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The last survey of the season

Performers from the Orquesta Estable del Teatro Colón take the applause after their Christmas concert on December 21.
By Pablo Bardin
For the Herald

Reviews of a witty Bernstein, a Honegger Christmas special and ‘degenerate art’


This is the last survey of the by now extinct musical season. Two of the five comments are about the Colón; two concern the cycles of the National Library.

The Art Institute of our mighty theatre does a special project each year: a short opera wholly prepared, sung, staged and played by students, naturally with the supervision of the professors. I find it a very rewarding and intelligent idea, for from it comes the professionals of the future, bred at the source.

They call it the “Workshop of Operatic Integration.” In 2015 it was Ravel’s lovely L’enfant et les sortilèges, which was so good that it was presented again in 2016 in the series of events for children of the Colón (another interesting initiative). Claudio Alsuyet, as director of the institute is doing a fine job, and this was proved by the December première of Leonard Bernstein’s witty 45-minute one-acter, Trouble in Tahiti (words and music by the charismatic US artist).

Tahiti is only mentioned by the couple of the 1930s (Dinah, soprano; Sam, baritone) living in New York’s suburbia. Married for 10 years, their relationship is in trouble; the taut seven scenes have a sweet and sour taste but finally the unravelled becomes whole again. The music mirrors every mood, more dissonant when they quarrel, smoother when things calm down. The touch of genius (and a reminder of Bernstein’s musical comedy side; of which West Side Story is arguably one of the very best) is that each scene is followed by a brief interlude in which a trio of singing comedians bring back the Roaring Twenties carefree cabaret style.

The brilliant staging by Romina Almirón gave us a slice of American Zeitgeist, with talented handling of the singers and funny, à-propos projections, plus intelligent stage, costume and light designs. With first-rate support of a 15-strong chamber orchestra combining students and professors, led by Emmanuel Siffert with unerring sense of style, the couple was sung and acted with professional firmness by Vanesa Aguado Benítez and Mariano Gladic, and the trio did their bits with hand-in-glove precision (Milagros Burga, Germán Polón and Luis Asmat).

The venue was the Teatro 25 de Mayo, nicknamed the Little Colón, a nice hall at Avenida Triunvirato.

Christmas charm

At the Colón, the Resident (Estable) Orchestra offered a Christmas concert which featured Honegger’s Une Cantate de Noël, a late 1953 work which starts rather grimly with a De profundis clamavi but in its second part, Peace and joy to you, Israel, becomes gradually exulting, with quotes from famous German and French Christmas carols. Baritone Alejandro Meerapfel, the Colón Choir (Miguel Martínez) and the Colón Children’s Choir (César Bustamante) all sang with conviction, fine voices and accuracy.

Before and after, things were aesthetically worlds apart. Brazilian conductor Roberto Minczuk, he of vast career, initially had the ungrateful task of accompanying the fluffy and badly orchestrated Concerto for oboe on motifs from Donizetti’s La Favorita by Antonio Pasculli (1842-1924), a mere vehicle for the virtuoso playing of Rubén Albornoz.

After the interval the Estable, generally confined to the pit, had the challenge of Brahms’ majestic First Symphony, and both conductor and orchestra acquitted themselves with a powerful, concentrated reading of what is probably the best First in history. Alas, at the cost of leaving aside (no explanation) the long-announced Second Symphony (“Rome”) by Bizet, which is very rarely performed and not the equal of the astonishing First from the teenager composer, but is still a score of charm and freshness worth reviving.

Plural music

The National Library has a cozy Auditorio Borges of good acoustics and it is the venue of a worthy project called “Plural Music” (Música en Plural), which was first organised many years ago by Haydée Seibert and Bárbara Civita. The idea is to mix different textures in the same concert, as a way of showing the variety of chamber music.

In 2016 there were nine concerts and I could only catch the last one, although some of them were very alluring.

In this case, a song recital by mezzo Mariana Rewerski accompanied by pianist Valeria Briático was followed by the pithy, intense Elgar Quintet for piano and strings. The singer chose well: a fast Villanelle by Cécile Chaminade, a beautiful melody by Massenet (Nuits d’Espagne), Reynaldo Hahn both in French (Paysage, very evocative) and English (three of the Five Little Songs on clever texts by Robert Stevenson), showing the versatility of this Venezuelan who spent most of his life in Paris; Dream Valley, one of the numerous songs by the Brit Roger Quilter; and two fine Argentine choices: Cita by Guastavino and Canción de la luna lunanca by Ginastera.

Both artists are accomplished professionals who sing and play with style, good taste and accuracy.

The Quintet (1919) is mature Elgar at its best, written immediately after his Quartet (1918): dense Post-romanticism with real substance and structure, it was admirably played by Graciela Reca (piano, from Entre Ríos) and string players of true knowledge and sound technique who happen to be great friends: Haydée Seibert Francia and Gustavo Mulé (violins), Elizabeth Ridolfi (viola) and Myriam Santucci (cello).

‘Degenerate’

Civita and Seibert Francia had another splendid idea at the same venue: two concerts, one instrumental and the other vocal with piano, called “The forbidden sounds,” centring on the music that Hitler and Goebbels called “Entartete Musik” (“Degenerate Music”).

I managed to hear the second, with Susanna Moncayo (mezzo), Víctor Torres (baritone) and Pierre Blanchard (piano).

The first group, with Moncayo, was a selection of music from Terezin, the concentration camp of Jews in Czech territory used by the Nazis to mock UN envoys by making them believe that the inmates could create plays and pieces of music and were well treated, when in fact after the visit they were sent to Auschwitz...The hymn and the song of Terezin plus a couple of cabaret songs by Karel Svenk and Adolf Strauss were heard in this concert.

Those composers were considered degenerate but in exile. Schönberg is the man who invented the 12-tone system, but his funny Brettl-Lieder (Cabaret songs) are tonal and sarcastic and quite early (1901). Finally, the songs of Berlin leftist composers who lived the decline of the Weimar Republic: Hanns Eisler, Paul Dessau (“Song of the great capitulation”) and Weill: The ballad of sexual submission from The twopenny opera, plus Abschied (“Farewell”), by Moncayo. Cynical, harsh, disenchanted songs.

I was surprised that they ended with a funny Fred Raymond duet, for he belonged to the different world of light operettas during the Third Reich. But the afternoon was interesting, with Moncayo’s crossover way opposed to the more classical Torres, both finely accompanied by Blanchard.

Have you ever wondered about whether there were cantatas extolling Hitler, paralleling those written for Lenin and Stalin? I have never found any reference to them; how strange in a megalomaniac regime if they were absent...

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