Sunday, March 19, 2017

Haitink Captivates Boston - Again

Bernard Haitink, photo Robert Torres


REVIEW

Symphony Hall, Boston
ERICA MINER

Boston Symphony Conductor Emeritus Bernard Haitink has sustained a mutually respectful relationship with the BSO and its audiences for over 40 years. That the orchestra adores working with the iconic musician was clearly in evidence this weekend at Symphony Hall, as Haitink once again captivated his Symphony Hall audience with one French favorite bookended by two Austrian ones.

Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 60, subtitled Il distratto, or “scatterbrained,” was last heard here in 1976. Landing just beyond halfway in Haydn’s catalogue of over 100 symphonies, the work was composed in 1774, while Haydn occupied himself by creating music for his patron Prince Esterházy’s theatrical troupe. 17th century French comedies were all the rage at the time, and Haydn showed comic expertise in this lighthearted piece, supplementing the genre’s usual four movements with an additional two.

Elegance is always a major component of Haitink’s musical raison d’être, and it epitomized the performance he led here by keeping its tone buoyant and lively. Building on the composer’s theatrical-cum-operatic associations, the maestro imparted a tongue-in-cheek, Opéra Comique lightness, to the six Mozartean aria-ensemble like movements: from the dainty agility of the opening Allegro to the stylish frolicking of the Menuetto to the Hungarian atmospherics of its G Minor Allegro and fun-loving Prestissimo finale. The latter, with its highly amusing version of Mozart’s Musical Joke scordatura in the violins, was conducted with quick-tempo verve and executed with easy virtuosity by the BSO strings.

Debussy’s Trois Nocturnes for Orchestra, premiered in its entirety in 1901, is the embodiment of the ethereal impressionism at which the composer excelled. The music shimmered and undulated in the opening Nuages, danced gaily in Fêtes, and haunted the listener with the mystery of its Sirènes.

Tangled Festival Chorus, Photo Robert Torres
Nuages ("Clouds") pays homage to Debussy’s own La Mer, with its constant swirl of wave-like movement that seduces the listener. Haitink captured the atmosphere perfectly, lulling the audience into an ecstatic, dreamlike state, paving the way for the striking contrast of the second Fêtes (“Festivals”) movement. Haitink whipped the orchestra into a celebratory frenzy in the opening section and in the movement’s martial middle section, demonstrating sweeping authority and stateliness with the mere stroke of an expressive left hand and always at the ready to emphasize a dynamic or a key harmonic fluctuation.

Reminiscent of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë, the “Sirens” of the third movement, sweetly evoked by the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, capped the performance with grace and style, leaving the audience tingling with warmth and primed for Haitink’s next foray.

Richard Wagner, especially influenced by Beethoven’s symphonies No. 7 and 9, called Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony “the apotheosis of the dance.” George Bernard Shaw was of a different mind, characterizing its finale as sounding like “rum-tum.” History belies the latter assessment, as the work has been an audience favorite from its premiere in 1813, coincidentally the year of Wagner’s birth.

Beethoven’s progression from his earlier classical symphonies to his later ones is not unlike that of from Wagner's earliest to latest operas. Haitink, whose operatic roots run deep, brought a vocal undulation to the work, most notably in the protracted introduction to the first movement, beautifully enhanced by an exquisite solo oboe. Haitink’s grace and poise on the podium are two of his most engaging characteristics, duly emphasized the dance rhythms of the stylish and refined first movement, embodying Wagner’s “apotheosis” declaration.

Bernard Haitink, Photo Clive Barda

In the Allegretto second movement, Haitink drew maximum poignancy from the relentless repeated rhythms and hammering harmonies, allowing the BSO strings to sing to their fullest, keeping the tempo con mosso. By contrast, in the Scherzo, the maestro maintained a light, cheerful and refined presence, without overemphasizing the vivacious interjections that punctuate the rapid flow of the dance cadences.

In Haitink’s interpretation no one would mistake the final Allegro con brio for rum-tum. He had the wisdom to stand back and just let the orchestra, which has this work running through its veins, play their hearts out with the abandon and exuberance that are inherent in the work’s character. This is a movement that benefits from the experience of a veteran, and Haitink demonstrated his canny understanding of Beethoven’s style to the maximum, with an ever-increasing crescendo to a most joyful and satisfying ending.



