La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Paul Appleby: The Art of Song

Paul Appleby: The Art of Song

- Joseph So

Tenor Paul Appleby

Paul Appleby, tenor
Anne Larlee, piano
Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre
February 11, 2014

Schubert: Five Songs
          Liane, D. 298
          Sehnsucht, D 481
          An Emma, D 113
          Im Abendrot, D799
          An Sylvia, D891    

Schumann: Seven Songs from Myrten, Op. 25
          Der Nussbaum
          Sitz' ich allein
          Setze mir nicht, du Grobian
          Leis' rudern hier, mein Gondolier
          Wenn durch die Piazzetta
          Zum Schluss

John Harbison: Three Songs from Simple Daylight
          Your Name
          Somewhere a Seed

John Musto: Two Songs from Shadow of the Blues

Encore: Dein ist mein ganzes Herz

Tenor Paul Appleby and pianist Anne Larlee in recital (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

There is something to be said about a tenor voice that warms the heart, especially one with the requisite beauty of tone, innate musicality and elegance of delivery that does full justice to the music. American Paul Appleby who's currently in town as Ferrando for Cosi fan tutte, has one of the best tenor voices among the current crop of young artists today. He is versatile and adept at a diverse repertoire from Baroque to classical to 21st century. He is particularly fine in Mozart and the French repertoires. Not only is his voice beautiful, he uses it with discerning taste, backed by a solid technique and ample power of communication. I first heard this tenor at the Santa Fe Opera last summer, when he sang Fritz in Offenbach's La Grande Duchesse der Gerolstein opposite the great American mezzo Susan Graham in the title role. In a lavish production designed to showcase the New Mexican diva, Appleby more than held his own as the young soldier Fritz, delighting the audience with plangent tone and engaging stage persona.  A recent feather in his cap was his exceptional performance as the 16 year old Brian in the Met premiere last fall of Nico Muhly's Two Boys, which had its world premiere at ENO two years ago. With his youthful boy next door looks, the 30 year old Appleby was totally believable playing a teenager. While the opera itself received mixed reviews, Appleby's performance garnered uniform praise.  On opening night of the COC Cosi fan tutte, he sang Ferrando with sweetness and power, with a particularly impressive Un aura l'amorosa. 

The ever expressive Mr. Appleby (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

Given the long run of Cosi (from Jan. 18 to Feb. 22), Appleby used some of the downtime in between performances to give a recital at Pace University in New York, the program of which was repeated at a noon hour concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre yesterday. Unlike so many recitals where the singer would not say a word to the audience, Appleby himself spoke extensively, introducing the songs to the audience with humour and insight. With Valentine's Day just around the corner, the program consisted of several love songs. He began with a group of familiar Schubert, sung with excellent diction, enviably sweet tone and suitable restraint one has come to expect in Lieder. This was followed by a group of Schumann drawn from Myrthen Op. 25., one of the composer's best known cycles, including the song Widmung, which together with Zueignung are two of my very favourites. Appleby brought out the heartfelt, ecstatic quality but rightly without exaggeration. As the group of songs moved along, Appleby seemed more relaxed and acted the drinking songs with ingratiating humour. There were moments when he let the voice rip and his sound was thrilling. Even at increased dynamic levels, the tone never turned harsh and the delivery always a model of grace.  

The Schumann was followed by works by American composers John Harbison and John Musto. The Harbison songs were composed for American soprano Dawn Upshaw, one of the best exponents of contemporary American song literature. I won't pretend to say that these songs are easily accessible on first hearing. Like so many contemporary composers, their musical idioms are angular, rhythms jagged and harmonies novel. It really requires some study to fully appreciate these songs. The second Musto song, Litany, was particularly austere and subdued - it takes a brave singer to end a recital with a piece like this.  Through it all, Anne Larlee offered excellent support. COC audiences are of course familiar with the work of Larlee, a former member of the Ensemble. She has really become one of the best young collaborative pianists of our time, showing impressive stylistic range and striking the right balance between complete support of the vocalist yet allowing her own pianistic personality to shine through.  If the audience felt slightly let down by the subded ending of the recital, they need not have worried. After such a demanding program, Appleby was generous in offering an encore, the ever popular operetta chestnut, Dein ist mein ganzes Herz, which he sang with operatic exuberance, his full voice ringing out thrillingly. Needless to say, it brought down the house and sent the happy audience out into the winter cold with warmth in their hearts. 

