La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

CMIM chant 2012 – Début de l’épreuve quart de finale

par Renée Banville

À l’issue du tirage au sort effectué le lundi 28 mai, la Direction du Concours Musical International de Montréal a annoncé l’ordre de passage des candidats et l’horaire détaillé de l’épreuve quart de finale. Sur les 26 candidats prévus, trois d’entre eux se sont désistés : Tim Mix des États-Unis, Simone Osborne du Canada et Anatoli Sivko de Biélorussie, L’un des membres du jury, M. Dominique Meyer, directeur de l’Opéra de Vienne, a également annoncé qu’il devait annuler sa venue à Montréal. L’épreuve quart de finale a lieu du 29 au 31 mai à la salle Bourgie. On peut voir l’horaire de présentation des 23 candidats sur le site du concours : ou en cliquant directement sur : CMIM Horaire quart de finale 

Seize d’entre eux seront retenus pour la demi-finale qui aura lieu vendredi et samedi. L’épreuve finale se tiendra les 5 et 6 juin à la Maison symphonique, de même que le Concert des lauréats le 8 juin. À noter que lténor russe Viktor Antipenko, qui a été victime d’un malaise à l’épreuve quart de finale de mardi, chantera mercredi à 21 h 30.


Sunday, 27 May 2012

Austin Symphony and Conspirare Partner to Present Psalm Settings by Stravinsky and Bernstein

by Paul Robinson

Maestro Peter Bay

Bach/Stokowski: Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565*
Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms**
Bach-Stokowski: Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582**
Bernstein: Chichester Psalms*

Conspirare Symphonic Choir
Austin Symphony Orchestra
Craig Hella Johnson/ conductor*
Peter Bay/ conductor**
LongCenter for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas

It was a clever idea to program together two important Twentieth Century musical settings of psalms, one by Igor Stravinsky and the other by Leonard Bernstein. While the texts are drawn from the same source, the music could hardly be more different. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is cool and austere while Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” is emotional and more popular in style.

The juxtaposition of these compositions was both absorbing and thought-provoking. The Stravinsky piece is from the composer’s neo-classical period and treats the psalm texts in a largely abstract way. One might say that Stravinsky - the man and the artist - was himself “abstract”. He famously postulated that music was by its very nature “incapable of expressing anything;” in other words, it should be understood as organized sounds rather than as a depiction of feelings or things outside itself.

Bernstein, on the other hand, was inspired by Mahler and the idea that music could express all manner of deep thoughts about life. Bernstein the conductor interpreted most music this way and in his own compositions, he was seldom abstract. His pieces are nearly always about something.

In the performances of these works by the Conspirare Symphonic Chorus and the Austin Symphony on this evening, there was another contrast to consider. Two conductors shared the podium over the course of the evening: Peter Bay, the Austin Symphony’s music director led the Stravinsky, and Craig Hella Johnson, (photo: right) the director of Conspirare conducted the Bernstein. Bay’s rather reserved and analytical persona was perfectly suited to the Stravinsky, and Johnson’s more physical and extroverted conducting style was ideal for the Bernstein.

The program’s two fine choral works were nicely balanced by two Stokowski orchestrations of organ works by Bach. These orchestrations are unabashedly romantic in style and sound more like Wagner or Richard Strauss than Bach. Purists indubitably find such orchestrations entirely inappropriate, but so much the worse for them. Not many concertgoers attend organ recitals and consequently rarely encounter these great works in their original versions. In orchestrating these pieces Stokowski made them available to a much larger audience.

Johnson conducted the famous Toccata and Fugue – one of Stokowski’s signature pieces in concert and in the film Fantasia – with excellent control and a fine sense of drama. Peter Bay handled the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor with equal mastery.

These organ pieces may sound like Wagner or Strauss to the purist “ear”, but the comparison is ultimately superficial. The “sound” comes from an enlarged orchestra and the instruments available to Stokowski, but the essence of the music remains the creation of the original composer – J.S. Bach.

The imaginative improvisatory music which opens the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the glorious theme which is the basis of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, the complex contrapuntal writing, and the beautifully constructed climaxes are all the work of one incomparable composer of the Baroque era – J.S. Bach. Bach’s compositional style was, and remains unique and these are two of his greatest works; they are in no way diminished by being orchestrated by a musician of the stature of Stokowski - quite the contrary.

