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Ionarts-at-Large: Mozart-Woche 2014 (CPE Bach Oratorio)

In the current issue of AUDITORIUM:

Free Concert Series at National Building Museum

Charles T. Downey, National Building Museum kicks off summer concert series with Reverb
Washington Post, July 22, 2014

For parents of young children, summer often boils down to a frantic search for activities that will divert their kids, even for just a few minutes. By mid-July, the situation can get desperate, so the first summer concert at the National Building Museum, heard Sunday afternoon, was perfectly timed. In partnership with Washington Performing Arts, the museum presented... [Continue reading]
Washington Performing Arts
Sunday Concert Series
National Building Museum


Notes from the 2014 Salzburg Festival ( 1 )
Bach Recital • Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Recital • Pierre-Laurent Aimard

A Happy Spiritual Vortex

For a couple years, the Salzburg Festival has opened its doors a week earlier than traditionally, dubbing the prequel to the Festival—officially part of it, but taking place before the official opening ceremony— “Ouverture spirituelle”. It began on the 18th with the BRSO and Haitink in Haydn’s Creation. On Saturday came the first highlight—which, paraphrasing everyone I know who was there, was “a concert to remember for years, if not decades”: Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine with John Elliot Gardiner and his bands, that used the Salzburg cathedral to ingenious acoustic effect. I missed that, but Monday I had my own Ouverture spirituelle in the form of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recital of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier.

Pictures (details) courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Monika Rittershaus (BRSO/Haitink/Padmore) & Michael Pöhn (Concentus/Harnoncourt).

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, WTC, Book 1,
P-L. Aimard

Timed to coincide, more or less, with his latest CD release, he performed the whole Book I of the “Old Testament of the classical keyboard” at the Mozarteum’s Great Hall. Unlike his Art of the Fugue tour a few years ago, which left me oddly wanting (after high expectations), this time all those lofty expectations—always in place, with Aimard—were met and exceeded.

A scheduling overlap with Harnoncourt, his Concentus Musicus, and the last three Mozart Symphonies at the Grosses Festspielhaus across the Salzach must have drawn some would-be Bach-listeners and meant a few empty rows in the Mozarteum. But the rest made up with attentiveness and quiet enthusiasm, to listen to Aimard’s pedal-free simplicity. Unpretentious in his playing, Aimard looks like a greatly disturbed Siberian owl—especially in the trickier fugues, where his jaws and eyebrows were working almost as hard as the fingers. Amid a rock-solid, steady pulse throughout, the C-sharp major Prelude was all playfulness, the C-sharp minor Fugue a regal affair from which the D major Prelude seemed to surge forth. The F major Prelude and Fugue were swift and bubbly, almost, except always in that dead-on rhythm that Aimard kept and which makes Bach—and this work in particular—so increasingly compelling: A spiritual vortex into which one lets PLA suck one happily. The first half of the set ended with a bitter-sweet F minor Prelude and an “Art-of-the-Fugue” type of dry Fugue.

After the intermission a fresh and friendly—almost fiendish—F-sharp major Prelude re-opened the proceedings; contrasting immediately with the lyrical somberness of the coupled Fugue. The G major Prelude was animated like hyperactive sprites during happy hour… the staggered, developing trills of the G minor Prelude were worked out with wonderful clarity. After the gravitas of the G-sharp Fugue, the pointillist dotted A major Fugue struck as “Wildness, organized”: A masterpiece of compelling-propelling rigor that suggests the existence of higher planes. After the tender closing B minor (always special with Bach, that key) Prelude and the grand, chromatically shimmering Fugue, the audience took a few seconds of genuine, hazy and reverent silence before bursting out in the greatly deserved applause and standing ovations. Aimard looked like a much happier owl now, and fluttered off stage.


NSO at Wolf Trap

available at Amazon
Ravel, Piano Concertos (inter alia), J.-Y. Thibaudet, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, C. Dutoit
(Decca, 1997)
Charles T. Downey, National Symphony Orchestra shines in quiet moments at Wolf Trap (Washington Post, July 21, 2014)
The National Symphony Orchestra’s summer season at Wolf Trap includes a lot of fluff, quite appropriately. Friday night’s concert in the Filene Center was an exception, featuring three pieces that the group might perform on subscription concerts at the Kennedy Center. In fact, the last time the NSO played two of these pieces, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, was as recent as the spring of 2013.

