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31.1.05

Ionarts Concert Schedule: Early February

Performances in bold are considered to be particularly noteworthy. Abbreviations used here are:

Tuesday, February 1, 12:10 pm
Washington Bach Consort Noontime Cantata Series [FREE]
Jesu, nun sei gepreiset, BWV 41, and Paul Skevington, organist
The Church of the Epiphany (13th and G Streets NW)

Thursday, February 3, 7 pm; Friday, February 4, and Saturday, February 5, 8 pm
KC: National Symphony Orchestra, with Leonidas Kavakos, violin
See the review by Tim Page (Washington Post, February 4)

Friday, February 4, 8 pm
Divas on the Edge: Women on the brink of a nervous breakdown, with Christine Antenbring and Lyubov Petrova, accompanied Mikhail Hallak, piano
La Maison Française (4101 Reservoir Road NW)
See Ionarts double review (February 7)

Friday, February 4, 8 pm
LOC: Danilo Pérez Trio [FREE]

Saturday, February 5, 8 pm
CSC: Washington Bach Consort: Hallelujah Handel
See the review by Joseph McLellan (Washington Post, February 7)

Sunday, February 6, 5 pm
PC: Verdehr Trio (violin, clarinet, and piano, from my alma mater, Michigan State University) [FREE, but only with paid admission to the museum]
See the review by Gail Wein (Washington Post, February 8)

Sunday, February 6, 6:30 pm
NGA: National Gallery Vocal Arts Ensemble and Smithsonian Chamber Players (Johann Thiele, Saint Matthew Passion, 1637) [FREE]

Tuesday, February 8, 7:30 pm
TT: Fine Arts Quartet with Sara Wolfensohn, piano
See the review by Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, February 11)

Thursday, February 10, 8 pm
LOC: Aviv String Quartet [FREE]
See review by Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, February 12)

Thursday, February 10, 7 pm; Friday, February 11, 8 pm; Saturday, February 12, 8 pm
KC: National Symphony Orchestra, with Lynn Harrell, cello
See review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, February 11)

Friday, February 11, 7 pm
Vanessa Pérez, piano (music by Albeniz, Ravel, Chopin, and Arturo Sandoval) [FREE]
Embassy of Venezuela (2443 Massachusetts Avenue NW)

Friday, February 11, 8 pm
CGA: Jupiter Quartet

Friday, February 11, 8 pm; Saturday, February 12, 8 pm; Sunday, February 13, 3 pm
CSC: Mozart, The Impresario, François Loup (piano accompaniment)
See the review by Joseph McLellan (Washington Post, February 13)

Friday, February 11, 8 pm; Sunday, February 13, 2 pm
Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Virginia Opera
George Mason Center for the Arts (Fairfax, Va.)
See the review by Tim Page (Washington Post, February 11)

Saturday, February 12, 2 pm
TT: Paul Lewis, piano, all-Beethoven program (WPAS)
See the review by Tim Page (Washington Post, February 14)

Saturday, February 12, 4:30 pm
KC: King's Singers (WPAS)
See the review by Joan Reinthaler (Washington Post, February 13)

Saturday, February 12, 8 pm
Woodley Ensemble, Music for a New Age (Pärt, Tavener, Gorecki, Macmillan)
St. Columba's Episcopal Church, Tenleytown

Sunday, February 13, 2 pm
TT: Kennedy Center Chamber Players: Brahms/Beethoven

Sunday, February 13, 4 pm
KC: Prague Symphony Orchestra, all-Dvořák program (WPAS)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, February 15) and the review by Joseph McLellan (Washington Post, February 14)

Sunday, February 13, 5 pm
PC: Contrasts (chamber ensemble) [FREE, with paid admission to museum]
See the review by Daniel Ginsberg (Washington Post, February 14)

Sunday, February 13, 6:30 pm
NGA: Thomas Hrynkiw, pianist [FREE]

Tuesday, February 15, 8 pm
KC: Renée Fleming (soprano) and Hartmut Höll (piano) (WPAS/VAS)

——» Go to previous concert schedule, for Late January.

Crazy Days of Beethoven

As previewed by Marie-Aude Roux in her article (Une Folle Journée entre amis pour Beethoven à Nantes, January 23) for Le Monde, the Folles Journées 2005 in Nantes this year is dedicated to an insane four days of nothing but Beethoven, around the clock (270 concerts over five days). How do they make this work? They bring as many top-notch musicians as they can get (take a look at the program, which is a .PDF file), and they charge rock-bottom ticket prices. According to this article (Le Beethoven tour, January 28) by Edouard Launet for Libération, the 2006 event will be devoted to Renaissance and Baroque music from England, with National Schools after 1850 for 2007, and Music of the 20th Century for 2008. According to this article (La "Folle Journée", un moteur culturel et économique pour Nantes, January 28) from Agence France-Presse, the budget of 1.9 million € ($2.48 million) comes mostly from city and national arts funding (have I mentioned lately that the United States needs a Department of Culture?) and some private partners.

This year Nantes's "crazy days" of Beethoven will go on the road, at least in part, to Bilbao, Spain (March 4 to 6), Lisbon, Portugal (April 22 to 24), and Tokyo, Japan (April 29 to May 1). In other places around the world, a lost concerto fragment by Beethoven gets a first hearing (Debut for unknown Beethoven work, January 28, BBC News), Jessica Duchen comments on Kurt Masur's Beethoven symphony cycle with the London Philharmonic, and the Takács Quartet plays a popular Beethoven cycle in New York (Kathryn Shattuck, Still Immortal, Still Beloved, Still Heard Everywhere, New York Times, January 30).

UPDATE:
Anglophone Paris music blogger Never Been Home (thanks to Alex Ross for the link) has some other Beethoven events.

Movies about Rome

As I mentioned in a recent post, I will be in Rome next month, taking part in a recording project in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. At that point, no one had any ideas to offer for things I should try to see or do when in Rome, so I am asking a different question. What films are set in Rome that are worth seeing again before I leave? Based on recent reviewings of Roman Holiday and the two Fellini films listed below, I am ready to become involved in crazy adventures with beautiful princesses and starlets, preferably avoiding paparazzi while racing around in a sports car. Here are the films that came to mind for viewing before my trip:

If you can think of any other films set in Rome, perhaps with a different vantage point, that's what the Comments link is for down there.