The hit of the evening was undoubtedly the performance of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. With its jazzy rhythms in the first movement and the heartfelt plea for peace which ends it, the work has become a favorite with audiences around the world. Tonight’s performance was superb, with the choir much more disciplined and scrupulous about intonation than it had been in the Stravinsky. Young boy soprano Lucas Revering was a little timid in his solo but his contribution was nonetheless touching.

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

Photo of Peter Bay by Marita

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This Week in Toronto (May 28 - June 3)

Cellist Yo Yo Ma (Photo: Stephen Danelian)

The good news this week is that one of the most spectacularly gifted and beloved of classical musicians, cellist Yo Yo Ma, is once again returning to Toronto.  He is soloist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Elgar's Cello Concerto, an exquisitely poignant and autumnal work. Ma has had a very long association with this piece, and his interpretation, while wonderful from even his earliest days, has deepened with the passage of time. I find myself tremendously moved by his playing of this masterwork. Other pieces on the program are Voices in the Leaves for cello and orchestra by Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, a composer from Uzbekistan; as well as Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian conducts. Performances on Wednesday May 30 and Thursday May 31 7:30 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall.

Another orchestral concert of interest is Toronto Philharmonia Orchestra on Thursday May 31 8 p.m. at Weston Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York. Czech pianist Boris Krajny, who has family in the Toronto area, is making a welcome return to play the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16. Also on the program is Murray Schafer's Cortege, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3. Toronto Philharmonia's Music Director Uri Mayer conducts.

Now that the COC spring season is history, there are still reasons to go the the Four Seasons Centre, as the Free Noon Hour Concert Series is still going on.  No singing, but a very interesting event is the 2012 preview of the Toronto Summer Music Festival at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at noon on Thursday, May 31.  There are many wonderful artists visiting this year. Of particular interest to opera fans is the appearance of the great Canadian baritone Gerald Finley. He will give a recital and masterclass. Pianist Andre Laplante is the headliner of the opening night, and the Borodin String Quartet is coming to play a program of Russian music. And there are many other gems in this year's Festival program, which you'll hear about from Artistic Director Douglas McNabney.  The centerpiece of this one-hour preview is a performance of Ravel's Piano Trio by Geistrio, a young Canadian chamber group.  And it's free! Be sure to line up an hour ahead to ensure a seat.


Russian Andrey Baranov Wins 2012 Queen Elisabeth Competition

Russian Andrey Baranov has won the 2012 edition of the Queen Elisabeth Competition, this year devoted to violin. He receives a prize of 25.000 eur and the ‘Huggins’ Stradivarius (1708), on loan for a period of three years by the Nippon Music Foundation. Tatsuki Narita won second prize, while Hyun Su Shin is third laureate. Fourth laureate is Esther Yoo, fifth laureate Yu-Chien Tseng, who has also won both prizes of the public, and sixth laureate Artiom Shishkov.

The six unranked laureates, in alphabetical order are Ermir AbeshiMarc BouchkovNikki ChooiDami KimJosef Spacek and Nancy Zhou.

> Watch their performances in the competition site's online video archive.

> List of prizes


Thursday, 24 May 2012

Lancement de l'édition Chant 2012 du CMIM

par Renée Banville

Du 28 mai au 8 juin, la dixième édition du Concours Musical International de Montréal (CMIM) présentera 26 candidats provenant de 7 pays : Biélorussie (2), Corée du Sud (4), États-Unis (4), Pologne (1), Russie (1), Suisse (1) et Canada (13, dont 5 du Québec). On remarque l’absence de l’Allemagne, la France, l’Italie et l’Espagne. On attribue ce fait au peu de dossiers reçus en provenance de ces pays. Par contre, la Corée du Sud et le Canada, où cette discipline est en plein développement, ont soumis de nombreuses demandes. La sélection se faisant à l’aveugle, on ne peut s’étonner que leurs candidats y figurent en grand nombre.