Little matter, since one does not really expect to be surprised by unusual repertory at an outdoor concert in the summer. The pleasure of this sort of event is in being part of a large listening community, more casual about.... [Continue reading]
National Symphony Orchestra
With Andrew Litton (conductor) and Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
Filene Center at Wolf Trap

Andrew Litton last with NSO (2012)

Ravel G major concerto: NSO with Jeremy Denk (2013); San Francisco Symphony with Jean-Yves Thibaudet (2006)

Tchaikovsky, fourth symphony (NSO, 2013)


Perchance to Stream: Tour de France 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, press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Listen to a recital of Lieder by Schubert and Wolf, performed by baritone Florian Boesch and pianist Malcolm Martineau at the Wigmore Hall in London, followed by 18th-century music from northern Europe performed by La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Hespèrion XXI, and Jordi Savall in the Abbey Church of Fontfroide. [France Musique]

  • From the Festival International d'Opéra Baroque et Romantique in Beaune, Federico Maria Sardelli leads Modo Antiquo in a performance of Handel's Teseo, starring Lucia Cirillo, Emmanuelle de Negri, and others. [France Musique]

  • Watch the world premiere of a new staging of Bach cantatas, directed by Katie Mitchell, with Raphaël Pichon conducting musicians of the Académie européenne de musique, soprano Aoife Miskelly, mezzo-soprano Eve-Maud Hubeaux, and others. []

  • Martha Argerich plays Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto at the Verbier Festival, with Charles Dutoit conducting the Verbier Festival Orchestra. []

  • Watch more concerts from the Verbier Festival. []

  • From last November at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, a performance of Giacomo Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, conducted by Emmanuel Villaume and starring Veronica Simeoni and Gregory Kunde. [ORF]


À mon chevet: 'The Trial'

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

book cover
Once he had received this notice, K. hung up the receiver without giving an answer; he had decided immediately to go there that Sunday, it was certainly necessary, proceedings had begun and he had to face up to it, and this first examination would probably also be the last. He was still standing in thought by the telephone when he heard the voice of the deputy director behind him -- he wanted to use the telephone but K. stood in his way. "Bad news?" asked the deputy director casually, not in order to find anything out but just to get K. away from the device. "No, no," said K., he stepped to one side but did not go away entirely. The deputy director picked up the receiver and, as he waited for his connection, turned away from it and said to K., "One question, Mr. K.: Would you like to give me the pleasure of joining me on my sailing boat on Sunday morning? There's quite a few people coming, you're bound to know some of them. One of them is Hasterer, the state attorney. Would you like to come along? Do come along!"

K. tried to pay attention to what the deputy director was saying. It was of no small importance for him, as this invitation from the deputy director, with whom he had never got on very well, meant that he was trying to improve his relations with him. It showed how important K. had become in the bank and how its second most important official seemed to value his friendship, or at least his impartiality. He was only speaking at the side of the telephone receiver while he waited for his connection, but in giving this invitation the deputy director was humbling himself. But K. would have to humiliate him a second time as a result, he said, "Thank you very much, but I'm afraid I will have no time on Sunday, I have a previous obligation." "Pity," said the deputy director, and turned to the telephone conversation that had just been connected.

It was not a short conversation, but K. remained standing confused by the instrument all the time it was going on. It was only when the deputy director hung up that he was shocked into awareness and said, in order to partially excuse his standing there for no reason, "I've just received a telephone call, there's somewhere I need to go, but they forgot to tell me what time." "Ask them then," said the deputy director. "It's not that important," said K., although in that way his earlier excuse, already weak enough, was made even weaker. As he went, the deputy director continued to speak about other things. K. forced himself to answer but his thoughts were mainly about that Sunday, how it would be best to get there for nine o'clock in the morning as that was the time that courts always start work on weekdays.

-- Franz Kafka, The Trial (translation by David Wyllie)
Reading Murakami's Kafka on the Shore earlier this summer put me in the mood to read some more Kafka. This was the book that Murakami's protagonist described as his favorite, and it is a great read. What I love about the book is found in this passage, which is the attempt of K. to proceed in life as normally as possible, even after the opening sequence of events, in which he is mysteriously "arrested" when he wakes up in his room one morning. Life appears to continue as normally as possible, and K.'s self-importance and self-delusion continue without any interruption.


