Sunday, October 28, 2012

Why I Liked Iago; a review of Verdi's Otello Live-in-HD

in Don Giovanni, so maybe, Verdi indicated through tonal allusion, things are not as they seem.

But Struckmann committed another crime not necessarily written into the score. He stole the show.

Struckmann was able to stretch and shape vowels to make them sound evil. He had the complete repertoire of facial contortions used by any respectable metal singer. He could make sound that was chilly and that could cut through ensembles with authority. Yet, he also brought a vocal agility that made his music seem believable when he needed to befriend and become the confidant of any other character onstage. In this production, Iago was the focal point of all gravity.

Fleming was solid as Desdemona. Her solo scene in Act IV became Verdi inventing Strauss. She has developed both richness and complexity in this role. 

But her effectiveness was limited by Johan Botha as Otello. Part of the concept in both Otello and Othello is that one is supposed to wonder how Desdemona ended up with the moor. Otello should be an outsider, but not because he can't act. 

Host Sondra Radvanovsky announced that Botha was returning to the role after missing the last three performances. His voice held out and was not distracting, though it did not sound as strong and agile as on opening night. But the HD format was not kind to Botha. His range of expression is limited and he was never convincing. The entire third act collapsed on his acting in spite of engaging musicianship in "Dio! mi potevi scagliar." 

He was interviewed during the first intermission break. He had nothing. Radvanovsky asked him what makes the role of Otello such a challenge for a tenor. "I don't know. I don't think about it," said Botha, "I just do it and just enjoy singing it." Yeah, huh.

Fleming tried to help him, "It is so rangy and its so dramatic, and the combination of those two things is rare." And just like this exchange it seemed like Fleming was trying to help him get right onstage also. She couldn't. 

Minus Otello, this Otello would have upgraded.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Stamford Symphony Opened Season with Surprises

The Stamford Symphony opened their 2012-2013 season on October 6 with a program both festive and thoughtful. The event centered on piano soloist Valentina Lisitsa who joined the orchestra for the daunting Piano Concerto No. 3 by Rachmaninoff.

Lisitsa is a fascinating musician. Videos on her YouTube channel are approaching 48,600,000 views. This is rarified air in the classical music world, and it represents a model for grassroots career development in the 21st century. Lisitsa signed with Decca Classics last spring and her latest recording, “Valentina Lisitsa Live at the Royal Albert Hall” is impressive. The opportunity to hear her play live in Stamford was memorable.

Lisitsa wanted a fast tempo for the opening movement of the Rachmaninoff third which allowed the haunted opening tune to sound vocal and song-like. Unlike most pianists, she allowed the tricky figuration that follows to flow in undercurrent as the orchestra restated the tune. Pianists who attempt to project passages like these over the orchestra lose the dimensional qualities that Listisa inhabited. During powerful music, like the culmination of the development, her playing was fierce and vibrant and full of colors. But my favorite passages were in places like the F major secondary theme of the first movement where Lisitsa found an engaging balance between playfulness and passion.

During her preconcert discussion with conductor Eckart Preu, she claimed that the reputation this concert has acquired as “the most difficult piano concerto” comes largely from “Hollywood.” It may be that the movie “Shine” created that particular layer of perception, but the fact remains that the work has many tricky orchestral entrances and it is also exceptionally hard on pianos.

Preu impressed with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in the second half of the event. Sibelius 2 is a work that rewards careful attention and was a good choice for Preu. Several seemingly insignificant textural elements, like the placement of trills, produced rich and often surprising textures. Another example, drawn from many possibilities, was the way that Preu worked with timpanist Benjamin Herman to make the part a prominent element of the unfolding. The second movement opens in the timpani, but Preu kept it prominent even within the dialog often called the “Don Juan theme.” The timpani part was now on our minds and the ending of the finale took on a new significance.
The evening began in high spirits with the Overture to Ruslan & Ludmilla by Glinka. An added surprise not listed on the program was a tribute performance of a charming work called “Lullaby” written by Hans-Peter Preu (Eckart’s brother), and commissioned by Varina Mason Steuert who died in August. Steuert was a long-time member of the Stamford Symphony Board of Directors.

Surprises in the program, in balances within the orchestra, and in presenting a soloist who has set classical music on YouTube on its ear; Stamford Symphony is off to a good start this season.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Greenwich Symphony Opens Season with the Music of Youth

The Greenwich Symphony opened its 54th season last night with a program that celebrated youth.

Mozart was 27 when he stopped in the Austrian town of Linz in 1783. He was travelling back to Vienna with his wife and stayed with some wealthy friends of the family. He wrote his Linz symphony in only four days. Beethoven was 26 years old when he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1, and Ravel wrote his original music for “Ma mère l'oye” (My Mother Goose) as a piano duet for Mimi and Jean Godebski who were age six and seven at the time.