Cette année, le concours déménage : l’épreuve quart de finale (du 29 au 31 mai) ainsi que la demi-finale (1er et 2 juin) auront lieu à la Salle de concert Bourgie du Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal. L’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal dirigé par Alain Trudel accompagnera les finalistes (5 et 6 juin) ainsi que les lauréats lors du concert gala (8 juin), à la Maison symphonique de Montréal. Autre nouveauté : le ténor Marc Hervieux est le nouveau porte-parole du CMIM.

Les candidats se partageront plus de 150 000$. Le Premier Prix obtient 30 000$, en plus d’un montant de 20 000$ pour le développement de sa carrière. Les différentes épreuves du Concours seront diffusées sur et sur les ondes d’Espace musique (100,7 FM à Montréal), ainsi que sur, CBC Radio One et CBC Radio 2.

On peut visionner l’horaire de diffusion et les portraits de chacun des 26 candidats au


Van Zweden/DSO Triumph with Concert Version of Beethoven's Fidelio

by Paul Robinson

Lisa Milne, Leonore (Fidelio)
Robert Dean Smith, Florestan
Robert Bork, Pizarro
Arthur Woodley, Rocco
Simona Saturova, Marzelline
Marcel Reijans, Jacquino
Detlef Roth, Don Fernando
Dallas Symphony Chorus (Joshua Habermann, director)
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden, conductor

Dallas, Texas
May 13, 2012

On the face of it, opera “in concert” is a near impossibility. Opera is an art form that combines live theatre and music, with sets, costumes and the whole nine yards; to present it in concert form is to eliminate most of what makes it what it is; on the other hand, the music alone in many operas is so magnificent that the elimination of a full theatrical presentation can easily be justified, and in some cases, the theatrical elements are so inferior that one is better off without them.

In Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, we have a good example of a score that is easily able to stand on its own in concert, and Jaap van Zweden, his orchestra, chorus and soloists made an excellent case for this kind of presentation.

Musically Brilliant But Lacking Visual Cohesion?
Van Zweden has recorded all the Beethoven symphonies in Holland, and more recently recorded two of them with the Dallas Symphony. We already know that he likes his Beethoven intense, fast, dramatic, detailed and historically informed. All these characteristics were evident in this Fidelio performance; gripping from beginning to end, it was also often beautiful.

Fidelio, however, is neither a symphony nor an oratorio. It has a story and the characters do interact with each other; unfortunately, in this concert performance there was too little of the latter. To be fair, Marcel Reijans (Jacquino) and Simona Saturova (Marzelline) did dialogue to some extent, as did Arthur Woodley (Rocco) and Robert Bork (Pizarro); most importantly, however, Lisa Milne (Fidelio/Leonore) and Robert Dean Smith (Florestan), the couple at the centre of the action barely acknowledged each other at all. In the last half hour, the story of the opera requires them to be in each other’s arms. Instead, they stood on either side of the conductor’s podium mostly staring into the audience instead of into each other’s eyes.

Orchestra “Out of the Pit” Joins Soloists in Starring Role
Leading the cast was Lisa Milne as Leonore, the courageous woman who comes to the prison in disguise to rescue her husband, the political prisoner Florestan. Her voice is lighter than that which we usually hear in the role (i.e., dramatic soprano), and this presented a problem in her great aria “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?” At times Milne, who clearly has a solid technique and a beautiful voice from top to bottom, struggled to be heard above the horn section. This balance issue raises several points: on the one hand, she would have had no problem being heard in an opera house with the orchestra in the pit; on the other, a concert setting allows the audience to hear Beethoven’s orchestration up front, in all its glory.

This was a performance in which van Zweden obviously wanted to hear his horn players. In Leonore’s aria, “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?” and in the introduction to Act Two, they were incredibly powerful. Some would say that they were “too powerful” and blame the poor balances on the conductor. To my mind, they were just fine. As does van Zweden, I like my Beethoven strong. Beethoven played with caution and excessive restraint is no Beethoven at all.

Tenor Robert Dean Smith was her Florestan and he too has a voice that is more lyric than dramatic. Anyone who was fortunate enough to hear Jon Vickers deliver Florestan’s first words, “Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier” knows what power and passion can do for this role. Mr. Smith was always in tune and in control – a fine tenor voice; unfortunately, the role also requires the occasional show of temperament and abandon. After all, this is a man who has fought for freedom and justice and who now finds himself unjustly locked in a dungeon, with every expectation he will die there. Mr. Smith’s interpretation was just a little too moderate and comfortable for a man in Florestan’s predicament.

