La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Conspirare Rings in New Year with Seldom Heard Strauss Motette

The last time I looked in on Conspirare, they were offering Christmas music at the Long Center in Austin. Last week, they moved a few blocks uptown to St. Martin’s Lutheran Church for a concert titled "A New Year’s Conspirare Classic". I had no idea what that meant, but a perusal of the program suggested that we were in for an evening of German choral music - except for a short piece by Samuel Barber - which turned out to be Conspirare’s tribute to the American composer on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth (March 9, 1910).

First Half of Program Somewhat Disappointing

I could have done without the five excerpts from Max Reger’s Acht Geistliche Gesänge Op. 138 which opened the concert. This is boring music by any standard. In my opinion, the concert should have opened with Bach’s wonderful motet Singet dem Herr nein neues Lied BWV 225 for double chorus. This music is full of energy and the sort of inspired contrapuntal variety that only Bach could write. Conductor Craig Hella Johnson went to the trouble of bringing in some continuo players just for this piece. I would have preferred an organ – the harpsichord was all but inaudible – but the cellos and bass sounded fine.

The Samuel Barber selection was too short and inconsequential to serve as an appropriate tribute to a composer of his stature.

The first half of the concert ended with two choral songs by Robert Schumann. Zigeunerleben is an amazingly vivid piece and Conspirare sang it very well indeed. They followed up with Schumann’s An die Sterne.

Here is one of those thematic connections that Johnson likes to make in his programs. The poetry Schumann set to music in both songs is by Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), the same man whose poetry was used by Richard Strauss for his Deutsche Motette, the major work in the second half of the concert. I am sure that Johnson also wanted us to note the pivotal role played by stars in the heavens in both An die Sterne and the Deutsche Motette, and, for good measure, in Samuel Barber’s Sure on This Shining Night.

Chameleon Conspirare Takes Several Forms

For readers unfamiliar with Conspirare, let me provide some background. ‘Conspirare’ is the name of the organization based in Austin devoted to the performance of choral music. But there are several different ensembles that perform under this umbrella. One of these is the ‘Conspirare Symphonic Choir’, a large group with a nucleus of professionals and community singers recruited locally. This choir took part in an excellent performance of Cary Ratcliff’s Ode to Common Things with the Austin Symphony earlier this season. Then there is the smaller ensemble of about forty voices that appears under the name ‘Company of Voices.’ This is an all-star festival choir which brings together top professionals from all over the country.

Rare Strauss Composition Program Highlight

This was just about the coldest night I have ever experienced in Austin, and all things being equal I would rather have curled up in front of a roaring fire at home. But all things weren’t equal. What drew me out into wintry discomfort was the prospect of hearing a rare performance of Richard Strauss’ magnificent Deutsche Motette. This is one of the most daunting challenges in choral literature, but I knew that Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare ‘Company of Voices’ had what it takes to do it justice. And so they did, giving us a glorious performance of the piece.

The Deutsche Motette was composed in 1913, around the time of Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos, but he revised it in 1943. As a result of this revision, it must be grouped with several other works of Strauss’ late years. What these later works have in common – the Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings and the two Sonatinas or Symphonies for Winds – is a preoccupation with contrapuntal complexity.

Strauss had great gifts as a melodist and was a master of orchestration, but far less appreciated was his ability to write complicated fugues and other contrapuntal textures. It is almost incredible that in his last years, when he was in his eighties, when he could have rested on his laurels or written only tuneful miniatures, he set himself some of the most difficult musical challenges imaginable. Strauss was apt to refer to these late works as “wrist exercises” or “workshop” pieces, but one cannot help but marvel at the level of craftsmanship Strauss maintained until his final days.

For the singers, the most difficult aspects of the Deutsche Motette are technical. Strauss takes his sopranos and basses to the extremes of their ranges, and often keeps them there for bars on end. The harmonies are also unusual and not easy to tune. Finally, Strauss sometimes seems to forget that singers have to breathe! But no music endures simply because it is difficult. The Deutsche Motette is a great piece because of its beauty and power. Rückert’s words suggest someone in the depths of depression, perhaps at the end of a troubled life, searching for reassurance and peace of mind.

