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29.9.04

Dip Your Ears, No. 12

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R. Wagner, Die Meistersinger, Wolfgang Sawallisch
There is no perfect recording of Die Meistersinger—and there probably never will be, either—too taxing is this cheery 4½-hour Singspiel that Wagner thought to be his light and undemanding opera. This and the suppressed Kubelik recording (worth a story in its own right) come as close to it as possible. Conceived while taking a break from the Ring, it's the only mature Wagner work that doesn't end with a heap of dead bodies. Its emotional range is none the smaller for it, and while its length might be prohibitive to newcomers, it's some of the most delightful Wagner on record. Sawallisch is one of the most astute and no-nonsense Wagnerians, and he reigns over a superlative cast. Weikl, Heppner, Studer, and Moll can't be topped in these days, and a young René Pape as the Nachtwächter is pure luxury. The sound is superb, the presentation without fault. The price is steep, but the only rivals (Kubelik, Jochum, Solti-2) are, too. Listen ten times and it costs 2 cents per minute.

Opera at Sea


Other Reviews of Billy Budd:


Additional Commentary by Charles T. Downey:


This past Monday night (September 27), I had the sensation of watching something familiar, almost as if I knew that things would end badly. I am not speaking of what most of Washington was doing that night, watching the local football team (although they use the name of Washington, they actually play in Landover, Md.), whose name is an unmentionable racial slur, lose to the Dallas Cowboys. There were also some people watching another tragic story, Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd, from the Washington National Opera. (I watched the end of the game when I got home, of course.) This much-praised production, by director Francesca Zambello, has been keenly anticipated, and it did not fail to deliver on its promise. Along with the other opera in this first part of its new season, Andrea Chénier (see reviews on September 9 and September 24), I agree that Billy Budd confirms that the Washington National Opera has turned a corner.

Collaborating with librettists E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, Britten adapted the libretto for this opera from a difficult book, not particularly opera-ready, Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Foretopman. Incredibly, the story works very well as an opera. There are two themes that stand out as a possible basis for a production of this opera. Given that the creators of the opera (Britten, Forster, and also Peter Pears, who created the role of Vere) were homosexual, the fact that the central love triangle of the opera (Vere-Claggart-Billy) happens to be all male is important. How much of Claggart's hatred springs from a deeply closeted love of Billy or jealousy of Billy for Vere's affection? It is a question that a production could try to answer.

Ms. Zambello's production does not deal with these questions. In fact, I agree with Jens that in some ways the production tries to soften the dramatic opposition that is inherent in Britten's score, which is played out literally in the juxtaposition of major and minor triads associated with Billy and Claggart, respectively. Good vs. evil is in the musical fabric, as it is in so many of Britten's operas (Peter Grimes, Turn of the Screw, and Death in Venice, for example). Ms. Zambello does underscore the other major theme, that of redemption, with Billy as Christ. At one point in Act I, Vere, Claggart, and Billy (redeemed, condemned, redeemer) all stand on the tilted stage, in a straight line, during one of the interludes. Billy, "king of the birds, king of the world," also climbs the foretop, shaped rather explicitly as a cross, and hangs from it, like the crucified Jesus, in shining white light. As Jens points out, he is also displayed in his "crucifixion," hanged from the yardarm, from the moment it happens through the end of Vere's concluding epilogue. (You can see some photographs of the original version of this production at Francesca Zambello's Web site.)

I am perhaps unusual among opera critics in that I like what choruses do in operas. It doesn't bother me that their involvement may not always be "realistic," because opera is all about the suspension of disbelief. The male voices of the WNO chorus were in top form, and I think that they did the blocking they were asked to do without too much trouble. One of the moments when the striking floor of the set is raised up on hydraulic columns, to create a two-tiered set resembling a ship's prow, is the aborted battle scene of Act II ("This is our moment"). The combination of visual grandeur, powerful male singing, and booming orchestra (heavy on percussion and brass in this scene) bowled me over. It sets up perfectly the sense of despair as the chance for action and victory fades away with the mist.

