La Scena Musicale

Monday, August 17, 2009

Heart and Soul of the Knowlton Festival - Kent Nagano

by Paul E. Robinson

Le Chapiteau was filled to capacity and the sun was shining brightly on Sunday morning when Kent Nagano gave the downbeat for Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. Two hours later, after the closing chords of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, it was clear that the Knowlton Festival had ended twelve days of fine music-making in triumph. Several hundred audience members stayed after the concert to enjoy an excellent buffet lunch served in the Chapiteau lobby. From the comments I overheard, the combination of beautiful music, good weather and tasty food had made believers of nearly everyone.

Brahms Symphony # 1 Concludes Cycle
In this final concert of the Knowlton Festival 2009, Kent Nagano and the OSM concluded their Brahms cycle with the magnificent Symphony No. 1. Today's performance was of a piece with those which had preceded it. Nagano likes his Brahms lyrical and transparent. In all his readings, one notices a wealth of detail often passed over by other conductors.

That said, to my mind, Nagano’s approach to the first movement of this particular symphony was a little sleepy. The second movement began extremely slowly and I wondered whether it could be sustained. It was! The OSM strings adjusted their bowing and, in the case of the solo wind players, dug deep for extra breath to carry them through the long lines. The horn and violin solos were exquisite.

The last movement is really the heart of this masterpiece and Nagano shaped it beautifully. The whisper-soft pizzicati were perfectly coordinated. Scarcely a sound was heard from the wholly attentive audience. The performance ended in a blaze of sound with particularly vigorous contributions from the OSM timpanist.

June Anderson, Sumi Jo and Susan Platts Sing Strauss
Every festival concert this season featured vocal music. On this occasion, we heard soprano June Anderson in Beethoven’s Ah! Perfido Op. 65, and in the "Marschallin’s Monologue" from Act I of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. To cap the evening, Anderson was joined by soprano Sumi Jo and mezzo-soprano Susan Platts for the final scene from the same opera. Anderson and Sumi Jo are seasoned veterans, and Canadian Susan Platts held her own in this distinguished company. Nagano accompanied the artists with characteristic sensitivity, giving the audience music-making on a consistently high level.

Kudos to Maestro Kent Nagano
I had the privilege and the pleasure of attending nearly every concert in this year’s festival. It became obvious to me early on that much of the success of the Knowlton Festival depends on the artistic vision and energy of one man - Kent Nagano.

My own rough analysis suggests to me that, during the twelve days of the festival, Nagano must have commuted from Knowlton to Montreal and back at least a dozen times. Conducting seven concerts, Nagano must have been involved in at least twenty rehearsals of one kind or another, and yet, at each festival performance, he appeared fresh, involved and in total command. And let’s not forget that just days before the Knowlton Festival began, Nagano flew into Montreal from Germany, after an arduous series of opera performances – with very different repertoire - in Munich. And right after the Knowlton festival, he heads to Italy for performances of Don Giovanni with Canada’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.

There’s more than energy and artistic breadth to admire about Nagano. From a musician’s perspective, his technique is exceptional. You may notice that while many conductors keep both arms in motion doing pretty much the same thing, most of Nagano’s conducting is done with his right hand. You may also notice that the right hand moves in very carefully circumscribed motions. Most musicians prefer a conductor who is not flailing his arms all over the place, one whose gestures are clear and precise. In this respect Nagano is the ideal conductor. He gives the musicians what they need to give the best of themselves. In addition, he is - in his quiet and diplomatic way - absolutely insistent on getting what he wants. Musicians don’t mind being pushed and disciplined to a certain extent, as long as the person doing the pushing is well-informed and confines his pushing to musical matters. Again, this is an accurate description of Nagano.

Knowlton Festival Here to Stay?
The Knowlton Festival was launched last year by Kent Nagano and local businessman Marco Genoni to celebrate the glories of bel canto. Nearly all the concerts were given on successive weekends. This year, the repertoire was broadened and many more concerts were added to give music-lovers something to enjoy every night of the almost two-week long festival. Perhaps the expansion was a little too ambitious - the weeknight concerts drew smaller audiences; on the other hand, the festival certainly maintained a presence in the community it didn’t have last year.

As much as I enjoyed this new and expanded Knowlton Festival, I harbor some lingering concerns regarding its sustainability:

Maestro Kent Nagano is clearly the heart and soul of the Knowlton Festival; what will happen if he decides to leave the OSM? Would he continue his affiliation with Knowlton? Remember that the Lanaudière Festival lost Nagano and the OSM to Knowlton because Nagano is committed to being in Munich in July. How tempted will Nagano be to take on opportunities that will limit his appearances with the Knowlton Festival in the coming years?

And how long can anyone operate a summer festival featuring a major symphony orchestra in a small hall seating 850? I can’t think of any festivals anywhere in the world that can pull this off. Most successful festivals utilizing a small hall engage a student or training orchestra. A full-sized professional orchestra typically increases festival operating costs, to the point where halls seating thousands are required to balance the budget. Of course private donations and government grants are always required to make up the difference, but the fundraising challenge the Knowlton Festival has given itself appears almost insurmountable. Hopefully, festival organizers are already busy developing a sustainable long-term concept.

