giovedì 14 ottobre 2010

An Ecstatic Success Music and Vision September 4

An Ecstatic Success
the Sagra Musicale Malatestiana

In Italy, and not only in Italy, Rimini is generally known as a beach resort on the Adriatic Coast. It is very crowded with happy-go-lucky youngsters during the summer months. In the autumn, it is one of the preferred spots for the retired; prices are lower, the climate is mild, the sky and sea are blue and there are many bridge clubs.
Few music lovers are aware that Rimini is also the location of one the most interesting music festivals, called 'Sagra Musicale Malatestiana' after the Malatesta family which in the Renaissance ruled the city and the surrounding areas and built some interesting monuments. The 'Sagra Musicale' is at its 61st edition; it is financed nearly entirely by local sponsors; in 2010 it lasts from 4 August to well into the autumn. It is divided into four parts: four Bach concerts in precious Renaissance Churches, six symphony concerts entrusted to internationally known orchestras, each with a local sponsor (Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Bayerisches Staatsorchester) under very well-known conductors (Riccardo Chailly, Constantinos Carydis, Semyon Bychkov, Ion Marin, Kent Nagano), seven concerts by young conductors where, this year, on his anniversary, Schumann is juxtaposed to modern composers and, finally, a section for seventeenth century 'theme' music.
For the last few years, between the Bach and the symphony section, a real jewel: the world première of 'chamber opera' in a small theatre built within the ruins of an Augustinian monastery. The 'chamber opera' is normally made up from music not originally intended for dramatic action on stage, and the production has a very low budget. For the last four years, the experiment has been successful.
This review focuses on the chamber opera and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester concert. Nonetheless, mention should be made of the very good Bach concerts (especially that conducted, on 20 August, by Antonio Greco and devoted to chorales and organ preludes -- the chorus and consort were directed by Costanzo Porta) because in Italy, Bach is not as frequently performed as in Germany or as in the Anglo-Saxon world.

A J S Bach performance by the Costanzo Porta Consort at Sagra Musicale Malatestiana. Photo © 2010 Viterbo Fotocine
After the airy and religious, indeed celestial, atmosphere of the Bach concert, the chamber opera brought us down to the saddest aspects of the Short Century, the twentieth century: the wars, the concentration camps and Auschwitz. This review is based on the 2 September 2010 performance.
It is a most original chamber opera: a ballad by Rainer Maria Rilke, Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke ('The Song of Love and Death by the soldier Christoph Rilke') as set to music by Viktor Ullmann and Frank Martin, separately, and without either composer knowing that the other was working on the same subject.
The first draft of Rilke's ballad had been written in 1899, but when published in its final version in 1912, it was a major editorial success with over 200,000 copies sold in 1922 and 500,000 when reprinted in 1934. It deals with an ancestor of Rainer Maria Rilke, young Christoph who had died in 1666 in Hungary in a battle against the Turks. Christoph's body had never been retrieved and his aristocratic title and lands had been inherited by his brother. However, the 1666 battle is only a pretext for Rilke's deeper reflection on precocious death, initiation to death through love and sex, erotic pulses as ancestral force, and the role of the hero as an emblematic representation of his people and their future generations. The dates of the ballad's success (1922; 1934) are indicative of its meaning in a Europe just coming out of World War I and about to enter World War II.

Hans Flieschmann in the Martin/Ullmann chamber opera at Sagra Musicale Malatestiana. Photo © 2010 Viterbo Fotocine
Obviously, the ballad attracted the interest of musicians; there are versions by Kurt Weill, Paul von Klenau and Kasimir von Pászthory. Those by the Swiss Roman Catholic composer Frank Martin and the Austrian Jew Viktor Ullmann were composed around 1943-44 when World War II was about to end but its destructions and sufferings were an open wound. Both Martin and Ullmann had been influenced by Schoenberg's twelve tone row system, but had a strong sense for melody and 'programmed' music. They worked on Rilke's text under vastly different conditions. Martin was in neutral Switzerland where he set to music the entire ballad for a piano and a mezzo. Ullmann was in the Theresienstadt 'model' concentration camp set up by the Nazis for artists -- mostly a propaganda showpiece. There he set to piano music only part of the text, to be played a professional actor. In Theresienstadt, performances of the work in progress were made until, in Autumn 1944, due to the turn of military events, the Germans saw that there was no longer any need to have a showpiece. First the pianist, then the actor and finally Viktor Ullmann and his wife were transferred to Auschwitz to be gassed.

