October 2007

Filarmonica della Scala
Ben Heppner, Tenor – Riccardo Chailly, Conductor
October 9, 2007 Roy Thomson Hall Toronto
Filarmonica is a Milanese Dessert
by Tova G. Kardonne
Some music demands that one speak its language; to the music of La Filarmonica della Scala, I therefore say, bravissimo.

Shamefacedly, I admit I had my doubts. The program presaged a first half of Wagner. Few harbor lukewarm feelings about Wagner. He is either splendid, divine, epic — or dismal, bombastic, repetitive. I am of the latter camp, and so I feared the worst. But I was wrong. From the first notes of the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, the superb balance and control through the different pitch registers of the strings and their exquisite blending with the woodwinds and horns, spoke eloquently of the maturity and grace of this fine orchestra. The magnificent tenor voice of Ben Heppner was no small blandishment, to be sure. He joined the orchestra after the Prelude for Die Wesendonk Lieder, a song cycle that expressed the full Wagnerian range of moods—from the brooding to the eerily fairy-like. The final piece hailed from the bizarre world of Die Walkure; Act I, scene 3. Oh, Siegmund, dear Siegmund, you Blond Beast, you. Siegmund would never have held my attention if not for Heppner, to whom Wagner owes much. The strength in this half of the performance was in his singing, as well as the amazing conducting of Riccardo Chailly. Under his baton, the multiplicity of pitches did not so much stack up into harmonies as meld seamlessly into atmospheres. The pitch-matching, the controlled use of so many bows and breaths, the hair-splitting precision of the dynamic variation, all under the rich power of Heppner’s tenor made the first half an entrancing tour de force.

And how exhilarating they were when they played the works of a composer I do like.

The second half consisted of two works by Ottorino Respighi: Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome. Respighi is a trickster of a composer. In his compositions, one becomes aware of the more tedious and predictable conventions of some orchestral music by their absence. Happy little major-key dances lead, not to grand restatements, but instead to ominous undercurrents. Conversely, just when one expects to start drowning in melodrama and moroseness, the themes enlarge into climactic peaks. Never a dull moment with Respighi, never an opportune time to space out. The subtlety of the string section was extreme; in one memorable instance, a hummingbird-quiet pulsation throbbed under fragments of melody, while the musicians of the strings sections seemed to be sitting intent but perfectly immobile, bows to strings. Upon careful inspection, it seemed that their bows were moving, at the rate of a drop of cold molasses. All fifty-odd bows, accelerating and decelerating, the change barely perceptible, in unison. The clarinets had several opportunities to shine in these pieces, which they did and no mistake. Landing unfailingly in the dead centre of the pitch, and quite without any of the whiny edge to which clarinets are prone, they flowed like melted butter. The whole orchestra was astounding.

Riccardo Chailly
A quick word on the two encores that they played in response to the determined standing ovation they received: the William Tell Overture was played very well, and was followed up with an “homage to American Jazz music” by Nino Rotta called Suite of the Ballad of the Street. During the former, the musicians could be spotted grinning at each other, clearly having a mischievous good time playing what I’m sure they, too, can only really think of as The Lone Ranger. The quasi-jazz piece was really just a fun opportunity for the orchestra to use some of its less accustomed sounds and percussion instruments. It was enthusiastically applauded, but seriously, the meat of the concert was in the Respighi, and little could ever have topped that.
We welcome your comments and feedback
Tova G. Kardonne
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