Posts Tagged ‘Commentary’

Five More Years

Wednesday, February 21st, 2018

Munich’s City Council, or Stadtrat, in January 2018

Published: February 21, 2018

MUNICH — Putting box-office steadiness ahead of artistic achievement, the city council here voted this morning to extend by five years Valery Gergiev’s contract as Chefdirigent of the civically run Munich Philharmonic, as requested by the orchestra’s managers. The move doubles the Russian’s tenure, to encompass the seasons 2020–25. No salary was disclosed, as usual, but past reports have shown €800,000 as an annual figure.

Matthias Ambrosius, spokesman for the musicians, and clarinetist, noted in writing that the “vast majority” of MPhil players had wanted to lengthen the collaboration with Gergiev. Nonetheless it is widely understood that the managers’ request stemmed from a desire to ease dislocation of the orchestra in 2020, when a massive project to reconfigure its Gasteig home begins. Gergiev will in this sense be doing the city a favor, gamely cooperating for seasons at a temporary concert hall.

Photo © Landeshauptstadt München

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Concert Hall Design Chosen

Friday, October 27th, 2017

Architectural design winner for Munich’s future Konzerthaus

Published: October 27, 2017

MUNICH — Though it will be built on the wrong side of the wrong train station, Munich’s much-debated, much-delayed new concert hall crept toward reality today with the announcement of a winning design. Bregenz-based Cukrowicz Nachbaur Architekten secured first place in the competition for the venue, now dubbed “Münchner Konzerthaus” (instead of “Konzertsaal München” or “Neues Odeon”), said Bavaria’s Interior Ministry. A 25-person jury reviewed thirty-odd designs yesterday and this morning at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater before reaching its decision. Details will be given tomorrow at a news conference; seating capacity may be stated as 1,800 with project cost at €300 million.

All being well, which is saying a lot in this city on this subject, a bulbous glassy prism with its top planed off will as early as 2019 start to rise just east of Munich East train station on blighted land long home to a Knödel factory. In it symphonic music will be played to audiences larger than at the Herkulessaal and with better acoustics than at the Gasteig, Munich’s two problematic existing halls. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra will for the first time in its seven-decade history have a home.

But things going smoothly won’t change the location. Questions that have been asked since the site was announced two years ago — out of the blue, in a political about-face after it seemed the whole new-hall idea had been killed by Bürgermeister Dieter Reiter and Bavaria’s Minister-Präsident Horst Seehofer, and following twenty years of consideration of some half-dozen other sites — are stark and tinged with disbelief that a prime location was not feasible. Will people want to travel outside Munich’s historic core for art music? Will concertgoers coming into town from the suburbs want to change trains at Munich Central Station, ride five stops to Munich East, another hub, and then walk 200 meters further east? One would think not. The very benefit of siting the new hall in this drab place, that it could be built expeditiously, may limit its success.

Illustrations © Hans-Joachim Wuthenow

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Magelone-Romanzen on Disc

Monday, October 16th, 2017

Brahms, Tieck, Gerhaher, Huber and Walser

Published: October 16, 2017

MUNICH — Sony has released a remarkable recording of Brahms’s Magelone-Romanzen, Op. 33, complete with Zwischentexte prepared by German author Martin Walser. Christian Gerhaher sings the fifteen songs and recites two of the other three poems (the 1st, 16th and 17th) from Ludwig Tieck’s 1797 narrative not set to music. Walser, 87 at the time of the recording, reads his own choice of eloquent, plain words, condensing Tieck’s eighteen-section prose while still advancing the tale and earmarking each song, as Brahms would have expected. Between the two of them, the German language has never sounded more beautiful. Gerold Huber accompanies. Sessions stretched over five days, at Bayerischer Rundfunk here, an indication of the care taken. This 93-minute, 2-CD release, with booklet essay and Romanze texts in German only, has EAN 088985 3110223 and ASIN B01NA7L2AN and must be distinguished from the widely reviewed single-disc issue omitting Walser’s work. Essential listening.

Images © StadtMuseum Bonn, 1865 wood engraving after a drawing (Brahms); 1838 oil on canvas by Joseph Karl Stieler (Tieck); Gregor Hohenberg (Gerhaher); Marion Koell (Huber); Philippe Matsas (Walser)

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Staatsoper Favors Local Fans

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Stage of the National Theater, home of Bavarian State Opera, in Munich

Published: February 22, 2017

MUNICH — Bavarian State Opera had a delicate problem. It was selling too many tickets online, more with each passing season. Its system, powered by CTS Eventim, was so robust and so fast that little was left to sell via phone or in person minutes after the 10 a.m. start time on heavy-demand days, causing embarrassment and a sense of unfairness inside its bricks-and-mortar box office, the Tageskasse, off chic Maximilianstraße.

No longer. This season, Germany’s busiest, richest, starriest and arguably best-managed opera company has a cure, one to make any Luddite proud. It does not smash the machines exactly. It instead decries the good system behind them and handicaps the online buyers who use them — seriously, unpredictably, before breakfast. BStO seats below €100 when Anja Harteros or Jonas Kaufmann sing are now all but inaccessible online.

