Music review: Latvian Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra concert March 11, Wagner Hall.

  • 2000-03-16
  • By Edgars Kariks M.Mus
RIGA - The Latvian Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra was established in 1967 and consists of a core of 21 string players, mostly graduates of the Latvian Academy of Music. For more than twenty years the artistic director and principal conductor was Tovy Lifschitz, but since 1994 it has existed mainly as a vehicle for numerous guest conductors who have helped maintain its high artistic standards through these tough economic times.

Guest maestro Robert Canetti is founder and music director of the New Israel Chamber Ensemble and was born in Haifa. His early music training was as a violinist and at age eighteen he was already leader of the Pro-Musica Ensemble conducted by Dalia Atlas, one of the first prominent female conductors to break into the mostly male dominated profession. Canetti subsequently completed his musical training at the famed Julliard School in New York and was active in various ensembles in the United States prior to his appointment in 1978 as leader of the Haifa Symphony Orchestra in Israel. He also conducted this orchestra on numerous occasions and in his transition from solo violinist to conductor has guest conducted in Argentina and India and has performed as violinist and conductor in most European countries and in America.

The program on March 11 consisted of works by A. Corelli, J.S. Bach, Tzvi Avni, and Dmitri Shostakovich and was a true showcase of music from both the Baroque and 20th century periods. It would have been nice to have some representation from the Classical period as well. The opening work, Concerto Grosso Op. 6 Nr. 1 by Archangelo Corelli showed immediately that maestro Canetti is a very particular and stylistically demanding musician. He was adept at highlighting (both visually and musically) the rhetorical gestures or the so called "affects" in this music without resorting to changing the timbre of the 20th century chamber orchestra to an ambiguous 'early music' sound. Conducting without baton, Canetti did not employ the classic gestures one expects, but rather it was obvious that here is a musician who from the very first measure is already 'inside' the music and pulling out all the important melodic fragments and shades for the audience to hear. The third movement in particular (Largo. Allegro) with its fugal development of ideas let us see how music can be sculpted live in performance from notes on paper to sound in the atmosphere.

Israeli composer Tzvi Avni who is now in his 70s, was represented by an earlier work "Prayer". It opened with a beautiful melodic line (cantus firmus) in the viola section which was reminiscent of a religious chant but the prayer must have been one of troubled thoughts as there was not so much meditative quality in the music as perhaps a dialogue of tension and resolution of ideas and deep thoughts. The flageolet (harmonic) effects of the first violins added some brilliant coloring to this deeply contemplative miniature.

Concluding the first half of the program was the famous Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 3 in G major BWV 1048 which was well received by the audience for its brightness and vitality after the deep introspection of the previous work by Avni. Unfortunately, the second violins and violas temporarily let down their side by some scratchy passage playing that exposed some weaknesses in ensemble playing, but this was compensated for by the beautifully expressive recitativo style Adagio movement with harpsichordist Lauma Zutere. Short and sweet, but it was well worth it as a lead in to the final allegro. Here it was obvious that both the Latvian Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra and maestro Canetti are people who deeply love their music and want to share all with their listeners.

The second half of the concert program commenced with a petite concerto for violin by J.S. Bach in A minor BWV 1041. Perhaps this was intended to show that the conductor is also a capable violinist. I felt that the work itself was trite by comparison to the rest of the program and while it proved without doubt that the maestro is indeed a competent fiddler with excellent intonation, tone, and dynamic range, this work was more of an unnecessary intrusion to the program. From the very opening notes of the Corelli at the start of the concert, it was obvious that the maestro is at heart an outstanding violinist.

The 'tour de force' of this program was the final piece, the Sinfonietta Nr. 8 Op. 110a by Dmitri Shostakovich. The opening measures were somehow reminiscent of the Tzvi Avni meditative work heard earlier in the program. Both the following Allegro Molto and Allegretto movements showed not only that the orchestra thrives on musical pyrotechnics but that Shostakovich was also a brilliant borrower of his own musical ideas from other works. This work also displayed the major weakness of the orchestral players in that they feel uncomfortable with quiet legatissimo musical passages (a syndrome of most musicians because it exposes every musical and technical weakness and is in fact far more difficult to achieve than the loud aggressive "fun" music) and it was a pity that the final Largo sounded somewhat frail (not by intent) in comparison to the brilliant bravado passages. Despite this, the orchestra and conductor received a cascade of appreciative applause from the audience of maybe 100 people. The audience was overtly demonstrative in its demanding applause and I somehow hoped that some brave soul would have shouted out "Bravo!" or "Encore!" and then maybe we would have received one.

Maestro Canetti was a welcome guest in Riga, a true musician's musician who had no interest in the glorified histrionics and self-choreography which so many conductors tend to work on these days to gain popularity as matinee idols. Canetti is a humble musician who loves his music and is 'in touch' with each composer (dead or alive). His art demands that the audience not only 'watches' but more importantly 'listens'. We will welcome him back in October of this year.

On a minor note, the Latvijas Koncertdirekcija should be congratulated for all its brilliant efforts to maintain the high musical standards in Riga. I would however have liked to see some more informative program notes especially about the lesser known works such as the Tzvi Avni "Prayer," maybe some note in the program about the conductor for the evening, and an absolute must is to have a list of players, not to mention the name of the leader of the orchestra. Simple requests, but historically important and as many concerts are attended by visitors to Latvia, this type of information is considered standard practice.

Another minor irritation was that the management of the Wagner Concert Hall allowed some back-room stagehand to pollute the foyer with his aromatic pipe tobacco which somehow lingered into the concert hall and did not really help those of the audience who have enough discomfort with the lack of adequate ventilation once the doors to the auditorium are closed. Minor problems, easily resolved, that will entice concertgoers to come back to the otherwise excellent Wagner Concert Hall more often.