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Notes from the 2012 Dresden Music Festival ( 9 )

Festival Orchestra Premiere - Glitter and Be Gay

I am in beautiful Dresden – home of my favorite sweet, the Dominostein (aka The Poor Man's Belgian Chocolates)1 – for the annual three-week Music Festival that has taken place since 1978. After Mozart-joys, Malkovichean divertissement, Bach despairs and delights, Thielemann’s Bruckner, a triple-bill of violinists, a Princess’ opera re-premiere, and a rare Honegger treat, it was time for the premiere performance of the spanking new Dresden Festival Orchestra.

The band – assembled from HIP orchestras all around Europe, with Giuliano Carmignola as deluxe concertmaster and Ivor Bolton as music director– is so new, it still had that new orchestra smell. That manifested itself in the inability to give encores – demanded by a roaring crowd – beyond repeating movements from what had just been performed… courtesy the perfect equivalence of repertoire and works presented.

The Dresden Festival Orchestra is vaguely placed in the early tradition of the Dresden Court Chapel which ultimately became the modern-day Staatskapelle Dresden. Its history bears riches for uncountable concerts to come, being associated with composers, violinists, and directors like Heinrich Schütz, Johann Georg Pisendel, Jan Dismas Zelenka (the “Dresden Bach”), Johann Paul von Westhoff, Johann David Heinichen, Johann Adolph Hasse, and Johann Gottlieb Naumann.

available at AmazonJ.G.Naumann, Aci & Galatea,
F.Bernius / Stuttgart Baroque Orchestra

available at AmazonW.F.Bach, Sinfonias & Cantatas,
H.Max / Rheinische Kantorei, Das Kleine Konzert

available at AmazonJ.Haydn, Violin Concertos,
G.Carmignola / O.d. Champs-Élysées

Bolton & Co. took the last-mentioned – Naumann (1741-1801) – and opened a program that explored the classical period from its earliest to its latest exponents with the Overture and two arias from Aci e Galatea. The singer on duty was the Sri Lankan-Australian-American soprano Danielle de Niese, ever easy on the eyes and exciting to the ears. Her dramatic delivery of the Naumann got the circulation going at 11AM and the appreciative Dresdners trampled on the percussive wooden floor of the Semperoper, as they are wont to do when titillated. De Niese’s appearance brought to mind §18 of stage etiquette: That the dress should ideally not be louder than one’s voice – §18a: especially not before noon. She and her jeweler obviously thought otherwise, with De Niese looking like the 2nd wife of a cling film industrialist in mourning.

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s Dresden-connection stems from his stint as organist of the St. Sophia's Church (destroyed in the war along with its Silbermann organ, and finally wiped out by the GDR’s culture apparatchiks). His Sinfonia in D, prelude to a Pentecost Cantata of his, was an apposite choice and would have been nicer still, if the energy and excitement of the performers had translated into something clearer, sharper, less murky. The same attributes would have benefitted the following very early Haydn Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No.3 in A, except that Carmignola’s distinct tone – a curiously intriguing, gripping mix of hollow, boxy, porous (rather than leathery) – sufficed to whip up a storm. Perhaps his tone, so familiar from Vivaldi recordings on Sony & Archiv, contributed further to the Italianate feel of a performance that felt simultaneously drab and hyper-exciting.

After intermission space-commander De Niese floated back on stage, now sporting the wedding dress inspired by the aluminum foil baron she apparently married after the cellophane chap handed in his dinner-pail. Singing Mozart she was bubbly and bright and zealously thrilled – but something about it felt as though she had to force herself to smile, to impose it on altogether more troubling emotions underneath. If so, it made no obvious difference to her performance of the pseudo-sacred post-baroque aria “Exsultate, jubilate”. With her ingratiating, comfortable voice, agile enough to meet all the work’s demands, she made for comfortable listening, though at least in my grumpy moments (and I was experiencing one of them) I prefer a lighter, simpler voice (think Schäfer, Sampson, Matthews) over such copious fireworks.

Beethoven’s First Symphony, habitually underrated next to its more famous brethren, closed the classical cycle, and it did so in style. Although astonishingly wasteful with its energy, the performance had such an excess of it that it managed to rock the venerable house. From the massive Ferdinand Keller-designed house curtain Beethoven (third from left, bottom row) looked on with one delightedly raised eyebrow. As importantly: orchestra, conductor, and audience were united in a love-fest of enthusiasm… an auspicious beginning for the Dresden Festival Orchestra.

1 You can tell I am running out of pertinent Dresden-born inventions. Just in time, too – as this was my last day at the Festival after a week of perfect weather, charming hospitality, late-night Quarkkäulchen, and (mostly) superb music-making. Dresden 2013, here I come.

Picture courtesy Dresden Music Festival, © Oliver Killig