Strauss was outwardly one of the most confident of men, but his music often reflected sadness and disappointment. One thinks of the Marshallin in Der Rosenkavalier, and those heartbreaking epilogues in works like Ein Heldenleben, Don Quixote, and Eine Alpensymphonie. In the Deutsche Motette, Strauss finds a profoundly moving musical expression of the essence of Rückert’s poetry. I have no doubt that individually and collectively, the 'Company of Voices' must have spent many long hours preparing this piece. For at least one listener, it was worth every minute. This was a performance to treasure.

And to Cap off the Evening...Humor and Charm!

The next piece performed was also German, but very different from anything else on the program. It was from the repertoire of that legendary close harmony group, the Comedian Harmonists, who had flourished from 1927 to 1934. Craig Hella Johnson programmed a choral version of My Little Green Cactus in order to “cleanse the palate” after the Strauss. It was great fun and I would love to have heard several more.

Finally, we had a selection from BrahmsLiebeslieder Waltzes. These are charming choral songs, with accompaniment by two pianists at one keyboard. It was the perfect way to end a concert of mostly German music and it sent the audience back out into the cold with at least a warm glow to fortify themselves.

Additional Listening

You can hear the Comedian Harmonists singing Mein kleiner grüner Kaktus (My Little Green Cactus) on YouTube. A whole album of their recordings is available on Naxos 8.120613.

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

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Richard Strauss and Nézet-Séguin: A Hero's Life

by Paul E. Robinson

It’s hard to fathom the arrogance of a thirty-four year composer who writes a huge orchestral piece called Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) – about himself! What’s more, in the section called "The Hero’s Works of Peace" he quotes from his own previous compositions! Then you have the case of a thirty-four year old conductor who programs this virtuoso piece with a part-time orchestra. Fortunately, the supremely confident young composer was named Richard Strauss, and, as they say, the rest is history. As for the conductor, he happens to be a leader who can galvanize his players to perform way beyond themselves as they did this week at Place des Arts in Montréal.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin celebrated his tenth anniversary as artistic director and conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain this week and demonstrated yet again why he is not only a Canadian treasure, but also one of the most sought-after maestros on the international scene. It was an all-Richard Strauss programme with Don Juan leading off, followed by a set of orchestral songs featuring soprano Barbara Bonney and, after intermission, Ein Heldenleben.

Don Juan was well-rehearsed and urgent in spite of some shaky trumpet playing and the love music was meltingly beautiful.

I must confess that I am a huge admirer of Strauss’ vocal music, especially in the endlessly imaginative orchestrations by the composer himself. Earlier this summer we heard some of them in fine performances by Ben Heppner and Thomas Hampson at the Knowlton Festival. Strauss had a genius for capturing the very essence of the poetry he set to music. Bonney led off with one of my favourites, Die Heiligen Drei Könige aus Morgenland (Three Holy Kings from the Land of the West). The poem by Heine is a very simple telling of the role of the Wise Men in the Christmas story. Strauss makes it a thing of wonder and childlike innocence.

In the five Strauss songs chosen by Bonney – actually six if you include the encore Morgen – the celebrated soprano was somewhat disappointing. Her voice didn’t have the lyric effortless quality we have associated with this singer in years past. In its place there was an engrossing maturity. Bonney seemed to be using her resources with an excess of caution; the voice never soared. Admittedly, Strauss puts a lot of orchestral weight in the way but Nézet-Séguin and his players accompanied with the utmost care. The lack of power and freedom seemed to be Bonney’s choice. Nevertheless, it is always a pleasure to welcome back beloved artists even when they are not at their best.

One of Nézet-Séguin’s most impressive qualities is his fearlessness. He thinks nothing of recording all the Bruckner symphonies in Montreal or programming Mahler’s massive Eighth Symphony later this season (June 20). In taking on Ein Heldenleben, a work that has tested the finest ‘full-time’ orchestras, he was asking the Orchestre Métropolitain to do the near impossible.