In the role of Pizarro was baritone Robert Bork, also not what one expected. Pizarro is a cruel and nasty character and one usually sees plenty of teeth-grinding and lip-curling from the singer in the part. Not so with Bork. He underplayed the physical possibilities, and it worked. After all, there are plenty of nice-looking people walking among us who are evil to the core. Bork has a big voice and uses it with great musicality, two facts which made his characterization that much more convincing.

From a musical point of view, there were no weak links in the cast. Soprano Simona Saturova, who has an uncommonly beautiful lyric voice, was particularly impressive as Marzelline.

Detail, Intensity and Dynamic Range
The success of this concert performance of Fidelio was also due in no small part to the chorus. In most opera houses, the Fidelio chorus numbers at most 30-50 people. For this in-concert version of the opera, we had no fewer than 190 voices, those of the Dallas Symphony Chorus, which had been well-prepared by Joshua Habermann and was absolutely galvanized by Jaap van Zweden in this performance. Diction and rhythm were precise, and the dynamic range was staggering.

As is so often the case in Dallas these days - in spite of the shortcomings I have mentioned - what ultimately made this Fidelio memorable was the leadership of Maestro Jaap van Zweden. His attention to detail was amazing and the intensity maintained from beginning to end was remarkable. He continues to build the orchestra into a disciplined and electrifying instrument that can excel in a wide variety of musical styles.

Changes in DSO Horn Section?
The latest changes in the orchestra under van Zweden were in the afore-mentioned horn section. Earlier this season it was announced that longtime principal horn Gregory Hustis would be stepping down. The DSO is currently looking for a replacement and for the Fidelio performances invited Jonathan Boen, principal horn in the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra, to sit in as a guest, and presumably as a possible successor to Hustis.

Whatever the explanation, the horn section has never sounded better. The playing of each of the five was virtually flawless. There were no cracked notes or kicksing, as they call it in Vienna. This was some of the most glorious horn ensemble playing I have ever heard. There was power but there was also one perfectly-tuned chord after another, and the horn sound was golden and pure.
I have no idea whether Jonathan Boen is the man to lead the DSO horn section in the future, but under his leadership, and with van Zweden’s encouragement, each member of the section responded in this performance with thorough preparation and superb execution. For the record, the players were Jonathan Boen, Haley HoopsDavid CooperPaul Capehart and Evan Mino.

Beethoven: Music with a Message Still Relevant Today
In the final scene of Fidelio, Beethoven hammers home the message that preoccupied him his whole life, which was to be given its ultimate form in the Ninth Symphony. Beethoven lived in a time of revolutionary turmoil and he was clearly on the side of the common folk in their struggle against noblemen and dictators. The opera affirms the idea that all men are brothers and need to fight against oppression wherever they find it. The second message in this opera is that faithful/steadfast love between a husband and wife means that each is prepared to give his or her very life for the sake of the other.

Even two hundred years later, these messages, set to music of such elemental power and joy, are as inspirational as ever; they are the heart and soul of Fidelio and Jaap van Zweden, his musicians and singers conveyed them to their Dallas audience with the deepest conviction and artistry. 

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

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Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Hans Graf/HSO: Two Faces of Shostakovich in Houston

by Paul Robinson

Photo by Craig Chesek/Carnegie Hall

Shostakovich/Milman: Anti-Formalist Rayok
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 in G minor Op. 103 “The Year 1905”

Mikhail Svetlov, bass
Houston Symphony/Hans Graf
Jones Hall
Houston, Texas
May 3, 2012

Over 44 years ago, Leopold Stokowski conducted the first North American performance of the Symphony No. 11 by Shostakovich. Stokowski was then music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra (HSO) and had already conducted a number of important Shostakovich (photo: right) premieres. Around the time of those 1958 performances of Symphony No. 11, Stokowski and the HSO also made the first commercial recording of the piece.

Hans Graf, the current music director of the Houston Symphony, is making news again with this Shostakovich masterwork. The May 3rd HSO program paired Symphony No. 11 with one of the composer’s lesser known works, the Anti-Formalist Rayok. A few days later Graf took this same program to New York’s Carnegie Hall, and on June 9th of this year the Houston Symphony, with Graf conducting this same program, will be featured in the “Festival of the World’s Symphony Orchestras” in Moscow – the first American Orchestra ever to be invited to perform at this event.

