Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Russian Music Orgy at the CSO

Well, I know where all the high-brow percussionists were last night!  With Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, and Stravinky's The Rite of Spring on the program, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra dominated its audience with grand crashing chords and lurching anxiety, which made the two hours seem like a quarter that.

The concert hall was pretty full for a Wednesday evening, with attendees of all ages pushing to get their tickets and reach their seats.  Mussorgsky set the tone for the evening - not an evening to sit back and listen, but to sit forward and WATCH.  The stresses and meter in this piece are so uneven and lurching and the swirls of sound that the piece creates got into every corner of the room.  I don't know how anybody could sit comfortably directly behind the orchestra for this program.  There were some excellent clarinet and flute parts (this program was another showcase for the woodwinds), and I think the harp must have been miked because it was a lot more prominent than I was used to... I felt at times that this program was just going for fortissimo oppression of the hall.

I'm pretty sure the entire audience was familiar with everything on the program that evening, so the maestoso first movement of the Tchaikovsky was heard with welcome and relief.  With such a need for precision in the treble and sonority in the bass, I must say that the piano was tuned beautifully.  Performed by 21-year-old Daniil Trifonov, who ambled on stage with gangly limbs and a skateboarder's haircut, I thought, "he's just a kid!" and then ....... he turned into the piece.  Though this famous movement is often looked at as a choppy piece of extreme difficulty, and while this wasn't the cleanest of performances, I thought it was well done, energetic and passionate.  The very clean high trills in the second movement over the waltz-like theme in the orchestra was exquisite and the lively Russian third movement was powerfully played.  This was my favorite part of the evening.

While these days, a standing ovation in the concert hall seems almost required, this time, the audience was rewarded with a flashy encore of the piano version of the Infernal Dance from Stravinsky's Firebird Suite.  I felt like the young pianist was saying, "Oh yeah?  Let's step it up a notch, Chicago.  Here's MY Stravinsky..... let's see what YOU can do!"

And the CSO brought it.  A staple piece that they play well, I felt this time the concert hall was almost unable at times to hold the music in.  Never letting the listener rest for more than a few moments when the solo instruments take over, the orchestra definitely has the capriciousness of this piece down.  Their pesante was nauseatingly so and their take on frantic was almost unbearable.  I hope nobody in the audience came in that evening already anxious.  Bravo.

This concert is being performed again on Saturday evening.  

Also, Happy Birthday, Dad!

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Simon Boccanegra at Chicago's Lyric

This October, the Lyric opened Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, an early opera of Verdi's, which satisfies its listeners with Verdi's typical sweeping melodies and word painting.

A story of disaster, ambition, politics and love, the mostly-male cast, with some fabulous bass and baritone voices, tremble with the anger and exasperation in their attempts to get what they want and satisfy their ambitions and vengeance.

The prologue is very tame and opens with pastoral sounds, much like Beethoven's 6th symphony.  The aria by Ferruccio Furlanetto, who plays Maria's father is full, deep and compelling as he emotionally sings such words of vengeance as "my hate will haunt you."  And so the drama begins.

There is a very nice technique used by the Lyric in the production that allows the scene to expand visually by showing action off stage in shadows.  In fact, with several pillars on the sides of the stage, a new backdrop can be placed conveniently behind a pillar to change the scene while not requiring much set changing.

It isn't until Act 1 that we hear a female voice - in a very silly and poetic (yet beautiful) love song.  Despite the fact that there is only heightened emotional frivolity every time Amelia (the sole female character, who is tugged this way and that, with very little control over her fate) opens her mouth in the first half of the opera, Verdi uses his familiar gorgeous melodic shaping so that regular opera-goers don't even need to hear her words to know what Amelia (played by Krassimira Stoyanova) is saying.

While Act 2 brought in the expected "pena" aria and some beautiful singing by tenor Frank Lopardo ("a jealous rage destroyed my reason") the a cappella trio and the end of Act 2 was sudden and uncomfortable.

There is an unusual duet in Act 3 with two very low voices, which reinforces the feel of the opera - that it is tragedy precipitated by men.  The fates and disasters of these men are wound together.  The bipartisanship that Simon Boccanegra (Thomas Hampson) implores his people to adopt must be a lasting topic, and though this opera still took place in 14th century Genoa, it still has appeal to any audience.

Opera-goers at the Lyric are lucky this year to get to experience such a great production with such experienced singers in these rolls.  Thomas Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto have made the roles their own and really make the listener feel with their baritone and bass voices the power, anguish and drama of this lasting and noble story.