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Dip Your Ears, No. 186 (Detmold’s Mahler Surprise)

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde
(Schoenberg/Riehn Chamber Version)
Alfredo Perl / Detmold CO / G.Romberger, S.Rügamer

Downsizing to Effect

I’m sure Detmold’s a nice city, but its reputation comes with overtones of dour, drab, and dismal: Some status-burden to overcome for its chamber orchestra! Add a conductor better unknown as a Beethoven-pianist (Alfredo Perl), and two singers of whom insiders might know Gerhild Romberger but probably not Stephan Rügamer. Further add some mighty competition in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde—even in the chamber version—and you have a non-starter of a new release from MDG, unless you are one of the dozen people who specifically enjoy their (actually amazing) 2+2+2 three dimensional sound setup. Right? Not so! The orchestra, aided by an audiophile recording, sounds darkly rich, with woodwinds and double basses swaying and creaking like old trees. The strings add leathery tenaciousness and delicacy. Gerhild Romberger’s warm, smoky, reedy hue with warmth adds further grittiness, and Stephan Rügamer—still a little strained in “Das Trinklied”—sounds at ease in “Von der Jugend” and colorfully so in “Der Trunkene”. 

Stradivari Christmas

available at Amazon
J. Adams, String Quartet, St. Lawrence String Quartet
(Nonesuch, 2011)
Charles T. Downey, St. Lawrence String Quartet celebrates ‘A Stradivari Christmas’ at Library of Congress (Washington Post, December 20, 2014)
In the near-perfect acoustics of the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium on Thursday night, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

On or around Dec. 18 every year since 1936, the library celebrates what might be called “A Stradivari Christmas,” marking the anniversary of the death of Antonio Stradivari, the celebrated Italian instrument maker. A lucky string quartet is picked to play his exquisite instruments, chosen from the library’s collection, an honor that fell this year to the St. Lawrence String Quartet... [Continue reading]
St. Lawrence String Quartet
Stradivari Anniversary Concert
Library of Congress

Parker Quartet (2013) | Miró Quartet (2012) | Borromeo Quartet (2011)
Sybarite5 (2010) | Parker Quartet (2009) | Harlem Quartet (2008)
Formosa Quartet (2007) | Ensō Quartet (2006) | Jupiter Quartet (2005)


The Profound Existentialism of Charles Ives: Kent Nagano in Conversation

Kent Nagano, picture © Felix Broede

Vienna. Kent Nagano waits patiently in the Hotel Lobby. The second I sit down for a quick little interview, the Hotel Lobby pianist, right next to us, starts tickling the ivory. If hotel pianism weren’t already annoying enough on its own (if there’s a special place in Hell reserved for Hotel Pianism… that, presumably, would be everywhere), it’s sure grating when you are trying to listen in on the your vis-à-vis in a conversation. Even more so, when that vis-à-vis is as unhurriedly, unfazedly soft-spoken as Kent Nagano.

I thought Charles Ives would be a nice thing to talk about.


When I left for the States, I wasn’t even aware of Anglo composers except for Handel and perhaps Elgar. But there, the approach to classical music—perhaps for lack of a history in it as old as each European country’s history—seemed to be refreshingly egalitarian. Or perhaps I was just older and more curious. And the very American composer Charles Ives certainly is an oddity even in the States. And I found that sometimes the avant-gardists like to grab him and make him a proto-avant-gardist. I never found that particularly helpful. But then neither were recordings I listened to. It just always went over my head. The Concord Sonata you can listen to on record and find wonderful or intriguing or wonderfully ludicrous at first. The orchestral works, however, I didn’t find doing it for me on record. Then I started hearing Ives live, more and more, fortunately. And I was enamored. Fascinating stuff. In a way the “American Mahler”. And yet it’s so different from Mahler in that it never seems calculated for effect. When clusters and different worlds of sound meet in Ives, it doesn’t strike me to be constructed for the connoisseur to discern what exactly is going on under the hood. It’s like a big stew of sound, hurled at you… and then you smell it, rather than necessarily listen to it.

Your comments sound like some of the critical writing about Gustav Mahler…

…the critical writings that are now mocked?