Richard Hickox did an excellent job with the orchestra. To circumvent the monotony that is reasonable to expect from 150 minutes of all male voices, Britten used his large orchestra in continually inventive ways: the drum roll that heralds Billy's fatal flaw, his stammer; the bluesy saxophone lines; the discordant warbling of the piccolo in Billy's tragic dawn song, before the hanging. All of that rich color shone forth under Mr. Hickox's skilled leadership. Dwayne Croft (Billy Budd) sang valiantly through a bad cold, which was announced before curtain, to appreciate applause from the audience. I felt quite sorry for him as he hung from the yardarm for all that time, immobile. For me, the main quality of his performance was to bring out the dopey incomprehension of the character. It is not just that he is an innocent, happy to be pressed back into naval service because he is happy wherever he happens to be, but that he is, forgive me, somewhat stupid. Mr. Croft's face gave us a very clear understanding of how Billy is often such a fool, as his friend Dansker tells him.

Robin Leggate, I agree with Jens, had the right presence for Captain Vere, the idealistic, over-educated noble ideal of "Starry Vere" whose sense of decorum prevents him from stopping Billy's execution. He was vocally powerful when he needed to be and smooth and light at other times. The three lead officers under him (Bruce Baumer as Ratcliffe, Peter Volpe as Mr. Flint, and especially John Hancock as Mr. Redburn) were all excellent. The only performance I would mention that Jens omitted was the Washington premiere of American tenor John McVeigh, as the sailing novice flogged and threatened by Claggart, so that he agrees to try to pin mutiny charges on Billy. He sang and acted very well, for a role that is the combination of servile yesmanship and frightened adolescence. He received a nice round of bravos at the curtain call for his efforts.
The last time Tim Page called a Washington (National) Opera production an unmitigated success, a milestone, a jewel etc., I started to believe in parallel universes we might inhabit. Then it was the Walküre, a, as I thought, decent performance at best (see my review published on April 14). This time it is Billy Budd and while the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and I are—pardon the pun—still not on the same page, I now know what he is writing about.

To see Billy Budd—a modern opera still, despite being in service for over half a century—come on the heels of the superbly staged and directed Andrea Chénier (see Ionarts reviews on September 24 and September 9) was a delight. Where is the timid ultraconservatism that usually drives me nuts about the WNO? Perhaps with the combination of those two operas the WNO has turned a new page as said critic suggests.

If Benjamin Britten's work—all men, as it takes place on board of the HMS Indomitable—is well done, it can be a chilling delight, an opera that works exceptionally well, almost despite itself. The characters, apart from lacking the vocal range given the absence of women (a few squeaky trebles don't count), are black or white, and to the rare extent that they are gray, even that gray is sharply delineated. Britten does not go for subtlety or realism here, as far as the drama is concerned. It's a fable on good and evil with a heavy homoerotic subtext that wasn't in the original Melville novel. In fact, in its operatic version, Billy Budd reminds me unfailingly of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's last film, Querelle. Take it as that, sing it well, stage it impressively and voilà: the revised 2-act version should work. The WNO gets 2 ½ out of 3, and it works very well.

Francesca Zambella, who so incensed me with her blatant self-plagiarization in Die Walküre (Fidelio regurgitated in black), did a magnificent job, if heavy on the symbolism at times. Costumes could have been a tad less traditional for the officers, but no matter what you put on 50-some built, sweaty sailor boys, it's bound to look pretty good.

The singing was at a very high level. Sam Ramey, as the relatively evil Master-at-Arms John Claggart, has a bigger name than voice by now, but he is still impressive by all means. Besides, his experience on stage (he's probably played every incarnation of the Devil that exists in opera) paid off handsomely, handsomely indeed! His poofy hair, however, made him look silly and was distracting. At the Met [see production photo—CTD] he had it all pulled back and looked deliciously evil!

Robin Leggate's Captain Vere was all he needed to be, torn and sturdy, betraying—more in tone than in voice—a certain frailty. He was a wonderful embodiment of the character, though in his prologue I would have wished for a more reflected, inward-turned presentation of an old man, once more powerful, once more vigorous, experienced now, and his light not quite yet dimmed. The way Robin Leggate sang it, it came across more as a justification to the audience. A minor quibble, though.

