La Scena Musicale

Monday, December 1, 2008

Met in HD: Berlioz' Damnation of Faust Lepage-d!

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson


I learned about opera watching Herman Geiger-Torel build the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, first in the Royal Alexandra Theatre and later in the dreaded O’Keefe Centre, and annual visits to Maple Leaf Gardens by the Metropolitan Opera. As a young man, I welcomed the opportunity to see real, live opera. Mostly, what I learned and loved was the music; only later did it start to dawn on me that sets, costumes and direction could be interesting too - that is where my commitment to opera started to wane. What was presented on stage in Toronto in the 1950s and 60s was often amateurish and traditional, in the worst sense. Frequent visits to New York convinced me that the Met was not much further ahead. This distinguished company seemed content to hire the best singers money could buy and let the rest of it take care of itself.

Again, speaking personally, the future of opera began to look a whole lot brighter when I saw the productions Herbert von Karajan was presenting in Salzburg in collaboration with Gunther Schneider-Siemssen in the late 1960s and early 70s. Here was a fresh approach to a decaying art form, making use of the latest technology. Futuristic and abstract sets, complex lighting schemes and elaborate projections brought a new dimension to Wagner’s Ring cycle.

The Karajan-Schneider-Siemssen Ring was eventually brought to the Met and it was my good fortune to get to know Erwin Feher, the technical genius who adapted this production to the Met’s quite different stage and equipment.

This long introduction is my way of introducing a review of the Met’s current production of BerliozLa Damnation de Faust in its Met HD Live incarnation last week. I am all in favour of applying the latest in stage and film technology to operatic production; however, I reserve the right to object when a director turns a masterpiece into a farce. I am afraid Robert Lepage managed to do just that with Berlioz’ légende dramatique. Perhaps it was the parade of soldiers walking backwards during the “Hungarian March,” or the lines of naked men inhabiting the bowels of hell – who knew that hell was a gay bathhouse? – that did it for me. But let me start with the overall concept. More details later.

La Damnation de Faust is not an opera at all. It works perfectly well as Berlioz intended, as a concert piece. Had he wanted to turn it into an opera, he would have done so himself and most certainly would have made lots of changes in the process.

I find the whole concept offensive. To convince me otherwise will require a production far more persuasive than the incoherent mess Le Page perpetrated on the stage of the Met. Lepage has talked a great deal about how he has brought “state of the art video techniques” to this work. Mention was made of “interactive video” in which the singers can change the images simply by moving their bodies. I noticed that Lepage talked much less about any connection between the images and movements he used, and the music. My impression is that the music was simply one of many components used to heighten the theatrical experience. Think Cirque du Soleil. By the way, Lepage created a show called KA for Cirque du Soleil at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 2005.

For La Damnation de Faust, Lepage created a huge four-story scaffolding and virtually all the action in the production takes place in some part of this structure. As set design, think the TV quiz show Hollywood Squares with each of the celebrity panelists occupying a different cell in the scaffolding matrix. At times, Lepage did indeed have characters occupying these cells, and at other times either cellular projections or integrated projections. One could understand the fun Lepage had in organizing these cells and projections, but clearly he ran out of both money and ideas. While Cirque du Soleil can easily find $32 million for a Las Vegas show, the Met would have trouble raising one-tenth of that for a single production. Nor could they find the time required for weeks of technical rehearsals.

It appears that Lepage is a director who proceeds by free association, rather than by studying the work he is engaged to produce. I am still trying to figure out why Faust was unceremoniously dumped out of a boat – why was he in the boat in the first place? – then seen to be swimming or tumbling under water along with some unidentified other folks. Later, during the scene in which spirits are apparently bewitching the sleeping Marguerite we see eight ballet dancers in separate cells in the scaffolding doing nothing more interesting than what appear to be basic warm-up exercises at the barre. The ‘climax’ of this engrossing tableau comes when a group of half-naked men attached to cables begin climbing up and down the various levels of the scaffolding. This development combined elements of Cirque du Soleil, Chippendales and Monty Python.