Briefly Noted: 'The Lighthouse'

available at Amazon
P. Maxwell Davies, The Lighthouse, N. Mackie, C. Keyte, I. Comboy, BBC Philharmonic, P. Maxwell Davies

(released on May 27, 2014)
Naxos 8.660354 | 72'29"
Peter Maxwell Davies composed this chilling chamber opera for the Edinburgh Festival in 1980. The composer led this performance, with members of the BBC Philharmonic, for a release in 1994 on another label that is now out of print. For those of us who wanted to hear the opera, this Naxos re-release is the only option if you were not lucky enough to have caught one of the revivals here and there, most recently by Boston Lyric Opera in 2012. (One can also watch a performance given by the Psappha Ensemble in 2009: Part 1 and Part 2.) With the composer at the podium, the performance reflects his intentions, and the three singers are all fine, including Neil Mackie, who created the tenor role. The booklet libretto, riddled with errors, is the only drawback.

Maxwell Davies wrote his own libretto, creating a fictionalized version of the actual disappearance of three lighthouse guardians on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The events can easily be read as something from The X Files; in fact, they were the basis of an episode of Doctor Who, The Horror of Fang Rock, broadcast just a couple years before the creation of the opera. The prologue features the three singers as officers of the ship that discovered the empty lighthouse, interrogated at the court of enquiry by a solo horn (at times too like the "wah-wah" sound of the adult voices in a Peanuts cartoon). The model for this ghost story, one imagines, is Britten's The Turn of the Screw, and Maxwell Davies gets a similar range of horripilation-inducing sounds from his group of twelve instrumentalists, including a folksy banjo and, a tribute to Alban Berg, an out-of-tune upright piano.

In his booklet essay, Maxwell Davies invokes the cursed "Tower" card in the Tarot deck, and when the three keepers agree each to sing a song, the performances will determine, as Blazes puts it, who is King, Devil, and Fool. As Blazes and Sandy play a game of cards, the bass sings lines attributed to the "Voices of the Cards," the first sign of the incipient insanity about to grip the lighthouse keepers, who have been stranded at their post by storms long past when they should have been relieved. Some comic relief is provided by the songs offered by the trio, especially the sentimental love ballad sung by Sandy, the tenor, which the other two join, jumbling the words in hilarious ways ("Oh that you held me ... fast ... by the cock").


Briefly Noted: Planès Plays Bartók

available at Amazon
Bartók, Piano Pieces, A. Planès

(released on May 13, 2014)
HMC 902163 | 78'42"
Alain Planès plays the music of so many composers so well, including the Haydn, Debussy, and Scarlatti we have heard over the years. A formidable technician with a painterly sense of color, he excels in vignettes rather than long forms, so it is little surprise that he produces beguiling results in this set of mostly miniatures by Bartók. On disc, some of these pieces have largely been the domain of Hungarian pianists, who almost certainly started playing the composer's works as children. In addition to the widely recorded piano sonata (SZ 80), here pleasingly bouncy and bluesy rather than overly biting, Planès gives the listener a sort of tour of Bartók's transcription and adaptation of folk melodies. This includes four songs from the Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs (SZ 71) and all six of the slender Romanian Folk Dances (SZ 56), two sets that show Bartók's affinity for the folk music of both countries. (As the Transylvanian village where Bartók was born was on the border, it actually became part of Romania in the aftermath of World War I.) The Dance Suite (SZ 77) and the relatively rare set of Fourteen Bagatelles (SZ 38) round out the program, with each short movement given a ravishing suavity of touch and melodic phrasing. If you have never fancied Bartók's keyboard music, give it a spin.


Briefly Noted: Gunnar Idenstam

available at Amazon
Ravel / Debussy (arrangements for organ), G. Idenstam

(released on July 8, 2014)
BIS-2049 | 73'46"
Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel wrote no music for the organ. That bothered Swedish organist Gunnar Idenstam, who decided to make his own arrangements of some of his favorite pieces. With inventive registrations on the 1912/2002 Stahlhuth/Jann organ of St. Martin’s Church in Dudelange, Luxembourg, he gives a reasonable and fun approximation of the orchestral effects of Debussy's La Mer. In the Lever du jour movement of Ravel's second suite from Daphnis et Chloé, he even gives a suggestion of the wordless choir offstage, and various pipes serve as the metronomic percussion in his version of Bolero. As Idenstam explains in his somewhat breathless booklet essay, for those pieces that Ravel originally wrote for piano, he began with the piano score, using Ravel's orchestrations to guide his choice of registration. For two excerpts from the Valses nobles et sentimentales and the Pavane pour une infante defunte, the results are merely pretty, but for the hallucinogenic La valse, Idenstam hits the mark with a heady, swirling performance. Not essential listening, but fun for fans of the organ.


