Nathalie Stutzmann conducts Händel Messiah in Paris

My trouble with writing about Messiah is more that i don’t know the music by heart (from listening) so I simply can’t tell all the “ngõ ngách”** as we vietnamese say, so then it remains somewhat superficial and grossly over-generalized. But let’s make an attempt anyhow.
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The overall impression: It was the best Händel Messiah I have ever heard*, with *everything* I ever ask for. She filled my complete needs :-).  What do I mean by phrasing? when someone speaks to you a sentence and immediately in head you have a vivid 3-D image evolving dynamically. This is the first time I fully understand the meaning of the text, not just as English text, but musical painting: How to read the notes and text and form ideas, and how to get that idea expressed with the available tools. Ms. Stutzmann has my absolute admiration. The orchestra was SUPERB. You can split them almost into 4 sections: high strings on left, low strings on right, organ+harpsichord (double mounted), and 2 oboes + 2 horns. Especially the low strings, they were having an absolute ball phrasing and emphasizing what felt like constant high wind gushes in a coming hurricane.

The Messiah has 3 parts and the first is obviously full of very beautiful tunes that everyone knows. This is the first time that at the end of each part i was thinking aloud: “WHAT?? it’s over???” The 2nd and 3rd parts put significantly more emphasis on the chorus, and they’re absolutely superb. A well deserved applause from all soloists. Sorry for the short description here as i don’t know the parts of the chorus well enough..

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view from Corbeille K10


Back to the soloists for a moment. I wonder how much Nathalie Stutzmann’s ideas cross with the singers, but I’m assuming they all arrived with their own ideas and married them with hers? We are going to start with Sara Mingardo ;-). I wanted to hear her live singing Händel in intimate setting with a small baroque orchestra. What more could I ask for? I would like a copy of this particular session at Theatre des Champs Elysees (TCE) for my personal collection please. Could we please please please see more of the collaboration between Nathalie and Sara? Their mutual admiration and especially Ms. Mingardo’s admiration for Ms. Stutzmann were such a pleasure to watch up close. On her musical phrasing: The good news is I know the alto’s parts *very* well for this piece and thus can provide the most comments. What a huge contrast to the performance with Sir Colin Davis in term of size of orchestra, venue, and orchestra interpretation. Here she was absolutely in her elements with the right dynamical supports and sound balance with orchestra and thus had her full luxury varying intensity with a few pianissimos, wooooahhhh, tingling spine.
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Nathalie Stutzmann, Sara Mingardo, Susan Gritton, Orfeo 55


I have always in head the feeling her vocal instrument is that of a baroque viola in term of dynamic range + expressiveness, ANNNNDD, yesterday i heard partially a reason why! Please read more at the bottom of post! Back to phrasing, she embellishes vocal lines in very subtle ways that makes you turn your head with open eyes and ears. Remember my never-ending comment on VK’s phrasings of Romeo in Munich? that’s how she’s doing it in Messiah, very very subtle, and unless you know the music well, I wonder if you can really appreciate as full as my cough cough obsessive ears did. And who in the world would pause 1/2 way through a coloratura line, let orchestra rushed in with emphasis, another pause, put a small expression on top of coloratura, then finished off the phrase? We all know the first famous alto aria “But who may abide the day of his coming”, remember the middle and end section with the pulsating rush? She and Ms Stutzmann’s orchestra took turn emphasizing/de-emphasizing the notes building up tension, WOOOOOOW. This was what I missed on friday in Metz sitting much further back in a hall i don’t quite like and thus missing their particular interaction. Simply breathtakingly amazing. I can write another 3000-word post just on her phrasing, but let’s move on..
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At close space in optimal setting at TCE, Susan Gritton’s voice is much much more appreciated. You can hear all her phrasing well, significantly more expressive than the first round. The interaction during “he shall feed his flock like a shepherd” was quite different though to the version with Karina Gauvin that I heard live here in Symphony Hall, in that their voices are different enough that somehow Ms. Gauvin’s floated well above the bed of violins but Ms. Gritton’s was part of orchestra. Thus it gives a different dynamic and didn’t quite strike me as something to notice (but I did because of previous experience).
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Apology to the tenor and bass, but I have not much comments 😀 . My only impression was the same as on last friday, that the tenor’s entry, or more like during the entire performance, somehow further reminded me of the contrast with Nicholas Phan, and that the latter can paint words/musical phrase that worked much better for my brain.