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Bay/ASO and Jonathan Biss: Under the Influence

Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
Schumann: Piano Concerto in a minor Op. 54
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D major Op. 73

Jessica Mathaes, violin
Jonathan Biss, piano
Austin Symphony Orchestra/Peter Bay
Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, TX
February 8, 2014

I have been spending a lot of time lately with Jonathan Biss – not the man himself, but his website. Mr. Biss is a 33-year-old American pianist of great distinction who also writes well about music.

Biss has been particularly eloquent on the subjects of Beethoven and Schumann. He is recording all the Beethoven sonatas and has written a book (Beethoven’s Shadow) about the composer. Over the 2012-2013 season, Biss devoted much of his time to the life and music of Robert Schumann, presenting a series of 30 concerts under the title Schumann: Under the Influence and in many different cities around the world. Mr. Biss knows his Schumann and it was a special pleasure to hear him play his music in Austin this week with Maestro Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony (ASO).

The purpose of this program, titled Schumann: Under the Influence was not, in spite of the provocative title, to show how Schumann’s music was affected by the composer’s drug addition. Schumann suffered from increasingly debilitating mental illness throughout his life, but as far as we know, drugs had nothing to do with it.

Mr. Biss’ goal with this program was to illustrate how much Schumann was influenced by composers who had come before, and to show that Schumann himself had a strong influence on many composers who followed him. Biss himself feels that Schumann influenced him to become the musician he is today, and has written about how he came to identify with the inner spirit of Schumann’s music, and about how this music became for him the expression of his own soul.

These are complex matters not easily summarized in a sentence or two; for the listener, it comes down to Biss identifying strongly with Schumann and his music and urging listeners to try to do the same. If they do, he says, they will be richly rewarded. “I wanted,” he states, “to show Schumann’s music exactly as it is – deeply poetic, fragile, obsessive, evocative, whimsical, internal.”

Biss and Schumann Perfectly in Sync

In his performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the Austin Symphony this week, Biss revealed all these qualities in the music, and more. After reading what he has to say about Schumann, one might have expected a very personal performance from Biss, perhaps quite different from any we have heard before, but that was not the case. Biss ‘played it straight’, as it were, showing great respect for the printed score.

But that is exactly the point. What is ‘personal’ in Schumann’s music is not in what the performer can add to it; it’s already in the notes, if one takes the trouble to understand them. No need, for example, to make the opening theme more noble than it already is – it’s plenty noble enough, if it is played as Mr. Biss played it, with beautiful tone and strength but without exaggeration.
The slow movement becomes pedantic and heavy-handed if played too slowly; after all, Schumann called it an Intermezzo and gave it the tempo marking ‘Andantino grazioso.’ It is meant to be charming, not angst-ridden. In the last movement too, the main theme is playful enough without trying to make it ‘slip on a banana peel’ funny. Biss found exactly the right tempo and spirit for each of the three movements.

After hearing Mr. Biss play the Schumann concerto, I was not surprised to read that Alfred Cortot was one of the pianists of the past he most admired. Cortot never tried to beat the piano to a pulp; on the contrary, he always strove for a singing tone and a beauty of line in everything he played. So too, Jonathan Biss.

Bay/ASO Build a Bold and Beautiful Brahms!

After intermission came Brahms Symphony No. 2 in a performance that was very much on the same level as the Schumann we had just heard. If Peter Bay and the ASO were superbly attentive to Jonathan Biss in the Schumann, they held their focus equally well from beginning to end in this glorious Brahms symphony. Bay, like Biss, has always shown respect for the score and avoided exaggeration. These proclivities in themselves are not sufficient to guarantee memorable music-making, but on this occasion they were coupled with beauty of phrasing and an impressive ability to build climaxes.

Brahms D major symphony is often characterized as being ‘sunny’ and ‘happy,’ and it does have these qualities, but it also has moments of melancholy, and the excitement of the last movement is one of the great moments in orchestral literature; when the three trombones pile their descending scales on top of each other, followed by spectacular finishing fanfares in the trumpets and horns, one literally wants to jump for joy. This performance captured this great moment brilliantly.

One of the challenges of conducting the last movement of the Brahms D major symphony is determining how to capture the exuberance of this great finish without making the rest of the movement sound rushed and on the verge of falling apart. Brahms gives the movement the tempo marking ‘Allegro con spirito’. That’s it. But did he really want the conductor to maintain the same tempo from beginning to end? I don’t think so; rather, he knew that a good conductor would sense when to slow down and when to speed up - he didn’t need to put all these markings in his score. This musical intuition is what made Fürtwangler’s Brahms performances so remarkable; he let the music tell him when to vary the tempo. To put it another way - metronomes make poor conductors.