30.1.05

Aurélie Nemours (1910–2005) and Jacques Villeret (1951–2005)

What is it about deaths that they come in groups? Two renowned sopranos have recently passed (Renata Tebaldi and Victoria de Los Angeles), a television host, not to mention some great American artists (Agnes Martin and Anne Truitt), and now I am reading the tributes from France for two other artistic figures in that country who have signed their final works. Geometric painter Aurélie Nemours (née Marcelle Baron), the grande dame of French abstract artists (see my post from June 21, 2004), died on January 26, at the age of 94. An article (Aurélie Nemours est décédée, January 28) from France 2 Cultural News reports:

For 50 years, she tirelessly explored the same themes, focusing on symmetries, asymmetries, squares, rectangles, and lines. Often with black and white, which she knew how to render like velvet (Demeures) and which she made vibrate with contrasts. But she always alternated work in black and white with work in color. Bright colors, reds and apple greens, vibrate while other colors, violet and gray, were declined in several tones, until they melted into black. "A painting has to burn, and that's all," she used to say. "Before form, there is rhythm, whose number is the secret," Aurélie Nemours also used to say. In the series Rythme du millimètre (1977–1982), she pushed the vibration of black and white to the extreme, in fine lines or in squares. For L'innombrable [The innumerable], the culmination of this work, she worked for almost a year on 17,000 squares.
Although she stopped painting in 1992, the article continues, one of her final and favorite projects came to completion just before she died. Alignement pour le 21e siècle (Alignment for the 21st century, begun in the 1980s) is a group of 72 columns in blond granite, each 4.5 meters (14.76 feet) tall. It will be installed on the Beauregard site near the University of Rennes. Since the site is in Brittany, I imagine that it is a minimalistic updating of the famous menhir alignments, such as the large one at Carnac. According to an article (L'alignement qui fait grincer des dents, April 22, 2004) by Constance Rondet for Le Point, the cost of that public sculpture, 1.6 million € (US$2.1 million) has made some of the locals grumble. It shouldn't, as the article explains, because Nemours herself not only received no payment for it, she gave the French government and the museum in Rennes many of her artworks in return for funding of this project. I can't find any images of Alignement, but I'll keep my eye out for any news about it.

Other tributes I have seen are by Hervé Gauville (Aurélie Nemours, point à la ligne, January 28) for Libération and Geneviève Breerette (Aurélie Nemours, peintre, January 29) for Le Monde. Probably the last interview with Nemours, conducted in November 2004, was just published by Jean-Jacques Gay (Aurélie Nemours, l'art comme ultime espoir [Aurélie Nemours, art as ultimate hope], January 28) on the Web site seniorplanet.fr. She was born in Paris and had a difficult childhood. Her father died when she was only 2 years old, and at 8 she was raised in the care of nuns in Passy. What she called an education "founded on discipline, the practice of silence, and meditation" led her to three years of study at the Ecole du Louvre and the pursuit of higher studies in mathematics, Latin, theology, astronomy, and philosophy. She did not begin to study art until the 1940s, working under Paul Colin, André Lhote, and Fernand Léger. What an amazing life.

Also, French comic actor Jacques Villeret died suddenly last Friday, January 28, at the age of 53. He was the ultimate sad sack, most notably as the hapless François Pignon in Francis Veber's Le Dîner de Cons (1998). Tributes include Antoine de Baecque (Villeret quitte la table, January 29) for Libération, Thomas Sotinel (Jacques Villeret est mort, January 30) for Le Monde, and many others. President Jacques Chirac honored him for the sincerity in his humor. Well said. He is our hero in Le Dîner de Cons because, although he was a jackass obsessed with match building projects, he meant everything he said.

The Aztec Empire at the Guggenheim

Related Resources:

Holland Cotter, A Lost Culture, Drenched in Blood and Beauty (New York Times, October 15, 2004)

Peter Schjeldahl, Memento Mori (The New Yorker, November 1, 2004)

Frederick M. Winship, Guggenheim museum revisits Aztec empire (Washington Times, from UPI, November 19, 2004)

Michele Leight, The Aztec Empire: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (The City Review, with lots of great images)

Carolyn Weaver, Aztec Art Exhibit Showcases Fascinating Civilization (Voice of America News, December 17, 2004)

Jennifer Viegas, Aztecs Cooked, Skinned, Ate Humans (Discovery News, January 25, 2005; thanks to Cronaca for this link)

Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya (exhibit at the National Gallery of Art)

Mark Barry's visit to Teotihuacan
On my recent trip to New York (where I saw the excellent play 9 Parts of Desire), I spent my last morning in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum looking at the absolutely mind-blowing exhibit on The Aztec Empire (until February 13). The Guggenheim's Web site is pretty terrible, as far as images go, but there are some other images in the articles listed to the right. This exhibit is noteworthy because it is apparently the largest single collection of Aztec artifacts, most of them loaned from the Museo Nacional de Antropología, ever shown outside of Mexico. This cachet appears to have justified an outlandish admission price ($18, plus $5 for the audio tour), almost as high as the regular admission to the new MoMA, although it had no impact on the crowds happily forking over their money on the day that I visited.

This show gives an extended look into the obsessions of the Aztecs, with death and how it sustained life. Many of the sculptures depict their seemingly endless pantheon of gods, and the animals associated with them, beginning with the ground floor presentation of Quetzlcoatl (the feathered serpent, shown in a large serpent head sculpture) and the death goddess Coatlicue, with her skirt of serpents. The incredible number of objects encourages you to plumb the many associations these deities had for Aztec artists, such as the symbolism of the snake, shedding its skin and rejuvenating itself. One of the most striking pieces in the show is an anthropomorphic brazier (shown at left), in which a youthful human face is seen within an aged face, which is itself within a dead face, with hollow eyes like a snake skin. Looking at this piece gave me a new perspective on the Aztec practice of flaying sacrifice victims and priests wearing their skins until they rotted away, a ceremony depicted in the Xipe Totec sculpture also in the show.

For someone who has not yet visited any of the great Mesoamerican sites, the exhibit also provides some excellent pieces from the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlán and other temple sites, such as the Atlantean figures, sculptures that supported an Aztec temple at its four cardinal points. The Aztecs, like other Mesoamerican cultures, assimilated most of the legends of cultures that preceded them. They continued to revere the sacred city at Teotihuacan and appropriated artwork from much older cultures like the Olmec, worshipping the ancient goggle-eyed weather god, whom they called Tlaloc, at the Templo Mayor. There are some beautiful Olmec pieces in this exhibit, too, including several masks and a standing figure depicting the Jaguar-child motif found in that culture. According to the exhibit commentary, the Aztecs excavated the major Olmec sites, in a quest for their past.


Photograph by Michele Leight (www.thecityreview.com)
The exhibit has a lot of small pieces in the cases along Frank Lloyd Wright's spiral, but there are also some stunning large statues in the adjoining spaces. A statue of Mictlantecuhtli, ruler of the underworld, shoes his exposed liver splayed open like a flower, and an Eagle Warrior from the Templo Mayor towers over the visitor in a darkened room, representing "a standing man wearing a helmet in the form of an eagle, from whose beak the warrior's face emerges." Although there were Aztec warriors who wore this costume, recent research indicates that this statue may depict the Sun God, on whom the warriors' costume was based.

With a lot to think about, I spent my last few minutes in Manhattan wandering through Central Park. The bases of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's upcoming installation The Gates had been installed, with little orange plastic supports visible on all the paths winding through the park. Mark Barry tells me that he will be in New York for the opening (it will be in place from February 12 to 28) and will give us some pictures. We look forward to it.

UPDATE:
Thanks to Marja-Leena Rathje for her kind reference to and comment on this post.

Dip Your Ears, No. 25 (Fournier's Cello Suites)

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Suites for Unaccompanied Cello,
Pierre Fournier
Archiv

Among all the accounts of Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, this 1961 recording still stands out as the one by which to measure all others. Fournier does not play in a historically informed style—he is too grave and sometimes too slow for that—but the tension, the emotion, and the character with which he imbues these works make them eminently exciting. You are gripped from the first notes on, and you will want to listen all the way through to Suite No. 6. Particularly delightful, perhaps due to his predispositions to all things French, is every Allemande he puts his bow to. There is Wispelwey on Channel Classics for a riveting "authentic" performance, there is Maisky (his later DG recording) for idiosyncratic Romanticism, and Rostropovich for breakneck speeds (if unfortunately boring) on EMI, but Fournier is the one to come back to.

