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Dr. Irving Spitz: October 2011 Archives

October 2011 Archives

The London Proms

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"To introduce the greatest classical music to the widest possible audience,” Henry Wood, founder

Prom is an abbreviation for promenade and the first Prom concerts were given in 1895.  They have been running continuously ever since making this the world’s longest running music festival.  Henry Wood conducted the first of these concerts and remained at the helm for almost 50 years.  During the Proms, his bust is prominently displayed on the stage.  The Proms also took place during the London Blitz although their original home, Queens Hall, was bombed and the concerts were transferred to the Royal Albert Hall.  Today, up to 900 Prommers stand in the central arena of the vast hall, with a further 500 in the top gallery.  The rest of the audience is accommodated in seats in rows in the tiered arches.  The hall’s capacity is over five thousand.
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Initially the concerts were given almost exclusively by London ensembles.  However in the 1960’s, the organizers started to invite foreign ensembles and this transformed the Proms into an international event.  Today, this is probably one of the largest music festivals in the world.  Many of the great international orchestras currently do the traditional summer festival circuit comprising Salzburg, Lucerne and Edinburgh. Since London is almost at the epicentre of this hub, many of these orchestras make an obligatory stop at the London Proms.     

The climax of the Proms is the last night which is traditionally a concert with popular classics and British patriotic pieces.  To accommodate all the people who wish to attend this event and to cater for those who are not near London, this last night concert is relayed to London’s Hyde Park as well as other venues throughout the United Kingdom. 
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The current two-month festival comprised 74 concerts.  There were also additional events including chamber concerts, matinees, late night events as well as workshops and family events at the Albert Hall as well as other venues.  Emphasis was given to the music of Liszt, this being his bicentennial.  This year is also the 100th anniversary of the death of Mahler whose music also featured prominently.  The 75th birthday of American minimalist composer Steve Reich was also celebrated as was the music of Frank Bridge, the mentor of Benjamin Britten.  There were also performances of specially commissioned works.

More than twenty international orchestras participated in the festival and I was present at two concerts.  Sir Colin Davis conducting The London Symphony Orchestra led a glorious performance of Beethoven’s choral masterpiece, the Missa Solemnis with the London Philharmonic Choir and the London Symphony Chorus.  The soloists included Helena Juntunen (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Paul Groves (tenor) and Matthew Rose (bass).  From a seated position, the octogenarian Colin Davis was in absolute control.  He conducted the work at a slow measured pace and despite his minimum gestures, the orchestra responded to his every motion.  

Beethoven was not very kind to his vocalists.  With his progressive deafness, by the time this Missa was written he had forgotten the limitations of the human voice.  In addition, the poor acoustics of the Albert Hall was not helpful.  Without question, the most successful of the vocal soloists was Sarah Connolly.  Her contributions to the Sanctus and Agnes Dei were particularly noteworthy.  Helena Juntunen and Matthew Rose were both effective although one could argue that he former was too dramatic and the latter took some time to settle down.  Paul Groves is a light lyrical tenor and it was often difficult to hear him above the orchestra.  Perhaps the most poignant moment of the performance was the violin obbligato played by orchestra leader, Gordan Nikolitch accompanying the soloists in the Benedictus.  The huge choral forces added much drama to this overwhelming and inspiring performance.  Catherine Edward’s playing of the Albert Hall organ was noteworthy.
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The other concert featured the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under its Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck.  Although not a member of the so called “Big Five”, their playing was very proficient.  The fact is that the vast majority of US orchestras maintain an extremely high standard.  This is not surprising since music schools and academies are turning out so many top-notch young instrumentalists.  

As a short curtain-raiser, they played three short extracts from a piece entitled the Fantastic Appearances of a Theme of Hector Berlioz by the relatively unknown German composer, Walter Braunfels.  His music was popular in Germany and even internationally in the 1920 and early 1930’s.  He refused to cooperate with the Nazi regime but did not leave Germany.  His music was not played during the Third Reich but over the last decade it has been rediscovered and is now occasionally programmed.  This late romantic work highlighted the proficiency of the brass and woodwind section of this technically impressive orchestra.  