Peter Bay began the last movement at a very steady tempo, which allowed his musicians to put all the notes in the right places and to execute the marvelous syncopations with some exactitude. It is amazing how many performances of this piece are mere approximations in this respect. Then, when he got to the coda, Bay let the music decide the tempo. This is liftoff time and only a pedantic conductor would dare to hold the orchestra back at this point. The increase in tempo is not huge, but it’s enough to propel the music forward toward a triumphant conclusion; “Bravo” to Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony for making it work the way it should.

For something more…

Jonathan Biss has written at length about Schumann on his website. He also has a small book – 39 pages  A Pianist Under the Influence, available as a Kindle single for $1.99; well worth the investment. Mr. Biss has recorded several of Schumann’s solo piano works for EMI and the Piano Quintet Op. 44 with the Elias String Quartet for Onyx.

Next month (March), Mr. Biss repeats his five-week Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. This innovative presentation is a partnership between the Curtis Institute of Music and Coursera. More than 10,000 people are already on the waiting list! If you are not familiar with this imaginative educational initiative, check it out at here.

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, 11 February 2014

Uniworld River Cruise: Unexpected "European Jewels"

by Paul E. Robinson

River Cruise along the Main, the Rhine and the Danube
August 2013

This past August, Marita and I thoroughly enjoyed the “European Jewels” Uniworld River Cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest. We were not expecting a concentration of musical events on this excursion; rather, we thought it would give us a view of Europe from a new perspective (i.e., docking within walking distance of towns and cities) – and it did, but to our delight, there was glorious music on this cruise as well, often in unexpected places.  

Up until about 20 years ago, this particular river cruise would not even have been possible; there simply was no water route connecting Holland, Germany, Austria and Hungary. The Romans had a dream to connect the Rhine and the Danube, to have a water route from the Black Sea to the North Sea (2,170 miles), a dream realized only in the 20th century. 

The challenge was the Main River - full of rapids and swamps - between the Rhine and the Danube. Charlemagne tried unsuccessfully to make a canal in 793; what remains of his efforts is known as Charlemagne’s Ditch. King Ludwig tried again in 1837, and completed a canal with no fewer than 101 locks, which opened in 1843. Parts of it still exist. Unfortunately, it was opened at a time when the railways were getting established and railways proved to be faster and more economical; hence, Ludwig's canal was abandoned….until the 1970s.

The 106 mile long Main-Danube Canal, on the current route of our Uniworld European Jewels (Amsterdam to Budapest) river cruise, dreamt about and even attempted by the Romans, was fully open only in 1992.

In modern times, the first section - from Bamberg to Nuremberg (44 miles) - was finished in 1976 with 7 locks. Continuation was opposed by the Green Party and changes were made to the design to make it less straight, more interesting and with more recreational aspects. The whole Main-Danube canal cost US$4.2 billion to build. Most of the locks are combined with hydro-electric power plants. The great advantages of the canal are 1) cheaper transportation, especially of bulk cargos, and 2) flood control. The maximum lock width is 39 ft (our ship was 37 ft). Water to operate the locks comes from reservoirs (60%) and from the canal itself (40%). The Continental Divide is in the middle of the canal.

Nightwatch in Amsterdam

We began our cruise in Amsterdam, and at the top of my agenda was a visit to the newly renovated Rijksmuseum. It seems everybody else had the same idea; the place was packed. We did manage to make our way to the pièce de resistance, Rembrandt’s Nightwatch (full and formal title: The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq) and we were suitably awed by the sight of this famous masterpiece. 

What we hadn’t realized until our visit to the museum, was that the subject matter of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch (i.e., a group portrait of a militia), had been rendered by no fewer than six other artists in Amsterdam in Rembrandt's time (1642). The curators of the Rijksmuseum made us aware of this fact by surrounding Nightwatch with the six other paintings depicting the same subject – if not the same militia. What makes Nightwatch stand out from these others, we saw, was not the subject matter, but Rembrandt’s distinctive artistry – his eye for detail and differentiation, the command of light and shade (chiaroscuro)

In spite of being in “awe” of this masterpiece, however, I must admit I was somewhat disappointed to see Nightwatch “in the flesh”, as it were. The painting seemed less dramatic than I had expected, and less mysterious. Several years ago new LED lights were installed in the Nightwatch room at the Rijksmuseum to save energy and reduce the harm which might be done to the paintings by UV radiation. It may be that the new museum lighting is too “white” for the painting. More likely, it is the fact that the Nightwatch we see in books is the painting as it looked before 1940. Nightwatch” is, after all, only a nickname and a misconceived one at that. Under the dark varnish people thought this was a night scene, but “after layers of varnish and dirt were stripped away in the 1940s", it turns out that the painting has nothing to do with night.