The “Ride to the Abyss” was one of Lepage’s great set pieces. He put together images of galloping horses and menacing birds with riders in silhouette. Unfortunately, none of the riders were either Faust or Méphistophélès, who were content to stand nearby and deliver Berlioz’ music as best they could. Then came another Faust-dump, this time into the bowels of hell and the eager arms of the Chippendales lads looking surprisingly buff and content in their new digs. The coup de théâtre was to have Marguerite ascend into heaven by way of an enormous ladder in the middle of the stage. It was all very silly and ultimately ridiculous.

And the music? Susan Graham as Marguerite and John Relyea as Méphistophélès were excellent in spite of the appalling production thrust upon them. Marcello Giordani is turning into the ‘go-to’ guy among tenors at the Met. He seems to be involved in nearly every production. In fact, on the day of this Damnation de Faust he also replaced an indisposed colleague for the evening performance of Madama Butterfly. I would like to be able to say that he sang beautifully as Faust, but alas, he didn’t. He sang sharp from almost beginning to end. I think the poor man deserves a rest. James Levine was in the pit. I have to wonder about his judgement as music director in allowing such a travesty to go forward, let alone having to look at it every time he conducted it. Perhaps that explains why he took the “Hungarian March” at such an absurdly fast tempo. No doubt he had a car waiting.

There is, of course, another way of looking at this farrago. Lepage himself has suggested that La Damnation de Faust was merely a dry run for some of the technology he is planning to use for the new Ring cycle at the Met in the fall of 2010. If so, there is still time for General Manager Peter Gelb to retract his conviction that “Lepage represents everything I believe in regarding storytelling and visual presentation.”

Lepage may be a creative genius with his own multidisciplinary production company Ex Machina or in Las Vegas, but he is out of his comfort zone in an opera house. And to hand him carte blanche with the greatest work in operatic literature is foolish and irresponsible.

For the record, at the theater I attended in Cedar Park, Texas there were only twenty people in the audience. As Yogi Berra used to say: “If they don’t want to come, you can’t stop them.” But perhaps they knew something we didn’t. Again, for the record we had the same problems with projectionists failing to turn up the volume to an acceptable level and failing to turn off the house lights after intermission. The sound quality was once again appalling, with the magnificent Met Orchestra reduced to sounding like an acoustical recording from 1920.

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.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Austin Explores "Hungarian Connection"

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson

It was a clever idea for Austin Symphony music director Peter Bay to preface a rare performance of Miklós Rózsa’s Violin Concerto with some of Brahms Hungarian Dances. Rózsa was born in Budapest and makes use of Hungarian folk music in his concerto. The major work on the program was Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, a work that has no apparent Hungarian connection. But who can be sure? Besides twenty-one Hungarian Dances and eleven Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs), not to mention the "Rondo alla Zingarese" from his G minor Quartet, Brahms had Hungarian music in his blood.

How Hungarian are Brahms’ “Hungarian” Dances?
Peter Bay chose to program just three of the Hungarian Dances and only the ones that Brahms orchestrated himself from pieces originally composed for piano duet. To my mind these pieces best reveal their charm when they are played by two people – preferably very good friends – seated at one keyboard. But it is understandable that Brahms wanted to capitalize on the popularity of these pieces by making them available for performance by symphony orchestras. Incidentally, the discussion still rages as to whether the music Brahms used as the basis for his dances were really gypsy rather than Hungarian. The consensus is that the music Bartók and Kodály later uncovered in their travels through rural Hungary was both much more authentic and more complex.

Hungarian-Born Miklós Rózsa Prolific Composer of Movie Music
Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995) may have been born in Hungary but he lived most of his life in Los Angeles writing music for the movies. He was very good at it too and his skills contributed greatly to the success of films such as Ben Hur, Spellbound, Double Indemnity, Quo Vadis, and even the Steve Martin comedy Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. But Rózsa wrote important concert music too. When Leonard Bernstein made his legendary debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943 there was a Rózsa work on the program: Theme,Variations and Finale Op. 13. And it was Jascha Heifetz who encouraged Rózsa to write his Violin Concerto and gave the first performance in 1956 with the Dallas Symphony.