Cost of the Intermittents' Actions

We have been following the actions of the intermittents du spectacle this summer. The group of arts and television workers, who are protesting the loss of government-paid unemployment insurance that supports them during periods between gigs, has been disrupting performances at summer arts festivals in France. While the fallout has not been as disastrous as the last time they had a major strike, in the summer of 2003, the disruptions have been significant. In an article (En cas de grève, les festivals ne sont pas assurés, July 14) for Le Monde, Anne Michel reports that the cost of cancellations at these festivals will fall on the organizers, who are not insured against such losses (my translation):

Already strong, the pressure on the summer festivals was increased, after the day of national strikes by the intermittents on Saturday, July 12. Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, les Francofolies de La Rochelle, les Vieilles Charrues, à Carhaix-Plouguer… Everywhere, the partial or total cancellation of performances is feared. Because beyond the arguments about the movement drawing attention to its cause, and the solidarity expressed without reservation by all the festival directors toward their artistic and technical workers, the blocking of a play or a concert is above all a matter of money. One must reimburse spectators, pay workers who are not on strike, cover the costs of transport, of lodging, of food. So, after an investigation that we conducted with these festivals, it appears that none of the major summer presenters is insured against strike actions, just as Olivier Py, director of the Avignon Festival, claimed at the beginning of July.
The figures amassed so far because of the cancellation of performances amounts to 138,500 euros so far at Avignon; 500,000 euros at Le Printemps des Comédiens in Montpellier; 40,000 euros at Montpellier Danse. For the festivals that had to cancel their entire season, Uzès Danse and Cratère Surfaces, in Alès, the figures are not yet known. Armelle Heliot also reports, for Le Figaro, that audiences at Avignon are "not as large as previous years," perhaps because of worries about cancellations.


Lorin Maazel (1930-2014)

Lorin Maazel, world-striding conductor and consummate musicians' musician, died on Sunday morning, following an exhausting bout with pneumonia. He had already canceled most of his conducting engagements for the foreseeable future, and he had not been strong enough to conduct the operas at this summer's Castleton Festival. Still, the news came as a shock, that someone who had been making music professionally beginning over thirty years before I was born -- here he is as a young boy, conducting at Interlochen, in my home state of Michigan -- was now suddenly gone. The tributes have been universal. Over the years, we caught only a sliver of an epoch-spanning career, having reviewed Maazel with several orchestras, including the National Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Munich Philharmonic. His baton was laser-precise, which could make some of his interpretations too steely or overpowering, but one rarely complained of either sloppiness of execution or lack of self-confidence in his ideas. He knew what he wanted, and he got it, for better and, rarely, for worse. This trait made his collaboration with young musicians so good, in the orchestras he put together for the Castleton Festival. With older professionals, perhaps jaded by years of working with strong-headed conductors, it could backfire sometimes.

For this listener, where Maazel really excelled was as an opera conductor. Washingtonians were lucky in this regard when, in 2009, Maazel inaugurated a summer festival on the grounds of his family home in Rappahannock County. To get there, one drives on highways that become narrower and narrower as you move into more remote areas, eventually landing within view of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The grounds played host to a menagerie of animals -- a camel (named Omar and fond of matzo), a zebra, and the fabled zonkey (the zebra's offspring with a donkey) -- where Maazel, I wrote then, reigned like Prospero on his island. It was a labor of love for Maazel and his entire family, from his wife, actress Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, to several of the Maazel children. In a move that showed he was all in, Maazel auctioned off the 1783 Guadagnini violin he had played for over 60 years, raising $1.1 million for the Castleton Foundation. The festival's first venue, a 130-seat theater with a tiny pit built in the family's house, was supplemented with eventually larger and more stable tent theaters, including the one where we sat out the 2012 derecho, in more than a little anxiety at the rippling roof.