A Taste of Brahms in Rüdesheim

We set off down the Rhine with stops at Cologne and Rüdesheim. Rüdesheim is a charming old town, well-known today for its Rüdesheimer Kaffee, a concoction laced with local liquor and topped with whipped cream. The town is also famous for its vineyards and for its monument to German unity high on a hill. We took a cable car up the hill then walked back down through the vineyards. But while we were strolling through the park at the top we noticed a sign which said “Brahms Weg” or “Brahms Way.” It seems that Brahms had friends in Rüdesheim and when he visited he loved to walk through the woods leading to the monument. The view is spectacular and one can imagine Brahms enjoying nature and pondering Germany’s role in the world as he walked.

Street Music in Würzburg

Würzburg is the largest city in Franconia and dates its history back to 1000 BC when Celtic tribes settled here. Our guides stressed that while Würzburg is in the state of Bavaria, its residents do not like to be called Bavarians. They consider themselves Franconians. In 1945, just before the end of the war, the city of Würzburg was 87% destroyed by Allied bombing; over 4,000 people were killed.

The Würzburg Residenz is one of the architectural glories of the Baroque in Austria. It was designed by the architect Balthasar Neumann with ceiling frescoes by Tintoretto. Our guide stressed how unique it was to have such a huge unsupported ceiling over the entrance staircase, with an enormously detailed fresco above. It was all very impressive in the Versailles manner with long ornate corridors and rooms, and vast, elaborate gardens in the surrounding area.

Later, we went into the wine cellar of the Residenz for some wine-tasting; all local, and somewhat sweet white wines.

After the tour, during the hour or so we had to ourselves in Würzburg, we strolled around the downtown area, taking in the sights: a large cathedral (Dom), a castle high on the high bank at the other side of the river, and the Alte Main Brücke, a narrow pedestrian bridge lined with statues of historic figures and small wine bars, each with a few outside tables on the bridge – a great “people" place, especially on this bright, warm (81F) day. This bridge, destroyed by Allied planes near the end of the war, has been fully rebuilt. While walking through downtown we came across a street performance by a four-man vocal group from Minsk – very good, singing mostly Russian folk songs. They collected some money from listeners on the street and hopefully sold some of their CDs.

Schumann’s Stint in Heidelberg

Heidelberg is best known for Heidelberger Schloss, high on a hill overlooking the city. Work on the castle began in 1214 and continued for hundreds of years. Throughout its history, this castle was frequently attacked and much of it destroyed. In the Nineteenth Century it became more famous than ever as a ruin. Victor Hugo wrote eloquently about it and so too did Mark Twain. Turner painted the ruined Powder Tower into legend. The romantics could see in Heidelberg Castle the story of man himself struggling to create something enduring only to be foiled and defeated, with nature swallowing up what is left. It was a castle of hopes and dreams, and disappointments.

I hadn’t been aware of any musical connections in Heidelberg, but on the main street there was a plaque high on the wall of a house, noting that Schumann had lived there as a student in the years 1829/30.

Passau's Massive Pipe Organ!

There are no fewer than 168 locks on our sojourn from Amsterdam to Budapest. Not surprisingly, we were frequently being lifted up or dropped down, and occasionally waiting for other boats to clear the narrow locks. There was some congestion at the big lock just before Passau, and so we arrived late. We still got there in time for a walking tour through this charming town, however, and concluded our visit with an organ recital in Dom St. Stephan. 

In almost every town on our journey we were reminded how fickle and threatening Nature can be. Flooding is an almost annual event, and last year’s flooding in Passau was undoubtedly some of the worst ever; we saw buildings with marks on the wall indicating the high water levels year by year. Local citizens have been making these marks for centuries, and last year’s marks were the highest.

