Monday, May 14, 2018


The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon Portugal is a multi-purpose art gallery and performance space.  The building is a fine example of Brutalist architecture, a style that is much derided generally today.  Brutalism is characterized by straight lines, repetitive designs, and poured concrete exteriors.  The buildings in this style are often called fortress-like and often house governmental and public-related functions.  Becuase of the use of concrete on their exteriors, Brutalist buildings often host soot, mold, and other kinds of stains. 

The Gulbenkian, while having some of these characteristics, seems to avoid some of its most negative features.  The extensive public-private garden surrounding the museum's buildings soften their angularity and defocus the viewer's attention from external defects, such as water stains, and refocus on the contrast of lush greenery and the man-made structure.  The use of water ponds throughout the garden also has a softening effect on the building. 

The interior of the Gulbenkian is also quite remarkable.  While low ceilings are no longer desired, here the architects used warm wooden slats to lengthen ceilings, while again providing a contrast to the prominent use of concrete in the building.  Both on the inside and outside, this may be one of the best Brutalist buildings to be found anywhere.

The Gulbenkian has an outdoor open-air amphitheater that overlooks a pond and several indoor auditoriums, including a 1228-seat grand auditorium, which is finished in a very rich and deep reddish brown wood.  It has a smallish balcony that does not over-hang the main floor seating.   The seats are covered in a champaign-colored crushed velvet and the floors are all carpeted in the same color.  The maintenance of the auditorium is superb, with hardly any noticeable damage or staining.  But the most wonderful feature of the room is the wall rear stage wall.  Before a concert, the wall is in place and it is of the same wood used on the auditorium's walls.  Just before the music begins, the wall is silently and rapidly dropped away, opening up a wall-sized window that opens onto a small pond and a stunning bank of trees that are illuminated as the concert begins. A listener might expect that such a large solid piece of glass would wreck havoc with the acoustics, but because of the extensive use of wood and carpet, the hall sounds warm and well-focused.   The visual impact of the auditorium's design is immense; in fact, when the window is revealed, there is was an audible gasp from the audience.  This is a great tribute both to the building's architects and to the landscape architects who integrated the outside and inside so beautifully.

AMC attended a concert with the Portuguese Symphony Orchestra (PSO) under the direction of Graeme Jenkins.  The PSO is the resident orchestra of the National Opera Theater of St. Carlos, also located in Lisbon.  The single work of the concert was the Britten's 1962 "War Requiem."  The soloists were Rachel Nicholls, soprano; David Butt Philip, tenor; and Roderick Williams, baritone.  There was an on-stage chorus from the National Opera Theater, an off-stage chorus featuring the Juvenile Choir of the Gregorian Institute of Lisbon, the full symphony orchestra, as well as a chamber symphony, as required.   UK-born Jenkins is an established operatic conductor and was very effective in leading the combined forces on- and off-stage. Ms. Jenkins had a very noticeable vibrato, which often conflicted with her enunciation.  Butt Philip's operatic background seemed to serve him well in singing the emotionally charged libretto of the symphony.  He has a strong voice and great stage presence, although at times seeing him prepare his throat for a solo was distracting.  Mr. Williams also had a strong voice and very comfortable stage presentation.  The symphony orchestra provided a  thoroughly competent performance of this modern masterpiece.  The musicians in the chamber orchestra were all first rate. the auditorium seemed to have a strong bass response and the sound of the lower instruments was palpable.   European orchestras are known for their string-driven sound, with less focus on the brass as in American orchestras.  Because an organ was needed, a large panel centered on the rear-stage window apparently contained the instrument itself.  There were many microphones installed across the orchestra and in front of the soloists.  It was not clear if this was for sound augmentation or recording or both.  This was a grand performance supported by the great acoustics of the Gulbenkian grand auditorium.

AMC also attended a concert of the Orquestra Gulbenkian under the direction of guest conductor Hannu Lintu.  The program began with Penderecki's 1960 "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima." This searing and intense work was written for 52 strings, here superbly played by the strings of the Gulbenkian.  This piece provides all kinds of challenges for the musicians, including variable vibratos, sections divided in two, the percussive striking of instruments, etc.  It is a terrifyingly good piece of music that has inspired many a film composer in the years since its premiere.  The performance here was nearly flawless and demonstrated a boldness of programming that was well-rewarded.

The second work was Strauss' 1945 "Metamorphosen, written for 23 strings. This is Strauss at his most ultra-romantic, featuring soaring melodies that may be variously interpreted as both longings and regret over wartime loss as well as hope for the future.  It is gloriously rich and introspective music played here sympathetically and intensely.  At an hour and quarter long, this symphony can be a long slog through the bog of Shostakoviakian hyper-emotionality, yet Maestro Lintu never lost the long arc of the work, leading to a very sensitive and powerful performance.

This was a long program, lasting over 2.5 hours, including intermission, and it contained only works composed in the last half of the 20th century.  It was a challenging concert, well-played by a highly skilled group of musicians. Congratulations to all!

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