Global and at home in the world | Inquirer Opinion
At Large

Global and at home in the world

SALZBURG—As I write this, coverage in the news and even social media is all about the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And I join the Filipino nation in hailing the country’s first medalist in Rio: Hidilyn Diaz, who won silver in women’s weightlifting. That she is also the first Pinay to “medal” in the Olympics, the first weightlifter, and the first winner since Onyok Velasco won silver in boxing in 1996, make her victory that much sweeter.

Well, in this charming city in central Austria, a different sort of “Olympics” has just taken place amid the world-famous Salzburg Festival, an annual summer event. The occasion was the Nestle and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award, which on Sunday was given to Aziz Shokhakimov, who hails from Uzbekistan. Now a decade old, the Young Conductors Award was conceived to give an opportunity to young conductors to break into the global music world, make an impression on audiences, impressarios, agents and managers who will then open doors for them to the international music establishment.

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Every year, too, the winner of the previous year’s competition is asked to conduct a gala performance. The last winner was Lorenzo Viotti of Switzerland, and his elegant, heartfelt performance at the Felsenreitschule with the ORF Radio-Symphonic Orchestra of Vienna was indeed proof of the jurors’ wisdom.

(For those interested, the Felsenreitschule looks familiar because it was the site of the “last” performance of the Von Trapps in “The Sound of Music,” with its backdrop of a wall of arches and niches, although the venue is no longer open-air.)

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Viotti chose a program that was, at least to this initiate to the classics, daunting at best. It featured an overture by Dmitri Kabalewski, the second symphony of Alexander Skrjabin, and a concerto for piano and orchestra by Sergei Rachmaninov, featuring Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili.

With Viotti, Buniatishvili made for a striking pair. She is attractive, with a shock of dark hair that often falls over her face as she plays, seemingly transfixed. A prodigy who gave her first concert with the Tbilisi Chamber Orchestra at the age of six, she launched an international career at the ripe old age of 10. When she was 18, she made her debut in the United States at Carnegie Hall.

Actually, one realization during this brief visit to Salzburg was how global indeed the classical music scene is. Not only were the finalists representing Europe and Central Asia (“We are both Asians!” I exclaimed in delight to Shokhakimov’s wife), but so were the soloists and even musicians who hailed, it seems, from all corners of the world.

And, indeed, just being in the heart of Salzburg—amid its baroque and medieval architecture, cobbled streets, traditional markets and residents who are so proud of their heritage that they attend gala events in lederhosen (knee-length pants with embroidered shirts for men) and dirndls (women’s dresses usually worn with an embroidered apron)—it is easy for artists to see themselves as kin in a family drawn together by love for music and the arts.

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No greater opportunity for this realization came with the opera “Die Liebe der Danae” by Richard Strauss. Broadly translated from German to “The Love of Danae,” the opera tells the story of a princess in the island of Eos, whose father King Pollux has bankrupted his realm and is now being harangued by creditors and subjects alike. The opera tells how Pollux seeks to appease his creditors by holding out the possibility of his daughter’s marriage to the richest man in the world, King Midas.

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But Midas is actually an avatar of Zeus. He has fallen for the charms of Danae and wishes to seduce her under the guise of a former donkey driver, Midas. Midas agrees to lend his physical manifestation to the god, but cannot carry out his promise as he has fallen in turn for the charms of the princess.

The cast of the opera is indeed international, with Danae portrayed by Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny as Jupiter, German tenor Gerhard Siegel as Midas, and a cast from the rest of Europe, Central Asia, the United States and even Asia.

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Even more impressive is the diversity of the production and artistic staff, including guest conductor Franz Welser Most who hails from Austria and is now music director of the Cleveland Orchestra but who conducted the Vienna Philharmonic with which he has had a long relationship. Stage director is Alvis Hermanis, who hails from Riga, while set design was by Russian Gleb Filshtinsky, and costumes by Lithuanian Juozas Statkevicius.

I was most impressed with the set design, which is basically a backdrop made up of several levels of walls faced with stark subway tiles, on which were projected images of exotic oriental carpets and shimmering gold. Against this simple, stark but versatile setting were the costumes, interpreted in large overwrought Orientalist styles (think gleaming turbans in absurd oversized proportions), and of course the golden robes of Midas’ doing.

There is a live donkey at the latter part of Act Two, as well as a giant “albino” elephant (a piece of sculpture) that makes climactic appearances; but they only punctuate the deep impression left by an unfamiliar opera (at least to this viewer) that nevertheless rouses deep and rousing emotions about the true nature of love and devotion.

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TAGS: Music, Opera, Salzburg Festival
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