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Photo credits: Robert Torres, Clive Barda

Erica Miner may be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Stravinsky, Bach, Richards, Mendelssohn at Rolling Hills

Martin Chalifour

REVIEW

COSB and Martin Chalifour, Norris Theatre, March 12
DAVID J BROWN

The Music Room at the Washington DC 
Dumbarton Oaks estate of Robert and
Mildred Bliss, who commissioned
Stravinsky’s concerto for
their 30th wedding anniversary.
Stravinsky’s 1938 Concerto in E flat “Dumbarton Oaks” was the first item in the Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay’s March concert conducted by Music Director Dr. Frances Steiner, and Chuck Klaus’s preview talk began by noting the major stylistic changes of direction in Stravinsky’s career, from the post-Rimsky romanticism and visceral excitement of his early ballets through the revisiting of earlier, mostly 18th century, forms (so-called “neoclassicism”) to a late embracing of Schoenbergian serialism. The positive take on these chameleon-like shifts is that they represented profound renewals of creativity, but for me performances such as the one we heard reinforced an impression of loss rather than gain.

Dumbarton Oaks is from Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, and written for just three violins, three violas, two ‘cellos, two double-basses, two horns, flute and clarinet. This bare-bones scoring sounded particularly austere in the very dry acoustic of the Norris Theatre, and overall it came across as an arid and emotionally null piece, apart from a certain pawky humor in the second, Allegretto, movement, with what seemed a listless disaffection pervading much of the performance.

Once out of Stravinsky’s sand-box, however, things improved greatly. Joined by guest soloist Martin Chalifour, Principal Concertmaster of the LA Philharmonic, and the COSB’s own Principal Oboist Joseph Stone for Bach’s Concerto for oboe and violin BWV1060, the orchestra, now up to its full string strength, was galvanized into life. The preview talk had outlined the work’s rather back-to-front history – reconstructed from a concerto for two harpsichords which on internal and external evidence was probably based on a lost original version for oboe and violin – but no innocent ear surely could detect that this was not the real idiomatic thing, delivered with spirit and warmth by everyone.

After the interval came the Serenade for the COSB by Stephen Richards, an ordained Cantor who has composed much music for Jewish ceremonial. This was his 2016 reworking for clarinet, ‘cello and strings of a ‘cello-and-piano piece written in 2014 to honor former COSB President Robert Miller on his retirement. It began, a little like Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo, with a solo ‘cello line winding up from the depths, soon joined by the clarinet (played respectively by COSB Principals David Nicholson and Richard Naill). Far from unfolding in any portentous manner, however, the work then segued into a melancholic waltz tempo which proceeded to wind, concisely and attractively, through five minutes of continuous variation. I liked it and would happily hear it again.

Finally came the big work, Mendelssohn’s Violin concerto in E minor Op. 64, showcasing star soloist Martin Chalifour. There seemed a slight disagreement over ensemble early on, and when the big orchestral tuttis arrived in the first movement exposition I did wonder, not for the first time, whether there’s something about this hall’s acoustic that precludes a proper fortissimo when the score demands it, but overall it was a satisfying performance. The COSB’s full string strength of 6-6-4-3-2 seemed adequate here, as it really had not for Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 at their previous concert. The slow movement, not as slow as sometimes (but then the marking is only Andante), was as eloquent as this acoustic allowed, and in the finale Mendelssohn’s sparkling and pin-sharp interplay between soloist and orchestra individuals reached levels of unanimity that had eluded them earlier.

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Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay, Norris Theatre, Rolling Hills Estates, 8.00pm, March 12
Photos: Martin Chalifour (Gary Coronado, LA Times), Dumbarton Oaks

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Trio Ondine play Jolivet, Volpe and Ravel

Trio Ondine: l-r Boglárka Kiss, Alison Bjorkedal, and Alma Lisa Fernandez

REVIEW

Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church
DAVID J BROWN

In the March “Second Sundays at Two” program, works by André Jolivet and Claude Debussy framed a piece by West Coast composer Dave Volpe in the début recital of Trio Ondine. Alma Lisa Fernandez (viola) joined the former Duo Ondine – Boglárka Kiss (flute) and Alison Bjorkedal (harp) – for the first time, but their seemingly effortless unanimity of ensemble in all three works was as if they had been playing together for years.

Jolivet’s Petite suite for flute, viola and harp was the opener. Both it and Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp L. 137, which concluded the recital, were wartime creations – the Debussy from 1915, as battles raged on French soil, and the Jolivet from 1941, when the Nazis were in occupation. Though the precise wellsprings of any creative enterprise remain essentially hidden, one wonders whether the cool, remote textures intrinsic with this line-up of instruments in some way embodied a refuge or escape from those contemporary turmoils.

