no prisoners: Martha Argerich.
By B.A. Nilsson
The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Charles
Performing Arts Center, Aug. 8
The ideal is to serve the composerís musicóand thus the composerís
intentionsóas well as possible. If this means subsuming yourself
to an idea of what the composer might have wanted to hear,
then Martha Argerich wouldnít be your pianist of choice. But
her performance of Beethovenís Piano Concerto No. 1
with the Philadelphia Orchestra at SPAC last week demonstrated
that when a star soloist places her stamp of individuality
on a work like this one, sparks fly. Good ones. The kind that
revitalize a well-worn piece of music and remind us why the
music became important in the first place.
Written in 1795 and revised over the next few years, the concerto
is firmly in the classical form but with substantial bulges
at the edges. Itís purposefully written to showcase the soloist,
and Argerich put her fiery technique to good use. The opening
movement has an air of classical delicacy about it, interrupted
periodically by unexpected cascades of arpeggios from the
soloist that the orchestra insisted on shepherding back into
Which added a nice edge of tension between pianist and orchestra,
with Charles Dutoit exacting precise but flexible control
over the group as Argerich rode the rhythm with surprising
(and surprisingly effective) rubato. The slow movement revealed
a level of lyrical drama Iíve never noticed before, and she
charged into the finale with both guns blazing yet without
sacrificing any of Beethovenís vaunted wit.
Weíve grown accustomed to a parade of cookie-cutter soloists
who play well, with faultless technique, and take no chances.
With Argerich, itís a refreshing case of take-no-prisoners.
Beethoven was excellently served, confirming her reputation
as one of the all-time greats.
Too bad the sound of the piano was poorly amplified (too bad
it was amplified at all). With its midrange magnified and
muddied, the all-important overtones were drowned out and
the resultant sound was painfully unpleasant.
The second half of the program comprised Beethovenís Eroica
symphony, which started with a bang (two bangs, if you want
to get literal). A fleet, heated first movement, shorn of
its repeat, got me expecting similar excitement for the rest
of the pieceóbut it started to flag in the second movement,
a funeral march that turned inappropriately funereal.
Sculpting a long symphony is a tough challenge, calling for
an overall sense of the drama of the piece as a whole, as
well as effective approaches to the individual components.
The second movement was mired in its own heaviness, and the
scherzo that followed still had some of that mud on its shoes.
And thatís the climax of the piece: The final movement is
a charming set of dance variations that needs to be propelled
by what came before.
Playing, as usual, was breathtakingly preciseóthis orchestra
seems incapable of delivering anything lessóbut it seemed
as if Dutoit relaxed too much in the symphonyís middle. Eroica
justifiably remains a benchmark of the literature, and thus
invites the closest scrutiny both musicians and listeners
can offer. In this case, it fell only marginally short, but
it was a gap that really showed.
Glimmerglass Opera, Aug.
Joseph Haydn isnít remembered for his operas, and even when
he was alive, his numerous works were overshadowed by his
flashy young buddy Mozart. This doesnít mean his operas werenít
good, it just meant that his stuff hasnít weathered as well
as the work of Mozart, who readily admitted that Haydn was
a major influence. As David Bowie said, it doesnít matter
who does it first; it only matters who does it second.
Itís hard to know what to make of Orlando Paladino,
Haydnís take on Orlando, the great fictional character of
the 18th century. Everybody then wrote about Orlando; if there
had been video games in 1780, Orlando games would have been
ubiquitous. But Orlando Paladino, as a dramatic work,
makes no sense at all. Now, operas in general arenít about
story as much as they are about music, but thereís usually
some thread in there somewhere. Not here! Orlando comes
in and out, mad that Angelica doesnít like him. Rodomonte
bursts in every 10 minutes looking to kick somebodyís ass
on general principal. Other characters fall in love, die,
etc. A sorceress causes people to do things, not do other
things, and come back from the dead.
It may have been that Haydn was playing around with well-known
characters of the time, and the whole thing was a big spoof,
in-jokes about stories that everybody knew. Then again, maybe
Haydn just wasnít a big story guy.
The folks at Glimmerglass had a blast with the improbable
twists and turns and the complete ludicrousness of the libretto.
The opera, as presented, looked back at itself and laughed.
Which, other than leaving the audience to sit and scratch
their heads, was the only way to go.
The play opened, to laughter and applause, with a lonely shepardess,
dressed as Little Bo Peep, guarding over paper sheep that
climbed straight up one wall. Both the acting and the lighting
for much of the first act recalled overacted, badly lit early
silent films, and maybe a little very, very bad community
theater. Goofy props were shoved onstage in the middle of
a song. It was initially hilarious and shocking, then it started
to wear thin, and then the faux-cheesy affectation seemed
to disappear. The set was, as usual for Glimmerglass, minimal
and gorgeous, although the wall of tear-off paper upon which
characters drew with Sharpies, and would occasionally rip,
was ugly and distracting, and all the drawing and ripping
didnít add a whole lot to the proceedings.
There were also repeated references to shadows and mirrors
that may have meant to mean something about perception and
reflection, or something.
The acting was all for laughs, and on that cartoonish level,
wonderful. Especially John Tessierís Pasquale, who cluelessly
stumbled and gaffed his way around the stage, a lovable loser
who couldnít seem to get out of his own way.
Then there was the small matter of the music and the singing.
Whatever drawback there was in the lack of a story was compensated
by a weightless, exuberant score. Not for nothing did Mozart
steal from Haydn. And everybody sang exquisitely, in spite
of the constant mugging and zooming around. Lisa Safferís
Angelina was given most of the fireworks, and she had the
firepower to dazzle the room. The high points, though, were
the act-closing ensemble pieces, where the entire cast sang
in ethereal harmonies and delicious counterpoint.