Concert Reviews | CD Reviews | DVD Reviews | Opera | Early Music | News | Film | Art | Books | Kids


Lintu, Hewitt return to the BSO

Hannu Lintu
Conductor Hannu Lintu
Hannu Lintu is not concerned much with subtlety. The Finnish conductor, who last appeared with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2013, tends toward out-sized, expressive gestures. In his latest program with the band from Charm City, heard on Saturday night in the Music Center at Strathmore, broad strokes most suited him, especially in a hard-lined performance of Dvořák's eighth symphony.

The high point of the evening was a performance of Cantus Arcticus by the late Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. The piece was composed in the 1970s, and it feels like it, in an Age of Aquarius kind of way. Its principal gesture, incorporating slightly manipulated recordings of birds taken by the composer in the Arctic Circle, was nothing new, going back to Respighi's Pines of Rome and to countless compositions before the advent of recording. Most bird calls are atonal, of course, and consist essentially of clusters, which Rautavaara captures in the instrumental writing for paired flutes and paired trumpets. Nothing much happens over the course of twenty minutes, but the atmospheric effect of the piece is quite pleasing.

Angela Hewitt's last concerto appearance in the area was an underwhelming Mozart concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2014. Results were better this time around in Beethoven's first concerto, heard just earlier this month from Emanuel Ax and the NSO. Hewitt dialed back the tempo of the first movement especially, creating a mellow feel, even in the extended cadenza, conceived more as gentle spirals than violent zig-zags. The second movement was expressive and the best coordinated of the three between Lintu and Hewitt, with a peppy finale to tie things up. The staid crowd did not cheer loudly enough to warrant the encore Hewitt reportedly played at other performances.

Lintu's Sibelius has been much to my liking over the years, and the Rautavaara had many of the same qualities. His Dvořák, by contrast, felt strident and forced, especially the berserk drive of the finale. It was crack ensemble playing, held together by Lintu's fastidious and severe pacing, but it felt breathless and harried, and not in a good way. Impressive, certainly, but somehow too impatient.


Suzanne Farrell Ballet preserves more Balanchine

Elisabeth Holowchuk and Kirk Henning in Danses Concertantes, Suzanne Farrell Ballet (photo by Rosalie O'Connor)

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, we learned last month, will disband next year. The Kennedy Center's resident ballet company has never come under review before at Ionarts. As critic Sarah Kaufman put it, it is a company composed of different members for each performance, who do not work together for more than a few weeks. The first program of their fifteenth season, seen on Friday evening at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, was devoted to three choreographies by George Balanchine.

Farrell was Balanchine's "muse" at New York City Ballet in the 1960s and early 1970s, known especially known as the Dulcinea in his Don Quixote. For the last decade and a half she has led the Balanchine Preservation Initiative, attempting to use her own knowledge of the choreographer's work, among other resources, to ensure that Balanchine's work can be appreciated by future generations. This installment brings together three works that were new to me live, two of them extraordinary and well worth saving. The third one, Stars and Stripes, seems hopelessly outdated, especially in the current political climate.

Balanchine was the first to choreograph Stravinsky's Danses Concertantes, composed in 1942 for the Werner Janssen Orchestra of Los Angeles. In the composer's neoclassical style, it was one of the projects done entirely during Stravinsky's time in California. Although it was conceived as a ballet score, the music was not made for any particular choreography. Balanchine began with the central part of the score, a theme with four variations, each one given to a set of three dancers costumed in bright costumes of green, blue, violet, and red -- "like a box of crayons," as Miss Ionarts described it (costumes designed by Holly Hynes, inspired by the work of Eugene Bermann).

Associations from the commedia dell'arte (à la Pulcinella) permeate the costumes and the comic movements of the dancers, with more serious counterparts in the paired principal dancers, costumed in bright yellow. In the opening Marche, the whole company moved across the stage, shortened by a colorful backdrop, which was raised to reveal a larger space for the main action. The violet variation, here danced by Jane Morgan, the tall and graceful Leah Slavens, and Ted Seymore, was especially beautiful, as the three wove intricate patterns of interlaced arms and extended poses, the latter especially during the lush string coda that ends this section of music. Valerie Tellmann-Henning had light, skittish movements to go with the flute solo in the Pas de Deux.

Charles Gounod's first symphony (D major, 1855) was rediscovered in the 1950s and is still largely unknown, except perhaps as the basis of study for Gounod's student Georges Bizet as he prepared his own Symphony in C. Balanchine, who more famously set that Bizet work to choreography, premiered his Gounod Symphony with the New York City Ballet in 1958, and it has not been revived by a professional company since 1993. It features a large corps, twenty women alternately paired with ten men, lit in silhouette as the curtain is raised. The black and white costumes (Holly Hynes) enhance the sense of an abstract painting set in motion: tea dresses for the women, black for ten dancers and white for the other ten, with the men in white tops and black leggings. The company's corps work is not its strength, as evidenced by the lack of unity among the dancers here and elsewhere, but Natalia Magnicaballi stood out in the gold-costumed principal pair, tall but seeming weightless in the air. Balanchine gave the second movement to the soloists, with the little fugato passage played out by pairs of women.

The evening closed with Balanchine's Stars and Stripes, a display of American patriotism that borders on the grotesque in the era of "Make America Great Again." Premiered in 1958, at the end of the McCarthy era, the work has enough military salutes, baton twirling, and drill corps marching to turn my stomach. Hershy Kay's adaptation of Sousa marches is bombastic, large enough in scoring that the orchestra's percussion and brass had to be piped onto the stage from another location. (A bizarre cadenza for French horn at the end of the "Fourth Campaign" was only the tip of iceberg when it came to strange orchestration.) Conductor Nathan Fifield, who had struggled keeping the Stravinsky score together earlier, could not always coordinate the two halves of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, as the sound from the speakers and from the pit did not always line up.