The Jolivet in particular was a delight far from any sense of conflict, its airy informality masking a precisely balanced assembly of five brief and vividly contrasted movements. The basically monothematic Prélude for all three instruments mostly in unison was followed by a moderately paced showcase for their vivid individual colors, Modère sans traîner. The middle Vivement highlighted the playful flute, and then the pace slowed again (Allant) for a spacious stepwise duet for the viola and flute against harp arpeggios. The finale (without title) was liveliest of all, with skirling flourishes from all three introducing an irresistibly merry, folk-like jig on the flute that sped up to a conclusion like three birds soaring into the distance.

In the absence of the composer, Ms Bjorkedal introduced Dave Volpe’s Gwinna, inspired by the children’s book by Barbara Berger. Its romantic fairy-tale atmosphere was very much from the same shelf as Ravel’s Mother Goose, with the aural palette of the three instruments, including flutter-tonguing on the flute and high harmonics on the viola, further extended by wordless vocalization, rainstick, small chimes and crotales.

Nonetheless, the Jolivet’s concision made Gwinna seem a little long for its material, while the Debussy Sonata that followed was a salutary reminder, if needed, of how much subsequent music down the 20th century and into the 21st owed, and continues to owe, to his visionary genius. The first major work written for this combination of instruments, it and the group to which it belongs of late Debussy works for “diverses ensembles” were as innovatory in their way as the more spectacular mold-breakers by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Trio Ondine did it proud: I wonder if they know the Debussy Sonata’s closest contemporary for the same instrumental combination, the Englishman Arnold Bax’s Elegiac Trio?

After warm applause from the large audience, and host Jim Eninger’s customary genial welcome, Pizzolla’s evergreen Libertango made as snappy an encore as you could desire, with Ms Fernandez’s viola articulating its melody with minimal vibrato and maximum passion. 

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Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, March 12, 2017.
Photo: Trio Ondine

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Familiar Beethoven, Dvořák, unfamiliar Lebrun at Long Beach

Antonin Dvořák

REVIEW

Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, March 4
DAVID J BROWN

My LA Opus blog notices are getting a bit repetitive in their praise for the enterprising inclusion of unfamiliar music in South Bay and Long Beach concert programs, but what can you say when, as happened last Saturday, a very pleasing oboe concerto by an 18th century composer unknown to almost everyone was greeted enthusiastically by a large audience? The person to whom it was not unknown was of course the LBSO’s principal oboist, Rong-Huey Liu, who clearly loves Ludwig August Lebrun’s Oboe Concerto No. 2 in G minor, and delivered a fearlessly devoted performance, warmly supported by the reduced number of her colleagues required by the score, and guest conductor Paul Polivnick – fearlessly because, as she noted in her segment of the pre-concert talk, Lebrun requires lungs of virtually infinite capacity to power the oboe’s very long lines.

Rong-Huey Liu
Every easily available reference source will tell you that Lebrun, who died at only 38 in 1790, was a Mannheim-born oboe virtuoso famed throughout Europe, but not much seems to be established about exactly what he wrote and when. The “No. 2” designation of this concerto is pretty meaningless, merely indicating that it was the second in a group of six published 14 years after his death. Another collection of seven was published during his lifetime, the autograph of a further single concerto survives in a library in Darmstadt, and one reference I came across ups this total of 14 by another four to 18 oboe concertos in all. 

In addition, Lebrun wrote chamber works and apparently a couple of ballets; clearly some forensic musicology is required (maybe it’s already under way). Meanwhile, this concerto clearly indicated that his music is well worth exploring. Memorably tuneful in all three concise movements, the G minor tonality imparted a gently smiling tinge of melancholy far removed from the driven sturm und drang of Mozart’s two symphonies in that key, or indeed the C major optimism of his own concerto for the instrument.

I wonder whether tonality was an influence in the choice of big symphony to fill the second half of the program? Certainly the memorable theme that opens Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G Op. 88 is in G minor, and Maestro Polivnick was blessedly scrupulous about the opening Allegro con brio marking, thus avoiding the creation of an unmarked “slow introduction” that some conductors indulge in by taking the tempo down a notch or two. This welcome lack of exaggerated point-making continued through and beyond the flute’s “bird-call” motif that marks the turn to the symphony’s titular major key. Indeed the whole first movement “came out in one” in the most satisfying way.

Generally, the remainder of Dvořák’s Eighth was equally cogent, though I did feel that the Adagio’s only real turn to darkness in its latter half was a little overdone – it is, after all, a passing mood rather than a change of direction for the whole work, and when the sun once more comes out for the final stretch of the movement over-preparing for the preceding drama can lead to a slight “so what?” anticlimax. The Allegretto grazioso that does duty in this work for a scherzo was generally delightful, though for my taste there was a touch too much Viennese schlag in its opening tempo.

