Friday, January 31, 2020

The Passenger

Last evening I had the privilege of attending the Canadian premiere of Mieczysław Weinberg’s opera Pasażerka (The Passenger), sung by the many talented students of the University of British Columbia’s (UBC’s) Opera School, the UBC Opera Ensemble, the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, and ably led by conductor David Agler.

According to the programme notes, the opera’s story is adapted from a 1962 radio play by Polish author and Auschwitz survivor, Zofia Posmysz, with libretto by Alexaner Medvedev. In another article, I discovered that Posmysz was arrested by the Germans in Krakow, sent to Auschwitz, but survived the experience because she was put to work in the kitchen, and subsequently became the book-keeper under SS Overseer Aufseherin Anneliese Franz, who became one of two main characters of the opera. Working as a journalist in Paris after the war, she overheard a woman whom she thought was Anneliese Franz. This sowed the seed for the story, as Posmysz imagined how she would react if she actually met Franz again.

The story started off as a radio play, and then a novel. In the novel, she reverses the situation to the form presented in the opera: Anneliese Franz was now married, and was traveling on a ship with her husband to take up a diplomatic post in Brazil. On the ship, she saw a young woman whom she knew well in Auschwitz, but thought had perished. The vision of this woman – indeed I wondered throughout the performance whether this “passenger” was real, or an extension of Franz’s guilty conscience – led her to confess her Nazi past to her surprised husband. The story of the opera then switches from present to past and back again.

Not knowing the music beforehand, and not having the score with me, it is only possible for me to make generalized observations and comments. Given the composer’s closeness to Shostakovich, I was trying to detect influences of the great Soviet composer. Indeed, in some of the orchestration, as well as in the angular melodies of the lyrical passages, there are hints of some form of influence by Shostakovich, but Weinberg’s musical language is totally and absolutely his own. The music of the camp is dramatic, brutal, almost deliberately ugly, but the vocal writing of some of the lyrical scenes gave us not only emotional relief, a brief escape from the harsh reality of this hell on earth. In Act II, Scene III, when the SS guards suddenly burst into the women’s barrack, and one by one various passengers was taken away, the prisoners’ exhortation for the survivors never to forget these crimes, was extremely powerful and moving. In the same scene, one of the prisoners who was Russian, sang an unaccompanied solo song describing her country, the result was also chilling and emotional. In the epilogue of the opera, when the entire chorus once again exhorts all of us not to forget these crimes against humanity, it brought about not only a moving conclusion to the music, but an almost cathartic experience. 

The voices from last night’s cast were uniformly strong, Leila Kirves as Lisa (Anneliese Franz) and Catherine Thornsley as Marta the passenger, were outstanding. Thornsley’s sensitive and emotional singing really highlighted the compassion and humanity of Marta. It is credit to director (and head of the UBC Opera School) Nancy Hermiston that all of the roles were well cast. Kudos also to Professor Hermiston and the set designer for the simple but effective set - the choir loft of the Chan Centre became the deck of the ocean liner, while the main stage was set as the concentration camp - a highly imaginative use of a space that was not at all meant for opera!

The Vancouver Opera Orchestra rose to the technical and musical challenges of Weinberg’s writing, and the highly experienced Maestro David Agler guided the young singers with an able hand. 

On the whole, UBC Opera’s production of Pasażerka was a searing and moving theatrical experience. For me, it is not the kind of music one could merely listen to, but one that has to be experienced in toto. I feel that Weinberg’s music serves as a kind of catalyst to bring the drama alive. Judging from the silence of last night’s audience, I believe that all of us fortunate enough to have shared this experience would not easily forget it. Surely we could all be reminded not only of this ugly chapter in our recent history, but of the potential of man’s cruelty to his or her fellow human beings.

Patrick May

Monday, January 27, 2020

A Welcome Return

Maestro Jun Märkl’s now annual concert with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra has become the highlight of my concert season in the city. On Saturday, the charming and energetic Märkl once again worked his magic and gave us a not-to-be-forgotten performance of works from the French orchestral repertoire.

Members of the orchestra, reduced to chamber music proportions, gave a sensitive reading of Pierre Boulez’s Memoriale…(…explosante-fixe…originel), with acting principal flute Chris James setting the tone with his evocative playing. The version played at the concert was part of a much larger work by the composer. Märkl and the musicians gave a performance that not so much exploited the resources of each instrument, but formed a collage of sound colours. Such a performance of a piece such as Boulez’s confirmed in my mind that dissonances – itself a relative term – can indeed be beautiful, albeit it perhaps a different kind of beauty.

The orchestra returned and Märkl led them through a beautifully balanced, impeccably paced performance of Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une infant defunte. Märkl brought out the beauty of Ravel’s orchestral colours in the strings, the French horn and the woodwinds. There was a souplesse, a subtlety in the sound of the orchestra, as well as a depth, or a sense of layers, in the sound of the strings. The performance of this intimate masterpiece had a glow in the sound, from first note to last. 

