Posts Tagged ‘Strauss’

RCO Anniversary Extravaganza

Friday, April 12th, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

If tradition means not preserving the ashes but fanning the flames, in the words of Gustav Mahler, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is celebrating its 125th anniversary with one foot firmly planted in the past and the other striding fearlessly into the future. Between a tour of six continents this season, the orchestra gave an anniversary concert on April 10 at its home concert hall, the Concertgebouw, founded the same year as the orchestra, in 1888, with an official opening on April 11. For modern-day residents of the Netherlands, this month also marks an important time in politics. Queen Beatrix will soon cede the throne to Prince Willem-Alexander, making him the country’s first King since 1890. The event honored the royal family, in attendance with Princess Máxima—soon-to-be Queen and the orchestra’s official patron—with red carpeting and black-tie dress. But the RCO, a crowned exception on the Netherlands’ tenuous landscape of budget slashes to the arts, does not take its status for granted. The entire proceeds of the concert, which featured three soloists—Thomas Hampson, Janine Jansen and Lang Lang—in a program of late 19th and turn-of-the-century repertoire alongside a new work by Dutch composer Bob Zimmerman, will be invested in educational outreach.

The RCO, which enjoyed close relationships with Mahler and Strauss under the 50-year tenure of Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, has not only kept this music flowing in its veins but performs in a hall which provides an ideal acoustic environment for the luxurious strings, golden brass and sumptuous dynamic architecture that emerges under Music Director Mariss Jansons (winner of this year’s Ernst von Siemens Prize, otherwise known as the classical world’s ‘Nobel’). The Concertgebouw was modelled after the Gewandhaus in Leipzig but, unlike its German counterpart, survived World War Two. Inaugurating a new era for the building, projection screens hung in gilded frames on each side of the stage, providing a canvas for historical images and artists’ commentary much in the style of the Beyond the Score series initiated by the Chicago Symphony or the multi-media presentations of the New World Symphony in Miami.

Hampson, before taking the stage for Mahler songs from the Knaben Wunderhorn cycle and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, praised the RCO musicians on video for a “desire to be true to the master” that is “hugely more evident than in other places,” referring to composer as “one of their own.” The ambient whirring that opened and closed the footage may have lent his comments a clichéd tone, but the unforced beauty of the orchestra in Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld or the perfectly shaped rubati of Rheinlegenden lived up to the baritone’s elation. Hampson, one of few singers today who is able to capture Mahler’s searing irony, was at his best in the final Lob des hohen Verstandes, supported by the orchestra’s playful woodwinds and the fresh energy of its low strings. The swelling of individual lines that Jansons was able to achieve in Rheinlegenden found an even more powerful outlet in the suite from Strauss’ Rosenkavalier, penned in 1944 with the relationship of the Marschallin and Octavian at its center. Waltzes floated through the hall with warm nostalgia, and slow, tender passages glowed with burning intensity under Jansons’ inviting gestures.

He may be the only conductor who could have brought together string players from the Concertgebouw, his Bavarian Radio Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Berlin Philharmonic—the latter being the only two orchestras where he guest conducts. The ensemble created an impressive homogeneity of tone in the Elégie from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, with a silky pianissimo and crescendi that breathed further and further into celestial rapture. Saint-Saëns’ Introduction et Rondo capriccioso received an affecting performance with Dutch violinist Jansen as soloist, whose fierce communication powers lent fast passages vibrancy and spunk. Lang, having described the third movement of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto onscreen as a “kind of war,” demonstrated a virtuosity so clean as to border on mechanical but created a wild energy with the orchestra in the final stretch.