It was only through the Castleton Festival that we were able to experience Maazel's excellent Puccini live, as he slowly made his way through the composer's works list here: La Fanciulla del West, Il Trittico, La Bohème, and this year's Madama Butterfly, which he was not able to conduct. The scope of the festival made chamber operas most suitable, and Maazel led excellent productions of many of Benjamin Britten's small operas in the festival's early years: Albert Herring, The Rape of Lucretia, the adaptation of The Beggar's Opera, and The Turn of the Screw. Based on the taste Maazel gave us last summer, it is regrettable that we will never have the chance to hear him conduct a full performance of Peter Grimes.

His ear was not infallible, for example in his attachment to Andrew Lloyd Webber's setting of the Requiem Mass and his self-funded and widely panned opera, 1984. He had an eye for innovation, though, conducting the music for two of the best cinematic versions of operas ever made, Francesco Rosi's sultry Carmen (with Julia Migenes and Plácido Domingo) and Joseph Losey's Don Giovanni (with Ruggero Raimondi, Kiri Te Kanawa, José van Dam, and Teresa Berganza). Other examples include leading the New York Philharmonic on a controversial concert tour to North Korea, and creating a version of Wagner's Ring "without words" with the Berlin Philharmonic. A sampling of some of our favorite recordings with Maazel is below, but we will hopefully have a more complete roundup of Maazel's recorded heritage soon.

available at Amazon
Sibelius, Symphonies, Vienna Philharmonic, L. Maazel
available at Amazon
Puccini, Il Trittico, L. Maazel
available at Amazon
Mozart, Don Giovanni (film directed by Joseph Losey), L. Maazel


In Brief: Jeff's Birthday Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio, online video, and other good things in Blogville and Beyond. (After clicking to an audio or video stream, press the "Play" button to start the broadcast.) Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • A performance of Rameau's Zaïs, recorded at La Cour des Hospices for the Beaune Festival, performed by the Choeur de Namur and Les Talens Lyriques and conducted by Christophe Rousset. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the six motets of J. S. Bach performed by Les Maîtrises de Radio France et Notre-Dame de Paris, recorded earlier this month at the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. [France Musique]

  • Roger Norrington conducts Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri, starring contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, with the Choeur Aèdes and the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris. [France Musique]

  • Christian Thielemann, the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, and the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Herbert von Karajan, with a performance of Mozart's Requiem Mass, plus music of Wolfgang Rihm and Richard Strauss, recorded at the Osterfestspiele Salzburg last April. [ORF | Part 2]

  • Listen to a production of Rossini's La gazzetta from the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, conducted by Jan Schultsz. [RTBF]

  • From the York Early Music Festival, The Sixteen and Harry Christophers perform music by William Mundy, John Sheppard, and Richard Davy. [BBC3]

  • The Cuarteto Casals performs music by Mozart and Schubert last month at the Schloss Eggenberg. [ORF]

  • From the Styriarte Festival, a performance of Purcell's Fairy Queen, starring Dorothea Röschmann, Florian Boesch, and others, with the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Concentus Musicus Wien, and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt. [ORF]

  • Soprano Sophie Karthaüser and the Orfeo Barockorchester perform music by Mozart and Grétry. [RTBF]


À mon chevet: 'La Comédie humaine'

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

book cover
"Before we part tonight, Monsieur Hermann is going to tell us another one of those chilling German stories." The announcement came from a pale, blond young woman who had doubtless read the stories of Hoffmann and Walter Scott. She was the banker's only child, a ravishing creature who was putting the final touches to her education at the Gymnase and adored the plays that theater presented.

The guests were in the contented state of languor and quiet that results from an exquisite meal, when we have demanded a little too much of our digestive capacities. Leaning back in their chairs, wrists and fingers resting lightly upon the table's edge, a few guests played lazily with the gilded blades of their knives. When a dinner reaches that lull some people will work over a pear seed, others roll a pinch of bread between thumb and index finger, lovers shape clumsy letters out of fruit scraps, the miserly count their fruit pits and line them up on their plates the way a theater director arranges his extras at the rear of the stage. These small gastronomic felicities go unremarked by Brillat-Savarin, an otherwise observant writer. The serving staff had disappeared. The dessert table looked like a squadron after the battle, all dismembered, plundered, wilted. Platters lay scattered over the table despite the hostess's determined efforts to set them back in order. A few people stared at some prints of Switzerland lined up on the gray walls of the dining room. No one was irritable; we have never known anyone to remain unhappy while digesting a good meal. We enjoy lingering in a becalmed state, a kind of midpoint between the reverie of a thinker and the contentment of a cud-chewing animal, a state that should be termed the physical melancholy of gastronomy.

