Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Monday, November 30, 2015

Bloggo Musico-Classico: Thoughts on One, Two or Three Greenville Symphony Concerts

I just finished taking a class on Bebop in the life-long learning 
institute (OLLI) that I attend at Furman U, which happens to be just across the street from my modest apartment. Our great teacher, a former jazz critic for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, in the part of the 
state just across the Hudson from NYC, is very liberal with his quips, which works for me. Oh! In case you're wondering, Dottore Gianni is not fond of jazz, so this will have nothing to do with him.

Thelonious Monk

In one of the last classes our teacher was featuring Thelonious Monk, and told the story of a knowledgeable fellow who approached the innovative pianist after a concert and said something to the effect of

"Mr Monk, you're playing the wrong notes on the piano."

Monk paused for a second, then replied

"But there are no wrong notes on the piano." 


So what does this have to do with the Greenville Symphony (GSO)? Very little, as is often the case with my blog posts. Almost as soon as I begin writing, I digress. BUT, I may be able to link this one to the most recent concert at the GSO, an all-Mozart concert in the Chamber Orchestra Series, which I had the pleasure of attending last weekend. It was nicely balanced, with an overture and a symphony in the first part, and an overture and a symphony in the second. More about all of it in a bit, but the overture that opened part two was from The Abduction from the Seraglio.  

Opening night announcement of the Abduction in Vienna
In the Chamber Series, Maestro Tchivzhel is less formal than in the Masterworks Series, in that he turns to the audience and in a chatty and usually witty way talks a bit about the piece that is about to be played. Tchivzhel, and this is mirrored in the Program Notes by Dr Joella Utley, that it was after the premiere of this opera, in Vienna, that Emperor Josef II, a great supporter of the arts, approached Mozart. The first night had gone well, filled with applause, but the emperor had a frown on his face and said to the composer something to this effect, according to an early biographer

"Too many notes, Mr Mozart."

Mozart replied incredulously, "What?"

"You have simply written too many notes," repeated the emperor.

Mozart paused for a second, then replied

"Exactly the necessary number, your Majesty."

Ba-da-bing again!
You know him, yes? You MUST!
But just in case hs initials are WAM
If you're one of those geeks that remember everything from the film, the words are slightly different there (while the film is good, you should have seen the play with, in New York, Ian McKellen as Salieri - brilliant), but when I was reminded by the conductor and the program notes of this exchange between Mozart and the Emperor, after only a week before heard the story about Monk, well, it was as if all were in sync. How many musicians, particularly such as innovators like Monk and Mozart, have found themselves in similar circumstances, confronted by a know-nothing and critiqued by him.

Sidebar on Bach: I am reading (and highly recommend) a wonderful biography of the master called Bach and the Castle of Heaven by a renowned musician, John Eliot Gardiner. JSB was taken to task again and again, though no one ever put it exactly as "wrong" or "too many notes" by officials of town or church for whom he worked, other composers, even by some of his own students, so he is definitely be included the above mentioned list of musicians told off by dodos.

Oh, dear, it just occurred to me that I too am a bit of a know-nothing myself (though I'm trying to learn, I promise), and am about to critique a concert, or two or three, of classical music. Ah well, you're stuck with me, unless/until you stop reading.

Bergman;s Magic Flute - entrance of th eQueen of the Night
filmed in the 18th century Drottningholm Theatre

But, to the concert. The Magic Flute is a favorite opera of mine, in fact I own the DVD of the Ingmar Bergman directed film (again, wonderful) of the great work at Stockholm's Drottningholm Theatre, and just purchased another DVD of a production designed by David Hockney, I believe for the Glyndebourne Festival. I must confess that I bought it to see the design rather than to hear the music, though of course as one implies the other, I look forward to tasting both visual and aural delights when I get the time to view it.

