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Latest on Forbes: Itzhak Perlman on Warner, Tim Page on Itzhak

At the root of the lengthy missive over on Forbes is a review of Warner’s box set of Itzahk Perlman’s recordings for the EMI/Warner and Erato/Telarc labels, released to honor this great violinist of our times on his 70th birthday (in 2015). After waffling on the merit of many of these recordings and soliciting the help of the very dear Tim Page (who had not even properly convalesced then, and still gave generously of his time which took a considerable, easily underestimated amount of effort), the aim of the essay became increasingly a matter of defining the curious ambivalence with which I find myself facing Izthak Perlman’s art: An ambivalence which I might not have bothered writing about, if I had not know that I wasn’t alone in it. The full article here:

Itzhak Perlman: Mediocre Genius


In the Post: BSO, Thibaudet play Gershwin

available at Amazon
Gershwin, Concerto in F / Rhapsody in Blue, J.-Y. Thibaudet, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, M. Alsop
(Decca, 2010)
Charles T. Downey, With new members in BSO, striving for a cohesive sound in season opener at Strathmore (Washington Post, September 26)
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s season at its second home, the Music Center at Strathmore, opened Saturday evening. Before the second half, music director Marin Alsop introduced the 10 new musicians who have joined her ensemble’s roster since the second half of last season. This includes new principal clarinetist Yao Guang Zhai, who comes to Charm City from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

For the traditional playing of the national anthem, Alsop turned not to the newly commissioned arrangements of recent years, but one made by Igor Stravinsky as a gift to the country that adopted him during the Second World War. A few harmonic oddities, restrained for Stravinsky, enlivened the familiar tune. It complemented the bonbon that followed it, “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5,” by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Julia Bullock’s clear soprano had a subtle intensity, beauty behind a veil. The eight cellists on the accompaniment, though, did not always agree in intonation.

With the adjustment in membership, it may take some time for the BSO to regain its most cohesive sound. The orchestral passages of Gershwin’s Concerto in F were a little uncoordinated rhythmically. The beat must be absolutely clean so that the jazz-infused rhythm can swing against it. It was not quite. The high point was the solo playing of pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, smoky insouciance that felt like improvisation, as well as the bluesy trumpet solos in the slow movement. Thibaudet’s tendency to rush to the downbeat in challenging passages further unsettled the piece.

Alsop has decided to focus much of the season on the music of Beethoven. Again. Her urgent, overly fast tempo made the first movement of the composer’s Fifth Symphony a nervous blur, but the second movement felt bracing in its lack of sentimentality. In the third movement, she emphasized strong contrasts of loud and soft, a good setup for the surprise eruption of the finale. Incisive piccolo solos helped give the conclusion a martial edge.
Julia Bullock shows almost any song can soar in her capable vocal cords (Washington Post, April 20, 2016)

Forbes Classical CD of the Week

…The low strings hum like bumble-bee war-drones on a fuzzy mission of humanity. The timpani are bone-dry and caught in uncanny detail. It’s a joy how Decca recorded this extraordinarily well-sounding orchestra…

-> Classical CD of the Week: Classical CD Of The Week: Nelson Freire's Bumble-Bee-Beethoven


A Traditional 'Marriage of Figaro'

Joshua Hopkins and Lisette Oropesa in The Marriage of Figaro, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman)

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

On Saturday night, September 24, 2016, the Washington National Opera’s performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was simulcast to Nationals Park for the annual Opera in the Outfield. In addition to a full opera house at the Kennedy Center, there were some 8,000 people in the ballpark pitching for Mozart. The evening began with the playing of the National Anthem.

Then came something unique in my many years of opera experience. After an overture played with punchy rhythms, conductor James Gaffigan led the WNO Orchestra in the opening orchestral measures to the duettino between Figaro and Susanna. Then the music stopped, and Gaffigan turned to the audience and exclaimed, “There’s supposed to be singing here.” But there wasn’t, because there was no Figaro or Susanna in sight. In fact, there was nothing in sight because the lights were down and the curtain had not been drawn. The culprit turned out to be a glitch with the automated curtain apparatus. The problem was soon resolved and Gaffigan and his forces began again – this time with Figaro and Susanna present on a stunningly handsome set of a neoclassical palace room.

The affair was handled with good humor, and thus began an evening filled with hilarity. The Marriage of Figaro was the musical Marx Brothers of its time. Da Ponte’s libretto, taken from Beaumarchais’s play of the same name, is a precursor to a French bedroom farce. The love spats, the impersonations, the cross-dressing, the endless conniving to entrap unfaithful lovers, the near-escapes, and the bald-faced lies combine to great comic effect. Part of the fun – the main part – is taking the terrible silliness of it all seriously, which is exactly what Mozart’s music does, though it is hardly lacking in effervescence. And it is what this excellent production does, as well. As Buster Keaton once said, comedy is a serious business. Only the audience should know that it’s funny. That was the case here, with hardly any moments of self-consciousness within the production to spoil the fun.

It is clear that director Peter Kazaras trusts that Mozart and Da Ponte knew what they were doing and so he played it straight, which is why it worked so well. (Why fight 230 years of success?) The sets and costumes are contemporaneous with the time in which the opera is set. Perhaps this is thought to be unoriginal today, but I was relieved to see a traditional production – particularly when done as attractively as this – because I am tired of seeing operas set anachronistically by directors for whom this substitutes as imagination. I’m not suggesting that there is only one way to do an opera, but do we really learn anything worthwhile from seeing Don Giovanni set in fascist Spain (as I recently experienced)? Or is Richard Wagner more correctly understood as an environmentalist who would wish us to recycle, as was suggested in the WNO’s superbly sung but sadly misconceived toxic-dump setting of the Ring Cycle this spring? Please, spare us! So often, productions such as these are calling attention away from the operas and toward the producers and directors – “Look at me!”