(See also: Bach Cello Suites)

29.1.05

Premiere of Democracy

Additional Remarks by Jens Laurson:

Democracy—An American Comedy is not a winner. Scott Wheeler's music sounds like uninspired John Adams for much of the duration of the work. Whenever the music is good, I felt like I was going to just about enjoy it... but I am not sure if I truly did. Sure enough, there are some good parts in it: Amanda Squitieri as Esther makes much of them with her round, warm, inviting voice that never sounded anything but utterly comfortable. Similarily, Matthew Wolff as Reverend Hazard had choice moments. But all too often, the music did not hold my attention or, as in the beginning of the second act, was downright disappointing. In the church scene, I would have hoped for something different than just Wheeler's style mercilessly plowing through the text of a chorale. Could not a traditional hymn-setting with declamation in Wheeler's style above it have been employed? The opportunities to intertwine two styles, for a fugue, something in a different mode... anything other than straight "Wheeler" was sadly missed.

The story itself is quaint and moves along happily enough (with the glaring exception of that church scene, which is dramatically almost as much a failure as it is musically), is mildly entertaining, and has funny moments. If what I have overheard is true and the libretto is an improvement over the play, however, I know that I will not be seeking out Democracy at the nearest theater. In particular the "Happy End" seemed abortive, awkward, and contrived. Baron Jacobi's character—he narrates the opera as a telling of "How he lost his job"—became an appendix in the second act, without any discernable purpose or drive.

Still, where opera is alive and well and new works produced, no one should fail to make their own opinion about the work—heaven knows, the opportunity does not come around often enough. Even if the work isn't particularly strong, I'd be inclined to say that on account of its very existence it is already part success.
Last night, I was very pleased to attend the Washington National Opera premiere of their new commission, Democracy by Scott Wheeler. The libretto is by Romulus Linney, derived from his own play of the same title (premiered in 1974), in turn based on two 19th-century novels by Henry Adams, Democracy (1880) and Esther (1884). The first of these novels was the Primary Colors of its day, since it was first published anonymously, and speculation about who the author really was fueled sales. Unfortunately, that also led to a number of unauthorized editions, to the point that Adams eventually remarked, "The wholesale piracy of Democracy was the single real triumph of my life."

This unusual production brings together an unusual combination of young performers—members and recent alumni from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, and members of The George Washington University Chamber Choir—and more established singers, with conductor Anne Manson. At intermission, a friend remarked that this order of things is probably the exact inverse of the optimum, in that ideally new operas should be performed by veterans. Be that as it may, the model that Plácido Domingo has put together here is not without its attractive qualities. The cost of production was, I imagine, somewhat lower than the other works on the WNO's season, and the benefits given to young singers and players are admirable. There is hopefully no reason that this kind of commission, a sort of high-end workshop for a new opera, could not become a regular event, every year or every other year. So, although I was disappointed that the WNO did not commission a new opera for its 50th anniversary season (see my post on December 3, 2004), a 20th-century opera in alternation with a new opera is not a bad pattern to establish.

Democracy combines two love stories, neither of which is particularly engaging. In the first, the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, Esther Dudley (Amanda Squitieri)—because she pursues a career as a photographer and wears men's suits, she is "considered Bohemian"—falls in love with an Episcopalian minister, Reverend Hazard (Matthew Wolff), but hates his religion. In the second, a wealthy New York widow, Madeleine Lee (Keri Alkema), moves to Washington and falls in love with Senator Raitcliffe (Lee Poulis), who is angling for a run for the presidency, but hates his corrupt politics. These romances, if they can be called that, take place against the backdrop of President Ulysses S. Grant's administration, which was notably corrupt, with its scandals, lobbyists, and swell parties.

Robert Baker as the Baron Jacobi, photograph by Karin Cooper
Robert Baker as the Baron Jacobi, photograph by Karin Cooper


Other Resources:

Tim Page, Putting 'Democracy' to a Vote (Washington Post, September 12, 2004)

Johanna Lunglhofer, 'Democracy' for all: Washington National Opera premiere features gay storyline (Washington Blade, January 14, 2005)

Daniel Ginsberg, Rocking the Cradle of 'Democracy': For Opera's Nurturers, a Labor of Love (Washington Post, January 23, 2005)

Robert Gable, Democracy: An American Comedy (2005), Scott Wheeler (aworks, January 24, 2005)

T. L. Ponick, Premiere for 'Democracy' (Washington Times, January 26, 2005)

Scott Wheeler, Lecture on Democracy, with three excerpts from the opera, accompanied by piano (Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, January 25, 2005)

Karren L. Alenier, Instinct and Inspiration: Interview with Composer Scott Wheeler (Scene 4 Magazine, October 2004)

Karren L. Alenier, Democracy: An American Comedy - Scott Wheeler/Romulus Linney (CultureVulture.net, January 28)
All of this is observed and commented on by the two most memorable characters in the opera, the Baron Jacobi (Robert Baker) and Esther's venerable aunt, Lydia Dudley (Kyle Engler). Jacobi, the decadent Bulgarian ambassador, is the only one who ends up united with his love at the opera's conclusion, and he is another man. He is the opera's thaumaturge, influencing the decisions of other characters and wryly observing their follies from the corner of the stage, speaking directly to us in the audience with a wink. Robert Baker was suitably oily in this role, with his head shaven and a raffish moustache, beard, and walking cane. Kyle Engler's Lydia Dudley, often rolled about on a large-wheeled chair as an invalid, remains inside the opera but with a delectable cynical distance. As the only character old enough to remember President Washington, she gives a hilarious recounting of the foibles of the founding father's rural personality. This is part of one of the most beautiful musical moments of the opera, the brindisi, or toasting scene at Mount Vernon. A third impressive performance was given by Jessica Swink, in the small coloratura role of the lobbyist Essy Baker. (Both Kyle Engler and Jessica Swink appeared to great effect in the Opera International performance of Dialogues des carmélites this summer. See the review by Jens Laurson for Ionarts.)

Musically, Scott Wheeler's opera is pleasing to the ear. It has an often light orchestration, with lots of harp, tinkly percussion, and celesta and even harpsichord (which sounded, to my ears, a bit wrong for a late-19th-century American salon). There is dissonance, beautiful dissonance, mixed with more diatonic harmony. It is most complicated rhythmically, and it was fun to watch talented conductor Anne Manson shift through the changing meters and give complicated, multilevel cues to her various forces onstage and in the pit. However, the orchestra seemed at times monochromatic and did not contribute anything of value to what the singers were doing on stage. This became especially noticeable during the brief orchestral introduction and the few symphonic transitions provided for set changes.

In his lecture at the Kennedy Center (which requires Real Player), Scott Wheeler listed his influences as The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Bartók, Stravinsky, Britten, and Sondheim. In Tim Page's article, he said, "My music is not 'modern' in that sense of being off-putting and abstruse. I hope that ideal of modernism has finally disappeared." He also admits "a kinship to the music theater of Stephen Sondheim, the operas of Benjamin Britten, Kurt Weill and Thomson, the modern strain of American songwriting that combines poetry with eclectic musical sources, and modern orchestral works ranging from Aaron Copland to Gyorgy Ligeti." I can appreciate all of those influences in the opera (except perhaps The Beatles and Sinatra), but I am not sure that it adds up to something compelling.