“So much great classical music,” said the GSO conductor and music director David Gilbert, “is written by, and for, and is played by young people. Enjoy and marvel.”

It is not every day that an orchestral concert opens with a symphony, closes with a concerto, and has complete music for a ballet in the middle, and this event ran a little long, but the music was so well chosen and so well crafted by the orchestra that time flew.

The Linz Symphony is music built from phrases with sharp edges. The first movement has very few instances where two consecutive phrases have the same number of measures. This is music of prose rather than the measured flow of verse, and yet the content must sound effortless, delicate and poetic. 

Gilbert is good at Mozart. He kept the orchestra tilted forward so that phrases summed into larger structures that were clear and eloquent. He took the first movement repeat but not in the sonata form second and fourth movements. I liked the rustic Haydnesque stomp of the Menuetto, and the finale spoke with festivity.

We seldom get to hear the complete ballet music for Ma mère l'oye” so this performance was welcome. The preludes and transitions that the ballet music adds to the five familiar movements we hear in the suite develop the trappings of fantasy. They allow us to better enter the magical sound world of Ravel from our digitized time. 

The Linz Symphony used no flute or clarinets, so the color of the flutes that sound at the opening of the Prelude in the “Ma mère l'oye” ballet music were particularly vivid. The expanded percussion, English horn, contrabassoon, and celesta further opened the palate, and created an aural stimulation like a walk through Disneyland. Barbara Allen’s harp playing was particularly clean and vibrant, and the section strings found careful balances to close the work and leave us with a sense of wonderment in the “Fairy Garden.”

After intermission, pianist Angela Cheng joined the orchestra as soloist in the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1. She played the energized side of the music fast and bouncy with lively accents and chiseled figuration. But she played the first movement development with too much sound; it took too long to get the quieted magical texture that is so essential to this passage. Cheng played the infamous “third cadenza.” This is the longest of the three that Beethoven wrote for this work, and it was a perfect vehicle to showcase the intensity of her playing.   

“The virtuosic cadenza,” said Gilbert earlier from the stage, “reminds us of what Beethoven may have done at some of the parties and salons that he played where he hypnotized everybody by his incredible improvisations.” The concerto was well received.

The Greenwich Symphony succeeded. They played the music of youth with the wisdom of experience.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Romantic Frame for L'Elisir d'Amore Live in HD

 (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Developing the "inner linings of the characters." This was how Peter Gelb characterized the insight brought by director Bartlett Sher to this production of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore just moments before the Live-in-HD transmission began.

Sher reframed the opera. Instead of viewing the plot as a collection of red-neck pranks and pratfalls he decided that the comedy saturating the opera could "hook on the spine" of the romance between Adina and Nemorino. This made all of the characters seem more purposeful and dimensional than is typically the case.

Sher allowed staging elements to develop slowly, like musical textures in the Donizetti style. The sets combined elements of painted two-dimensional surfaces and textured three-dimensional dividers, like the dried tall grasses that were pulled into place surrealistically as the final scene unfolded. "The more realistic I was going to make it in the acting," explained Sher, "the more it needed a two-dimensional quality" in the sets. "The music sounded better in painted scenery."

The principals in this production were enjoyable to hear. Matthew Polenzani stilled the hall in frozen amazement with the final phrases of "Una furtiva lagrima," and the HD cameras were able to maintain a facial closeup that was stunning. Thunderous applause broke out in the Met; but also in the theater in which I heard the transmission. This was the tear heard round the world.

Anna Netrebko was charming and I liked the big sound of her voice as it curved into this part. Ambrogio Maestri entertained as Dr. Dulcamara. Maestri is a patter specialist and gave this role an energy that sustained its wit. Mariusz Kwiecien amplified the dramatic elements of Belcore; in fact his Belcore was the kind of character who might have just walked off the set of Don Giovanni.

This production was a great start for this season of HD transmissions. There were a larger than usual number of first-timers (and many younger viewers) in the theater in which I watched the broadcast. Many remarked surprise at how insightful and entertaining the production was, and vowed to return. Live-in-HD broadcasts have developed visual swagger. The appeal was powerful.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Program Notes for Bridgeport Symphony November 17, 2012

Max Bruch
Violin Concerto No. 1
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Max Bruch still needs a good publicist. Outside of a handful of works, his music is seldom played and few people have any sense of his personality. But his music always has a distinctive sound and his works are designed with great formal imagination. His first violin concerto, written in his late 20s, is a work many musicians would rank at or near the top of the pile when considering favorite violin concerti from the 19thcentury.

Bruch named the opening movement "Vorspiel," which means “prelude,” but the word also bears the imprint of operatic influences. It opens with an ominous whispering from the timpani. A soliloquy entrance by the soloist creates a sense of innermost confession that is contrasted by the orchestral gestures that envelope it. The world of opera often contrasts individuals against a collective, and so this concerto is operatic in that sense also.

