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Forbes Classical CD of the Week: Leopold Mozart, New Lambach Symphony

…Marpurg also commented in his 1757 “Historical-Critical Contributions”, now on Leopold Mozart the composer: “As regards the number of finished musical works, [Leopold Mozart] may be placed side by side with the two composers Scarlatti and Telemann, diligent and renowned in equal measure.” The cynic might find it hard to tell if that’s a jab or a compliment…

-> Classical CD Of The Week: Mozart Père's Reputation Rescued


Forbes Classical CD of the Week: Stravinsky and Scandals for Two

…an insightful lack of relentlessness in Stravinsky and two more original two-hand piano versions of ballet classics: Ravel’s La Valse and the Kalendar Prince from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade compelling-propelling wit…

-> Classical CD Of The Week: Scandals Once Upon A Time

Beethoven visits Japan: On Tour with the Vienna Academy Orchestra (Part 3)

A last fantastic breakfast at the Osaka hotel and the orchestra is off to travel from to Tokyo on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen. If you like your trains, let’s specify: It’s the N 700 series that runs on this, the busiest railway line in the world, which the newest in the family of Shinkansen trains. It’s one of the ones that look vaguely like a platypus. (On the way there the rarest of all sights: A delayed Japanese train. Ten minutes! Someone brought shame on their parents.)

Even second class is astoundingly comfortable in this train: You would think that Japanese trains, what with the Japanese being an average of two, three inches shorter than central/northern Europeans, might be tight affairs – at least as tight as the TGV speed trains… but nothing of the sort. Despite having the same gauge width, they are a good deal wider (apparently this is possible because of thing called “structure gauge”), and even with five seats across, there’s no feeling of being packed in too tightly. Rows are also luxuriously far apart. The city flies by; the Japanese countryside flies by. About three quarters of Japan are mountainous and not inhabited.

This isn’t scientific, but looking at about myself, I sense that the Japanese—at least in the Kinai- (Osaka) and Kantō- (Tokyo) plains—are really not keen on living in the mountainside—at all. At the foot of the meekest hill, civilization seems to end. That’s in stark contrast to the famously densely populated urban centers. Leaves me wondering if one couldn’t squeeze another 20 percent habitable area out of Japan, by transplanting some South Tyroleans.

Suddenly a collective Uhh! Ahh! The musicians leap to the left and crowd the windows. One second I fear the train might tilt (it doesn’t, no doubt thanks to structure gauge), the next I’m right with them, pressing my nose against the window; pushing other onlookers gently out of the way and fumbling for the camera: Mount Fuji proudly gleams in the distance—solitary and beautifully—with a wisp of smoke wafting out of its top.

After two and a half hours, Tōkyō is reached—another hour or so later the new, humbler hotel in the western district of Musashino is reached. It’s a heavily residential district, with tons of little hole-in-the-wall eateries, and at the next best—a friendly little place oozing authenticity down to an alleged cockroach-sighting—the first groups of the orchestra found themselves enjoying delicious Gyōzas, delicious Japanese pork-cabbage-garlic dumplings that are both steamed and fried at once and which are irresistible with a beer or two. The orchestra rehearsed; and eventually they found themselves dispersed in restaurants again, differing, shifting little groups invariably bumping into each other. Largely balmy weather and good food—especially for the culinarily curious ones—help raise the mood. More pictures below ("Read more").


Ballet Across American opens at the Kennedy Center

Now More Than Ever (short film directed by Ezra Hurwitz)

It's time for Ballet Across America, the festival featuring American regional dance companies hosted by the Kennedy Center about every three years. The format is a little different this year, with two programs curated by leading American dancers, Misty Copeland and Justin Peck. The festivities kicked off on Monday evening, with a celebratory program hosted by New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns, in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Copeland and Peck both made appearances but did not perform.

Somewhat oddly, this opening night featured one of the major works programmed later in the the week and some that were only for this evening. The festivities opened with At This Stage, a film directed by Ezra Hurwitz, about a group of dance students at the American Ballet Theater Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. They spoke about how they became interested in dance and about the opportunity to work with ground-breaking choreographer Jeremy McQueen, who created a dance just for them.

The seven students then appeared on stage to perform the work, Garden of Dreams, for the first time. In white and pastel costumes (designed by Mondo Morales) the dancers brought the short piece to life, appropriately on the theme of blossoming. McQueen set his beautiful, classically oriented choreography to the last movement of Mendelssohn's second piano trio, performed by musicians from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, amplified from the back of the stage.

