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30.6.05

Ahh, Hot Time Summer in the City

Phon BuiEver wonder what all the gallery assistants are typing when you walk into a gallery? Very busy people. I don’t get to Brooklyn as often as I would like, but there is a lot going on. Real estate is going wild and galleries are having some great shows.

Unfortunately, the mantra for me this day was “closed for installation,” as was Pierogi, which looks like it will have a nice exhibit entitled Reconfigure, with 28 artists included. The figure is king for most of the summer shows around town. Also in Brooklyn, Sarah Bowen Gallery, a very nice converted garage, is showing Phong Bui’s installation called Hybrid Carnival for St. Exupéry #2. Phong is also curating Paint It with Black at Betty Cunningham Gallery in Chelsea. This guy doesn’t sleep much: he also publishes The Brooklyn Rail, and he’s also a nice man.

Clemintine GalleryBack on the L train to Chelsea. Clementine has a fun show up called Summer Camp. Camp is the key word here, especially Wayne White's kitsch on kitsch paintings and---- playful constructions.

Melody Weir Gallery has Peter Tunney’s Paradise Garage, literally in an open-space garage, complete with Wild West theme. It’s a great idea. Paul Kasmin is showing what seems like Audobon on crack, with the beautifully rendered but bizarre work of Walton Ford. Will the woodland owl devour the cute squirrels?

Atomica: Making the Invisible Visible is a large group show in memory of the sixteenth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at Esso Gallery and Lombard-Freid Fine Arts. Thirty-five artists including the late great Leon Golub, Robert Longo, Nancy Spero, and Joy Garnett (AKA the mistress of Newsgrist).

SteinhilberSpeaking of mavens of the blog world, Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes has curated a very nice three-artist show entitled In My Empire Life Is Sweet, at DCKT Contemporary. My favorite piece is Dan Steinhilber’s Duck Sauce, literally comprised of packets of duck sauce. The color variation as the light passes through the packets is beautiful, and very funny. The delicate, lighter than air drawing with scotch tape, pinned to the wall, by Rosana Castrillo Diaz definitely gave me a sweet feeling.

Off to the great state of Maine to open the Ionarts Summer Camp. My watercolors and paper are packed, and visions of lobster dance in my head.

Classical Month in Washington: July

Classical Month in Washington is a monthly feature that appears on the first of the month. If there are concerts you would like to see included on our schedule, send your suggestions by e-mail (praecentor at yahoo dot com). Happy listening!

Tuesday, July 5, through Sunday, July 10, various times
Kirov Ballet: Le Corsaire (music by Adolphe Adam, Cesare Pugni, Leo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo, and Pavel Oldenburgsky)
Kennedy Center Opera House
See the review by Sarah Kaufman (Washington Post, July 7)

Thursday, July 7, 8 pm
Meet the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Douglas Boyd, conductor (Elgar, Britten, Stravinsky)
Music Center at Strathmore (North Bethesda, Md.)
See the review by Daniel Ginsberg (Washington Post, July 9)

Thursday, July 7, 8:15 pm
National Symphony Orchestra, All-Tchaikovsky Concert, "Russian Bells and Cannons"
With Emil de Cou, guest conductor, and violinist Joshua Bell
Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)
See the review by Claire Marie Blaustein (Washington Post, July 9)

Saturday, July 9, 8:15 pm
National Symphony Orchestra: Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, and Wagner: "Murder and Other Operatic Mayhem"
Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)
See the review by Joseph McLellan (Washington Post, July 11)

Sunday, July 10, 2:30 pm; Wednesday, July 13, 7:30 pm; Friday, July 15, 7:30 pm; Sunday, July 17, 2:30 pm
Verdi, Rigoletto
Summer Opera Theatre Company
See the review by Joseph McLellan (Washington Post, July 12)

Sunday, July 10, 4 pm
Opera International, Opera Gala concert (with mezzo-soprano Guang Yang and many others)
Music Center at Strathmore (North Bethesda, Md.)

Tuesday, July 12, 7:30 pm
21st Century Consort (music by Debussy, Schoenberg, Messiaen, and local composer Christopher Patton, multimedia piece with lighting effects by Daniel MacLean Wagner)
Washington National Cathedral [FREE, no tickets required]
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, July 13)

Wednesday, July 13, 7:30 pm; Friday, July 15, 7:30 pm; Sunday, July 17, 2:30 pm
Verdi, Rigoletto
Summer Opera Theatre Company
See the review by Joseph McLellan (Washington Post, July 12)

Thursday, July 14, 7 pm
Forlana Consort, Celebration of Flanders Day
Corcoran Gallery of Art

Thursday, July 14, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: A Midsummer Night's Classics, with Ilya Finkelshteyn, cello, and Mark Wigglesworth, conductor (Shostakovich Festival Overture)
Music Center at Strathmore (North Bethesda, Md.)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, July 15)

Friday, July 15, 7:30 pm
Cathedral Men's Voices in Concert (directed by Michael McCarthy)
Tallis's Lamentations, Poulenc's Four Prayers of St. Francis of Assisi, and other works
Washington National Cathedral, Summer Music Festival [FREE, no reservation required]

Friday, July 15, and Saturday, July 16, 7:30 pm
National Symphony Orchestra at Carter Barron (Sarah Hatsuko Hicks and Emil de Cou, conductors)
Carter Barron Amphitheatre [FREE, no reservation, gates open at 7 pm]
See the review by Andrew Lindemann Malone (Washington Post, July 18)

Sunday, July 17, 3 pm
Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic [formerly Mount Vernon Orchestra] (Beethoven, Suttermeister, and three world premieres by local composer Armando Bayolo) [FREE]
The Lyceum (Alexandria, Va.)

Sunday, July 17, 7:30 pm
Washington area combined choirs, music of Thomas Tallis (including the famous motet in 40 parts, Spem in alium)
Washington National Cathedral, Summer Music Festival [FREE, no reservation required]

Monday, July 18, 7:30 pm
Washington Musica Viva (new music for clarinet, saxophone, cello, soprano, and piano, including pieces by Janet Peachey, John Stephens, Jay Vosk, Beth Joselow; also Brahms)
The Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum (Bethesda, Md.)
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, July 19)

Tuesday, July 19, 7:30 pm
Miles Hoffman, violist [FREE]
Summer Music Festival 2005 at Washington National Cathedral

Thursday, July 21, 7:30 pm
Cathedral Choral Society with National Symphony Orchestra (Gounod, St. Cecilia Mass; Ravel, Pavane for a Dead Princess; Britten, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra; Poulenc, Organ Concerto) [FREE]
Summer Music Festival 2005 at Washington National Cathedral
See the review by Lindsay Heller (Ionarts, July 22)

Thursday, July 21, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: A Night of Firsts, with Hugh Wolff, conductor (Walton's Façade Suite No. 1, Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1, and Schumann's Symphony No. 1)
Music Center at Strathmore (North Bethesda, Md.)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, July 22)

Friday, July 22, 7:30 pm
Words of Albert Schweitzer and the Music of Bach
The Tennessee Players with Hugh O'Brian and NPR's Carl Kasell and Jean Cochran (multimedia production highlighting the monumental life's work of Albert Schweitzer with music by Bach) [FREE]
Summer Music Festival 2005 at Washington National Cathedral

Friday, July 22, 8 pm; Sunday, July 24, 2 pm; Friday, July 29, 8 pm; Sunday, July 31, 2 pm
Mozart, Don Giovanni (Wolf Trap Opera Company)
The Barns at Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)
See the review by Joseph McLellan (Washington Post, July 25)

Tuesday, July 26, 7:30 pm
Phoenix, Vocal Ensemble [FREE]
Washington National Cathedral, Summer Music Festival 2005

Thursday, July 28, 9:30 am and 11:30 am
The Elephant's Child (new staged musical score for children, by Bob Novak and David Griffiths, on Rudyard Kipling's classic story)
Backyard Theater Stage, Strathmore

Thursday, July 28, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, with Baltimore Choral Arts Society and conductor Jeffery Kahane (also Beethoven's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage)
Music Center at Strathmore (North Bethesda, Md.)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, July 29)

Thursday, July 28, 8:15 pm
National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap (JoAnn Falletta, conductor), with Sir James Galway and Jeanne Galway, flutes
Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)

Friday, July 29, 7:30 pm
National Spiritual Ensemble [FREE]
Washington National Cathedral, Summer Music Festival 2005

Sunday, July 31, 5 pm
William Neil, organ [FREE]
Washington National Cathedral, Summer Music Festival 2005

Sunday, July 31, 6 pm
Richard K. Fitzgerald, organ (Assistant Director of Music, National Shrine)
Music by Vierne, Daly, Ducommun, Near, Messiaen, Bach [FREE]
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Great Upper Church

——» Go to Classical Month in Washington: June.

