Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: the Honeck Era

A very nice collection of links to all the PG's coverage of Manfred Honeck over the past few years.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

digital downloads: join the future already, PSO!

It's halfway through 2009 and no major orchestra that I'm aware of makes all their concert recordings available on iTunes? Why? How hard can this be? The performances are already recorded. They play on WQED. How much work would it take to place them on iTunes and feature an ad on the program booklet: "Like the performance? Buy it on iTunes in two days"?

The few orchestras who have taken the plunge make the mistake of treating these releases like CDs of yesteryear. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Make them no frills, big selection (i.e. all performances from the season, minus superstar soloists who might object due to worries of cannibalizing their own CD sales) and CHEAP. Welcome to the future, PSO.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Rediscovering Rachmaninoff: Day 3

No time for full post so some quick notes. Friday, April 3, attended hours and hours of Rachmaninoff at the PSO.

7pm, Listening to Rachmaninoff with festival curator Horowitz and conductor Gianandrea Noseda: A brief (half-hour), but interesting exchange. Horowitz played some records and discussed the uniqueness of Rach recordings by Stokowski's legendary Philadelphia Orchestra. Italian maestro Noseda tried to explain why he is championing Rach's unloved 1st symph by performing it 8 times around the world this year.

8pm, Pittsburgh Symphony concert, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, "Spring Cantata" and Symphony No. 1. Noseda, conductor, Simon Trpceski, piano, Vassily Ladyuk, baritone, Mendelssohn Choir. Okay. The festival is called "Rediscovering Rachmaninoff," but at the risk of sounding glib, I found both the Spring Cantata and 1st Symphony rightly forgotten. Noseda pulled out an A+ effort as he valiantly tried to convey the enthusiasm for the piece he described in the pre-concert talk, but the symphony struck me as a snooze. I'm hardly alone in this opinion; it's been disliked since its premier, and Horowitz's program liner notes tiptoe around the elephant in the room: 99% of people don't like it, or ever liked it. But let's try *really hard* and maybe we will. I am sure that pros like maestro Noseda can enjoy, say, the motivic connections between the symphony's first and third movements, but I dunno.

The Spring Cantata. I wonder if the Mendelssohn Choir was annoyed at assembling at Heinz Hall for just this 15-minute piece. The problem with Spring Cantata is that, despite the 100-odd people on stage (full orchestra, full chorus, baritone solo), it seemed so small, such a minor work. Take any other work for chorus and orchestra-- Carmina Burana, Ein Deutsches Reqiuem, Beethoven's Ninth, for God's sake-- they're BIG! Was this uninspired Russian folk poem about a cheating peasant wife truly the best use of a small army of professional musicians? This would be better suited to a chamber ensemble, a soloist + small orchestra or quartet or something.

10pm, Post-concert performance by Vakhtang Kodanashvili, piano. Although brief, this was the most satisfying for me because it, like the Paganini Variations, is the Rachmaninoff we already know: big, impressive, virtuosic piano banging. I understand that the entire point of the festival is to challenge this very notion, and the crudeness of my comments here is meant to be provocative. I know there's much to love and admire in any Rach work, but so far I doubt that, for a general listener like myself, the Rach repertoire will ever expand beyond the Rach we already love. The Symphony 1 and Spring Cantata surely haven't changed my mind.

2/5 Duchamps

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Rediscovering Rachmaninoff: Day 1 - Maxim Mogilevsky Master Class

I plan to attend a bunch of the Rediscovering Rachmaninoff festival throughout April, schedule here, with more details here.

Today I attended the master class at the PNC Recital Hall, which is tucked away in Duquesne's Mary Pappert School of Music. The class was led by Maxim Mogilevsky (bio), a Russian pianist who studied under Vladimir Ashkenazy's teacher, has taught at Oberlin and other music programs and toured and performed extensively. Mogilevsky will be performing pre-concerts at Heinz Hall the weekend of April 17th.

I've never sat in on a master class before, and it was interesting, although I'm not sure I'd crash one again unless the guest artist were, like, Yo Yo Ma. Three local college piano students-- Helga, Javier, and Vivian, if I recall-- each played a short piece, followed by about 25 minutes of comments and guidance by Mogilevsky. Helga played Scriabin's famous Etude Op. 8, No. 12, and Javier a part of a movement of a Scriabin piano concerto (i *think*), with an accompanist playing the orchestra part.

As classical music fans, most of what we hear are the A++ artists, the cream of the cream who tour, perform professionally, and record CDs. We rarely hear student-level performers, and it was interesting in and of itself to hear a college student perform a Scriabin Etude I've only previously heard performed by Vladimir Horowitz, a piano god. It was fun, like watching a minor league baseball game-- more exciting because it's messier, more real, more human, with the possibility that a mistake could actually happen raising the stakes as a spectator.

