Saturday, August 26, 2017

A Visit to Chicago 1: Music Not by Berlioz

Vertigo at Orchestra Hall
Photo by me even though you're not supposed to take photos inside the theater.

I saw a couple of performances in Chicago that were not of music by Hector Berlioz, one at the Chicago Symphony and the other at Lyric Opera.

The CSO program was an enormous disappointment and left me scratching my head over the New York Philharmonic's decision-making process. Yes, it was their incoming music director, Jaap van Zweden, at the helm of orchestra. Here's the program:

  • Mozart, Masonic Funeral Music
  • Wagner, Prelude & Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (orchestral version)
  • Brahms, A German Requiem

I've got a review coming out of van Zweden's recording of Das Rheingold one of these days - or maybe it is out already and sitting in the mail pile [it is long since published!] - and you could say I was not happy with it. Never mind the mediocre sound engineers, the extreme variability of the cast, and an orchestra that he's welcome to call great (but I won't): this is a remarkably dull Rheingold, which is about the worst you can say about any performance of anything.

This concert was of a piece with the Rheingold. Everything sounded very carefully conducted, but without much impulse or forward movement. The Wagner did not build to the expected climax; the Brahms had little weight. It's as though he is not quite sure what is important in this music. The soloists were okay, not great. I was genuinely shocked by poor ensemble playing in the orchestra, with a lot of downbeats that were just...not...together. (This happened during the Solti era as well, as Joshua Rifkin mentioned to me sometime back in the 1970s.)

Now, maybe I should have sprung for a more expensive seat. I was way the hell up in the top-level balcony, which is approximately three thousand feet from the orchestra, a steep and terrifying three thousand feet - but the box office had said the area had the best sound in the house except for the much more expensive seats a couple of levels down. Considering the cost of my Troyens tickets, yes, I certainly should have gotten the more expensive seat, especially since the seats up at the top of Orchestra Hall are horribly uncomfortable, much much worse than the seats at Bayreuth, because they are tiny, there is absolutely no legroom, and you're more or less on top of your neighbors and the people in the next row down on a very steeply rake. You bet I hung onto the rails in front of me for dear life going to and from my seat. And I wondered how the much older woman seated near me managed the stairs.

Yeah, maybe the orchestra and JvZ would have sounded better from lower down. Or maybe not. At least my back would not have hurt when I got out of the concert.

The set.
Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago

I also took in the first performance of Massenet's Don Quichotte at LOC. Henson Keyes wrote a very positive review for Parterre Box. He's right that the performers were very, very good - although unlike Keyes, I sure hear some wobble in Furlanetto's bass - and the production is very pretty and Andrew Davis conducted well.

Clementine Margaine and Ferrucio Furlanetto
Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago

Let me just say that the only reason to perform this opera is if you've got charismatic performers for the three main leads, because, honestly, it's not really a very good piece. Sure, it's pretty; sure, there are a few extractable arias. Yes, I'd like to hear Clementine Margaine is something more substantial; she's got a spicy and very interesting mezzo and good dramatic presence.

But overall? It's just a lot of unmemorable prettiness, like Andrea Chenier and Alfano's Cyrano.


Rob said...

Drat! I saved a pdf copy of that CSO program, not to preserve my memory of the performance but rather as a souvenir of a program I wish I could have attended. I am looking forward though to your commentary on 'Les Troyens' (which was my first opportunity to witness, from the audience, a professional opera).

Lisa Hirsch said...

The Troyens posts are up now. :) That was your first staged professional opera? Lucky you - it doesn't get much better than that.

The CSO program was a disappointment. At one of the Troyens performances I attended, I chatted with someone who felt that there had been ensemble problems (difficulty in playing together) since the end of the Solti era. I haven't heard enough of their performances to really have an opinion....

Anonymous said...

I sat in a not particularly high-up seat - first balcony, if I recall - for a CSO concert, and was disturbed both by how uncomfortable it was and by how small it was. Had there not been some empty seats so my neighbors were able to switch over, we would not have all fit. I hope the airlines don't find out about this place.