US, Russian guests to the fore in free concerts
For the Herald
Gala of Russian opera and NY Youth Symphony drew crowds of fans to Blue Whale, Gran RexCuriously enough, in two successive days (June 30, July 1) we had musical missions from Russia and the US. In fact, the term I used has much relevance in the first case, for indeed the visit of a conductor and four singers from Russia has to with the 130th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Argentina and Russia. It was called Gala of the stars of Russian opera and it featured our Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional in the brand-new Blue Whale concert hall. There were presentation speeches from our foreign ministry and the Russian ambassador.
Conductor Alim Shakhmametyev is both the Artistic director of Saint Petersburg’s Symphony Orchestra of the Opera and Ballet Theatre of the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory (quite a bit of a mouthful there) and Principal Conductor of the Novosibirsk Philharmonic (by the way, that Siberian city has a huge Opera and Ballet Theatre, and their Ballet came here about 20 years ago for a splendid Spartacus with Maximiliano Guerra). Shakhmametyev certainly knows his business and got very effective performances from the National Symphony; he is also something of a showman in his crowd-pleasing gestures. The players showed commendable flexibility and enthusiasm in a repertoire they don’t generally frequent.
The singers were well chosen and all made their debuts here (as did the conductor). Two voices were splendid: the baritone Vasili Ladyuk has a true and noble timbre plus admirable breath control; and mezzosoprano Olesya Petrova is in the tradition of artists such as Arkhipova and Obraztsova: ample register, beautiful colour and fine line. Soprano Oxana Shilova has an agreeable lyrical voice with some command of florid singing but she lacks the personal touch that makes an artist special. And tenor Dmitry Voropaev has a reasonable voice and is capable of refined pianissimi though in the big moments he sounds rather pale.
This is my second time hearing a concert at the Blue Whale, and on this occasion I was seated first row dead centre on the third floor. The sightlines were wonderful and I liked the orchestra displayed on five levels. Unfortunately, I now have no doubt that there are considerable problems in the acoustics. The orchestra sounded over-brilliant (as it did recently in Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, when I was seated in the stalls), but, worse, the singers’ voices had the wrong sort of halo, edgy and disagreeable, and they sounded very loud most of the time (I even thought that they might be amplified through microphones, I do hope it wasn’t so since such a method denatures a concert).
My other complaint is the repertoire: I was hoping for a panorama of Russian opera but there were only four Russian pieces, three of them well-known pieces by Tchaikovsky (Polonaise and Lenski’s aria from Eugen Onegin, Yeletsky’s aria from Pique Dame), so that the only out-of-the way piece (and very charming) was the third song of Lei from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snegourochka (The Snow Maiden). Dvorák was Slav but not Russian (the Moon Song from Rusalka). What about Glinka, Mussorgsky and Borodin, not to speak of the 20th century?
Italian opera: Largo al factotum from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (a virtuoso performance by Ladyuk); rarely done and quite difficult, Elena’s Bolero from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani (Shilova); O mio babbino caro from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (nicely interpreted by Shilova) and of course Verdi’s toast from La Traviata.
French opera: admirably sung by Petrova, Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila and the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen (preceded by the First Act Prelude).
A beautiful Viennese operetta piece, Dein ist mein ganzes Herz, from Lehár’s The Land of Smiles, and a zarzuela fragment, No puede ser, from Sorozábal’s La tabernera del puerto.
A famous song, Agustín Lara’s Granada, and four canzonette napolitane, hardly the right material for Russians: Dicitencello vuje by Rodolfo Falvo; Parlami d’amore (Cesare Bixio); the march-like O surdato ‘nnamurato (Enrico Cannio); and, as encore, Luigi Denza’s Funiculì funiculà.
All in all, a success, but not of the expected kind, and a botched opportunity.
I would call a success of the right kind the concert for the Mozarteum’s Midday concerts offered by the New York Youth Symphony conducted by Joshua Gersen. It was founded in 1963 and features young people of from 12 to 22 years. What better praise than to say that closing my eyes I could think I was hearing a fully professional adult orchestra.
The Gran Rex has the opposite problem compared to the Blue Whale: the acoustics are matte and absorbent, so that it is impossible to get real punch in the sound. Nevertheless, the enthusiastic youngsters communicated deeply with the audience and had great impact.
They started with a nine-minute première from a young American, Molly Joyce: Fresh is a tonal score done with good technique and pleasant ideas, especially a rhythmic violin ostinato. And then, the all-time champion symphony: Beethoven’s Seventh, that “apotheosis of the dance” (Wagner dixit) always irresistible if done with quality. And it was: Gersen proved to be a very solid conductor and his players responded with contagious warmth and exactitude. A pity that they didn’t have a proper encore, so they played the last movement again, for the audience wouldn’t move.
As if proof was needed, this concert again convinced me that hard and well-based work on teenagers leads to fine results.