The Dom St. Stephan (St. Stephen's Cathedral), originally a Gothic church, with all the austerity and gloominess that term implies, was expanded significantly in the 17th century during the Baroque era. It is a huge building with stucco decoration, a gold, carved wood pulpit and elaborate painted walls and ceilings. Restoration has been going on for years and is nearly completed. The outside is a brilliant white color, and the interior has been made to look like new.

The Dom St. Stephan organ is said to be the largest cathedral organ in the world. It was built in 1928 then rebuilt 1978-81. There are 5 separate organs, over 17, 974 pipes and 230 stops. We heard a recital by Michael Kapaner, performing his own improvisation on a “gegebenes Thema.” It produced a huge sound with lots of special tonal and spatial effects. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G major BWV 541 was magnificent as well, if rather larger than life. For me the best piece was Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H – a great piece, performed with flair, virtuosity and imagination. The Dom St. Stephan organ is most certainly a wonder to hear and behold… not to be confused, in any way, with the baroque organs for which the composer Bach wrote, or even the 19th century organs familiar to Liszt.

Magnificent Melk Abbey

After Passau we sailed to Melk, Austria. It was a beautiful day. We took the tour bus up the hill to tour the abbey, after which we walked down the hill, through the little town, back to the ship.

The sole attraction on this stop was the 900-year old Melk Abbey. Like so many buildings in Germany and Austria, the original edifice is very old, but most of what we see today is from the Baroque era. Melk Abbey has been recently restored with bright yellow colors and a few modern additions. Although impressive, one can’t help but be shocked by the Baroque additions, especially in the church - particularly all the detailed frescoes on the ceilings. One would have to lie down on the floor to really see them without breaking one’s neck. Optical illusions were used in the design of the abbey; for example, both the library and the mirror room have an extra tier painted on the ceiling to create the illusion of greater height.

It was Leopold III in the 11th century who handed over his castle to the Benedictine monks. They converted it into a fortified abbey, and from then on the spiritual and intellectual renown of Melk spread throughout Austria.
One of the glories of Melk Abbey is the library, a gigantic collection of some 80,000 priceless books hundreds of years old. Our guide told us stories about Maria Theresia visiting Melk Abbey with a retinue of 300 people. And rooms were found for all of them!

Back on board the River Empress, and headed for Vienna, we were treated to an Austrian menu of Wiener Schnitzel and sides, A few hours later, we docked on the Danube, several miles from the centre of Vienna.

The Wiener Hofburg-Orchester 

After dinner we were taken by bus to the Hofburg Palace in the heart of Vienna for an orchestral concert of music by members of the Strauss family and Mozart. The Hofburg is one of the largest and grandest public buildings in Vienna and is now the official residence of the President of Austria. The concert was given in the Festsaal and it was good fun: lots of comedy in the polkas Vergnügungszug (Pleasure Train) and Feuerfest (Fireproof). The latter features a pair of anvils used as percussion instruments – more or less. The orchestra was the Wiener Hofburg-Orchester conducted by Kurt Schmid. When we returned to the ship about 10:30 pm a late night Austrian snack awaited us. We had frankfurters and beer.

We took a guided tour of the city in the morning past all the famous sites. We were dropped in front of the Albertina Museum near the Wiener Staatsoper, and had strudel and coffee at Café Mozart. The story goes that Graham Greene spent many hours here while writing the screenplay for The Third Man. From there we walked down the pedestrian mall to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The city is teeming with tourists and it looks energetic and prosperous. Nearly all the great public buildings have been refurbished, and the shops on Kärtnerstrasse feature all the best-known international names.

Schönbrunn and the Pressburger Duo

In the afternoon we took a guided tour of Schönbrunn Palace, the summer home of the Hapsburgs. “Schonbrunn” means “Beautiful Spring.” It was incredibly crowded there with dozens of tour groups - shoulder to shoulder from room to room. We saw about 20 rooms in this vast palace and our guide was very informative about Maria Theresia, Franz Josef, and all the key historical figures of this period. We noted that there was a well-stocked Chinese room and a lot of chinoiserie elsewhere. Outside the palace there are vast gardens with mazes and architectural structures of various kinds. In recent years the Vienna Philharmonic has given annual concerts in the vast gardens. Christoph Eschenbach will lead this year’s concert in May.

The Third Man was in evidence everywhere in Vienna. Our guides pointed out the ferris wheel in the Prater used for a scene in the film. At one point during our tour we noticed a group of tourists wearing hard hats. They were about to tour the sewers of Vienna. The sewers figure prominently in the climactic chase scene in The Third Man.