“CTS Eventim’s system sometimes was not up for the amount of people trying to get tickets,” the company claimed in a late-January statement, and buying was “a bit of a lottery.” The system “would throw you out of the purchase process before ending it, which was acceptable neither for the Staatsoper nor for our audience.” Imagine. Computers that sell 100 million tickets annually for 180,000 events get the jitters handling Anja or Jonas.

These flaws and a desire “to make the system more stable,” BStO’s story goes, led to its decision last fall to handicap online buying on certain mornings in 2016–17. How? A delay is “activated” when events in heavy demand go on sale, postponing the moment the buyer “gets access” to the online box office, called in German the Webshop (or occasionally Onlineshop). Phone and in-person selling, meanwhile, proceed as usual from the 10 a.m. start time.

Understandably the opera company has never announced the handicapping, and sources familiar with the Tageskasse scene say CTS Eventim’s system had nothing to do with the decision. The real motive, according to these sources, is to try to replicate online the speed of the physical line (queue) at the Tageskasse following years of grumbling from people who buy that way, and from staff too. A tug-of-war between Internet users and the bricks-and-mortar crowd has accordingly shifted in favor of the latter.

Out-of-town buyers are the worst hit, having fewer routes to tickets. Bavarians resident outside their capital city — it is the “state” opera after all — and fans of the renowned company as far away as East Asia and North America greatly rely on the Webshop.

The disadvantage is not new at BStO. Indeed the artificial online delays effectively bring to the main season the same narrow price availability for out-of-towners they have long experienced with BStO’s 142-year-old summer Munich Opera Festival. Tickets for the festival are first sold in snowy January in person only, and the lower four of eight price categories — roughly, seats below €100 for major performances — sell out this way when the biggest stars are scheduled, months before online ticketing starts.

Countless customers were surprised by the handicap on Jan. 12, 14, 18, 22, 30 and Feb. 2 while trying to buy tickets for Philipp Stölzl’s new production of Andrea Chénier, due March 12 and starring — gosh — both Harteros and Kaufmann. All performances were affected on those selling mornings, corresponding to BStO’s two-month lead time.

Surprised, and confused actually. The handicap throws up two screens in place of the Webshop. First, a countdown page, labeled with the quaint metaphor “waiting room” to dupe people into thinking the system is too burdened to process their order. This assigns a wait number, which ironically turns out to be far from “stable.” Then comes a standby page, for buyers whose number has dropped to 0 (zero) before the Webshop opens, i.e. before 10 a.m. — a strange situation, one might think, but the only one with potential to yield broad ticket choice.

Not-so-hypothetical scenarios:

  A in Augsburg

Unaware of the handicap, she logs on at 9:55 a.m. She faces not her expected Webshop but the countdown page. (She would be there regardless of what event and date she is pursuing. The whole operation is impacted that morning because one heavy-demand performance is going on sale.)

She has of course no idea when the handicap was activated. (The answer could be 6 a.m., about when a physical line might start outside the Tageskasse.) But she is less troubled than buyers who may have purposefully stopped work in Tokyo or climbed out of bed in Boston.

She sees 29 lines of precise instructions auf Deutsch, unless she has opted for English screens, in which case she sees a remarkably compressed version of just five lines. (The complete English is here.) Key instruction: “Do not refresh.” Below, she reads her wait number: a high one, 400. Her chances are nil, but she doesn’t know this. She ties herself up for an hour before learning.

  N in Nuremberg

Logs on at 5:55 a.m. She is too early and goes straight into the normally functioning Webshop. She assumes she can just wait there until 10 a.m. But no. She must refresh the screen every twelve minutes or be disabled for inactivity. No instructions say this because the system was in normal mode when she entered. (To see them, she would have had to arrive via the countdown page and witness her wait number drop to 0 before 10 a.m.)

When she casually returns to the screen at 9:30 a.m., she discovers the Webshop inactive for her. She reloads. Now she is on the countdown page with number 200. Again no chance.

  R in Regensburg

Fares better. He logs on at 6:15 a.m., apparently just after the handicap was activated. He lands on the countdown page with number 10. Like A, he is told not to refresh. He obeys. Later, but before 10 a.m., his number drops to 9, then 7. He wonders how this could be. No orders are being processed. (Possible answer: people on the standby page are failing to refresh and losing their place.)

But for him to succeed, his number must drop to 0 by 10 a.m. Otherwise, whether he’s at 400 or 4, he will be stuck on the countdown page during the crucial initial selling minutes.

Luckily he does drop to 0. He is moved to the standby page, a promising but precarious place. There he sees the instruction to refresh that N missed. He must do this every twelve minutes until 10 a.m. If he has arrived on the standby page early, say at 7:15 a.m., he will be doing a lot of refreshing. Should he fail — just once — he will find himself back on the countdown page holding a high number. (Anja and Jonas never wanted it that way.)

When the hour rolls around and the handicap ends, he must be ready, as in the past, to point and click with decisiveness and accuracy. His seats are secure only when they appear in his Einkaufswagen, the shopping cart.

