La Scena Musicale

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Genius Revealed: Fischer & National Symphony Rediscover Mahler

by Paul Robinson

Classical Travels: On the Road to Texas
Fall colors in eastern Quebec are undeniably stunning, but the nip in the air suggests it's time to head south. On our way back to winter in Texas, Marita and I always try to find places to stop where there is music - preferably something new and stimulating. This year I chose Washington, D.C. where Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer is beginning his tenure as principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, and Nashville, Tennessee where the new concert hall is drawing rave reviews and where Nicaraguan-born Giancarlo Guerrero is giving his first concerts as music director designate.

Freedom & Joy: Fischer’s Mahler Third a Revelation

I have often visited the Kennedy Center and I continue to be impressed by its prime location on the Potomac alongside some of the best-known presidential memorials, its architectural beauty and its wonderful acoustics. I can still recall the sounds of the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic under Bernstein in this remarkable hall. On the strength of the Mahler Third Symphony performance I heard, Ivan Fischer and the National Symphony belong in that distinguished company.

I have heard The Mahler Third live and on records many times, but what I heard this night forced me to rethink everything I thought I knew about this massive work.

“Pan’s Awakening” Teems with Delightful Bird Calls
The first movement – “Pan’s Awakening; Summer Marches In” - simply knocked me sideways. At times I thought I had inadvertently come upon an unknown masterpiece by Charles Ives. Or perhaps it was by Messiaen. Ives came to mind because of the inspired farrago of hymn tunes, folk songs, military and funeral marches that erupted on the stage of the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center. It wouldn’t have surprised me to hear “Columbia, the gem of the ocean” blaring out amid Mahler’s tumult. Fischer didn’t change any notes, of course, but he brought out a freedom and joy that I had never heard before. And Messiaen? The first movement of Mahler’s Third is teeming with bird calls, but we rarely hear them as such; they are generally played too strictly and too seriously. Perhaps Fischer had encouraged his players to find the character of each bird call and project the sound as if outdoors! This first movement is admittedly long and repetitious, but in this performance I wished it could have gone on forever. And I haven’t yet mentioned Craig Mulcahy’s powerful trombone solo. In fact, the entire trombone section was magnificent.

By the end of the first movement, I was convinced that I was witnessing a great conductor at work and that he had probed Mahler’s genius as few others have ever done. But there was more.

Hendrickson’s Otherworldly Posthorn Solo Sublime!
The second movement minuet had a lovely grace and charm and the third movement moved from charming to boisterous and then with the posthorn solo into the sublime. Steven Hendrickson played the solos offstage as if from another world. I thought at first he was too far away but Fischer had the accompanying strings playing so softly that Hendrickson’s horn was never covered for a moment. And after all, the solo part is marked ppp and Mahler intended it to be barely audible.

Horns Overwhelm Human Voice in “What Man Tells Me”
In the fourth movement – “What Man Tells Me” – Mahler introduces the human voice for the first time in the symphony with a text from Nietzsche. According to Mahler’s wife Alma, Mahler hated Nietzsche and rejected his disdain for the traditional concept of God. The inclusion of a Nietzsche text in this symphony, however, suggests otherwise. Mahler’s concept of God was far from traditional and although he never lost his yearning for life after death and some ultimate meaning to life itself, he remained to the end it seems, tortured by the pain and suffering all around him. Although Birgit Remmert sang the Nietzsche text with poise and understanding, it was during this delicately-scored movement that I began to wonder about the acoustics in the hall. Up to this point every timbre had registered with clarity and the orchestra had had remarkable presence; how could it be that two horns playing softly now could so easily overwhelm the contralto soloist?

From the Words of Angels to an Affirmation of Eternal Love
In the fifth movement – “What the Angels Tell Me” – we moved to territory that Mahler was to exploit more fully in his Fourth Symphony: a child’s view of heaven. The University of Maryland Concert Choir and the Children’s Chorus of Washington – both singing from memory – were exuberant and accurate.

The last movement – “What Love Tells Me” – is purely instrumental and one of Mahler’s greatest slow movements. How slow? Well, if you were brought up on Bernstein’s Mahler ‘as slow as possible’ and then slower!

Fischer would have none of that. He started off at what was clearly a walking tempo knowing that he had a long way to go. He also paid due regard for Mahler’s dynamic markings – the strings start the movement pp and through much of the movement rarely rise about it. Plenty of time to pull back the tempo later and the climactic moments are all the more effective for being infrequent and carefully prepared. Fischer’s approach was certainly convincing and he found the sadness in the music as well as any conductor.