And We're Back

We owe a big thank you to Blogger for providing a fix for the formatting problems you have noticed here the past several days. Thanks to their work to correct the bug they introduced, Ionarts should be formatting as intended, and we now resume our regularly scheduled programming.

On a brief break from the lake, I was able to catch up a bit on my regular reading. A little article (Vols massifs à la BNF, June 27) from France 2 Cultural News follows up on the discovery of devastating thefts from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (see my post on August 22, 2004). In September 2004, a report was published in Le Figaro that some 30,000 items were determined to be missing in a recent inventory: nearly 2,000 are works considered precious and irreplaceable. That summer, Michel Garel, the head conservator of Hebraic manuscripts at the library was put on trial for allegedly stealing documents from the collection in his care. One of the manuscripts in question ended up at auction at Christie’s in New York. Garel appeared before a judge again last week, and he now claims that he “never stole manuscripts or tore out pages with the goal of selling them,” which contradicts his initial confession to the theft of the Christie’s manuscript (my translation):

He claims that his bosses are getting even with him. When questioned about his confession, Michel Garel declared to Le Figaro that he had admitted to the theft in the hope of avoiding prison, which was being threatened by the captain of police. He insists further that he made himself the object of a “shame vendetta” when he tried to warn his bosses of the many security weaknesses regarding the works under his charge.
We need a better system to catalogue the collections of institutions like the BNF, so that items can be tracked in a way that makes their resale impossible or at least more difficult.

29.6.05

Twang, Twang, Twang: Scarlatti with Alain Planès

available at Amazon
D. Scarlatti, Essercizi K.1-30, Alain Planès
Over and over, the little gems of Scarlatti’s we call “sonatas” surprise, amuse, and delight. I grew up with Scarlatti on the harpsichord, but soon after discovering the peerless Pletnev’s interpretation on the piano, I switched allegiance. Since then, only Pierre Hantaï’s recent, delightful disc on naïve/astree has offered truly satisfactory Scarlatti on the harpsichord. Now behold the latest perversion: Scarlatti on the fortepiano.

If the name twang twang twang was not already taken, I’d make it my Web site dedicated to the fortepiano. That sorry hybrid of an instrument has had a troubled past, usually offending both pianists and harpsichordists, by offering the worst of two worlds with few of their respective good qualities. But much has been done to resuscitate the much maligned fortepiano since pioneers like Melvin Tan, Malcolm Bilson, and Robert Levin brought it back to the public ear. Andreas Staier’s Haydn Concerti were a splendid case for the instrument, and René Jacobs’s use of the fortepiano in his Nozze di Figaro benefitted the performance greatly.

Here now is further proof that the twangy transition bastard, that twilight creature of keyboard development, presents in itself some very pleasing characteristics. It better, too, because there is no historical claim to interpretive accuracy to playing the Essercizi K.1-30 of Scarlatti on a fortepiano… much less one that is, like Planès’ Schantz, from circa 1800. (There were some early hybrids in the instrument collection of the Spanish court that Scarlatti may still have seen towards the end of his life, but it is questionable if he ever played on them and it is certain that he did not have such future instruments in mind when composing the works included on this disc.)

The first thirty ‘sonatas’ of his 555 to be published, the Essercizi here included are far from juvenilia: instead, they contain many delights. After all, Scarlatti was already an experienced composer when he moved to the Portuguese court in 1719. K1 and 9 in D minor, K14 in G major, K8 in G minor (those keys and D major make up half the ‘exercises’) as well as K3, 11, 17, 24, 25, and 27 might be among the most popular and can, not coincidentally, be heard on Pletnev’s disc. Call them exercises, sonatas, capriccios, or whatever you wish (Charles Burney, the 18th-century music historian, is quoted in the excellent booklet calling – and perfectly summarizing – them “original and happy freaks”) fly in the face of all convention. They are truly sui generis, the musical equivalent to El Greco’s style. Only in miniature.

The story of a cat walking across the keyboard having inspired Scarlatti to the wistfully mad K30 fugue may be lore, but the freshness and timelessness of every little ditty is undeniable. Whether driven by one of the most unconventional and musically radical, literal minds or out of naiveté, Scarlatti and his keyboard ditties are a treasure. “Happy freaks” indeed, lovable and bizarre ones as they are.

Alain Planès’s playing is vigorous, full of conviction, and ready at any point to convey the joy that lies within each exercise. His Schantz pianoforte’s unique sound merits the recording alone. At first the sonatas sound a bit heavy, a little slow to get going, but that impression goes away as soon as you listen for a while and automatically stop comparing them to harpsichord or pure piano versions. Although over two hours of fortepiano may be too much for some, the energy with which Planès imbues the sonatas is infectious. Far more than just a curiosità, this is one of the finest (certainly most novel) Scarlatti recordings I’ve heard in a long time. (To be fair, Linda Nicholson has also just released a CD with Scarlatti on the fortepiano for Capriccio – something in the water?)

The presentation is in line with the series of exquisite issues that have made Harmonia Mundi one of the most exciting publishers of music these days.

HMU 901838.39

Ionarts at Cahokia

Well, I was driving right by it on the way to see Gloriana (see my review), so I had to stop at Cahokia Mounds State Park, on a day that was, as the admirable saying goes, hotter than the hinges of hell. This is the North American version of Teotihuacan (which Mark visited last year in Mexico), the site of a massive holy city, with temporary dwellings clustered around a series of sacred mounds. At the Visitors’ Center, there is a model of what the entire site looks like, as well as a painted image attempting to reconstruct what Cahokia may have been like when it was still functioning (shown here). The date when most of Cahokia was built makes it approximately contemporary with the height of the Carolingian and Romanesque eras of church construction in Europe. Americans tend to feel like a people without deep historical routes, but that is only because we have forgotten, at best—and intentionally obliterated, at worst—the history of what was here before Europeans arrived. The conquerors of North America may not have been as sensationally vicious as Cortés and Pizarro in their single-minded destruction of non-Christian sites, but the ultimate effect has been much the same. In spite of having heard regularly about Native Americans as a schoolboy, I have no recollection of ever learning about Cahokia or similar sites in North America.

The largest of the structures at Cahokia, now known as Monks Mound, dominated the city, an earthen pyramid fashioned by people carrying dirt in baskets to cover a mound that is 14 acres at its base and rises far into the air, shaped into what looked like a stepped pyramid or ziggurat, just not made of stone. What I did not know about the site was that this main mound is only one of over 100 such mounds. You can also see a henge, with wooden trunks staked in a perfect circle around a central trunk for use as an astronomical calendar. (This site was established and then rebuilt numerous times over the centuries.) As my visit nearly coincided with the summer solstice, the henge was lined up with the sun’s smoldering descent as I peered at it from the top of Monks Mound. The later towers to the American gods, the Gateway Arch and the skyscrapers of modern St. Louis, were visible in a view made slightly less spectacular by the haze of heat and pollution. The area around old Cahokia is less than savory, as I discovered. Right next to the Cahokia park, just behind where I took these photographs, is the most unseemly of sites, a garbage dump. That such things would one day be visible all around—the interstates cutting through the countryside, a bustling metropolis in the polluted distance, the silvery rainbow of the arch—could surely not have been conceived by the people who put their sweat to raise this mound toward the sky.

