I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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West Side Story at the BBC Proms: musically strong, but dramatically weak

Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story (concert version)
Mikaela Bennett – Maria
Ross Lekites – Tony
Eden Espinosa – Anita
Leo Roberts – Riff
Gian Marco Schiaretti – Bernardo
Students from ArtsEd and Mountview
John Wilson, John Wilson Orchestra
Stephen Whitson, stage director
London, Royal Albert Hall, 11 August 2018

To mark Leonard Bernstein’s centenary several performances in the BBC Proms are dedicated to Lenny’s rich and diverse legacy. His essential contribution to stage and screen was commemorated with revivals of West Side Story and, later this month, On The Town. West Side Story was brought in a hybrid version, directed by Stephen Whitson, and performed by John Wilson and his eponymous orchestra and an international cast of singers. Half concert, half staged, it took its strengths from Wilson’s irresistible conducting and some of the singing, but as a whole the dramatic and emotional impact of the work was seriously underplayed.

It’s interesting to hear Bernstein lament in his last long interview published in “Dinner with Lenny” by Jonathan Cott (1989) about the problems the creators faced to cast West Side Story for the premiere in 1957. “Casting that show was a very tough problem because the actors had to be able to sing and dance and be taken for teenagers…. Some of them were wonderful singers, but couldn’t dance very well. Or they were great dancers who couldn’t sing very well…. and if they could do both, they couldn’t act. We went through hell.” A concert version which omits the choreography, most of the dialogue and some of the dramatic scenes “solves” a few of these issues the hard way, but creates others, and still has to deal with finding suitable voices. And Bernstein wasn’t even considering political correctness then.

As it goes nowadays in our brave world wherein political correctness is sabotaging even the most basic common sense (let alone an informed approach to a work of art), this performance of West Side Story was overshadowed by a row over the so-called “whitewashing” of the female lead. The announced singer Sierra Boggess, the American Broadway and West End star who has successfully sung the role of Maria and others on previous Proms, felt obliged to withdraw after suffering backlash in the US from overzealous critics who thought the role of Puerto Rican Maria should go to a Latin-American performer. Canadian-born Mikaela Bennett stepped in and your guess is just as good as mine as to what her Latin-American connections are. That this was after all primarily a concert performance where voices instead of backgrounds matter, was of apparently no consequence. Neither, I’m sorry to say, that Bennett is a far less accomplished singer than Boggess. But hey, thankfully, with the help of an Ottawa native, everything was politically correct again and the Puerto Ricans escaped another grave insult. I refrained from checking the origin of the other cast members though.

But back to the arts. The annual appearances of John Wilson and his handpicked orchestra have since 2009 become one of the most eagerly anticipated acts of the BBC Proms. There were two shows of West Side Story on the day and at least the evening performance was a total sellout (which means in London’s Royal Albert Hall over 5,000 tickets). The orchestra is a crack formation, with superb soloists and a magnificent sound to boast. John Wilson has proven to be the expert guide in reviving Broadway and Hollywood scores and here again the magic worked. The eclectic fusion of Bernstein’s music may be well known but I have never heard it perform in such a brilliantly colored and subtly detailed manner as here. It was indeed like hearing the score for the first time. With superbly controlled dynamics and an unerring flair for dramatic impact Wilson switches in a blink from ethereal string tones to the wildest swing and jazz rhythms. Kenneth Tynan’s characterization of the music in 1958 “as smooth and savage as a cobra” rang true. The Dance at the gym with its diverse Latin American rhythms was a total riot, as was Cool, but it were the lyrical numbers that proved revelatory by the complexity of their orchestration. And what joy to see the percussionists and drummer work out on their instruments with such cool panache.

Singers and choir appeared in 1950’s costumes but that was about the only element to place the action. For the remainder this was very much West Side Story in Kensington anno 2018, with this ugly amplification which gives the voices a metallic twang in the high notes. With most of the dialogue cut and Jerome Robbins’ choreography totally absent, we were dealt a West Side Story greatest hits version.

Nothing but praise though for Ross Lekites’ Tony who was for my money, with Wilson and the orchestra, really the star of the show. Acting the part within the constraints of the production to perfection, his rendition of the hackneyed Maria was absolutely heart-rending. Mikaela Bennett, on the other hand, lacked as singer and character the innocence for Maria. She was far too eager and knowing to be falling in love the first time, while her singing style sometimes verged on the operatic. After the interval she sounded more convincing in I feel pretty, which has the most ravishing string accompaniment. Eden Espinosa was a fiery Anita but her vocal delivery missed dramatic punch in A boy like that and wit in America. The hilarious Gee, Officer Krupke number however was tremendous fun with Alistair Brammeri’s Action and his Jets. The 2nd-Act ballet sequence Somewhere was adroitly turned into a number for soprano and orchestra, sung with ravishingly contained passion by Louise Alder.