This program repeats today, in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.


CD Review: Rediscovered Couperin Cantata

Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Two rediscoveries of Brahms and Couperin
Washington Post, October 21

available at Amazon
F. Couperin, Ariane consolée par Bacchus (inter alia), S. Degout, Les Talens Lyriques, C. Rousset

(released on November 11, 2016)
Aparte AP130 | 107'03"
The musicologist, harpsichordist and conductor Christophe Rousset has published a new book on the composer François Couperin (Actes Sud/Classica), and during his research, he made a singular discovery. In a manuscript collection of mostly anonymous French cantatas was an unknown cantata devoted to the story of Ariadne rescued by Dionysus on the island of Naxos. Many would not have given it a second look, but Rousset immediately thought of an unresolved mystery of Couperin’s oeuvre, a lost Ariadne cantata.

The manuscript in question had belonged to the Count of Toulouse, the son of Louis XIV and his mistress, Madame de Montespan, and the count’s music teacher was none other than Couperin. Rousset made the connection and substantiated the find, identifying elements of the composer’s musical signature in the work. He then assembled an all-star team to record it, including Christophe Coin on viola da gamba and baritone Stéphane Degout. Laura Mónica Pustilnik plays the lute, and Rousset himself leads from the harpsichord. As Rousset admits in his booklet essay, this cantata is far from a masterpiece, but the performance makes a strong argument for hearing it.

Also interesting are the two “apothéoses” by Couperin that Rousset includes on the disk: instrumental tributes to two deceased composers he admired: Lully and Corelli. Although the cantata was recorded in the church of Saint-Pierre in Paris, in sound that’s not exactly ravishing; these two pieces sound better as captured in the acoustic of the Les Dominicains de Haute-Alsace, a friary converted into a concert space. The “Plaintes” by Lully’s jealous contemporaries, here given to two delicate flutes, is one of many high points.
Rousset does not address one small problem, that the cantata he has found is titled Ariane consolée par Bacchus. In both the catalogue of Couperin's publisher, Etienne Roger, and the Parnasse Français by the chronicler Évrard Titon du Tillet, the missing cantata is called Ariane abandonnée par Thésée.

Charles T. Downey, Christophe Rousset in concert (Ionarts, April 12, 2013)


Lawrence Brownlee, classical voice

available at Amazon
Donizetti & Bellini: Allegro io son, L. Brownlee, Kaunas City Symphony, Kaunas State Choir, C. Orbelian
The Kennedy Center is skewing toward more popular forms of entertainment. It has turned out to be the hallmark of the tenure of the organization's new president, Deborah Rutter. In a formula familiar from many concert presenters, Renée Fleming has been called in to offer some star advice, for a set of concerts unimaginatively called "Renée Fleming VOICES." (Capital letters make it different!) The new series kicked off with its sole classical performance, by tenor Lawrence Brownlee. The rest of the season features jazz, musical theater, and cabaret.

It always takes my ears a few moments to adjust to the active vibrato in Brownlee's voice. Not unpleasant in any way, it is a prominent flutter, tightly coiled, but after some time passes my ear adjusts to it and can still perceive the center of the pitch. True to form Brownlee's strongest work came in arias from bel canto operas. Brownlee hit the first big high notes of the evening in "Seul sur la terre," from Donizetti's Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal. That vibrato, among other advantages, gives a high-energy buzz to Brownlee's notes off the top of the staff, which do not sound floated, in the sense that there is intensity and effort in them. This was more apparent in the even higher notes in "Terra amica," from Rossini's Zelmira, which was truly thrilling as Brownlee showed off the virtuosity of his runs and top notes. A close second was the closing set of spirituals, in classic arrangements by H. T. Burleigh.

A set of Strauss songs was more successful than seemed likely given Brownlee's strengths. The German diction was not always clear but especially in subtle songs like "Breit' über mein Haupt" he brought the same silky clarity and gentle phrasing that make his bel canto singing so pretty. With "Morgen" and "Die Nacht" pianist Justina Lee, for much of the evening merely a competent accompanist, was integral to the beauty of the performance. Finally with "Cäcilie," both artists cranked up the excitement for the song's dramatic climax, which was thrilling. An opening set of Liszt songs, some of which were heard more beautifully from Angela Meade in August, impressed less. With all due respect to i nostri amici italiani, if I never hear a set of these Italian art songs again for a decade, that would be fine by me. All was forgiven, however, by the choice of encore, a plangent rendition of Donizetti's Una furtiva lagrima.

The best news of the evening is that the Kennedy Center has fixed the buzzing sound that plagued concerts in the Family Theater earlier in the fall. The sound, something like a vibrating light fixture, was absent on Tuesday evening, although there was still just a whisper of unwelcome noise, perhaps from the ventilation system.

Lawrence Brownlee stars in Washington National Opera's upcoming production of Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment (November 12 to 20, but in only five of the eight performances), in the Kennedy Center Opera House.


Interview for South Florida Classical Review

Charles T. Downey Patrick Quigley looks to the past and future as Seraphic Fire opens 15th season
South Florida Classical Review, October 12

Seraphic Fire will bring the second program of its new season, Jewels from Paris: The Fauré and Duruflé Requiems, to the Washington area next month: on the concert series of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Georgetown (November 13, 5 pm). The two Requiem Masses will be performed in versions for organ, accompanied by organist Nathan Laube.