Thursday, October 18, 2012

Grand opening concert: ECB's European Cultural Days 2012

Alte Oper, Frankfurt
Grosser Saal
Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset
Gaëlle Arquez, soprano
Aimery Lefèvre, bass-baritone

"Passions à la française"

Overtures, Arias and Duets from
"Roland" - Jean-Baptiste Lully
"Medée" -  Marc-Antoine Charpentier
"Tancrède"- André Campra
"Castor et Pollux", "Zoroastre" - Jean-Philippe Rameau

It's not a central bank's job to organise concerts.
But the opening night of this year's European Cultural Days by the European Central Bank was a bit of a botch-up.
Every year, the month-long festival showcases the culture of a different European country. And this year it is France's turn.
But the "Grand opening concert" in Frankfurt's Alte Oper on Wednesday was -- from a purely artistic point of view -- a total mismatch between programme, venue and audience.
Promising "a selection of the best French baroque music composed between 1680 and 1750," the organisers, the French central bank or Banque de France, had invited Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques to do the honours.
But this is the land of Bach and Händel. And even in the small but thriving area of historically informed performance, the works of Lully and Rameau remain relatively unchartered territory and are regarded as very much an acquired taste.
So quite what Rousset was thinking in serving up a random selection of little-known arias and duets from even lesser-known operas -- such as Lully's "Roland" or Rameau's "Zoroastre" -- to a largely uninitiated audience is anyone's guess.
Surely a concert such as this should pull in the crowds and whet their appetites for a four-week extravaganza celebrating the very best in arts a country can offer.
If the opening event really had to be an evening of French baroque, where were the more palatable crowd-pleasers such as the catchy, foot-stomping march from "Le bourgeois gentilhomme" or one of the well-known set pieces from "Les indes galantes"?
Only the most widely-read and erudite listener could find things to relish and savour in this wilfully esoteric and po-faced choice of works.
It's equally puzzling why the Alte Oper should be the chosen venue, too.
The acoustics of its cavernous 2,500-seater main auditorium are problematic, to put it mildly.
They certainly do not do justice to the delicate timbres of a small period-instrument ensemble such as Les Talens Lyriques, who numbered all of 25 on this particular evening.
Perplexingly, Frankfurt's mayor Peter Feldmann described the Alte Oper as Frankfurt's "loveliest" concert hall.
To be honest, there aren't many to chose from in this city of steel and concrete skycrapers. But the Alte Oper has all the charm of a shoe-box.
In the selection of operatic overtures -- Lully's "Roland", Charpentier's "Medée", Campra's "Tancrède" and Rameau's "Castor et Pollux" -- the acoustics robbed the sound of Rousset's players of any body, rendering it thin and scrawny. And with only two oboes and bassoons to augment strings and continuo, there was little variety in texture or orchestration.
Most of the audience were totally out of their depth, too.
Apparently, there were 2,400 invited guests, including president Mario Draghi himself, Banque de France governor Christian Noyer and Frankfurt's mayor Feldmann.
But there was many an empty seat at the start of the evening and a great many more after the interval.
In fact, most of the audience seemed to be ECB staff press-ganged into attending. And many of them looked like as if it was their first-ever classical music concert.
Clearly bored, they leafed distractedly through the programme, chatted to their neighbours or looked repeatedly at their watches.
The two young soloists, Gaëlle Arquez and Aimery Lefèvre, were overtaxed most of the time.
Arquez's light soprano, touching in what was perhaps the best-known aria of the evening, "Tristes apprêts" from "Castor et Pollux", lacked the power and heft for the more dramatic "Quel prix de mon amour" from "Medée".
Lefèvre, stepping in at short notice to replace the indisposed Edwin Crossley-Mercer, was only marginally less one-dimensional and his slender bass-baritone showed a slight tendency to strain higher up in different arias from "Roland", "Tancrède" and "Zoroastre".
At times of crisis such as these, central bank chiefs Draghi and Noyer are busy men, so it may not be surprising that they made a dash for it at the interval.
But the overriding impression was that their hearts were simply not behind the venture anyway.
I similarly recall Draghi leaving early at last year's opening concert when Claudio Abbado and his Orchestra Mozart represented Italy.
Surely it would be more satisfying for everyone involved for the organisation of such an event to be handed over to experienced professionals who can bring together the right ensemble with the right programme for the right audience.
It would certainly leave a less sour taste in the mouth than this evening did.

One can only hope that the rest of the 2012 Cultural Days festival is better thought out.