So, that’s about it, a post in rambling fashion, full of admiration for Ms. Stutzmann’s musical phrasings, her brilliance in getting her orchestra to transfer her ideas to audial reality, her amazing musicianship, her fantastic collaboration with her soloists and absolute care for them. And on second order my full admiration for Ms. Mingardo’s musicianship, and I can only hope that they would collaborate more because I’m keeping my plans open for them!
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On that related note, I have now an open invitation to visit Paris any time with an offer for a couch! with a professional violinist! She woke up very early to take me to the boulangerie on my last morning. We then had a real French breakfast with organic nutella while discussing violin bows! I would need to stay longer next time to have more conversation, but in essence she described the weight distribution on modern, classic, baroque bows and how you can express music (dynamic, emphasis) differently. For demonstration she gave a humming tune of what you can do with a single phrase, and in my limited ability to understand the difference, I can only say her 2nd phrase associated with classic/baroque(?) bow was the one I always look for at concerts and that it fits perfectly with how I heard Sara Mingardo. So there you have it.

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** tiny windy streets that can only be explored on foot and that one can easily get lost in.
* though the sampling size remains much smaller than, for example, Bach Matthews Passion.

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photo of the trip

this sums it up. I’ll pause for 2 days transiting but will come back with a proper post to what in my view is the best Messiah! Nathalie Stutzmann needs to be recorded conducting this piece! with her band + chorus + SM! (S. Gritton was very good too!)
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La damnation de Faust @ Oper Köln

I have an even earlier train to catch tomorrow! but i didn’t like the sloppy post last night as it did absolutely no justice to the wonderful conducting of Nathalie Stutzmann. Will come back and add more comment to that. So, let’s have a proper post here if possible..
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This is one of the few works i know by heart (from listening). Usually for these pieces, it’s always great to hear live for the first time as you discover so many things happening in the orchestra and interaction between it and chorus / singers. Roughly you need three good singers for the main characters, a superb chorus, and a conductor’s idea and ability to shape the orchestra. Also, for mezzo-lovers, it’s decisively split into two and a half parts: I=no mezzo, II.1=mezzo , II.2=no mezzo. I’ll discuss the parts in order below.

Let’s start with the best: Samuel Youn as Méphistophélès. I put him above all because he has such a big role, and the moment he stepped on the stage, the ENTIRE concert lit up. Great voice, but most importantly, his phrasing, shaping, and characterization. There’s always a fine line again between over the top (ott!) and just right when it comes to portraying the devil, and he absolutely delivered. Actually while he gestured ordering the chorus to “Amen”, i realize how ironic attending this right after Messiah: small intimate orchestra + chorus versus flamboyant devil with *extravagant* horns + drums + harps and rowdy chorus. No wonder we are all going to hell, such fun!! 😀
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If you know this piece at all, it starts with a gorgeous violin line followed by opening line of tenor. Honestly, I would prefer an entirely different Faust. Nothing wrong with the singing, but it’s just singing. I was thinking was it jet-lag again that i don’t digest the start.. which infiltrated into the Hungarian March.. read that again, _into_ the Hungarian March. That’s a third of part I and usually for me one of the most beautiful sections. Luckily the devil arrived just in time!
The chorus is extremely important in this piece, and it’s mixed.. at times they sang like in a flea market completely jumbled up (leading up to Hungarian March), yet at other times very precise and full of power.. While we talk about Hungarian March, this is also a good start to discuss conductor’s take. For the most part, i really like how Markus Poschner shaped the orchestra. At the start somehow everything sounded a bit off (?) in term of sound, could it be that my ears were adjusting to the tent? For the march, I think there’s a “reasonable” tempo somewhere that makes the piece sounds good as opposed to dragging or everyone dropping swords running over others. This version is somewhat a mix-bag, with particularly fast tempo toward the end where i had the feeling the horns + trumpets couldn’t keep up, so they sounded quite out of sync and chaotic. What can I say, everything really came together once Mr. Devil came to the scene :-).
For the orchestra, i need to google the name of the first violinist, an asian, similar haircut to mine, same height, SUPERB!!! 🙂 Again, for this piece, you need a lot of very precise bow movements to accentuate the mood change. The best memory I have is *to* this chorus (which, incidentally is also the best chorus I heard), the precise marching movement of violins are quite eye-opening.