A, N, and R may be imagined. The following numbers are real, recorded during the Jan. 18 handicap on Andrea Chénier ticketing in checks using two browsers and two connections:

Logging on at 10:24 a.m., a wait number of 688 with 170 seats left to sell. Three minutes later, wait number 346 with 130 seat left. At 10:43 a.m., number 179 with 38 seats. At 10:54 a.m., number 40 with 19 seats. After another five minutes, access to the Webshop with 4 seats shown as available. By 11:04 a.m., 2 seats left but neither one of them moveable into the shopping cart. At 11:07 a.m., sold out, Ausverkauft. Despite this, a new buyer could log on at 11:10 a.m. and receive wait number 382, which would drop to 0 six minutes later and lead to an empty Webshop.

Bavarian State Opera should end this nonsense. The company is damaging its reputation and working against its own carefully evolved ticket structure and sales procedures, designed to draw people of all income levels from a broad geography.

Those procedures sell tickets three ways: subscription; single-event by written order; and single-event by immediate fulfillment. The latter two are processed on a staggered basis according to performance date. Written orders (traditional mail, fax, email) are worked three months out. Immediate-fulfillment sales (online, phone, physical presence in the Tageskasse) begin two months out.

Each single-event method draws on fixed set-asides, or Kontingente, of seats in the 2,100-seat National Theater. These are broken down across BStO’s eight price categories and to within specific seating blocks, to as few as two seats, allowing near-total price and seat choice for each method. Quite sophisticated. And really quite fair, at least in the case of written orders. Even without handicapping, though, buyers outside Munich have less access to the immediate-fulfillment set-asides: getting to the Tageskasse may not be possible, and phoning is hard when there is heavy demand. Naturally they depend on the Webshop — and their hot connections, firm wrists, pinched fingertips and nanosecond nerves.

CTS Eventim, far from warranting criticism, could be held up as a most capable and user-friendly ticketer. Certainly its system offers an easier buyer interface, more precise seat sectioning, and lower fees, than that of the larcenous near-monopoly Stateside.

Instead of blaming its vendor, the opera company needs to go back to the future and solve its delicate Tageskasse problem with rigor and honesty. This means two things: adjustments to the Kontingente to reasonably protect in-person buyers; and an announcement of the change. Any tactic resulting in Internet screens that mislead buyers and waste their time, or too weird to spell out in a news release, is a bad one.

Photo © Wilfried Hösl

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Muti the Publisher

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

Verdi opera recordings from Rome conducted by Riccardo Muti

Published: October 29, 2016

RAVENNA — Imprints, sub-brands, and discreet licensing entities were once a way for artists with bargaining power to secure fatter stakes in the published output of their work. Among conductors, Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Nikolaus Harnoncourt enjoyed the privilege.

Are such endeavors still viable, given social media and the glutted commercial market for sound and video recordings? One artist who is surely finding out is Riccardo Muti. Some years ago he set up RMM, or RM Music Srl, here on the neat stone alley linking Dante’s tomb with Teatro Alighieri, main venue of the Ravenna Festival.

This is, sources say, a family business intended to provide income streams into the future for the maestro’s children: Francesco, 45, an architect; Chiara, 43, actress and stage director; and Domenico, 37, laureato in legge and in charge of contracts.

Holding “all the image and recording rights of Riccardo Muti,” no less, RMM produces, publishes, and licenses on its own account and in association with such names as Corriere della Sera and CSO Resound — the former an Italian daily newspaper, the latter a nine-year-old Chicago Symphony Orchestra “response to the upheaval in the music industry.”

Unlike those departed maestros coddled by Bertelsmann, Sony or Universal, Muti is charting an autonomous, probably arduous, path involving rights-retention, brand-building, and deal-adjusted marketing strategies. On its own, RMM lacks clout. In association with others, it must permit assorted offerings and suffer faults in packaging and distribution.

Worthy products bearing RMM’s stamp-like logo face the same hurdles to profitability nowadays confronting the conglomerates, on less publicity. It is practically a secret, for instance, that three new Muti-led Verdi opera recordings arrived on the market this past spring.

Nonetheless RMM operates as cagily as a pure-play licensor, disclosing little online. For this post, it declined an invitation to expound on mission or plans. RCS MediaGroup, which runs the newspaper and calls RMM a “partner,” said it had to confer before confirming the success of a lengthy recent operazione congiunta, and in the end could not.

The conductor began discernibly to tighten control over recordings of his work after Decca’s DVD release of the 2006 Salzburg Die Zauberflöte. This was and remains his last new release on a “major” label, a remarkable halt considering his eminence.

Rights started to move to RMM almost certainly through revised clauses in Muti’s engagement contracts, including those with orchestras, opera companies and festivals whose output is broadcast using public money.

The pace of Muti releases then slowed. In the nine years through last December, only a handful of new orchestral discs appeared, and only three opera issues — a 2008 Salzburg Otello DVD on the lately launched C Major label; a 2011 Otello audio CD set from Chicago; and Mercadante’s I due Figaro, recorded in 2011 for Ducale.

More recently, though, any instinct to restrict supply has given way to pragmatism. RMM products have grown in number despite market conditions. (The glut was not in any case constraining promoters of less bankable artists, or issuers of pirate Muti discs.) Even with these, however, an attractive backlog remains of unreleased broadcast recordings of the conductor’s work.