The Cahokia flea started itching in my ear when I posted about the exhibit of Woodlands and Mississippian artifacts that is coming to Washington next month. Cahokia had been mostly abandoned when Europeans began to settle this area, but French Jesuits did discover a few Native Americans living at the site, in a community nestled on the first terrace of Monks Mound. (This situation is true of Teotihuacan also, a city built by a lost culture, which was then assimilated and protected by later cultures.) Out of concern for their souls, les pères built a little Catholic chapel in the early 18th century and converted many of them. The remains of these last residents were excavated from the little cemetery by the chapel. Most of the mounds on the site were razed as farming and industry took hold (the same is true of the glorious Cistercian monasteries of Yorkshire, for example, used as stone quarries after the Anglicans closed them all and stole their land), but Monks Mound was so large that the basic outline of its imposing shape has been preserved. It is well worth a visit if you are in or near St. Louis.

28.6.05

Classical Week on Vacation (6/27)

Pike I caught on Coldwater Lake, Michigan, June 2004Troubles resulting from some sort of improvement/update (I think both terms can apply here only ironically) at Blogger have led to the formatting disaster you see on Ionarts, for now uncorrectable. The good people at Blogger assure me that a fix is in the works. For the present, you will simply have to scroll past the large blank space to get to the content. Thank you for your patience.

We were supposed to get a concert schedule out yesterday, but as (a) I am on vacation and (b) there is nothing going on, all we can do today is to let you know that we do have a new Classical Month in Washington schedule up for July:

Tuesday, July 5, through Sunday, July 10, various times
Kirov Ballet: Le Corsaire (music by Adolphe Adam, Cesare Pugni, Leo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo, and Pavel Oldenburgsky)
Kennedy Center Opera House

Thursday, July 7, 8:15 pm
National Symphony Orchestra, All-Tchaikovsky Concert, "Russian Bells and Cannons"
With Emil de Cou, guest conductor, and violinist Joshua Bell
Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)

Saturday, July 9, 8:15 pm
National Symphony Orchestra: Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, and Wagner: "Murder and Other Operatic Mayhem"
Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)

Sunday, July 10, 2:30 pm; Wednesday, July 13, 7:30 pm; Friday, July 15, 7:30 pm; Sunday, July 17, 2:30 pm
Verdi, Rigoletto
Summer Opera Theatre Company

Sunday, July 10, 4 pm
Opera International, Opera Gala concert (with mezzo-soprano Guang Yang and many others)
Music Center at Strathmore (North Bethesda, Md.)

Continue reading Classical Month in Washington: July
There's not that much to tell you about, so we are not too regretful to be away this week, on the hunt for the NBF (next big fish). That 30-inch pike in the image above was the biggest tale of last summer's fishing. Excuse me while I get back to the lake.

27.6.05

Summer Opera: Gloriana in St. Louis

Who is the greatest opera composer of the 20th century? I usually cannot bring myself to decide between Janáček, Strauss, and Britten, but I also usually wonder if I should really even consider the first two on that list as eligible for the award. It seems like it is getting easier to hear more of Britten’s operas and more regularly. This year, I have already heard an excellent Billy Budd from the Washington National Opera, will hear Peter Grimes in Santa Fe, and could even hear Paul Bunyan, of all things, at Central City Opera, if I wanted to make the trip to Colorado. (This season also saw productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Turn of the Screw, at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels.)

Ionarts goes to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, June 23, 2005You might not think of St. Louis, Missouri, as a place to go to see opera in the summer. However, having recently caught one of the last performances of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s season, I can tell you that opera is doing quite well in St. Louis. Here I found a house that was absolutely full, for an opera by Britten, and a late, rather unknown one at that, Gloriana. St. Louis, or rather the outlying but incorporated town of Webster Groves, may not have the allure and physical beauty of the outdoor theater in Santa Fe, for example, but on the evening I arrived, there were well-heeled people enjoying an al fresco dinner in very pretty surroundings next to the theater. Furthermore, the city of St. Louis offers plenty of cultural attractions. The rosters of the four operas this season do not boast singers of the same name power as those booked for Santa Fe, either, except the singer I had really come to St. Louis to hear, Christine Brewer (whose recital I attended in Washington in March and whom I will hear again next month in Santa Fe in Peter Grimes).

Other Reviews:

Ben Mattison, Photo Journal: Christine Brewer in Britten's Gloriana at Opera Theatre of St. Louis (Playbill, June 21)

Anthony Tommasini, Long Live a Beleaguered Tribute to Britannia (New York Times, June 20)

Sarah Bryan Miller, Opera Theatre's 'Gloriana' is a spectacle fit for a queen (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 12)
OTSL’s ability to attract top singers as Santa Fe does will improve, I suspect, as the quality of their productions, visually and musically, becomes better known. What makes them such an interesting company, worth traveling across the country to see, is the quality of orchestral playing (members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra have returned to the pit), the beauty of the staging and costuming (the former done with a minimum of technical glitz), and programming with more balls than most of the major companies of the United States. Looking back over the 30 years of operas performed by OTSL, if we go back to my list of the big three, there is only one opera by Janáček (Kat’a Kabanová) and one by Strauss (Ariadne auf Naxos), but they have done a staggering total of 11 operas by Britten. The company’s dedication to singing all their operas in English, a conviction that I understand but with which I do not sympathize, may have something to do with this. However, in most seasons, there is a chestnut or two (Rigoletto this summer, just as it is for Summer Opera Theatre in Washington), but there are also usually highlights from the 20th century (Adams’s Nixon in China last season, Argento, Barber, Menotti, and Weill, to name a few) that you may not be able to hear elsewhere, as well as premieres or revivals of very recent operas.

Christine Brewer as Queen Elizabeth I with (left) Brandon Jovanovich as the Earl of Essex and (right) James Westman as Mountjoy with members of the company in Benjamin Britten's GLORIANA, Copyright 2005 Cory WeaverGloriana was composed in honor of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It was generally considered a failure, for a number of reasons, and has been little performed since. However, this opera, as we might expect from a work by Britten at the height of his compositional powers, is a very satisfying work. Covent Garden missed an opportunity by not reviving Gloriana in 2003, to mark the queen’s 50th anniversary. The generally unflattering portrait of the present queen’s namesake, Elizabeth I, in her latter years, it was probably feared, might have provoked royal disapproval as too close for comfort. In fact, I am amazed that Britten had the temerity to create a work so critical of monarchy when he knew that its modern incarnation would be present at the premiere. In general, I would call the role of Elizabeth unflattering, if not entirely unsympathetic, especially in terms of her age (“the queen needs more artifice to deck her fading bloom,” as Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting tell each other). William Plomer’s libretto was adapted from Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, and Strachey characterized the queen as someone who had to be cold and cynical because of her position: “In reality, she succeeded by virtue of all the qualities which every hero should be without—dissimulation, pliability, indecision, procrastination, parsimony . . . she had survived because she had been able to meet the extremes around her with her own extremes of cunning and prevarication.”

There was basically one set, four silvery columns that remained in place all evening. A large sunburst with Elizabeth’s rose hung over center stage and was raised and lowered with the change of scene. A circle with the sequence of zodiacal signs was the backdrop throughout the opera, with curtains and a watery backlight for the house by the Thames (Act II, scene 2) and a stage-wide drawing of the city of London for Act III, scene 2. Christine Brewer was magnificent, perhaps not the sort of voice Britten had in mind when creating the role, but supremely effective. The only failure of the opera, as I see it, was Britten’s decision in the final scene to have Elizabeth speak her final series of lines. (Benjy, I wanted to yell out, what were you thinking? You have Christine Brewer on the stage, at the opera’s dramatic high point, and you don’t give her something to sing?) This was one of the things I wish Britten had revised in his considerable work on the opera after the premiere for the Sadler’s Wells performance. Christine Brewer can declaim text perfectly well, but such a thing is a terrible waste of vocal power.