Yes. [He eases the “Yes” with a very mild chuckle.]

I don’t mean it in a derogatory way at all”, I assure Nagano, who is happy to assure me he understands… kindof.

I think, maybe, Americans hear Ives differently. Maybe. Actually, that’s not true. Maybe now in the 21st century we can begin to hear Ives differently than we did before because… [the Pianist unnerves us] …but what Ives wrote was in many ways so visionary such that today the techniques he introduced are just simply a part of our normal sound-fabric that we interact with constantly. For us as Americans, or at least I, as an American, when I hear Ives I hear the United States of America. And I hear Canada. I hear all of North America. I think probably I also hear the ties of North America to Europe, because his formation, his training was directly tied to the European tradition. And he was a contemporary of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, the Second Viennese School. And you can hear that somehow, that time of going over the century… from the 19th to the 20th century. But you can also hear tremendous optimism, a sense of joy, you hear the strength and power of nature and the inconsequence of mankind, you hear profound existentialism…

[At this point Kent Nagano’s Montreal Symphony Orchestra assistant worked up the courage and very gently asked the pianist if he might not forgo his musical duties for some twenty minutes or play John Cage’s famous 20’33”, instead]

of a young country. That somehow has its ties and roots to another land, far away. I feel all of that, just for me, it is the sound of some sort of spiritual Klang… of what the great hope is of the new world. And it’s, as I’ve said before, this particular sound or Klang also, you hear Europe behind it. What is for me, anyway, so profoundly


Folger Consort's Latest Renaissance Christmas

available at Amazon
Christmas in New Spain, Folger Consort
(Bard, 2014)
Charles T. Downey, ‘A Renaissance Christmas’ at the Folger
Washington Post, December 18, 2014
Some years, the Folger Consort’s Christmas concert is the best in the city, at least for those who are tired of the same old holiday chestnuts. Unfortunately, this is not one of those years, at least not as this selection of Renaissance music was executed Tuesday evening. And the amplification-enhanced reverb in the Folger Theater only detracted from the purity of sound.

The programming concept was strong, with contrasting examples of music written around the year 1500... [Continue reading]
A Renaissance Christmas
Music by Josquin Desprez, Loyset Compère, others
Folger Consort

Tim Smith, Affecting music for the season from Evolution Series, Folger Consort (Baltimore Sun, December 17)

2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005


À mon chevet: 'Love is nothing but the fruit of a long moment'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
How my toilet broke needs some explanation, and if it lends itself too easily to metaphor, analogy, allegory, anagogy, or, for those with a taste for puns, simile, this is not intentional. Xanadu -- she was from South Tyrol and her parents had been hippies; I don't know if this combination accounts for her name, but that's what she got -- was there at the time. She was still paying rent on her own apartment near Opéra, where we sometimes stayed, but on that particular morning we were at mine. "The toilet's making strange sounds," Xanadu said. I went in to stare at it and found that she was right.

The bathroom I had then was covered in pale blue tile, to complement, I suppose, the bright orange wallpaper peeling off the living room/bedroom. To the left of the entrance was the bathtub and shower, to the right was the sink, and directly ahead, dominating the scene like a raised throne, was the toilet. There was another toilet on the landing outside my apartment door, but that was for the people in the one-room apartments that I'd believed to have long graduated beyond.

I pressed the button on the toilet, which was like touching a wounded animal, for the noise only grew louder and more violent. I located the sound as coming from the broyeur -- a small plastic contraption situated behind the toilet, used to cut the toilet paper into pieces small enough to fit through the very old, very thin pipes. I was bent over looking at this when, upon my request, Xanadu pressed the button again, and the thing exploded. Xanadu screamed; the top, which I had been gently prying loose, flew off; and streams of tawny water began shooting over me and my sky-blue tiles.

Xanadu fled into the kitchen while I fought to put the top back on the broyeur. The water began running into the kitchen, since my apartment was sloped towards a depression in the floor there, and, for the life of me, I couldn't find the water valve to turn it off.

