Hi there. I'm still around. Baby stuff has kept me from updating this site in a long while. I did indeed manage to go to a few concerts, though, so in brief:
Extended Boulez Stint
Pierre Boulez's CSO residencies have become the highlights of the past few concert season. This season, having arrived in town early for eye surgery, Boulez happily agreed to fill in for an ailing Muti last October, replacing the scheduled Cherubini with Mahler's 7th, which was broadcast on PBS' Great Performances. The performance was characterized by a warmth and spontaneity rare in Boulez performances. Boulez's first regular scheduled program in late November then featured a make-up for the canceled Ligeti violin concerto Robert Chen was supposed to have played last season under Morlot, which inexplicably got replaced with Tchaikovsky. Chen with his effortless technique is an ideal exponent for a work like this, and it was clear that his colleagues and Boulez lavished a lot of rehearsal time and attention on this work to support their concertmaster. The Ravel and Debussy that bookended the Ligeti, by contrast, had a rather phoned-in feel, despite the expert execution. The absolute highlight not only of Boulez's Chicago stint, but perhaps of the entire season, was Boulez's final program, featuring Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht and Janáček's Glagolitic Mass. My wife and I both thought this to have been the most riveting performance we had heard in Chicago in many years. Orchestra, the CSO Chorus, soloists, and Boulez exceeded themselves on this occasion. Paul Jacobs, the organ soloist, is an animal! I've never heard that solo played like that!
I have a little plea to make at this point: if these performances were taped at all, CSO Resound simply *must* issue a recording. There is a simple reason for this: a recording of this performance would be without any meaningful competition in the market. There are two versions of Janáček's Glagolitic Mass. The one that is most often performed is a bastardized, simplified version, which was forced upon the composer when the first performers insisted that the original score was unplayable. In recent years, the musicologist Paul Wingfield has restored the original version. The differences are significant, the resulting musical experience so much richer, that, once heard, you will be unable to ever return to the simplified version without feeling deeply dissatisfied. The differences include, among other things, a more symmetrical layout, with the Intrada played both at the beginning and at the end, and the Veruju climaxes with a gigantic timpani cadenza that is massively cut in the simplified version; furthermore, the simplified version completely eliminates complex polyrhythms in the Uvod and simplifies the meter of the Gospodi, both of which lead to a much less craggy, less modern and less dramatic musical impression of the work. If you were to shop around for a recording of the Glagolitic Mass, you will undoubtedly run into three recordings that are generally most recommended by connoisseurs: Ančerl, Kubelik or Mackerras (Czech PO). Yet, all three of these (Ančerl is the most riveting) feature the simplified, bastardized version of the Mass. If you're looking for the restored Wingfield version, you're out of luck. I am aware of only three CD recordings in total, two of which are hopelessly out of print, and none of which comes close to Ančerl or Kubelik in intensity, and none of which match Boulez's performances here of last December in perfection of execution and sheer sweep. Mackerras recorded the Wingfield version on CD with Danish forces, but the result is mediocre with the orchestra and chorus not really of international caliber. A performance with Richard Hickox leading BBC forces was distributed for free with the BBC magazine a while back, but it's... well... Hickox and the BBC. Serviceable, but not stellar. Also, it's completely unavailable these days, except perhaps on ebay. An earlier performance of the Glagolitic Mass with Boulez and the CSO from 2000 was included in the "From the Archives - A Tribute to Pierre Boulez" set issued for a fundraiser by the CSO a couple of years ago, but the CSO store is out of them and it never was available anywhere else. But even Boulez's earlier self didn't perform on the level he did here this last September. Also, in 2000 his singers weren't as good and he didn't have Paul Jacobs on the organ. So, please! can we have a recording of this? Pretty please? It will be an instant award winner.
Friday last week, my wife and I had the incredible good fortune of not only receiving two tickets to the opening night of Lohengrin at the Lyric Opera from two dear friends, but also of having those same friends volunteer to babysit out son in order to enable us to take advantage of their incredibly generous offer.
If you are reading this and don't have a ticket yet to one of the remaining performances, get one now! That is an order! If we weren't living in an age of jaded record collectors convinced that the 1950's were the "golden age" of Wagnerian singing, one would without hesitation say that Johan Botha's portrayal of the title hero is the stuff of legend. I have never, ever heard *anyone* sing this part with such total lack of any hint of technical difficulty, absence of any strain throughout the full four and a half hour marathon, completely effortless projection, and absolutely marvelous control of phrasing and dynamics, and I practically grew up in a German opera house, having heard Lohengrin countless times since I was a wee lad! You can scour the recordings, from Konya to Domingo to Seiffert, nobody sings like this. (Indeed, Botha seems to have just recently recorded the part himself, and the set is already being touted as reference material.) Don't miss this Lohengrin! What is more, Botha is flanked by a very fine Elsa in the form of Emily Magee, who made her career with this role a little over ten years ago (Amber Wagner, whom I haven't heard, replaces her for the last two performances), and who plays and sings the part with appropriate angelic naiveté. The other highlight is a truly demonic Ortrud portrayed by Michaela Schuster. While her voice isn't the prettiest - and it certainly need not be for this part - she exudes such a palpable manipulative malevolence that it makes your hairs stand on end even in the last row of the hall. Her superb diction is an asset as well. Another positive surprise was Georg Zeppenfeld as King Heinrich, who despite youthful appearance gave his character an appropriately profound gravitas, he too with superb diction. Greer Grimsley as Telramund is nearly as good an actor as his female counterpart, Schuster, and their joint scene at the opening of Act II was one of the most mesmerizing of the entire performance, even though Grimsley's voice sometimes tended towards the bark-y. The staging, apparently a recycling of an older Covent Garden production, is minimalist, conventional and unimaginative for sure. But in its minimalism it is also unobtrusive and lets the audience focus on the singers, who have ample acting skills to fill the void, even if Botha with his girth is a bit clumsy in his sword fights with Grimsley. In short, and once again, don't miss this Lohengrin!