I did relish, however, Maestro Polivnick’s attacca start to the finale, even though the score does not ask for it to begin right on the heels of the third movement. And here the opening trumpet fanfare was at just the right not-too-fast tempo, rather than being whipped into premature frenzy as can happen sometimes. As this movement continued, its teeming variety of pace and texture was just about perfectly balanced with the overall dramatic arc, and the nostalgic quietude before the final dash to the finish was exquisitely handled.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Leonora Overture No. 3 Op. 72b, a work that in scale and dramatic intensity so much transcends what an “overture” usually delivers that it would be easy to argue that here Beethoven opened up potential future symphonic poem territory to as great a degree as the Eroica had expanded the possibilities of the symphony per se only a couple of years before. I thought this performance in the Adagio opening section smoothed out the dynamics a little too much – after all, Beethoven does range between fortissimo and pianissimo before he hits his first terrific climax with the upward-rushing violin scales some 30 bars in. Also the off-stage trumpet seemed a little too close (as the oboe had in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique at the previous concert – maybe the configuration of the Terrace Theater’s backstage area precludes the player getting far enough away?).

However, Maestro Polivnick certainly fulfilled his pre-concert talk promise that there would be no safe holding-back in the Presto tempo for the coda, where the first violins and then progressively the remainder of the strings are driven to the utmost in their helter-skelter scales that usher in the final triumph. The drama of this conclusion (how could Beethoven have thought for a moment that the domestic opening scene of Fidelio could follow it?!) was amply rewarded by a cheering audience on its feet.

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Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, Saturday, March 4, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Rong-Huey Liu: courtesy LBSO; Antonin Dvořák

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

“Rarely performed gems” from Katarzyna Sadej and Basia Bochenek


REVIEW

First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance
DAVID J BROWN

Katarzyna Sadej (left), Basia Bochenek (right)
Words like “neglected” and “rarely performed” are catnip to this reviewer, and the line-up of items thus described for the March “First Fridays at First!” recital, by mezzo-soprano Katarzyna Sadej accompanied by Basia Bochenek, certainly formed an intriguing bunch. To begin at the beginning, how refreshing to find a tango on a concert program not by Piazzolla! I never knew there was a Polish tango tradition, but a quick Google search revealed quite a vogue for the genre there in the ‘20s, and its leading composer was Jerzy Petersburski.

Petersburski’s To Ostatnia Niedziela (“The Last Sunday”) and Ty i Moja Gitara (“You And My Guitar”) opened and closed the recital – amiable and engaging enough, but neither stretching or really revealing the potential of Ms Sadej’s voice. This came with two marvelous songs by Lili Boulanger, who died in 1918 at the tragically early age of 24. She truly was one of 20th century music’s great might-have-beens, but even so her composing span of only eight years yielded a harvest of, mostly, vocal and choral works that would grace the career of anyone; if only there were more.

Attente (“Expectation”) and Reflets (“Reflections”) were written when Lili Boulanger was still in her teens; in both, elaborate arpeggiated accompaniments from Ms Bochenek underpinned the steady unspooling of long, unpredictable and deeply expressive vocal lines that revealed Ms Sadej’s depth and range. Reflets in particular unleashed rich chest notes that were thrilling to hear.

The pair of Boulanger songs led naturally into the yet more passionate world of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. It seemed slightly odd to hear just the last two of them, Schmerzen (“Sorrows”) and Träume (“Dreams”) divorced from the rest, but then music history seems undecided whether the total of five form a genuine cycle or are just a group of individual songs. Either way, these small-scale glimpses into the soundworld of music-drama’s greatest composer was a reminder that Ms Sadej is currently sing the role of Page of Herodias in his illustrious successor’s Salome at LA Opera; the intensity and vocal security that she brought to these songs – indeed to the whole recital – was an urgent nudge to get tickets.

I wasn’t particularly struck by the one contemporary song on the program, Tom Cipullo’s A White Rose, but the following and penultimate item, before Ms Sadej once more leaned back seductively against the piano and smolderingly revisited the world of Polish tango, was a salutary reminder that the mighty Finnish symphonist Jean Sibelius was a great writer of songs as well. I had never before heard Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte (“The girl returned from meeting her lover”) and had no idea where it came in his output, but something about the generous curve of its melodic line reminded me of the Second Symphony; so on later investigation I was somewhat smugly pleased to find that they were more or less contemporary…

This concise but very satisfying vocal recital, delivered unusually without any spoken intros by the performers, made an interesting change from Classical Crossroads Inc’s usual concentration on instrumental concerts for its two series, “First Fridays at First!” and “The Interludes” at First Lutheran Church in Torrance. More, please, if they are as good as this. 