This was followed by a performance of the Beethoven fourth piano concerto with the French pianist, Hélène Grimaud.  No one could argue with Ms Grimaud’s formidable piano technique as shown by her exemplary rendering of the first movement cadenza.  She has a wonderful light touch and her fortissimo passages were also outstanding.  In this allegro movement, she often took an independent route and the orchestra had trouble keeping up.  Was this a clash between Gallic and German temperaments?  However everything came together in the slow andante and final rondo where there was complete cohesion between soloist and orchestra.  

The concert concluded with Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony.  There was some beautiful playing, notably the mournful clarinets at the beginning of the first movement and the horn in the second movement.  However there was too much accentuation of the brass and I missed the grand romantic sweep and emotional intensity associated with this work.  The performance was somewhat uninspiring and one could not escape the conclusion that Honeck was most interested in showing off the prowess of the strings, brass and woodwinds of this fine ensemble. 

Unfortunately not everything in the Proms went off smoothly.  The most unpleasant event occurred when a group of Palestinian agitators and their British supporters tried to interrupt the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert conducted by Zubin Mehta (I did not attend this performance).  They were eventually evicted but for the first time in the Proms history, the radio broadcast had to be terminated.  The concert resumed and was received with great public and critical acclaim.  In this sordid incident, art eventually triumphed politics! 

In the current season, there was a record breaking 94% average attendance for evening concerts.  Over 70% of the Proms were completely sold out and 300,000 music lovers attended.  Millions more watched the concerts on TV, radio and online.  

This article was published in abridged form in The Jerusalem Post on 4 October, 2011

Fig 1: The view from inside the Royal Albert Hall, showing the Prommers, those audience members standing in the central arena.  Photo Credit, I.S.

Fig 2: The Royal Albert Hall, site of the annual Proms, the world’s oldest international music festival. Photo Credit, I.S.    

Fig 3:  Conductor Sir Colin Davis and soloists acknowledging the applause of the Prommers after the conclusion of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.  Photo Credit, I.S.    

Andréa Chenier on Lake Constance: The ultimate outdoor operatic experience

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Bregenz, a delightful small Austrian town on Lake Constance, is the site of a summer month-long opera festival which tailors to the connoisseur as well as the masses.  The festival features indoor productions of contemporary or other rarely performed operas.  But what really brings in the crowds is the annual fully staged opera on the legendary floating stage on the Lake, a venue which accommodates 7000 people. 

Since 2003, the festival has been in the hands of the British Opera Director, David Pountney.  He has mounted stunning productions.  This festival is acknowledged internationally as probably the most spectacular of all open air operatic venues.  Aida, Il Trovatore, Tosca and West Side Story have been staged recently and this year it was Andrea Chenier which will be repeated again in 2012.  Because of the complex logistical problems, operas may be shortened so that they can be performed without an intermission.   

An open air venue is dependent on the elements and thunderstorms and rain represent a major obstacle.  The organizers have even found a partial solution.  When the heavens open up, the opera is transferred to the modern indoor, state of the art Festspielhaus (Festival Theatre), where those ticket holders with the more expensive seats can be accommodated.  The smart Austrians even anticipate this exigency and the arena tickets also have a seat assigned to the Festspielhaus.  This transfer is done with great efficiency and within a remarkably short time, the opera continues.  

Andréa Chenier, a prototype verismo opera was composed by Italian composer Umberto Giordano.  The libretto, by Luigi Illica, is set during the times of the French Revolution. It is a love story based on the life of a real historical character, the poet Andrea Chenier. He was initially an ardent supporter of the revolution but subsequently, like so many other innocent people, he became a victim of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror and was guillotined.  

The main female protagonist, the young aristocrat Maddalena, falls passionately in love with Andréa Chenier.  She eventually takes the place of another woman so that she could have the dubious distinction of being guillotined with her lover.  The other main character, Carlo Gérard, once a servant in the service of the aristocratic household of Maddalena’s mother, becomes a revolutionary ringleader.  He has always been hopelessly in love with Maddalena and falsely denounces the poet to the Revolutionary Tribunal.  Then overcome by the love and dedication shown by Maddalena for Andréa Chenier, he tries to have this sentence reversed, but to no avail.  

