Saturday, June 16, 2012

Chloé still beautiful at 100; Yannick Nézet-Séguin with Berliner Philharmoniker

In her "Danse suppliante" near the end of the second part of the complete ballet music, Chloé expresses her sexuality through an english horn solo where the tempo shifts in every bar--oscillating from quarter note=72 in all the odd numbered bars to quarter note=100 in every even numbered bar. Forever young, Chloé turns 100 this year in Ravel's ballet Daphnis et Chloé, which was written for the 1912 season of the infamous Ballets Russe.

That is she turns 100 if, like me you know her through Ravel. If you know her from the Greek writer Longus she could easily be 1,900 years old, but Chloé hides her real age and will certainly never tell.

The French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who will become Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in September, returned to Berlin to conduct this program with the Berliner Philharmoniker transmitted over the Digital Concert Hall. The program was centered on the complete ballet music for Daphnis et Chloé, which comprised the second half of the event.

Nézet-Séguin uses clean patterns that are energized and clear. This helped the orchestra focus the significant challenges in figuration that this work presents to ensembles. There are so many passages of liquid fast notes, particularly in the woodwinds, that it is easy for orchestras to drift in precision, or to sound like machines. Nézet-Séguin found the right cues, the right eye-contacts, the right smiles. This performance could easily become a study in ensemble coordination.

There were also whimsical moments that the digital concert hall allowed us to see, as well as hear. The huge hand-cranked wind machine was fun to watch in action. But so was the "human cellist capo:"

There is a moment in the Danse de Lycéion, at rehearsal [56], where Ravel asked the solo cellist to retune their G string to G-sharp momentarily so that a particular gesture can end on a natural D# harmonic. Instead of tuning, the solo cellist's stand mate reached over and pressed down the string so that no tuning was necessary. It worked. The whole thing was caught on camera. It was quite an entertaining surprise--thanks Digital Concert Hall! I wonder how common this technique others play it this way? Let me know!

Ravel would have been partly inspired by the Nietzschean view of the Greeks in the "Birth of Tragedy;" the idea that prior to the age of Socratic reasoning that folks found ecstasy easily within the music of their lives. This performance brought the dancing and quickly spirited side of this work to the surface.

The concert began with Luciano Berio's "Sequenza IXa for clarinet" played by the awesome clarinetist Walter Seyfarth. Sayfarth brought out the electronica atmosphere of this completely analog work for solo clarinet. He made multiphonics sound like feedback from Woodstock. In the meditative opening segment he worked with the color of each sustained pitch, and in the conversational development he played crisp and frisky.

Sequenza IXa is a work that ends in its own form of hallucinatory ecstasy with seven loud and piercing A-flats amid quiet incantations. It was an ending that made the Romeo & Juliet  Fantasy Overture, which followed it to complete the first half of the program, sound different as it ended. Tchaikovsky closed the work in B major with the sound of harps implying a realm beyond death in which the lovers would be united.

Heard after Berio, the contrast in metaphysics was powerful. I have to admit that after Berio, I was surprised to hear the fateful sword thrust that felled Romeo as an Ab instead of a G#, as notated. Good programming changes our ears.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Bitte um innern und außern Frieden; Missa Solemnis in the Digital Concert Hall

It means a prayer for both inner and outer peace, and Beethoven wrote the line to help focus the energy he was looking in the Dona Nobis Pacem that brings the great Missa Solemnis to an end. The work is more than 85 minutes of music and it is built with the complexity of design that often reflects both inner and outer struggle.

In a concert simulcast live in the Digital Concert Hall, guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt brought a classical clarity to this great work as he conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks.

On the very edge of turning 85, Blomstedt is probably best known in this country for his tenure as music director of the San Francisco Symphony from 1985 to 1995. Blomstedt conducted from memory and without a baton and brought a delicious youthful vitality to the event.

During his prerecorded address to the digital audience aired a half-hour before the event itself, Blomstedt emphasized how all levels of this work are "charged with meaning." He handed us neatly wrapped examples of musical motives which he sang, and also unraveled some specific connections to religious symbolism contained in the work.

Soft-edged balances in the Kyrie set the mood for this performance, and Blomstedt placed the opening choral invocations without diminuendi so that the quiet downbeats were subito. This made the soloists seem to emerge from the resonances in the hall and was quite magical even over the internet. Though there were glorious moments in the celebratory Gloria it was the Apollonian quality that Blomstedt created in the Credo that was most memorable.

Guy Braunstein played the extensive solo violin writing in the Benedictus with liquid phrases shaped in lyricism, and made even more poignant by his recent announcement to step down as concertmaster of the Berliner Philharmoniker at the end of the 2012-2013 season.

The soloists were effective both in individual phrases and in blended ensembles. Soprano Ruth Ziesak was captivating with colors that could pierce any texture and rhythmic buoyancy that drew us close. Tenor Richard Croft showed how a thinking tenor can phrase and blend and still sound effortlessly brilliant. Bass Georg Zeppenfeld and contralto Gerhild Romberger both contributed magical moments to this quartet of soloists.

At the end of the Benedictus, Blomstedt allowed the final fermata to sustain longer than any others in the work. He froze, then with a sudden gesture he seemed to grab the sound with both hands and pulled it inward as the chord was released into silence. Throughout this performance the music felt cherished.
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