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“First Fridays at First!”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, March 3, 2017.
 Photo: Courtesy Kasia and Basia

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Oliver von Dohnányi Leads the Way to Seattle ‘Katya’




INTERVIEW: Oliver von Dohnányi

McCaw Hall, Seattle
ERICA MINER

This month Seattle Opera welcomes Maestro Oliver von Dohnányi to the stage in his SO debut conducting Leoš Janáček’s Katya Kabanova, which is set in the Pacific Northwest in the 1950s. A native of Trenčín, Czechoslovakia, (now Slovakia), von Dohnányi was born into a family whose name has become synonymous with the best in classical music making since the late 19th century.

Equally versatile in operatic and symphonic repertoire, von Dohnányi has garnered conducting awards from prestigious competitions practically since his debut in 1979 with Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra in Bratislava. Here he shares details about his astonishing musical background and training, and his thoughts about Czech opera.

EM: Maestro, we’re very excited about your debut here. How has it been so far?

OVD: Generally speaking, very good. Wonderful cast and great orchestra. A lack of rehearsal with the orchestra, but as you know it’s a common situation in the States. It’s a big difference if you are playing or conducting something familiar like Traviata or Magic Flute and Janáček, with an orchestra for the first time, without their knowing the piece beforehand. It’s written in a very special mode. It needs time for even the best orchestra in the world just to have time to swallow it - to read it and see how the structure is, the connections to other instruments. You can’t skip this and we have just two readings, one walking rehearsal, not a sitz, with the stage, no sets, then directly to dress rehearsal in costume with lights and orchestra dressed in black, practically a performance with a full house - students, seniors, friends. It’s not enough time for an opera like this.

EM: I do agree, Maestro.

OVD: It’s not a lack of knowledge or problem with the opera house, but financial possibilities. As I said, the orchestra is excellent but I have the feeling I’m just whipping them through the score without taking care of small details, which I usually do. This kind of work is crucial for an understanding the music, especially for the first time. Now, after two performances, everything is going better.

EM: I know from playing Jenufa at the Met how difficult this music is in every way. To play a piece like Katya with an orchestra that’s not familiar with it must be difficult.

OVD: That’s why I was just a bit jealous of other conductors coming here to do operas like Traviata and can be relaxed because the orchestra is wonderful and can play it in the first rehearsal.

EM: Yet, what a great opportunity for them to learn music that’s in an entirely different mode from what they’re used to. And a treat for the audience to hear it.

OVD: And I’m so happy the houses have been close to full - people are interested in this. I was afraid it wouldn’t be so well attended but it is.

EM: Seattle audiences are sophisticated, attentive and very serious about their opera. I’m glad the houses have been close to full. You come from a long line of musicians. Do you feel you were destined to become a musician or conductor? 

OVD: The Dohnányi family is one family, one “genes spring” but the connection is remote. Not as direct a branch of the family as Christoph von Dohnanyi, who is the grandson of Ernest (Ernö von Dohnanyi). My Grandfather’s grandfather and Ernö’s grandfather were brothers. That is where the family tree splits. There were many musically gifted persons in our Slovakian family who were not in the higher professional levels. My aunt was a teacher in a music school, and my father was a very good pianist but a lawyer. My niece and daughter and my wife are singers. But it’s not a direct connection with the more famous musicians of the past with that name. 

EM: What inspired you to pursue music when you were younger? Was your mentor Václav Neumann a big influence on you? 

OVD: Definitely. I was sure from the age of three-and-a-half I would be a musician. My aunt, the piano teacher, used to teach children in our big family house, which my grandfather built in Slovakia. I was always listening to them, wondering how they were doing it and trying to play and repeat what they played. One day my aunt  heard me and thought one of the children had remained there and was playing. Then she saw me and said, “Would you like to try?” and I said, “Why not?” So we tried and since then I was interested in music. 

EM: So that was the beginning for you. 

OVD: Yes. Since then I studied piano and violin. 

EM: And conducting came naturally after that? 

OVD: Yes, it was quite natural. I’m not this kind of conductor with a “black past,” which means [Laughs] I wasn’t “bad” I must say! I was winner of the International Kocian Violin Competition in Czechoslovakia, which made my professor “best professor of the year,” and I was entitled to have some concerts and was on my way to becoming a very good violinist. Then one day the famous Russian violinist Leonid Kogan came to Bratislava. At the time he was violin professor at the Conservatoire in Moscow, which was the best school in Russia. S went to play for him and said, “I would like to study with you.” He said, “Yes, come in September, I’m taking you.” 

EM: Amazing. 