Scene from the Magic Flute featuring Hockney's designs

In fact it was the GSO concert's version of its overture that prompted me to do so. I used to teach Theatre History (brilliantly, I might add - and it seems I just did) and used a video of the end of the brilliant and energetic overture in the above production to demonstrate how design can complement music (or text or what have you). The whole overture is visually aided by Hockney's designs of different settings within the opera, and as the music gains in majesty so does the design gain in size and splendor, ending in a spectacular dazzle. I never watched the full opera and am curious to see how designs were used throughout and not just in the overture. 

From spectacular to, well, not-so-spectacular on the part of the GSO. I have made this complaint so often that you must be getting sick of it, as am I, but as it keeps on occurring I will repeat that strings and winds are often overpowered by brass, and that is what I heard at the concert. Did others? Who knows? Who cares? Especially when one hears a piece of music that one really loves played in an unbalanced manner, one's disappointment grows.

The good news is that in the other three selections, beginning with Symphony No 40 the balance seemed to improve. I sensed some imbalance in that symphony and alas one or two unfortunate flubs from the horn section, but all in all the orchestra preformed admirably. And it seemed that the intermission gave the group new vigor, as the overture to the Abduction was played very well, and with the use of clang-y and unique "Turkish" touches. And Symphony No 38, aka The Prague Symphony (which I think along with 36 - The Linz,  are my favorites of Mozart's 41). sounded to my (tin?) ears JUST right. During No 40 I found my attention wandering. Not so during No 38. So the concert ended excellently.

Except that that was not quite the end. The orchestra played a surprise "encore" introduced by Tchivzhel, as he does annually, as a quiz (or in his great accent KVEEEEEZ). The winner of the quiz wins two tickets to any symphony concert, including the one they do at Christmas which is not on the subscription.

So small a sidebar that I shall call it an aside: Dottore Gianni loathes concerts at which too much "pop" is played, and ones in which songs, carols in this case are sung along by the audience, so we/I have never been to a GSO Christnas concert, and probably never will.

Tchivzhel has the winner come down to the podium to receive the voucher. In this case it was an old fellow with an almost Santa Claus sort of beard, who had difficulty walking, so rather than being festive it seemed to me almost embarrassing that he was forced to do so, But he made it without incident, and the end of the surprise (oh! it was Strauss's Overture to Die Fledermaus, which is a good one and well played), which is always a repeat of the last bars of said surprise, was greeted with even more applause and another standing ovation - did I tell you that there is never NOT a standing ovation at the end of a GSO concert? Ugh! Is it a conspiracy?

As for me, I use the standing ovation as a "walking" ovation, particularly in the Chamber Series, for which I have a seat only one away from the aisle. I slipped by the rather rotund woman at my right, apologized to the usher ("nature calls, sorry!") and was the first one out of the theatre and to my car. This done not only because I am not a fan of drawn out endings but also so that I can get home in time for cocktails - which I did!

I want to comment briefly on two of three other GSO concerts that made up the Fall 2015 portion of the 2015-16 season. Why only two of three? I was out of the country during the first, too bad in a way, as I like a lot of Maurice Ravel's work - his Piano Concerto in G major was the first work performed - and I LOVE much of Rachmaninoff's - his Symphony No 2 was the other work in the concert. I must confess that while I was planning the trip from which I returned to the US on 7 October I reminded myself that I should check the concert schedule, and then I promptly forgot, ordered my flight and hotels and realized too late that I would be missing the first in my subscription.

Not the end of the world. A chance to see Europe vs one symphony concert? No contest, though I DID arrange my trip in fall of 2014 so that I could see Yo-Yo Ma play at the GSO. Of course I had never seen him live before, he is exceptional, and so I made an exception. Late September is a wonderful time in much of Europe, and except in the case of someone as impressive as Yo-Yo Ma I will probably miss more opening concerts, in coming seasons.

The second concert was another in the Chamber Series, their annual Oktoberfest, in which German composers are featured, and after which free beer is served in the lobby. This year's program began and ended with Brahms with Beethoven in between. The first Brahms offered was his 2nd Piano Concerto, with David Gross, a local professor (at Furman U, but from Germany, and a frequent soloist not only at the GSO but with many other mostly regional, mostly US orchestras. I had seen him twice before and was quite impressed, saying to Dottore Gianni after the first concert, "Wow! Students studying piano at Furman are VERY lucky. This time around he seemed slightly less sure of himself, and the orchestra was not at its best. I enjoy Brahms, though he's not a favorite of mine, so I'll merely say that it was...fine...but not great. 