Peter Volpe as Mr. Flint, one of the neutral characters, was a delight. He seemed menacing and arrogant, as mean-spirited as John Claggart ought to have been, only to show the audience that the looks and the first impression of his character had us misjudge him when he never capitalizes on evil. I assume this was not the director's intention, but it worked for me as a cute little subplot. Mr. Redburn, played and sung by John Hancock, had a towering presence both vocally and physically. The 6'8" latecomer to opera always seemed as though he could sing the rest of the cast overboard if only he wanted to. Instead of doing that, however, he held back nicely, especially in the delightful terzett in Capt. Vere's cabin. Steven Cole, as the little creepy Squeak, sent mixed signals through his character, but no one sings "Yes Sir, Yes Sir, Yes Sir" quite like him.

This leaves Dwayne Croft among the characters that deserve special mention. Singing was good and well done, save for very occasional problems in holding long lines. But with his character stands and falls the opera, and here was where a fault could be found with this Billy Budd, though not a fatal one—pace the other qualities of the production. Croft's Billy was physically dominant, in and of itself not a problem. But Billy Budd is "all good," a gentle, fine and delicate naïf, goodness and beauty personified in such an unobtrusive way as not to cause envy or anger among common men. It is this goodness, this "can't-do-no-wrong" that is the uncomfortable mirror to John Claggart, who cannot but be reminded of his own jaded, cynical, bad self. Billy, therefore, must be undone.

Unfortunately, Croft's Billy was a cocksure, swaggering "do-gooder" who elicited a response not of awe or goodness but of creepy suspicion. Had I been Mr. Redburn I, too, would have told Claggart to keep an eye on that fellow, for that Billy made you wonder... there seemed something odd about him. The line between open, honest goodness and "what's he hiding?" is thin and difficult to nail when you have to sing your guts out at the same time, but it could have been and must be done. The explanation that I toyed with, namely that the direction aimed at diffusing the evil-good border a bit to have us better understand why Billy Budd is pursued by John Claggart, does not make sense as Claggard would have to have been less menacing and one-dimensionally evil than he was. Besides, the whole opera doesn't really take to such a concept. (At least that's what I feel until shown otherwise.) That major-minor objection apart, the whole thing was still captivating. It's an opera that demands being in the mood for. If you are... and well rested and alert, it is a very fine experience indeed. If not, it can get a bit long, even if the drama picks up in the second act when tension and speed increase significantly.

Mme. Zambella's sparse, evocative, gorgeous set helped quite a bit. A massive, raised rectangle over the corner was the deck, with trap doors being the only way onto and off it. The front triangle-shaped half of the deck can be raised or lowered with hydraulics, making for a staggeringly impressive battle scene (just what was that pathetic blue rag hanging on the mast? A sail? Sorry looking and limp, it needed omitting!) as well as an intimate cabin below deck.

Richard Hickox was a godsend to the orchestra and got a performance from his band that was very fine playing. To see this brilliant champion of English music at work was a delight, and the eerier parts of the orchestration (was that a glass harmonica I heard?) came through with color and plastic as though you could touch. With such playing, who cares if it wasn't 100% clean?! The chorus's acting was mediocre, which is better than the usual "dismal" (a curse of all opera houses, not just the WNO): movements were sometimes incoherent or otherwise ruined by stage hawks and overacting. One way to help out as a director would be to actually make them do things. For example, have them pull a rope rather than act out pulling it. The mechanics involved may seem a bit excessive for that bit of realism, but I think it might just be worth it.

The epilogue was downright brilliant. Picking up where the prologue left us, Capt. Vere is again a much older man, reflecting on how Billy Budd's forgiveness (he was hanged after more or less accidentally killing Claggart, who had wrongly accused him of mutiny) had saved him. Meanwhile we can still see Billy's body through the semitransparent curtain behind Vere... dangling, suspended 10 feet above the stage with a spot light on him. Perhaps a bit much on the Christ/Resurrection theme, but chilling. A stunning if qualified success then. And a must see if you "don't like the French!"