The soloist plays double stops (two notes at a time) in music of forceful, angered language as the sonata movement commences, but listen for the way that tenderness is woven into the fabric of the music without seams. The close of this movement builds into the most fabulous orchestral tutti in the concerto repertoire—paradoxically the soloist does not play during this passage but afterward revisits the confessional music of the opening as a transition to the second movement.

The second movement adagio brings into focus the special understanding that Bruch had for the human voice. He wrote four operas and numerous works for chorus, but in this movement he treats the violin soloist as if it were a human voice. The music sings to us and dances slowly from the rich darkness of E-flat major.

The triumphal attitude and gypsy flavor of the finale served as a model for the finale of the Brahms violin concerto written ten years after the Bruch Concerto.

If you are moved by this concerto, promise that you will seek out some other works by Bruch. Listen to his three symphonies, to the other two violin concertos, or to his Concerto for Clarinet, Viola, and Orchestra in E minor.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 3 (Eroica)
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony is considered by many writers to be a dividing point in the history of symphonic music. It mapped a pathway for composers to access the realm of sonic philosophy.

Beethoven became fascinated with Napoleon. Legend has it that Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (1763-1844), a successful general in Napoleon’s army who later became king of Sweden and Norway, gave Beethoven the idea for writing a Napoleonic symphony while he was ambassador to Vienna for two months in the winter of 1798.

Beethoven continued to follow the news from France. After a successful coup, Bonaparte and Abbe Sieyes overthrew the French government late in 1799 and created the “Consulate;” which gave power, at least on the surface of things, to a Senate and a Council of Notables. Even though the first significant military action of the Consulate was to defeat the Austrian army in the summer of 1800, Beethoven saw the advance of the Napoleonic cause as having the potential to empower the common man and to end aristocratic governing. Talent, effort and creative ingenuity would win out over birthright in the transactions that comprised the commerce of daily life.

It was in 1803 that Beethoven wrote his third symphony. The manuscript of the score contained an unusual title page. “Not only I,” wrote Beethoven’s student Ferdinand Ries, “but many of Beethoven’s closer friends, saw this symphony on his table, beautifully copied in manuscript, with the word ‘Buonaparte’ inscribed at the very top of the title-page and ‘Luigi van Beethoven’ at the very bottom.”

Ries claimed to be the first to tell Beethoven that Napoleon, in 1804, had declared himself Emperor. With rage Beethoven tore the title page and prophesied that Napoleon would soon “tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; [and] will think himself superior to all men.” Beethoven changed his intended title for the work to “Sinfonia Eroica.”

The work may have changed with regard to its dedication, but it remained heroic across several dimensions. The length and the proportions of each of its movement exceeded all expectations of the time. It required virtuosic technical demands from the orchestra. It spoke in a new language of driving rhythms and extended syncopated accents. This was a symphony of quick textural shifts and unpredictable changes; the music of restlessness. 

The writer Anthony Burgess may be best known for his book “Clockwork Orange,” but he also frequently wrote about classical music. He called his 366-page novel “Napoleon Symphony,” written in 1974, a “novel in four movements.” Burgess consciously attempted to write historical fiction about Napoleon in the form of the Eroica Symphony; a work for which he had an engaging interpretation. In a poem that concludes the novel he described the first two movements as suggesting “some hero’s brief career.” In the first movement:
            “see him live and vigorous,
Striding the earth, stern but magnanimous,
In love with order, his regretful strife
Devoted to ennobling our life.
The Marcia Funebre: already dead,
The ironic laurels wilting round his head,
He’s borne to burial; we weep, we hear
The purple orators about his bier—"

Burgess then asks an obvious but often unasked question about this symphony: if the hero is dead in the second movement, then how are we to understand its third and fourth movements? Burgess chose an answer deeply nested in ancient history and mythology:

“In Plutarch’s Lives the heroes go in pairs—
One fabulous and one historic. There’s
The origin, one thinks, of this device:
The heroic is displayed not once but twice.”

The third movement is the hunting music of the Gods for Burgess, and the finale about the mythology of Prometheus. Prometheus, the cultural hero who stole fire and gave it to humans to use, was punished by the gods by being bound to a rock where an eagle tore out his liver each day…and each day it grew back to be torn out again the next day. Burgess observed that the bass line upon which the variations of the finale are based was taken by Beethoven from a prior work; the last movement of his ballet music “The Creatures of Prometheus,” Op. 43.

Even if one subscribes to an alternative view of this symphony’s content, it was nevertheless a work which seemed to forecast the complexity of an age in which seven coalitions were organized, defeated and reshuffled until Napoleon was finally defeated in 1815. But beyond its own time this work has always symbolized the heroic possibility as expressed in music.

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