Are Britten’s operas comedies or tragedies? There is not always a clear-cut answer to this question, and Gloriana is no different. The dark side of Britten’s personality, so evident in Billy Budd, Death in Venice, and most disturbingly of all in Turn of the Screw, comes out here only in the conclusion of Act II, when Elizabeth sends Essex off to fight in Ireland (in this production, the two singers spun around as the lighting turned dark and grotesque), and somewhat in the less than satisfying conclusion. Here, the comic wins out, especially when Elizabeth humiliates Essex’s wife, Frances, by parading around in her too-fine gown (to the accompaniment of Shostakovich-like trombone glissandi). Britten also took the idea of royal entertainment quite seriously, including a masque scene (danced beautifully by a good corps de ballet, and principal dancers Anthony Paul Krutzkamp and Janessa Touchet) and various imitations of Elizabethan court dance music. The royal ear was surely diverted, in the best continuation of that tradition, in 1953. (Ms. Brewer’s expanding girth, an embarrassingly common topic on the lips of people seated around me, was an issue only in these dance scenes, which were awkward for her.)

The rest of the vocal cast was good, if not perhaps in the same class as Ms. Brewer. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich (Essex) acted and sang well, particularly in the Lute Song he performs for the queen in Act I, which then returns as a haunting memory later in the opera. Robert Pomakov and Steven Condy were effective as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Robert Cecil, respectively. The members of the St. Louis Symphony, even though they were spread over several levels (in the multi-tiered and complicated pit, as well as in balcony spaces and on stage and backstage), handled Britten’s interesting score, complete with glissandi and flutter-tongued effects, imitations of bird calls and the bee and fly to which Essex and his rival, Mountjoy, are compared. Singers everywhere—and there are some of you are reading this—if you don’t already, you should think about St. Louis. They do fine work, and you will not be bored.

People who love opera will travel to see it when it's done well. (I took the last image in this post in the parking lot outside the OTSL theater: the license plate on that vehicle was from Michigan.) The plans to build the new Sally S. Levy Opera Center for OTSL are proceeding, which should only enhance the company's appeal. Next year’s festival season at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis will include Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, as well as two operas I will probably try to see, Michael Berkeley’s Jane Eyre (2000) and Kurt Weill’s masterpiece Street Scene (1947). We will bring you reminders and, if all goes well, reviews next summer.

Do You Love Wagner?


available at Amazon
Mike Svoboda et al. Horsing Around With Wagner
Wergo

If so, how? For all my love of Wagner, I am not a Wagnerian. For starters, I think that Tristan & Isolde, not Parsifal, is his best opera; I inexplicably find Siegfried and Das Rheingold more interesting than Die Walküre. (Perhaps not so inexplicably – the drama in Siegfried and the character of Loge in Das Rheingold fascinate me and are more, erm... believably ‘human’ to me.) I don’t consider everything about Wagner and his music as operatic ex cathedra statements. And I am fine with the use of the word “Opera” when (casually) talking about Wagner’s work.

If that is more or less how you feel about Wagner as well, you might find enjoyment in Mike Svoboda’s concept/performance-art cum Wagner tribute on Wergo, titled do you love wagner?. Part persiflage, part tribute, part mockery of the myth around Wagner and Bayreuth, it is an off-kilter musical look at Wagner’s music and statements about his art by followers and opponents alike. If you know the work of Uri Caine, in particular his Mahler tribute Urlicht / Primal Light and the reworking of Bach’s Goldberg Variations you will have somewhat of an idea what is going on in the stage show of Messrs. Svoboda, Fernow, Kiedaisch, and Roller.

Alas, Uri Caine’s ethnomusicological explorations of Mahler are more reverent, more insightful, flimsy. Of course, Mahler’s character is less susceptible to the treatment that avant-garde trombonist and Stockhausen-student Svoboda inflicts upon Wagner. His interspersing Wagner-themes of Lohengrin with texts of Nietzsche about his (Nietzsche’s) encounters with Wagner isn’t entirely successful. The use of spoken text around music in general is a difficult feat to pull off, and few have even begun to rival Hans Zender’s use of it in his stunning Winterreise treatment, much less the mother of modern spoken word/music combinations: Dame Edith Sitwell and Walton’s Façade. Like the latter, Svoboda speaks his texts over the band’s noise with a megaphone.

mix and match, with music from Die Meistersinger, is rather neat if lacking particular insight, and foreplay to t-chord, with the Tristan chord on accordion and two ever so slightly off-tune harmonicas, is hilarious and a most enjoyable, wacky tribute. It gets the help of Mike Svoboda’s trombone for lovedrift, their take on the Liebestod. tango tea parties is a wild tango (mis-)treatment over the text of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s somewhat pathetic diatribe against tango-parties of high-society ladies around Bayreuth performances of Parsifal. It is downright vicious and has actual musical worth. Erik Satie’s text of Wagner, le franco-allemand is cute at best, but the music for it doesn’t strike me as having any worth; a missed opportunity where Wagnerized Gymnopédies could have been great fun.

The booklet states that rock riffs, jazz improvisations, funk grooves, and the sound world of the avant-garde are woven into this exploration of language and music, seriousness and slapstick, high art and delicate irony. A circus polka is shredded up and a musical melody is vocalized in harmony. Thomas Mann and Camille Saint-Saëns are summoned. Well… more or less. I find none of that in the second-to-last piece, river run, but it is a nifty jazz work. The last work, overweight baggage, might finally drive any self-respecting Wagner lover stark-raving mad. It’s the Tannhäuser overture, badly whistled in a choo-choo train rhythm. Perverse as it may be, it actually invites whistling along – then supplies the trombone alongside, which suddenly seems pretty straightforward Wagner, comparatively speaking. More whistling follows, and then the music is broken up until the overture continues polka-style, then joined by what seems like the drunken, expelled, and disgraced chapter of the Swingle Singers.

I don’t know if I exactly enjoyed the hour of impish and respect-less Wagnerizing. Perhaps I expected more of it, and the fact that the hour seemed to pass extraordinary quickly could be a good or bad sign. ‘Bad’ in the sense that I was waiting for more… more substance, more novelty… a ‘something extra’ that Uri Caine gives me and Mike Svoboda doesn’t. On the other hand, Wagner, the person, and legions of dead-serious Wagnerians really ask for that sort of a treatment – and as a curious mind- and ear-exercise after or before your next Parsifal session, it has its charm. Perhaps most reassuring and telling is the fact that Wagner still occupies the mind, and spurns the creative endeavors, of avant-garde musicians in 2004. It (reluctantly) gets one of my thumbs up – a motion you will undoubtedly agree with, if not the choice of digit.


Two short excerpts of the album can be listened to on Svoboda's webiste.

25.6.05

Dip Your Ears, No. 35 (Gardiner Bach Pilgrimage)

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Cantatas v.1: City of London,
BWV 7, 30, 167, 20, 39, 75
J.E.Gardiner / E.B.S., Monteverdi Choir
SDG



available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Cantatas v.8: Bremen, Santiago,
BWV 50, 99, 100, 138 / 8, 27, 95, 161
J.E.Gardiner / E.B.S., Monteverdi Choir
SDG

Long awaited, finally here: The recordings of John Elliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage 2000 during which he, his English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir performed all of Bach’s surviving church cantatas on the appointed feast day – all within that one year. The CD’s may be a byproduct of this pilgrimage, not its reason, but they are something very special, nonetheless (or precisely for that reason). They give fans of Gardiner’s incomplete Bach cantata cycle on Archiv a chance to continue that series – now on Gardiner’s own label to that purpose, “Soli Deo Gloria” (in reference of Bach’s signing his cantatas with “SDG”).

Due to the nature of this 40 volume (two discs per volume) cycle, it somehow seems to stand outside of the competing cantata surveys (Harnoncourt, Rilling, Kopmann, Suzuki). It would be difficult as it would be to judge the merit of a cycle based on just 14 cantatas anyway, but I never even felt compelled to draw on Suzuki’s or Kopmann’s versions to compare. For one, Gardiner’s cantatas are – naturally – recorded live. They are documents of travel, study, devotion, exaltation and the joy of Bach that nourishes the performers enough to have prevented them from any noticeable fatigue. I cannot imagine any other composer an orchestra should be so willing to play exclusively for an entire year, day in and out.