Gregor Schneider

In an article (Houses of horror, September 22) for The Guardian, Gordon Burn describes the new work of German shock artist Gregor Schneider (profiled by Noemi Smolik in 2000):

Die Familie Schneider, his new show in London, features living, breathing, wanking people and represents a startling, and hugely risky, change of direction. It has been made possible by Artangel, an organisation Schneider has long admired for its determination to "think outside the museum". Adjacent houses in a Victorian terrace in Whitechapel in east London have been acquired. The houses have been decorated and "distressed" to the artist's exact specifications. Down to the tiniest wallpaper tear and ceiling stain, they are identical. For the duration of the show they will be occupied by two "families" of identical twins, one in each house, whose movements throughout a seven-hour day will be co-ordinated precisely. Only one visitor will be admitted at a time. Nobody under the age of 16 will get in. The address is available only on application.
Die Familie Schneider opens on October 2. You can also check out Schneider's major project, Totes Haus Ur (1985–2004) in Rheydt, an installation project Schneider has been constructing inside his childhood home (last shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles this past summer).

UPDATE:
See also Sukhdev Sandhu, Where angels fear to tread (The Telegraph, October 9).

28.9.04

This Sounds Familiar

Michael Bloomberg

"Some things people can afford, some things people can't," said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose estimated personal fortune is $4.9 billion, about the admissions hike at MOMA to $20.
Donald Rumsfeld

"If there were to be an area where the extremists focused during the election period, and an election was not possible in that area at that time, so be it," said U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, concerning the forthcoming Iraq vote.

Hanjo in Brussels

Hanjo, De Munt, 2004 © Johan JacobsI'm trying to follow up on the operas I listed in my preview of the Opera Season, 2004–2005. (See my post on the reviews of the Pelléas at the Opéra Bastille in Paris.) Another unusual production I noted was Toshio Hosokawa's Hanjo, at the Théâtre de La Monnaie (De Munt) in Brussels (September 7 to 12, 2004), a new opera based on a modern Noh play by Yukio Mishima. Here are some photographs of the production. The only news reference to the production I could find, from Abeille Info, was about its first appearance, this past summer, at the Festival International d'Aix-en-Provence, which coproduced the opera (see this watercolor of Hanako's costume). Here is my translation of what one reviewer (Claude Jottrand, July 16, for Forum Opera) said about the performance in Aix-en-Provence (which has some good pictures, too):

Mishima, whom Western countries know more as a novelist, wanted to be a dramatist first and foremost, as a great admirer of the classical tragedy as well as the traditional Japanese Noh play, from which he drew a good part of his inspiration. Five of his modern Noh plays were translated into English by Donald Keene (but also into French by Marguerite Yourcenar, who was especially inspired by this difficult exercise). It's on the basis of one of the English translations that Toshio Hosokawa, considered today, since the death of Takemitsu, as the most important composer of the Japanese school, composed his first opera, Hanjo, for three voices and chamber orchestra, dedicated to his friend Kazushi Ono, director of the Monnaie orchestra.

Through this work, for which he also wrote the libretto, Hosokawa succeeds in creating a remarkable synthesis of poem and music, by integrating movement, all of it under the sign of contemplation. Hanako, a young woman [a geisha], goes every morning to the Tokyo train station and searches the faces of the men there in the hope of finding Yoshida, her one-time client of three years ago, who promised to come find her. They exchanged their fans as a sign of faith, but when Yoshida came back, Hanako had been fired from her work and could not be found. Since then, she has taken refuge in hope and in imagination, almost to the point of insanity; she was brought back by Jitsuko, a woman painter who was moved by her story and beauty but who lives in fear of losing her if Yoshida comes back. He soon appears and asks to see Hanako again, which Jitsuko opposes. He cries out his love to be heard by her, but when the lovers find themselves face to face at last, Hanako chooses not to recognize Yoshida and continues in her frustrated desire and the sublime exhaustion of a wait that is enough by itself.

