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30.11.05

Classical Month in Washington (December)

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 (ionarts at gmail dot com). Happy listening!

Thursday, December 1, 7 pm; Friday, December 2, 8 pm; Saturday, December 3, 8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra, with Lang Lang, piano
Music by Chopin (first piano concerto), Schumann, and Walton (first symphony, 1968 version)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
See the review by Robert R. Reilly (Ionarts, December 2)

Thursday, December 1, 7:30 pm
Wolfgang Holzmair, baritone, and Russell Ryan, piano
Austrians in Exile: Songs by Eric Zeisl, Franz Mittler, and Robert Fürstenthal
Embassy of Austria
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, December 5)

Thursday, December 1, 8 pm
Let's Fall in Love: A Tribute to Harold Arlen (b. 1905)
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Andrew Constantine and John Pizzarelli, guitar
Music Center at Strathmore
See the review by Mark J. Estren (Washington Post, December 3)

Thursday, December 1, 8 pm
A Royal Christmas, with Andrea Bocelli and Denyce Graves
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Westminster Concert Choir, Royal Ballet of Winnipeg
MCI Center
See the review by Tim Page (Washington Post, December 3)

Thursday, December 1, 8 pm (December 2-3, 8 pm; December 4, 3 pm)
Haydn, The Creation
American University Chorus and Symphony Orchestra
Katzen Arts Center, American University

Friday, December 2, 7:30 pm
National Association of Professional Asian American Women, 4th Annual Memorial Concert in Honor of Susanna "Susie" Kim
Kennedy Center, Terrace Theater

Friday, December 2, 7:30 pm
17th Annual Christmas Concert for Charity (Admission is free: a collection will be taken to benefit Save Our Aging Religious)
Choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine, Choirs and Orchestra of Catholic University
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Friday, December 2, 7:30 pm; Sunday, December 4, 4 pm
Handel's M-word
Combined Choirs of Washington National Cathedral, WNC Baroque Orchestra
Washington National Cathedral

Friday, December 2, 8 pm
Amelia Trio, with flutist Eugenia Zukerman
Music by Beethoven, Roussel, and Mendelssohn
Library of Congress

Friday, December 2, 8 pm
Aulos Ensemble, French Baroque Christmas concert
The Barns at Wolf Trap

Friday, December 2, 8 pm; Sunday, December 4, 2 pm
Gounod, Roméo et Juliette
Virginia Opera
George Mason University Center for the Arts (Fairfax, Va.)
See the review by Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, December 5)

Friday, December 2, 8 pm
Zhang Daxun, bass, and Tomoko Kashiwagi, piano
Embassy of the People's Republic of China
Embassy Series

Saturday, December 3, 7:30 pm
Stephen Salters, baritone, and David Zobel, pianist
Washington premiere of William Bolcom, To My Old Addresses, and music by Ravel, Michael Ching, and others
Vocal Arts Society
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
See the review by Stephen Brookes (Washington Post, December 5)

Saturday, December 3, 8 pm
National Philharmonic: Handel's M-Word
Music Center at Strathmore
See the review by Mark J. Estren (Washington Post, December 5)

Sunday, December 4, 3 pm
Suspicious Cheese Lords, Christmas Concert
Franciscan Monastery

Sunday, December 4, 3 pm
The Consort Sings Christmas
Washington Bach Consort
National Presbyterian Church
See the review by Grace Jean (Washington Post, December 6)

Sunday, December 4, 5 pm
Irina Nuzova, piano [FREE, with admission to the museum]
Phillips Collection

Sunday, December 4, 6:30 pm
Geir Draugsvoll, accordionist [FREE]
Music by Mozart, Grieg, Bach, and Nørgård
Presented in connection with the Norwegian Christmas Festival
National Gallery of Art
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, December 6)

Sunday, December 4, 8 pm
Matt Haimovitz, cello, and Andy Simionescu, violin
Iota Club and Cafe (Arlington, Va.)
See the review by Gail Wein (Washington Post, December 6)

Tuesday, December 6, 12:10 pm
Noontime Cantata: Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist, BWV 45
Washington Bach Consort
Church of the Epiphany (13th and G Streets NW)

Wednesday, December 7, 7:30 pm (also December 8 to 11)
American Ballet Theater, The Nutcracker
Kennedy Center Opera House
See the review by Sarah Kaufman (Washington Post, December 9)

Thursday, December 8, 7 pm (also December 9 to 11)
NSO Pops: Happy Holidays
With conductor Marvin Hamlisch and Children's Chorus of Washington
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
See the review by Andrew Lindemann Malone (Washington Post, December 10)

Friday, December 9, 7:30 pm
Alexis Descharmes and Nicolas Baldeyrou
La Maison Française
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, December 11)

Friday, December 9, 7:30 pm (also December 10 and 11)
Cathedral Choral Society, The Joy of Christmas (Norwegian Christmas Festival)
With soprano Anne-Lise Berntsen and organist Nils Henrik Asheim
Washington National Cathedral
See the review by Mark J. Estren (Washington Post, December 12)

Friday, December 9, 8 pm
Carpentier Quartet
Embassy of Venezuela
Embassy Series

Friday, December 9, 8 pm (also on December 10 and 11)
Terra Nova Consort, Songs and Dance Music from Renaissance Provence
Dumbarton Oaks

Saturday, December 10, 5 pm
4 Hands, 18 Feet (works for two pianos, by Juusela, Tower, Lutoslawski, Poulenc, Adams)
Lisa Emenheiser and Audrey Andrist (21st Century Consort)
Hirshhorn Museum, Ring Auditorium