Leopold Stokowski came to Houston as an authoritative Shostakovich interpreter. Can Hans Graf present similar credentials in New York and Moscow? Judging by the Houston concert I heard, the answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

Musical Satire: Political Comment for Private Consumption
Maestro Graf’s (photo: below right) Houston concert opened with a rarity; Anti-Formalist Rayok is a piece that Shostakovich wrote for the private amusement of his friends in reaction to government heavy-handedness.

In 1936 Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had been condemned as "immoral," and in 1948 he was denounced again at the First Congress of USSR Composers. The charge was “formalism.” The Soviet authorities held the view that all music should serve the ideals of communism, which meant that it should draw on “folk” or “popular” music, it should avoid anything critical of the government, and it should be music that is easily understood by the masses. Obviously, music that is excessively dissonant or complex was unacceptable.

The seriousness of these issues cannot be underestimated. Many artists of the period, and some of Shostakovich’s closest friends, were not only denounced but often rendered unemployable, beaten, sent to labour camps or even murdered.

Anti-Formalist Rayok, a slight piece but vitally important to understanding the composer and his times, was given its first public performance in Washington in 1989, fourteen years after Shostakovich had passed away. The conductor was Mstislav Rostropovich, one of Shostakovich’s longtime friends and a fervent champion of his music.

Staging, Visuals and Surtitles Engage, Amuse and Inform
In Houston, Hans Graf gave Rayok a first-class performance, featuring the excellent and entertaining bass Mikhail Svetlov, (photo: below right)who literally “changed hats” to portray all three government officials lampooned in the piece. Stalin himself was one of these and we can only imagine what the composer’s fate would have been, had the piece been performed publically in his lifetime. Svetlov sang and acted with power and comic skill.

Shostakovich wrote the piece with piano accompaniment only, but in Houston we heard a version for chamber orchestra by Milman. In this version, the bass soloist is joined by a chorus whose role is basically to reinforce the party line espoused by the lead characters. Having decided that professional singers would produce an overly polished sound, Maestro Graf chose instead to use members of the Houston Symphony for the chorus, dressing them in red shirts for the occasion. They rendered their conformist interjections with great enthusiasm!

The performance of Anti-Formalist Rayok was greatly enhanced by the use of historical projections on a screen behind the performers. The younger members of the audience – and there were many in Jones Hall for this concert – probably benefitted as much, if not more than the rest of us, from these contextual visuals.

Symphony No. 11: “The cup of evil has run over”
After intermission came the Symphony No. 11, in a performance that was clearly well-rehearsed and extremely powerful. Shostakovich wrote this symphony four years after Stalin’s death, having outlived the ruthless dictator responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens. As of its composition in 1957, very little had changed in Soviet life and speaking out against the government was still very unhealthy.

On the face of it, Symphony No. 11 would have been exactly what the authorities demanded from their composers. The program attached to it concerns the failed Russian revolution of 1905 in which workers and peasants staged a massive protest in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, demanding that the Tsar relieve their oppression and suffering. The Tsar answered by ordering his troops to massacre the defenseless protesters.

As one digs a little deeper, however, it becomes apparent that there was more on the composer’s mind than the bloody events that led to the downfall of the Tsar and the coming of communism. Shostakovich quotes prison songs in the symphony and those who knew Shostakovich personally claim that he was secretly sympathizing with the Hungarian victims of Soviet guns in 1956. Although I haven’t seen any conclusive evidence for this interpretation, in his Memoirs Shostakovich’s words about this symphony ring true. He recalls that he and his family often discussed the 1905 revolution and what it meant for the Russian people.

It is surely a short-sighted view of Shostakovich to think of him only as an artist in constant fights with the Stalinist regime. He was Russian too and cared deeply about his country and his fellow citizens. In paying tribute in 1957 to those who died in the 1905 revolution, Shostakovich was also saying something profound about Russian leaders of that time. In his own words: “I wrote it in 1957 and it deals with contemporary themes even though it’s called 1905. It’s about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over.”