Hosokawa's music owes much to that of his teacher, Takemitsu, and thus indirectly to the Boulez school, but with numerous personal elements, a great refinement of color and timber—you also think of Berio—an immense tenderness and a particularly subtle sense of balance, made of juxtaposed sound climates that perfectly integrate the voice into the instrumental writing. The vocal parts are treated according to three alternating styles: song, spoken voice, and a sort of intermediate Sprechgesang, which mingle easily. Very well represented by the fluid conducting of Ono, who caresses the music with bare hands like a sculpture, served up with much care and respect by the Monnaie chamber orchestra, the score "adheres" wonderfully with the libretto, which it reinforces both in sense and poetry. Then, the score ends as it began, with the whispering breath of nature, the imperceptible movement of lie suspending in waiting.
The singers were good, as were the design of Teresa de Keersmaeker and the costumes of Tim van Steenbergen. France Musiques recorded the Aix performance, which will be broadcast this year, and the production will appear again at the Vienna Festwochen in May 2005. You can also read Pieter Bijlsma's Letter from Aix-en-Provence 2004, for Opera Japonica.

27.9.04

Washington Bach Consort Opens 28th Season

St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, 18th centuryThe death of composer Johann Kuhnau meant that the Leipzig City Council had to fill the position of Kantor of St. Thomas Church, which Kuhnau had held from 1701 to 1722, with a suitable candidate. They really wanted Georg Philipp Telemann, who had worked previously in Leipzig, but he ended up accepting a salary increase from his employer in Hamburg, where he really wanted to stay. The council next tried to engage Christoph Graupner, who was educated in Leipzig and was quite successful in his position as Kapellmeister in Darmstadt. Graupner wanted the job but could not convince his employer to release him from his contract. That left only the least desireable, third candidate, an organist with a good if provincial reputation from the jobs he had held around Eisenstadt but whose compositions were not well known. His name was Johann Sebastian Bach.

One of the best listening opportunities in the Washington musical world is the Washington Bach Consort. This chorus and instrumental ensemble is probably the best performing group with a specialized repertory resident in the nation's capital. For the first concert of their 28th season, yesterday afternoon (September 26) at the National Presbyterian Church, the Bach Consort presented a program called "Leipzig Legacy," with works by former Thomaskantor Kuhnau, and the three candidates to replace him, Telemann, Graupner, and of course J. S. Bach. The idea is ingenious, and the execution was superb.

The first piece was a Concerto for Two Horns in F (TWV 52:F 3), which had never been performed in the Americas until yesterday, according to the introduction of the Bach Consort's director, J. Reilly Lewis. The soloists, R. J. Kelley and John Boden, played on natural horns, instruments that have no valves and are not as powerful as their modern descendants. As a result, they are played with the bell turned upward and outward, to maximize the sound production. This concerto is a charming piece in four movements. The opening Largo is really just a brief introduction to the following Allegro. For the most part, Telemann has the two soloists play together almost exclusively, with only a few examples of contrapuntal interplay. The instrument almost requires a composer to use some hunting-call motifs, which are heard in the second movement, sometimes when the orchestra and continuo are all given rests, allowing the horns to play alone. The slow movement (a graceful triple-meter Siciliana) provided the opportunity for the impressively skilled soloists to introduce a number of ornaments, and you can imagine the effect of a trill on a valveless brass instrument. The concluding Allegro has a rollicking, folksy character, complete with a drone-like accompaniment.

The first sound the Bach Consort chorus made was Johann Kuhnau's motet for Holy Week, Tristis est anima mea, which they sang from the sacristy (behind the organ wall) without instrumental accompaniment. Each phrase of text is set to its own expressive music: somber homophonic chords with clashing dissonances ("My soul is sorrowful even unto death"), imitative entrances on a sustained melody ("Stay here a while and watch with me"), strong declamatory homophonic chords ("Now you shall see the mob that will surround me"), imitative entrances on a long descending melody that runs away ("You shall take flight"), and imitative entrances on a striking descending diminished seventh melody ("And I shall go to be sacrificed for you") that comes to a halt on a seventh chord in the 4/2 inversion (on the word "immolari"). When the piece was done, organist Scott Dettra played an ornamented version of the motet on the portative organ to accompany the singers from the back of the church to their risers.

This prevented applause, so that we could appreciate the next piece, J. S. Bach's motet Der Gerechte kommt um, composed later in Leipzig, which is a concerted adaptation of Kuhnau's motet. Its German text ("Now the just man is lost") also seems to be appropriate to Holy Week, and you can clearly hear the poignant themes of his predecessor's work come back in Bach's version: the "Sustinete" motif, the suspensions, and the downward leap of "Ego vadam," filled out triadically in Bach's motet, as well as the dramatic pause on the inverted seventh chord. This was the most interesting part of the concert, in my opinion.