In spite of these reservations, I have to say that this was a fun and exciting event. I was delighted to run into so many friends—composers, librettists, singers, other musicians, musicologists—all coming together to support the idea of new opera. At intermission, we had a powwow in the lobby to share our impressions of the opera, and there was definitely that sense of excitement that comes with knowing that you are talking about something new. That is what we are missing in our opera experience these days. Of course, no new work can really be judged on only one hearing, and whether Democracy lives on beyond its premiere production is something that only time will tell. If you like opera and you are in Washington, you should go to the only remaining performance, on Sunday, January 30, at 2 pm. Note that the venue for this production is Lisner Auditorium, instead of the Opera House at the Kennedy Center. You will see beautiful sets and costumes, hear talented musicians, and get to hear that rarest of things, a new opera.

UPDATE:
The newspapers catch up:About the latter, Bernard Holland claims to have seen the opera on Saturday night, which is interesting since it was performed on Friday and Sunday.

Victoria de Los Angeles Dead at 81

Jussi Björling and Victoria de Los Angeles at the Trevi Fountain, RomeAnother celestial soprano, Victoria de Los Angeles (née Lopez Garcia), died earlier this month (on January 15). Her passing was not noted as widely in Blogistan as that of Renata Tebaldi (see Ionarts tribute from December 20, 2004), although Marcus Maroney and The Standing Room had something to say. Since it is better late than never, here are some remarks translated from French articles. From Eric Dahan, Victoria de Los Angeles, un timbre rare (Libération, January 17):

The greatest conductors succombed to her luminous, fruity timber and her lyric soprano tessitura, which she put at the service of a repertory ranging form Bach to Wagner and including the very popular roles of Carmen, Violetta Valéry, and Madama Butterfly. Growing up in a musical family in Barcelona, under the Franco dictatorship, she benefitted from the best training possible and graduated with a diploma in piano and voice from the Conservatory of the Teatro Liceu of Barcelona with highest honors at the age of 18. She cut her teeth first on the Baroque and Renaissance repertory, on the German Lied, as well as French and Spanish song, as part of the Ars Musicae Group, gave her first recital at the Palay de la Musica Catalana in 1944, quickly followed by her début as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro on the stage of the Liceu.
That part about her early connection with the early music movement is a wonderful and sometimes overlooked part of her career. She later performed with renowned violist Jordi Savall, for example (see my post from January 3, 2004). Dahan also mentions one of her last major appearances in public, in 1992, during the closing ceremony of the Barcelona Olympic games. From Marie-Aude Roux, Victoria de Los Angeles, une voix au naturel (Le Monde, January 18):
Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
Massenet, Manon, Victoria de Los Angeles and Pierre Monteux
This lover of the French repertory—you should listen again to her rendition of Duparc's Invitation au voyage, on Baudelaire's poem—made her triumphant debut as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust, in 1949, at the Opéra de Paris: a marvelous and touching heroine with her solar timber and her freshness of interpretation. She was equally so as Mélisande in Debussy's Pelléas and even more sublime in Massenet's Manon, at once fragile and tender. Her 1956 recording under conductor Pierre Monteux still remains an essential version.
She recalls the recital she gave in Paris for her 70th birthday, on November 1, 1993: "The singer had lost nothing of her legendary purety or her vocal ease." Her Carmen at the Met in 1979 was a revolution, perhaps because of her Spanish (Catalan) background. She told the New York Times that "Carmen is proud and reserved like all Spanish women, loyal and faithful to a single man at the same time." She left us, according to the article, with 80 recordings on EMI, including 21 complete operas and 25 solo recitals. We will have to be content with that. In the same issue of Le Monde, Marie-Aude Roux published a brief tribute by Teresa Berganza (Teresa Berganza : "C'est une époque du chant qui disparaît", January 18), on de los Angeles and the singing era that is disappearing:
In the 1940s, my family and I used to listen to her a lot on the radio, and my father used to use her as an example for me. She was the first great international singer that we had in Spain, and we were very proud of her. She opened the way to our generation, to Montserrat Caballé, Maria Bayo, and me. Without intending to imitate her interpretations, I was clearly very impressed by her aura and prestige. One of my regrets is never having worked with her. I would have love to sing on the stage with her, to interpret at ther side Pergolesi's Stabat Mater or Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro or Così fan tutte. We had the impression that she had been born with that voice, so incredibly natural and recognizable from the very first note. She had a shining timber, incredible purity, and was remarkably musical.
She was truly a great ambassador for Spanish music. Berganza remembers her "holding the audience in a trance when she took up her guitar to sing a malagueña or a zapateado." Her voice, as Berganza put it, was "that of an angel."

28.1.05

Cunning Little Vixen in Berlin

Martin Suckling, at Musica Transatlantica, refers all too briefly to a Berlin production of a favorite opera by Leoš Janáček, which was also in my Preview of the Opera Season, 2004–2005 (links added by me):

1. Unexpected degree of nudity in Deutsche Oper's production of The Cunning Little Vixen.
I haven't been able to find much other press or blog coverage. The initial run of this opera is over, but the production will return for two performances this summer, June 25 and 28. Martin, if you saw the production, give us a review!

UPDATE:
See the follow-up post (February 3) on this opera.

William Christie's Poppea in Lyon

There is something special about the operas from a composer's last years. Among other examples, Strauss has Capriccio, Verdi has Otello and Falstaff, Wagner has Parsifal, and they are all works made by composers with a lifetime of experience on the stage, in the twilight moments. Claudio Monteverdi composed L'Incoronazione di Poppea (.PDF file) when he was 75 years old. This spectacular opera is now receiving a superlative performance, at the hands of William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. After their staging of Handel's Hercules at the Palais Garnier in Paris, the Baroque performance group is performing a staged version of Monteverdi's final opera at the Opéra de Lyon.

Marie-Aude Roux has a review (Poppée, immortelle courtisane, couronnée par William Christie, January 24) for Le Monde, in which she asks the question, why is this opera so popular right now? Perhaps we see in our own times the reflection of that "cynical power incarnated by Nero"? She refers first to another recent production of Poppea, by René Jacobs and the Concerto Vocale, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris (see my post Monteverdi in the House, from October 24, 2004). Here is a partial translation of what else she has to say:

It would be difficult to make something any more different [from the Jacobs production] than the new production offered by the Opéra de Lyon, directed by Bernard Sobel. The three acts take place in an ingenious set of faded planets, cut from Venitian paper, huddling around the scene or opening up according to the action. The cast, all from the Opéra de Lyon's Nouveau Studio, is young but already very professional. One will take away the vocal and scenic artistry in the Poppea of Danielle De Niese (who looks like Angelina Jolie), the beautiful singing of Judih Van Wanroij (Drusilla), the sensitivity of countertenor Tim Mead (Ottone), and the adorable Ana Quintans (L'Amore).