Unearthly, Searing, Heartbreakingly Beautiful Music
The opening movement of Symphony No. 11 depicts the unearthly quiet in the Palace Square before the massacre. Graf and the Houston Symphony captured perfectly that unbearable calm before the storm. Then came the massacre in the second movement and the orchestra unleashed searing torrents of sound. Never have I heard the bass drum part executed with such devastating effect. In the third movement, the violas have music of heartbreaking beauty and the Houston Symphony players outdid themselves. The final bars were memorable too for the pealing of enormous “bells” at the back of the orchestra.

I suspect that New Yorkers were duly impressed by the quality of the Houston Symphony and the authoritative leadership of Maestro Graf. And Moscow? Critics may say he's "bringing coals to Newcastle," but more thoughtful observers will see his all-Shostakovich program as a tribute to Russia and great Russian music. Those who know may also remind Russian listeners that it was the Houston Symphony that gave the North American premiere of this very symphony, and that Hans Graf himself studied conducting in Russia (St. Petersburg) early in his career.

For Something More…
Music lovers outside Houston may not realize that under Hans Graf, the Houston Symphony has been making recordings on a regular basis; these deserve to be better known. Among the most recent are a CD recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (Naxos 8.572498), and a DVD devoted to Holst’s The Planets with visual images from space assembled by Duncan Copp.

The historic 1958 recording of the Symphony No. 11 by Stokowski and the Houston Symphony was recently re-mastered and re-released on CD by EMI.

The Memoirs I quoted from in my review are perhaps better known as Testimony, the book compiled from the composer’s diaries by Soviet musicologist, Solomon Volkov. Although the authenticity of the book has been questioned over the years, it remains a valuable source of information about Shostakovich and his innermost thoughts and beliefs.

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

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Thursday, 10 May 2012

Jaap van Zweden/DSO: Cogent and Compelling Bruckner Eighth in Magnificent Meyerson

by Paul Robinson

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890 version)
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/ Jaap van Zweden, conductor

Meyerson Symphony Center
Dallas, Texas
Friday, April 27, 2012

For Dallas listeners who got to know Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony through one of the many Karajan recordings made between 1957 and 1988, Jaap van Zweden’s tempo for the Scherzo must have come as a shock. Where Karajan takes a very measured tempo – some would say slow and ponderous – van Zweden takes off like a rocket. Who is right? Well, for the record, the score is marked “Allegro moderato;” van Zweden clearly has the score on his side.

It is interesting to note that in 1957, when Karajan made his first recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, there were several other versions available - one of them featuring Eduard van Beinum with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, in which van Beinum took a tempo for the Scherzo very similar to that of van Zweden in this concert. Coincidentally, van Zweden was concertmaster of the (Royal) Concertgebouw Orchestra for 18 years.

Choices: Which Version of Bruckner's Eighth?
Jaap van Zweden is a conductor who begins work on a score with the assumption that the composer knew what he/she wanted and that the conductor’s job is to convey it. In some instances - Bruckner (photo: right) being a case in point - determining what the composer wanted is not so easy.  Bruckner revised his symphonies after their first performances, and often revised them again - not once, but many times. What is worse, some musicologists have argued that many of these revisions were prompted not by the composer himself, but rather by other musicians who thought they knew better. Some suggest that Bruckner was an insecure man, apt to take bad advice. Such a hazy history leaves the conductor with many decisions to make about which version of a given Bruckner symphony represents what the composer intended. There are no fewer than 34 different versions of the nine Bruckner symphonies.

Bruckner completed his Symphony No. 8 in 1887, but set about to revise it when his friend, the conductor  Josef Schalk, expressed serious reservations about the work. The revised version was completed in 1890. Most performances today use the Leopold Nowak edition (1955) of this revised version. As far as I could tell, this was also the version used by van Zweden.

Unusual Scoring Presents Special Challenges
The Eighth is one of three symphonies in which Bruckner uses “Wagner tubas.” These are small tenor tubas (photo: right) played by four of the eight French horn players, who alternate between French horn and Wagner tuba in various sections of the score. The symphony is also unusual, especially for Bruckner, in that it uses harps. Actually, it is scored for only one harp, but in order to make the part audible, most conductors add a second harp or even a third, as van Zweden did for this performance. The harp(s) only play during the Trio (middle section) of the Scherzo and in the Adagio, but even with three players, there is a famous passage in the symphony in which they have little chance of being heard.