-- William Prendiville, "Love is nothing but the fruit of a long moment": A Paris Memoir
I love reading books about Paris, which is what gave birth to the Paris Reading Project here at Ionarts. My latest obsession, with Balzac's La Comédie Humaine, is drawn from it. Recently I took another break from Balzac when I had a message from an old friend, a Canadian writer Mrs. Ionarts and I met in Paris, to let me know that his new book had been published. It is a memoir about all the crazy apartments he has lived in in Paris, most of which I have visited or actually stayed in over the years. So I recall quite vividly the chambre de bonne on the seventh floor, with its disgusting Turkish toilet, which opens the book, and the infamous monster with its shredding machine, in his flat on Rue Manuel, described in the passage quoted here. Those of you who would enjoy reading this book might not experience the stories partially in the context of your memories, as I did, but what you will get in this vivid book is a sense of the author's conversation, which I have enjoyed immensely over the years. His is a view of a Paris lived in, its glories and its depravity, shared without a whiff of imperious authority. I am relieved that none of my own shortcomings as a friend -- such as when I ruined the author's prized Italian cafetière by washing it with soap -- made it into the book, but it was a joy to revisit many of the funny tales spun by the author over drinks here and there.


Pro Musica Hebraica Surveys Israeli Composers

available at Amazon
P. Ben-Haim, String Quintet / String Quartet No. 1, S. Waterman, Carmel Quartet
(Toccata, 2014)
Charles T. Downey, Ariel Quartet pays tribute to Israeli composers and folk music (Washington Post, December 16, 2014)
Since its foundation in 1948, Israel has developed a thriving classical music culture. The latest concert from Pro Musica Hebraica, presented Sunday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, was the first in the series to focus exclusively on music from that country. The Ariel Quartet, formed in Jerusalem, gave intense, even frenetic performances of four pieces for string quartet by three Israeli composers.

Paul Ben-Haim, born in Munich, wrote his first string quartet in 1937, and it fuses European and Jewish folk elements... [Continue reading]
Ariel Quartet
Pro Musica Hebraica
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater



Jan Vogler and Friends, Library of Congress

available at Amazon
Schumann, Dichterliebe (inter alia), J. Vogler, H. Grimaud
(Sony, 2013)
The family of Roman Totenberg, the violinist and teacher who died in 2012, has donated a collection of his papers (.PDF file) to the Library of Congress. The library offered a concert on Friday evening, in the Coolidge Auditorium and in the presence of Totenberg's daughters, to mark the occasion. It featured chamber music performed by cellist Jan Vogler and his wife, violinist Mira Wang -- the latter a one-time student of Totenberg's with a close connection to the family -- in collaboration with Finnish pianist Antti Siirala.

Vogler, who was the principal cellist of the Staatskapelle Dresden for over a decade and has some good recordings to his name, is also the director of the Dresden Music Festival. His tone on the instrument has a plangent quality, with plenty of volume at the top but an occasionally dry, dusty quality on the low string, and occasional infelicities of intonation. A Beethoven cello sonata (D major, op. 102/2) started off a little bland in the first movement, where more brio was called for, but Vogler's resonant A string soared in the slow movement, which had a somber, hymn-like quality. The final movement's fugato was chipper, and Siirala's four-square touch matched nicely with Vogler's crisp articulation, creating a chipper and fun quality, not at all dour.

The discovery of the evening was John Harbison's Fantasy-Duo for violin and piano, a beautifully constructed and endlessly diverting piece commissioned by the library's McKim Fund in the 1980s. The single-movement arch form begins with a series of vignettes of pleasing variety: a sort of ground-bass of short chords of pungent dissonance, bebop flurries of notes in the violin, a music-box section of treble sounds -- in a hodgepodge pattern the composer labeled a "collage" in his program note. The other side of Harbison's career is as a jazz pianist, and an infectious delight in impelling rhythm ran through the piece in the most alluring way, never feeling like direct like direct quotation, which would be too facile, but suggesting music that stood on its own. Wang produced a lovely, throaty tone, with a fluid left hand, although the sound on the E string and in the double-stop section could have used a little more polishing.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Energetic, imaginative concert at Library of Congress (Washington Post, December 15)
After intermission, all three musicians united for Tchaikovsky's extended Piano Trio in A minor, op. 50, more proof that this composer, when not constrained by ballet choreography or an opera libretto, simply did not know when to stop. Siirala, whose style is not distinguished by its subtlety, excelled at the bang-bang bombast of the keyboard part, overpowering the string players at times. With each movement, however, it was hard to shake the impression that Tchaikovsky could have cut about a third of the score and done no harm while tightening the piece considerably. In particular, it is hard to understand why he went on quite so long in the second half of the work, squeezing variation after variation out of his bloodless stone of a theme.

