Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Finns

Last evening my parents and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear a recital by Karita Mattila, sponsored by the Schubert Club.

The Ordway Center, with 1900 seats, is too large for a song recital, but almost all recitals by artists visiting the Twin Cities are held there, as it is the most suitable venue we have.

Mattila is a striking woman. She is tall and lithe, and she cuts a commanding figure onstage. From a distance, she appears to be very attractive but, when one sees her up close, one cannot help but notice that she is not a pretty woman, at least in the conventional sense.

Her eyes, too, are disappointing. They are not warm, they are not expressive, they are not inviting, they are not lively. She has the cold, dispassionate eyes of an efficiency expert.

Mattila's voice is large, and she knows how to manipulate it. She sings on pitch, and her voice is even throughout its registers.

However, her voice is a "white" one, and she does not have a wide array of colors at her disposal. Having a "white" voice did not hamper the careers of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Lisa Della Casa or Elisabeth Grummer--if anything, having a "white" voice helped those artists--but Mattila is not in the same league, musically and artistically, as those great singers of the past. Her musical phrasing is generalized, she does not make much use of texts, and her singing, of everything, is cut from the same cloth--she emits an all-purpose, undifferentiated flow of sound, whether the music be Verdi, Richard Strauss, Janacek or from the song literature, and this singing becomes less and less interesting as the evening wears on. It is easy to understand why she has never been a successful recording artist.

Such singing can work in the theater, and Mattila is a very successful artist in the theater. Because she is a very physical singer and actress, she can project emotion and portray a character, convincingly, even when her purely vocal performance in the theater may be perfunctory and bland. However, on the recital platform, such skills from the theater are of limited use. In fact, they can even be counter-productive.

Mattila tried to use those theatrical skills a little too much and a little too often last night. She moved around the stage far too much, and she played with her arms and her legs, and she offered a large (if not outright dismaying) assortment of facial gestures to let the audience know what she was feeling. However, her eyes, dull and blank, gave the game away: she was play-acting.

Last evening's program did not include any of the most-beloved songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Strauss. Instead, Mattila offered Barber's "Hermit Songs", songs by composers from Finland, some Wolf songs, and some Spanish numbers. She was probably wise to steer away from well-known lieder.

The Barber and Wolf songs were dutiful. In the Spanish songs, Mattila tried to have some "fun", but her attempts were labored and unsuccessful. Only in the songs from Finland did I sense that Mattila was singing music that she fully understood and loved.

Successful opera singers are generally not good song recitalists, and last evening's recital only reinforced this point. Mattila seemed uncomfortable the entire time--out of her element, working outside of her natural realm, a square peg in a round hole. And this is entirely understandable, as the broad skills needed in the theater are not the same as the requirements of precision, specificity, characterization, individuality and subtlety needed to bring twenty different and varied songs to life in the recital hall. Everyone would have been happier last night--the audience as well as Mattila--had she simply offered a program of operatic excerpts.

Last evening's recital was not sold out. My parents and Joshua and I observed many empty seats, and I believe that this was the only Shubert Club performance this season that was not sold out. The audience was quiet and attentive, but there were many more empty seats after intermission than there were when the recital began. It was a very disappointing evening.

Perhaps concert-goers in the Twin Cities are finally tiring of the Finns.

In the last year, sentiment has started to turn against Osmo Vanska at the Minnesota Orchestra. He is a very limited musician, with a very limited repertory, and I have noticed that I now hear people talk about how they are tiring of Vanska and his ridiculous podium theatrics and his superficial performances. At my office, there are large numbers of persons who have already had enough of him, and who now try to give away their tickets almost every weekend--generally without any takers (if we wanted, Josh and I could go, free, to practically every single Minnesota Orchestra performance).

Just this season, my mother has started to dislike Vanska. Even my father, whom I like to tease is more devoted to Vanska than Vanska's own agent, now admits, with some reluctance, that Vanska has nothing special to offer outside of the Scandinavian repertory. My parents always get a full season subscription, and I know that they will renew their subscription next year. However, I suspect that they will skip a fair number of concerts next year.

The members of the orchestra, however, are still extremely positive about their conductor. There is very, very little unenthusiasm about Vanska among the players.

One thing the Minnesota Orchestra needs to do is to upgrade the quality of its guest conductors. This is one step the orchestra can take to maintain a high level of interest among its long-term subscribers.

And the Minnesota Orchestra has the financial wherewithal to hire the very best guest conductors in the world each and every season. The orchestra's endowment is one of the six largest in the country, dwarfing the endowments of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. There is no excuse for the Minnesota Orchestra not to present a fine array of guest conductors each season.

Before last night's recital, my parents and Joshua and I ate dinner at an Italian restaurant, in order to save my mother from having to worry about dinner.

This coming weekend, I think that Josh and I will go over to my parents' house and spend the entire weekend there, even staying overnight. I think that we will help my father get the yard ready for the summer, and wash windows for my mother, and help them with some other projects around the house.

It is good to have them back from Oregon.


  1. Love the review, Andrew. While I adore La Mattila, her voice can sound so frustratingly colorless and unfeeling and without much nuance, especially in Verdi.
    I feel that she would have captured the audience's heart if she opted, as you said, did opera excerpts. Oh, well. Maybe next time. I hope it's okay with you if I put a link of the masterful review on my blog.

    -Opera Chanteuse/aka J.R. Donasco

  2. Thank you so much, Opera Chanteuse.

    I linked you, too, so I hope you do not mind. You are the only one I have ever linked, so you occupy a unique and special place of honor!

    I agree with you 100% about Mattila in Verdi. I heard her sing Verdi once, and she sang all the notes, but it just did not work.

  3. Wow! I'm honored, Andrew. Profuse thanks.

  4. It is interesting to hear what you say about the possibility that Vanska has already become old hat in Minnesota. The same thing happend when Eiji Oue was hired. Everybody loved him at first. Loved his outgoing attitude, loved his interest in doing educational outreach, loved the energy he brought to ensemble. And then something happened--he was superficial, had no interpretative ability, players wanted him gone. Now it sounds like the same thing is beginning to happen to Vanska.

    I am not saying that this is necessarily wrong. I just think it is funny that Minnesota seems to have really big, loud honeymoons with their music directors that never seem to settle into comfortable marriages.