In the Adagio, at bar 239, the biggest climax of the movement, Bruckner writes arpeggios for the harps while the rest of the orchestra is playing sustained chords at maximum volume (fff). Why Bruckner wrote such an absurdity we’ll never know. In this same bar there is another anomaly: cymbal and triangle make their only appearance in the entire symphony. After sitting for about 40 minutes, these musicians rise to play one note on their instruments, then sit back down again for another 40 minutes. For the record, the Dallas Symphony cymbal and triangle players executed their one note with consummate professionalism.

Over the past five or six years. Jaap van Zweden has been recording Bruckner symphonies with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. Most of the nine have already been released, with the Eighth appearing later this year. It will surely be well worth hearing. Van Zweden is a wonderful Bruckner conductor: he loves the music; in long movements, he is able to maintain concentration from beginning to end.; and he has a keen sense of how to balance an orchestra so that the massive brass chords don’t drown everything else out.

DSO's Outstanding Soloists Flourish under van Zweden
Under van Zweden’s leadership, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra has moved from a very good orchestra to an excellent one - at home in a wide repertoire, built around a rich and stylish body of string players, and featuring outstanding soloists in every section. A few weeks ago they excelled in an historically-informed Bach performance and on this night they played Bruckner as if to the manner born, even though the DSO had last played the Eighth over twelve years ago (April, 2000). I was particularly struck by the sound of the Wagner tubas. Leading this tuba group was DSO associate principal horn David Heyde (photo: above right). He was brilliant. His cohorts played with absolute authority and - particularly in the Adagio - with a heartrending eloquence. I am told that the instruments used were purchased in Europe by DSO principal horn Gregory Hustis; if so, he did a wonderful job finding them. Kudos, as well, to the entire horn section for their fine playing in this concert and to Hustis for performing his many horn solos with distinction.

A special salute is in order for the four gentlemen in the trumpet section. They were using rotary valve instruments, the type of trumpet we associate with German orchestras, which are particularly well-suited to the music of Bruckner because they are less brilliant and less penetrating than piston valve trumpets. Hearing them in Bruckner in the Meyerson, I really appreciated how effectively they blend with strings and horns without losing their distinctive sonority, especially in the lower register. That said, when van Zweden wanted power in the climaxes, they delivered that too.

Finally, I need to applaud the members of the cello section for their beauty of tone and phrasing, especially in the slow movement.

Cogent and Compelling Bruckner No Easy Task
For the sake of transparency, I must declare a lifelong admiration for Bruckner’s symphonies. I have difficulty understanding why his music still meets with such widespread lack of appreciation in North America. Perhaps too many routine performances of his works have dulled their effect. Unfortunately, there are not many conductors who can make long (60 min. plus) symphonies cogent and compelling, and fewer still who can master the style and expression of a Bruckner symphony. Van Zweden can do both and one can hope that Dallas will hear a good deal more Bruckner over the next few seasons – it’s been at least 16 years since the Fifth was played by the DSO!

Van Zweden begins with the printed score, but in the case of Bruckner, he finds far more there than do  most of his fellows. Like all great conductors, if he becomes convinced that it will help the various episodes or phrases flow more naturally into each other, he frequently alters the tempo within a movement, even where there is no such indication in the score. The alternative is to mechanically beat time, and van Zweden is too good a musician to be mechanical.

This sense of when to press on and when to hold back is one of the unwritten secrets of fine music-making.  Music needs to breathe and to have shape. Van Zweden’s conducting of the Bruckner Eighth was filled with subtle changes in tempo and dynamics that brought out the depths of feeling in the music and gave each long movement a convincing unity. To my ears there was only one miscalculation. In the coda of the Adagio, the first violins play a deeply expressive melody on their G string with soft accompaniment from the other strings, horns and Wagner tubas. This passage is unbelievably touching and has the special quality of inwardness (innigkeit). I felt that van Zweden broke the mood by overdoing the crescendo in the horns.

