Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Internationaler Musikwettbewerb der ARD Preisträger 2009 (Bavarian Radio, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I began last night’s movie watching with an interesting download of a 2009 concert from Munich, called the “International Musikwettbewerb” — I don’t know what the word “Musikwettbewerb” means (I took a semester of German in college but I’ve forgotten most of it and just about the only German words that have stuck are the ones that recur in Wagner’s libretti!) but the show itself was a showcase for first-prize winners in some sort of musical contest. I can’t help but wonder if this is a sort of German Idol with better (or at least more “serious”) music than the U.K. and U.S. versions (indeed, I’m dreading that some day someone will do a modern-dress production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser with the title character as a drug addict going through cycles of recovery and relapse, and the second-act song contest staged under a huge neon sign reading “German Idol”!).

The orchestra was the Bavarian Radio Symphony (though so few musicians were visible on screen I suspect the show was done with reduced forces), the conductor was Lawrence Renes (who looked on-screen like an efficient bureaucrat, the sort of person you meet at the bank who tells you your stack of document is about 10 to 15 papers short of what you need to apply for relief from foreclosure) and the prize-winning soloists were bassist Gunars Upatnieks, soprano Anita Watson (she’s from an English-speaking country but not the one you’d think: Australia), harpist Emmanuel Ceysson (he was introduced as a French contestant but he was interviewed in English, , and it was frustrating to hear a voice-over person drowning out his English to give the original TV audience the German translation), and Korean-born violinist Hyeyoon Park (a woman, but a rather hefty one — not really stout but hardly the little slip of a thing, dressed in Chinese-doll costume, that’s the stereotype of a young Asian female classical musician). Physically, Gunars Upatnieks was hot; though he’s suffering from premature male-pattern baldness, otherwise he looks like the image of a blond Aryan Nazi superman — and Emmanuel Ceysson came across as such a nellie twink one could easily imagine him and Upatnieks heading home for a hot night of fun after the show was over.

Watson was a bit on the zaftig side, clearly taking after a previous Australian diva, Joan Sutherland, both musically and physically — she sang two arias, one from Handel’s Julius Caesar and one (Micaëla’s aria rather than either of Carmen’s big solos) from Bizet’s Carmen — which were, ironically, the only pieces on the program not composed during the 20th century. Ceysson played Glière’s Concerto for Harp and Orchestra (there’ve been surprisingly few harp concerti — the most famous harp-and-orchestra works with at least a toehold in the repertory are brief pieces, Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane and Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro) and the other two pieces featured were both by composers best known for their film scores. Park’s feature was Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s violin concerto (or at least the last two of its three movements), which not only is from a composer best known for his film scores but is actually based directly on themes Korngold wrote for films: Another Dawn (an almost forgotten 1937 tear-jerker with Kay Francis and Errol Flynn) and Juárez in the first movement, Anthony Adverse (the powerful early theme that dramatized the title character’s childhood as an orphan) in the second and The Prince and the Pauper in the third. (Korngold let his Warner Bros. contract expire in 1947 because he was concerned that working for films had damaged his credibility as a “serious” classical musician; the violin concerto was commissioned by Jascha Heifetz and was his first work after he left Warners.)

Renes’ feature was a bass concerto in three short movements by Nino Rota, best known for Fellini’s films and The Godfather — and in the fast movements there’s a bit of the raffishness of the music Rota wrote for Fellini (I once heard an LP of Rota’s music for Fellini’s films and it was almost unlistenable out of context, proof once again that film music doesn’t necessarily have to be “good” in itself to work as part of its film!), while the slow movement begins with a pizzicato jazz-style “walking bass” line (but then the slow movement of one of Beethoven’s “Rasoumovsky” Quartets begins with the cello playing what sounds a lot like a walking-bass line nearly 100 years before jazz came into existence!). The Rota piece was fun — obviously nobody, including Rota himself, was expecting any of us to take it seriously — and so was the Glière (it’s good enough to make one wonder why there aren’t more harp concerti; the instrument is expansive enough in range and power that it works as well as a foil to the orchestra as the piano or violin do), but the Korngold was the best piece of the night by a pretty wide margin and it also got the best performance: Hyeyoon Park, dressed in a red gown that projected a no-nonsense image, played the hell out of a rather dowdy-looking violin and brought power and drama to the music (and given that anyone who plays the Korngold concerto is under the long shadow of Heifetz, who premiered it in 1947 and made an incandescent recording of it for RCA Victor six years later, her performance is all the more striking: far more experienced and famous players have made less out of this music than she did!), and for once conductor Renes responded to his soloist and himself brought more sensitivity and eloquence to his phrasing than he had in his relatively perfunctory work earlier in the evening.

The existence of this program is a testament to the relative cultural riches on offer to European TV and radio consumers compared to the pittances we get here — as with so much about American vs. European capitalism, it’s largely a hangover of the noblesse oblige of the feudal tradition which has given Europeans the idea that the masses ought to have access to musical and theatrical culture that will elevate them instead of broadcast companies and private sponsors relentlessly pandering to the lowest common denominator — and since a lot of the fun in programs like this is wondering what will happen to the young participants as they age and their careers develop (or don’t), as physically attractive as I found both Upatnieks and Ceysson, it’s Park who clearly (at least to me) has the best shot at the brass ring. It used to be fashionable to patronize women musicians by saying things like, “She plays well … for a girl,” but Park plays well … period, and unlike a lot of musicians today she’s not only well-trained she clearly has an attitude towards the music that should take her far, a willingness to show us not only that she knows her way around her instrument but that she knows how to use the music to bare her soul. (Admittedly, she was playing a hyper-Romantic piece that invites soul-baring and it’ll be interesting to see how she copes with more restrained composers like Bach.)