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Friday, October 10, 2014

Concert Review: Boom, Crash, Opera

The Belgrade Philharmonic comes to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Baritone Željko Lučić and conductor Muhai Tang emote at Carnegie Hall.
Photo courtesy the Belgrade Philharmonic.
Belgrade, capital of Serbia and former capital of Yugoslavia, is a city rebuilding itself after a decade of warfare. On Thursday night, the Belgrade Philharmonic (Beogradska filharmonija) an orchestra that was banned from international performance for ten years played Carnegie Hall. The concert was the final stop on its current North American tour, which is part of an effort to build a modern concert hall in Belgrade. Under music director Muhai Tang, the orchestra has renewed itself, and offered New Yorkers an enthusiastic program of Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Sibelius.


The concert opened with two national anthems, the Star Spangled Banner and Bože pravde, the Serbian national anthem. Then, Mr. Tang launched the orchestra into the Marche Slave. This is one of Tchaikovsky's war-oriented tone poems, incorporating Slavic folk melodies and the Russian national anthem of the 19th century in a patriotic display. With strong low winds and a powerful brass section, this march surged forward in an energetic fashion.

The orchestra was then joined by Serbian baritone Željko Lučić for two Verdi arias, book-ending a performance of the rarely heard ballet music from the composer's Paris version of Macbeth. Mr. Lučić, who is currently singing the title role in repertory at the Metropolitan Opera, proved a complex Scottish king, haunted by his misdeeds and grieving for his actions in "Pietà, rispetto, amore", the character's great battlefield aria from the fourth act. Even in white tie and tails, the burly singer's performance had shattering power, carrying the tragic weight of Shakespeare's text with expert support from Mr. Tang.

The ballet music from Macbeth followed, a revision that Verdi made to the opera in 1857. Written in the composer's searching middle style, this ballet showcased the brass and low strings of the orchestra, with slashing chords that suggest the bloody murders that bring the Scottish thane to power. Although ballet was a requirement and the fashion for French opera in the 19th century, a massive dance number in the middle of Shakespeare's shortest tragedy is even more anachronistic than the drinking song that that composer wrote for Lady Macbeth at the banquet.

Far more interesting was Mr. Lučić's  performance of Para siamo!, the great monologue from Act I of Rigoletto. Hunching his massive shoulders slightly, the baritone sunk himself into this famous role, seeming to darken the hall with his voice as he described the hunchbacked jester's self-doubt and self-torment in searing terms. This was followed by an encore: Eri, tu, from Un Ballo in Maschera with searing power and the promise of bloody vengeance from a scorned husband.

The second half of the concert featured Sibelius' Symphony No. 2, a work that can show the good qualities of an orchestra and expose its faults. The Belgrade players opened promisingly, with the dotted rhythm in the low strings and the descending folk-like wind figure that provides the seed of the symphony to follow. When the heavy brass--trumpets, trombones and tuba came surging in, the players chose a musculer, big-shouldered sound, shoving themselves into the  second subject and driving the whole mass of the symphony forward.

The complex second movement is the start of this symphony's narrative, depicting the struggle of the Finnish people under the rule of the Russian tsar and the Grand Duke, his political appointee. This movement had power and emotion, with a lament in the double reeds moving haltingly forward. This built to a tremendous climax, with the Belgrade brass brigade thundering out ominous chords. The last two movements, played together in a surge of sound, climaxed with the return of the opening theme. As the players sought to overwhelm the audience, the effect was one of again one of power over precision: competently played but lacking the last degree of inpiration and warmth.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.