The ship sailed from Vienna at sunset and during the evening we passed by the city of Bratislava in Slovakia. When we stopped to transit one of the locks on the Danube we were joined by two musicians known as the Pressburger Duo. “Pressburg” was the old name for Bratislava. On board in the lounge the Pressburger Duo gave one of the most remarkable concerts I have ever seen or heard. The two musicians are Robert Puskar who plays the violin, the pan flute and a host of other folk instruments from the region, and Peter Ninaj, a pianist and accordionist. Both men worked for years at the operetta theatre known as Nova Scena in Bratislava.

Puskar is a virtuoso fiddler of the highest order and tossed off some of the most difficult showpieces in the repertoire as if they were child’s play. Then while the audience was still pulling itself together after this dazzling show, he re-presented himself as an opera singer, and not a bad one either. Finally, he captured the crowd with a succession of performances on various folk instruments starting with the pan flute.

Some older music-lovers may recall how a man named Zamfir popularized this instrument back in the 1970s and then vanished without a trace, taking the pan flute with him. The pan flute remains a beautiful instrument capable of coveying the tenderest feelings, and Puskar proved himself to be a master on this instrument too. This concert was more than music, incorporating a good deal of humour, musical and otherwise. Great stuff for cruise entertainment, with a level of musicianship and imagination that should not be underestimated.

The Vigado, Liszt, and a Gypsy Trio 

In Budapest we stayed at the Intercontinental, a short drive along the waterfront from where our ship had docked. It is in a perfect location, on the Danube near the Chain Bridge, looking across at the Statue of Liberty and the Gellert memorial on the hills in Buda. The lighting at night is spectacular.

Both Vienna and Budapest have hundreds of buildings from the Hapsburg era and earlier, but today’s Vienna has managed to move with the times – it’s modern and affluent - while preserving the glorious palaces and public and private buildings from past centuries. In contrast, Budapest, while it has lots to boast about in the way of architectural achievements, where the restoration process has been much slower, has lagged behind the times. Buildings appear freshly cleaned and painted in Vienna; in Budapest they are often blackened (the results of bombings and battle) and depressing. The political recovery too has been much slower in Budapest. One fears for the future with the “far right” again coming to prominence. As a side note: pianist Andras Schiff has declared that he will not return to his homeland while the current regime remains in charge.

I had been in Budapest several times before this visit and had fond memories of conducting in the newly-restored Vigado, a beautiful concert hall where Liszt had played. On this visit I was shocked to see that the Vigado was now shuttered and being allowed to fall apart. It is no longer used for concerts or anything else.

We had breakfast in the hotel. Not very good: cold coffee and disappointing pastries. The next day was a different story. Just around the corner from the hotel was Café Gerbeaud, the most famous coffee house in Budapest. And it lived up to its reputation. We sat outside on the patio facing the bustling square, and enjoyed a piping hot cappuccino and delicious pastries. Café Gerbeaud was built in 1858 of stucco, marble, exotic woods and bronze and it attracted famous clientele for many years. When Budapest fell on hard times during the Nazi and Soviet eras Café Gerbeaud suffered too and became a shadow of its former self. But in 1995 it was fully restored and today looks splendid.

In the afternoon we took a cab to the House of Terror. This is a museum documenting the horrors of both the Nazi and the Soviet occupations of Hungary. In 1944, this very building was the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis, and between 1945 and 1956 it was the headquarters of the notorious communist terror organizations, the AVO and its successor the AVH.  In the words of the museum brochure, “60 Andrássy Avenue has become the house of terror and dread.” In the basement of this building the Hungarian Nazis known as the Arrow Cross Party tortured and killed hundreds of people. It was appalling to see video interviews with people who had been victims and to watch all the mundane details of how it was done.

Andrássy Avenue, on which this museum chronicling the horrors of Hungary’s history is located, is one of the most beautiful streets in Budapest – incongruous, all this loveliness in the same space as the House of terror.
Trees line both sides of Andrássy Avenue, as well as stately residences. Here too is the magnificent Hungarian State Opera House. Andrássy also links downtown with Heroes’ Square.

We passed by a monument to Liszt in Liszt Square and stopped for coffee at the beautiful Alexandra book store. It has its own coffee house and in general it could have been a model for many of the Barnes and Noble stores in the United States, except that the architecture of, and the artwork in this building are far more interesting; the Alexandra is as much an art gallery as a bookstore. While many retailers in Budapest may be struggling to grow their businesses, this store was well-stocked and full of customers.