Right, Part II. First, when Vesselina Kasarova is singing, I will always nicely upgrade myself to the best position in the hall if there’s a seat available :-). Already in part I I scanned the scene simply because of a very tall woman sitting right in front blocking my view.. and spotted a smack middle-seat 2 rows in front with absolutely no obstacle (row11seat35 to row9seat29), here’s the view:
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My small regret for the evening: that I didn’t book ticket to see her 3 times singing this. But you know the way her schedule is changing by the day, I would go broke switching plane ticket every other day.. Ok, done lamenting. First, a question for the sound in the tent perhaps.. when started she sounded quite truncated. By that I mean you only hear some part of the sound but not the entire word. Second, it’s true her french is a bit strange :-). Marguerite has the opening scene (which if you haven’t heard already i posted almost twenty times here and on my channel) where she made the ascent En songe je l’ai vu… lui… mon futur amant, quite breath taking. I am always so much more in love with “Roi de Thulé” aria than the rest, the music is very melancholy, almost ironic if you realize her fate by the end.. The breathing stopped, for a moment i completely forgot where I was, transported to an external planet, alone to ponder life to the pulsation. Quite an experience. It also occurred to me whoever is discussing about her voice “problems” is not listening to her live singing Marguerite :-). The duet and trio are great, suuuch a pleasure watching her voice piercing through the tenor/bass combo on the side. Their positions in front of the orchestra, with her in the middle, helps greatly with sound balance (clearly after my move).
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But I will also admit I don’t always fully digest her “D’amour l’ardente flamme” . For this occasion, again I’m wondering about the “truncation of sound” thing because some of her singing went “missing” even though you can see her movements.. Perhaps this is related to something Anik mentioned once about the timing of some vocal ?? that now takes longer to open and for the sound to come? One striking thing I remember thinking as soon as the opening phrase arrived is “poor Marguerite, she doesn’t know yet what will come..”. That is to say she completely inherited Marguerite you now feel for the character. Just to mention the one part that I love the most in HER version (both here and on weimar radio broadcast): exactly here (you will just have to watch the photos since her singing Marguerite has made it to all my slideshows in 2012)

Absolutely goose-bump inducing, especially in combo with the uplifting violins. Her last part, i will always get, “Il ne vient pas…”, sniff sniff..

So she was gone (no more singing but she remained on stage), the rest was up to Faust (I drifted!) and Méphistophélès (I cheered!). As the male chorus partied to Méphistophélès’ “Je suis vainqueur!” I celebrated! More horns, drums, bells, harps to round out the music. A fantastic evening!
I had the camera setting messed up with only bad photos so decided to switch on the movie function, here it is, the last performance of this run. Big applause. I waited a bit wanting to say hello to Frau K but she bursted out running with this woman-TV interviewer (the show where she sang a Bulgarian folk song as a birthday gift to one of the guests) so I didn’t intrude. That’s about it. I am glad to have made the trip, one which I almost skipped if not for the combo with Stutzmann/Orfeo55/Händel/Mingardo…