The concert series at the Library of Congress comes to the end of the year this Thursday (December 18), with the Stradivari anniversary concert. The St. Lawrence Quartet will be joined by violist Hsin-Yun Huang to play one of Mozart's sublime string quintets, on the Library's Strads.


Perchance to Stream: Christopher Columbus Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Here is something I have really wanted to hear: Félicien David's opera Christophe Colomb, performed at the Opéra Royal de Versailles. [France Musique]

  • Listen to Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, performed by the Pinchgut Opera, with Antony Walker conducting the Orchestra of the Antipodes, and a cast led by Caitlin Hulcup in the title role, recorded this week in Sydney. [ABC Classic]

  • Have another listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from yesterday. [Radio Clásica | Act III]

  • A recital by pianist Daniil Trifonov with music of Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt, recorded last month in the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. [France Musique]

  • Music by Ligeti, Reich, and Feldman performed by musicians of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, recorded earlier this month at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. [France Musique]

  • Listen to American Lulu, an adaptation of Berg's opera by Olga Neuwirth, starring Marisol Montalvo and others, recorded last week at the Theater an der Wien. [ORF]

  • Listen to a performance of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov from the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki, starring Matti Salminen and conducted by Michael Güttler, recorded in October. [RTBF]

  • Otto Kargl leads the Orfeo Baroque Orchestra and Capella Nova Graz, plus soloists, in Handel's oratorio Joshua, recorded last September in the cathedral of St. Pölten. [ORF]

  • Leif Ove Andsnes conducts and plays with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, in a performance at the Vienna Musikverein, featuring music of Stravinskky (Dumbarton Oaks), Beethoven, and Schoenberg. [ORF]

  • A performance of Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de perles, recorded last month at the Theater an der Wien. [France Musique]

  • Zubin Mehta leads the Vienna Philharmonic in Bruckner's eighth symphony, from a concert recorded last year in Vienna. [ORF]
  • Laments from seventeenth-century Italy, performed in the Oratoire du Louvre earlier this month by Latinitas Nostra and mezzo-soprano Romina Basso. [France Musique]

  • The first of two concerts in a Brahms and Dvorak cycle with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, with conductor Adrien Perruchon and pianist François-Frédéric Guy. [France Musique]

  • From Fribourg last July, the Ensemble Huelgas performs medieval music, as well as a Passion by Cipriano de Rore, recorded last March in Brussels. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the Café Zimmermann, led by Céline Frisch, perform Vivaldi concertos, recorded last year in Anvers. [France Musique]

  • Philippe Jordan leads the Wiener Symphoniker in music of Webern, Schubert, and Strauss. [ORF | Part 2]
  • Andrew Manze conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in music by Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven. [BBC3]

  • Listen to the Bruckner Orchester Linz, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies and with bass Kurt Rydl, in Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and the Songs and Dances of Death. [ORF]

  • From a concert recorded in Geneva last April, the Trio Zimmermann (violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, violist Antoine Tamestit, and cellist Christian Poltéra) perform music by Beethoven, Webern, and Mozart. [RTBF]

  • Sakari Oramo leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in music of Rachmaninov (Spring Cantata), Nielsen (second symphony), and Busoni (piano concerto with soloist Garrick Ohlsson). [BBC3]

  • Alain Altinoglu leads the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna in music of Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and Poulenc (Stabat mater, with Patricia Petibon). [ORF]

  • Live from the Wigmore Hall, the Artemis Quartet performs music by Mozart, Smetana, and Peteris Vasks. [BBC3]
  • The wind ensemble Zefiro performs music by Beethoven and Mozart. [France Musique]

  • David Zinman leads the Orchestre de Paris in music by Berlioz, Schumann, and Britten, with cellist Gautier Capuçon. [France Musique]