It was expected you had seen West Side Story a few times (and who hasn’t, of course…) to grasp the holes left in the narrative. Most crucially at the end when Anita tries to warn Tony but only ends up being humiliated by the Jets, after which she gives them a false message about Maria’s death – nothing of this was seen in this version, there was only the music. We didn’t see the deaths of Riff and Bernardo either (we merely heard about them in the 2nd Act after the interval) and only Tony is seen dying in the final moments, although this scene was handled far too abrupt to be genuinely moving.

In short, plenty to enjoy this evening, primarily thanks to John Wilson and his fantastic orchestra, and some superb singing, foremost from Ross Lekites. Yet this was above all an homage to the art of Bernstein and orchestrators Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin, rather than a celebration of West Side Story as a landmark in musical theatre history.


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Alice Sara Ott and Edo de Waart bring magnificent Mozart and Dvořák to Antwerp

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 13 in C Major, KV 415 (KV 387b)
Antonin Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, “From the New World”

Alica Sara Ott, piano
Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart
Antwerp, Elisabeth Center, 19 May 2018

The Antwerp Symphony Orchestra (ASO, formerly known as the deFilharmonie or the Royal Flemish Philharmonic) is a superb formation, one of the finest in the country. The quality of this ensemble was undeniable in an utterly delightful Mozart and Dvořák matinee concert in Antwerp’s Queen Elisabeth Hall under the ASO’s Conductor Laureate, Dutch maestro Edo de Waart. The presence of Alice Sara Ott as soloist was icing on the cake.

Read the full review on Bachtrack


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Leipzig Gewandhaus dazzles but fail to move in Brussels

Thomas Larcher: Chiasma
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, KV 550
Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 “Pathétique”

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Andris Nelsons
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 29 April 2018

Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” form quite a formidable pairing in concert. Emotional music that packages beauty with nostalgia and sadness, yet expressed in such an individual manner that performing the symphonies back to back proves extra challenging. In Brussels, on his maiden tour as Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Andris Nelsons faced that challenge with brilliant and often spectacular readings, which were dazzling rather than moving.

Read the full review on Bachtrack


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Thrilling Beethoven and Mahler from Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra in Antwerp

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major “Titan”

Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen
Elisabeth Center, Antwerp, 18 April 2018

In Antwerp, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra offered a symphonic feast, with insightful and thrilling readings of Beethoven’s Second and Mahler’s First. In effect, it was not unlike visiting old friends who suddenly appeared younger, more vibrant and congenial than you remembered them. Conductor and orchestra demonstrated once again that, in the right hands, familiar repertory can still prove compelling and even surprising. In other words, they possess the formula for bringing a great concert.

Read the full review on Bachtrack


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Total Tchaikovsky in Antwerp

Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky:
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 – fragments
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36

Ivan Bessonov, piano
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev
Elisabeth Center, Antwerp, 17 January 2018

tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov in 1883

The concept of a concert devoted to a single composer may not be that rare after all, as was demonstrated by this performance of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra under Valery Gergiev in Antwerp. The Russians brought a full, and as it turned out, very long evening of Tchaikovsky music in the splendidly refurbished Elisabeth Center in downtown Antwerp. A copious selection from The Nutcracker, the First Piano Concerto introducing whiz kid Ivan Bessonov, and the Fourth Symphony formed a program that ran well over three hours. Any lover of Tchaikovsky’s or Russian music will naturally welcome such a generous evening, yet as to why it ran so long was bound to raise a few eyebrows.

This concert, which I could attend thanks to the generosity of the organizing company Cofena, resembled to some extent Valery Gergiev’s recent Tchaikovsky CD on the Mariinsky label, coupling The Nutcracker with the Fourth Symphony. It had much the same qualities and flaws as on the recording. Overall these were analytical rather than emotional performances. The sonority of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra was admirable throughout. As an ensemble they are hard to beat. Even with their grueling performance schedule, they still do better than most. The characteristic emphasis on darker tones, punctuated by the lower strings and brass, works extremely well for this late-Tchaikovsky ballet and the symphony. Gergiev opens up the sound with meticulous precision and he lets you hear details you may never have noticed before. Yet this now comes at a heavy price. Many of his tempi have become slow to the point of inertia and some of his pacing impossibly contrived.