Nathalie Stutzmann conducts Händel Messiah in Metz

I have some crazy early train to catch so this will be a bit short. How about first a photo:

contralto overload

contralto overload

Perhaps bullet-point format is the way to go (no editing + bad grammar included):
– Program: Händel Messiah, Susan Gritton (soprano), Sara Mingardo (contralto), Benjamin Bernheim (tenor), Andrew Foster Williams (Bass), Orfeo 55, Nathalie Stutzmann (conductor), Chœur de Chambre de Namur.
– First, a confession: i missed Nathalie Stutzmann’s entrance *several* times, this is what happens when you have two contraltos sharing the stage!
– Phrasing!!! PHRASING! if you would like to hear what it’s like having a conductor getting an orchestra to phrase the music as she wants, this is it! it’s got shape, form, dynamics, just as the musical-doctor orders. 8
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– On the point of phrasing, let’s start with recitative “.. and shall call his name, Emmanuel,..” and entrance music to “Oh Thou That Tellest Good Tidings To Zion” : First you have Sara Mingardo making the announcement in recit, then violins scooping in, spreading the news like flood and fire (!), filling every gap in the valley, floating across mountain tops, carrying in the wind.. I LOVE the tempo! a bit of hesitation, then pulsation, then filling the air, you feel the wind passing by your ears! THHHEN, of course, Sara Mingardo finished the aria…
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– Speaking of Sara Mingardo, you know i can’t be very objective at this point.. but i adoooooore her phrasing. i think that is it, her musical phrasing: communicates directly to my soul :-). How often one hears thadieu not get enough of the phrase “The Glory of the Lord” ?? how glo.ri.ous <– notice emphasis in musical phrasing + notes!
– And yes, still on the same subject, the evening started (for me) right when she started singing :-). Actually Händel Messiah starts a bit slow, as I mentioned last year during Boston Baroque’s performance. If i can make a comparison, Nicholas Phan grabbed my attention immediately whereas i got lost somehow in this (tenor’s) version.. hence the “late” starting point.
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– The chorus is absolutely superb! especially in the 2nd and 3rd parts (though i also confess to drifting off due to jet-lag..)
– “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd”: i sat there wondering which version we would get.. because sometimes you only get soprano.. but huuuurrraaay, Ms. Mingardo got up to start the duet!
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– Susan Gritton’s voice is quite warm and “sweet”, but somehow the phrasings didn’t quite work for my brain… in fact this was also the case for tenor + bass.. may be jet-lag?
– Orchestra: besides super lovely sound + balance + details i noticed above, let’s wait until i hear them again.. coz i believe my seat was a bit too far to hear all the nuances.. that on top of jet lag..
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– Nathalie Stutzmann: just one more amazing thing: how to take care of singers! i absolutely loved how soft + dynamic she frame the orchestra around her soloists. Let’s take Ms. Mingardo again, simply because I believe her voice is most difficult to hear if you don’t take care of sound balance. In fact I wonder if the people sitting behind the orchestra heard her much. Even when she bent her head down looking at text i could hear the sound coming up less. Altogether, from my seat U25 (almost near the back of the hall), there’s absolutely no problem hearing her, and this is fully credited to Ms Stutzmann’s care. Did i mention already as soon as the soloist took a pause, orchestra swoops right in shaping the music, think flooding in super slow motion where you can feel the water coming and filing in. just fantastic.
– oh yes, how could i forget, what a fine fine fine white shirt she wears!! and i missed that a couple of times busy following Ms. Mingardo ;-).

OK, i think that’s about it. I fell asleep a *few* times in the slow parts 2 + 3, nothing wrong with performance, jet-lag went berserk. Let’s hope it’s dying down for tomorrow night!! Signing off with first a video of Nathalie Stutzmann’s view on conducting Messiah (I haven’t had a chance to watche, not sure if in french or english..) and a few left over photos.

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random photo

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will have to manage some fragmented french and fingers crossed to not miss the bus while running from the train… but happy to report i arrive in great health :D, what huge contrast to condition at this exact airport just 7 months ago.. time flies eey. super excited.. weeeee . i sure at some point jet-lag will kick in, but currently in super good mood (partly thanks to some pleasant news while in transit..) weeeee.

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Edit: just ran into Nathalie Stutzmann in the shop while i retrieving my ticket… should have said hi, but i was a bit shy
ps2- i reallly should have said hi, she was 1cm from me walking past, just as i got my ticket in hand 😀

dance to start december

I love the open-hand position (hand to hand connection with free-style spinning), absolute great fun to take turn with the partner while exchanging momentum :-). The movie is great if you haven’t come across already, one of my favorites, east vs west cultures and dancing (don’t get it mixed up with the over-romanticized american version..)