Zimmerman’s Komt vrieden in het ronden, a neo-Romantic set of variations on a well-known Dutch folk song, fit well with the rest of the program and gave equal spotlight to all three soloists—an occasion that is not likely to be repeated. The audience laughed in amusement upon Hampson’s first entrance, while Lang was the King of Piano Cool as he read through the score. Jansen invested her lines with more personal expression in the music’s circular exchanges built on conventional harmonic schemes. The program opened with the prelude from Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which was performed for the inauguration of the building 125 years ago. Jansons drew a sound that was rich but never bombastic. The conductor’s humility was more than apparent during standing ovations for the extravagant occasion. Despite a high dose of old world charm, the evening was mostly memorable for the RCO’s fresh, exciting musicianship that invested even the most familiar Romantic works with new meaning. Surely this is the essential ingredient for every orchestra—even if it doesn’t bear the title of the “world’s greatest,” as bestowed by Gramophone Magazine in 2008—as its preserves its legacy while forging a path into the complex demands of the 21st century.

Dresdener Musikfestspiele pay Tribute to Eastern Europe

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

The theme of this year’s Dresdener Musikfestspiele, “Herz Europas” (the Heart of Europe), inventively returns the East German city to its roots as a thriving cultural hub. While today’s united Germany is roiled by the end of the ‘Merkozy’ era and Eurobond controversy, the emphasis of the festival (May 15-June 3) on central European repertoire and the cultural proximity of Dresden to the former Hapsburg Empire in effect harks back to a time when the arts served as a better common currency than any fiscal pact. As the Intendant and cellist Jan Vogler pointed out in a discussion, no other part of the world has produced a more influential body of composers than Eastern Europe. Vogler, who took over the festival in 2009, has turned a once provincial institution into an international attraction boasting a roster of coveted artists and ensembles. At the same time, he strives in his programming to strike a balance between the local love of native tradition and a more outward-looking approach. While last year’s theme, “Stars of Asia,” must have seemed positively exotic for the conservative ‘baroque’ city, Vogler—who spends most of the year in New York—hopes to provide a kind of ‘double-window’ from Dresden into international trends and vice versa.

The city of former East Germany has received a face lift in recent times, from the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche in 2005 (sixty years after the Protestant church was bombed to the ground) to Daniel Liebeskind’s provocative redesign to the Museum of Military History—a wedge of concrete and steel that slices through the traditional architecture—last year. Boxy post-war buildings line the outskirts of the shell-shocked city while fancy new hotels abut the cobblestone streets of the city’s small but opulent center, where the rebuilt Semperoper stands as a monument to the heyday of late German Romanticism (the original 19th-century building premiered works by Strauss and Wagner). The resident orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden, has already cemented its relationship with the incoming Music Director Christian Thielemann—who, according to Vogler, may have filled Karajan’s shoes as a leading conductor for many in Germany, unfortunate political allusions aside.

Thielemann with the Staatskapelle Dresden (c)Matthias Creutziger.

The program notes to a performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, presented as a co-production of the Staatskapelle and the festival, go as far as to compare the collaboration to a fated marriage, with the symphony acting as testimony. While a couple of my colleagues from the Music Critics Association of North America found the performance lacking a sense of arch at the expense of attention to dynamic detail, it is hard to deny the authenticity Thielemann brings to this music, with its triumphant Wagnerian brass and inner torment. Performing a 1939 edition that melds Bruckner’s original score with a modified version he penned between 1887 and 1890, the young Karajan kept the orchestra flowing like a well-oiled machine, with the Staatskapelle’s strings providing a full-bodied sound reminiscent of the Vienna Philharmonic. As a tuba solo hovered over a rising string motive in the final movement Feierlich, nicht schnell (a passage not included in the original score), history seemed to stand still.

To be sure, Dresden cannot as easily rest on its laurels as the long established Salzburg or Bayreuth festivals, yet the former imperial city of Saxony boasts its own lineage of noble interest in the arts. Princess Amalie, daughter of Prince Maximillian and the Princess of Parma, wrote a total of twelve operas based on her own libretti between 1816 and 1835, the last of which—La Casa Disabitata—was retrieved from an archive in Moscow with rights to a single unstaged performance at a 17th-century Lusthaus in Dresden’s Großer Garten this year. The grounds remain largely untended and the salon unrestored, yet the faded glory provided a fitting context for this mock opera buffa involving an orphan, Annetta, who is given shelter in a vacant house owned by the nobleman Don Raimondo where the poor poet Eutichio has secretly taken refuge. In the end, Raimondo and Annetta are finally able to acknowledge a mutual crush, while Eutichio and his wife Sinforosa also overcome their differences.