No ID required (i HOPE!)

During intermission the orchestra seemed to have got a boost, as the two musical offerings were better played. Beethoven's Symphony No 1 hearkens back and owes much to Mozart and Haydn, but also begins to break ground that in later work Beethoven would thoroughly dig up. Well done! Maestro Tchivzhel saved the fireworks for the last - another Brahms, this time his Academic Festival Overture. If you listen to classical music at all and think you don't know this, you are more than likely wrong, at very least "Gaudeamus Igitur" featured at the end of the work, should be familiar. It is a very old college drinking song, and Brahms riffs (riffs???can old bearded Brahms be said to riff? Dottore Gianni disagrees with me, but I think he DOES in this case) on three  others as well during the course of the overture. Why? Well he wrote is as a sort of unwritten duty when he received an honorary degree from the University in Breslau, Germany. According to the program notes (corroborated by further on-line research by the good doctor and myself) Brahms hated pomposity and considered a ceremony awarding an honorary degree as very pompous indeed. So his "overture" - which neither is an overture, nor does it make an overtures (ba-da-bing!). Instead it's an occasional piece which lightly mocked academia by featuring, in Brahms's own words "a very boisterous potpourri of student songs." No matter what I think of his music - and this piece is a rouser (rousingly performed) - having learned more about what Brahms was playing at, I think the better of him!

Now a few words about the the concert presented only a week or so before the all-Mozart event. Hmmmm...better begin with a:

Sidebar, or as I think I'm going to start calling "sidebars" from now on, Aside (much more theatrical I think) on contemporary composers. I have very little interest for them or tolerance in listening to their music. Interestingly I very much enjoy modern and (most) contemporary art, but I find music from the same time frame unpleasant. I suppose I'm just a "tonal" troglodyte and I'm not ashamed of it. As once I used to try to listen to Miles Davis as he was veering from anything I could call jazz into fusion and beyond - and one day stopped; so did/do with "important" modern and contemporary music. There are rare exceptions and I'm delighted when I come upon them, but I wash my hands of most of them/much of it. 

That "aside" (the term formerly known as "sidebar") is vital to the next bit of commentary. The concert I attended on 8 November, 
Michael Dougherty
labeled somewhat curiously, if not indecipherably, "Legends, Mysteries, Miracles," was one of the least interesting, and certainly one of the very least pleasing in my years of subscribing to the GSO. The first two pieces were composed by men younger than I. Michael Daugherty exerted much energy composing a work he calls the "Metropolis Symphony," based on the tale (legend? mystery? miracle?) of Superman. If that doesn't strike you as a bit of a joke, you can stop reading now, and buy a recording of said music. Our 
Maestro chose two movements from it, one called "Lex" for Lex Luthor, one of Superman's arch-enemies, the other "Red Cape Tango" which depicts as the program notes call it "fight-to-the-death" between our superhero and another archenemy about whom I know nothing (even after hearing the music) Doomsday. The first is noisy and razzle-dazzle and mostly cacophonous, meant I suppose to define Metropolis (NYC) in general and Luthor in particular. I have no more to say about it except that I counted the minutes until it ended. The second was filled with ominous passages meant to depict I suppose a villain who was a match (or more than a match?) for Superman, gloomy and doom-y, almost funereal in tone. It was somewhat more sonorous than "Lex" but no less irritating to me and my ears.

In fact I admit that during this music (and I use the term loosely, from my benighted POV) poor Dottore Gianni threw up his hands and walked out! Though that is much easier for him to accomplish than it would be for me.

Christopher Theofanidis
The second composer, Christopher Theofanidis, chose a subject more interesting to me, in that it in some way or another called 
Holy Hildergard
upon the music of Hildegard von Bingen (which I adore), and also the Zen Buddhist concept of "Rainbow Body." I am not familiar with that term, but the program describes it the physical death of an "enlightened" being, and its return to the universe as energy, in the form of light. The music, though more melodious than that in the first work, gave me NO indication or hint of either. On a recent trip to Germany I went on a mission to Bingen, on the Rhine, to get a better sense of Hildegard. I got lost and failed. So did Theofanidis, in his figurative mission to evoke her. I suppose this music represents the "Mysteries" of the concert's title. Fine.

Finally, what I had been waiting for! Sleeping Beauty, a dramatic composition based on Tchaikovsky's lovely ballet, cobbled together by Tchivzhel himself. The orchestra played it well (as by the way, it had the first two pieces - I imagine that musicians get a sort of thrill by attacking work with which they are unfamiliar. Perhaps I should as well, but it is more a chore for me than a joy) but I found it over-long and not nearly as interesting or lovely as I'd hoped.

Finally and very briefly, a note on an adventurous concert in the Spotlight Series, so called as it focuses that bright light on the brightest lights in the orchestra. These concerts are always interesting, though for me at times the odd combination of 
If you don't know who this is
I'm not even going to tell you it's Bach
instruments and the quality of the compositions are a bit much. I chose to see this particular Spotlight because it featured a Double Concerto in C minor by Bach, which I learned from the intro by the bright and well-spoken oboist, Virginia Metzger, was chosen as a companion to the second piece, of which more anon. It was well, if not brilliantly accomplished. My less than rave assessment is due in part to the bass, added to the ensemble in order to complement the harpsichord (per Ms Metzger). As the music unfolded I found myself more and more listening for the 
harpsichord as opposed to the piece as a whole. Except for two 
instances (instants?) I could hear nothing, though the young woman seemed to be playing her heart out. My conclusion is that instead of 
complementing the harpsichord, the bass drowned it out, which is a pity. The second work was composed by Heitor Villa-Lobos, 
Bachianas Brasileiras No 6 for flute and bassoon. I liked the combination of instruments and their talented players. While it reminded me more of Brazil than of Bach I found it quite appealing.  The last composition was by Erno Dohnanyi, a composer unknown to me (but what else is new?), his sextet for Violin,Viola, Cello, Clarinet, Horn and Piano. This I enjoyed too, though at times the combination of instruments struck me as strange and slightly jarring. I think I liked it as much as I did because the young woman who had played the harpsichord (noiselessly) in the Bach, shone on the piano in this sextet. While it is an ensemble piece, she stood out for me, possibly because of the quality of music, more likely as I could hear her this time around! 
Erno Dohnanyi
The Spotlights are short but sweet. I had planned that this post be as well, but as usual I got carried away! Hope you enjoyed it, or at least some of it, anyway.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Photo-Essay on My Recent To Bellissima Roma I

For some time now, I seem to have run out of steam on my blog.. Not intentionally, but for a number of reasons, ranging from good to bad to silly. I'll try to remedy that by sharing with you four days, just over a month ago, in one of my favorite cities on earth - Rome!

Brief Sidebar on my alter ego: I left Dottore Gianni at home for this trip. He's not quite the fellow he used to be, tires easily and is frequently tiresome, even irritating. For example he has taken to spewing Italian curse words, and while that sort of behavior may not be all that bad in our humble abode, on the road, especially in I locked him in the apartment and flew away. Finita la commedia!

I trained to the Eternal City from a soggy, soggy Pisa on 3 October, arriving about midday. I had reserved a room at the Hotel Sonia, across from the Opera di Roma, a great location very near Termini rail station, with Via Nazionale and Piazza della Repubblica only a block or two away. I received a bit of a jolt when I was ushered very politely to another place, the Hotel Opera, on the same square. There was no indication of why and I was a bit too surprised to ask. My room was ready for me, which is always a relief, but it is perhaps the tiniest hotel room I have EVER stayed in, but other than that it was every bit of what I desire in a hotel room - a place to sleep after long days of exploring whatever place I happen to have landed. 
My tiny room at Hotel Opera