Brigitte Ravenel in the Martin/Ullmann chamber opera at Sagra Musicale Malatestiana. Photo © 2010 Viterbo Fotocine
How to make a chamber opera on the basis of this material? Denis Krief (stage director and also author of the costumes and the lighting) proved, once more, to have a brilliant idea. In the theater carved in the ruins of the Monastery, Martin's Ballad is performed by a virtuoso pianist (Francesco Libetta) and mezzo (Brigitte Ravenel) well known for her baroque performances all over Continental Europe but equally at easy with nearly an a hour of declamato sliding into arioso with hard ascension to acute tonalities followed by more gentle descending to low tonalities. On a movie screen over the piano, the audience can read the text in Italian. On another screen, sections of war films of the 1930s and 1940s are cast (eg La Kermesse Héroique, J'accuse). Brigitte Ravenel is in a World War I uniform; two young extras are seen, back stage, for the love scene. There is no interruption: from Martin the audience is brought directly to Ullmann. The text is the same but not complete; as mentioned, it was left in progress by the Auschwitz gas chamber. The voice is not a mezzo, but a male actor (Hans Flieschmann). On the screen, we see World War II images, including footage of Nazi documentary. In short, ninety minutes of full tension. Certainly, it is not a 'light' Summer performance, but an emotional experience difficult to forget both musically and dramatically. The audience appreciated it.

Riccardo Chailly. Photo © 2010 Fabiana Rossi
From the darkness at the top of the stairs ('Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke'), the Sagra moved on to Schumann's pure and transparent romanticism in the 3 September concert. It was the inaugural concert of the six major symphonic events: Riccardo Chailly conducted the most ancient European symphonic complex, the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, with a soloist, the piano enfant prodige Kit Armstrong. He is now seventeen years old but has been in a successful professional career since 2005 and has already composed several piano sonatas, three string quartets, and a full-length symphony.
Briefly, this was a full Schumann concert for the second centenary of the composer's birth. The first part of the program included : the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra concert Op 54 and the Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra Op 86; the second part was fully taken up by the Symphony No 1 Op 38 (Frühling) in the version with Gustav Mahler's orchestral revision. The three compositions are representative of Schumann's revolution in romanticism: drama is replaced by a serene Spring atmosphere where the ecstasy of love -- in particular conjugal love -- is due to the very close relationship between Robert Schumann and his wife Clara.

Kit Armstrong with Riccardo Chailly and members of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at Sagra Musicale Malatestiana. Photo © 2010 Fabiana Rossi
In the Piano Concerto, the audience's attention was obviously pointed to the young soloist, already famous internationally but not as well known in Italy on the basis of live performance. Kit Armstrong was, at the same time, generous and ironic in his dialogue with the orchestra. So tiny and with a smiling face, he was a counterpoint to Chailly's large, high posture. Enjoyable, in short, also for the eyes.

The four horn soloists with Riccardo Chailly and members of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra playing Schumann's 'Konzertstück' at Sagra Musicale Malatestiana. Photo © 2010 Fabiana Rossi
The Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra is a pure short divertissement where the virtuoso ability of the soloists stood out. The first symphony is too well known as an innovative Romantic manifesto (for Germany in around 1840) to require any presentation. Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester offered a highly melodic interpretation, not only in the Larghetto but also in final allegro animato e grazioso. An ecstatic success with standing ovations saluted the concert.
Copyright © 4 September 2010 Giuseppe Pennisi,
Rome, Italy

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