca Schmid, visit