  • Markus Stenz leads the Netherlands Radio Orchestra in Bruckner's seventh symphony. [Avro Klassiek]

  • Martyn Brabbins conducts the BBC SSO in music by Beethoven, Bruch and Tchaikovsky. [BBC3]

  • Hiro Kurosaki conducts Gradus ad Parnassum in concertos by Telemann and Bach, recorded back in the year 2000. [ORF]

  • Music of C.P.E. Bach and Telemann performed by Il Fondamento, directed by Paul Dombrecht and with flutist Barthold Kuijken, recorded last March in Antwerp. [ORF]

  • From Milton Court, London, the BBC Singers perform choral music by Debussy, Poulenc, Messiaen, and other French composers. [BBC3]

  • Listen to the recording of Mozart's Lucio Silla, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting Concentus Musicus Wien and the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, starring Peter Schreier (Lucio Silla), Edita Gruberova (Giunia), Cecilia Bartoli (Cecilio), Dawn Upshaw (Celia), and Yvonne Kenny (Cinna). [ORF]


Dip Your Ears, No. 185 (Abbado from Pre-Lucerne)

available at Amazon
F.Schubert, L.v.Beethoven, R.Wagner, Symphony No.8 D.759 “Unfinished”, Symphony No.2 op.36, Siegfried Idyll
C.Abbado / WPh, COE

The Early Lucerne

Death is brisk business, and it didn’t take long for Audite to publish early tapes of Claudio Abbado recordings from the Lucerne Festival which was then—in 1978 and 1988—still known as the “Internationale Musikfestwochen Lucerne”. Schubert’s “Unfinished” and the Siegfried Idyll are easily worth the release alone; vivid and buoyant the first and languidly, fluidly ceremonial the other. Along with the conventional-yet-riveting Beethoven, it goes to show that Abbado rightly had a superb reputation before his reverently received late post-cancer career that made listeners perceive his concerts as spiritual, rather than musical events.


Anonymous 4 to Retire Again

available at Amazon
On Yoolis Night, Anonymous 4
(Harmonia Mundi, 1993)

available at Amazon
An English Ladymass, Anonymous 4
(Harmonia Mundi, 1993)
The quartet of voices Anonymous 4, renowned specialists in medieval chant and polyphony, have announced that they will retire from performance after the 2015-2016 season. We have heard this before and continued to enjoy their performances, of medieval and contemporary music, after they made their last comeback from retirement, and not just in previous repertoire but in new territory. In what was billed as the group's final appearance on the Fortas Chamber Music series, on Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, the reasons for this second retirement came across pretty clearly in the first third or so of this 75-minute program with no intermission. Happily, the voices all warmed up and returned to their accustomed beauty, but the sounds of fatigue and weakness were unmistakable in more than one voice.

Two things that made Anonymous 4's performances so good remained true nevertheless: they sing exquisite and rarely heard repertory, transcribed expertly by one of their members, musicologist Susan Hellauer, and they sing it with an ascetic simplicity that is precious to my ears. The only sound during this concert, of music selected from their various recordings (including those two shown here), was singing -- no talking from the artists, and no instrumental sound, with pitches taken silently from a pitchfork and then sung to the others. If the audience had taken the hint printed in the program -- admittedly in letters that were probably too small for most to notice -- and not applauded after every damn piece, it would have been perfectly austere.

Many of the pieces sounded much like they do on the group's excellent recordings, discs that are regular listening in our house during Advent and Christmastide. One thing that did change in some of the chant pieces, like the opening Gregorian hymn, Vox clara ecce intonat, was a shift from the more unmetered Solesmes approach to chant, the "equalist" interpretation where each note, single or in neumes, receives one "beat" that can be lengthened by an episema or other indication. In a nod to more recent theories about what some forms of chant notation may indicate, this piece was sung with more long and short values, although not strictly metrical, as another carol remained, Gabriele from Heven-king, a gorgeous Middle English version of the Latin carol Angelus ad virginem. (I believe that one piece, the conductus Ave Maria gracia plena, from their La Bele Marie disc, was cut from the concert program.)