By the way, the passage in the final movement that I find especially affecting occurs at number 26 in the score with a quiet passage for three trumpets and two trombones against very soft sustaining chords in the strings. I can’t help imagining a graveside tribute to a fallen comrade with elements common to New Orleans funeral processions. Mahler’s brass writing is so poignant it can’t help but break your heart. After that, the music builds inexorably toward a final peroration. Life goes on. We struggle. We shall overcome. Fischer seemed to vary the tempo with uncanny accuracy and inspired his players to give everything they had - and yet it was not a ‘free for all’. Fischer kept Mahler’s instructions in mind to the end. While two timpanists and the rest of the orchestra are putting out a truly frightening volume of sound, Mahler instructs the conductor to make sure the trumpets carry over the whole orchestra. And they did.

Respecting Mahler’s Notes & the Right Sound for the Final Chord
One final point about this performance: Mahler was very specific about how the last chord was to be played, yet few conductors pay any attention to these markings. Fischer did. Mahler writes a fermata (hold) over the last chord and the word Lange (long). But he also writes something else: ohne Diminuendo, Nicht abreissen (without diminuendo and no tearing off). What does he mean with this strange instruction? Not easy to say. Fischer took it to mean that the sound was to be sustained at the same volume and then terminated without any accent or abruptness. This is a difficult concept to grasp let alone to realize in performance, but from his gestures it was obvious that Fischer and his players had discussed it and were trying hard for the effect requested by the composer. Bravo!

Maestro Fischer and Budapest Festival Orchestra Coming to America 2009
Ivan Fischer created the Budapest Festival Orchestra in 1983 and he and this band of Hungarian all-stars have been stunning audiences and record collectors all over the world. If you live on or near the U.S. East Coast you’ll get a chance to hear them next January. From Jan 23-31 they’ll be playing at Carnegie Hall and in four different cities in Florida. On records you should investigate their recent recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 and for imaginative scholarship it is hard to beat their fascinating recording of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances.

A Roster of Reasons to Visit Washington in the New Year
This fall Ivan Fischer is beginning a two-year tenure as ‘principal conductor’ of the National Symphony Orchestra. Curiously, just a month ago, the NSO announced that it had appointed Christoph Eschenbach as its new ‘music director’ starting in 2010. Fortunately for audiences, the rapport between Fischer and the NSO is palpable.

Why did Fischer not get the music director position? Perhaps he didn’t want it and all the non-musical responsibilities that go with the job. Whatever the reason, enjoy Fischer and the NSO while you can. If the Mahler Third is any indication, they are going to be giving some terrific concerts together for at least the next two seasons.

For classical music lovers, the combination of Fischer and the NSO is reason enough to head for Washington. And how about the Washington Opera? It’s headed by Placido Domingo these days and he’s mounting some exceptional productions in the Opera House at the Kennedy Center. Nor does Washington lack for fine dining experiences, and some of these can be had in the Kennedy Center itself. Before the Mahler, we visited the KC Café on the Terrace Level and enjoyed some great pasta made to order by a chef at one of the many gourmet food stations. Prefer table service? Head for the fancier Roof Terrace Restaurant!

On this visit we stayed across the Potomac in Virginia. Alexandria is one of the oldest towns in the country and its center is filled with ancient houses lovingly restored, and with dozens of quaint shops and restaurants. Few tourists seem to venture this far from the monuments and museums, but Alexandria is a charming residential/retail oasis only about twenty minutes by car or subway from downtown Washington and places like the Kennedy Center.

News & views on the Nashville Symphony’s new Schermerhorn Concert Hall and Nicaraguan-born conductor Giancarlo Guerrero in my next blog!

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at

Photos by Marita

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Today's Birthday in Music: November 1 (de Los Angeles)

1923 - Victoria de Los Angeles, Barcelona, Spain; opera and concert soprano

Biography and pictures
Obituary (New York Times, Jan. 2005)

Victoria de Los Angeles sings:

"Una voce poco fa" from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia (BBC telecast, 1952)

"El Canape" by José Palomino (from the Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1967)

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: October 31 (Everding)

1928 - August Everding, Bottrop, Germany; opera director and administrator

Obituary (The Independent, UK, Feb. 1999)

Wolfgang Brendel sings "Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja...." from August Everding's production of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (Munich, 1983)

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: October 30 (Warlock, Mintz)

1894 - Peter Warlock, London, England; composer and music critic

Peter Warlock Society website

Capriol Suite for String Orchestra, parts 1-3 (Chamber Ensemble Muenster, 1994)

1957 - Shlomo Mintz, Moscow, Russia; violinist and conductor

Shlomo Mintz webpage

Shlomo Mintz plays Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1, 1st mvt., on "Il Cannone", Paganini's own 1742 Guarneri violin (Limburg Symphony Orchestra, Yoel Levi conducting, Maastricht, Netherlands 1997)

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Idomeneo and Boris Godunov in San Francisco

Seeing Mozart’s Idomeneo and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov back-to-back at the San Francisco Opera on the evenings of October 21 and 22, I did not expect to be struck by the similarity of their themes. What could this Enlightenment opera, penned in Munich in 1781, have to do with the darkness and gloom of unenlightened czarist Russia of 1869?