At the time Rózsa was at the height of his career as a film composer. Not surprisingly, the Violin Concerto does sound a lot like film music of the period. It has soaring romantic melodies and lush orchestration. What’s more, Rózsa borrowed chunks from the Violin Concerto for the film score he composed in 1970 for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Not that there is anything wrong with that. The Violin Concerto is a well-made and very attractive piece that deserves a place in the repertoire. And Robert McDuffie is just the man to play it. He recorded it in 1999 for Telarc and lately he has been playing it all over the world, including on a tour with the Jerusalem Symphony.

McDuffie Dazzles with Tone & Technique in Rózsa’s Violin Concerto
There are certainly Hungarian elements in the Violin Concerto but they are not the gypsy elements popularized by Brahms. Rózsa makes use of the pentatonic scale and some rhythmic devices characteristic of some Hungarian folk music. But it would be misleading to say that the concerto is “based” on Hungarian folk music. It has a character all its own. When the music is not lyrical it is often virtuosic in the extreme, especially in the thrilling codas closing the first and third movements. I had never heard McDuffie live before and I was immensely impressed by his superlative playing and commanding presence. I was also amazed by the volume of sound he produced. After just a few concerts in the still-new Long Center it is impossible to say what the hall is contributing to the music. But it seems that the hall is very flattering to the sound of a solo violin. In any case, let’s hope that McDuffie returns soon. He is a wonderful artist. And let’s not forget conductor Peter Bay’s contribution to the success of this performance. He and the ASO were with McDuffie every step of the way.

A Scholarly Reading of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4
The concert concluded with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in a performance that sounded well-prepared and very satisfying on its own terms. Peter Bay gave us a scholarly view of the score, paying careful attention to balances – the low-lying flute solo in the fourth movement came through beautifully - and maintaining forward motion. Over the years orchestras have grown larger and conductors have tended to make Brahms symphonies richer and more powerful than they were in the composer’s lifetime. We know that at the first performances a much smaller string section was used. On the other hand, orchestras play in larger halls today and perhaps they need to produce a bigger sound for the music to make the same effect.

Orchestral Seating Plans & the Search for an Ideal Sound

Bearing all of these issues in mind I personally would still like to hear a more robust sound in the Brahms symphonies. Perhaps the acoustics of the hall were not entirely sympathetic to the conductor’s approach. Peter Bay and the ASO might want to experiment with different seatings. For this concert the double basses were lined up on the extreme right of the stage and from where I sat they hardly projected at all. Perhaps they could be moved to the left side facing out for better effect. The timpani was placed at the right rear of the orchestra and the sound was distant and muffled. Similarly, the trumpets seemed to disappear in the climaxes. In such matters Leopold Stokowski provides a useful role model. He never stopped searching for better seating plans for his orchestras. He realized that every hall is different, and that there is nothing scientific about the traditional orchestral seating. The point is to try to find the ideal sound for every piece in every place. We can’t do much to physically change concert halls after they have been built but we can certainly try to make them sound better. And Stokowski was legendary for making orchestras sound wonderful.

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.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Austin Lyric Opera Goes Hollywood!

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson

Austin Lyric Opera may not be able to afford the most famous singers but it invariably provides first-class entertainment. They’ve done it again with the current production of Rossini’s comic opera La Cenerentola which opened this past Saturday at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

Garnett Bruce is the stage director and he created this production for Lyric Opera of Kansas City in 2004. It moves the well-known Cinderella story from Italy to 1930s Hollywood and the world of movie-making. From beginning to end in this production we are immersed in the fantasy world of fame and fortune. The fairy tale search for a royal wife becomes a search for a new leading lady in this updated telling of the story. With surprisingly little doctoring of the libretto and none at all of the glorious music, Rossini’s classic romp comes to life once again, and I think the greatest operatic showman of them all would have loved it.