In any case, there was no solipsism in sight during this delightful evening of Figaro. All the principals sang and acted well. At first, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny seemed to lack the ultimate energy and ease with which to put over the role of Figaro, but he was simply warming up. He quickly grew in these departments until he clearly took command of the role and much of the opera. Soprano Lisette Oropesa’s Susanna sparked right from the beginning. Her singing was as fine as her lively characterization of the maid.

Baritone Joshua Hopkins as Count Almaviva and soprano Amanda Majeski as Countess Almaviva were paired well in the troubled marital relationship that drives the whole opera. With a good sense of stage presence, he was lecherous without being ridiculous, which made his repentance real. He was vocally strong. Majeski, in terms the Nationals Park audience would understand, hit her arias, particularly Dove sono, out of the ballpark. (I shall forgo saying it was pitch-perfect.) She was an affecting Countess. Mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano’s portrayal of the erotically eager pageboy Cherubino was fun and deft, though there seemed at times a slight wobble in her voice.

Keith Jameson’s tenor voice, deployed in the character role of Basilio, was one of the few able to slice through the orchestra when conductor Gaffigan swamped his singers, as he tended too often to do, particularly in the first act. Jameson’s acting captured the delicious superciliousness of Basilio. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop as Marcellina and bass-baritone Valeriano Lanchas, who also sang Dr. Bartolo in the May 2010 WNO Marriage, made for another wonderful pairing. They were spot on as character actors with perfect voices for their roles. Lanchas, however, struggled in a few spots when the pace of the parlando singing quickened to warp speed.

I have already praised set designer Benoit Dugardyn’s stunning neo-classical conception, forested with handsome Doric columns. Costume designer Myung Hee Cho’s costumes splashed the stage with strong colors against the off-white stone columns. The effect was striking and helped project the characters forward.

If the four acts of The Marriage of Figaro have demonstrated anything it is the universal human fallibility of its characters. Mozart, however, does not simply laugh at them. Rather, he expresses a touching compassion that ends things with an act of forgiveness that provides the basis for the restoration of the broken relationships he portrays. Marriage not only presents the problem; it presents the solution.

In short, this is a good production of a great opera. There is no reason not to go see The Marriage of Figaro when it repeats on September 26, 28, 30, and October 2.


Forbes Classical CD of the Week

…The latter is very late-period Smetana, where mental trouble, probably due to syphilis, was already rearing its ugly head. It was written just a year before Smetana—long deaf by then—died in Prague’s Kateřinky Lunatic Asylum. The torn quality can remind, if faintly, of late Schumann—but the language firmly retains its Central European accent. The Talich Quartet’s warm, direct sound and rich acoustic add much to the immediacy of the music. The feeding frenzy of the third movement Allegro opening in that Second Quartet, for example, is an amazing witness to this,…

-> Classical CD of the Week: Classical CD Of The Week: Czech Please

CD Review: Office of San Minias

Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Early music on the cutting edge
Washington Post, September 15

available at Amazon
Officium Sancti Miniatis (Florence, Arcivescovado, s.c.), Coro Viri Galilaei, Ensemble San Felice

(released on July 8, 2016)
Bongiovanni GB5193-2 | 107'03"
[CD booklet]
The music we call Gregorian chant was not a monolithic, unified repertory. Melodies and texts varied widely from place to place, century to century. The only way to appreciate this is to study medieval manuscripts, where individual differences are manifested, especially in the feasts of local saints. This beautiful new recording on the Bongiovanni label offers one such unusual selection, a rare set of chants for the Divine Office in honor of St. Minias, a third-century martyr whose relics are venerated at the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte overlooking Florence. For those seeking to lower their blood pressure during an overheated election season, this calming music is a balm.

Giovanni Alpigiano edited the musical source, a 12th-century antiphoner used in Florence Cathedral and now in the collection of the city’s archiepiscopal archive. I happen to be familiar with it because of research conducted for the CANTUS Project during my graduate school studies, a manuscript containing several rare or unique offices for unusual Italian saints. This recording by two Florentine chant choirs, the Coro Viri Galilaei and Ensemble San Felice, does not attempt to re-create these medieval prayer services in their complete form. Although lessons drawn from the saint’s vita are inserted between the matins responsories, minor prayers and versicles are omitted, as are all but the first couple of verses of psalms and canticles. The focus is on the chants found in the manuscript, although the recording does not include some of them, such as the alternate invitatory and a string of extra antiphons at the end of Lauds.

The Coro Viri Galilaei sings most of the pieces, and the women, who sing the chants of the first nocturn of Matins, have an especially pretty, meditative sound. The smaller Ensemble San Felice sings the third nocturn, with a tone slightly more refined than the men of the Coro Viri Galilaei, greater in number, who sing the second nocturn. In any case, with this sort of liturgical music, some roughness around the edges of the voices only adds to the appeal, as in some of the solo contributions. The two directors, Enzo Ventroni and Federico Bardazzi, prefer a free-flowing style of chant performance rather than trying to retrofit later metric patterns onto this music notated without rhythmic durations. The sound, recorded in a place called the Villa Calloria, has a long acoustic ring similar to what you would hear in a church of stone.
Keith Glaeske, Charles Downey, and Lila Collamore, Firenze (Florence), Arcivescovado - Biblioteca, s.c. (Index of chants, CANTUS Database)

This unusual manuscript also has an alternate Office for Nativity of Mary, with texts drawn from Song of Songs, not found in any other sources and so apparently unique to Florence Cathedral. It also includes special offices for Saint Zenobius, the first bishop of Florence; Saint Vitus, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers; Saint Apollinaris of Ravenna; Saint Donatus of Arezzo; and Saint Syrus, first bishop of Pavia.