An exquisite rendition of the pas de deux from Anthony Tudor's The Leaves Are Fading, danced by ABT principal dancers Stella Abrera and Marcelo Gomes, was the highlight of the evening. The gorgeous eighth movement of Dvořák's Cypresses, played beautifully by the orchestra, provided the dreamy backdrop for this wistful piece, a sort of remembered romance. It was paired unforgettably with Dwight Rhoden's Imprint/Maya, a solo dance set to David Rozenblatt's slow ballad setting of Maya Angelou's poem My Guilt (performed by Melanie Nyema). In contrast to the gentle caress of the music, the spasmodic movements of the tall, powerful dancer Desmond Richardson communicated both anguish and strength, frantic reaching out for help and solace followed by shrinking back as if in pain.

Desmond Richardson in Imprint/Maya, choreographed by Dwight Rhoden (photo by Teresa Wood)

The works on the second half were less effective, beginning with Justin Peck's curious Chutes and Ladders from 2013, danced by Miami City Ballet principal dancers Jeanette Delgado and Renan Cerdeiro. Its quirky movements are matched ingeniously with the music, the first movement of Britten's first string quartet, especially the pizzicato notes. The music did not sound optimally through amplification, and the choreography was not otherwise memorable.

The major disappointment was saved for last, Concerto, the large work being presented by Nashville Ballet later this week. It may have seemed like a good idea to select Ben Folds's music for this choreography by the company's artistic director, Paul Vasterling, now featured at the company's Kennedy Center debut with Folds at the piano on stage. Folds seemed to channel musical styles from Gershwin and Tchaikovsky and even Cage-like string manipulations, which sort of went with Vasterling's Broadway-tinted movements, but the result was sterile. The Folds piece has made the rounds in the last couple years -- the National Symphony Orchestra played it in 2015 -- a popularity I could not square with the effect it produced.

Ballet Across America continues this evening, with two different programs concluding on Sunday.

Beethoven visits Japan: On Tour with the Vienna Academy Orchestra (Part 2)

Sunrise over Osaka Castle. First an elaborate breakfast at the hotel: “Continental” for the cowards, or fermented beans, beef curry, and “Yum” (I never figured out what it consisted of but it acted admirably as a rice lubricant) for the culturally inquisitive. Then rehearsals for the musicians. Not burdened by that duty, I joined two fellow orchestra-hags who fearlessly braved the Osaka public transport system (quite tame outside of rush-hour, actually) and headed to the former capital Nara, an important site of temples and with a city park crammed with thousands of tame deer.

The beauty of Japanese transportation is its stereotypical punctuality. The trip from the transfer station to Nara takes 33 minutes. If you look at your watch on arrival and it wasn’t 33 minutes, your watch is not working right. The tourist notices with bemusement the “Women Only” cars on the local railways – which is admirable in one way, and disturbing in another. You sense that it acknowledges the reality that during rush-hour, when the Japanese do their best enactment of a claustrophobic sardine, there must be men who enjoy cupping an anonymous feel.

Nara is an impressive site, indeed… “pagoda-deer-deer-deer-temple-deer-Buddha-deer-deer-Buddah-temple” doesn’t begin to do it justice. The national museum taught me anything a foreigner can absorb about master sculptor Kaikei in an hour. His Buddhas, if the observer is lacking the relevant faith, just sit there and smile with their fat, smooth faces and little, suggestive hand gestures. But the temple guardians and demons are amazing to the naïve eye: As wild as anything the imagination can bring forth; bursting out of their skins with muscles that would have made Bruce Lee (is there an equivalent Japanese martial artist I should know of?) blanch. Elephantine-shin guards, collars of skulls, hair of fire, and invariably stomping a demon beneath their feet and poking their eye out with a lance. The figures at hand were somewhere between a yard and or three tall, but some of those were just the surviving models of figures (since lost) up to 30-some feet tall! Speaking of “since lost”, it seems that Japan has a serious problem with fire and flammability. Hardly a historical site, city, temple, castle, or artifact that hasn’t been burnt down trice, rebuilt and re-re-built or lost entirely, consumed by flames.