Mirko Guadagnini's Nerone would benefit by leaving some of his virility in the dressing room, Mariana Rewerski's Ottavia by mastering her intonation, but we remain in admiration of the progress made by the young bass Joao Fernandez (Seneca), who has refined and ripened his singing since we first heard him in Le Jardin des voix, the academy inaugurated by Bill Christie in November 2002. Like René Jacobs, Christie opted for a version of L'Incoronazione with a reduced instrumentation (16 instruments). This time, the visual soberness demanded by Bernard Sobel has reinforced the dynamic and sensuous reading of the Master of Les Arts Florissants, magnifying the power, at once seductive and edifying, of this opera of flesh, sex, and blood.
Another review comes from Martine D. Mergeay (Ils font un si beau couple..., January 25) for La Libre Belgique. She notes that there will be a third production of the opera this season in France, conducted by Ivor Bolton and directed by David Alten at the Palais Garnier back in Paris (it opened on January 26). The first thing she singles out about the Lyon production is the casting (my translation):
No stars (in contrast with the jaw-dropping casting at the Champs Elysées) but a group of young international singers, selected over a period of months by William Christie and the Lyon team and being presented for the first time after nine weeks of rehearsal. There are some familiar names (if you can call them that) from Christie's Jardin des Voix and all clearly belong to "Bill's School," where the affect rises wondrously out of a completely controlled technique and an aesthetic of simplicity. Nothing, in this method, gets in the way of or distracts from the flow between the writing (here by Monteverdi) and the expression of the singers, and the result is miraculous. If you add to that the choice of a true (and very beautiful) tenor for the role of Nerone, the gift of the most beautiful, most sensual, most talented of Poppea's, and Sobel's excellent acting direction, you also understand why you are led, ineluctably, to love this couple with such a monstrous reputation.
That's a lot of superlatives. Just so we don't think that it's perfect, she goes on to note some reservations. Mainly, the heaviness of Lucio Fanti's set clashes violently with the opera's celestial qualities. The theme of stars and constellations, she adds, can be justified, but the materials used and the somber colors "create an opaque and cumbersome environment that is not saved at all by A. J. Weissbard's skillful lighting." She also praises Christie's direction and pared-down orchestration:
Sixteen musicians total, a game of aesthetic stripping down, the recourse to very characterized timbers, the regular confrontation with silence: by his choices, Christie realizes a texture at once refined and powerful, whose parsimony of sound at times reinforces the bitter, sometimes violent, aspects of the music (completely different by comparison to the symphonic continuo of Jacobs).
Finally, there was a review (Le triomphe de l'amour sincère, January 24) by Christian Merlin for Le Figaro, which gives some interesting background on this production (my translation):
Think back to William Christie, last summer, worried about the turn of events that had just occurred in his work with Peter Stein for L'Incoronazione di Poppea planned for Lyon this winter: the German director had wanted, in effect, to do away with the comic scenes that, in his opinion, were like a hair in the soup, when it is precisely that mixture of tones that makes the piece great! What had to happen happened: we soon learned that Stein had thrown in the towel, replaced by Bernard Sobel.
Sobel, he also notes, is the founder of the Théâtre de Gennevilliers. He classifies McVicar's production as a "reading full of eye winking, like a Hollywood sitcom," which Sobel contrasts with "humility and clarity." Here is a translation of a few more excerpts:
But what is really striking about this vision is that it goes against most other recent interpretations, which make L'Incoronazione di Poppea into something immoral and cynical. Here Poppea never appears like an ambitious and manipulative plotter, no more than Nerone is characterized as a dictator: political problems and the struggle for power are avoided. Nerone and Poppea represent the triumph of love, a sincere love without afterthoughts, that ends up being reaffirmed. It's an approach that could certainly be criticized, but it is well defended by a sober acting direction, where each secondary character is individualized, and by subtle illuminations. Perhaps everything is rosy here, but is it not a possible approach to such a rich text?
That choice is also supported, he adds, by casting a tenor instead of a mezzo soprano as Nerone, "gaining in credibility what is lost in ambiguity." He is more critical of the secondary singers: mezzo soprano Mariana Rewerski (Ottavia) "does not have the weight of a scorned empress," and countertenor Tim Mead (Ottone) "is not yet battle-hardened for large halls." However, New York tenor Marc Molomot (Arnalta) is "a sort of Baroque crooner, an excellent actor-singer, capable of playing derision as well as murmuring his lullaby to make it the emotional heart of the opera." He also makes the greatest observation about the assistance of William Christie's group:
As usual in Monteverdi, William Christie does not conduct but remains at the keyboard, refusing to take a solo curtain call: the work was accomplished bit by bit, he has only to enjoy giving the right start. There could be perhaps more opulence and bite in the continuo, but Les Arts Florissant are a marvelous tutor for these young things. It is enough, to know how much the pit is listening to what is happening on stage, to watch violinist Myriam Gevers, who whenever she is not playing, is mouthing the words of all the characters!
The last performances of L'Incoronazione di Poppea, with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Opéra de Lyon, are January 28 and 30. By all I have seen, opera fans in Lyon have one of the cutting-edge companies of Europe in their city, a tone set certainly since the opening of their new Jean Nouvel theater (see my January 21 post on the DVD of their inaugural production of Contes d'Hoffman). The rest of this season's top-notch program includes a new production of Emmanuel Chabrier's Le Roi malgré lui (1887); two operas by Hans Werner Henze, Le petit Poucet (1980) and the French premiere of L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe (2003); and a cycle of operas by Leoš Janáček, none of which I mentioned in my Preview of the Opera Season, 2004–2005, including Jenůfa (1904), Kát'a Kabanová (1921), and Vec Makropulos (1926, The Makropulos Affair), all productions originally directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff at the Glyndebourne Festival.

UPDATE:In English, see Francis Carlin, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, Opéra de Lyon (London Financial Times, January 25):
Left in the lurch by Peter Stein, intendant Serge Dorny called in Bernard Sobel, a respected figure in French theatre. Pressed for time perhaps, Sobel has come up with a po-faced staging that is achingly short on humour and dramatic pulse. That is a pity because he's otherwise in tune with a permissive libretto. His Poppea is not a harlot but a patrician who's doing the natural thing for her time and playing the sexual politics game with remarkable success. The people she counters, Otho, Octavia and Seneca, are wet or embittered losers. It makes sense, for once, of Poppea's ultimate triumph but Sobel's stage directions are parsimonious in gesture, movement and depth.

William Christie, who spends more and more performance time admonishing unrepentant coughers, is exiled to the extreme left of the pit, hardly the best place to control things. Yet his Arts Florissants are disciplined and spice up Monteverdi's original sonorities.

27.1.05

Best. Game. Evs.

You have to love college basketball. I hope that Uncle Grambo was watching last night as my beloved Michigan State Spartans punked the University of Michigan (obvs):

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- When Michigan State met at halftime, the Spartans talked about putting away Michigan in the first 5 minutes of the second half.

They did.
That score was 64-53, in case you missed it. You don't want to miss this photograph of Paul Davis soaring to the basket, twisted ankle and all, or this one of top scorer Maurice Ager. But schmeariously folks, Uncle Grambo enjoyed the football season more than I did, even though his Wolverines ultimately lost to Kriston's team. Still, what's fair is fair, because it's basketball season now. At least Uncle Grambo and I can both be happy about the Pistons smacking the Pacers, which leads up nicely to the March 25 rematch of the boxing match at the Palace last year, which Uncle Grambo covered with maximum buzz.