Meyerson Built to Customize Sound
Earlier, I alluded to the role of the acoustics in the Meyerson. I really can’t say enough about what it means to have such a glorious hall, one that enables music to be heard at its best. The Dallas Symphony musicians perform on the best instruments money can buy but the sound they produce needs a space designed to enhance that sound. In the Meyerson Symphony Center they have that space and it is one of the finest concert halls in the world.

One feature of this magnificent hall (photo: right) is that the basic sound – which is already superb – can be altered to suit the music being played. Above the uppermost seating level – the Grand Tier – is a reverberation chamber. The doors of this chamber can be opened or closed to alter the reverberation time. In the case of the Bruckner performance, the doors were opened wide to increase the reverberation time to almost maximum. Knowing that Bruckner spent much of his life as an organist in a huge cathedral, and that the sound of his symphonies has often been compared to the sound of a cathedral organ, most musicians believe that a cathedral-like reverberation is exactly what the music requires.

A wonderful feature of the Meyerson is that while reverberation time can be increased, it can be done without loss of clarity. That is why this Bruckner Eighth was so special. There may be orchestras and conductors who can play the music as well as the Dallas Symphony and Jaap van Zweden, but few if any concert halls measure up to the acoustic enhancement of the experience provided by the Meyerson.

For Something More…
There are two exceptional Karajan DVDs of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 available – both with the Vienna Philharmonic. The first of them (DG 00440 073 4395), filmed in 1979, is noteworthy for the fact that it was a performance given in St. Florian’s Church in Linz, the very church where Bruckner had been organist. It is also the most beautiful and intense performance of the Adagio I have ever heard. As is well-known, performing symphonic music in a huge cathedral is extremely difficult due to the long reverberation time and making a recording of such a performance is even more challenging. As was his practice in Bruckner, Karajan used two sets of timpani for this performance and in the finale they practically obliterate everything else.

Karajan’s second DVD of the Symphony No. 8 (SonySVD-46403) was filmed at the Musikverein in Vienna, just a few months before he died. Although it is a much better recording than the first and features glorious playing, it is very slow and lacks the spontaneity of the St. Florian’s performance.

For more on the acoustics of the Myerson Symphony Center, I refer you to Laurie Shulman’s The Meyerson Symphony Center: the Building of a Dream, published in 2000 by the University of North Texas Press.

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”


Saturday, 5 May 2012

Beauty and the Beast Brings Broadway Bravura to Montreal

By Naomi Gold,

Broadway across Canada and Evenko recently brought Disney's Beauty & the Beast to Place des Arts' Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier (SWP). With the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal having moved to its new home at Maison Symphonique, SWP accommodated this family-friendly production for an extended springtime run – a rare treat for local audiences.  Excited children who attended the premiere, basked in delight – they were ecstatic to be out on a school night – as parents and grandparents were equally enthralled by the 'tale as old as time'.

Particularly pleasing were the colourful costumes -- an eye-popping 580, plus 81 wigs -- vibrant sets, dramatic lighting and that smokin' hot pyrotechnics.  The cutesy French accents added an amusing provincial feel to this lavish production.  

Featuring the
 animated film’s Oscar-winning score with music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's libretti, this production also incorporates additional songs by the same composer with lyrics by Tim Rice. The book is written by Linda Woolverton.

This touring production also reunites the original creators of the Broadway blockbuster. It is directed by Rob Roth, choreographed by Matt West and Tony-winning costumes are designed by Ann Hould-Ward.  Lighting is by Natasha Katz, while scenic design is handled by Stanley A. Meyer; John Petrafesa Jr. serves as sound engineer with music supervision by Michael Kosarin.

The performance, together with one intermission and curtain call, lasts almost 3 hours; count on an extended, rousing standing ovation, as was the case on opening night.  It is a heartwarming, tale of home, hearth and happy endings that will appeal to all ages and generations. 

More musicals from the Great White Way come to town this year. Wicked will be presented for the first time ever in Montreal, enjoying a month-long run at PdA this August. For information and to purchase tickets go to: or call the box office 514-842-2112. Prices begin @$40.00 for weekday matinees.  Parents may obtain elevated seats for toddlers in the foyer of Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.

Photos by Joan  Marcus

Caption 1: Emily Behny as Belle and the cast of Beauty & the Beast

Caption 2: Dane Agostinis as beast and Emily Behny as Belle