Thus the guests turned happily toward the good German, all of them delighted to have a tale to listen to, even a dull one. For during that benign interval, a storyteller's voice always sounds delicious to our sated senses; it promotes their passive contentment. As an observer of scenes, I sat admiring these faces bright with smiles, lit by the candles and flushed dark by good food; their various expressions produced some piquant effects, seen through the candlesticks and porcelain baskets, the fruits and the crystal.

-- Honoré de Balzac, The Red Inn (translation by Linda Asher)
One of my goals for this summer's reading was to finish more (or all) of Balzac's La Comédie humaine, the sprawling, interconnected collection of novels, novellas, and short stories. This new translation of several longer stories, by Linda Asher, Carol Cosman, and Jordan Stump, published this year by the New York Review of Books, has turned out to be a delightful way to start. This excerpt stands out this week, as I am celebrating a childhood friend's birthday over several excellent meals with him and other friends. Balzac was a gastronome of the highest order, and many of his stories have the feel of, or are even presented literally in the context of, tales told at the end of such meals. As he wrote in a story also in this collection, Another Study of Womankind, "The body must be secure and at ease before we can tell a good tale. The best narratives are spun at a certain hour -- look at all of us sitting here at this table! No one has ever told a good story on his feet nor with an empty stomach."


Briefly Noted: Enescu's 'Isis'

available at Amazon
Enescu, Isis / Symphony No. 5, M. Vlad, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern, NDR Chor, P. Ruzicka

(released on July 8, 2014)
cpo 777823-2 | 60'39"
We are avid fans of the music of George Enescu here at Ionarts. The Rumanian composer kept up a restless schedule of performing (he was a talented violinist), as well as being an educator and musicologist. At the time of his death, in Paris in 1955, he apparently left a large number of pieces incomplete. Some of these are still being brought to light, thanks to Pascal Bentoiu, a Romanian composer and also Enescu biographer, who has made performance versions of them according to Enescu's intentions. This new release from the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern and conductor Peter Ruzicka offers performances of two of them, beginning with the vocal symphonic poem Isis, which Bentoiu discovered only in 1996 in an archive in Bucharest. It is an atmospheric, languid, mostly static work for orchestra, wordless women's chorus, harp, and celesta, and Bentiou connects it, composed in 1923, to Enescu's mistress, eventually wife, Maruca Cantacuzini, whom Enescu called Isis. It is nicely paired with the fifth symphony, from 1941, which also uses women's chorus and a tenor soloist, setting the words of an elegiac poem by Mihai Eminescu, De-oi adormi curând. Both are fine discoveries, even if they are not 100% Enescu.


À mon chevet: 'Snow'

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

book cover
"I see this landscape at night, in darkness, through a window. Outside there are two blind white walls, as tall as the walls of a castle. Like two castles back to back! There is only the narrowest passageway between them, which stretches into the distance like a road, and when I look down this road I am overcome with fear. The road where God does not exist is as snowy and muddy as the roads in Kars, but it's all purple! There's something in the middle of the road that tells me 'Stop!' but I still can't keep myself from looking right down to the end of the road, to the place where this world ends. Right at the end of this world, I can see a tree, one last tree, and it's bare and leafless. Then, because I'm looking at it, it turns bright red and bursts into flame. It's at this point that I begin to feel very guilty for being so curious about the land where God does not exist. Then, just as suddenly, the red tree turns back to black. I tell myself, I'd better not look again, but I can't help it, I do look again, and the tree at the end of the world starts burning red once more. This goes on until morning." [...]

[Ka] thought about Necip's landscape -- he could remember his description word for word, as if it were already a poem -- and if no one came from Porlock he was sure he would soon be writing that poem in his notebook.

The man from Porlock! During our last years in school, when Ka and I would stay up half the night talking about literature, this was one of our favorite topics. Anyone who knows anything about English poetry will remember the note at the start of Coleridge's Kubla Khan. It explains how the work is a "fragment of a poem, from a vision during a dream"; the poet had fallen asleep after taking medicine for an illness (actually, he'd taken opium for fun) and had seen, in his deepest sleep, sentences from the book he'd been reading just before losing consciousness, except that now each sentence and each object had taken on a life of its own in a magnificent dreamscape to become a poem. Imagine, a magnificent poem that had created itself, without the poet's having exerted any mental energy! Even more amazing, when Coleridge woke up he could remember this splendid poem word for word. He got out his pen and ink and some paper and carefully began to write it down, one line after the other, as if he were taking dictation. He had just written the last line of the poem as we know it when there came a knock at the door. He rose to answer it, and it was a man from the nearby city of Porlock, come to collect a debt. As soon as he'd dealt with this man, he rushed back to his table, only to discover that he'd forgotten the rest of the poem, except for a few scattered words and the general atmosphere.