The students did 3-5 minute performances followed by 25 minute of private piano lessons by Mogilevsky, which is what a master class is, I suppose, but it got a bit boring for an audience schmuck like myself. I stayed for an hour and left.

Rachmaninoff Rediscovered: zero.
2/5 Duchamps

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Basso Michele Pertusi, Wednesday

Pertusi tucks in Natalie Dessay in the Met's Sonnambula

Basso Michele Pertusi, who played the roguish count in the Met's recent production of La Sonnambula, will perform a solo recital at the Pittsburgh Opera in the Strip on Wednesday, April 1. More info at the PG here.

Pittsburgh has too few such concerts-- world class artists in solo recitals-- but tickets are a bit steep at $100 a pop. This includes a dinner and drinks with Pertusi, but I'd prefer the option of buying some tickets for just the performance at a lower price point. Maybe I'm just being cheap and anti-social?

Friday, March 27, 2009

PSO Chamber Orchestra concerts no more!

Mr. Druckenbrod at the PG posted today that, "Two years after the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra made a triumphant return to Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland with its chamber orchestra, the series will be dissolved."

Truly a shame. I saw some nice concerts at Carnegie Music Hall over the years. I wonder if this is due to not only the economy, as explained by PSO president Lawrence Tamburri in the link above, but the early retirement of Andres Cardenes, who's been conducting?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Review: La Sonnambula at the Met: Live in HD

Bottom line: stellar singing from Dessay and Florez couldn't totally compensate for overly conceptual direction by Mary Zimmerman and libretto so irrelevant it borders on the idiotic. I left after the first act, not unsatisfied, exactly-- It's just that 90 minutes of this fluff was enough. I didn't need three hours.

Here's an MP3 of the boos this production received on opening night [via Medicine and Opera blog].

Thursday, March 5, 2009

YouTube Symphony

I won't make the PSO this weekend, but in the news, the Youtube Symphony has chosen its members (Reuters) and will debut at Carnegie Hall on April 15. I guess we'll see, but more interesting in the meantime is that YouTube Symphony is hosting A-level content like Lang Lang's encore at the Berliner Philharmoniker on Jan 31st 2009, also available in HD.

This concert was not available at the Berliner Phil's own HD-streaming web site, the Digital Concert Hall, which I hope to review here on Classical Burgh soon.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

PSO REVIEW: Carmina Burana

Went to the PSO on Sunday:

Te Deum by Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) - Was unable to enjoy it thanks to a woman sitting in front of me freaking KNITTING...! Lady, this isn't your living room. I shushed her eventually but the first few minutes of the piece were ruined for me. Last time I sit in Family Circle with these riff raff! A recording by Honeck of this impressive-sounding piece is available and the PSO will perform it next season.

Haydn Oboe Concerto - Whatev-- it was nice enough. I suspect it was only played to give longtime PSO oboist Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida a (not undeserved) day in the sun.

Carmina Burana - this is a piece that's close to my heart and which I have some strong opinions about. Carmina Burana is impossible to screw up entirely, but I was largely unimpressed by Maestro Honeck's interpretative choices, big and small alike. Most notably, he ZOOMED through the brass fanfares in O Fortuna and everywhere else Orff wallows in pomp. These tempi choices didn't add anything and diminished the impact of some of the most thrilling music ever written by man. I got the sense that Honeck wanted to get through these sections as quickly as possible, perhaps not wanting to revel in the biggest, loudest moments in the work. Catholic guilt, perhaps?

One of the big interpretive questions in Carmina is how to make the chorus and soloists sound. The vocalists in the deservedly famous 1960 Ormandy achieved a unique blend of monastic chant and liturgical singing that reflected the origins of the texts. Recent versions like Christian Thielemann's outstanding record with the Deutsche Oper Berlin aim for a more modern, operatic sound. But as far as I could tell, the Mendelssohn Choir adopted no change to its usual style for this piece, a missed opportunity by Honeck.

The soloists were okay: soprano Celena Shafer got the job done, but come on Celena, holding the lyric book and turning its pages while you sang the "In Trutina" solo-- which has exactly six lines of verse-- was ridiculous. Baritone Hugh Russell had personality but didn't project well and was often drowned out by the orchestra. Tenor Christopher Pfund was the best, which is unsurprising given that he's apparently made a mini-career of playing the roasting swan at Carmina performances throughout the US.

There is a tendency among some critics and classical musicians to dismiss Carmina as light music notable only for its humorous aspects (e.g. "Carmina nice break from the serious" by the Post-Gazette's Andrew Druckenbrod). I assume this is because the piece is performed so damned much. But no, it's a serious, complex work, and even the "comedic" parts have much more going on: a deep humanity, hallucinatory imagery (the swan), and social satire ("In Taberna"), qualities that call to mind another great German musical that's difficult to classify, Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera. This unfortunate simplification of Carmina seemed to hang over the PSO's performance: Honeck shied away from the biggest passages and the soloists over-played the humor by hamming it up.