The gist of the revised story line is acted out in mime while the orchestra plays the overture. Without any contrived additional dialogue we get the idea and the opera unfolds in pretty much its usual fashion. Musically, the production was well in hand with Robert Tweten wielding the baton. This young man has a remarkable flair for Rossini, invariably finding the right balance between singers and orchestra and capturing all the wit and sparkle in the score. He also had the courage and the skill to ‘press the pedal to the metal,’ as it were, with some blazing fast tempos. This fine cast and orchestra had apparently been rehearsed within an inch of their lives and in this opening night performance, they responded to Tweten’s beat with enthusiasm and musicality.

But there can be no La Cenerentola without a great leading lady. The role of Cinderella requires a great comedienne and a mezzo-soprano with mastery of bel canto lyricism and virtuosity. Sandra Piques Eddy may not have erased my personal memories of Cecilia Bartoli’s Cinderella in the near-legendary Houston Grand Opera production of a few years back; nevertheless, she was superb. Her voice is rich and full from top to bottom and she knocked off the technical stuff with almost effortless mastery. Her acting was somewhat less impressive. She handled the transformation from servant to star with conviction, but often seemed less involved than her colleagues. Perhaps director Garnett Bruce simply didn’t give her enough bits of business.

Not that the production wasn’t ‘busy’ enough! Bruce’s direction created a convincing illusion that the backstage lot at “Palace Pictures” was teeming with a ‘cast of thousands,’ and each person who showed up on the ‘set’ came to life as a distinctive character. While the inclusion of a couple of Marx brothers was fun, however, Bruce might have worked a little harder to make them more like the people they were supposed to be. Harpo could have been busier annoying people or blowing his horn and Groucho could have at least walked like Groucho. In the dance rehearsal scene – choreographed a la Busby Berkeley - the costumes of the chorus-line girls were appropriately ‘over the top’ and the dancing of the male group was amusingly inept.

Amongst the cast I would single out Cara Johnston and Liz Cass as Cinderella’s sisters, for both their vocal and histrionic efforts. They sang beautifully, their antics were hilarious, and their zany attire certainly added to the fun! Steven Condy as their father, Mr. Magnifico, practically cornered the market on the funny business in this production with endless mugging and all sorts of physical comedy. Tenor Michele Angelini as film director Don Ramiro looked every inch a 1930s Hollywood star with enough grease on his hair to lubricate a fleet of eighteen-wheelers. He was light on his feet too, sang with control, and his exposed top notes were generally ‘spot-on.’ John Boehr as Dandini – Ramiro’s chauffeur in this version – was funny and appealing and Kristopher Irmiter as the film producer Alidoro looked the part and sang with authority.

General Director Kevin Patterson never forgets that he is in the entertainment business; his Austin-oriented Die Fledermaus from last season was a great triumph and this fresh and funny version of La Cenerentola was not far behind.

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

Blog Photos: Mark Matson

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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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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Music with a Moral: Weill’s 7 Deadly Sins Timely Programming by TSO

Review by Paul E. Robinson

I remember well the opening of Roy Thomson Hall (RTH) in Toronto in 1982. At last the Toronto Symphony (TSO) would have a fine modern hall to replace the legendary, but aging Massey Hall. How disappointed I was to see and hear a facility that seemed to be designed by fools - and we were stuck with it.

I conducted at RTH myself on several occasions – including the Canadian premiere of the Sibelius Kullervo Symphony in 1986 – and the experience only served to confirm the impressions I had formed as a member of the audience; the sound had no presence, no bass response and the high end was extremely hard-edged.

Some tinkering was done with the hall’s acoustics over the years, but not until 2002 did the hall’s owners face reality and close the hall for six months to make major changes. Just last week I returned for the first time since the makeover – officially called the “Roy Thomson Hall Enhancement Project” – to hear for myself whether the project had been successful. I came away with mixed impressions.