RMM as a standalone label tends toward specialty discs, many featuring the Orchestra Cherubini, based here. An 11-hour DVD set of orchestral rehearsals, led in Italian and wide-ranging in repertory, will be among the most prized of these long-term. Packaged in saintly white, it sells for €99. Then there is a 100-minute documentary about conducting Verdi; “assolutamente trascinante,” reads one plaudit.

The lineup, RMM-produced, can be sampled and acquired on the company’s website, but not, pointedly, at the ubiquitous online retailer or through channels outside Italy.

Of RMM’s deals, one with Warner Classics presumably earns revenue. The 2013 Verdi documentary, filmed in Chicago and Rome and directed by Gabriele Cazzola, fittingly caps the American company’s new single-box reissue of all eleven of Muti’s former EMI Verdi opera sets. This represents something of a bargain, at about $75, under a dark and piercing RMM cover image.

RMM’s largest project has been with the Corriere’s distribution arm: a €317 collection of 32 Muti titles (roughly 50 CDs) chosen by the artist himself and classically presented in black and bronze. Finalized in August after a 32-week rollout, it carries the banner La musica è la mia vita.

It is also, alas, a jumble. Most of the discs are reissues stretching as far back as 1970s concerto recordings with Sviatoslav Richter and the old Aida with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Later efforts from Philadelphia and Vienna occupy much space. Inevitably many collectors will already own parts of the set.

Yet hidden in the huge box are three legitimate new Verdi opera recordings that would once have caused a global stir. They originate in strongly cast live performances during the Verdi bicentennial year of 2013 at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma:

Nabucco, with Tatiana Serjan (as Abigaille), Sonia Ganassi (Fenena), Francesco Meli (Ismaele), Luca Salsi (Nabucco) and Riccardo Zanellato (Zaccaria);

I due Foscari, the most recent of seventeen Verdi operas now in Muti’s repertory, with Serjan (Lucrezia), Meli (Jacopo) and Salsi (Francesco); and

Ernani, with Serjan (Elvira), Meli (Ernani), Salsi (Carlo) and Ildar Abdrazakov (Silva).

Rome’s production of the biblical opera had made news two years earlier when Muti lectured Italy’s politicos — President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi each attended at least once — on the perils of low cultural subsidies. Halting one performance, he related Italy’s destiny to the “beautiful and lost” Jewish homeland before indulging the house in a leaden Và, pensiero, sull’ali dorate sing-along.

Aptly enough for a newspaper company, Corriere della Sera’s slow rollout took place on newsstands across this country, allowing buyers to skip unwanted titles if they could do without the “unedited little book of [Muti] memories and anecdotes” included in the set.

Cost per title: a modest €10.90, whether one, two, or, for Guillaume Tell in Italian, four discs. News vendors on Piazza dei Caduti and Piazza del Popolo here reported sales of “tanti” discs and “un successo,” evidently freer to speak than RCS MediaGroup.

At the Corriere’s online store, shipping can be arranged worldwide. But product details are missing. Shoppers see only the front covers and a footnote about the recording source. The new Verdi items come up without casts.

With the Chicago orchestra, RMM has weaker terms. The CSO made clear this month that it holds sole copyright in CSO Resound recordings and that RMM’s stamp, present by agreement on five of its published titles, indicates no financial participation by the Muti family entity. Nor is the label intended to function as a profit center within the umbrella CSO nonprofit, the orchestra said.

RMM-branded discs and downloads on CSO Resound are a motley array, no doubt reflecting goals and realities other than Muti’s artistic emphases as Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director.

Issued: a Berlioz pairing of Symphonie fantastique with Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie (2010, much delayed); Schönberg’s Kol Nidre coupled with Shostakovich’s Suite on Verses of Michelangelo (2012, much delayed); Mason Bates’ symphony Alternative Energy and Anna Clyne’s “sonic portrait” Night Ferry (2012); numbers from the first two of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet suites (2013); and Bates’ Anthology of Fantastic Zoology (2015).

Those realities have to do with how orchestras raise funds in the U.S. — meaning conditions or incentives attendant on specific subsidizing grants and gifts — and naturally whether a product is considered saleable. The Zoology item has sold relatively well, the CSO said, without providing figures.

Having no stake, managers at RMM have no reason to care about CSO Resound repertory, but other observers away from South Michigan Avenue — and record buyers — must wonder at the lack of music from the Classical period, where Muti excels. His discerning Schubert, for example. Moreover the CSO would not confirm it will issue the Verdi Macbeth it recorded in 2013, or Falstaff, basketed a few months ago.

As for RMM’s stamp, it appears merely “in support of [Muti] and his wider activities around the world,” explained the orchestra with lawyerly reticence. (It is omitted from two Verdi issues on CSO Resound, the mentioned Otello and a recording of the Requiem Mass made before Muti assumed his post.)

CSO Resound gives RMM visibility Stateside and has good distribution, using multiple online retailers for disc and download versions of most titles.