Festival Programming Too Many Missed!
On the penultimate day of the festival I heard some fine singing by soprano Marianne Lambert and tenor Juan Noval-Moro. Unfortunately, only about 50 people attended this ticketed concert at Chapelle St-Édouard.

I also took in part of an excellent - and well attended - master class by conductor and coach Massimiliano Muralli in West Brome. Muralli walked some young singers through excerpts from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the expertise he shared with them (and the audience) was invaluable. He emphasized the importance of language in opera – accenting Italian correctly and really understanding the meaning of the words; the need for singers to respond to the harmony in the music and to what the orchestra is “saying”; and the importance of controlling volume to produce a more beautiful sound.

Finally, I had the pleasure of seeing a wonderful children’s opera called Orfea and the Golden Harp. This was a Jeunesses Musicales Canada presentation featuring a Toronto-based group called Theatre Cotton Robes. The two performers smoothly alternated French and English and their singing and costume changes kept the children in the audience enthralled. Much of the music was taken from well-known operas. This was a fine introduction to opera and should have been seen by more people. Again, there were fewer than fifty people in the church. Perhaps a greater effort could have been made encourage parents and children in the area to attend. It would be wise, both in terms of music education and audience development, to invite this nifty little troupe back to the festival again next year. But next time make sure that local schools are alerted! Who knows? Perhaps the local school board would even consider sharing some of the cost!

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Mahler Brings Austin Symphony Season to Triumphant Finale!

Classical Travels

The stage at the Long Center in Austin was jammed to capacity this week for performances of Mahler’s Resurrection (Symphony No, 2 in C minor). Peter Bay led the Austin Symphony and the Conspirare Symphonic Choir in a well-prepared and exciting performance. In fact, it was easily the best concert I have seen Maestro Bay conduct in Austin.

The Austin Symphony has not been ignoring Mahler. Under Peter Bay, they played the Mahler First in 1999, the Fourth in 2001 and the Fifth in 2004. The Second, however, is the most challenging of the group.

Mahler’s Second Symphony was composed over 100 years ago (1895), and remains extraordinarily difficult for conductors and orchestras to perform. The notes themselves can be demanding enough, but Mahler has made the challenge even greater by writing in hundreds of subtle tempo markings.

In matters of dynamics, Mahler routinely puts in different markings for each instrument in the same passage. This can be a nightmare for a conductor and requires hours of careful rehearsal to approximate Mahler’s conception. Peter Bay did a remarkable job in balancing the greatly enlarged Austin Symphony. From where I sat - row L on the ground floor - every instrument came through with remarkable clarity.

More to the point, Bay had gone beyond the letter of the score to conduct with passion and poetry. One small quibble; as a matter of personal preference, I wish he had treated Mahler’s glissando markings less apologetically.

The musicians too, had clearly done their homework. The basses and cellos get a workout right from the opening bars – a kind of continuation of the recitative passage from the beginning of the last movement of the Beethoven Ninth. The players rose to the task with both enthusiasm and careful attention to detail. The brass playing, both onstage and off, was just as fine and even in the loudest passages, always musical.

Scott Cantrell, in a Dallas Morning News review of this concert, mentions that the organ was “inaudible at the end.” This was not my experience. The organ makes its entrance very near the end of the last movement and its role is simply to reinforce the orchestra and chorus. It sounded fine where I sat. Mr. Cantrell’s seat was in the balcony; therein may lie the reason for our differing opinions.

In matters of acoustics, it is difficult to pinpoint what is right or wrong with a concert hall. In most halls, circumstances affecting how one hears the music differ from one concert to another; one may be sitting in a different location; the repertoire is different; the size of the orchestra may be different.

My experience at the Friday night performance of the Mahler was definitely favorable. The fact remains, however, that the Dell Hall in the Long Center is simply not in the same class with the Myerson or several other great halls one could mention. In spite of the best efforts of the ASO musicians and their conductor, as Mr. Cantrell put it “the hall lends little warmth, or richness or blend.”

This general observation notwithstanding, on this occasion, we should be celebrating the quality of this particular performance.

The Conspirare Symphonic Choir – about 100 members strong – was at a distinct disadvantage in being positioned at the very back of the shell, but sang with strength and joy. Mahler struggled with faith in God all his life, but in this symphony he wholeheartedly affirmed his belief in life after death and expressed that belief in some of the most inspiring music ever written. The members of the chorus captured this spirit.

I was less captivated by the soloists. Mezzo-soprano Susan Platts' beautiful voice seemed a little lightweight for what she had to tell us in the Urlicht movement and soprano Linda Mabbs lacked the ethereal purity her part requires.

Overall, this was Peter Bay’s night and his triumph. After ten seasons in Austin, Bay has consistently demonstrated an ability to efficiently prepare a ‘per service’ orchestra in interesting and difficult programs. He knows how to rehearse and how to get the best out of his musicians in limited rehearsal time. Even for a work as complicated as the Mahler Second Symphony, he had only the usual five rehearsals.

On the basis of this week’s Mahler performance, it is clear that in music that challenges him, Maestro Bay can also be forceful and involved.

More good news; Bay has programmed Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 for next season.

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

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