The major duty of the Thomaskantor job was the weekly preparation of a cantata for Sunday performance. The remaining two pieces of the concert's first half were examples of the "audition cantatas" that both Graupner and Bach submitted to the Leipzig Town Council when they applied for the job. Although in his position at Darmstadt, Graupner composed mostly solo cantatas, his cantata Aus der Tiefen rufen wir (Out of the depths we call) is predominantly for chorus, which was the sort of work that was needed in Leipzig. The first movement is a broad homophonic ABA form for chorus, setting a very personal text about suffering in life and waiting for death. The second movement is a set of recitatives and ariosos for tenor, chorus, soprano, and bass, in which we are transported to that final moment of death and seek the support of God in our trial. This sets up a refrain-like return of the A section of the opening chorus ("Aus der Tiefen rufen wir Gott") and the arrival of the third movement ("Brunnquell der Gnaden") introduced by the soprano and alto soloists but mostly sung by the chorus. The instrumental ritornello that introduces the last movement has a very strange syncopated effect in the violins: in a fast triple meter, they have short notes, in separate measures, on beats 1 then 2 then 3. The effect is unsettling but also humorously uplifting.

Bach's audition cantata Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn (BWV 23), one of two he submitted, is strikingly different from the Graupner cantata and does a great job of showing the choice the Leipzig Town Council had to make. Bach's cantata is intense, dark, and personal in tone, and its musical devices—such as vocal counterpoint and the use of the chorale Christe, du Lamm Gottes (a German adaptation of the Gregorian ordinary chant Agnus dei)—are far more complex and challenging to singers and listeners. The first movement, an aria for soprano and alto soloists, has a gorgeous instrumental ritornello that introduces the contrapuntal solo parts. The chorale is played by the orchestra to accompany the second movement, a recitative for tenor soloist. The third movement features the chorus answering solo lines, which Bach tends to use to highlight the individual lines of the text (as at "Und die meinen sonderlich," or "And mine own especially"). Bach later incorporated this cantata's beautiful final movement, a concerted setting of the same chorale melody, into his St. John's Passion.

The second half of the concert began with Scott Dettra playing Bach's Toccata in E Major (BWV 566) from the church's large main organ. This piece is fairly typical of the toccata genre, as it is divided into several short sections in different styles, including two large fugal sections. Mr. Dettra is a recent addition to the musical life of Washington. In addition to his work with the Bach Consort, he plays for the Cathedral Choral Society and Episcopal High School in Alexandria. You should be glad he is here, because the man can play. The first fugal section of this toccata was played at an incredibly fast tempo and with remarkable accuracy.

To fit with the ingenious idea of the program, giving the audience the chance to hear the three candidates for the Leipzig position side by side, it would have been more interesting to hear an example of Telemann's cantatas. Director J. Reilly Lewis explained his choice of the concerto for two horns, which opened the program, as a desire to feature the two horn soloists, who also played for the secular cantata that concluded the program, Bach's Dramma per musica: Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen (BWV 213), more commonly known as Herkules auf dem scheidewege (Hercules at the crossroads). This quasi-operatic piece (the closest Bach ever was to composing an opera, at any rate), on a text by Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici) was composed in 1733 to be performed in the Leipzig coffee garden run by Gottfried Zimmermann.

J. Reilly LewisFor the Bach Consort's performance, J. Reilly Lewis conducted while playing some of the continuo parts on the portative organ, while Scott Dettra played the other continuo parts from the harpsichord. After an opening chorus, most of this cantata consists of arias and recitatives for the four vocal soloists, the most famous of which is Hercules's aria Treues Echo dieser Orten (Faithful Echo of these places). The oboe obbligato part was echoed by the first oboist, who was off in one of the transepts, and the vocal solo (Patricia Green) was echoed by one of the choral singers, Gisèle Becker, who was behind the pulpit. This aria, as well as most of the music from this secular cantata, were reused by Bach in the fourth part of his Christmas Oratorio. In my opinion, the music is used to much greater effect in its sacred setting, and the inanity of the secular text may have been part of the reason why Bach wanted to use this music again.