Cellist István Várdai joined Märkl and the orchestra in a dashing performance of Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33. From his first entrance, Várdai captured my ears with his arresting sound and depth of tone. His playing of the lyrical transition to the second movement was not only beautiful, but also charged with meaning. In the second movement, Várdai played with an intimate, confiding tone that left the audience breathless, and in the third movement, soloist, conductor and orchestra squeezed out every ounce of this music’s Gallic charm. In his recording with pianist Ingrid Fliter (Chopin concerti) as well as last year’s performance with Yefim Bronfman (Brahms’ second piano concerto), Märkl proved himself not only a sensitive accompanist but also a gallant collaborator in concerti performances. He managed to direct our attention to the soloist, but he also lavished great attention to every detail in the score, and brought out every detail of Saint-Säens brilliant orchestration.

I was of course eagerly anticipating Märkl and the orchestra’s reading of Hector Berlioz’s revolutionary masterwork, Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 – and Saturday’s performance confirmed in my mind that, indeed, after almost two hundred years, this music still sounds revolutionary on so many different levels.

The beauty of the playing conjured by Märkl captured my attention right from the opening triplets in the woodwinds. At measure 6, there was a stunningly beautifully-shaped two-note slur by the strings before the fermata – a small detail perhaps, but the devil, as they say, is in the detail. At measure 13, Märkl already made me aware of the many layers of sound colours in the score. At rehearsal 2, the strings played with a radiant beauty of tone. Obviously the conductor had thought carefully about voicing, and this showed even in the brief two measures before rehearsal 4. The first brief climax at rehearsal was paced such that this arrival had a real sense of occasion, of arrival, and of a sense of inevitability in the music. Roger Cole shone with his gorgeous playing of the brief oboe solo at rehearsal 16. In the movement’s coda, the delicate line for first violins was filled with an ardent feeling, and give feeling that the music was hanging by a thread. There was a true feeling of reverence (Berlioz’s marking at measure 513 was “Religiosamente”) in the beautifully voiced ending to the movement. In short, I have rarely heard this first movement played with such a sense of indescribable, hopeless yearning. 

Märkl evoked a magical atmosphere in the beginning of Un bal. The conductor really captured the feel of the waltz rhythms in this movement, and the orchestra’s playing here can be described, in every sense of the word, as suave. The appearance of the Idée fixe at measure 120 gave the feeling of an apparition, and the build-up to the ending of the movement literally took my breath away.

Again, the conductor immediately set the mood of the Scène aux champs, with the oboe and English horn echoing each other. There was such a hushed quality in the music, such a mood of emptiness, stillness, and perhaps desolation (I’m not sure if Märkl intended this) that reminded me of the opening of the third act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. At measure 46, the orchestra played with an incredible elasticity in sound as well as with a velvety, rich tone. And at rehearsal 41, the celli and basses played with an indelible power and depth of sound. The violins played with a true pianississimo at rehearsal 43, providing a fabric of sound for the clarinet solo above the texture. The distant thunder at the end of the movement was truly vivid, and had almost a cinematic quality to it. 

In the dramatic opening to the fourth movement (Marche au supplice) the sound evoked by conductor and orchestra had a palpable eeriness and a feeling of malevolence. In this as well as the fifth movement, members of the orchestra played with inspiration and with a rousing virtuosity that wanted to make one stand up and cheer.  I would like to especially highlight the breathtaking and breath-stopping playing of the bassoonist Julia Lockhart in her extended solo at measure 50. The playing of this march had a real sense of direction, of forward motion, and the musicians gave us the feeling of witnessing an awesome spectacle. I loved Märkl’s dramatic pacing of the lead up to the great climax at measure 123. 

Märkl brought out the feeling of evil and decay in the opening of the Songe d’une nuit du sabbat. Even with this familiar music, Saturday’s performance conveyed an element of surprise in the many orchestral effects, as well as the inherent weirdness of the music, especially in the “corrupted” version of the Idée fixe at measure 46. As in the fourth movement, there was a palpable sense of inevitability in the forward motion of the music until the bright sound of the final chord.

There was a story about conductor Arthur Nikish arriving for a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony to a group of tired, sullen musicians. Within a few minutes, Nikish whipped the musicians into such a frenzy of excitement that they were playing like fiends! Indeed, a major aspect of the art of conducting is psychological. On Saturday, it was obvious that every member of the ensemble wanted to be there, and wanted to play well. On top of his obviously impeccable musicianship, I believe Märkl has this great indescribable gift of inspiring his fellow musicians to give their utmost. The smiles on the musicians’ faces were a welcomed sight. Once again, the concert confirmed my impression, formed after his first appearance in Vancouver, that this is a great conductor and musician.

So, once again, welcome back to Vancouver, Maestro Jun Märkl. We hope to have you back every season, and more!