OVD: The problem was, it was the Socialist era - you were not able to go by yourself, you had to ask official permission. As I’d won the competition, at my middle school I became quite popular. When I went to the director and said I was going to Kogan he said, “No, no you have to remain for the next two years. We’ve invested our work in you and now we have to keep you here as somebody who is popular.” I said, “No way, Kogan told me he’s taking me in his class.” He said, “Do what you want.” I went to the Office for Foreign Studies Abroad. They had received a letter from the Conservatoire saying they couldn’t recommend my studying because I was too young and inexperienced. I was 18.

EM: How disappointing. 

OVD: I spoke to my professor who said I should stay at middle school. But I said, “I want to make progress. I’m going to Prague. As a conductor.” There were 15 persons applying and only one place. It’s a special system of study. There are more professors than students on the conducting faculty. I took the train to Prague – I’d never been there before – and found my way to the Academy of Music. In the third round of three days of exams, the redoubtable Professor Klíma, music director of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, tested me along with other applicants. He played 3-4 examples on the piano, which I wrote down, I conducted with piano, and so on. At the end he came to me and said I was chosen. But… he had the letter from the director of the Conservatoire saying I was too young. I said “Okay, I’m going home.” He tore up the letter and said, “We didn’t receive anything. You are in.” That’s how I started my studies. 

EM: What a great story. 

OVD: Václav Neumann was a professor but he wasn’t often there teaching, being very busy traveling as a conductor and music director of the Czech Philharmonic. But the experience of studying with him was enormous and I took a lot of the musical and human parts of his conducting.

EM: I had that impression when performing Jenufa with him at the Met Opera, that he was a wonderful human being as well as a brilliant musician. In that repertoire, he was the top. But you’ve also conducted an enormous variety of other opera repertoire, from Faust, Falstaff and Mefistofele to Carmen, La Gioconda, Hamlet, Norma and more. Which operas do you enjoy working on the most, and which do you find the most challenging? 

OVD: This is very strange in my life. At home in Czech Republic and Slovakia I usually conducted Verdi, Puccini, but also Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček. Abroad I conduct mostly Czech repertory, but in Britain mostly French repertory. In Russia I conducted more contemporary music than classical, but now it’s balanced. I started with Philip Glass, then Mieczysław Weinberg, and now I’m doing Onegin, Rigoletto, La Bohème, Carmen and Flying Dutchman. It’s difficult to say what is really my usual repertory – it is so huge. I started first as conductor of the Slovak Radio Orchestra when I won the competition for the job. I have a lot of experience in contemporary music because in radio we had to do a lot of new music for recordings. 

EM: Do you feel it is important to introduce new opera repertoire? 

OVD: I like contemporary opera. I’ve introduced the music of Philip Glass to Russia, his early opera Satyagraha. My recording of Memento Mori with the Prague Symphony, by my friend, Czech composer Juraj Filas, won an important Salzburg TV Festival prize. Recently I did the Russian premiere of Weinberg’s Passenger, which David Pountney discovered, in 2006 in Bregenz. I did it in Russia in the Yekaterinburg Opera House, it was a huge success. It started a huge demand for Weinberg’s music. Gergiev became interested in Weinberg’s second opera, The Idiot, based on Dostoevsky’s novel. Bolshoi did a conference on Weinberg’s work and invited us to perform at the theater, with Pountney and other important people connected to Weinberg, including his family. It was a big experience for me. 

EM: It’s good that you are able to promote music you believe in, especially  for audiences in this country to learn about composers like Weinberg. 

OVD: This is very important because opera houses are mostly based on “ABC” operas – Aida, Bohème, Carmen. I’m doing Weinberg, which is “W” [Laughs]. Maybe Zandonai might be the next. But seriously speaking, it’s very important to see more than the 30-40 operas usually played. For example, Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, a great piece, not often played, is fantastic. It was also played in New York, with Roberto Alagna. 

EM: What draws you to the Katya Kabanova besides your affinity for your own native music? Does Katya have any similarities to any of the more traditional operatic heroines?

OVD: Music, drama, and the combination of both. I was for a couple of years music director of the Ostrava Opera House, near where Janáček was born. You can feel the rhythm of the music in people’s behavior, people’s speech. He wrote down motifs from people speaking in the street. That’s why his operas are terribly committed to the words, why it’s absolutely necessary to do it in Czech, not translated. If you translate it you lose a very important part of the sound of the score, this colorful part of the music that is necessary. You can’t do without - it’s a sine qua nonKatya was inspired after listening to Butterfly in Brno. But Janáček wanted to do it in a different way. Butterfly and Katya are similar characters with similar stories, but Puccini did it in a 19th century way and Janáček a 20th century way. 