The TSO concert I heard featured Ute Lemper in the Kurt Weill-Bertold Brecht stage piece The Seven Deadly Sins. The program also included the Symphony No.11 (The Year 1905) by Shostakovich. The concert was repeated a few nights later at Carnegie Hall in New York. Maestro Peter Oundjian and the TSO deserve full credit for putting together a demanding and slightly offbeat programme to showcase themselves in New York. It wasn’t the original programme. The Weill was a late substitute for Benjamin Yusupov’s Viola Tango Rock Concerto featuring Maxim Vengerov - also an imaginative choice.

Ute Lemper, the Hudson Shad Vocal Quartet, & 7 Deadly Sins

The Seven Deadly Sins is a hybrid, a ‘sung ballet’ for female vocalist, male vocal quartet and orchestra. The piece draws on themes already used by Weill and Brecht in other works such as Mahagonny and The Threepenny Opera. It is an indictment of capitalism from a Marxist point of view. It made a lot of sense to many people as the Depression began to bite in 1933 and in view of recent global economic problems, it remains relevant today. Greed, unfortunately, is a driving force in our society and it ultimately forces millions into misery, as it always has. Marxism is out of fashion thanks to the horrors of Stalinism and Maoism, but the criticism of unbridled capitalism remains as powerful as ever.

Ute Lemper is justly famous for her idiomatic performances of the music of Kurt Weill and she was in fine form in The Seven Deadly Sins. The men of the Hudson Shad Vocal Quartet were also first-rate and with their demeanour and carefully chosen gestures added to the theatrical effect. I wonder, however, if this piece doesn’t lose its edge in a concert version. In concert, the vulgarity and degradation described in the text become rather abstract. While Oundjian and the TSO gave us wonderful playing, they reinforced the ‘concert’ aspect of the piece instead of the ‘down and dirty’ that can be portrayed in the ballet version.

Shostakovich Symphony Sound & Fury Signifying Little
Shostakovich was not shy about tackling big themes. In his Eleventh Symphony of 1957, he set out to describe some of the key events of the Russian Revolution of 1905 - not to be confused with the Communist Revolution of 1917. Shostakovich (b. 1906) was not yet born, but he lived through the effects of not only the 1917 Revolution, but two World Wars and the dark years of Stalin’s tyrannical rule. At times one feels that the music in this symphony could have been more effectively used in a film. Like most ‘programme music,’ with no story or pictures attached, it often falls into sound and fury signifying very little.

There is much that is profoundly expressive in the Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony, and some of the climactic moments are tremendously exciting, but there are also pages of repetitive note-spinning and the high volume levels can become tiresome. For me the piece does not hang together as a musical structure and too much of it is hardly more than routine.

That said, Peter Oundjian had a firm grasp of the piece and maintained intensity from the first note to the last, without unnecessary histrionics. This was fine conducting, matched by superb playing from the orchestra.

I have greatly admired principal trumpet Andrew McCandless from his days in Dallas, and on this night he was at the very top of his game. So too was the always splendid timpanist, David Kent. The Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony is notable as one of the few orchestral works to give such prominence to the snare drum and John Rudolf played his part with appropriate virtuosity. Kudos also to the evening’s guest concertmaster, Jonathan Carney. The TSO is currently trying out various applicants for their vacant concertmaster position and Carney showed he can lead with style and passion. While Carney’s name was posted in the lobby for this concert, there was not a word about who he was or where he came from. For the record, he is an American currently serving as concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony and before that he was concertmaster of the Royal Philharmonic in London for twelve years.

In Spite of Renovations Roy Thomson Hall an Acoustical “Turkey”
There were so many problems with the original design of RTH that it must have been a challenge to know where to begin with the makeover.
  • It had too many seats - more than 2800 when the ideal for an orchestra is about 2000: the economics of the business being what they are, the makeover reduced the seating to 2630.
  • It was too large a space: the renovation reduced the volume by 13.5% making RTH comparable to places like Carnegie Hall.
  • It was the wrong shape - the best concert halls in the world are shaped like a shoebox, and RTH was more like an old-fashioned oval opera house: not much could be done about this problem, although the volume reduction done in 2002 somewhat altered the basic shape.
  • There was too much carpeting in the auditorium soaking up the sound: the carpet was eliminated and replaced by hardwood flooring.
  • The annoying continental seating – that is, there were no aisles except on the sides: this was scrapped and the ground floor was reconfigured to make the seating more user-friendly.