This Heldenleben opened with a very fast tempo- as befits the spirit of a thirty-four year hero - and in terms of technical mastery, it quickly became apparent that Nézet-Séguin had everything under control. At no time, however, did one sense that this performance was about mere accuracy. This young maestro’s technique is extraordinary – a combination of natural ability and hard work – but his performances are never just about getting the notes right; he always reaches beyond that to capture the full range of emotion and meaning in the music. His players gave him everything he asked for, and the results were spectacular! The augmented horn section was thrilling throughout, with authoritative and eloquent solos from principal horn Louis-Philippe Marsolais. The famous violin solos were played by concertmaster Yukari Cousineau. She may have been a little too careful with her long cadenza, but the warm tone she produced in the epilogue was something special. Her dialogue with Marsolais was as touching as one is ever likely to hear.

Finally, I want to commend Nézet-Séguin for making the last chord of Ein Heldenleben – a trumpet-saturated E flat major - the thing of splendor it was meant to be. I haven’t heard it so well-prepared and sustained since Karajan. Most conductors are content to make a half-hearted crescendo, followed by an anti-climactic punctuation mark. This is neither what Strauss wrote, nor what he meant. This is a Straussian Valhalla moment, as the hero is seen one last time in all his glory. In purely musical terms, this chord must be of a weight and power to balance everything that has come before it in the piece. It is obvious that Nézet-Séguin took enormous care over this moment in rehearsal and inspired his players to give everything they had in the performance. Make no mistake about it. This was a very loud chord but – again, Karajan comes to mind – it had no hint of raucous blaring. This is one of the secrets of great conducting and Nézet-Séguin already knows many of them.

The Orchestre Métropolitain simply has no right playing Ein Heldenleben as well as it did this week. This was a great triumph for both conductor and orchestra.

At the risk of being boring or pedantic, I must mention that I changed my seat during the course of this concert and it made a huge difference. I heard Don Juan from the very back of the Parterre (under the first balcony) and I had the feeling I was standing outside the door of Place des Arts. The music had no presence. Then I moved up to the sixth row of the Parterre. Now I could appreciate the intensity of the performances and hear all the details of balance and phrasing.

I realize that not everyone is able to sit so close to the performers and sitting in close proximity can reveal weaknesses too, but I am making, I think, two valid points: that to really appreciate what musicians are doing in Place des Arts, it is necessary to sit as close to the front as possible, and that in a really good concert hall, one should be able to sit almost anywhere and get something close to the full effect of the music. That said, I and many symphony lovers with me, are ready to bid farewell to Place des Arts and more than ready to hear the OSM and the Orchestre Métropolitain in their new home – a smaller and better (hopefully!) new hall - currently under construction right next door.

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

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, August 14, 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Nagano/OSM/Hampson Outstanding in Brahms/Strauss Programme

by Paul E. Robinson

Last night at the Knowlton Festival, Kent Nagano continued his Brahms cycle with the OSM playing the Symphony No. 3 in F major Op. 90. The evening’s guest soloist was American baritone Thomas Hampson (photo: right) in three songs by Richard Strauss. It was arguably one of the best concerts of the festival.

The Brahms Third opened the programme and from the first bars, Nagano’s ear for balance and beauty of sound was again evident. As the first movement unfolded, there was more. I wouldn’t say there was abandon – that quality doesn’t seem to be a part of Nagano’s artistic persona – but there was real intensity. This symphony is regarded as autumnal and reflective, and is the only one of the four Brahms symphonies to end quietly. In the first and last movements, however, there is excitement and grandeur and Nagano and his musicians captured much of it. I must say I have rarely heard the orchestra play better. The wind solos were not just accurate, but memorable. The string textures were rich and finely detailed.

Musicians know that the Third Symphony is very difficult as an ensemble piece. Nagano and the OSM players had obviously done their wood-shedding, and it paid off. The syncopations in the last movement were exceptionally precise. Much of the credit for the standard of playing must always go to the musicians themselves, but the conductor’s perception of sound is obviously crucial to the shape of the whole.