A final criticism is that the words of the Carmina Burana poems should have been projected onto the screens next to the stage. Although I myself have read the texts numerous times, I imagine that for most of the 2,600-odd people in the sold-out Heinz Hall, it was like watching a foreign film without subtitles. The lyrics weren't included in the program books, either. It's a shame, since the poetry is essential to understanding the meaning and mysteries of Carmina, with its raucous drinking songs, yes, but also the enigmatic expressions in the love songs and even O Fortuna. It is much more difficult to dismiss Carmina when the words and music are taken in together.

2.5/5 Duchamps

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

PSO: 2009-10 season, with exclamation points!!

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orhestra has posted their 2009-10 season schedule, and it's crowd-pleaser after crowd-pleaser: Beethoven's Ninth and Third, Mozart's Requiem, Four Seasons, Rite of Spring, Symphonie Fantastique, The Planets, Also Sprach Zarathustra... throw in Bach's Air suite and we're officially out of risk-free repertoire.

Some atypical highlights in 2009-10 include:

1) an honest-to-God RECITAL by the famous Joshua Bell. More recitals, Heinz Hall! This year featured a near-sold-out Lang Lang recital, which shows there's an audience and, more importantly, it's SO much better than flying in the world's most famous soloists to perform a war-horse concerto and then disappear at intermission.

2) Horacio Gutiérrez performing Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto 2. Gutiérrez made an outstanding recording of this romantic favorite back in 1991 with Lorin Maazel and the fabled PSO of yesteryear, still in print and worth your $8.99. Have 19 years cooled the burning Caribbean passion of this Cuban firebrand?

3) Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting Berlioz and Holst, hopefully offending someone in the process.

4) a Beethoven's Ninth featuring the awesome Canadian soprano Measha Brüggergosman, whose web site includes sections on "Where's the party at?" and "My peeps." Measha is a Deutsche Grammophon exclusive artist whose last CD, Surprise, features cabaret songs by the wild combination of Satie and Schoenberg...!

5) F. Murray Abraham, Salieri from the greatest classical movie of all time, Amadeus, live and doing something!

6) The wonderful, he-should-be-way-more-famous-than-he-is Stephen Hough!

Again, Honeck is continuing his approach from the current season, and that's fine... but we expect tons of Webern next year, Manfred.

3/5 Duchamps

Monday, February 9, 2009

Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met: Live in HD

Finally checked out a Met opera at Pittsburgh Mills Cinemark theater.

Here's the skinny: the operas are usually shown on one screen, which sells out. The audience is mostly very nice, cultured elderly folks. Outside of a couple who looked to be in their late 30s, I was the youngest person in the theater by a good four decades. The old people start lining up AN HOUR IN ADVANCE, and then sit through the four-hour show. These folks are NOT kidding around...! Saturday's show was Lucia di Lammermoor starring the world-famous Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. Probably due to their star power, the Cinemark sold so many tickets they added a second screen, which turned out well-- the first screen room was pretty packed, and the second theater was about half-full.

Seeing the opera live from the Met was stunning. The picture and sound quality are quite good. Although there were a couple minutes where technical difficulties knocked out the picture, missing 5 minutes of a 4-hour opera was not a big deal.

I can't overstate how much seeing it live added to the enjoyment. You're witnessing a live performance and all the unexpected moments and magic that may result. On Saturday, star tenor Rolando Villazon-- the guy everyone came to see-- was sick! So, in circumstances that have given many stars their first break, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala was rounded up last-minute and did a wonderful job. It's a performance unlikely to end up on DVD, and we saw it all live. The camera follows the audience in New York shuffling in and taking their seats, and a host (this time, opera star Natalie Dessay) takes you backstage during intermissions. I felt like I was not only there, but given the VIP tour...! I know, I'm sounding like a bad commercial.

For some reason, seeing opera in a movie theater changes the rules of audience etiquette. Patrons brought sandwiches wrapped in foil, drinks and even thermoses. People fell asleep, snored, and made occasionally loud comments... but somehow I didn't mind. In a concert hall, most of this would be unacceptable, but at the movies, it all became part of the experience. The audience clapped after arias. These weren't annoying strangers snoring and talking-- these were my people, the few dozen individuals in the entire Pittsburgh area who care enough about opera to assemble for this performance.

How was the opera? Great, if not life-changing. Anna Netrebko isn't the biggest star in opera for nothing, and she lit up the screen with her looks, voice, and presence. The sets would not be out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster. Professional critics seemed unimpressed ("Netrebko and Villazon Disappoint in Met's Lucia", etc.), but screw 'em. This was world-class opera that only professional opera-watchers could find fault with.