The label’s packaging, on the other hand, with crude typography and slipshod billing, cannot match RMM products created in Italy. Take the Berlioz disc. Finally released in 2015, five years after being recorded, its cover declares “Chicago Symphony” three times, plus “CSO”; lists the conductor before the orchestra, then the soloists, whose names are separated by a slash, and chorus; and allows the most noteworthy item, Lélio, to get lost essentially.

Muti the publisher, then, faces a host of hurdles. For RMM to be viable, never mind guarantee long-term family income, it needs all elements pulling in its favor. It must balance the pros and cons of independence against those of joint ventures while avoiding unforced errors such as caginess, intentional product delays and narrowed distribution.

At a glance, its best prospects lie in content from tax-supported broadcasts, as newly marketed. WFMT, WQXR, Italy’s RAI and Austria’s ORF have all aired the conductor’s work since 2006, filmed or taped. Standards are high, and in terms of production the output is largely ready for release — ready, but at present held up and falling to pirates.

Listing just operas, and not counting items discussed above, RMM may have “recording rights” in: Il ritorno di Don Calandrino (Salzburg) and Sancta Susanna (New York), from 2007; Così fan tutte and Don Pasquale (both Vienna), 2008; Iphigénie en Aulide (Rome) and Moïse et Pharaon (Salzburg), 2009; Attila (New York) and Orfeo ed Euridice (Salzburg), 2010; Macbeth (Salzburg), 2011; Simon Boccanegra (Rome), filmed in 2012; and Manon Lescaut (Rome), 2014 audio.

There is a solid if limited market on DVD or CD for this body of work, and one instinctively wishes the family venture every success in using the associated rights, even if the era has likely ended when imprints could assure fortunes.

That said, Riccardo Muti’s personal priority may be something else: legacy. His own, and more emphatically the artistic traditions he values. Hence the not necessarily lucrative documenting of preparation and rehearsal methods in RMM productions. It is no coincidence his Italian Opera Academy is headquartered on the same alley.

Images © RM Music Srl and RCS MediaGroup

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Concert Price Check

Saturday, September 3rd, 2016

Gangplanks to the Konzertsaal inside the Kultur- und Kongresszentrum in Lucerne

Published: September 3, 2016

MUNICH — Visiting orchestras cost more for concertgoers. But why exactly? Several factors govern ticket prices on tours, often mitigating each other, and all have a bearing this month as three orchestras from this city hit the road:

Bavarian State Orchestra (BStO) with Kirill Petrenko, general music director
Munich Philharmonic (MPhil) with Valery Gergiev, chief conductor
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BRSO) with Daniel Harding, guest conductor

Here at home these orchestras cost as follows, sampling the top prices for a regular concert without subscriber discount: BStO in the National Theater, U.S. $78; MPhil in the Gasteig, $68; BRSO in the Herkulessaal, $73. Tickets in all price categories include bus and train fares to and from the venue within a 25-mile radius.

Government subsidy, at the federal, state, and in the MPhil’s case city levels, holds down prices to ensure that all Munich audiences can afford to attend. It does not necessarily vanish on tour, at least not within Europe.

For instance, at Berlin’s Musikfest this month, a six-hour drive from here, you would pay a reasonable and consistent top price of $100 for the visiting BStO, MPhil or BRSO, with subsidy applying both to the festival and, federally, to the three German orchestras.

Lack of subsidy may seem to explain exorbitant prices at Lucerne’s Sommer-Festival in Switzerland. Or is a profit motive kicking in? Actually a third factor causes them: currency exchange and the robust Swiss franc. Lucerne, just four hours by road from Munich, wants $245 and $296 for the BStO and MPhil, respectively.

That last detail raises the issue of perceived worth. Why would Lucerne charge a premium for one Munich orchestra over another when Berlin prices all three equally? For that matter, why does Berlin ask more for visiting orchestras than for its own Konzerthaus-Orchester (at a $69 top, staying with the “regular concert without subscriber discount” benchmark) or Berlin Philharmonic ($84) when subsidy applies?

The concert presenter directly, and the concertgoer ultimately, places a value on an orchestra in part as a function of geography. In the small Swiss city but not in the German capital, Gergiev’s orchestra (or Gergiev) is valued more highly than Petrenko’s (or Petrenko). In Berlin, people are willing to pay more to hear out-of-town musicians, a flip side to familiarity breeding contempt.

Price-comparing assumes events have been priced to sell out, and sell out at roughly the same pace. Which in turn assumes presenters know their job. They may. But objectively the worth of an orchestra cannot rise or fall by the tour stop.

If beauty is in the ear of the beholder, the Milanese are more attuned than most. So say Teatro alla Scala’s managers by setting a top of $162 for the BStO’s concert there — far below Lucerne prices yet still double the tag at home. Low government funding in Italy helps shape their thinking, rather than any attempt to gouge, though it will make La Scala’s big platea hard to fill.

Otherwise prices vary against a mental cushion: presenters’ realistic belief that ticket buyers will allow for some unknown but fair travel expense being passed along to them, unaware whether such expense has been covered by grants. Traveling more widely than the other orchestras this time, the BStO costs $94 in Paris, $107 in Vienna and $117 in Luxembourg.