Nagano has an ear for both the big picture and the smallest detail. As far as the big picture is concerned, I was struck by his slower than usual tempo for the second movement. At this tempo, the lower strings had time to be expansive in their phrasing; they positively glowed. In the fourth movement, Nagano chose to maintain the quick tempo right into and through the second subject, where other conductors ease up. This strategy worked perfectly and added to the excitement without any loss of melodic grace.

Programming Major Work Before Intermission May be Wise
A minor point, but a significant one perhaps: at most of the Knowlton Festival concerts, the major work concludes the concert. At the final chord, a fair number of concert-goers – understandably – make a dash for the exits to make sure they don’t get caught up in the long lines to board busses.

Last night the Third Symphony, the major work on the programme, opened the concert. At its conclusion audience members stayed in their seats – or, more accurately, on their feet – to applaud Nagano and the OSM at the end of the performance. The ovation was warm, vocal, and sustained. Conductor and musicians clearly appreciated it.

Incidentally, in his opening remarks tonight, Knowlton Festival president and executive director Marco Genoni apologized for the transportation challenges and assured folks that these were being dealt with by management.

Baritone Thomas Hampson Beguiles Knowlton!
After intermission, one of the leading stars of the Metropolitan Opera took the stage to perform some rarely-heard songs by Richard Strauss. Thomas Hampson is by now a beloved figure in New York and around the world and everything he does is informed by scholarly preparation, intelligent phrasing and a ringing voice. He was in fine voice last night and I thoroughly enjoyed the repertoire.

Hampson sang three songs, written in the years 1897-99, around the time Strauss was composing works such as Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben, but before the composition of his most famous operas.

For me, the most impressive of the songs presented was Notturno Op. 44 No. 1. The poetry is by Richard Dehmel, the same man who later inspired Schönberg in his Verklärte Nacht. Since these are orchestral songs and the composer is Richard Strauss at the top of his game, it is not surprising that something amazing happens in the orchestra in every bar.

The orchestration, with its use of trombones at the bottom of their register combined with double basses and contrabassoon, suggested a sort of dry run for Elektra or Salome. The sustained chords played by this combination of instruments were ominous and unsettling. On top of these chords were frequent violin solos – virtually the top and bottom of the orchestra playing together. The sounds were mesmerizing and gave Hampson the ideal framework for his rendering of the text. A great song and an ideal performance.

Hampson also sang Hymnus Op. 33 No. 3 and Pilgers Morgenlied Op. 33 No. 4. Even without the texts available to them, the audience loved what they heard and demanded an encore. Hampson obliged with Rheinlegendchen (Rhine Legend) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. This is folk poetry rendered into Mahlerian folk song and Hampson sang it beautifully. With all the accompanying body language, it was obvious to the audience that Hampson was telling some kind of amusing story. One wished he had let the audience in on at least the outlines of this charming tale before he sang it.

Hampson is justly famous for his Mahler, having recorded most of the songs with Leonard Bernstein and written extensively about the composer and his music. Come to think of it, it was more than twenty years ago that he made the Bernstein recordings and Hampson sounds better than ever! Anyone wanting to know more about Hampson should visit his website. It is filled with information including titles and texts of all the songs in his repertoire.

Incidentally, the violin soloist in Strauss’ Notturno was Andrew Wan, one of the OSM’s two concertmasters. Wan just joined the orchestra last year and it is already apparent that he is a huge asset for his stellar playing and for the obvious energy and leadership he brings to the role.

Good Sound Might Go Further with Portable Shell
I have long thought that where one sits at a concert has a lot to do with one’s impression of the performance. This is probably less true in a great hall but critical in a poor or mediocre hall. Le Chapiteau (tent) at the Knowlton Festival is not a great concert hall nor does it pretend to be one. Last night I sat in the sixth row – for many of the other concerts I have been much further back and off to the side – and for the first time I really began to feel I was hearing the orchestra properly and well. I would guess that anywhere in the first ten rows one will have a similar experience. The problem is that these are also the most expensive seats. A great experience for those who can afford to sit there; for the rest of the audience, some work needs to be done to enhance the sound. A portable shell of some kind might help.