The plot is somewhat half-baked, and the music can be succinctly described as a rehashed Mozartean farce with shades of Cimarosa and Rossini. Amalie’s attempt to extend the formulaic final coda may reveal a poor grasp of dramatic tension, but at least she had the good taste to resist the lure of courtly indolence by immersing herself in the Mozart-Da Ponte masterpieces. Eutichio even breaks out into a meta-dialogue between Don Giovanni and the Commendatore before Annetta bursts in with her new keys while the poet waves a plastic pistol in his defense. As Eutichio, Matthias Henneberg was a bit of the sore thumb in a cast of otherwise budding young singers as he struggled to tailor his mature bass to the small resonant space. The lyric soprano Anja Zügner gave a stand-out performance as Annetta; Tehila Nini Goldstein (Sinforosa), Allen Boxer (Callisto, the house caretaker) and Ilhun Jung (Raimondo) also displayed fine musicianship to accompaniment by the Dresdner Kapellsolisten under Helmut Branny.

Just around the bend from the grassy promenades of the Großer Garten sits the monumental ‘Gläsener Manufaktur,’ a largely transparent glass and steel complex erected in 2002 that serves not only as a Volkswagon production plant but an event space. On a small stage beneath suspended half-built sedans with their engine parts exposed (call it factory chic), violiniste du jour Patricia Kopatchinskaja joined with both her parents and two other friends for an evening of gypsy-inspired music from Bartok to Ravel. The contrast of her father’s 120-year-old cimbalom with the industrial surroundings and the faint sound of a machine whirring (apparently an air-conditioner to counteract the heat produced in manufacture) was somewhat jarring for this listener, and Kopatchinskaja’s correction to the program notes that this music should not be considered ‘coffee house’ fare despite the fact that she hopes we can all drink coffee through the economic crisis only drove home the irony, but her ensemble’s spirited, authentic musicianship eventually created a world of its own, culminating in an encore of the full quintet performing to the Balkan dance melody “Hora Stacato.”

Back in the center of town a few days earlier, Steven Devine conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and English tenor Ian Bostridge in an all-Bach program at the Frauenkirche. The acoustics of the church were a bit too fractious for the clear textures of the period ensemble—a colleague noted an approximately four-second reverb—yet the musicians increasingly settled into the space with their signature elegance. Bostridge, opening with a dedication to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, gave a tender account of the cantata “Ich habe genug,” although the transcription for tenor did not always flatter his instrument. His timbre found a better match in an aria from the cantata “Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl” in which he also revealed impeccable breath control. As no festival would be complete without educational activities, Kristian Järvi was busy rehearsing his Baltic Youth Orchestra together with the MDR Symphony, where he will take over as music director next season. The young musicians, joined by a few professional members, displayed great potential in a performance of Mahler’s Bach Suite at the city’s event space “Messe Dresden,” followed by the MDR in a clean but sorely rushed interpretation of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony.

Vogler, upholding his commitment to diverse programming, joined Valery Gergiev and the Marinsky Orchestra for his first performance of Honegger’s Cello Concerto, an approximately 16-minute gem that weaves together expressive neo-Romantic lyricism, shades of Gerschwin, and early twentieth-century angst. Vogler shaped the cantilenas expertly and nailed the fast runs of the final movement. Despite the sharply accented style of the Marinsky, Gergiev provided deferential accompaniment, and the music’s precise architecture emerged gracefully. As an encore, Vogler offered a movement from Bach’s Cello Suite in C-major, the lower range of his instrument singing with particular clarity of expression. The concerto was flanked by a somewhat clunky reading of Bartok’s “Miraculous Mandarin” (many noted that Gergiev’s nose never left the score) and Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben,” which vacillated between the brash and the serene. The orchestra silenced all criticism in an encore of Lyadov’s “The Enchanted Lake,” creating a pianissimo as rich and placid as is earthly possible.