Back in Germany on dates in between those stops, the limited revenue potential of relatively small halls may explain BStO top prices in the range of $118 to $144 for Bonn, Dortmund and Frankfurt. Either that, or someone is profiting, an alien notion when the very existence of orchestras requires subsidy.

Presenters of visiting orchestras are indeed on occasion out to make money, just as they do with non-classical artists. NBS in Tokyo has been a world-renowned price-gouger. In Munich the busy presenter MünchenMusik often prices aggressively. There are several more.

What of three Munich orchestras touring at the same time? Music contracts here commonly run “Sept. 1 to Aug. 31,” with the summer months tail-ending the term ostensibly to provide time off. In practice this structure brings chances to earn extra income at festivals instead. September becomes an odd month: the musicians need a break and audiences are sated from summer performances; the main season is supposed to start yet nobody wants to get down to it. So a window opens for touring.

Photo © KKL Luzern Management AG

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Petrenko Hosts Petrenko

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Kirill Petrenko and Vasily Petrenko

Published: April 22, 2016

MUNICH — Vasily Petrenko’s debut at Bavarian State Opera this weekend prompts a glance at two Russian-born, modestly profiled conductors who have built distinct careers in Western Europe while sharing a last name. The guest from Liverpool will lead Boris Godunov, last revived two years ago by company Generalmusikdirektor Kirill Petrenko.

Inviting Vasily to work in Kirill’s house was sweet, ingenuous. After all, the two Petrenkos are what trademark attorneys call “confusingly similar” marks, a factor that doesn’t vanish just because real names are involved, or because it’s the arts. Are artists products? Their work is, notwithstanding the distance from commerce.

The Petrenkos are not of course the first conductor-brands to overlap, but unlike the Kleibers or Järvis, Abbados or Jurowskis, no disparity of talent or generation neatly separates them. Then, inescapably, there is the matter of dilution: a “Toscanini” needs no specifier.

As it happens, agents have promoted the Petrenkos as if with accidental care over geography. Although both men have enjoyed positive forays Stateside, awareness of them in Europe diverges. For a full decade, Vasily has been the “Petrenko” of reference in Britain. Kirill has been “Petrenko” in Germany.

Kirill has had such minimal renown in Britain, in fact, that retired Bavarian State Opera chief Peter Jonas last summer on Slipped Disc could report the following about the Bavarian State Orchestra’s upcoming European tour: “The [orchestra’s] committee and their management offered themselves to the [BBC] Proms for 2016 … and were sent away with the exclamation, ‘Oh no … . Kirill Petrenko? We do not really know about him over here.’ … The tour will happen all over Europe but without London.” Indeed it will.

In the meantime, Calisto Bieito’s staging of Boris Godunov gets a three-night revival April 23 to 29 with a strong cast: Sergei Skorokhodov’s pretender, Ain Anger’s chronicler and Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s riveting Boris. How will Vasily grapple with the (1869) score? Opera featured prominently in his career only at the start.

  Kirill Vasily
  Кирилл Гарриевич Петренко Василий Эдуардович Петренко
born Feb. 11, 1972, in Omsk — 44 July 7, 1976, in St Petersburg — 39
hair auburn, curly blond, straight
eyes brown gray
height 5 feet 3 inches 6 feet 5 inches
weight (est.) 145 lbs., trim 180 lbs., trim
training Vorarlberg State Conservatory in Feldkirch St Petersburg Conservatory
influences Bychkov, Chung, Eötvös, Lajovic Jansons, Martynov, Salonen, Temirkanov
early job Kapellmeister, Volksoper, Vienna, 1997–99 Resident Conductor, Mikhailovsky Theater, St Petersburg, 1994–97
now Generalmusikdirektor, Bavarian State Opera Sjefdirigent, Oslo Philharmonic; Chief Conductor, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
lives in refused to disclose Birkenhead Park, Merseyside
companionship rumored to have platonically dated soprano Anja Kampe married to Evgenia Chernysheva, choral conductor and music tutor; Sasha (11), Anna (2)
faith private Russian Orthodox
favorite team refused to disclose Zenit St Petersburg (soccer)
diplomacy on Ukraine: “I observe the conditions there with great concern. What is happening there is anything but normal. A political solution [is needed] that does not impinge on Ukraine’s sovereignty.” Speaking at the National Theater, March 6, 2014 on women conductors: “[Orchestras] react better when they have a man in front of them … . A cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things.” Quoted in The Guardian, Sept. 2, 2013
humor while working with Miroslav Srnka on his 2015 opera South Pole: “If the composer is dead, you’d like to ask him questions, but you can’t. If [he] is alive, you can ask him questions, but sometimes you’d prefer he would be already dead.” Reported by Slipped Disc, Jan. 18, 2016 while attempting damage control: “We were saying that because a woman conductor is still quite a rarity … , their appearance [on] the podium, because of the historical background, always has some emotions reflected in the orchestra.” Quoted in The Telegraph, May 8, 2014
distinctions   Honorary Scouser
Echo Klassik Award
achievement survived nine cycles conducting Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth completed a Shostakovich cycle for Naxos
strengths Mussorgsky, Strauss, Elgar, Scriabin, Berg Shostakovich
weakness Donizetti (and probably Verdi)  
what John von Rhein said “Solidity of technique, quality of leadership, depth of musical ideas and ability to strike a firm rapport with [Chicago Symphony Orchestra] members … [determine whether a conductor] stands or falls … . By all these standards [he] sent the needle off the symphonic Richter scale at his first concert.” March 2012 CSO debut “His beat is clear and he has a knack for focusing on the essentials, his long fingers fluttering in a highly expressive manner … . He inspired the [Chicago Symphony Orchestra] to go well beyond its normal megawatt virtuosity, and this made for a blistering account of the Shostakovich [Tenth].” Dec. 2012 CSO debut
  Suk’s Asrael Symphony and Pfitzner’s opera Palestrina for CPO and Oehms Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony and the Shostakovich Cello Concertos with Truls Mørk for Warner and Ondine
career trajectory modest inclination less modest inclination
compass setting north, tardily south, east, west