Coming Next: Today at 5 pm Susan Platts gives a free recital and tonight at 8 pm Massimiliano Muralli leads the Festival Orchestra with prize winners from Placido Domingo’s Operalia competitions in excerpts from Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi, and Kent Nagano conducts excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin. Tomorrow (Saturday) morning the busiest day of the festival begins at 10 am with a children’s opera Orfea and the Golden Harp presented by Jeunesses Musicales du Canada, followed by a master class with Italian conductor Massimiliano Muralli. Marianne Lambert gives a recital at 2 pm. In the evening, there is a second performance of Bellini’s La Sonnambula led by Kent Nagano and featuring Sumi Jo. Finally, on Sunday morning at 11 am – note the unusual time for the concert – Kent Nagano conducts the OSM in the closing concert with soloists June Anderson, Sumi Jo and Susan Platts in the final scene from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. Nagano also completes his Brahms cycle with the Symphony No. 1. For more information visit the festival website.

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

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Monday, January 12, 2009

Four Last Songs

Renée Fleming, soprano; Münichen Philharmoniker / Christian Thielemann
Decca 4780647 (56 min 16 s)
**** $$$

Renée Fleming recorded Vier letzte Lieder for the first time for RCA in 1995, with Christoph Eschenbach leading the Houston forces. This recording is still in the catalogue for good reason – it is one of the most glorious pieces of singing of this song cycle one is likely to encounter. Now we have a second version from Ms. Fleming, with Christian Thielemann and the Munich forces. However fine the Houston Symphony under Eschenbach is, it cannot seriously challenge the supremacy of the Münchner Philharmoniker in this repertoire, especially with Thielemann at the helm. Fleming is in great form – her rich, opulent voice with an impressive top is beautifully captured on microphone. Now with years of experience performing this cycle, all the stars are seemingly aligned for a desert-island Four Last Songs. So I am sorry to say that her second Four Last Songs consists of beautiful singing marred by some self-indulgent mannerisms. The lovely legato in “Fruhling” is compromised by her impulse to emphasize certain words, such as a ludicrous “zittert.” When she refrains from over-acting, the singing is wonderful, as in “Beim Schlafengehen” and “Im Abendrot.” “Ein Schönes war” is truly gorgeous but “Es gibt ein Reich” from Ariadne is too low for her. More congenial is the high tessitura of “Zweite Brautnacht” from Die Aegyptische Helena, rising to a C sharp. These quibbles aside, this disc will prove highly enjoyable for her legions of fans.

- Joseph K. So

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, August 1, 2008

Letters from Munich: Ariadne auf Naxos

Photos: Wilfrid Hoesl

Joseph So

If Arabella on Wednesday wasn't quite up to the normally high Festival standards, the premiere of a new production of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Prinzregententheater was just about as good as it gets. As the ecstatic strains of the finale faded away, the house erupted for minutes of prolonged cheering and foot-stamping, and many curtain calls. Given that we live in an age of hyperbole, the word “great” is thrown around rather indiscriminately, but not in this case. This performance qualifies as great, one that will withstand the test of time in my memory bank.
Ariadne had its Munich premiere in January 1918 in the exquisite Rococo Cuvilliés Theater. With its reopening recently to celebrate the city's 850th anniversary, it would appear to be a logical venue, but the Company wisely chose to make it more accessible by using the larger Prinzregententheater. With only three performances, it was an extremely hot ticket. Fortunately Munich Opera is bringing it back next July, with an essentially identical cast, but with Bertrand de Billy replacing Kent Nagano. Rumour has it that the run next summer will be filmed for release on DVD.

