Monday, September 26, 2016
Johan Botha as the Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten © ROH / Clive Barda 2014 Johan Botha (1965–2016) was one of the great dramatic tenors of his generation. After making his professional debut in Roodepoort in his native South Africa, Botha moved to Europe in 1990. Debuts followed with the Paris Opéra (1993), The Royal Opera (1995), Vienna State Opera (1996) and the Metropolitan Opera, New York (1997), establishing Botha as a leading figure on the international stage. Botha’s first role with The Royal Opera was Rodolfo in La bohème , singing across three casts with the role of Mimì shared between Angela Gheorghiu , Deborah Riedel and Amanda Thane , and conducted by Simone Young . He returned later in 1995 to sing Cavaradossi in Tosca , again conducted by Young and with Galina Gorchakova and Maria Ewing sharing the title role. He next returned in 2001 to sing the Emperor in Strauss ’s Die Frau ohne Schatten under Christoph von Dohnányi in a cast that also included Deborah Voigt as the Empress. The following year Botha returned for more Strauss, singing Apollo in two concert performances of Daphne with Alexandra von der Weth in the title role and conducted by Stefan Soltesz . In 2003 Botha sang Radames in Robert Wilson ’s new production of Aida , conducted by Antonio Pappano with Norma Fantini in the title role. Botha next returned to the Royal Opera House in 2009 to sing Calaf in Turandot opposite Jennifer Wilson in the title role, conducted by Nicola Luisotti . A few months later he was back to sing the title role in Lohengrin, conducted by Semyon Bychkov and with Edith Haller as Elsa. Botha’s final appearances with The Royal Opera were in new productions, again conducted by Bychkov. In 2010 Botha sang the title role in Tim Albery ’s new production of Tannhäuser , with a cast including Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth and Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram. Botha’s performances saw him acclaimed by The Telegraph as ‘that rare thing, a true Wagnerian tenor’ . His final role with The Royal Opera was singing the Emperor in Claus Guth ’s new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten. Botha was joined by a cast that included Emily Magee as the Empress, Johan Reuter as Barak and Elena Pankratova as Barak’s Wife, in what what The Independent called ‘an ideal cast’ . Beyond the Royal Opera House, Botha had a close association with the Vienna State Opera, where he was made a Kammersänger in 2004. His many roles with the Metropolitan Opera included the title roles in Don Carlo and Otello , Walther in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg , Canio in Pagliacci and Florestan in Fidelio. In his work Botha regularly collaborated with conductors including Claudio Abbado , Daniel Barenboim , Pierre Boulez , James Levine and Georg Solti . Kasper Holten , Director of The Royal Opera, paid tribute to Botha with the following words: ‘It is with great sadness we learn about the death of Johan Botha. Of course on this day we all think back to the many unforgettable moments this great singer gave us, most lately when he appeared with great success in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at Covent Garden. The memory of this performance will always stay with us.’
For the last ten years of life Claudio Abbado rented a house in Bologna with a rood terrace and view over the city. He died there on January 20, 2014. Last week, the owners opened a luxury Bed & Breakfast in his apartment, with four rooms (nine beds) of which the most coveted is the Abbado Room. Luca Baccolini has broken the story in La Repubblica . Would you stay there? Could you?
“Behind the scenes, the Lucerne Festival, an increasingly important part of the classical music ecosystem, [has been] forced to reinvent itself. Within the past couple of years, the festival has lost not one, but both of its guiding artistic lights: [Claudio] Abbado died in 2014 at 80, and [Pierre] Boulez this year at 90.”
Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Prom 64 at the Royal Albert Hall. Mahler Symphony no 7 and Boulez Éclat (1965) a musically judicious pairing that enhances both works. But first the newsworthy bit! Lines round the block at the Royal Albert Hall, the hottest ticket in town. . Rattle is a National Treasure, as the Japanese honour people who've changed the world around them. Rattle transformed the CBSO and galvanized British music as a whole. He championed music we now take for granted as mainstream, but wasn't 35 years ago. He's an amazing communicator, his enthusiasm motivated by love. As Claudio Abbado said "What drives me is the love of my job, and the passion for things I find inspiring, when I get a chance to immerse myself , to deepen my knowledge of a score, or a book.......if I can deepen that knowledge, I will always do so... the starting point is always love". Very different conductors, but the same basic motivation, one which uncreative minds often do not comprehend. The equivocal nature of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony makes interpretation elusive. Clues are embedded in the orchestration, so for listeners, as well as for performers, it's a test of sensitivity and musical nous. If a "symphony contains the world", why not? This isn't a piece where “received wisdom” has any place. The tuba calls, then the winds and smaller brass, and the symphony gets underway with the figures inspired by the sound of oars rowing across a lake. Stillness, yet also a sense of purposeful forward thrust. Though there are chords which scream turbulence, the mood is "risoluto", resolutely unperturbed. Here, the finesse of the Berlin Philharmonic paid dividends. It takes skill to hold a coherent line and shape it so well. When the tuba returned, strings glistening around it, I felt as if the symphony was somehow expressing movement in time, past, present and future seamlessly together. Hence the silvery trumpets calling us forwards. The famous horn call with which the first Nachtmusik begins was suitably expansive, but I was fascinated, too, by the way the Berliners can do subtle detail: quiet bowing and plucking, suggesting mystery, images half-heard, half felt as if hidden in darkness. At night, the subconscious is released and thoughts run free. Hence the Scherzo, often described as a nightmare parody of a waltz. Rattle and the Berliners don't need to scream out "spooks". Instead a quiet violin suggesting a quirky loner, but not a madman, since the part is too integrated to represent selfish ego. An important insight, since the very structure of this symphony suggests equanimity not psychosis. The two Nachtmusiks surround the Scherzo, like oars around a boat, firmly keep it afloat, reaffirming the sense of duality in the symphony throughout. In the second Nachtmusik, the concept is furthered by the pairing of mandolin and guitar, referring to troubadours serenading lovers, possibly unseen in the night. In many ways, this gentle movement is the human heart of the symphony and the clue to the real soul of Mahler, so often missed these days by notions that Mahler should be loud and neurotic. Rarely have I heard the final passages on clarinet so well defined, oscillating with haunting magic. Horns and tubas may grab attention, but these tiny, fragile moments are, in this interpretation, the heart of the symphony. When the Rondo Finale bursts forth after this stillness, the contrast is shocking, but that, too, I think, is evidence of the subtlety of Mahler's mind and of the idea of hidden mystery that makes this symphony so intriguing. The sudden switch might be Mahler's way of hiding his sensitivity from the world, much in the way people joke about things that hurt, deflecting attention. Donald Mitchell wrote of the Rondo-Finale that “the violent, unprepared contrast is akin to parting the curtains in a dark room and finding oneself dazzled by brilliant sunlight”. Perhaps the sudden glare drives away fear, but not, I think, what we've learned from the ambiguities of the night. The brass are back, timpani and percussion pound and the orchestra erupts in full flow. A delicious flourish, then an adamant cutting off.What to make of this miniature at the end of a long(ish) symphony? Is it a wail of thwarted rage, or is it a last, sardonic laugh, suggesting the triumph of life? From what we now know of Mahler the man and composer, I'm inclined to go with Rattle's life-affirming confidence. And back to Boulez Éclat with which the programme began. It uses only 15 instruments, and lasts eleven minutes. Not actually so very different from Mahler, who used large ensembles but created music of chamber-like clarity. Furthermore, Boulez employs guitar and mandolin, just as Mahler did, with piano, celeste, and vibraphone. For me, the connection between the two pieces lies also in the way they explore ambiguities and planes of sound, turning suddenly as if the music itself were a living organism. Éclat shimmers with beautiful lines,bell-like oscillations suggesting purity and freshness, the lines always alert to transformative change. It's mysterious, too, exploring its way through sound. Boulez learned, from Messaien, how to observe quietly, without rushing to impose judgement. In Éclat, we can sense thoughtful observation, as if Boulez were drawing his ideas from watching the movement of birds. An immensely delicate piece, but with parallels to the contemplative passages in Mahler 7 and its mood of secret mystery. I first heard Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic do this programme in the Philharmonie, where the acoustic is better than in the Royal Albert Hall, even if the Proms atmosphere is more electric. At the Prom, the final movement had maximum impact, so devastating it might have lifted the roof. If the more subtle detail (like the clarinet at the end of Nachtmusik II), was lost, no-one's going to forget that Finale! A friend sent me a video of the applause, shot from way above the stage. Six thousand people clapping and stomping their feet in unison. Later, I listened again and caught Rattle's short interview about the connections between Éclat and Mahler 7th. Very revealing, perceptive, and definitely worth hearing.