All these elements express themselves on these four CDs that make up volumes one and eight. Most beautifully presented in a well-documented, heavy hardbound book (much like Andante issues), the musical quality that comes to mind here foremost is honesty. No artificial polish, no grappling for effect – just gorgeous music-making in honor of God and (or) Bach. With participating soloists like Mark Padmore, James Gilchrist, Paul Agnew, Dietrich Henschel, Peter Harvey et al., it’s no wonder that the quality of performances is never less than good (often more than that) – and all that with an average of less than a week of time for preparation.

Andrew Farach-Colton, writing his review for Gramophone (the two volumes were the Record of the Month in March, waxed at length about the interpretation and execution’s supreme qualities. Enjoying them as I do, I cannot say that I am quite as ecstatic about the issues. There are some (albeit very minor) flaws in singing here and there that would hardly be noticed in the live performance but can become more obvious upon repeated listening. (Of course, I’ve been listening to them ‘round the clock, which may have been overkill.) In BWV 75 “Die Elenden sollen essen” for example, I could not choose Gardiner over Herreweghe that I recently reviewed. But then, this cycle is truly sui generis and anyone who loves Bach ought to consider dipping both ears. The price is steep, but apart from the musical content, the presentation is outstanding and both volumes are chock-full with over 145 minutes of glorious music.



See also:

Dip Your Ears, No. 40 & The Birth of BWV 1127

24.6.05

Ionarts in St. Louis

Gateway Arch, St. LouisYes, it is good to make the occasional foray into flyover country, and not only if you are a Midwestern expatriate like I am. We made our way to the big city on the Mississippi to see a famous St. Louis native, Christine Brewer, sing Britten's Gloriana with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (more about that tomorrow). Ionarts cannot make a cultural embassy anywhere without taking in a few of the cultural sites. So, on the way out to Webster University, we had to stop on the riverfront to see the original cathedral the French built here, planting the flag for Roman Catholicism. That simple stone building, no longer the seat of the Archbishop of St. Louis, is marooned among high-rises and the maze of highways that converge on the city. Even worse, it is dwarfed in size and interest to the average tourist by the outrageous steel arch that has become the symbol of St. Louis. I did not remember from a previous visit here as a child just how large it is, breathtaking in scope, a glistening ribbon of mathematical complexity, a symbol of the arrogant hope of westward expansion. (Sadly, there was not enough time to see the St. Louis Art Museum or the Scott Joplin House.)

I knew I had reached the heartland when I stopped for dinner at the sort of place I love to go to for a simple meal, a neighborhood grill in Webster Groves called Weber's Front Row, where a show on high-powered rifles vied with sports coverage on the many TVs by the bar. An impromptu snapshot of my most famous neighbor back home, President Bush, smiled that shit-eating grin from the wall of mostly sports photographs (including, right by my table, a cool 5-photo montage of Ted Williams's "Greatest Swing in Baseball" with the 1966 Boston Red Sox), and the condiment containers are kept in old Michelob 6-pack cartons on your table. This is a place where "medium" apparently still means bloody in the center, where "salad" means the iceberg lettuce and tomato you can choose to put on your burger, and where I enjoyed a postprandial cigarette in the weeks before the D.C. city council denies me such guilty pleasures back home. (That being said, the proximity to a college campus meant that just down the block was a pottery and sculpture studio with young women in tie-dye shirts and sandals at wheels.) The beer, a local brew called Schlafly, was quite good.

23.6.05

Exhibit in Marseilles

There is a new exhibit at La Vieille Charité de Marseille called Sous le soleil, exactement (Under the sun, exactly). I read about it in a review (Paysages avec astre du jour, June 20) by Sophie Latil for Le Figaro (my translation):

Hubert Robert's Les Gorges d'Ollioules (1783) rises out of the chaos. The cliffs could have been catapulted from the sky. The clouds are reddening in the prism of the setting sun. The river boils. Slowly, the farmers go their way. Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Les Oliviers des Rochers de l'Estaque (1882) are trembling in the mistral wind. The torturous trunks of Van Gogh's Grands Platanes (1889) line up majestically. The silhouette of La Sainte-Victoire, always recognizable, stands out as Cézanne, always regal. Visitors are embraced by all of Provence this summer a the Centre de la Vieille Charité in Marseille. Provence of the countryside, of the baking heat and the violent wind, of the colors and light.
The exhibit, which extends from the 17th century to the early 20th century, is shared between the Musée des Beaux Arts in Marseille (where it will stay until August 21) and the Musée des Beaux Arts in Montréal (where it will go in the fall). For other reviews, see Jean Pierrard, Toiles de Provence (Le Point, June 9) and Catherine Rama, Les peintres de la lumière exposés à Marseille et Montréal (cyberpresse.ca, May 19).

The Passage and More

Ship holdThe Henrietta Marie left London in September 1699 bound for New Calabar on the central west coast of Africa. She was carrying European goods: pewter, glass beads, guns, cloth, and iron bars that were rare in Africa. These goods were traded for enslaved Africans, gold, ivory, and spices.

For more than 250 years, Europeans forged an elaborate barter system between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Some 9 to 15 million Africans were traded and forcibly moved. An estimated 3 to 5 million perished before reaching the Americas. After trading her European goods for gold, ivory, and spices and 206 enslaved Africans including women and children, the Henrietta Marie set sail for Jamaica in the spring of 1700. Upon reaching Jamaica, only 190 slaves were recorded as sold at Port Royal.

After the sale of slaves the Henrietta Marie headed home to England with a load of plantation goods, sugar, indigo, cotton, and log wood. The route took her through treacherous waters between the Tortugas and Marquesas Keys off the coast of Florida. The Henrietta Marie was wrecked on New Ground Reef, 35 miles off the coast of Key West. She was discovered in 1972. The wreck of the Henrietta Marie will be on display in the 2nd floor galleries at the newly opened Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, until January 8th.

The Marie is one of the many stories to be told of the African experience coming to America. On the 3rd floor, the permanent collection explores the tremendously important role African slaves played in building the country, with emphasis on Maryland. Mills, iron working, farming, seafood, and tobacco brought great wealth to this region. It would never have been possible without the labor of African slaves. This is all documented through photos, artifacts, and oral histories. In addition, the cultural contributions of music, art, athletics, and academics are also displayed in a chronologic format.

EstherStanding in front of a case holding her nursing caps and letters was a soft-spoken woman named Esther McCready. Esther applied to the all-white University of Maryland School of Nursing in 1950. A hard-fought year-long legal battle ensued, which was overseen by a young attorney named Thurgood Marshall.

Listen to Esther reminisce about her journey, and one historical name after another comes forth. Besides the Marshall connection, she sat with Dr. King, knew Malcolm X, worked at Harlem Hospital with the son of Marcus Garvey, who got his medical degree from the U. of Maryland after she opened the path, and on and on. The horrors of lynching, the civil rights struggles, and the contributions of contempory African Americans are also extensively recorded.

The personal connections are what makes the Lewis Museum work best. There are countless untold and newly reconstructed stories. They're off to a good start with this brand-new $33 million, 82,000 square foot building. How to keep it all fresh and get enough visitors through the doors and make their budget will be a challenge. When the idea for this museum was first mentioned, my reaction was, can't this be incorporated into an existing museum? The Baltimore Museum of Art or the Maryland Historical Society? The Historical Society's collections would be a huge resource to pick from. I do however understand the need to stand alone as an institution. I wish them great success.

21.6.05

Summer Opera: Elektra in Paris

This summer, the Opéra National de Paris is staging Richard Strauss's Elektra. This follows on my post yesterday on Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, and all this Strauss doesn't quite make up for the fact that Santa Fe Opera is no longer doing Strauss every season but it's something. I can't go to Paris, but Marie-Aude Roux reviewed it ("Elektra", oeuvre de la tension extrême, servie par des performances vocales, June 21) for Le Monde (my translation). The cast is reportedly excellent, and conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi has extended his growing reputation as one of the great Strauss conductors, but the staging is another issue, since the crowd at the premiere loudly booed young German director Matthias Hartmann.