Patrick May

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Zubin Mehta and Mahler's "Resurrrection"

Conductor Zubin Mehta returned to “his” orchestra in Los Angeles for a series of concerts to begin the New Year. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the names “Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic” were synonymous, and it was this musical marriage that put the orchestra on the musical map, dispelling the idea of the “big five” American orchestras worthy of mention. Since then, the orchestra had had a number of fine music directors, and Mehta had also been at the helm of many orchestras and opera companies. Even so, there is something special when the conductor returns to make music with the orchestra of the city that he still considers one of his homes.

I was fortunate to have been in Los Angeles this past weekend, and was therefore in the orchestra’s beautiful home of the Walt Disney Concert Hall for Mehta’s stunning reading of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, more commonly known as “Resurrection”. The performing forces for this massive work also included soprano Chen Reiss, mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura, as well as the Los Angeles Master Chorale (under the expert direction of Grant Gershon).

Mehta has always been a champion of this work, and his early recording of it with the Vienna Philharmonic is still in the catalogue, a remarkable achievement given the number of recordings available. Since then, his interpretation has matured, and Friday night’s performance positively glowed with a beautiful burnished quality in the sound of the orchestra. Indeed the hallmark of any performance by Zubin Mehta is the beauty of the sound he elicits from whichever orchestra he is leading.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the energy with which Mehta and the orchestra tore into the opening of the first movement. Mehta effectively observed Mahler’s accelerando marking for the C minor scale at m. 4, giving the music a real sense of direction and drive. The Los Angeles cellists and double bassists played with the requisite thickness and pesante quality the music calls for. The violins played the rising motif at rehearsal 3 with great warmth and tenderness, giving real contrast and a sudden shift of mood from the storminess of the opening. Mehta conjured up a truly awesome apocalyptic vision at the orchestra outburst at rehearsal 15 (schnell), and the brief passage of triplet figures at rehearsal 20 (Molto pesante) was played with an incredible sense of urgency. The descending scale that ends the movement (rehearsal 27), with its lengthened silence (Mahler indicated a ritenuto marking over the rests – before the two final C’s), left the audience truly breathless. 

In this opening movement, Mehta highlighted for me, perhaps for the first time, the startling "weirdness" inherent in Mahler's orchestral writing.

The Ländler that makes up the second movement betrayed Mehta’s Viennese upbringing, and the music overflowed with warmth and abundant emotion. The musicians certainly rose to Mahler’s indication of Sehr germächlich. Conductor and musicians played the music with an overwhelming sense of flow, making the music sound like it was drawn from a single breath from beginning to end. Even the dramatic outburst at rehearsal 6 (Energisch bewegt) could not dispel the overall mood. The quiet transition back to the Ländler at rehearsal 12 was simply magical, and the arrival of the beautiful legato theme by the violins had a real feeling of inevitability to it. Mehta’s timing of the ending of the movement was done to perfection. 

Mahler took us out of our brief reverie with two arresting notes by the timpani, launching us into the Scherzo. Mehta expertly guided the musicians through the many shifting moods of this movement, inviting rather than commanding the orchestra as they traverse the musical landscape. This movement, more than others, is a real showcase for the solo wind and brass players, and the virtuosi of the Los Angeles Philharmonic rose to Mahler’s challenge with aplomb and with flair.

Mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura sang the otherworldly “Urlicht” with great depth of feeling, Mehta and the orchestra supported her with a beautiful cushion of sound. The feeling and mood conjured by Fujimura were matched by the orchestra’s horns and trumpets. Here, Mehta conjured up not just beauty but an incredible depth in the sound, giving the music a truly innigkeit quality.

I remember one critic writing of Mehta’s recording of Mahler’s 3rd symphony, that he really had a special way with Mahler finales. This was evident in how conductor and orchestra played this vast movement with a sense of inevitability and of organic unity. The incredible opening of the movement was not merely dramatic, but awe-inspiring, as if the heavens were really opening. In the grosse Appell section, the music took on a very spacious quality, and Mehta and the orchestra painted a bleak sonic landscape. The brief flute solo was hauntingly played.

Is there any symphonic work that rouses our emotions like the finale of this work? Mehta gauged the many levels of sound carefully, and expertly built the music to its emotional peak. Unlike so many “star” conductors, he did not try to pack a punch and knock us out with maximum volume, but always kept the beauty of both the instrumental and vocal sounds. No matter how shattering the climaxes were – and there were many – there was always the feeling of something in reserve.  The result was a performance that did not seek to “impress”, but rather served as an invitation for everyone to share in communion with both the beauty of the music and the emotion it conveys. 

Friday’s night performance was one where all the elements came together. Perhaps because of Mehta’s preeminence, particular in Los Angeles, it felt that every single member of the orchestra and chorus wanted to give their all. I felt extremely privileged to have experienced this stupendous musical experience. Mr. Mehta seemed to have been much more physically robust than I have seen him in a long time. All we could wish for is many more years of good health, so that he could give us many more memorable performances like the one we witnessed. 

Patrick May