The current production was directed by Keith Warner.  David Fielding’s spectacular sets comprised a gigantic head and torso modelled after the famous neoclassical revolutionary painting The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David.  Marat, a medical doctor and philosopher turned revolutionary had been murdered by the fanatic Charlotte Corday.  The 24 meter-high head and neck weighing 60 tons, rises majestically from an island in the lake.  A series of stairways radiate from the left eye enabling singers to enter and exit at multiple levels.  

Other innovative stage elements included an open book of Chenier’s poems, lying to the left of the head.  To the right was a huge oval gold frame.  On one occasion, acrobats performed perilously within this open frame.  Marat’s hand supported an additional stage.  There was also a moving platform floating on the lake.  Dancers periodically appeared and dived into the water.  My only criticism, and this is minor, is that there were often multiple activities going on simultaneously which made it difficult to keep precise track of all the proceedings.  German subtitles were projected on the shoulders of Marat’s statue.  Lynn Page was the choreographer of this unbelievable spectacle.  

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There was a magical effect as the opera began, with the sun setting over the lake.  The first Act takes place in the ballroom of the aristocratic palace of Maddalena’s mother immediately prior to the onset of the French revolution. The action was played out on the small stage supported by Marat’s hand.   The costumes (by Constance Hoffman), were flamboyant especially the exotic head gear of Maddalena’s mother.  During this Act, the massive head of Marat was draped.

The rest of the action takes place during the Reign of Terror.  In the transition to Act 2, Keith Warner highlighted some of the violent excesses of the revolution.  From the moving platform on the lake, revolutionaries attacked, raped and murdered the aristocrats and then summarily threw them into the water.  An apparition of the burning palace of Maddalena’s mother appeared on the open book.  

At the onset of Act 2, the head of Marat was dramatically unveiled.  This was a nice authentic touch since Illica’s libretto calls for one of the radical militants to dust off the bust of the murdered Marat which the revolutionaries had placed in a prominent position in Paris.
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The orchestra accompaniment was provided by the very competent Vienna Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ulf Schirmer.  They were not on site but played from the adjacent Festspielhaus and sound engineer Wolfgang Fritz deserves special credit for enabling such a smooth transfer of sound.  Giant screens on both sides of the arena did project the orchestra so the audience was not completely divorced from them.

What about the singing?  With such dramatic and busy staging, singing assumed a secondary role.  Since this opera was performed 24 times over the course of the current season, there were rotating casts and amplification was a clear necessity.  This makes it very difficult to critically comment on the voices.  This opera has some memorable arias.  In the performance I attended, American tenor Roy Cornelius Smith took on the challenging role of the doomed poet.  His opening aria, when he reviles the aristocracy for their indifference to the suffering of the poor, was sung with brio and verve.  Especially dramatic was the poignant love duet between Andréa Chenier and Maddalena which was touchingly rendered by Spanish soprano Angeles Blancas Gulin and Cornelius Smith.  Ms Gulin was also impressive in the duet where she pleads for the life of her lover with the former servant turned revolutionary, Gerard, sung by American baritone Gerard Lester Lynch who also acquitted himself well.  His demeanour became progressively more sombre as he realized that the revolution had become out of hand.  The excellent choirs of the Prague Philharmonic and the Bregenz Festival contributed significantly to the success of the whole enterprise.  

The contrast between the eclectic crowd at the floating stage in Bregenz and the elitist audience at the Salzburg Festival going on concurrently 300 km to the East could not be greater.  However, there is no doubt that audience appreciation and enjoyment was equivalent at both events. 

Legend to Figures

Fig 1:  The draped face of Marat based on Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting in David Fielding’s dramatic set of Giordano’s Andrea Chenier on the Floating Stage in Lake Constance.  Photo credit: I.S.
Fig 2:   The unveiled face of Marat. Photo credit: I.S.

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