4/5 Duchamps


After a four-day marathon including a ballet at the Benedum, a 4-hour opera at the movie theater, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and a one-man show at the City Theatre, I am officially cultured out. For a few days. Will hopefully blog some thoughts on these soon.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bolero, Beethoven 8 & Burgos at the PSO this weekend

The PSO welcomes Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, a distinguished gentleman of 75, to conduct a staple, a lesser-known violin concerto, and a crowd-pleaser:

1) Beethoven's 8th Symphony: the shortest Beethoven symphony, with performances running around 25-26 minutes, is rarely disliked but not much loved. It's eclipsed by the colossal Fifth, Fantasia-famous Sixth (Pastoral), big Seventh, and of course the Ninth. Burgos conducted this in November at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the LA Times reported what we can probably expect:

There were no slavish period-performance conformities in Frühbeck de Burgos’ Beethoven Symphony No. 8 — just vigorous, big-orchestra sonorities, rounded phrasing, tempos right on the dot. He tried something really different in the finale, slowing the tempo each time Beethoven prepares for his humorous discord, and then holding the misbehaving note out for maximum effect.

2) Édouard Lalo - Symphonie espagnole: never heard this before although a couple recordings are in print (Sarah Chang, Itzhak Perlman, Anne-Sophie Mutter). Nice to see something less well-known and Andres Cardenes, long-time PSO concert master, always delivers the goods. Mark Kanny at the Trib has some background on the piece and comments by Mr. Cardenes.

3) Ravel - Bolero: a crowd pleaser than always pleases. Not sure what Burgos can really do with this one.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ravel's Trio

There's a wonderful recording of Ravel's Trio available for free from Boston's Gardner Museum podcast, idiotically called "The Concert". Available here (for now?). Direct link to MP3 file.

Monday, February 2, 2009

PSO Review: Tortelier's enchanted, offensive journey

Went to PSO on Saturday for Tortelier's Enchanted Journey, an evening of delight from Principal Guest Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier. He started off with "The Swan of Tuonela" by Sibelius which was exactly what you'd expect: 8 minutes vaguely evocative of a freakin swan. After this pleasant and forgettable piece, an orchestra member stood up and waived a Terrible Towel, which caused the wealthy dowagers sitting next to me to murmur in sharp disapproval.

Anyway, next was Grieg's famous, fool-proof Piano Concerto, which was not fooled up by the wonderful Orion Weiss, whose parents apparently had the chutzpah to name after a constellation. Despite vigorous applause, no encore was given (something I intend to work on in the coming months).

After the intermission, Tortelier conducted his own interesting transcription of Ravel's Trio in A Minor (for piano, violin, and viola), which he recalled playing as a young man with his much-more-impressive-than-your-family musician father and sister. He introduced the piece with a fifteen-minute mini-lecture in which he highlighted themes to listen for and contrasted passages from the original vs. his orchestral version. I, for one, appreciated this intro, not least of which for Tortelier's dirty old French man descriptions worthy of his countryman Serge Gainsbourg: "Are you ready for sensual horns, sexy trumpets, and religious woodwinds? Are you ready for the climax??"

Tortelier scored it for a BIG orchestra-- four trumpets, three trombones, three bassoons, the works. Andrew Druckenbrod of the Post-Gazette wasn't so keen on this big sound, (see "Bigger not better at Heinz Hall"), but as I've lost half my hearing to years of iPod abuse, I appreciated it greatly. The PSO should be this big always, and amplified, to boot.

At half an hour, the transcription is a lot to wrap your head around. Tortelier clearly put some serious work and passion into teasing all kinds of orchestral contrasts from the Trio, with such imaginative touches as transcribing a piano theme for a whimsical harp and flute combo, but it's hard to say how successful the piece is after only one listen. Tortelier recorded the work with the Ulster Orchestra in 1994, but it's only in print as part of a box set and not available for sale as an MP3 download.

Tortelier raised some eyebrows on Friday night when, during his mini-lecture, he illustrated a reference to "Asian-sounding music" by making a slant-eye face using his fingers...! YES! He apologized for causing offense during the Saturday performance, but won some well-deserved applause in explaining that he was "not politically correct, but humanly correct" (as I recall he put it). Druckenbrod wants to put this ugly incident behind us. I say, see Serge Gainsbourg reference above.

The beefed-up PSO finished the night off with The Sorceror's Apprentice, brisk and fun and impossible to picture anything besides Mickey Mouse in Fantasia while listening to. Overall, a great night.

3.5/5 Duchamps

Saturday, January 31, 2009


Welcome to Classical Burgh, a blog devoted to cultural events in Pittsburgh: mainly classical music, but plays, musicals, and art, as well.

Expect snark. Expect invectives. Expect sweeping generalization. Expect incredibly indignant, righteous, often groundless opinion. Expect the unexpected.

Your host,

"Schnell" Wilhelm Parker
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