Zubin Mehta was recently eighty-years-old. His father Mehli Mehta was the founder of the Bombay Symphony and gave Zubin his first training, but he was promptly sent to Vienna to study with the famous Hans Swarowsky. Mehta soon won competitions in Liverpool and Tanglewood, and at the incredible age of 25 he had conducted the Philharmonics of Vienna, Berlin and Israel! Well, just one year after (in 1962) he was in BA conducting the Orchestra of Radio Nacional and that of Amigos de la Música; with the latter he included no less than Schönberg´s First Chamber Symphony. It would be the beginning of the enormous amount of visits we had from him, certainly the most assiduous of the great conductors. He had already been named head of the Montreal Symphony (1961-7) and of the Los Angeles Symphony (1962-78). In quick succession he became musical director of the Israel Philharmonic (1977) and the New York Philharmonic (1978-1990). From then on he came innumerable times with the Israel and several with the New York. From 1985 to next year will have been his tenure at the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, which he also brought to BA. One aspect of his intense life didn´t reach us: his strong connexion to opera, both at the MMF and from 1998 to 2006 Musical Director of the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). And of the mediatic connection as conductor of open-air concerts by the Three Tenors (Domingo, Pavarotti, Carreras). A gigantic career with special emphasis on Israel, as he is conductor for life of the Israel Phil. In recent years he has been interested in promoting young talents at the Bombay Mehli Mehta Musical Foundation and at the Tel Aviv Buchmann-Mehta Music School. And now, the other important anniversary, that of the Israel Phil. It was created in 1936 by Bronislaw Huberman and no less than Toscanini conducted the first concert. Surely an act of faith in a then not existing country prior to WW II; after it there were the turbulent times of the creation of the State of Israel and the orchestra stood fast, always accompanying the growth of an identity and building up a reputation as one of the great orchestras of the world. I witnessed in 1972 a splendid concert at the modern Tel Aviv Mann Auditorium (very good acoustics) in a memorable combination of Claudio Abbado and Isaac Stern. The players were admirable then, and generations after, with the influx of Jewish Russians but also of young Israelis, they keep their high standards and show love and discipline to their longtime Principal Conductor, now seconded during the season by the talented Gianandrea Noseda. Mehta has always shown a proclivity for the Late Romantic repertoire and the Impressionists, for in them an orchestra can fully show a variety of colors and textures, and the conductor has a sharp perception of such music. Also, he has a dynamic and strong personality that communicates enthusiasm to the players. But Mehta also adds a sense of form, a clarity of gesture that makes complex pieces transparent. He may not have been as attuned to the early German-Austrian School as to Tchaikovsky or Ravel or Strauss, but he has generally stuck to what he does best. In recent decades he has shown a growing interest in Mahler (I remember a memorable Second). At 80 he looks much younger and the stamina is still there, though with more controlled gestures. And the memory is still perfect. What he did in this concert was magisterial and he chose a programme that fits him ideally. More serene but with no loss of control or intensity, he brought to us the joyful "Carnival" Overture by Dvorák, the Second Suite of Ravel´s "Daphnis and Chloe" and Richard Strauss´ tremendous "A Hero´s Life" ("Ein Heldenleben"). Dvorák´s lust for life and exuberance makes this Overture a favorite, and it has a contrasting nostalgic melody. In fact it is the first of three contrasting overtures that form a beautiful cycle; the others, much less done but quite interesting, are "In the Reign of Nature" and "Othello". The "Daphnis" Suite is the absolute masterpiece of Impressionism, almost a miracle, and has often been done wonderfully in BA during the last half century. We can now add that of Mehta and the Israel players. The marvelous subtlety of dynamics and color, the virtuoso solo playing (Yossi Arnheim), the dionysiac final dance, were memorable. And I recall Mehta conducting the same piece with the Vienna Philharmonic in February 1964 with as great a comprehension and control as now! I know that "Ein Heldenleben" (1898) will always find its detractors for it is an egocentric act: the hero is Strauss... But it is also a 46-minute marvel of six connected fragments of sustained inspiration and orchestral science, fantastically orchestrated and with a command of intricate counterpoint with no paragon. It is a thing of beauty as well as a testimony of enormous intelligence. Mehta´s version was among the best I ever heard live. The long violin solos of Ilya Konovalov were ideal, and so was the last dialogue between him and horn player James Madison Cox. And the cohesion and precision of the whole with no loss of impact deeply moved me. Two encores, Dvorák´s Slavonic Dance Op.46 Nº 8, and Mozart´s Overture for "The Marriage of Figaro", ended an unforgettable evening. For Buenos Aires Herald
Peter Brem has retired from the first violins at 65 and written a book about the maestros he worked with – Karajan, Abbado, Rattle. Brem was an influential figure in the orchestra, chair of its media group from 1992 and the force behind its record deal with the rock group Scorpions, a project widely condemned by traditionalists but apparently a two-million-selling hit. The book is out now: Peter Brem. Ein Leben lang erste Geige. Rowohlt, 16.99 Euros