Philip Johnson Dead at 98

Selected Newspaper Articles:

Paul Goldberger, Philip Johnson Is Dead at 98; Architecture's Restless Intellect (New York Times, January 26)

Nicolai Ouroussoff, A Tastemaker Propelled by Curiosity (New York Times, January 27)

Complete Coverage on Philip Johnson (New York Times Web special)

Bart Barnes, With Glass and Steel, Prolific Architect Cut A Towering Figure (Washington Post, January 27) [front-page obit]

Benjamin Forgey, Philip Johnson, Blueprinter of Change (Washington Post, January 27) [Style section appreciation]

Frédéric Edelmann, Philip Johnson, maître de l'architecture moderne (Le Monde, January 28)

Maura Jane Farrelly, 'Glass Box' Architect Philip Johnson Dead at 98 (Voice of America, January 27, with a nice set of 11 images of his works)
Christopher Hawthorne, Philip Johnson, 1906-2005: America's Dean of Architects (Los Angeles Times, January 27)

The Architect Who Flirted With Fascism (Deutsche Welle, January 28)

Patricia C. Johnson, Philip Johnson steered course of 20th-century architecture (Houston Chronicle, January 27)

John King, Philip Johnson, 1906-2005: Architect's legacy seen in cities (San Francisco Chronicle, January 27)

Blair Kamin, Philip Johnson, 1906-2005: America's dean of architecture (Chicago Tribune, January 27)

Selected Blog Posts:

Roger Kimball, Philip Johnson, 1906-2005 (Armavirumque, January 26)

Mike Grass, Philip Johnson, Master Architect, Dead at 98 (DCist, January 27)

Kriston Capps, Philip Johnson (Grammar.police, January 26)
On Tuesday, renowned modern architect Philip Johnson passed away at the age of 98, in the Glass House, the beautiful home he designed for himself, related to both his senior thesis project at Harvard and his Rockefeller Guest House (1949-50, at 242 East 52nd Street, in Manhattan). The Washington remembrances of him have focused on two of the beautiful things he built here, the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown and the private home that is now the Kreeger Museum. Johnson also designed and built another building in Washington, mostly unknown, about which I will have more to say in a few days.

Are we in the middle of another "gay closeting brouhaha" with Philip Johnson? Not from what I have read, but there are too many articles nationwide for me to get a good idea of what has been written. He was somewhat more open about his homosexuality than Susan Sontag, whose sexual identity was largely left unstated by the press, to some uproar. The Advocate has done its best to make sure the issue is not glossed over, with its obituary headline, "Gay architect Philip Johnson dead at 98." I have seen several mentions of Johnson's sexual orientation and the fact that he is survived by his longtime companion, David Whitney.

It was fun to read some of the generally less interesting articles in smaller American newspapers, only because they sometimes mention a Philip Johnson building in the local area. "Hey, this guy who died may not mean anything to you, but he built that crazy building downtown." You can see some examples of what I mean as found in Indianapolis, Miami, Minneapolis, and Fort Worth. There are almost certainly others. It's great to see this story, which really is important, connected to something local and tangible to readers.

UPDATE:
After the initial rush of appreciations, the jackals swept in to take bites out of the carcass. Thanks to greg.org for the links to Andrew Saint, Philip Johnson: Flamboyant postmodern architect whose career was marred by a flirtation with nazism (The Guardian, January 29) and Mark Stevens, Form Follows Fascism (New York Times, January 31).

Europa riconosciuta in Milan

Other Newspaper Articles:

Francesco Rapaccioni, Milano, teatro alla Scala, Europa riconosciuta: Un'Orgia di Tecnologia (teatro.org)

Jason Horowitz, A renaissance of sorts for Antonio Salieri (International Herald Tribune, January 5, 2005)
One of the opera events that I meant to post about last month, but didn't, was the reopening of Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Like La Fenice (see The Phoenix, from November 23, 2004), the folks at La Scala looked backward rather than forward (see my post on Productions Instead of Premieres), but in an interesting way. They decided to revive, for the first time, the inaugural opera that opened La Scala in 1778, Antonio Salieri's Europa riconosciuta (Europa Recognized), with Riccardo Muti conducting. It seems obvious that one of the reasons this could work is that Salieri's reputation with the general public is mostly based on having watched the play or film Amadeus. By all accounts, it was a glittering event, as Peter Popham described in his review (Stars out for a night at restored home of opera, December 8, 2004) for The Independent:
That improbable septuagenarian, Sophia Loren, came in on the arm of Giorgio Armani; the heir to the (extinct) throne of Savoy, Emanuele Filiberto, was on hand to remind everyone where the original sponsorship came from; Silvio Berlusconi just made it in time, sharing his box with the prime ministers of Albania, Bulgaria and Croatia. And the former fascist Mirko Tremaglia, Mr Berlusconi's minister for Italians abroad, was just one of the ministers at La Scala. Mr Tremaglia recently remarked (apropos the Buttiglione "homosexuality is a sin" brouhaha) that "in Europe, the buggers are in a majority."
Europa riconosciuta, La Scala, Milan, 2004The work that closed the theater was a renovation of the technical equipment and backstage, especially a tower added for greater fly space, and an acoustic reworking of the stage floor. In spite of some opposition in Milan, most people appear to agree that the work was necessary and well done. As you can read in a review of Italian press reactions (Italian media hails La Scala 'triumph', December 8, 2004) from BBC News, the renovation and the new acoustic were hailed by all, but Salieri's opera disappointed. Mimi Murphy's article (A Grand Encore: La Scala lifts the curtain on a technically perfect renovation, December 12, 2004) for TIME Europe Magazine lavished praise on the renovation:
But it was the renovated theater, restored to its 18th century magnificence and technologically catapulted into the 21st century after $81.3 million and 30 months, that received the biggest raves. To improve the acoustics, renovators removed rubble buried under the stalls during a hurried reconstruction after a 1943 Allied bombing, and added a 12-tiered "floating" oak floor to improve resonance. The 17-story-high stage tower features machinery that can handle three complete scene changes, which used to be done by hand. "Our new stage machinery is the most modern in the world. Until last year we needed hours or days to shift scenery," said Muti. "Now you just push a button."
In her regular feature (Letter from Milan, January 1, 2005) for Opera Japonica, Silvia Luraghi added some information about the ballet in Salieri's opera, as well as the production's technical failures:
Like many 18th-century operas, L'Europa also featured a ballet, the original music of which is now lost. Conductor Riccardo Muti overcame this problem with the use of other music by Salieri, performed at the end of the first act. This ballet music was among the most interesting parts of the performance, but its length (about 20 minutes) was excessive. Though Luca Ronconi's production was intended to showcase the newly renovated stage's technical capabilities, some of the new machinery was not ready for use, necessitating the manual movement of some parts of Pier Luigi Pizzi’s very heavy sets. Muti conducted with brisk tempi and commitment, and the evening was a major success, though admittedly the applause was more for the house than the performance. La Scala will now remain closed for some months to come while the final stages of renovation work are completed, with the opera season continuing at the Arcimboldi theater until April.
You can look through these photographs of the production. From what I have seen, the staging was very sparse and geometric. I could find no explanation anywhere of what is going on with all of those mechanical horses in the photograph shown here, but it looks cool.