More than you might think. Both operas deal with the perennial issue of the order of the soul and the order of the city. Both operas ask the central questions: what is the ruler’s relationship to the divine and what difference does that relationship make to his rule; and what is the relationship between the moral character of the ruler and the political order? Not surprisingly – since the family is the foundation of the polis – both operas also deal with families and the relationships within them.

I was left to dwell upon these themes because the excellence of both productions left me free to plumb the meaning of the operas themselves. There were no distractions from poor production values, bad casting, awkward acting, or flubbed notes. More will be said about the obverse of each of these, but the main point is that both evenings were opera at its finest – as one has come to expect of the San Francisco Opera.

Although I am a Mozart fanatic, Idomeneo remains relatively unknown to me. In fact, it was pretty much unknown to everyone from the time of its last performance in 1781 until some point in the 19th century. San Francisco didn’t see its first production of Idomeneo until 1977; the current production was first offered in here in 1989.

For those used to the teeming life in Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, the reasons for Idomeneo’s neglect are fairly easy to divine. In the vein of opera seria, Idomeneo is a somewhat heavy classical drama based upon the fictional story of Idomeneo returning from the Greek conquest of Troy. He almost perishes at sea, but is saved by his vow to Neptune to sacrifice the first person he sees on land. That person turns out to be his son Idamante (a part written for a castrato that is now sung by a mezzo-soprano).

Thus the dramatic tension in the opera is centered on whether or not Idomeneo will kill his son. If he does not, will the gods destroy Crete? That sounds exciting but, in fact, most of the major action takes place off stage – the ship wreck, the storm, the monster’s attack on Crete, and Idamante’s slaying of the monster – we are only told about these events. Instead, the characters mostly soliloquize over the dire situations in which they find themselves. In other words, most of the drama is interior. This makes the on-stage action static. The poor director (John Copley) is left having the characters occasionally lurch in one direction or another to express the profundity of their emotions. It is hard to imagine what else he could do – although it would be a director’s job to figure exactly that out. Nonetheless, this is already mature Mozart, and it is so musically rich and sophisticated that one can only be pleased that it has made its rather late entry into the repertoire.

Back to the story: Idomeneo immediately regrets his terrible vow, but seems to have been placed in this situation because he was willing to sacrifice someone else’s life for his own. The tension this sets up is only resolved when others prove willing to sacrifice themselves, rather than see Idamante slain. In a marvelous scene in Act III, Idomeneo realizes his culpability, “I alone sinned,” and offers his own life for his son’s. Idamante, in turn, is clearly willing to give his life to save the people of Crete as he goes out to slay the monster (whose destructive presence seems the embodiment of the dislocation in the relationship between the gods and man). Then Idamante announces that he is ready for Idomeneo to take his life as the necessary sacrifice. Ilia, King Priam’s daughter, who is in love with Idamante, intervenes and offers her life in his place.

With this, the spell of Idomeneo’s vow is broken and Neptune relents. The disembodied Voice proclaims: “Love has triumphed.” However, Idomeneo has forfeited his right to rule. By offering to sacrifice someone else in his stead, he dislocated his relationship with his own son – thereby suggesting that it was wrong to offer anyone in his place. He has lost his legitimacy. Idamante replaces him as king. Thus, order is restored. The legitimacy of the new order, sanctioned by the gods in a presage of Christian kingship, is established by the ruler’s willingness to self-sacrifice. This does not strike me so much as an Enlightenment message as a Christian one.

It would be difficult to praise the orchestra and its conductor, Donald Runnicles, too highly. I would be tempted to call them the stars of the evening were it not for the vocal excellence on display. The playing was echt Mozartian – alert, highly nuanced, especially in the winds and strings, vivacious, lyrical and dramatic as the moment required.

Alice Coote, the British mezzo-soprano, was a standout in the key role of Idamante, which she not only sang well but acted with unflagging concentration and conviction. She was beautifully matched by the Austrian singer Genia Kuhmeier, a completely believable Ilia, who looked and sang just as a Mozartian soprano should. Kurt Streit has a well-deserved reputation for this role as Idomeneo. His anguish and anger at Neptune were completely convincing. Alek Shrader as Abace stood as a peer with the principals, though he is only 25 years old – about the age of Mozart when the opera was finished. Iano Tamar as Elettra sang expressively of her unrequited love for Idamante. Hers is not a big voice, however, and she was swamped in the third act quartet.

There is a good deal of great choral music in Idomeneo and the chorus excelled. Design-wise, the set and costumes emulated the 18th century and how the 18th century might have conceived of ancient Greece. The mix worked well. The set was suitably archaic looking, with fragments of classical pediments strewn about. The scene of the ruins from the monster’s depredations had a delicious hint of Italian futurism about it. In short, the production was a success that in many ways transcended the limitations of the stilted opera seria genre.