My likewise minuscule bathroom

The view was restricted, but for Central Rome, not a bad one 

True to form I did not dally in my room. It was a rather pretty day in Rome, and even though this was my sixth or seventh visit I was eager to re-acquaint myself with it. I also had a very important appointment to keep, and did not want to be late. 
Ancient Roman baths at Piazza Repubblica
I bought a Roma pass from a nearby kiosk in the Piazza della Repubblica and began my exploration by descending into Rome's Metro, which conveniently offers a station at that busy square. The Metro is useful only for a few select spots, but very quick and convenient if you want or need to get to them. I seldom wait more than two or three minutes for a train to arrive, and once on, distances are covered more quickly and smoothly than in any form of transport above ground. 

I reached my destination, Piazza di Spagna, in minutes, and headed out the exit leading to Rome's beautiful central park, the Villa Borghese, where as usual for me I proceeded almost instantly to get completely lost.

One of the many beautiful areas in the Villa Borghese
I DID pass by some lovely sights, but every time I came upon a sign with an arrow pointing to my destination I found it not, instead at the next signpost finding it not listed at all, or pointing in the direction from which I'd come. My appointment was still nearly two hours away, but instead of taking the smart option: giving up my struggle and hailing a
A typical view - yes, that's St Peter's in the distance,
from the area above Piazza di Spagna
taxi, I kept walking around in circles, getting angrier and more frustrated at each wrong turn. Finally, after about an hour of this nonsense, I found my way back to the area above the Piazza di Spagna known as the Pincio and, after stopping briefly to take photos of the breathtaking views of the city,  walked briskly AROUND the huge park to my goal: The Museo Borhese!

I was exhausted by the time I arrived, only 15 minutes away from the timed entry - 3 pm - of my visit. The leisurely lunch I'd planned before entering was obviously a no-go, but even though I was starving I was more starved for the art I'd encounter in this beautiful building, built for the wealthy Borghese family.

The beautify Museo Borghese
I had been only once before, on my second visit to Rome. That would have been in January 1997, after my "fiasco in Firenze," not to be included here, but certainly worth a blog post. At the time the Museo, aka the Galleria Borghese was nearly completely shut down for major renovation. The only area open was the ground level, but that alone more than satisfied me, as it was packed with sculptures by GianLorenzo Bernini, the 17th century genius who not only sculpted, but also designed fountains, entire churches, even the famous colonnade at St Peter's, as well as much of its interior.  

For some reason ro other, even though I have been to Rome I think seven times now (but who's counting?) I never made it back to this museum - until now. In 1997 I walked right in. This trip I had to book in advance for a timed visit. A nuisance? Yes, but probably a necessary one. If you're thinking of going, don't let the red tape stop you, as it is an extraordinary building with a wonderful collection of paintings and even finer sculpture.

Once I was allowed in (3 pm to 6 pm) I was led up a set of stairs into the picture gallery. Stunning collection!

Leda and the Swan - a copy of a lost,
or deliberately destroyed, painting by Leonardo
da Vinci 

Botticelli's Madonna & Child

Raphael's Portrait of a Man

Titian, Sacred and Profane love

Bellini's Madonna and Child
Caravaggio's David
I shot many pics of the paintings, including one I seem to have lost, a beauty by Leonardo (not a mere copy such as the Leda painting above). None of these had I seen on my first visit, and because of the renovation at the time I saw little of the decoration in the palazzo.

The ceilings alone...

are startling...

and dramatic.
Each of the ceilings above features a popular 17th century device: "trompe-l'oeil" which translates more or less to "fool the eye." There are examples that date back to Classical times, but the term was invented during the Baroque era to describe paintings that are created to, for a moment at least, trick the observer into thinking that they are three-dimensional. The middle painting above is particularly good at this. Some of the figures seem to be falling out of the sky!