All in all, this was an excellent performance. The Bach Consort is still providing Washington the chance to hear historically informed and beautiful renditions of the works of Bach and the rest of the 18th century. J. Reilly Lewis, the master of color and texture, brought out the finest details from his musicians with his often strange gestures. The horn soloists and all four vocal soloists (Jacqueline Horner, Patricia Green, Joseph Gaines, and James Weaver) performed well. There were a few moments of rhythmic disunity, in the third movement of Du wahrer Gott, for example, all of which were quickly righted. What I did miss in this performance was ornamentation, especially on all of those da capo repeats of A sections, and particularly from the vocal soloists.

Day Trippin, Yeah

Well, it was actually two days but I've been wanting to use that title for a while. I made it to New York this past week to see the first of the fall shows, starting in Chelsea, which seems to grow with every season. This is what I found memorable, besides The Wild Lily Tea Room on W 22nd for lunch.

Alex Katz, 6:30 AM,  2004The show to see is Alex Katz's Twelve Paintings at Pace Wildenstein. I rarely get to see his work in the flesh, so this was a show I looked forward to. There are ten portraits and two landscapes. The portraits are of well-known New Yorkers such as Martha Stewart, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, and his well-known wife and muse, Ada. Katz is a master of simple elegance. If you only get to see his work in reproductions he'll seem slick and removed. In reality there are definite brush strokes, brush hairs, and some really good painting. Most of the attention has been on the portraits, but the showstopper for me was an eleven-foot square image of a tree in muted greys entitled 6:30 AM (seen right). I had to adjust my eyes from the bright portraits to appreciate this subtle beauty. Keep an eye on the landscapes as this guy grows older, they're honest meditative insights.

Cotton candy. I've been concerned lately as to whether my work is reflecting the harrowing times which we have all been thrust into. Should it be reflected in my work? Should I be making a grand statement? Should I go Goya on your ass? I am less concerned after seeing Will Cotton at Mary Boone.

Bellwether is a new addition to Chelsea, by way of Brooklyn, and they have an exhibit, by Kirsten Hassenfeld, of amazing cut paper/origami fantasy objects and chandeliers. Feigen Contemporary is showing the obsessive paintings of visionary artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein and staged pin-up photos of his wife Marie. Sears-Peyton is showing "polagrids" by John Higgins, polaroids shot with a 4x5 camera and somehow transferred to watercolor paper. It's a nice technique with an arrangement of several transfers for each piece.

In a dank old garage on 27th, "a movement of emerging Albany artists infiltrate NYC," called "One Night Stand" (Thursday). I'd like to see this happen more often: hope they at least got breakfast and a note on the pillow. Up on 57th, Sue Coe has some zingers for Bush and Co. at Gallerie St Etienne. I knew she had it in her. A well-done installation at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is entitled "The 1930's: Modern American Design." The central gallery is set as a 1930s, hip New York appartment, complete with period furniture, art, and muffled jazz playing from an old radio.

I'm a fan of Lois Dodd. Alexandre Gallery has a grouping of small oils on roofing tin appropriately called "Flashings." On the way to the train I went thru Rockefeller Center to see the Jonathan Borofsky installation, Walking To The Sky. Unlike the recent sculpture Man/Woman here in Baltimore (see my post from June 4), this is a real crowd pleaser. It's a fun, "hey, that's cool" kind of piece. It fits well in the "Capitalist Canyon," and it won't ruffle any feathers. Where is Diego Rivera when you need him?