Boris Godunov offers another troubled ruler. At the beginning of his reign as tsar, Boris prays, “may I be good and just like Thee.” This does not appear, however, to be something God can grant or Boris’s conscience allow – because his reign is based upon an act of murder. Unlike Idomeneo, who was only willing to sacrifice someone for himself, Boris actually did so in having the Tsarevich Dimitri killed so that he, Boris, could rule. The consequences of this horrible deed are played out in this original 1869 version of Mussorgsky’s opera.

This is one of the truly great portraits of a tortured soul. It is made all the more moving because Boris actually tries to be a good ruler and a good father to his son Fyodor and his daughter Xenia. All is for naught. The opera teaches that regime change cannot be based upon regicide. Boris’s act inevitably gives rise to a pretender, Grigory, a renegade monk who tries to pass himself off as Dimitri, who had been killed 12 years earlier at the age of 7. The appearance of the pretender intensifies Boris’s anguish to the point that he begins to hallucinate; the murdered child appears to him in one of the great ghost scenes of opera. “Oh cruel conscience, too savagely you punish me,” cries out Boris.

Before Boris goes mad, he delivers a prayer for “my innocent children.” That this scene and its music can bring tears to one’s eyes is a measure of Mussorgsky’s achievement in presenting the full scope of Boris’s tragedy by showing Boris in his full, though flawed humanity. In counseling his son, he sings, “Keep your conscience clear for it will be your power and strength.” In other words, no one realizes better than Boris that the good order of the ruler’s soul is the foundation of his political strength.

I have not seen Samuel Ramey since he sang Mefistofele 20 years ago at the SF Opera. He was still a young man then. Now he is 66 years old. It seemed to tell a bit in the coronation scene when his voice wobbled a bit. However, that was the only hint, for he had no trouble rising to the big scenes or in delivering a truly searing and terribly moving portrayal of Boris. He has a tremendous sense of stage presence, and his nuanced portrait of the increasing toll Boris’s conscience takes on him was haunting. From the point at which Prince Shuisky tells him of the pretender through to Boris’s death, Ramey was riveting. He played the prayer scene with heartbreaking authenticity. The scene in which the holy fool refuses to pray for Boris because he is “Tsar Herod” was joltingly effective.

The rest of the principals were outstanding as well. John Uhlenhopp as Prince Shuisky was the incarnation of unctuous treachery. Vsevolod Grivnov was superb as Grigory, the pretender, with almost a nasal whine in his voice from envy. Russian bass Vladimir Ognovenko almost stole the show with his performance as Varlaam, the vagabond monk. I was not surprised to see in his bio that he has sung Boris.

The set was stark simplicity itself – a raked stage that wraps up in the rear to the ceiling, and out of which doors opened for various entrances and exits. The gray setting put everything else in high relief. It made the appearance of the icons and rich court costumes in the coronation scene all the more impressive. In a nice touch of irony, Boris was dressed in shocking white. The general darkness and lighting were entirely appropriate to the interior drama that was being played out. The orchestra and chorus once again covered themselves in glory, this time under Russian conductor Vassily Sinaisky.

It seems there is no escaping the connection between the order of the soul and the order of the city. As good a reminder for why we go to the opera, as it is a guide for our own lives.

(Idomeneo plays again on October 28th and 31st, Boris on October 30th, November 2nd, 4th, 7th, 12th, and 15th.)

Robert R. Reilly

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Today's Birthday in Music: October 29 (Vickers)

1926 - Jon Vickers, Prince Albert, Canada; opera and concert tenor

Biography (Encyclopedia of Music in Canada)

Jon Vickers sings:

 "In des Lebens" from Beethoven's Fidelio

"Comfort Ye, My People" from Handel's Messiah (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Beecham, 1959)

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: October 28 (Naida Cole)

1974 - Naida Cole, Toronto, Canada; pianist

Naida Cole website

Naida Cole plays Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (NHK Symphony Orchestra, conducted by George Judd, Tokyo, 2003)

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Today's Birthday: October 27 (Paganini)

1782 - Niccolò Paganini, Genoa, Italy; violinist, violist, guitarist, composer

Legendary violinists

Jascha Heifetz plays Caprice No. 24 (accompanist Emanuel Bay)

Leonid Kogan plays Paganini's variations on the theme "Di tanti palpiti" from Rossini's Tancredi

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: October 26 (D. Scarlatti)

1685 - Domenico Scarlatti, Naples, Italy; composer

Baroque composers

Luc Beauséjour plays Scarlatti's Sonata in d minor, K. 1

Sinfonia in C major: allegrissimo (Europa Galante, directed by Fabio Biondi)

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