Other Reviews:

Cecelia H. Porter, A cappella group Anonymous 4 at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, December 13)
Three of the singers performed a solo piece, including the lovely Lullay my child -- This endris nithgt and Song of the Nuns from Chester from the Cherry Tree disc, moments of still quiet and simplicity. Selections from the English Ladymass disc, which I still think is the most perfect thing the group ever recorded, were especially appreciated: these live performances of the two-part Edi beo þu hevene quene and the ravishing conductus Salve virgo virginum will remain in my memory long after the group is no longer singing together. The came full circle by concluding with the chant Hodie Christus natus est, the antiphon sung at the Magnificat during Vespers on Christmas Day, which was the first track on the On Yoolis Night disc. A brief encore, an anonymous Ite missa est, told us politely that the Mass was ended. Deo gratias.


Ballet West's Gingerbread Nutcracker

Artists of Ballet West in Willam Christensen's The Nutcracker (photo by Luke Isley)

Somehow the timing did not work out for me to take Miss Ionarts to see a production of The Nutcracker last year. So we were glad to see that the visiting production hosted by the Kennedy Center was scheduled for this week, when we are in town, and that it was Utah's Ballet West returning with the same production it presented in the Opera House in 2012. Willam F. Christensen was the first choreographer to present a complete production of this ballet in the United States, when he created this production for San Francisco Ballet in 1944. Lovingly restored by Ballet West's artistic director Adam Sklute, it is steeped in nostalgia, which might strike you differently depending on your mood. Two years ago, it made me all gooey and sentimental, but the second time around, on Wednesday night, it might have been nice to have a little vinegar to cut through all the sugar.

The pantomime parts were fun, including a host of adorable local children, and the real dancing was generally fine, solid and traditional in line. The snow pairing of Christiana Bennett and Beau Pearson was graceful in a classic way, matched by the energetic corp of snowflakes. Rising dancer Beskanne Sisk, currently billed as a soloist, had a star turn as the Sugar Plum Fairy, although there was a scary moment in the pas de deux when her partner, Christopher Ruud, seemed to have a leg buckle slightly during a lift, happily recovering without anyone getting hurt. Among the dancers of the divertissment, another rising soloist, Sayaka Ohtaki, was a pert dynamo as the lead Mirliton.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, Ballet West ‘Nutcracker’ at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, December 11)

Thomas Burr, Ballet West awes Kennedy Center crowd with Nutcracker (Salt Lake Tribune, December 11)

Heather Hayes, Ballet West's 'Nutcracker' bursts with holiday cheer (Deseret News, December 8)

Kathy Adams, New sparks keep Ballet West’s ‘Nutcracker’ special (Salt Lake Tribune, December 8)
Some details of the original show have obviously been updated, like the opening scenes, which use video projections to show city backdrops amid falling snow. There are a few bright and loud explosions, for the appearance of the dancer-nutcracker and also fired from the toy soldiers' cannon in the battle against the mice. These bits of theatrical glitz stand out in what is mostly an old-fashioned, low-tech sort of production. Christensen hewed close to Tchaikovsky's score, in which the composer carefully matched music to stage action. For example, Adrian Fry's slightly menacing Drosselmeyer even climbs into the grandfather clock, sticking his head through the clock's face to signal the start of Clara's dream sequence. Drosselmeyer's little nephew, with matching purple top hat, shadows him throughout the ballet, softening his uncle's menacing character.

The most magical moment of the score is the transition into the dream world, a long crescendo over a rather simple set of harmonic progressions (seventh chords resolving to minor triads) that bursts into B-flat major on its way to A major, the latter with that mysterious mediant shift to F major and back. Drosselmeyer presides over it in this version, swirling about in a mostly empty and semi-darkened stage after the Grossvater Tanz marks the end of the Christmas party. Drosselmeyer's hands sweep away the furniture and command the Christmas tree and presents to grow in size. As if in her dream, Clara is threatened by things she seems to remember uneasily from the party: the mechanical dancing bear, her bratty brother and his trumpet-blowing posse, even her kindly godfather.

This production continues through December 14, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.


