Monday, October 4, 2010


October 1

Modern maestro Metzmacher
The house was full for the second night of a Brahms and Schönberg program, and so was the stage, with a big orchestra anchored by four harps (!) barely leaving room for alto Jana Sýkorová and conductor Ingo Metzmacher. Adding even more weight and volume was the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, filling nearly every seat in the stage balcony.

Metzmacher, who also performs as a pianist, has spent most of his career at the podium conducting opera and modern music, and the performance sounded like it. The Brahms pieces, a melancholy trio – Tragic Overture in D minor (1880), Rhapsody for contralto, male chorus and orchestra (1869) and Schicksalslied for mixed chorus and orchestra (1868-71) – had an operatic gloss, especially with State Opera veteran Sýkorová turning in a fine solo on the Rhapsody. Schönberg’s symphonic poem Pelléas a Mélisande (1903) sounded more assured, swelling, exploding and receding with thundering authority.

Metzmacher gave the Brahms pieces a big, dramatic sound, which worked better in some sections than others. The Tragic Overture had punch, but lacked finesse. The Rhapsody was better, starting in an extremely low register and moving at a funereal pace that gave Metzmacher a chance to establish a flow and draw out some subtleties. But Sýkorová was the real star of that piece, showing remarkable voice control and range as she hit absurdly low and occasional high notes seemingly without effort. Both conductor and orchestra hit their stride with the Schicksalslied, a meditation on “the blissful life of the immortals” that Metzmacher gave the sound and feel of sacred music, to great effect. It was a satisfying, inspirational finish.

The chorus was outstanding. The male voices in the Rhapsody were like honey, flowing gently into the piece and filling out to a golden hue. And the full ensemble added amazing depth to the Schicksalslied, finding rich layers and tones in the vocals and giving the music an Olympian sweep. Hats off to choirmaster Petr Fiala for another impressive performance from his nonpareil ensemble.

Schönberg’s 40-minute Pelléas a Mélisande is an endurance test, a disjointed and complex piece for the conductor to hold together, a lot of work for the musicians and a test of nerves for the audience, with hammering crescendoes blasting off the stage like a series of nervous breakdowns. Metzmacher was in full and firm control of the material, finding nuances in the cacophony, and knitting it all together with intelligence and sensitivity.

All of which is just a taste of what he really does. Over the next nine months, Metzmacher will be conducting productions of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (Berlin), Janáček’s From the House of the Dead (Zurich) and Wolfgang Rihm’s Dionysos (Amsterdam). Would that we could see such fare in Prague.

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