In embarking on the 2002 renovation, its owners finally admitted that the RTH acoustics were inferior and engaged one of the best acousticians in the business, the late Russell Johnson, to fix them. Had Johnson been hired at the building design stage, many of the problems would have been avoided. Unfortunately, coming to the job 'after the fact', he was impossibly handicapped by having to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

The renovation had to be done and was clearly long overdue, but RTH remains a colossal mistake. The owners of the hall embarked on the original building project without knowing what they were doing and stuck the orchestra and the city with an architectural and acoustical turkey. RTH literature (“The enhancement project altered the hall, while at the same time honoured and revalued Arthur Erickson’s original design.”) suggests they are still oblivious to the damage they have done.

The 2002 renovations certainly improved RTH, but it is still far from a great concert hall. The sound has much more presence than it did and the upper strings don’t sound computer generated, but they don’t have much body or warmth either. The lower strings sound as bland and undernourished as ever.

If Roy Thomson Hall remains a disappointment, it has at least become a tolerable place in which to hear and to make music; as such, it is far more successful than Salle Wilfred-Pelletier at Place des Arts in Montreal.

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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      Friday, September 19, 2008

      OSM’s 75th with Mehta & Messiaen a Celebration of Sound!

      reviewed by Paul Robinson

      Canada doesn’t see much of Zubin Mehta these days but he still has a soft spot for Montreal and tries to return as often as he can to the city that helped him so much in his early days as a conductor. He was back again to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) last week and it turned into a great event for all concerned. Mehta has a home in Los Angeles, but he doesn’t conduct there much any more. His primary musical responsibilities are to the Israel Philharmonic – he was appointed music director for life in 1981 – and the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence, where he is currently at work on a new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle.

      Montreal Symphony and Zubin Mehta Grew Together in the 60s
      In 1961, at the very beginning of his career, the OSM took a chance on 25-year-old Zubin Mehta and hired him as music director. For the next six years, he and the orchestra learned repertoire together, but within a year of his OSM appointment, Mehta also became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1962-77). His career quickly became international. In 1977, he became music director of the Israel Philharmonic, and then the New York Philharmonic (1978-91), and later, the Bavarian State Opera (1998-2006) in Munich. He is a regular guest conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and has been invited by its members to conduct no fewer than four of its famous New Year’s concerts.

      For his return visit to Montreal to celebrate the OSM’s 75th, Mehta put together a programme of works by Messiaen and Saint-Saens to be presented in the Notre Dame Basilica in Old Montreal. Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (Messiaen) was part of “Automne Messiaen 2008” being celebrated all over Montreal from September to December and culminating in performances of Messiaen’s opera Saint Francis of Assisi conducted by Kent Nagano. In fact, 2008 is the centenary of Messiaen’s birth: the actual date is December 10.

      Mehta on Messiaen: “I really miss him!”

      I had not realized that Mehta has been a great champion of Messiaen’s music over the years. At his press conference held a few days before the Montreal concert, Mehta talked about his relationship with Messiaen and his music, and passed on an amusing anecdote. It seems that Messiaen was in Tel Aviv for rehearsals of his Turangalila Symphony with the Israel Philharmonic. During the course of rehearsals the players became bored and restless and at one of the breaks some of them went to Messiaen and asked him to cut a couple of movements. Naturally, Messiaen was offended and made a counter-suggestion. Better they should cut the other work on the programme – Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony – and he would tell them exactly where to make the cuts! Mehta had to apologize to Messiaen over the incident. No word on whether anyone apologized to Mozart.

      Mehta recalled that Messiaen often came to rehearsals wearing a colourful Hawaiian shirt with girls in hula skirts on it, but when it came to the performance of his music he was very serious and very strict.