26.1.05

Marc Minkowski's Magic Flute

Marc Minkowski was 20 years old when he founded Les Musiciens du Louvre. He has since branched out from this Baroque specialization and is now on the podium at the Opéra Bastille leading Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. Jacqueline Thuilleux interviewed him (Marc Minkovski : «La Flûte appelle mille lectures», January 24) for Le Figaro. The production is a strange one by most accounts, and not surprisingly Gérard Mortier is behind it (he commissioned it for the Ruhr Festival in Bochum and has now brought it to Paris).

What experience do you have with Mozart?

I was lucky enough to start out calmly, when a little Toronto company, ten years ago, offered me The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, in English, for an audience that understood every word and reacted as in the theater. Then I debuted for the Opéra Bastille, in 1996, with Idomeneo. The same year, Gérard Mortier, whom I did not know personally, incredibly entrusted me with Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Salzburg. He also hired me for this Enchanted Flute adventure in 2003, in Bochum. In the meantime, there was The Marriage of Figaro and Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Aix-en-Provence, the other natural Mozart homeland. This summer I will conduct Mithridate in Salzburg, and I am preparing the New Year's concert which I will give next year.

What does the Flute mean to you in general?

It's a kaleidoscope where extreme science and touching naïveté are combined, the Masonic symbols of the numeral 3 carried by the tonality of E-flat major (three flats on the staff), and the bare grace of the glockenspiel or the flute. There are hits like the Queen of the Night's arias, refined jewels like the ensembles with the Ladies and the Children, cathedralesque finales where Mozart pushes formal invention to its limits before everything is reversed and becomes deliciously popular again. A marvelous musical theatricality enlightens the spirit of the characters, from the simple orchestrated chords that accompany Der Sprecher to the most sophisticated polyphony.

And this one in particular?

When I agreed to conduct this Ruhr Festival production again, it was because I don't think that the music suffers from the choices made by the directors. It is at the heart of their thoughts and work. Furthermore, in Paris, the poems substituted for Schikaneder's dialogue will not be recorded as in Bochum, but recited by two great, very musically sensitive actors, Dominique Blanc et Pascal Greggory. Sure, these experiments are risky, but I find them thrilling. The Flute, German culture's gift to the world, invites a thousand interpretations. This one will make people think and dream, I hope. Plus, you have the right to prepare yourself a little to go see such a masterpiece!

And the futuristic vision of the work?

In all Masonic stories, here as in Rameau's Les Boréades, the location is unspecified: that famous Orient is an imaginary country where anything can happen [see my post on Opera and Egypt from January 3]. Which does not keep me from remaining faithful to the shock of my youth, Bergman's film, inspite of the Swedish! Shortly before his death, Daniel Toscan du Plantier offered me and Coline Serreau the chance to make a second film version! What audacity after the miracle of Bergman!
Philippe Herlin's review (Théâtre mental, January 24) for ConcertoNet.com fills in some of the details about the experimental nature of the production (my translation):
We are called to an exceptional, perhaps historic evening by the Catalunyan group La Fura dels Baus and artist Jaume Plensa with Magic Flute that we appear to be rediscovering. The approach is radical (but the humor is safe, to be sure): the opera's characters appear like the patients of a psychiatric hospital of which Sarastro seems to be the chief psychiatrist, surrounded by nurses (the machinists) dressed in white shirts. But happily they are not playing here on the oppressive imprisonment of the place but rather on the mental exploration it allows: computer-generated videos are projected on the set's large white walls, representing the psychological states of the protagonists (fear by a snake made of words, lust with Monostatos filming himself approaching Pamina, death with a coffin gliding like a bird at the moment when Pamina want to kill herself) while inflatable modules of six by three meters [20 by 10 feet]—like large mattresses—are deflated, reinflated, piled up, juxtaposed, providing a vertical labyrinth of feminine faces, creating an organic set, a sort of materialization of thought. We are ultimately not sure if the Queen of the Night might not be Pamina's hallucination, and she herself being one in Tamino's soul. More than "play within a play," this is a deconstruction of the opera, to focus on the mental universe of the characters, rather than the concrete manifestation of their interaction. After the work on the subtext undertaken by opera directors beginning in the 1970s, we may now be witnessing, with video and visual artists (after Robert Lepage's Damnation and before the Tristan of Peter Sellars and Bill Viola in April), the emergence of work on representing the mental states of characters. A fascinating perspective is surely opening before us.
Herlin does not care, however, for the new poetry ("grandiloquent and meaningless") that replaces the libretto's dialogue, attributed to a Catalunyan poet named Rafael Argullol. Die Zauberflöte will be at the Opéra Bastille until February 20.

UPDATE:

25.1.05

Michigan, My Michigan

Mackinac BridgeI was hoping that Fred Himebaugh at The Fredösphere, who is a choral person, would want to say something about this recent post, on why professional choral singers should form a union. After my snow-induced nostalgia for my childhood home, the Great State of Michigan, I was primed to read Fred's appreciation of the delights of northern Michigan, inspired by this post from Michael Blowhard (with comments, of course, from another blogging ex-Michigander, Our Girl in Chicago). When I was an undergraduate at Michigan State University, I worked in the summers for an entomological research project in the Upper Peninsula, based in a group house in the beautiful and quirky little town of Crystal Falls, home of the Humongous Fungus Fest. That event is named for what is probably the world's largest and oldest living organism, a fungus that stretches for 38 acres underneath the forest floor near Crystal Falls. (It was discovered by scientists working on a sister research project, and it even made it into a David Letterman Top Ten List.)

There are lots of other reasons to love Michigan, not least of them being a very cool Latin motto (Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam Circumspice) and the fact that there is a controversy about its official state song. It is also the home of the greatest hockey franchise in the world, but it's too painful to think about that when the players are sitting on their asses during what probably would have been Steve Yzerman's final season. Oh, the humanity!

The Marvelous Anachronism of Theater

When one artistic camp bitches about the Washington Post's arts coverage, another is happy. Although J. T. Kirkland pointed out the paucity of visual arts coverage in last Sunday's arts section, there was a great article (Mining Their Own Business: Theaters Dig Into the Forgotten Past For What They Hope Will Be Gems, January 23) by Peter Marks, as well as a nice feature on this coming weekend's world premiere of a new opera by Scott Wheeler (see the Ionarts Concert Schedule for January). Marks describes the new production of Alfred de Musset's Lorenzaccio at the Shakespeare Theatre as a daring move to save a "lost play":

Lost plays have a romantic pull for theater people, especially for those in love with the past. Resurrecting a forgotten work is a bit like recovering a gold cigarette case from a sunken ocean liner: Wipe away the barnacles and who knows? You may find something that glitters. Of course there's also the possibility that the thing will simply come apart in your hands. That danger, too, is part of the attraction. And in the case of regional theaters that need to hold on to subscribers, to strike a balance between unorthodox program choices and seat-filling chestnuts, adventurism can come at a price.
If de Musset is that far off the map, it shows how dead theater (like opera) has become through the mindless repetition of a narrow group of works. This sends me back again to the now abandoned defense of live theater from the assault of A. C. Douglas. As for the relevance of theater, I am reminded now of a line from François Truffaut's Baisers volés, in which a character compares the modern institution of the army to the theater: L'armée, l'armée, c'est comme le théâtre: un merveilleux anachronisme. An anachronism, yes, but a marvelous one.