The concert started late, but that’s not unusual with maestro Gergiev, and it opened not with the scheduled Overture of The Nutcracker but immediately with the Departure of the guests. His handpicked selection largely emulated Evgeny Mravinsky’s famous live recording from Leningrad, although unfortunately that is as far as the comparison went. For this being the most exciting section of the ballet, including dramatic passages like the Battle with the mice, the Pine forest in Winter and the Waltz of the Snowflakes, Gergiev’s traversal turned out to be a pretty uneventful affair. There was orchestral detail to delight within every bar, and one would be hard-pressed to find an ensemble that knows this music better than the Mariinsky, but where was the life, the imagination, the frisson that sets these pages apart? For a conductor who has given us one of the most electrifying recordings of The Nutcracker on disc (in 1998), Gergiev appears to have developed a bizarre attitude towards the work. Or perhaps he simply wasn’t there yet this evening. The climaxes sounded flat and underwhelming and while the orchestral balance favored the – otherwise superb – lower brass, I could hardly hear the timpani from my seat at the back of the parterre. By the time they tackled an uneventful Waltz of the Flowers and a dangerously dragging Andante maestoso it seemed everybody had given up. Some 20 years ago I heard Gergiev and the Mariinsky in a complete Nutcracker concert. They blew off the roof with their full-blooded reading, displaying magic and drama in every bar. Yet hearing this now, this seems like a very long time ago indeed.

The best part of the evening was undoubtedly the performance of 15-year old Ivan Bessonov in Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto. Born in St. Petersburg in a family of musicians, Bessonov has been playing the piano since he was six. He garnered the first prize in several youth competitions, among others the International Frédéric Chopin Youth Competition (2015) and the International Anton Rubinstein Competition The Piano Miniature in Russian Music (2016), both in St. Petersburg, as well as the international Grand Piano Competition for young pianists in Moscow. Long and lanky, with a mop of hair, he resembles a 1970’s rock star. His performance of the Concerto was by all means quite astonishing – for any age: keyboard touch and color were impressive, his technique rock-solid. But above all he appeared fearless, undisturbed by a few slips in the beginning moments. His musicality seems pretty straightforward, for now devoid of too many distracting mannerisms and tics. There is no doubt this man is going to go places. The clarity of his articulation and the directness of his delivery were completely matched by Gergiev who appeared in a much better doing here than the rest of the evening and secured a thrilling performance, deservedly greeted with a standing ovation.

Every time I hear Gergiev conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, I am less convinced by his approach. The mannerisms seem to increase by the season, as does the running-time. In the concerts from 2011 the Fourth was already by far the least persuasive of the Tchaikovsky symphonies cycle and Gergiev’s recent CD recording only confirmed the impression of artificiality and incoherence. He clearly has something special in mind with this work, but what exactly is anybody’s guess. Gergiev’s unwarranted lingering in the first and second movements produced far too many drops of tension. In effect, by now the symphony has fallen into a succession of episodes, some undeniably beautiful (as the opening of the slow movement, thanks to the magnificent Mariinsky woodwinds), others merely bland (as the return of the fate motif in the first movement, or the endless conclusion of the Andantino, due to Gergiev’s obsessive scrutiny of every orchestral detail), but eventually inconsequential. Even the buoyant Scherzo failed to take flight. The symphony is too drawn out, takes forever to end, and fails to make any impact as a whole. One could argue that Gergiev overplays the symphony’s dark beauty, but in the process he has totally smothered its passion and excitement.

The Lullaby and the grandiose finale of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird which allowed the orchestra to open its big guns one more time, was a very generous encore for an already long evening. Of the dozens of concerts and operas conducted by Valery Gergiev I attended in the last 25 years or so, this has to be one of the most dispiriting. Works that once sounded great in his hands now fizzled out or morphed into cluttered, unconvincing personal statements. Yet, not all was lost, as this concert allowed us to get acquainted with a rare new talent, Ivan Bessonov, from whom we will surely hear again in a not too distant future.

