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Ionarts-at-Large: MPhil Season Opening Concerts

After two introductory concerts (Mahler and Wagner/Bruckner), Lorin Maazel’s first season with the Munich Philharmonic was well under way in a variety—deliberately varied—of concerts. The inclusion of works by Bach, Schubert, Strauss, Stravinsky, Puccini, Fauré, and Ravel was no accident, it’s all part of the consistently stressed, heavy handed at times, repertoire-diversity that Maazel is meant to bring to the Munich Philharmonic. The less-than-subtle suggestion that that’s what was missing under his predecessor never far away. At least it’s a better narrative than the 82-year old, by now tottering Maazel being the future of the orchestra.

On the four-concert program on the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th of September (as if two or three weren’t enough) was Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.5, Schubert’s Fourth Symphony, and Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. Bach, with the slightly silly inclusion of a harpsichord in the 2500 arena that is the Philharmonic hall of the Gasteig, is good to play for the orchestra, and they should do more of it by all means. It’s music that philharmonic audiences all over the classical world are increasingly deprived on, but shouldn’t. Eventually, as familiarity with the idiom is being re-introduced to the orchestra, it will be good to hear, too.

Schubert’s Fourth, “Tragic”, Symphony was next in this ‘travel-through-the-style-periods exercise’. It’s said that there is quite a bit of Schubert in Bruckner; on this occasion there was quite a bit of Bruckner in Schubert. The most tragic thing about the work is that Schubert never got to hear it (or any other of his symphonies) performed. A fine performance like this would have done nicely for Schubert, who presumably wasn’t spoiled… one with a leisurely Andante just like this, chugging along happily towards a perfectly harmless Menuetto, and a charming, side-effect free finale.

How did Strauss’ Alpine Symphony ever get a bad rap, as long as Also spoke Zarathustra is out there? It’s an impressive work, the latter, ruined forever by Stanley Kubrick, and completely overwhelming itself with the opening. The best prescription might be to lean back and bask in the sound, the glow of the strings supported by the organ (to add to the decadence), and enjoy the several moments where violas pick the spent musical material up to bring it closer to the idiom that would be heard later in the Rosenkavalier. There are luckier listeners who take more naturally to this deliberately contrasting and jarring work (brought to you by the alternating keys of B and C major), who hear more than just an incoherent jumble of notes more concerned with loudness than greatness in this “Symphonic Optimism in Fin de siècle form, dedicated to the 20th Century”.

The performance didn’t help, even on the third of four nights. The first trumpet and the cellist had off-days and only the concertmaster managed to get his solo-duties dispatched with narcissist ease and flawless ability.

When Maazel signed on to the job in Munich and engaged in the usual job-taker’s hyperbole, I suggested that he couldn’t well say: “I was bored just with the Châteauville Foundation, I can really use the cash, my wife loves Munich, it’s just a few weeks a year, and it can’t hurt my reputation, because no one will be looking.” Monetary needs aside I might have mentioned that the Munich Philharmonic would also make a nice sandbox for his Châteauville graduates to play in. Joyce El-Khoury (Mimì), Jennifer Black (Musetta), Brian Jagde (Rodolfo), Corey Crider (Marcello), Jonathan Beyer (Schaunard), Paul Corona (Colline), Tyler Simpson (Benoît), and Benjamin Bloomfield (Alcindoro) would certainly agree, as the first set of beneficiaries. They are the current Castleton cast of Puccini’s La bohème and sang two concert performances of that opera in the Gasteig, with the Munich Philharmonic under their mentor, Maazel.

In order to be seen by the singers, perched on two ledges at the back of the hall, Maazel got an extra high podium from which he conducted sitting at a desk. German bureaucracy unquestionably demanding that “any steps exceeding one in number and/or five inches in height” need a special safety marking, such safety-tape was duly glued ‘round the rostrum. Very pretty, too: It left the stage of the Philharmonic hall looking one porta-potty short of a construction site for the city’s new penguin house.

A good deal of subscription holders opted to stay home at the prospect of a bunch of Young Singers Project performers doing a concert-La bohème, but the quality of the singers was the last reason that would have justified keeping away from the performance. It was a fine sounding group of young men and ladies on display, none of them were overacting (as especially American voice students are wont to do),

Joyce El-Khoury may not be “the next Renée Fleming and more”, as advertised by Dietlinde Turban, the irresistibly charming Châteauville Foundation spokesperson and wife of Lorin Maazel, but she made for an impressive Mimì (the Ashley Alexandra Dupré of her time), and is the very picture of (bronzing cream improved) health. Jennifer Black isn’t as nimble as she would have to be to convince dramatically, but her Musetta was even more interesting and secure, with plenty character, a wet, silvery sound, easy high notes, and less of a sandy edge to her voice than El-Khoury. Brian Jadge impressed with a strong, well channeled voice, louder than meaty, cleaner than clear, uncommonly good, but common in timbre, and showing signs of strain by act three.

The superficial, light, and sentimental music (so the initial critical reaction to La bohème)—all the ingredients necessary for success and popularity—was in good hands with Maazel and the Philharmonic. Apart from supporting his singers enthusiastically, he got a particularly fine performance from the orchestra. Aided by the lack of a pit, which always allows one to hear more than usual, of the operatic score, they created a real goose-bump finale.

Pelléas and Mélisande is a happy subject, musically… bringing out the best in many composers. Debussy, foremost, but also Schoenberg, Sibelius, and of course Fauré who led the way with his early and enchanting tone poem (at which Koechlin had a first crack), well and willingly played by the Munich Philharmonic in the third of another set of four concerts on September 28th. Fauré’s four-movement Suite, orchestrated from the 1898 incidental music, with its instantly memorable tunes is light and gay enough never to be cloying… ditto here, despite a “Sicilienne” (allegro molto moderato) awfully ‘moderato’, and a drawn out, terribly ‘molto’ “Mort de Mélisande” (molto adagio).

For Ravel’s piano concerto, the locally popular Alice Sara Ott, one of the barefoot-gimmick-artsits, was
available at Amazon
Fauré, Debussy, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Pelléas and Mélisande,
S.Baudo / Czech PO

hired—and delivered a strangely muted, soft performance, matched exactly by the orchestra who was in synch with the pianist in every other way, too. For all the high synchronicity marks, the performance was neither particular accurate nor particularly interesting—if anything it was emaciated and dull with a pretty, meandering, dainty-yet-mechanical slow movement that was so soporific, so dragged down to utter meaninglessness that it zapped my will to stay on for the 1911 version of Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka. Tippling back and forth on stage to take her bows, she was finally shoeed to the piano by Maazel, and added Chopin’s C sharp minor Nocturne to the bill, which had a clearer tone to it than anything in the Ravel.