Dip Your Ears, No. 24

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
L. v. Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 29 (orch. Weingartner), Symphony #5, Prometheus Overture, Weingartner (Naxos 8.110913)
You may have heard Liszt's transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies. They are fine works and an interesting way to listen to all-too-familiar masterpieces. Their reason for existence was the spread of Beethoven's music when symphonic concerts were rare and out of the reach of most people – not to mention the unavailability of sound recordings. In this role reversal, Weingartner took the Hammerklavier sonata and orchestrated it during a time when recordings were still nascent and piano recitals sparse.

Though certainly symphonic in length, op. 106 does not seem to be particularly suited to such treatment, and the very notion defies all our sensibilities of Werktreue. Still, it's a curious and curious-making monument of Weingartner's admiration of Beethoven. I am not sure if it reveals much new about the work, and I am certain that it sounds better on the piano. Charles Rosen thought it "silly." The 1930s sound, remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn, is restricted and full of hiss (though listenable). The Prometheus Overture and 5th Symphony (1933) feature the LPO in a bad accoustic and are not even Weingartner's best recordings thereof. Still, it's "interesting" in the more flattering meaning of the word for hearing the Hammerklavier strung up... at least for the very, very curious of us.

24.1.05

Ionarts Concert Schedule: January

This list is on the late side, in spite of our best intentions (see the first January installment). More will follow, hopefully in a more timely manner.

Performances in bold are considered to be particularly noteworthy. Abbreviations used here are:

January 26, 7:30 pm
Washington Concert Opera: Gounod Opera Excerpts
Kreeger Museum
See the review by Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, January 28)

January 27, 7 pm; January 28, 1:30 pm; January 29, 8 pm
KC: National Symphony Orchestra, with Nurit Bar-Josef (violin), Daniel Foster (viola), David Hardy (cello)
See the review by Tim Page (Washington Post, January 28)

January 27, 7:30 pm
TT: Christopher Maltman (baritone) and Roger Vignoles (piano) (VAS)
See the review by Daniel Ginsberg (Washington Post, January 29)

January 27, 8 pm
CGA: Gryphon Trio (Mozart, Brahms, and Shostakovich)
See the review by Grace Jean (Washington Post, January 29)

January 27 to 29
Embassy of Austria: Mini-Mozart Festival in honor of Mozart's birthday

January 28, 7:30 pm; January 30, 2 pm
Scott Wheeler, Democracy (World Premiere, Washington National Opera's Young Artists Program)
Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University
See the Ionarts review

January 29, 7:30 pm
TT: Left Bank Concert Society (Korngold, Hovhaness, Carter, Coplan, Diamond, and Dvořák)
See review by Gail Wein (Washington Post, January 31)

January 30, 5 pm
PC: Piano Duo d'Accord

January 30, 6:30 p.m.
NGA: Camerata Trajectina (seventeenth-century popular music from The Netherlands)

Will Bam Be Rebuilt?

Other articles:

Afzal Khan, U.S. University Offers Help for Earthquake Damage in Bam, Iran (Payvand's Iran News, December 23, 2004)

Renee Montagne, Iran's Bam Earthquake Revisited (NPR Morning Edition, December 30, 2004)

Persepolis and Bam Citadel to Go Online (Iranian Cultural Heritage News Agency, January 23)

Japan to Donate 1 Million USD to Rebuild Bam Citadel (Iranian Cultural Heritage News Agency, January 24)



Bam, Iran, before the earthquake
The devastating earthquake that leveled the ancient Iranian citadel of Bam, some 600 miles southeast of Tehran, may have far-reaching cultural consequences, as well as having caused some 50,000 human deaths. After the destruction of the pre-Islamic site (founded in the Sassanian period) in December 2003 (look at these satellite images), Iranian president Mohammad Khatami promised to reconstruct what was lost "no matter the cost." It was the largest monument in the world made of a type of mud brick, mixed from the local red sand and straw, and experts estimate that 80% of the citadel was destroyed (it has been described as "a pile of ocher-colored sand blown apart by heavy artillery"). (Here's a video what the site looked like in 2002.) An article (Bam: la citadelle sera-t-elle redressée ?, January 17) from France 2 Cultural news asks the question of whether President Khatami's pledge is realistic.
A passageway has been thrown up over the ruins. Conservation and safety work have been undertaken to save the remains of the entrance from collapse. The threat of collapse from more seismic activity is always present. Work was begun only three months ago to remove the debris, according to the project's director, Eskandar Mokhtari. "A band of 800 meters [0.5 miles] has been cleared, and it will require about another two years to clear everything away," he explains. [...]

While trying to put together an application to list Bam as part of UNESCO's worldwide patrimony, archeologists "fell upon Iran's most ancient irrigation system." They also uncovered undiscovered remains. On a fort going back to 600 B.C., "there were so many pottery shards that it was impossible to walk without breaking them. What is extraordinary is that that we discovered them, it was the way that we could have missed them until now," explains one of the workers on the restoration operation.
In other words, the experts are not even interested in "rebuilding" Bam, since it's hard to know exactly how that could be done. They are more interested now in gleaning what archeological evidence they can from the site, more of which was actually revealed by the earthquake. In fact, one researcher there speculates that the earthquake ultimately saved Bam. It is now a UNESCO site, and without that protection a highway was planned to go near the site, which would have swallowed it up quickly in urban development.

Babylon Threatened

David Nishimura at Cronaca has said some good posts about the damage being done to archeological sites in Iraq, including Babylon. I recently read this little article (Babylone: menaces sur le site archéologique, January 17) from France 2, on the latest report on the "substantial damage" suffered by the ancient city where Polish and American troops have made a military camp. The report comes from a curator in the Near East Department at The British Museum who went to Babylon in December.

John Curtis reports that trenches have been dug and that certain paving stones dating from the 6th century B.C. have been damaged by the movements of military vehicles. In earth turned up because of the camp's needs, he was able to observe pottery shards, including an entire vase, bones, and brick fragments with cuneiform inscriptions. Because of the military presence, "several zones around the site had been covered with gravel, sometimes compacted and treated chemically, in order to be used as a heliport and to create spaces for vehicle parking." As a result, "the site is now going to be contaminated" for future archeological research. Military vehicles have also created hydrocarburant pollution that "will also probably have deleterious effects on archeological layers" underground. In his report, he adds that he observed "new damage on the molded dragon figures on the Ishtar gate. Parts of the (reconstructed) roof of the temple of Ninmah have also collapsed." Finally, sand mixed with archeological fragments has been used to fill sandbags intended for protecting military positions. But while this practice has been stopped, soldiers have brought sand from other regions of the country, "irrevocably contaminating" the site for future archeological research. "It is regrettable that a military camp of this size has been installed" on this site, he explains. "It's as if you had set up a military camp around the Great Pyramids of Egypt," he says.
In the second part of the article, a spokesperson for the American Army in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, reacts to the report, saying that "We are doing what we can to protect the site, and we are continuing to do as much." It makes me sick at heart.

UPDATE:
See also Martin Bailey, Iraq: US base has caused "shocking" damage to Babylon (The Art Newspaper, January 27), which has some good and very disturbing pictures of what things look like on the ground right now.