Copyright © 2018 Marc Haegeman


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Total Liszt

Franz Liszt:
Sposalizio, S161/1 (orch. Salvatore Sciarrino)
Totentanz, S126
A Faust Symphony, S108

Alice Sara Ott, piano
Brenden Gunnell, tenor
Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey, chorus director
London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano
Barbican Hall, London, 26 November 2017

Come to think of it, concerts devoted to a single composer – jubilees and special anniversaries notwithstanding – are quite unusual. The well-considered “Total Liszt” program from the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano gave ample proof that evenings like this do work and make perfect sense. “Total Liszt” put the Hungarian composer in a propitious light, offering variety, a discovery, but above all outstanding music-making and plenty of thrills.

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt

The discovery came in the shape of Sposalizio, originally the sublime opening part of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, Second Year: Italy for solo piano, yet here in a 2015 orchestration by the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino (1947-). By using a modernist, sophisticated instrumentation (including bells and glockenspiel), Sciarrino pulls the work resolutely towards himself, yet the result is that the graceful evocation of the Marriage of the Virgin, as Liszt saw it in Raphael’s painting in Milan, ends up somewhere in modern-day Cinema Paradiso. Plenty of attention-grabbing sonic effects (piccolo and bass clarinet joining forces), with some weird pauses thrown in, and you were listening to the sound rather than the content. Although intently and lovingly performed by Pappano and the LSO, Sposalizio in Sciarrino-style was something of an oddity.

The following Totentanz grabbed the attention as well, but for very different reasons. Liszt’s fascination with death and the diabolical, partly fueled by his traveling and interest in arts, never found a more frightening expression as in this short work for piano and orchestra, adroitly variegating the Dies irae theme, as well as pushing the limits of harmony and piano technique. The Totentanz was given a knockout performance by pianist Alice Sara Ott. Appearing in a black gown, as if dressed for an infernal ball, she left little doubt she wanted to have a great time. And so did we.

The Totentanz has been in Ott’s repertory for some years and it’s clear she knows how to bring it with devastating impact. Her innate classical poise prevents her from pushing the piece over the edge, yet it’s exactly this flirting with the abyss which makes the Totentanz such an exciting ride. Alternately burning and melting the piano, she delivered the ferocious runs (including these jaw-dropping glissandos) with breathtaking speed, articulation and clarity, while the reflective moment in the fourth variation acquired a mesmerizing beauty in her hands. This was death equally creepy as well as beguiling. A close connection with Pappano and the LSO in great form added to the overall excitement and success. Alice Sara Ott received a thunderous applause and returned with a contrasting encore, the C-sharp minor Nocturne from Chopin in a ravishing gossamer delivery.

As rarely performed in the concert-hall as the Totentanz is the Faust Symphony in its complete 1857 version, including the finale with tenor solo and male-voice choir. Antonio Pappano offered overall a fine, often very beautiful, if eventually not entirely convincing reading of the Faust Symphony. Focused, attentive to every detail, coherently shaped and without a single drop in tension, the first two movements stood out: Faust appeared as a wild, edgy and volatile character, while Gretchen breathed tenderness and innocence to delight. Mephistopheles however would have benefited from more abandon and profounder work on the instrumental color. Perhaps it was the onslaught of the preceding Totentanz still fresh in mind, or simply the emphasis of the first movement which made Mephistopheles sound somewhat underwhelming. But in any case the contrast between the outer movements was too little pronounced, with Faust appearing as vivid and unsettling as his diabolic reflection. The “Chorus mysticus” finale, adding a spiritual dimension to the human conflicts evoked in the symphony, was however properly grand and powerful, with splendid vocal contributions from the American tenor Brenden Gunnell and gents from the London Symphony Chorus.

The playing of the LSO was a constant pleasure this evening, nary a weak link in the ensemble. With his detailed approach and care for orchestral balance, Pappano capitalized on the divided strings of the massive ensemble, highlighting the often brilliant writing of the symphony. Nowhere more so as in Gretchen, where Liszt at times reduces the orchestral forces to a chamber music scale. The admirable LSO woodwinds, especially Bobby Cheng’s oboe and Adam Walker’s flute, often in dialogue with groups of or even solo strings, always set the proper tone and atmosphere.

“Total Liszt” was a superb evening. Alice Sara Ott’s performance of the Totentanz was in a class of its own and in spite of some minor quibbles, A Faust Symphony remained a remarkable achievement as well. Running well over 70 minutes the symphony can be a daunting prospect, yet performances of such constant high quality as here by Pappano and the LSO are liable to convince you it has to be this way. The label of “heavenly length”, as in the case of Schubert’s later works, wouldn’t be inappropriate.

Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman