Thursday, December 11, 2014

Poetic musicality - Benjamin Grosvenor plays Liszt in Rome

Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia conducted by Kent Nagano

Santa Cecilia Hall, Auditorium Parco della Musica – 6 December 2014

Meeting Benjamin Grosvenor in Rome
When, at the age of nineteen, the prodigiously talented British concert pianist Benjamin Grosvenor appeared at the First Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011, he was the youngest ever soloist to have performed at the event. The piece he chose to play on that occasion was Liszt's Concerto for Piano No. 2 in A major, and it was with this work that he made another début this past weekend, in his first collaboration with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome. I’ve enjoyed Grosvenor’s recent recordings enormously, so was thrilled by the prospect of finally seeing him play live, particularly under the baton of guest conductor Kent Nagano, who was last in Rome conducting another brilliant young pianist, Rafał Blechacz.

Salvatore Accardo once made a wonderful observation about Maurizio Pollini, commenting that he played not to demonstrate his own virtuosity, but to demonstrate the beauty of the music. I was reminded of those words on Saturday afternoon as I watched Benjamin Grosvenor on stage at the Auditorium. At only twenty-two his technical command of the keyboard is already formidable, but what really shone through during his performance of Liszt's Second Piano Concerto – ostensibly less of a showcase for flamboyant displays of virtuosity than his First Piano Concerto – was Grosvenor’s innate musicianship, and the grace and poetry he brought to the dialogues between the piano and the woodwinds and strings of the orchestra. His playing was a delight from start to finish. Grosvenor’s performance was short and sweet, however. Sadly, on Saturday afternoon the powers that be at the Auditorium prevented the pianist from performing an encore, much to the disappointment of the audience who had rewarded him with rapturous applause and numerous curtain calls. After such a tantalisingly brief, yet brilliant performance, I can’t wait to see him back in Rome again soon.

The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to Kent Nagano’s exploration of musical Romanticism, with all three composers on the programme sharing an obsession with repeated musical motifs or rhythms, opening with Wagner’s Tannhäuser with its leitmotifs, through to the “idèe fixe” which permeates the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. A hugely rewarding concert that closed to noisily appreciative cheers from the audience.

Full programme:
Ouvertüre und Venusberg aus Tannhäuser
Piano Concerto No 2 in A major
Symphonie Fantastique

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Devilishly good! Daniil Trifonov in Rome

Sala Sinopoli, Auditorium Parco della Musica – 14 November 2014

Autographed Daniil Trifonov CD
Since winning the 2011 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, and sweeping the board at the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition that same year, 23 year old Russian concert pianist Daniil Trifonov has been steadily making a name for himself around the world, garnering critical praise and performing at prestigious venues. When a concert pianist of the calibre of Martha Argerich publicly expresses wonder at the prodigious talents of a young pianist, one tends to sit up and take notice after all. I was mildly surprised, therefore, to see that Trifonov’s recent Rome concert was to take place in Sala Sinopoli, one of the smaller of the main concert halls at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, and that whilst reasonably full, the venue was by no means sold out. No doubt that will change in the future as his reputation grows in Italy too. Certainly the stunning performance he gave on Friday evening will have earned him many new admirers.

There’s a fearlessness about Daniil Trifonov that is apparent from the very second he steps out on stage. A brisk bow, and it was right down to business with Liszt’s arrangement of Bach’s organ Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, played with majestic boldness and assurance. Next on the programme was Beethoven’s final sonata, No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, another excellent choice that exhibited Trifonov’s extraordinary interpretive abilities as a performer. He brought a freshness and sense of improvisation to the sonata, with his formidable technique eliciting gasps during the most delicate pianissimos.

After a short interval, Trifonov was back on stage and already at the keyboard as stragglers in the audience were still returning to their seats, launching zealously into what would prove to be a remarkable tour de force – all twelve of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. Clocking in at over an hour in length, a live performance of these technically challenging Etudes is a formidable feat of sheer stamina for any artist – and can be exhausting for the listener too - but Trifonov seemed, at times, a man possessed, unafraid to explore his own hidden depths, and push the capabilities of the piano as an instrument. His playing was so seductively demonic, one really did begin to wonder if he had made a Faustian pact with the devil!

The audience followed him spellbound on this journey and the close of the Etudes was met with rapturous applause. Trifonov was coaxed out on stage for numerous curtain calls and to loud cries of bravo! He did not, however, perform an encore. After such a marathon it was clear that he had given us his all. Remarkable – a must-see performer.

Full programme:
Fantasia and Fugue in G minor BWV542, transcribed for piano by Liszt
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111
12 Etudes d’exécution transcendante S139

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Rome Film Festival 2014 | Festival Internazionale del Film di Roma

16 - 25 October 2014 at the Auditorium Parco della Musica

Geraldine Chaplin at Rome Film Festival 2014
The ninth edition of the Rome Film Festival, with Marco Müller once again at the helm for a third and final time as artistic director, has just drawn to a close. The annual kermesse may have seen a dramatic cut in budget and consequently a reduced number of screenings this year, but there was still plenty to enjoy, with a rewarding selection of encounters with both mainstream and cult filmmakers and actors such as Miike Takashi (winner of this year’s Maverick Director Award 2014), Park Chan-wook, Jia Zhangke, Walter Salles (Marc’Aurelio Lifetime Achievement Award), and Geraldine Chapman, as well as a varied programme of world cinema premières.