The Dresdener Musikfestspiele has tapped a wealth of potential with a new festival orchestra joining players from top period ensembles such as the Academy of Ancient Music, Concentus Musicus Wien and Il Giardino Armonico, which premiered under Ivor Bolton just after I’d made my way back to Berlin. Vogler also let on that Britten’s centenary will receive some deserved attention next year (the Semperoper has no plans to the effect), including the “War Requiem” with Andris Nelsons and the Birmingham Symphony. Dresden can of course also boast its share of extra-musical attractions, which will surely continue to work to the festival’s advantage. The Alte Gemälde Galerie boasts striking paintings of an intact city by the Venetian artist Canaletto, a sizeable collection of Dutch masters and just launched an exhibit with Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” at its centerpiece. The local wine industry, despite its northern location, produces a Gold Riesling on par with Alsatian vineyards. As it happens, the Herald Tribune ran a travel story last week about Dresden’s move away from its communist past (always a newsworthy bit) and toward a vibrant cultural life: perhaps the Elbe is indeed bringing in fresh wind again.

Korngold replaces Golijov; Double-Portrait of Nancarrow and Vivier

Friday, May 4th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

While Berlin can boast its share of world premieres, the cancellation of Oswaldo Golijov’s Violin Concerto with Leonidas Kavakos and the Philharmonic last month dealt a blow to what would have been one of the most exciting events of the season. Even though the announcement came as little surprise given that he failed to finish the work for its originally-intended Los Angeles premiere in May of last year, the timing was particularly inauspicious in the wake of an internet debate over the allegation that the composer borrowed too heavily for his orchestral piece “Siderus,” performed by the Eugene Symphony in March.

As proven by Korngold’s Violin Concerto, which replaced Golijov’s mysteriously missing piece in a program flanked by Ravel and Strauss, borrowing from oneself may be a better bet. Korngold, an Austro-Hungarian-born composer whose talent is considered by some to have been in a class with Mozart, wisely left the continent in 1934 to write for Hollywood upon the invitation of fellow Austrian director Max Reinhardt and continued to do so through the end of the Second World War. His Concerto, marking a return to absolute music, recycles melodies from his own film scores to unique effect.

The soaring opening theme is lifted from the film Another Dawn (1937, the same year in which Korngold originally drafted the concerto) and the closing draws from another Warner Brothers film, The Prince and the Pauper (also 1937). Kavakos, seen with Gustavo Dudamel at the podium of the Philharmonie on April 26, opened the piece with a silken tone and expressive line that left little to be desired, yet he revealed an unfortunate tendency to rush as he launched into the music’s rapid, climbing passages, sweeping Dudamel and the orchestra with him through what is intended as a Moderato movement.

The dreamy inner Andante movement was kept transparent and melting, although Kavakos suffered from slight intonation problems through these slower passages. The violinist brought irreproachable technical virtuosity to the daunting runs and stratospheric flageolets of the Allegro finale—in which his rushed energy was less conspicuous than in the opening movement—yet his studied approach detracted from the piece’s dramatic nature. This is after all a score that calls John Williams to mind as easily as Zemlinsky; simply opening his body to the audience with more thespian poise would have made all the difference.

Following the concerto was another work with strong cinematic associations ever since Stanley Kubrick adopted its fanfare for his classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The rising trumpet theme and rumbling double basses that open Strauss’ tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra has become almost a cliché, yet Dudamel and the Berlin Philharmonic showed how thrilling a live performance of this music can be. The rich, full-bodied strings and gravitas underscored the authority this orchestra still brings to German repertoire despite the international direction Sir Simon Rattle has introduced. The fluidity with which individual players communicate—it is often said that they are a bunch of soloists who happen to sit in an orchestra together—was made particularly clear though the fugal development in “Von der Wissenschaft.” Dudamel did not let the energy slack for an instant. Concert Master Daniel Stabwara brought just the right Slavic grace to the waltz melody of the penultimate episode, “Das Tanzlied“.

Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye, a suite based on children’s fairy tales, opened the program on a less gripping note. Despite impeccably pure textures (two horns provide the only brass in the scoring) and elegant melodic flow, Dudamel did not given enough accent to the dramatic vignettes that emerge within these dreamy episodes. The exchange between ‘beauty and the beast’ in the waltz movement—culminating in prancing winds and a brooding bass bassoon—was nearly lost in the mirage-like texture. The strings were also not at their most even in the closing pianissimi of the final “Jardin féerique”; both Stabwara and Dudamel could have led with a firmer hand.

Laboratorium makes Berlin debut in Nancarrow and Vivier

Reaffirming the German capital’s embrace of curious programming, Deutschland Radio hosted the Swiss chamber ensemble Laboratorium with the local conductor Manuel Nawri in a ‘double-portrait’ entitled Ferne Welten (Distant Worlds) exploring works by Conlon Nancarrow and Claude Vivier. The chamber music hall of the Philharmonie was disturbingly empty at the opening concert on May 1, which may have to do with the fact that the event was only publicized with small posters, or that the composers—both Einzelgänger (‘mavericks’ or ‘loners’ depending on your translation), in the words of moderator Holger Hettinger—have yet to enter a wider vocabulary. As Alex Ross points out on The Rest is Noise, attention to the centennial of Nancarrow’s birth this year has been surprisingly scarce.

Empty seats aside, it was refreshing to see the young musicians, who met at the Lucerne Festival Academy in 2004, champion Nancarrow in inventive arrangements of his studies for player piano (written by American ensemble member and trombonist Patrick Crossland). The most effective was Study Nr.7, scored for strings, trombone, trumpet, clarinet, marimba and piano, capturing the frenzied quality and rich polyrhythmic patterns of the original work while assigning much of the jazziness to bass and cello. The brief Study Nr.14 was played in a quartet of bass, cello, viola and violin—almost drawing too much attention to fragmented nature of Nancarrow’s melodies in this slower piece. The tango- and flamenco-inspired rhythms of Study Nr.6, scored for brass, percussion, and strings, were more dance-like and less biting than in the original conception for player piano (which can be heard here).

Nancarrow of course also wrote for humans sometimes, and the program featured two of his three Canons for Ursula (dedicated to the pianist Ursula Oppens). These are not canons in the traditional sense, rather an interplay of the same melody at different speeds. The works include rapid, mechanized patterns that lend live performances a somewhat creepy quality, yet Nancarrow also gives us glimpses into his rebellious personality, such as the mad walking bass in Canon A, or the playful sweep of the hand across the keyboard in Canon B. Artur Avanesov gave a tight, focused performance.

Much as Nancarrow fled the U.S. for Mexico to pursue an independent set of ideals, the Canadian Vivier had an uprooted, nomadic lifestyle that some trace back to the fact that he was adopted at age three. Pulau Dewata (‘Island of the Gods’), performed in Laboratorium’s own arrangement for oboe, trumpet, trombone, marimba, violin, violin, cello and two melodicas, is an homage to the composer’s séjour in Bali, with Reichian-like textures that were inspired by Vivier’s time with a Gamelan orchestra.

The program opened with his theatrical chamber work Greeting Music, in which the players walk on-and offstage “like zombies,” according to Vivier’s instructions. Grief and alienation lurk beneath deceptively simple thirds and octaves, with grating textures such as a scrubbing cello and scraping against a gong. When the cellist (Markus Hohti) laughs mockingly, the listener is infected with a sense of malaise. The ensemble also performed the ceremonial yet ghostly Et je reverrai cette ville étrange, which explores the feelings of returning to a well-known place after having not been there for a long stretch of time. Vivier opens and closes the piece with a meditative melody; in the inner movements, suspended textures of imperceptible strings, piano, celeste and covered trumpet yield to ethereal pentatonic.

Although Vivier forged his own path in a journey of self-discovery through the Eastern world, only to end up tragically murdered in a Paris apartment, it is hard to place his music in the same category as Nancarrow. Whether or not one is drawn to the stubborn persistence with which the player piano prince dedicated himself to what is now an obsolete instrument, few composers have shown the same degree of defiance toward surrounding trends and developed such an unmistakably individual yet highly complex language. Perhaps it was this led Ligeti to declare Nancarrow the “most important living composer” in 1980.