EM: So the circumstances are different. 

OVD: Exactly. If you didn’t know the circumstances you might say it was 30-40 years difference, but it’s not. 

EM: The tragic ends certainly are similar. What do you think of setting the production in the 1950s? The societal pressures on a woman of that time, the traditional role that could be stifling, was maybe more so here than in Europe. There was no escape.

OVD: It really works. I was surprised at the beginning, setting it in America. The first words of the opera, “Everyday I’m looking at the Volga River,” probably don’t work. The rest works perfectly because it’s exactly the same kind of social situation, the necessity to behave somehow in an unpleasant situation and all the pressures from the people, the society around you, leading to where you don’t have any other possibility than to kill yourself. It’s the same as Butterfly. I think it works very well, and I love the costumes. I’m a very big fan of (director) Patrick Nolan. I like his work.

EM: Janáček’s orchestral scoring is lush and rich but also very difficult for the orchestra. Do you find it especially challenging to conduct his music, even with an orchestra that’s familiar with this music? 

OVD: This is the question. Of course it’s easier with an orchestra that’s done it before or has it in repertory. But if you have the time, it’s very good to do it. We didn’t have enough time but I think the orchestra was making huge progress during the first rehearsal. It’s difficult but they are managing very well. 

EM: You also will be conducting one of Wagner’s first attempts at opera, Das Liebesverbot, in Buenos Aires. As I'm currently developing a lecture about Wagner’s early operas, I would love to know your impressions of this work. 

OVD: I did it in Trieste 3 years ago, a co-production with Leipzig and Bayreuth. 

EM: Wagner's 200th anniversary year. 

OVD: Yes. Wagner’s family didn’t allow it to be played in the Festpielhaus just because Richard Wagner said it wasn’t good. But it was a huge success in Trieste. People love it because first it’s very good music, excellent, even if Wagner said it wasn’t good. And it’s a funny, “comic opera.” Of course when he wrote it - I think he was 26,  a Kapellmeister in a small opera house in Germany - he heard a lot of different music - Meyerbeer, Weber. You can hear echoes of music from other operas in his music. But why not, he was just starting, doing an excellent job. The score is already very good. 

EM: So already he was a master orchestrator. 

OVD: Yes. He shows the qualities that we see in his later work. 

EM: The seeds of his future greatness. I hope to see the work here someday. 

OVD: Well, you have to speak to Aidan [Laughs]. I’ve recommended to him some other great Janáček operas, and of course my beloved Rusalka should be done here, because it is the masterpiece for the whole family, from ages 3 to 93 - a beautiful fairytale and the kind of great opera where excellent orchestras like yours are absolutely the priority. In Rusalka the orchestra is crucial. I love this opera so much - I know every single note in the piece. I dislike insensitive cuts in Rusalka. I usually play the entire opera, just some small cuts recommended by Dvořák. But - especially in America, we might have to do some cuts, just because of overtime. 

EM: Tell us about Canticorum Iubilo. 

OVD: That’s a good question [Laughs]. It’s a small ensemble, mostly chorus, the origin of which is from my student time at the Prague Academy of Music. In my second year I became music director of the Charles University Ensemble. Charles University in Prague is the second oldest university in Europe, and one of the most important, with several thousand students, obviously many of them excellent musicians and very good singers. After their studies they didn’t want to stop singing and continued, often at one of the friends’ houses. They felt they were good enough to do more, and asked me to do a concert, but not on a professional basis. I worked with them a bit and saw a huge potential for the future, so we started to build repertory and won the biggest national choral competition. It was a huge surprise because nobody knew about us at all. We started doing regular concerts and recordings. I’m still working with them, after 38 years. Now there’s a second generation of original members – children and even grandchildren. We’re like a family. 

EM: A labor of love and close to your heart. 

OVD: When I started I thought it would be for a year. Now it’s become part of my life. 

EM: Where are you headed after Seattle? 

OVD: After a week home in Prague I go to Yekaterinburg, a new production of Rusalka with 29-year-old Czech stage director Tomas Pilar - very talented, chosen by renowned Forbes Magazine as one of the most influential Czech persons under 30. Then to Buenos Aires for Das Liebesverbot, New Zealand doing Carmen, Magic Flute in Yekaterinburg, Huguenots in Budapest. And so on. 

EM: Thank you so much, Maestro, it’s been a pleasure. 

OVD: Thank you very much. 

Katya Kabanova  continues through Mar. 11 at McCaw Hall.