Gold Coast 'Tempest' at STC

Clifton Duncan as Caliban in The Tempest, Shakespeare Theater Company, directed by Ethan McSweeny (photo by Scott Suchman)
The usual postmodern approach to Shakespeare's The Tempest is through the lens of master-slave exploitation. In this interpretation Prospero is the European colonizer, expelled from his homeland, who enslaves Caliban and Ariel, the natives of a distant land that has fallen under his control. He feels some remorse about his treatment of these foreigners, eventually setting Ariel free, but only after he has made himself wealthy and powerful on their backs and returns triumphant to his own land. The name of Caliban and parts of the text seem to indicate that Shakespeare had read Montaigne's accounts of cultures in the New World in Essais. One might dismiss this reading of the play, because most of the history of colonialism had yet to occur when the play was written in the early 17th century, but much of the play makes sense according to it. This was one thing that came across subtly in the Shakespeare Theater Company's new production of the play, which opened on Monday night at Sidney Harman Hall.

Ethan McSweeney's production takes place on a sun-bleached spit of sand, littered with driftwood and wrecked boat pieces (sets by Lee Savage), with most of the color palette whitened to a nondescript quality (lighting by Christopher Akerlind, costumes by Jennifer Moeller). The Caliban of Clifton Duncan is not a monster at all, just a man with dark skin and a thick accent that turns the character's lines into a sort of tortured patois, suggesting the Gold Coast of Africa or the Caribbean. When he pops out of a hole in the sand, it looks quite like the other trapdoors that served as exits from the hold of the foundering ship in the opening storm scene, and he is chained to a rock. In a similar way, Sofia Jean Gomez's contralto-ish Ariel is tethered to Prospero by the homespun rope that flies her about the stage to delightful effect (provided by Stu Cox from ZFX, Inc.). Geraint Wyn Davies brings a pleasing mixture of rage, tenderness, guilt, and mystery to Prospero, guiding the feral Miranda of Rachel Mewbron into the arms of Ferdinand (the tall and earnest Avery Glymph), his enemy's son.

Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, Ethan McSweeny’s “Tempest” casts a bright, uplifting spell (Washington Post, December 10)
In the supporting cast, the comic antics of Liam Craig, as an odd, fey Trinculo, and Dave Quay, as the drunken Stefano, were the highlight. Other than Ariel's flight, the other spell effects in the play are achieved by a pleasing use of the ensemble, who serve as assistant spirits carrying out Prospero's commands, enchanting the shipwrecked interlopers. This fits in with the whimsical yet slightly scary approach to the two most difficult scenes to carry off in The Tempest: the magical banquet in Act III and the masque scene in Act IV. The banquet table dropped from the ceiling and then disappeared through a trap door, with Ariel's appearance as a harpy transformed into a terrifying black apparition, complete with amplification effects, warning those who wronged Prospero. It would be easy to justify deleting the masque scene, which scholars generally agree was interpolated into the play at a later performance. Its strange divertissement -- a convocation of the three goddesses Iris, Ceres, and Juno, followed by a ballet of Naiads and Sickle-Men -- does nothing to advance the action. This staging with more and more enormous puppets, floating torsos and masks designed by James Ortiz, was by far the trippiest moment in the production.

This production continues through January 11, at Sidney Harman Hall.

Konzerthaus Spotify Playlist: Five Four Last Songs in Comparison

The text of the linked post (Anja Harteros in den Vier Letzten Liedern) is in German, this is the summary:

"Great art shows in how it can be brilliantly interpreted in a multitude of wildly different ways and in every incarnation shine and reveal something new. Followed by comments about the Four Last Songs as performed by Lisa della Casa (fleet and pure beauty), Gundula Janowitz (silvery-tin naturalness and control), Jessye Norman (creamy, if not textural, luxuriousness), Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (not for beauty but for expression), and finally Anja Harteros (we reviewed the concert at which this recording was made here).” The Spotify Playlist speaks a language more universal than German, and might be of interest to the comparative-but-aspiring Straussian who curiously hasn't yet all these recordings. Anja Harteros performed the Vier Letzte Lieder at the Konzerthaus last night and again tonight.