The director of this Ariadne is none other than Canadian Robert Carsen, whose cutting edge productions have won kudos from the Met to Paris Opera. For Munich, he has created an production of layered symbolism that provokes and challenges our conventional views of this piece. Before a bar of music was played, onstage was a ballet studio with dancers warming up in front of mirrored panels. They proceeded to dance the orchestral prelude in pleasant if rather conventional choreography. Setting the prologue in a ballet studio isn't all that surprising, given that Robert Carsen, as the son of important National Ballet patron Walter Carsen, likely grew up in a dance milieu. The predominanatly black modern dress costumes served to lend the focus on the drama and the internal psychological states of the characters.

Carsen's direction tends towards uber-symbolism, with many interesting touches throughout, sometimes surprising and more often than not amusing, refreshing and provocative, and frequently brilliant. In the “seduction scene” in the prologue, in a darkened stage when Zerbinetta tells the Komponist that she isn't what she seems, Damrau takes off her black wig letting her long blond hair tumbling down – a magical moment. The prologue ended with the Komponist in front of the stage, delivering the score to the conductor and then moving to the side where she stays in full view of the audience throughout the opera. The opera was performed without an intermission.

Lovers of opulent stagings of the desert island of Naxos must have felt deprived, since all they got was a bare stage. I am not particularly fond of minimalist staging, but this time it really worked. A dozen or so supernumeraries, consisting of the mixed corp de ballet from the opening plus the comedians in drag, populated the stage, dressed identically as Ariadne and moving in unison with her – it says to me that Ariadne's dilemma is every women's dilemma. In a traditional interpretation, this piece can be seen as anti-feminist. Afterall, we have the suicidal Ariadne stranded on Naxos, abandoned by “her man”. She can only be fulfilled and redeemed when Bacchus shows up to rescue her. At the moment of Bacchus' arrival, the black backdrop opened to blinding light. In this production, the many supers, some representing Ariadne and an equal number representing Bacchus on opposite sides of the stage, implying a sort of gender opposition At the moment of reconciliation, Ariadne and Bacchus cross over to the other opposite sides, a nice symbolic stroke.

To be sure, not everything worked equally well. The significance of three upright pianos being wheeled on and off stage eluded me, ditto to have Zerbinetta popping out of the piano. Overall, there were enough brilliant directorial touches that it made for a very rewarding evening in the theatre. Much of the pleasure of this production was vocal, with a dream cast, led by Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, reprising her celebrated Ariadne. She was ably partnered by tenor Burkhard Fritz. The cruelly high tessitura of.Bacchus posed no problem for Fritz, who sang with exemplary freedom at the top of his range. Diana Damrau made a vocally and dramatically scintillating Zerbinetta. Surrounded by a chorus line of ten buff boys, Damrau clearly was enjoying herself as a sassy and sexy Zerbinetta, bringing the house down with a dynamite “Grossmachtige Prinzessin”. Munich Opera ensemble artist Daniela Sindram was a big-voiced, intense, ponytailed, slightly hysterical Komponist. She looked so much like a man that it's positively scary. The other roles were all well taken, with special mention going to Nikolay Borchov (Harlekin), and the three nymphs, particularly Sine Bundgaard (the Fiakermilli two nights ago) as Echo. As expected in this meat-and-potatoes Straussian score, the orchestra under the baton of Kent Nagano, produced appropriately thrilling sounds. All in all, a most memorable evening.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: June 11 (R. Strauss, Floyd)

1864 - Richard Strauss, Munich, Germany; composer and conductor

Wiki entry

Anne Howells (Octavian) and Barbara Bonney (Sophie) sing 'Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren' (The Presentation of the Rose scene) from Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier (Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 1985)

Alessio Allegrini plays Strauss's Horn Concerto #2 (Filarmonica della Scala, conductor Riccardo Muti, February 1999)

1926 - Carlisle Floyd, Latta, U.S.A.; composer (Susannah)

Wiki entry
Profile (L.A. Times, 2008)

Renée Fleming sings "Ain't it a pretty night" from Susannah (Richard Tucker Gala, 1995)

Labels: , , , ,