Placing the two Petrenkos side by side here, like baseball cards, meant compiling at least some personal facts along with the musical. So, three questions went to the conductors’ handlers. How tall is he? Where does he live (part of town)? What’s his favorite sports team?

This proved awkward, however, especially on one side, and hitherto-cordial staffers turned as cool as, well, trademark attorneys. Vasily’s people cooperated with partial answers. Kirill’s, deep inside Bavarian State Opera, stonewalled: “Mr. Petrenko generally does not wish to answer any personal questions.”

As it turned out, Vasily was on record with full answers over the years to all three questions for various media outlets. The man is an open book. This left Kirill’s side with unflattering holes. But the opera company’s hands were tied. Apparently under instructions from the artist, nobody could even confirm he lives in Munich (where he has drawn a paycheck for 30 months already). And he may not.

Bavarian State Opera: “What’s not to understand about ‘Mr. Petrenko does not wish to answer any personal questions’? Who puts out the rule that a conductor … does have to comprehend or be willing to be part of public relations? … So, in fact, we do not want to convey anything to anybody. This is the ‘line to be drawn’ from our side.”

Mention of Vasily went over badly. BStO: “What kind of idea is it anyways to compare two artists because they share the same last name?” Prepared descriptors accompanied the rhetoric: “ridiculous” and a “game.” How not to kill a story.

Shown the data for the above table, the opera company took to sarcasm: “Yes, sure, [inventing] height and weight [measurements] is of course totally acceptable.” But Kirill’s height had become public half a year ago* at ARD broadcaster Deutsche Welle. BStO did not either know this or wish to share the knowledge. Its hapless official scanning DW: “Oh, it’s on the Internet! It’s gotta be true!”

[*Earlier actually: Lucas Wiegelmann included it in an excellent 2014 discussion for Die Welt.]

Photos © Bayerische Staatsoper (Kirill Petrenko), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Vasily Petrenko)

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Six Husbands in Tow

Sunday, March 13th, 2016

Divas due in Munich

Published: March 13, 2016

MUNICH — Some contracts come with strings attached, others with husbands. In a remarkable set of coincident artistic priorities for company boss Nikolaus Bachler — or a broad capitulation — Bavarian State Opera’s 2016–17 season, announced today, features no fewer than six divas in performance with their husbands. Edita Gruberová, Elīna Garanča and Kristine Opolais will star in Roberto Devereux, La Favorite and Rusalka while their other halves conduct. Diana Damrau, Anna Netrebko and Aleksandra Kurzak will headline Lucia di Lammermoor, Macbeth and La Juive while alongside them their spouses sing. In another family tie, Vladimir Jurowski has apparently been allowed to abandon the new Ognenny angel he led (electrically) this season in favor of … his dad. Small wonder 2016–17 is dubbed “Was folgt”: What follows.

Photos © Wiener Staatsoper (Elīna Garanča), Opernhaus Zürich (Anna Netrebko), Bill Cooper for the Royal Opera House (Kristine Opolais), Catherine Ashmore for the ROH (Aleksandra Kurzak, Diana Damrau), Wilfried Hösl (Edita Gruberová)

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Mozartwoche: January’s Peace

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Winter view south-east from the Mönchsberg in Salzburg

Published: February 15, 2016

SALZBURG — There is a pleasure in arriving in Salzburg with snow on the ground. Or maybe the word is reassurance: the city will be real, not a theme park; the people mostly locals, despite the hollowing out of property ownership here; the profile quiet, even intimate, affording a chance to connect with the past. Of Salzburg’s festivals, the snowiest inevitably is Mozartwoche, planned and manned by the Mozarteum to straddle the composer’s birthday, often by more than a week. Last year’s edition achieved a coup by returning horses to the Felsenreitschule, for Davidde penitente as realized by “French equine artist and theatrical genius” Bartabas; next year, managers Marc Minkowski and Matthias Schulz let Bartabas loose on Mozart’s Requiem (Mel Brooks having declined) and promise some thirty concerts besides, including three by the Vienna Philharmonic, with Haydn as “focus composer.”