Deborah Polaski in Strauss, Elektra, Opéra National de Paris, June 2005The vocal and dramatic performance of the American singer Deborah Polaski, as an imposing homeless princess [see her costume in the image shown here], merited her a very long ovation when the last note had faded. It was a recognition of the bravery and substantial energy deployed during the two hours and some in this crushing role, never absent from the stage, more than the beauty of singing, which was sometimes hard and unstable in the high register, but particularly touching at the moment of her reunion with Orest.
Hartmann reimagined all of the roles according to how he understood the story, even taking into account the personal appearance of each singer. Felicity Palmer, according to Mme. Roux, was an "aging Klytämnestra washed up on the Riviera" and also "simply stupefying." For a preview of the production («Elektra» sans sentimentalisme, June 17) for Le Figaro, Jean-Louis Validire interviewed Matthias Hartmann ("born in 1963," as Mme. Roux noted in her review, to underscore the director's youth), in which he described the good working relationship he had with the older von Dohnanyi:
The age difference between the director and the conductor has been more of a catalyst than a handicap. "For my generation, violence in theater, in movies, in everyday life is an immediate given. In my conception [of the opera], Orest does not want to kill, it happens against his will," explains Hartmann. The baritone Markus Brück, who plays Orest, "had at first a costume that made him look like a terrorist, but then I thought that he was a more complex character, in some ways more complete."
If it doesn't sound to you like he knows opera all that well, too, this is only the second one he has directed (and, given the reception, it could be his last, at least in Paris). However, Philippe Herlin was kinder to the staging in his review for ConcertoNet.com (my translation):
At the end, Hartmann shows us Orest recoiling before the ignominy of his actions (killing his mother!), Klytämnestra throwing herself on his knife, showing thus that the cycle of violence must stop one day! Let's push this analysis a little further by noting that the Fünfte Magd [Fifth Maid, Tracy Smith-Bessette] is dressed in a Muslim headscarf, that the yawning hole [the space used to signify Agamemnon's tomb] could be Ground Zero. Message: September 11 should not be used as an excuse for a vendetta against the Muslim world. A wink of an anti-Bush eye, subtle and simplistic at the same time. Whatever it may mean, the impact of this staging is evident: this is a renewed reading, a strong one, that brings Elektra's vengeance into our own time. A success.
Lastly, Mehdi Mahdavi published an interview with Deborah Polaski (Deborah Polaski, née pour Elektra, June 18) for Altamusica, which was interesting to read (my translation):
Many sopranos dream of singing Elektra, but few can do it. Was it a challenge for you?

It was a challenge for me the first time I sang it, because my voice was obviously younger, less developed: I sang my first Elektra when I was 35, more than 20 years ago. I dove into it with no preconceived notions, with my voice at that time, without trying to get more out of it than it could give. At the time, my agent said that it was good, but too pretty. A year ago, someone gave me a recording of that first Elektra, which I was curious to hear. It is exactly my voice, but you hear that it is 35 years old and not 46: the years of experience make the difference. Now, I know the role much better, and I know exactly where I can conserve myself and where I really have to give everything I've got. This economic approach is very important, because the role requires a lot of physical strength: you have to be able to give the least possible and to pull the most out of it in order to conserve the necessary resources for the most explosive passages. I have worked on it a lot: the problem is to know what is superfluous.
The Opéra National de Paris will present Richard Strauss's Elektra at the Opéra Bastille through July 12.

Fête de la Musique

Last year, I wrote about the annual Fête de la Musique, which happens in France on every summer solstice, June 21, and now has spread to about 100 other countries. The idea is that the whole day is given over to performances by everyone and anyone who can make a musical sound, professionals and amateurs. Of course, this does not mean only classical music, although the times that I have been in Paris to see this event, that's what I have spent most of my time listening to, as you might have guessed.

In a quick glance over the program, some interesting events stood out:

  • Simultaneously at the Place Broglie in Strasbourg and the Place Salvator in Mulhouse tonight at 9:45 pm, a film of Rameau's opera Les Boréades will be shown on giant screens. The production is from the Opéra National du Rhin and was conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm and staged by Laurent Laffargueen.
  • In Rouen at 7:30 pm, a concert by soloists from the Opéra de Rouen, in the hémicycle.
  • At the Place Mendès-France in Lille at 6:30 pm, the Orchestre National de Lille will be conducted by Jean-Claude Casadesus, in a program including Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Ravel.
  • In Paris, in the hall under I. M. Pei's famous pyramid at the Louvre, at 10 pm, the Orchestre National de France will play Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade, conducted by Kurt Masur. This concert will be broadcast live on France Musiques.
  • Also in Paris, pianist Alexandre Tharaud (who was here in Washington in March) will play a recital of pieces by Ravel and Chabrier at 8 pm, in the auditorium of the Musée d'Orsay.
  • Perhaps most interesting, at the Palais Garnier at 7 pm, the Opéra National de Paris presents violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, from the Emerson Quartet, along with director Simon McBurney, in a preview related to their upcoming premiere of Shostakovich's piece The Noise of Time.
Music is apparently on the rise in France, shockingly so. A very interesting article by Christian Merlin (Des orchestres à l'heure européenne, June 21) in Le Figaro says that "twice as many French teenagers sing or play an instrument than in the generations born before 1960. Some 800,000 students are enrolled in music schools, and 10 million young people receive musical instruction at school." Don't even get me started on the subject of musical education in the United States, especially here in the District of Columbia, where it is nonexistent except at private schools.

As I wrote in my column for DCist (Classical Music Agenda, June 21), the D.C. government's attempt to import the Fête de la Musique last year apparently has failed, since I have heard nothing about it this year. However, the French embassy is hosting an evening of events this Friday (June 24, from 7 to 11 pm), with the main act being Les Primitifs du Futur, a musette group founded by cartoonist Robert Crumb and guitarist Dominique Cravic. You will pay $20 at the door to get into this event at La Maison Française (4101 Reservoir Road NW).

Summer Opera: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Théâtre de la Monnaie, 2005One of those operas by Richard Strauss I would like to get to know better is Die Frau ohne Schatten, but it is staged so infrequently that I may never get to see it live. As I wrote in my Opera in the Summer 2005 post, I could travel to Brussels this summer, where the opera is being produced, from June 8 to 29, at the Théâtre de la Monnaie (where the opera had not been given for some 40 years). Nicolas Blanmont reviewed it (Somptueuse célébration straussienne, June 10) for La Libre Belgique. After praising Jose Van Dam as Barak (who had never sung this role in his home country before this production) and Jon Villars and Silvana Dussman (the Emperor and Empress), he has some harsh things to say (my translation):

The only shadow in the picture, if one dares to say it, is Gabriele Schnaut who, as Barak's wife, is getting a late start at the Monnaie. The singing is still valiant, but the projection uneven and the voice, at full volume, is polluted by a vibrato of disturbing amplitude. The German soprano's age and appearance also pose a problem for the character that Hofmannsthal intended to be young and desirable enough to be still capable of having the thirteen children that Barak wants and to be afraid of losing her figure.
Blanmont does have good things to say about the direction of Matthew Jocelyn and the designs of Alain Lagarde, and the pictures of the sets are gorgeous. Another review comes from Serge Martin (La femme sans ombre repeint l'amour, June 10) for Le Soir (my translation):
On Wednesday, a real wave of applause greeted all of the protagonists of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Monnaie. It is not, however, Richard Strauss's easiest opera. The esoteric and somewhat outdated libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal certainly complicates this symbolic tale, and Strauss's luxuriant music manages to make it even heavier. Which is just to say that, today, this opera can be difficult.
You can read both reviews in full for more information.