      Wind, Brass & Percussion Orchestration – When “Bigger” is “Better”
      Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum was given its first performance in 1965 at the Church of St. Chapelle in Paris and then a month later at Chartres Cathedral. It is obviously designed to be performed in a large space with long reverberation time. The orchestra comprises only winds, brass and percussion and the music features slow-moving chords and percussion effects from various kinds of bells, gongs and tam-tams that are intended to reverberate in a large space. Notre Dame Basilica is indeed a large space, but in this case “bigger” is even better. The piece sounded wonderful in Notre Dame – especially the almost deafening percussion crescendos – but to have heard it in Chartres Cathedral would have been something else again.

      Mehta conducted the Messiaen with his customary efficiency. Messiaen pupil Pierre Boulez could hardly have done better. Nor was Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum the only Messiaen heard during the evening. The concert began with a performance of the early (1932) organ piece Apparition de l’Église éternelle played by Pierre Grandmaison. This ten-minute work begins with a series of unsettling tone clusters, but gradually out of extreme dissonance comes relief in the form of the grandest and loudest major chords one is ever likely to hear from an organ. Presumably, this is the “apparition” of the title.

      Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony Pure Sound, Beautifully Balanced

      The major work on the programme - and the best-known - was Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 Organ, with organist Patrick Wedd. For all its deserved popularity, this symphony is seldom heard under ideal conditions. It is most often performed in concert halls and often with electronic organs, but this performance was the real deal and I never expect to hear it done better. I was sitting about half-way back in Notre Dame, which meant that I was about the same distance from Mehta and the orchestra in front of me and the organ console and pipes behind me. Thanks to careful preparation by the performers, balances in both soft and loud passages were just about right. Given the size of the place and the vast distance between orchestra and organ this was an amazing achievement; of course, the performers have the benefit of video cameras to see and hear each other, but it still takes musicians with sharp ears and cool nerves to make it all work.

      Mehta has had a lot of experience with the Organ Symphony. He has recorded it several times, most recently with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1997, and his view of the piece has become more refined over the years. Saint-Saens saves all the bombast for the last movement – this is the only time in the piece that the organ is allowed to play fortissimo – and Mehta made sure that the really big guns were saved until the end. In fact, the only other section of the score where the organ plays is the second movement ‘Poco Adagio,’ and there it mostly meshes softly with the orchestra in an accompanying role.

      From the OSM Mehta got all the power he needed, but also a beautifully dark and blended sound. At the same time, Mehta had obviously asked the timpanist to use hard sticks so that the important timpani solos would register clearly in the reverberant acoustic.

      In both the Messiaen and the Saint-Saens, we saw a master conductor at work. Mehta is a consummate technician, but he also loves the music he plays. It was a treat to see him at work and to hear this music so well performed.

      Mehta Discography, Autobiography, and a Well Deserved Award
      For listeners who wish to hear more of Mehta, there is a huge catalogue of recordings and DVDs and it continues to expand with new releases almost every month. Among his recent releases are the VPO New Year’s Concert 2007 from DG on both CD and DVD; the Israel Philharmonic’s 70th Anniversary Concert from 2007 released by Euroarts on DVD; and of special interest to those who want to see how he does it, there is a DVD called Zubin Mehta in Rehearsal from Image Entertainment. We see Mehta rehearsing Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel with the Israel Philharmonic, followed by a complete performance. Also scheduled for release on September 30 by Medici Masters is a 1977 concert with Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the title Zubin Mehta: Los Angeles Philharmonic.

      For more information about Zubin Mehta, his life, recordings and upcoming performances visit his website at

      It was announced this week that Mehta has been awarded the prestigious Praemium Imperiale by the Japan Arts Foundation. The prize is given for lifetime achievement and is worth US$143,000. It will be officially presented in a special ceremony in Tokyo on October 15.

      Finally, Mehta has recently written his autobiography. It is available now in German (Partitur meines Leben), Italian, and Hebrew, and the English version will be released by Amadeus Press November 15 with the title Zubin Mehta: a Memoir.

      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
      Blog Photos by Marita

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