For dinner we strolled down the waterfront in front of our hotel to a restaurant called Dunacorso, and were seated on the patio. The food was delicious (I had Paprika Veal Stew), and the music - a gypsy trio - was excellent as well. Each of the three players was a virtuoso in his own right: violin (Lajos Padar), cimbalom (Gustav Malacsik), and double bass (Ferenc Rigo). Their program included the music that inspired Brahms to write his Hungarian Dances, as well as popular songs, opera arias, and jazz – all of it performed with passion and superb technique. Instead of tipping them, we bought one of their CDs.

As mentioned earlier, I had visited Budapest, Vienna, and Amsterdam before, but to experience these cities as part of a cruise down the Rhine, the Main and the Danube is something else altogether. The ship (River Empress) is small – only acommodates about 120 passengers – and elegant, with a first-class dining room. The food, in general, was excellent…and with great imagination, the chef planned each day’s menu to relate to the region we were passing through.

I think it bears repeating that, while we had not planned this trip for its musical attractions, these unexpected “European Jewels” had a way of making their presence known and felt in many interesting and exciting ways throughout this wonderful journey.

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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Yannick Nézet-Séguin et les grands hommes

par Brigitte Objois

Ce dimanche 9 février, à la Maison symphonique, l'Orchestre Métropolitain, sous la direction de Yannick Nézet-Séguin, présentait Métamorphoses et le concerto pour cor no. 2 de Strauss ainsi que la 3ème symphonie « Eroica » de Beethoven.

Métamorphoses, œuvre pour 23 instruments à cordes, fut écrite dans une Allemagne dévastée par la guerre et la défaite, puisqu’elle sera achevée en avril 1945. La mention « In Memoriam » de la main de Strauss en marge des dernières mesures, serait un hommage à Beethoven et sa 3ème symphonie dont le compositeur a repris le thème de la marche funèbre du 2ème mouvement. Une interprétation plutôt terne de ces Métamorphoses a été suivie d'un Louis-Philippe Marsolais brillant.

Après l'entracte, Yannick Nézet-Séguin et l'orchestre nous ont entraînés dans une magnifique symphonie Eroica énergique et pleine de vigueur ! Rappelons, pour l’histoire, que Beethoven, qui avait dédié au départ sa symphonie à Bonaparte qui représentait pour lui les idéaux révolutionnaires, a renié sa dédicace après que Bonaparte se soit proclamé empereur. Il l’a alors dédiée à la mémoire d’ « un grand homme ».

Ce concert se poursuit cette semaine, à Verdun le 10 février, Saint-Laurent, le 13, et Saint-Léonard le 14 février.


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Monday, 10 February 2014

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 10 - 16)

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 10 -16)

- Joseph So

Sir Thomas Allen (Photo: Sussie Ahlburg)

One of the joys of attending performances at the Canadian Opera Company is the opportunity to hear visiting artists on both the opera and the recital stage.  No, it doesn't happen with every visitor, but when it does, it's an opportunity not to be missed. The great Sir Thomas Allen is in town for Don Alfonso in Cosi fan tutte, essentially a character baritone role, albeit one with plenty of beautiful music. I attended opening night and Sir Thomas burned up the stage with his dramatic flair and (still) estimable vocalism. The way he was moving around the stage, I would never have guessed in a million years that he is turning seventy this fall!  Well, it was a performance to honour and savour. Now you get to hear him for free, this Thursday noon at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, in Songs of the Sea, a program of folk songs, art songs and arias, including pieces by Haydn, Schubert, Britten, Eric Coates and Arthur A. Penn. Rachel Andrist is the collaborative pianist. Be sure to arrive an hour ahead to ensure a seat.  Program details at

Paul Appleby, a young American tenor who is nearly 40 (!) years young than Sir Thomas, will get to strut his stuff in The Art of Song, on Tuesday Feb. 11 at noon, also at RBA. A graduate of the Met Lindemann Young Artist Program, Appleby looks years younger than his age of 30, totally believable as a teenager in the Met premiere of Nico Muhly's Two Boys last fall. His Mozartian tenor is heard to advantage as Ferrando in the current COC Cosi fan tutte.  In his noon hour recital, Appleby is offering songs by Schubert, Schumann, John Harbison and John Musto.  Anne Larlee is the pianist. Complete program at

Tenor Paul Appleby
In the meantime, the two COC productions continue this week, with Cosi on Feb. 15, and Ballo on Feb. 11, 14, and 16, this last a matinee.