19.6.05

Dip Your Ears, No. 34

available at Amazon
G. Ph. Telemann, Flute Quartets, Musica Antiqua Köln, R. Goebel
Telemann curiously divides opinions. Some – I among them – find his works uniformly charming and even inspired, others, just uniform. But those who think that Telemann can be boring must not know his Watermusik or his violin concertos. His famous Tafelmusik is admittedly long (it spans almost four hours, uncut) but that, too, has heaps of originality and beauty. Reinhard Goebel and his Musica Antiqua Köln have been some of the foremost and most skilful champions of Telemanns's musical cause. Their previous records were widely hailed for their imaginative and infectious playing, though there are works of Telemann that I prefer over his string concertos. This set of eight flute quartets (for flute, transverse flute, and recorder) is a delight. There have been few mornings lately when I haven't put them on for the sheer enjoyment of it. Only two quartet-variants are repeated on this disc (and then only once), making for six different combinations of instruments. Particularly delightful in combination with the oboe, they have a lively spirit, and if the playing could be bettered, I just can't imagine how. In three and four movements, these works were probably the ones that brought the term ‘quartet’ to music in the first place. They offer beautiful melodies for up to three instruments at a time (with the basso continuo scrubbing away on the bottom) and exemplify mastery of contrapuntal writing. One quartet might be Haendel's and another – the only one written solely for strings – while not novel (such ripieno concerti had been written before) might just be imagined to be a distant precursor to the string quartet. But such dissection is quite unnecessary when the music offers such easy delight. Superficially enjoyable: yes; superficial? no.

Classical Week in Washington (6/20)

Classical Week in Washington is a weekly feature that appears on Mondays. If there are concerts you would like to see included on our schedule, send your suggestions by e-mail (praecentor at yahoo dot com). Plan your concert schedule for the entire month of June with our Classical Month in Washington (June), or your summer opera listening with Opera in the Summer 2005.

Tuesday, June 21, 7:30 pm
Washington Musica Viva (music of Diamond, Mitsumoto, Brahms)
The Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum (Bethesda, Md.)
See the review by Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, June 23)

Tuesday, June 21, 7:30 pm
Suspicious Cheese Lords, The Whole Enchilada (Iberian and colonial music) (Washington Early Music Festival)
The Franciscan Monastery (14th and Quincy Streets NE)
See the review by Joseph McLellan (Washington Post, June 23)

Wednesday, June 22, 12 noon
Carmina, with Keith S. Reas, organ, Ensalada Español (Vasques, Ximino, Flecha, Victoria, Aguilera, and Bruno) (Washington Early Music Festival)
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)

Wednesday, June 22, 7:30 pm
I Bambini di Parnasso, Swan Song: The last gasp of Iberian early music (Washington Early Music Festival)
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)

Wednesday, June 22 to Sunday, June 26 (various times)
Don Quixote (choreography by George Balanchine and music by Nicolas Nabokov)
Suzanne Farrell Ballet
Kennedy Center
See the preview by Sarah Kaufman (Washington Post, June 19)

Thursday, June 23, 12 noon
Jonathan Hudson (countertenor), Atsuko Ikeda (harpsichord), and Constance Whiteside (Baroque harp), Color de Vida (music from Renaissance and Baroque Spain) (Washington Early Music Festival)
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)

Thursday, June 23, 7:30 pm
Cordelion (Keith Reas, director) with La Rocinante (Christof Richter, director), Sacred Sounds of New Spain (Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, Manuel de Sumaya, Ignacio de Jerusalem, and others) (Washington Early Music Festival)
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)

Friday, June 24, 12 noon
Elizabeth Baber (soprano) and Charles Weaver (lute, vihuela), Con dulces cantos y modos (music from Spain's Golden Age) (Washington Early Music Festival)
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)

Friday, June 24, 1:30 to 4:30 pm
Early Dance Workshop with The Court Dancers (Cheryl Stafford, director) (Washington Early Music Festival)
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)

Friday, June 24, 7:30 pm
The Court Dancers (Cheryl Stafford, director) and Renaissonics (John Tyson, director), The Graces of Love (Washington Early Music Festival)
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)

Friday, June 24, 7 to 11 pm
Fête de la Musique, featuring guest artists "Les Primitifs du Futur"
La Maison Française (4101 Reservoir Road NW)

Friday, June 24, 8:15 pm
National Symphony Orchestra, Gershwin, Bernstein, and Barber: "American Originals"
With Kishna Davis (soprano), Arthur Woodley (baritone), and The Choral Arts Society of Washington
Wolf Trap (Filene Center)

Saturday, June 25, 4 pm
Barbara Hollinshead (mezzo-soprano) and Howard Bass (lute), Music of Renaissance Spain and the Sephardic Jews (Washington Early Music Festival)
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)

Saturday, June 25, 7:30 pm
Armonia Nova (Constance Whiteside, director), La Musica de los Orbes (Washington Early Music Festival)
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)

Saturday, June 25, 7:30 pm
The Korea Times: Jeanie Jieun Lee, piano
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

Saturday June 25, 8 pm
The Latest Word (program of American song, sopranos Evelyn Pollock and Marjorie Owens, Wolf Trap Opera Company)
The Barns at Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)

Saturday, June 25, 8:15 pm
National Symphony Orchestra, Mendelssohn, Liszt, and Mahler: "Romantic Titans" (Mahler, 1st symphony)
With Mûza Rubackyte, piano (Liszt, first piano concerto)
Wolf Trap (Filene Center)

Sunday, June 26, 3 pm
Trefoil (Drew Minter, Mark Rimple, and Marcia Young), In the Chamber of the Harpers: Music in Late Medieval Spain (Washington Early Music Festival)
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A Streets SE)

Sunday, June 26, 6:30 pm
National Gallery Vocal Arts Ensemble (Rosa Lamoreaux, artistic director)
Renaissance a cappella choral music
National Gallery of Art

——» Go to last week's schedule, for the week of June 13.

Artscape and Ingres at the BMA

from Observation deckIt must be summer if Baltimore's Artscape Festival is beginning. Although the festival won't begin until July 22nd, the Baltimore Museum of Art is hosting one of the exhibits, Observation Deck, curated by aerial artist extraodinaire, Gary Simmons.

Renowned artist Gary Simmons has selected a dynamic range of contemporary works by artists in the mid-Atlantic area who examine the theme of vantage point. Observation Deck encompasses works that suggest maps and aerial views paired with those that suggest the microscopic by Geoff Grace; Ellen Ross; Calla Thompson; René Treviño; Renee van der Stelt; and Nick Petr, Nick Wisniewski, and Scott Berzofsky. This show is presented at the BMA as one of the featured visual art exhibitions of Artscape, Baltimore's premier arts festival.
A huge map, a satellite image of Baltimore (shown here), is the focal point of the exhibit. It's quite a powerful image as you enter the gallery, composed of hundreds of inkjet prints mounted on foam core. There are binoculars on hand to view the piece, giving you the feeling that you're hovering over the city: it's very effective. Three artists, Scott Berzotsky, Nicholas Petr, and Nicolas Wisniewski, created this and call it Pirate Baltimore.

Geoff Grace likes long poetic titles for his work. For a very large paint-by-numberish tree in browns and beiges, he painted directly on the wall with what he says is clay and whiskey; it's titled Our songs will be carried by the water. In the center of the room facing the tree is a wooden lifeguard stand entitled Bless me indeed, enlarge my territory that your hand may be with me. Is it a call to the wilds from a place of safety? A third piece of curled acetate, For the support and celebration of total awareness, is delicately pinned to either side of the entrance to the smaller gallery space.

In this space, Ellen Ross's Long Distance Love Affair, an ink on vellum chronology of an affair which took place between New York and L.A., with credit card records and phone logs as our visual proof. A second piece is a travel primer, Easily assembled at home, and for use by those who have never traveled to lands beyond, which beckons us to step beyond our safe boundries. Also in this small space is Rene Trevino's mixed media on mylar, The propaganda series part I, which seems to be a historical documentary of male love and bonding from the time of the Incas through Rock Hudson.

The theme has great potential and this exhibit makes a fair, however uneven attempt. Where do we fit into this world? What is my place on this planet and how does that shape my individuality? It's a simple premise which asks for very complex responses. It's the luck of the draw: where you are born, where you live, and what culture you identify with will have everything to do with your perceptions.