After an overdose of deer and a massively impressive statue of the Buddha (the largest bronze statue in the world), my companions and I fought our way back to the train station through the increasingly sizeable crowd; at this point deer and Japanese school girls having just about reached parity. After 33 minutes we were back at the connecting station, 12 ½ minutes on the loop line we were back at Osaka-Jo, ready to brush off the Cervidaen saliva and skip across street for the concert at Izumi Hall. On arrival there, a packet of materials was handed to me as the program book. I could barely find the program book amid 25 full sized single-leaf flyers advertising future concerts. Because I know how interested you are, here are a few samples of the what and the who of future Izumi Hall appearances:

• Arditti Quartet in Bartók, Kurtág, Ligeti and Nishimura (String Quartet 6; a premiere)
• Hagen Quartet in Shostakovich and Beethoven
• Olivier Latry in concert No.11 in a complete cycle of all of Bach’s organ works.
• The Japan Symphony Orchestra and conductor Norichika Iimori in a concert that caught my notice for its daring (I am not being facetious): Three Haydn Symphonies and Mozart’s Horn Concerto No.2
• The Taro Singers in works by Nystedt and Britten etc.

The concert itself: Beethoven Sixth & Fifth. It was preceded by a little speech of Martin Haselböck’s[1]. He introduced the ReSound project (see: “Vienna: Premiering Beethoven Symphonies All Over Again”) and the Japanese audience chuckled politely, especially at incidences in Haselböck’s speech that referenced the tight and packed spaces of Beethoven’s Vienna. Like a crammed “Grosser Redoutensaal” of the Hofburg Palace where a reviewer (though not in one of Beethoven’s concerts) recalled that “applause did not occur, because use of the hands was not possible.” The Japanese can relate to that, every Monday through Friday at rush hour. Bang on job by the translator, too! What’s “embouchure” in Japanese again?

Izumi Hall, which officially gets to proclaim itself “modelled on Vienna’s Musikverein” (the management of which probably financed half their new underground halls on that deal), looks odd: A little like a model of itself, with the smooth wood (don’t know what type, but will find out) and neat red curtains; prim and proper and as if just taken out of the shrink wrap.

The instruments, the bows, the strings – and back home even the venues – are all authentic for Beethoven’s time (or, as it were, Liszt’s time or Bach’s time). But the conventions are unshakably, solidly, artificially 19th century. That stifling, lazy tradition: Orchestra appears. Applause. Concertmaster waits until he can appear as the last person to garner extra applause. Applause. He struts about like a peacock, giving everyone their A=430. (Perhaps that’s authentic; I’ll give it a pass in that case, though I could do with less strutting.) The conductor appears. Applause. Annoying. I mean – I understand how it might be nice: If I had a room full of people commenting appreciatively on my abilities, merely on account of my sitting down at the keyboard, perhaps I would find it easier to get over the hump and actually write a banger. But at least until I get that, I won’t like it in concerts… And it’s not like the shtick stops there. No. Now the conductor shakes the concertmaster’s hand. Because the two are meeting for the very first time, you know! And then, after the concert, it’s almost the same in reverse. Shake shake shake. Bow bow bow. Hug hug hug. Premeditated encore. Shakebowhug. If I hadn’t been busy petting deer all morning, I’d have done some serious research to show that none of this is historically informed but a post-Mendelssohn invention and convention, as alien to Beethoven as an electronic drum set. I understand that we have to draw the line somewhere at the attempt (or gimmick) of being ‘authentic’ (i.e. actually playing in tune or, even more rudimentary, enjoying the benefits of antibiotics). But if we are to draw that line arbitrarily anyway, let’s please just draw the line somewhere behind the conventional gestures. Anyway – just wanted to get that off my chest.

Or maybe I was just stalling before getting to the music. There are many reasons for not being enthused with a concert. The trick is to determine the degree to which they each play a role. There’s the fact that I’m not that keen on Beethoven’s Pastorale in the first place. In fact, I think that if I absolutely had to call any of Beethoven’s symphonies boring, that’d be the easy pick. All too often it’s like a musical depiction of someone yawning near a brook and then taking a nap under a tree until, woken by thunder, he rushes home as quick as he can. If you ask me, the Pastorale works better than slipping someone a Mickey Finn.

Then there’s the aspect of one’s own condition. Exhausted from deer-petting, I was not in peak condition. Then there’s the ability and effort of the orchestra… then the conductor and his choice of tempos and interpretation, and finally there’s the acoustic. After blaming some of my lack of response on my bias and on my condition, there was still much explaining left to do as to why this Sixth – or for that matter the following Fifth – didn’t really achieve lift-off. Looking [sic] at the proceedings, I could rule out plodding. The pizzicatos (Pastorale, second movement) were not trudging or behind the beat or mechanical, they were swaying and had a musical lilt. The balance, too, was good – which is to say that the instrumental groups all were all audible separately, rather than being dominated by a permanent symphonic string sound. (Also described here: “REsound Beethoven & Schubert/Liszt and Lisa Larsson's "Ah Perfido" Revelation”) And finally, there was definitely plenty of energy put into the music. Accents were attacked head-on, bowing looked crisp, not hung over. And Martin Haselböck performed his Swedish exercises in front of the band with his trademark vigor.