In addition to the big brands like the COC, we have the Toronto City Opera (formerly known as Toronto Opera Repertoire) and Opera by Request.  For forty some years, TOR was run by former tenor Giuseppe Macina. Since his retirement last year, it has been taken over under the joint leadership of mezzo Beatrice Carpino and pianist Adolfo di Santis, with the name changed to TCO; They are presenting Cosi fan tutte and Carmen. I have to confess I find it a little strange the overlap of repertoire with the COC, but if you are a Cosi addict, you'll be happy. There's only piano accompaniment and it is essentially a school based program, but it will be presented with plenty of enthusiasm, at the Bickford Centre near the Christie subway. station.

Opera by Request, a singers-driven, grassroots organization under the directorship of pianist William Shookhoff, is known for its ambitious and often innovative repertoire.  On stage Feb. 15 at the College Street United Church is Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix. For details go to

As part of the Bravissimo Masterworks series, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting the visiting Montreal Symphony Orchestra in Mahler Symphony No. 7, conducted by Kent Nagano. This Mahler work is a real connoisseur's piece, but once heard never forgotten. It's so great to have the MSO forces back.  I heard Nagano conduct many times, not just in Montreal but also in Munich. Sadly he's no longer in charge of the Bavarian State Opera but great that he is still with the MSO. Any time the MSO plays in Toronto is an event, and this one is not to be missed. Concert starts at 8 pm in Roy Thomson Hall and there's (thankfully) no intermission. 

Conductor Kent Nagano (Photo: B Ealovega)

As part of the Valentine's Day festivities, the TSO is presenting two screenings of Casablanca, an iconic movie for audiences of a certain age. How luxurious to the the TS forces performing the score live!!! TSO pops conductor Steven Reineke is at the helm.

Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor

Music Toronto is a great place to go to hear artists new to Toronto audiences. MT is presenting English pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, all of 21 years old, a recent graduate of the Royal Academy of Music but already much heralded as a star in the making. He won the piano section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year when he was all of 12!  A Decca artist since 2011, Grosvenor has received many more awards and accolades in the last couple of years. He will be playing a terrific program of works by Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Mompou, Medtner, Ravel and Liszt. Tuesday Feb. 11 8 pm at the Jane Mallett Theatre.

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Sunday, 9 February 2014

Cette semaine à Montréal : le 10 au 16 février

Avant son départ de la Maison de la musique, Guy Soucie a préparé une impressionnante programmation qui compte plusieurs artistes de renom qu’il a encouragés à leurs débuts et qui lui sont demeurés fidèles. Notons en février:
- Mercredi 12, pour le deuxième de 4 récitals qui mettront en lumière 25 compositeurs québécois, la pianiste Louise Bessette interprète des œuvres de Ferguson, Villeneuve, Pepperall et André Hamel.
- Les dimanches 16 et 23, on entendra Les Variations Goldberg de Bach. Elles seront d’abord interprétées au clavecin par Luc Beauséjour et, la semaine suivante, au piano par David Jalbert.
 - Renée Banville

L’Académie de musique du Québec présente son 2e concert-bénéfice avec la violoniste Pascale Giguère, lauréate du Prix d’Europe 1993. Au programme: des œuvres de Schubert, Beethoven et Franck. Pascale Giguère est récipiendaire de nombreuses distinctions et occupe aujourd’hui le poste de co-violon solo au sein des Violons du Roy. Bon-Pasteur, 13 février.

Succombez à l’ultime élixir de vie dans les Duos d’amour, en compagnie des solistes invités Maarten Engeltjes, contre-ténor et Camille Poul, soprano. Alexander Weimann dirigera Arion. 14-15-16 février.
 - Renée Banville

Parmi les concerts de février de l’OSM, il y aura la 7e Symphonie de Mahler, dirigée par Kent Nagano. Nos artistes québécois seront également à l’affiche aux mois de mars et d’avril, à commencer par Marc-André Hamelin qui jouera le Concerto pour piano no 2 de Liszt, accompagné par l’OSM. Karina Gauvin chantera, quant à elle, Britten dans son cycle de mélodies intitulé Les Illuminations. L’orchestre sera dirigé par le chef français Michel Plasson. Maison symphonique, 15 février; 4 & 5 mars; 3 & 6 avril.
 - Justin Bernard

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