Via Wiener Konzerthaus: «Excess, but not Excessive» — Interview with Marin Alsop

One of the first interviews on ionarts was with Maestra Alsop (“Maestra Talks a Little: Ionarts Interview with Marin Alsop”. About eight years later (on Friday, April 4th, 2014, prior to her concert with the ORF Symphony Orchestra, performing Leonard Bernstein's «Jeremiah» and Mahler's First Symphony, to be precise) I had the opportunity to sit down with her again, to interview her briefly about this and that, including Mahler and Ives and Haydn and Bach. (See video below) The post on the Konzerthaus Magazine includes a Spotify Playlist of select and favorite recordings of Marin Alsop's.


Emerson Quartet and the Fugue

available at Amazon
Bach, The Art of Fugue, Emerson Quartet
(DG, 2003)
Bach's Art of Fugue can be played on a keyboard instrument, but the composer's notation of each voice on an individual staff seems to encourage performance by four instruments, or even a consort of instruments. The Emerson Quartet's recording of the work is over a decade old now, but the current formation of the group, with cellist Paul Watkins, returned to it for their Sunday evening concert at the National Museum of Natural History, on the series presented by the Smithsonian Associates. In a nod to the unwieldy nature of the work, the Emersons made a selection of eleven movements -- Bach seems to have to intended the piece for counterpoint study, making an incomplete performance quite appropriate -- pairing it with Beethoven's op. 130. To draw the program together around the compositional process of the fugue, they performed this quartet with its original conclusion, the monumental Große Fuge, numbered separately as op. 133.

The trick with Art of Fugue is to provide as much variety as possible, to prevent a performance from slipping into a dry academic exposition. This the Emersons did, limiting vibrato for the most part, to keep the lines and intonation clean, but keeping a sort of cool, almost flavorless approach only in Contrapunctus 1. In the other four-part contrapunctus movements, chosen to feature as many different forms of the subject (inversion, decorated, etc.) as possible, the tempo and style of attack and articulation varied and the different voices became more individuated. By including three of the four canons, out of order and dispersed throughout, different combinations of instruments were also featured: viola and cello in fluid runs in the canon at the octave; viola and second violin in the canon at the tenth; second violin, viola, and cello in the emphatic canon in augmentation and contrary motion, balanced against first violin, viola, and cello in the mirror fugue of Contrapunctus 13. The set was then tidily concluded by the unfinished final contrapunctus, for which the musicians returned to mostly straight tone, with a slower and more delicate approach that set up Bach's signature, the B-A-C-H theme woven into the fabric, and the trailing off of the various voices, the composer's gesture to the infinite.

Other Reviews:

Simon Chin, Emerson String Quartet at Baird Auditorium masters the ‘Art of Fugue’ (Washington Post, December 9)
The Beethoven was more problematic, but not in the opening movement, where there was a feeling of the quartet coming back to something much more comfortable for them. On first violin here, Eugene Drucker's intonation was not always on the mark, and but it seemed that the lighter tone favored by Watkins on cello was leading the group to explore softer dynamic territory, not overpowering Drucker, for example, in the fiddle reel of the second movement and the genteel sweetness of the other dance movement. The first slow movement was not too fast, paced like an easy ride through the country, while the fifth movement had an inward-turned, prayerful quality. The Große Fuge, on the other hand, was played savagely, perhaps to jar us out of the hymn-like stasis of what preceded it, and it was unpleasantly brutal, except for the quieter middle section.

The next concert by the Emerson Quartet on this series (January 10, 2015), will feature quartets by Mozart, Shostakovich, and Beethoven.


Chiara Quartet

available at Amazon
J. Friedman, Quartets, Chiara Quartet, Matmos
(New Amsterdam, 2011)
Charles T. Downey, Chiara String Quartet honors Irving Fine
Washington Post, December 8, 2014
The music of Irving Fine has largely disappeared from local concert programs. To mark the centenary of the American composer’s birth this week, the Library of Congress has put its Fine archive on display with a scholarly panel and festival of concerts, including one by the Chiara String Quartet on Friday night, performing on the library’s precious Stradivari and Amati instruments.

When Fine died in 1962, he had begun to switch from Stravinsky-ish neoclassicism to Schoenberg-ish 12-tone composition... [Continue reading]
Chiara String Quartet
Simone Dinnerstein, piano
Library of Congress

Friedman Quartets (2011)
2006 debut