Getting the BMA to show with local artists is a rarity, unfortunately. There are many excuses, but none can really excuse their lack of support for artists of this region. It's a long, often difficult process for an artist to build a career, and the support of the local arts organizations is critical. It wouldn't be a charitable gesture either: there are very good artists working here. Maybe this is the beginning of a renewal of that relationship. I hope so.

Another exhibit just opening at the BMA, "The Essence Of Line: French Drawings from Ingres to Degas, is a joint effort from the collections of the BMA and the Walters Art Museum. With simultaneous exhibits, this show highlights the strong drawing collections of each institution and the collecting preferences of some of the founding benefators. I haven't seen the Walters portion yet, but the large Shepherdess pastel by Millet and Berthe Morisot's Child with Hat, make this a worthwhile trip.

Tuesday I am going to the press preview for the new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. We've been watching it grow for some time. The exterior looks very interesting, and I should have a post by mid-week.

Summer Opera: Love for Three Oranges

Prokofiev, Love for Three Oranges, De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, June 2005So much good opera this summer. The next one on my list (Opera in the Summer 2005, June 2) was Prokofiev's strange and fun Love for Three Oranges, an opera I have never had the chance to see staged live (although I very much enjoyed the zany 1989 production from the Opéra de Lyon conducted by Kent Nagano on DVD). If only I had the time and money to go to Amsterdam, where De Nederlandse Opera is producing it this summer, in the original French version from 1921. Since I cannot go, here is a translated excerpt from someone who did: Christian Merlin's review (Prokofiev selon Pelly, June 15) for Le Figaro:

It's a French team who has scored a triumph at the Amsterdam Opera, and it's no exaggeration to say that they are doing it with a French work. Although at last year's Aix-en-Provence Festival they opted for the Russian version of Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges, De Nederlandse Opera has chosen the French libretto of the 1921 premiere, a pertinent choice that has the advantage of showing how much Prokofiev and Les Six had in common in terms of aesthetic concerns. Stéphane Denève, the most brilliant of our conductors under 40 years old, has nevertheless not entirely played that card. Close to Poulenc in the transparency and the popular language of the score's most Parisian pages, he falls into the trap of the artillery salvos fired off by the sizable orchestra: with his mane at attention and imperious gestures, he encourages the brass of the superb Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra to play large, where a more cutting clarity would have been more appropriate. It's true that, from having worked with Valery Gergiev, these virtuosic musicians must feel closer to the steel factories than to Peter and the Wolf.

This massive style, which would have suited Russian singing rather than French diction, was at least of a piece both with the less than intimate dimensions of the theater and with the blockbuster staging of Laurent Pelly. What astute work and fine rhythmic sense from the busiest of our stage directors! In this crazy fable taken from Gozzi, in which the commedia dell'arte was reinterpreted with Meyerhold's glasses and a newly born surrealism, the kingdom depicted is that of the King of Clubs, and it is at a game that the magician Tchelio loses against the formidable Fata Morgana. Pelly needed nothing else to see the key of his visual universe: all of the impressive sets of Chantal Thomas are made of gigantic playing cards, and their evolution and transformation makes us admire the Amsterdam Muziektheater's resources in stage machinery. It's a sort of revival of machine opera from the Baroque period. Certainly, the evening is not only about the spectacle, and the magic scenes are as troubling as the cook's episode is irresistable. But all in all, if we are seduced, we also feel overwhelmed by the monumentality of the effects in a work that perhaps does not demand that much. There is a lack of that bit of subtlety in the ironic distance.
Merlin praises Alain Vernhes as the King of Clubs, François Le Roux (heard here in Washington last November) as Trouffaldino and the Master of Ceremonies, and Sandrine Piau as Ninette. The best performance, however, according to him, was lesser-known tenor Martial Defontaine as the hypochondriac prince. There's another singer for us to keep our eye on. Jens heard conductor Stéphane Denève at work in March at the Kennedy Center, and we know that others are interested in his career, too. Here are some pictures of the production. Performances continue in Amsterdam until June 29.

17.6.05

What Is Going On?

The news from France (Le Monde, June 17) today is that an Algerian woman, writer and film director Assia Djebar, is the first person of that nationality ever to be elected to the Académie française. American readers may know her because she has taught French literature in the United States, in Baton Rouge and then in New York. It is often rumored that she is generally being considered to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

As if that were not enough, an article by Pierre Gervasoni (Une Finlandaise à la tête de l'Ensemble Intercontemporain, June 16) for Le Monde relates that Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki has been awarded the directorship of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, succeeding British conductor Jonathan Nott. To do this, she needed to be the best in a long interview by a jury of musicians from the group, representatives from its executive council, and its founder, Pierre Boulez. Quite a daunting task. Her selection means the official offer of a term of three years as director, but Gervasoni quotes a rumor that she may have been asked to stay at least until 2011. So, who is she, you ask?

At present, the artistic director of the Stavanger Symfoniorkester in Norway, Susanna Mälkki proves again the efficacy of the Finnish school of conductors with this nomination, as unexpected as that of her compatriot Sakari Oramo, in 1988, who succeeded the British conductor Simon Rattle at the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra when Rattle left to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. This nomination confirms France's taste for Scandanavian maestros: Jukka-Pekka Saraste is must appreciated by the orchestras of Radio-France, and Esa-Pekka Salonen is one of them that Gérard Mortier would like to see regularly at the Opéra de Paris.
Since France is feeling open right now about inviting foreign cultural representatives, I know one American musician/historian/culture blogger who would love to relocate to Paris. I speak French fairly well, believe strongly in l'exception française, and despise la mal bouffe. I'll be waiting by the phone, France.

Elgar Triumphans, O'Connor Entertains

Covering two world premieres in one night is exciting for Ionarts, and we have to thank Robert R. Reilly, music critic for CRISIS and author of the delectable Surprised by Beauty, who lent us his ears and time for the NSO's performance last evening and contributed this review.

Last night the National Symphony Orchestra, under Leonard Slatkin, performed a varied program well. It ended in triumph.

It was, however, an odd programming choice to put a classical pops piece like Mark O'Connor's Double Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra between two heavyweights like Hindemith's Mathis der Mahler and Elgar's Enigma Variations. Usually that place is reserved for some modern exercise in aridity that the audience cannot avoid if it wants to hear the next piece.

I am not sure if it was I who had not quite warmed up or the orchestra at the beginning of the Hindemith piece. However, Slatkin developed a nice combination of atmosphere and energy, delicacy and grip. He and the NSO showed how beautiful this music can be, found some unexpected moments of stillness in it, but perhaps missed some of the kind of hair-raising drama that other performances have delivered. I was surprised that I was not more taken with this music that I love. Wondering what it might have sounded like at Furtwangler's premiere, I thought he would have given it more of an interpretative edge.

The highly syncopated O'Connor piece made it hard to sit still and, apparently, for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg to stand still. The best parts of this concerto were the dueling violins, performed spot–on by both soloists, that sometimes transformed the concert hall into a musical celebration at a barn-raising in a John Ford movie. There is no sense in taking O'Connor's music for other than what it is: fun. However, there is a danger in taking popular musical idioms and trying to inflate them symphonically. The music usually cannot sustain the added weight. It's like playing salon music with a hundred strings. To O'Connor's credit, he largely avoided these dangers by concentrating on the musical pyrotechnics for the soloists.

Slatkin has a great reputation for his performances of the British repertory. From his traversal of the Enigma Variations last night, he deserves it. From the first note, it was the music speaking to you rather than being played. Seldom have I heard Elgar's music more bathed in emotional warmth and luminous beauty, without loss of passion and drama. Slatkin and the NSO caught the subtlest gradations within the larger sense of sweep. Woodwind and string solos could not have been more affecting. The Nimrod variation was captured in such a way as to almost make time stop before its radiant beauty. This performance was an expressive triumph for all concerned. It will be repeated for the next two evenings.

See also Tim Page, A Double Violin Concerto for Finely Tuned Ears (Washington Post, June 17).