As no one arrived from Porlock to break his concentration, Ka still had the poem clear in his mind when he was called onstage.

-- Orhan Pamuk, Snow (translation by Maureen Freely), pp. 142-43
Anyone would be happy to have written a book as good as My Name Is Red, but the problem is that you then have to write the next book. Perhaps inevitably, Orhan Pamuk's follow-up novel, Snow, is not as brilliant and all-consuming as his masterpiece five years earlier. Instead of Istanbul, the action unfolds in a distant part of Turkey, Kars, on the border with Armenia, which allowed Pamuk to put his finger on a part of history that is not recognized as having happened in Turkey, the Armenian genocide, a term that the President of the United States is still unable to pronounce for fear of offending our Turkish allies. For speaking about the Armenian genocide in public, Pamuk faced official charges of "insulting Turkishness," although most of the charges were eventually dropped. (The political brouhaha may have played a part in Pamuk winning the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year.) In an example of life imitating art, a group of Turkish nationalists was suspected of plotting to assassinate Pamuk.

Snow also features an interplay of narration, not as complex as that in My Name Is Red but in which the author becomes directly involved with his characters. The exploration of the mystery of writing -- while the main character, Ka, "lived his life in the way that came naturally to him, as a true poet, I was a lesser being, a simple-hearted novelist who like a clerk sat down to work at the same time every day" -- is brilliant. The passage quoted here is one of my favorites, and I hope that the phrase "the man from Porlock" will enter the lexicon to mean anything that dispels fleeting artistic inspiration. Here is how Coleridge described it: "At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone had been cast."


Castleton Festival's 'Madama Butterfly'

Back at the Castleton Festival on Sunday afternoon, the performance of Puccini's Madama Butterfly was very strong, with a combination of a no-expense-spared approach to set design (Erhard Rom) and costumes (Lauren Gaston and Jonathan Knipsher), plus a cast of singers well suited vocally for their roles. There was an ever-present Japanese attention to detail, from gorgeous kimonos with proper footwear, rice paper sliding walls, and a full moon that crossed the night's sky, to an historically accurate 45-star United States flag incorporated into the set. Technology was cleverly used to add motion while at times moving the plot forward, with projections on screened backdrops. Gentle waves of the Nagasaki Harbor, stars in the night sky, and the slow-evolving projection of Lt. Pinkerton's ship, "The Lincoln," returning from a distance were highly effective.

However, having quick motions cartoonishly projected behind the set, such as close-up waves of the sea or fluttery butterflies drew too much attention to what should just function as a backdrop. There were two extraordinary lighting changes (Tláloc López-Watermann) that occurred precisely with plot and musical shifts. First, from blue to gold with the striking of the gong, as the intense Bonze of bass-baritone Joseph Barron interrupted the Christian wedding party of Cio-Cio San. The second was the abrupt transition to red upon Cio-Cio San's seppuku (ritual suicide). This unsubtle programmatic approach to lighting allowed all in the audience an almost synesthetic experience.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Wolf Trap Opera, Castleton Festival launch unevenly but laudably on same weekend (Washington Post, June 30)
Conductor Bradley Moore, standing in for Castleton Founder Lorin Maazel, who was still indisposed, incited a focused inspiration from the orchestra, which was a great improvement from the Mozart opera the previous night. Soprano Ekaterina Metlova as Cio-Cio San sang with a warm, smooth voice with either tragic strength, sublime tenderness, or everything in between. Her approach to portamento (the elision of notes) could have been more creative as it became somewhat predictable. Tenor Jonathan Burton as Lt. Pinkerton sang with expressive fortitude and memorable high notes, while baritone Corey Crider as Consul Sharpless demanded the audience's ear with his commanding voice. Mezzo-soprano Kate Allen as Cio-Cio San's servant Suzuki was superb vocally, and a particularly good vocal match to her mistress. The opera ended with a blistering intensity.

This production will be repeated on July 11 and 20.