As dazzling as the paintings (on canvas and on ceilings) are, the most important section of the museum is downstairs, in the sculpture galleries. And of the sculptors, Bernini takes pride of place. In fact he is featured upstairs as well:

Paintings by and of Bernini
One of his self portraits - her certainly
didn't idealize himself

There are even a few of his smaller sculptures upstairs, notably the bust of Scipione Borghese, who built the Villa Borghese and was a great patron of the arts:

But it is downstairs that some of Bernini's greatest works reside. 

The first gallery I entered featured the Rape of Proserpina

The sculpture manages to command one's focus despite the lavish decoration of the room.

A closer look
Next, in a smaller room, I found the sculptor's Aeneas Carrying Anchises and Ascanio from Troy.

My two favorite Berninis are placed in different rooms, indeed each of his large sculptures is given its own room, accompanied by other works by his contemporaries and by ancient Greek and Roman artists.

The first, at least in the order I chose to visit the galleries, was the tremendously active, muscular David, in the act of hurling the stone that would kill Goliath. Three views below:

How different it is from Donatello's much earlier sculpted work, and also from the great David of Michelangelo, in which the subject is also powerful, but calmly awaiting his chance. Bernini moves away from the Classical look of Michelangelo's work into  twistings and turnings, action sculpture style of the Baroque.

As active, possibly even more so, can be seen in my second favorite, Apollo and Dafne. 

Bernini captures the pair just as the god has caught up with poor Dafne in order to have his way with her. Even as he reaches for her she is, saved, transformed - or metamorphosed (the story comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses) - into a tree.

Well, I hadn't intended for this post to become an art history lecture. But I'll keep all of the above in, as if nothing else it shows how much I like the Museo Borghese and how mad I am about Bernini.

Once outside, after making the acquaintance of a headless ancient Roman orator:

"Friends, Romans, countrymen..."

"What is he saying?" 

"Beats me! He used to be a pretty good speaker, 
but now I think he's lost his head"


 I took an easy walk back towards my hotel, as opposed to the mad rush I had to make to get to my appointed time at the gallery. It was a beautiful afternoon, as you see,

I love the pines of Rome, near the
Villa Borghese, and not far from the Via Veneto
so I decided to stroll down one of Rome's most famous streets, the Via Veneto. 

This beautiful curving, treelined and unusually wide street is too rich for my blood. I can't afford the posh hotels, note most of the eateries along it, but I always enjoy the walk (downhill more so than up), because of its natural charm, 

Ancient wall near the start of the Via Veneto, Borghese Gardens behind it

but also because one of my favorite film directors, Federico Fellini, made it famous. 

The film that put it on the map, La Dolce Vita, was one of the first foreign and avant-garde films I ever saw, taken to the Circle Theatres in DC by the older brother of a high school friend, who somehow got the idea that I was "hip" - I watched, confused most of the time, but knowing I was seeing something awesome. I have viewed it several times since, and I must confess that much of it still confuses me, but I've also discovered that confusion is not a bad thing, necessarily, and must be expected when watching Fellini. Anyway, the city has remembered Fellini and has thanked him!

A curving on the Via Veneto, at a posh hotel and its eatery

Another posh hotel along the Via Veneto

the US Embassy, one of the most attractive of our embassies I've seen, on the Via Veneto
At the bottom of the Via Veneto is the Piazza Barberini, where I planned to take the Metro back to my hotel. I remembered that there were a few places still on the Via Veneto, just before the Piazza, where I might get affordable food. I was hustled at one of them, so went to the next one instead. I can't stand when restaurant staff try to get you into their eatery! 

Another reason I chose the second, Ciao Bella by name, was its glassed-in outdoor seating area. The Piazza Barberini can be a pretty boisterous place, and I thought it would be fairly quiet. I was right. 

I ordered a decent red wine and a rather tasty salad. 

Unfortunately the main course, and still another reason I chose this particular place, lasagna with artichokes, did not live up to its yummy name. 

In fact it looked and tasted more like Cream of Wheat than anything else. Ah well, it filled me up.

I was as tired by this time as I was hungry, but before I left the Piazza Barberini I had to make a short visit to its Tritone Fountain, created by - guess who? Bernini!

A good way to end my first day in Rome.