On closer inspection and introspection, the problem seemed to be that the energy – and overtones – were sapped by the acoustic and never really transmitted to my would-be ideal seats. The orchestra sounded dull, nothing was crisp, nothing rang on… as if it was performed on a big felt carpet. (Incidentally, the hall has a stone floor… which makes the acoustic phenomenon difficult to explain – but there it was.)

On the upside, dinner was excellent! Eating in Japan is a constant joyride with occasional bumps on inadvertent discoveries, usually luring amid the Kobachi or, more insidiously, among the Tsukemono. Umeboshi – pickled plum – can throw you off a little, on first exposure during breakfast. Ditto kelp tea with plum powder. Japanese Whisky of course is also a treat, even for the snootiest Scotch-connoisseur. In this case a thimble of Nikka Taketsuru 17 Year Old to end a splendid day on a high note. If you are thinking of that in lieu of applause after reading this article… just a suggestion! Until tomorrow, from Tokyo. More pictures below.

[1] Come to think of it: does anyone else ever conduct that orchestra? Surely a little diversity would be good for everybody?


Forbes Classical CD of the Week: Fr. Antonio Soler, The Morgan Library Sonatas

…¡Esa es la verdad! This time around – the first time, as it turns out – caused the ears’ equivalent of one of those lusty cartoon double-takes, because these only recently discovered sonatas by Soler are of Scarlatti-like invention and entertainment-value…

-> Classical CD Of The Week: Ersatz-Scarlatti? Diego Ares Plays Antonio Soler (NOV 23, 2016)


Beethoven visits Japan: On Tour with the Vienna Academy Orchestra (Part 1)

Fifty-four musicians (minus four stragglers but generously counting the violas), instruments in tow, gather at Vienna’s Schwechat airport. The historic, 300 year old timpani, safely packed in base drum cases, are checked. Counter-intuitively it’s the double basses who have the least to carry: The instruments are provided locally; all they bring are their bows and gut strings with which to string the loaners.

The cellos on their own seats stick their necks out over the headrests; their owners are rumored to insist on them getting a meal and then devour it themselves. Unlike my Twitter feed seems to suggest, instruments are not smashed or denied or scrutinized by the airline, but accommodated – even historic trombones which, frankly, didn’t look like regulation-size carry-on luggage. Perhaps it helps to board in Vienna, where traveling orchestras are just about the norm.

Via Frankfurt, the crew heads to Osaka, where the first concert will take place at Izumi Hall, a shoebox style concert hall with 820 seats loosely modelled after The Musikverein’s “Golden Hall”. The Tyrolian branch of the orchestra causes its usual ruckus of merriment (and if wasn’t them, it’s at least plausible that it was), until asked by the purser to kindly disperse from the kitchen.

Landing in Osaka is like landing in the sea; the Renzo Piano designed Kansai International Airport having been built on an artificial island just off the coast in the Osaka Bay. After a 90 minute bus-ride to the hotel right between Osaka-Jo Hall (Norah Jones performing that night) and the dainty, largely wooden Izumi Hall, it’s hard to believe Osaka’s Itami Airport, the international hub until “Kankū” opened, is still further from the city.

Osaka castle is right across the (Daini?) Neyagawa River – well, some river, in any case – and towers over its immediate surroundings. It’s an immediate draw and a light drizzle and some 16 hours of transportation behind them can’t keep the musicians from exploring its moats, walls, gardens, and the cherry blossoms which still – just – hang on to gorgeous effect. An afternoon nap and a good Japanese dinner prepare for the next day of rehearsals and the concert in the evening. More pictures below.


Forbes Classical CD of the Week: Johann Sebastian Bach, Dieterich Buxtehude, Goldberg Variations, La Capricciosa

…Listen to the irresistible low notes rising from Partita 10, the rocking onslaught of Partita 18, or the inclusion of that Bergamasca that Frescobaldi already used, and which is basis for Bach’s Quodlibet, “Kraut und Rüben…” – staggering stuff! I’ve never – pace Ton Koopman – heard it done more attractively. It manages to highlight the genius of Buxtehude and Bach, it delights with the ‘new’ Buxtehude and readies the ears for the familiar Goldbergs…

-> Classical CD Of The Week: Super-Added Goldberg Variations (NOV 16, 2016)