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 Photo credits: Seattle Opera, ArkivMusic

Erica Miner can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Friday, March 3, 2017

A trio of trios – and more – at Palos Verdes


REVIEW: Piano-Wind Trio play Loeillet, Ravel, Wolfgang, Debussy, Dutilleux and Poulenc

South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Ranch Palos Verdes
DAVID J BROWN

The program of six short(ish) works played by Jennifer Johnson (oboe), Judith Farmer (bassoon) and Robert Thies (piano) at the SBCMS February concert had some intriguing symmetries and asymmetries. It was bookended by pieces for the entire trio from the early 18th century and early 20th century, with another – and from the only living composer, happily present – as the centerpiece. Four great 20th century French composers were represented, one by an arrangement for one wind (oboe) and piano, another by an original piece for the other wind (bassoon) and piano, the third by a solo piano work, and the fourth by the most cherishable item (for all three instruments) from the most sheerly lovable of the four – no argument I hope about so describing Francis Poulenc. 

So far so fascinating, and the concert opener, which being two centuries or more older than all the rest might have seemed a bit anomalous, in fact worked just fine in context. The programs, both printed and online, did get the composer’s identity wrong, but that’s understandable when you have two musical relatives with very similar dates and identical names. For the record, the Loeillet who wrote the Sonata in B minor for oboe, bassoon and piano was not Jean-Baptiste Loeillet de Gant (1688-1720) but the less short-lived Jean-Baptiste Loeillet de Londres (1680-1730). Thus we had a work by a Flemish composer who ended up in England (not his cousin who died in France), cast in the slow-fast-slow-fast Sonata da chiesa form. All over in under 10 minutes, there was plenty of textural as well as dynamic variety in its four brief movements. Whether this was an arrangement from another medium wasn’t clarified, but to my ear the oboe/bassoon/keyboard line-up worked as well in the opening Largo’s gravely beautiful counterpoint for all three in equal partnership as it did elsewhere, where the oboe came to the fore both in its radiant third-movement Adagio “aria” and the agile gymnastics of the finale. 

I was not so convinced by what followed, an arrangement for oboe and piano by Prof. David Walter of Ravel’s solo-piano Sonatine in F sharp minor, M.40, cast in three brief movements. It’s one thing to substitute, in a work for x + piano, the instrument that is being accompanied by another of different timbre but similar range, but something else to pick apart a single homogeneous texture and highlight one particular line from it. I felt that in this instance, where Ravel’s original has all the sensitively balanced intricacies that characterize this transcendentally subtle composer, the result sounded certainly more assertive but somehow less rich and even crudified by comparison. 

Gernot Wolfgang and Judith Farmer
Other listeners may have had a different impression, and certainly the performance by Ms Johnson and Mr Thies sounded committed and convinced. This was just as true for all three players in the next work, Gernot Wolfgang’s Trilogy. Herr Wolfgang (Austrian by birth, now resident in LA) introduced it himself, briefly outlining the influences behind its three movements – jazz instrumental interchanges in the first, Eastern European elements in the third and, rather more unusually, the movie Sliding Doors in the second. It would be disingenuous, snotty even, to say that the progress of this six-minute movement (unsurprisingly entitled “Sliding Doors”) didn’t spell out where Gwynneth Paltrow’s timeline bifurcated; rather, it was imbued throughout with a smoky, late-night-nostalgic, what-might-have-been atmosphere. I didn’t feel that it and its more upbeat companions (“Go Get It” and “Looking East”) really comprised a whole that was more than the sum of its parts, but maybe that was conveyed in the title Trilogy rather than by calling the work "Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano", with its implication of sonata-style overall integration. 

No reservations with the remaining works heard after the interval. Mr Thies delivered a beautifully nuanced performance of Reflets dans l’eau, the first of the three pieces that comprise Book 1 of Debussy’s Images pour piano, which entirely overcame what seemed to me the slightly hard and forward tone of the Pacific Unitarian Church’s Yamaha. Then he was joined by Ms Farmer for the only bassoon-and-piano work in the recital, Dutilleux’s early (1942) Sarabande et Cortège. It certainly made one want to hear more by this extraordinarily long-lived composer (he died less than four years ago). The two brief movements somehow managed to be somber and jaunty simultaneously, with the rhythmical irregularities in the Cortège insouciant enough to bring touches of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to my ears. 

The three soloists had taken turns in verbally introducing each work, and it was Mr Thies’ turn for the final item, Poulenc’s Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano. He noted its pre-eminence among works for this particular combination, and the fabulously alert and spontaneous performance by him and his colleagues certainly demonstrated why it is so frequently performed. They vividly characterized all the drama, wit and variety within the three concise movements of this masterpiece – lovable indeed.

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South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Sunday, February 26, 2017.
Photo: Courtesy Gernot Wolfgang.