Mozartwoche 2016, placing Mendelssohn in focus, opened Jan. 22 with spoken words lauding the long contribution of Nikolaus Harnoncourt not only to Mozart’s music but specifically to this festival, where he was again due to conduct before declaring several weeks ago his instant retirement. The packed day teamed Katia et Marielle Labèque with the Mozarteum-Orchester in the morning, continued at 3 p.m. with an András Schiff recital, and ended soberly with Mozart masses at the Großes Festspielhaus led by John Eliot Gardiner. Rewards were many, irritations few.

The matinee sorely needed a conductor to temper dynamics and coordinate the shaping of lines. Where was Ivor Bolton? It began with a Mendelssohn Trumpet Overture (MWV P2, 1826) that knew no piano. Next came Mozart’s E-flat-Major Concerto for Two Pianos (1781) and chronically clunky phrasing by the French sisters; this was redeemed somewhat by a neatly sprung Rondo. Quality rose with a still loud, yet spry, Schauspieldirektor Overture (1786), the music’s inventiveness laid out vividly. The teenage exuberance of Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E Major for Two Pianos (MWV O5, 1823), in conclusion, proved a good match for the Labèques; alas they then imposed a duo encore (and an insipid one, the last of Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos, 2008) to ruin our exit.

The Mozarteum’s Conrad-Graf-Flügel and Walter-Hammerflügel (1839 and 1782) stood side by side on the platform for Schiff’s recital. Mendelssohn came first: the Variations sérieuses (1841) and the F-sharp-Minor Sonate écossaise (1833), played on the later instrument with its charming pearly highs and fuzzy, attenuated lows. Schiff made inspired sense of the lines in both works and bound Mendelssohn’s ideas together expertly without shying from a breakneck pace where needed. The Walter’s clarity and evenness through the range made a stark contrast, its modest sound easy to settle into in this artist’s hands. Ideal tempos and immaculate voicing sustained Mozart’s late major-key sonatas, in C (für Anfänger), B-flat and D; the poise of Schiff’s playing overcame passing glitches.

Gardiner’s highly musical, not especially spiritual, reading of the Große Messe K427 (1783) closely resembled the adjusted Aloys Schmitt reconstruction he recorded in London decades ago. His crisp rhythms and airy textures, and the way these flattered the score’s abundant lyricism, seemed designed to please, as if Mozart had composed the truncated service just for today’s Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. From this listener’s seat, vocal soloists Amanda Forsythe, Hannah Morrison (sopranos), Gareth Treseder (tenor) and Alex Ashworth (bass) could not be seen or properly heard, but the choir, also mostly out of view, sounded disciplined. Orchestrally it was a performance with resilience, wary balances, individual style; veteran sackbuttist ‎Stephen Saunders managed to nod off during Forsythe’s Et incarnatus est, nearly losing his instrument off the riser’s edge. A horseless Mozart Requiem followed the break; for practical reasons we could not stay.

Photo © Tourismus Salzburg

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Poulenc Heirs v. Staatsoper

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

Bavarian State Opera’s 2010 staging of Dialogues des Carmélites

Published: January 7, 2016

MUNICH — Bavarian State Opera will defy the heirs of Francis Poulenc and proceed with revival performances of its literally explosive staging of Dialogues des Carmélites later this month, the company said today.

The 2010 production by Dmitri Tcherniakov departs from the scheme of the composer and the source novelist, Georges Bernanos, in several ways and has been described by the heirs as a “trahison.” Not the least of its transgressions is a substitution in the climactic scene: a deadly gas blast and one self-sacrifice (by Blanche) replace the serial guillotining of the titular nuns laid out graphically in the music.

In a Dec. 23 letter to the Munich company, the heirs demanded that the “rights-infringing staging of the work (ihren Rechten verletzenden Aufführung des Werkes)” be put to “no further use.”

But a slow-won French court victory for the heirs last October constrained only BelAir Classiques and Mezzo TV from, respectively, selling DVDs of the production and screening it. The estates of both Poulenc and Bernanos had begun legal proceedings in October 2012, perhaps not aware of the nature of Tcherniakov’s efforts until BelAir’s DVD release that year. The last onstage revival came, by coincidence, the same month.

Poulenc’s 1956 opera is evidently less tightly controlled, or protected, by his heirs than is, for example, Gershwin’s 21-years-older Porgy and Bess by the American composer’s estate.

In justifying the resolve to proceed, Bavarian State Opera’s Geschäftsführender Direktor Roland Schwab said: “In the context of an earnest grappling with the work, the stage direction must have the freedom to deviate from history. Thus the work is not disfigured, but rather its ideas are depicted from today’s viewpoint.”

The company also noted it had made no alteration to libretto or score. This despite the stripping out of all Christian reference as well as the guillotining from the stage action. BStO Intendant Nikolaus Bachler is a firm, one might say notorious, defender of unfettered Regietheater.

Not only will the show go on, but Bavarian State Opera is supporting BelAir Classiques and Mezzo TV in their appeal of the October court decision, the company said.

Scheduled to sing the opera Jan. 23 to Feb. 1 are Christiane Karg as Blanche, Anna Christy as Constance, Anne Schwanewilms as Lidoine and Stanislas de Barbeyrac as the Chevalier. Susanne Resmark and Sylvie Brunet reprise their roles as Marie and de Croissy on the banned 2010 DVD. Bertrand de Billy conducts.

Photo © Wilfried Hösl

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