CSO Announces 2011/2012 Season
I am kind of glad that the obligations of fatherhood prevented me from blogging at the height of the whole Muti collapse debacle. Some of the speculation around the media was not very nice and I am glad the doctors seem to have figured things out and hopefully patched him up for good, so that he will be able to fulfill his musical duties here in Chicago in the future. In the meantime, the CSO just announced its next season, the second with Muti as music director. Here are the highlights from my idiosyncratic vantage point:
Besides the Concertgebouw, there is probably no other orchestra in the world that is as throughly well versed in Mahler as the CSO. Yet, for the Mahler Centennial, Muti and the CSO have chosen a peculiar route of celebration, that may in fact have some unique gems. For starters, Muti will not conduct any of Mahler's music himself. Instead, Muti's third program in the fall will be a recreation of the last concert Mahler conducted before his death, and it is an eclectic hodgepodge of rarities that makes even Muti's own frequent excursions off the beaten path look conservative. Just take a look at this:
Sinigaglia Overture to Le baruffe chiozzotte
Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4 (Italian)
Martucci Piano Concerto No. 2 (Gerhard Oppitz is the pianist)
Busoni Berceuse élégiaque
Bossi Intermezzi from Goldoniani
I'm sure the eclectic mix of lesser known Italian composers made this an especially attractive program for Muti. Either way, It will certainly be worth hearing, both for the rare opportunity to hear this music performed live at all, and because this is what Muti does best: lavish attention and careful preparation on forgotten gems to such a degree to make them sound like real masterpieces. The real Mahler conducting, however, will be left to guests, featuring the following symphonies: 1 (Zweden), 4 (Haitink), Blumine (Tilson Thomas), 6 (Salonen), das Lied von der Erde (Boulez).
Muti Conducts Franck and Honneger
The other real Muti highlight of next season in my mind is a program in February 2012 featuring Honneger's Pacific 231 and Franck's Symphony in D bookending a new work by composer in residence Mason Bates. The Honneger is another one of those rarities that deserves the welcome attention of a master like Muti. Philippe Jordan's mediocre performance of the Franck here a few seasons ago left such a lingering bad taste in my mouth, that I look forward to hearing it done with more commitment, as the CSO is bound to give Muti.
There are two young conductors I heard many years ago in the German provinces, of whom I made a mental note, as their performances were mature well beyond their years and whose natural and intelligent musicianship promised very successful careers ahead. Coincidentally, both of them will be making their debuts here at the CSO next season. One is Kirill Petrenko, who since my first encounter with him has had a highly successful tenure as director of the Komische Oper Berlin and will soon take over the leadership of the Bavarian State Opera. He has been a regular guest meanwhile at the Berlin Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera (I reviewed a recent performance of the Magic Flute under his leadership here). Kirill Petrenko (not to be confused with Vassily Petrenko of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic) will be debuting at the CSO with a Russian program featuring Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No.1 (with Marc-André Hamelin) and Rachmaninov's Symphony No.3. Petrenko's one-time mentor, Semyon Bychkov, once pronounced him "the only natural-born conductor I have ever met." I agree and would encourage you to hear his organic interpretations next March.
The other conductor, whose career I have been following for a number of years with great interest, and whom I would like to bring to your attention is Stéphane Denève. A Solti and Prêtre apprentice, Denève has in recent years led the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, considerably improving its technical polish, and is slated to take over the SWR Radio Symphony in Stuttgart next season. With his Scottish orchestra he recently completed a cycle of Roussel symphonies for Naxos that has received great reviews. His first CSO program will, in part draw on his experience with that composer, presenting Roussel's le Festin de l'araignée alongside Ravel's Daphnis Suite No.2 and Prokofiev's 2nd Violin Concerto (with Leonidas Kavakos) and the suite from the Love of Three Oranges. In short, it is a program that both plays to Denève's strengths and (in the case of the Roussel) fits in with Muti's concept of bringing rarely-heard music to performance.
The Boulez CSO residencies are always special. The two Boulez programs next season both feature his long time collaborator Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist. The first week brings us Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale and Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire, while the second consists of Schoenberg's Piano Concerto and the aforementioned Mahler, das Lied von der Erde. But the real gem may just be the Beyond the Score feature of Pierrot lunaire - a work which could particularly benefit from such an exposure.