In many ways I enjoyed this festival, with its focus away from mainstream big budget movies and Hollywood stars, more than previous years - there were some truly wonderful films in this year’s programme. Russian director Alexey Fedorchenko – inaugural winner of the Marc’Aurelio of the Future Award, a new festival prize – presented the stunning and poetic Angely Revoluciji (Angels of Revolution). Award-winning Chinese theatre director Xu Ang was in Rome with actor He Bing to present his debut film Shier gongmin (12 Citizens), an engaging transposition of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men exploring the contradictions and different social strata of Chinese society. The film was warmly received during its première and took home the People's Choice Award in the Cinema d'Oggi category.   

Jia Zhangke and Walter Salles on stage in Rome
Walter Salles’ work-in-progress version of Jia Zhangke, un Gars de Fenyang (Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang), shown ahead of its official world première in Sao Paulo, was a fascinating, and often moving documentary about the life and work of the Chinese director, who also joined Salles for an on stage discussion after the screening. Kamisama no iutoori (As the Gods Will), Miike Takashi’s latest gory, gloriously bonkers, and thoroughly enjoyable film, was given its world première in the presence of the director and its young stars Sota Fukushi and Hirona Yamazaki. I also loved Dólares de arena (Sand Dollars), directed by Laura Amelia Guzman and Israel Cardenas, with its mesmerizing central performances by Geraldine Chaplin and co-stars Yanet Mojica and Ricardo Ariel Toribio.

Miike Takashi on the red carpet
From the screaming teenage (mostly) girls who bivouacked along the red carpet from dawn on Sunday morning to see Lily Collins and Sam Claflin attend the première of Love, Rosie, and later that same day, Josh Hutcherson and Benicio del Toro for Escobar: Paradise Lost, to the 1980s music fans who greeted Spandau Ballet for the Gala première of Soul Boys of the Western World, and with Richard Gere, Kevin Costner and Clive Owen on hand to add a pinch of Hollywood glamour, Müller’s festival really did have something for everyone.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Benjamin Britten | Jamie McDermott | Conor Mitchell – Cabaret Songs at RomaEuropa Festival 2014

Teatro Eliseo on 15 October 2014

Italy still languishes behind almost all its European neighbours in recognition of gay rights, so much so that when the Mayor of Bologna, amongst others, recently started registering foreign gay marriages at the local municipality, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano sent out a circular ordering all Italian municipalities to remove these gay marriages from their registries. Mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino has promised he’ll defy this ruling and personally officiate at the registration of foreign gay marriages in the city this weekend. These registrations remain essentially “symbolic”, however, with no pending legislation on a national level in the offing. I am saying all this in order to properly understand and contextualize the impact of a performer like Jamie McDermott, who made a welcome return to Rome this week, and how his exploration of the history of gay song writing in the twentieth century, though a sophisticated selection of Cabaret Songs, inspired by the music of Benjamin Britten and the words of WH Auden, truly comes as a breath of fresh air in Italy. Most of the love songs to men in this show were, after all, written at a time of homosexual illegality, with the repression of homosexual desire their driving force. In this show McDermott throws the closet doors wide open with his gorgeous re-imagining of the Britten/Auden compositions.

Teatro Eliseo was magically transformed into an intimate nightclub, as McDermott appeared, not on stage during the opening number - Fallen Out of Love with You, a WH Auden piece, set to music by contemporary composer Conor Mitchell – but instead among the audience, moving through the red velvet seats, as if from table to table in some Berlin nightlife joint. It was the perfect start to what would be an elegant, refined, and also at turns poignant, funny, and wilfully camp evening. Admittedly, the performance wasn’t free of minor technical glitches – microphone problems, a music stand falling over – but these things only seemed to endear McDermott even more to the Rome audience, who had already been seduced by his glorious voice, with its operatic vibrato and soaring falsetto. Pianist Stephen Higgins – a dexterous and sensitive foil to McDermott’s vocals - also delighted us with his new Italian lyrics to Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It.

Musical highlights for me were Noel Coward’s achingly lovely Mad About the Boy, with new explicitly gay lyrics that were censured at the time, the Rodgers and Hart classic My Funny Valentine, and a wonderfully sultry Too Darn Hot by Cole Porter. Dermott seemed genuinely surprised by the warmth of the applause at the end of the show – “Are you all insane?!” - and was called back on stage for two encores, an exquisite repeat of the Auden/Mitchell piece After Sappho performed early on in the setlist, and a brief burst of Johnny One Note, abandoned in favour of My Funny Valentine.

Jamie McDermott will be back at Teatro Eliseo tonight with The Irrepressibles – Nude: Viscera. Highly recommended!

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