Dip Your Ears, No. 11 (A Mosaïque of Haydn)

available at Amazon
J.Haydn, Quartets, op.76,
Quatour Mosaïques
naïve

available at Amazon
J.Haydn, Quartets, op.64/1, 3, 6,
Quatour Mosaïques
naïve

available at Amazon
J.Haydn, Quartets, op.20,
Quatour Mosaïques
naïve

available at Amazon
J.Haydn, Quartets, op.33,
Quatour Mosaïques
naïve


Haydn is the father of the string quartet, and his output in that field is impressive equally for its quantity and quality. Spirited playing of those masterpieces can be found with the Kodaly Quartet (on Naxos) and the Lindseys (on ASV)—to mention only two recent groups that excelled in capturing Haydn's quartets on record. If you like performances on period instruments, or simply Haydn, you must listen to the Quatour Mosaïques's take on the op. 77 works (or any of their other Haydn recordings, for that matter). Easily as spirited as the Lindseys and technically more accurate, they create a joy that is palpable, recorded as well as live. Not seemingly held back by their old instruments or historically informed performance practice, they are to Haydn right now what the Takacs Quartet is to Beethoven. Gramophone recommends for a reason. Smile!

See also: "No Room to Hide - An Introduction to Haydn's String Quartets" (Listen Magazine, Winter 2012)


26.9.04

Exception Noted

I went and got myself involved in the latest scuffle involving A. C. Douglas at sounds & fury (see my post yesterday) when I agreed with Scott Spiegelberg's side of the argument. In a post yesterday, ACD wrote of what he clearly perceived as an ad hominem attack in my post, for which I am sorry. What I said was that I was puzzled by how "intelligent people, who are not untrained in music," by which I meant Schopenhauer, Proust, and ACD (not bad company, I thought), could "really think of music as so ineffably mysterious." People can certainly appreciate music without analyzing it intellectually and historiographically, but for me that sort of listening seems subjective and superficial. All I wanted to do in my post was to direct readers to the argument, which I found interesting. I did speculate that ACD's embrace of music as an aesthetic mystery might be related to his personalized style of musical analysis. For any offense that my post may have caused, I apologize. With the rest of his response, I think ACD said enough that we can call this even and move on. Lesson learned. Again.

Dip Your Ears, No. 10

cover
Saint-Saëns, Piano Concertos,
J.-P.Collard / A.Previn
EMI



cover
Saint-Saëns, Piano Concertos,
P.Rogé / C.Dutoit
Decca



cover
Saint-Saëns, Piano Concertos,
S.Hough / S.Oramo
Hyperion

Saint-Saëns was embarrassed to see the Carnival of the Animals published. He shouldn't have been... he should have burned the score, though, if it can be blamed for the serious composer Saint-Saëns still being given short shrift apart from his Organ Symphony. His piano concertos—all five of them—are among the most eminently enjoyable works in that genre and, although light, entertaining music, no child's play at all. They are unabashedly Romantic but freer, less gloomy and less backwards-looking than the works of his eastern European contemporaries who also dabbled in the realm of the piano concerto. J.-P. Collard and André Previn do an amiable and admirable job and challenge—almost—the splendid Rogé/Dutoit "double-Decca." Neither can match the Stephen Hough recording on Hyperion (which, however, isn't perfectly engineered), but the price on this double forte release is good and the music is well done and deserves your ears, no matter in which version.

The Play of Illusion

Eyes, Lies and Illusions
Laurent Mannoni, Werner Nekes, Marina Warner, Eyes, Lies and Illusions: The Art of Deception (Lund Humphries)
In an article (The desert of the real, September 25) for The Guardian, Marina Warner previews an upcoming exhibit—Eyes, Lies and Illusions (October 7, 2004, to January 3, 2005) at the Hayward Gallery in London—for which she is curatorial adviser.
In the medieval Christian tradition, the devil is a mimic, an actor, a performance artist, and he imitates the wonders of nature and the divine work of creation. Unlike God, he can only conjure visions as illusions, as he did when, in the person of Mephistopheles, he summoned the pageant of the deadly sins for Doctor Faustus and then seduced him with the appearance of Helen of Troy. The Devil summons images in the mind's eye, playing on desires and weaknesses; the word "illusion" comes from ludere, "to play" in Latin. Conjurors mimic his tricks: an early Christian Father, denouncing magicians, gives a vivid account of the lamps and mirrors or basins of water they used, how they even conjured the stars by sticking fish scales or the skins of sea horses to the ceiling.
That is the same Marina Warner, Novelist and Mythographer, whom I came to know through her books on the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc. From her introduction, I would say that this exhibit is likely to be quite interesting.