Saturday, December 10, 7:30 pm
Frederica von Stade, mezzo-soprano, and Richard Stilwell, baritone
Vocal Arts Society
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
See the review by Tim Page (Washington Post, December 12)

Saturday, December 10, 8 pm
Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson, piano
Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Schumann's Kreisleriana, Bartók's 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs, and Schubert's ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy
Icelandic Ambassador's Residence (2443 Kalorama Road NW)
Embassy Series
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, December 13)

Sunday, December 11, 3 pm
Vienna Choir Boys
Music Center at Strathmore
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, December 17)

Sunday, December 11, 3 pm and 7:30 pm
Cantate Chamber Singers Holiday Program
The Mansion at Strathmore
See the review by Andrew Lindemann Malone (Washington Post, December 13)

Sunday December 11, 4 pm (St. Luke Catholic Church, McLean, Va.)
Friday, December 16, 7:30 pm (Cathedral of St. Matthew, Washington, D.C.)
Adventsmusik (German music for Advent)
Palestrina Choir

Sunday, December 11, 4 pm
Steven Osborne, piano
Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences Concert Series
Landon School Mondzac Performing Arts Center (Bethesda, Md.)

Sunday, December 11, 5 pm
Tom Meglioranza, baritone
Winner of this year’s esteemed Naumburg International Vocal Competition
Phillips Collection
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, December 13)

Sunday, December 11, 6:30 pm
Pacifica String Quartet
Music by Beethoven, Janácek, and Mendelssohn
National Gallery of Art, East Building Auditorium

Sunday, December 11, 7:30 pm
Trio Mediaeval (Fortas Chamber Music series)
Kennedy Center, Terrace Theater
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, December 13)

Tuesday, December 13, 8 pm
Juilliard School Centennial Anniversary Concert (Mahler's third symphony)
Juilliard School Orchestra, Cathedral Choral Society, and National Cathedral School Choirs
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, December 16)

Thursday, December 15, 7 pm (also December 16 to 18)
National Symphony Orchestra: Handel's M-Word, with Washington Chorus
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, December 16)

Friday, December 16, 8 pm
Jupiter String Quartet (Stradivari Anniversary)
Music by Haydn (Sunrise quartet), Dutilleux (Ainsi la nuit), and Beethoven (op. 59, no. 1)
Library of Congress
Composer Gunther Schuller will accept his award as a Library of Congress Living Legend at this concert (see my post on November 29)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, December 18)

Friday, December 16, 8 pm (also December 17, 18, 21-23)
Folger Consort, Corelli and Charpentier
Folger Shakespeare Library
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, December 23)

Saturday, December 17, 1:30 pm; Friday, December 23, 1:30 pm
Choral Arts Society of Washington: Christmas Music, with soprano Arianna Zukerman
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
Also on December 18, 7 pm, at Strathmore
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, December 24)

Saturday, December 17, 4 pm; Sunday, December 18, 4 pm
Children's Chorus of Washington: Holiday Concert
National City Christian Church (5 Thomas Circle NW)

Saturday, December 17, 7:30 pm
Robert Russell Bennett: The Many Moods of Christmas
Metropolitan Chorus and Capital City Symphony
Thomas Jefferson Theatre (Arlington, Va.)

Saturday, December 17, 8 pm
Emerson String Quartet with cellist Colin Carr (Brahms, Shostakovich, Schubert quintet)
National Museum of Natural History, Baird Auditorium

Saturday, December 17, 8 pm
Opera Lafayette, Baroque Holiday Chamber Concert (music of Charpentier, Melani, and Monteverdi)
François Loup and other singers, with instruments
La Maison Française
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, December 19)

Saturday, December 17, 8:30 pm; Sunday, December 18, 7:30 pm
Amit Peled, cello, and Alon Goldstein, piano
Gildenhorn/Speisman Center for the Arts, Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (Rockville, Md.)

Sunday, December 18, 2 pm and 4 pm
Choral Arts Society of Washington: Family Christmas Concert
Kennedy Center, Terrace Theater
See the review by Mini-Critic (Ionarts, December 20)

Sunday, December 18, 3 pm
Violins of Lafayette
Black Rock Center for the Arts (Germantown, Md.)

Sunday, December 18, 4 pm
Cantate Chamber Singers, Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Virgine (Vespers of 1610)
St. Paul's Lutheran Church
See the review by Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, December 20)

Sunday, December 18, 5 pm
Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung, piano four hands
Phillips Collection
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, December 20)

Sunday, December 18, 5 pm; Thursday, December 22, 7 pm
Washington Chorus: Music for Christmas
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
Also on December 23, 8 pm, at Strathmore
See the review by Joe Banno (Washington Post, December 20)

Sunday, December 18, 6:30 pm
Suspicious Cheese Lords
Renaissance and baroque music of the season for men's voices
National Gallery of Art
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, December 20)

Sunday, December 18, 8:30 pm; Monday, December 19, 8 pm; Wednesday, December 21, 8 pm
Master Chorale of Washington: Christmas Candlelight Concert
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, December 22)

Monday, December 26, 6 pm
Hesperus
Kennedy Center, Millennium Stage

Saturday, December 31, 6 pm
Salon Orchestra of Washington
Music of 19th-century Austria
Kennedy Center, Millennium Stage

Saturday, December 31, 8 pm
National Philharmonic: New Year's Eve Celebration
Music Center at Strathmore

Saturday, December 31, 8:30 pm
New Year's Eve at the Kennedy Center
Members of the National Symphony and guest artists
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

——» Go to Classical Month in Washington (November).

To the Beat of a New, Similar Drum

Jennifer HigdonPhiladelphia-based composer Jennifer Higdon’s brand-new Percussion Concerto (it was premiered on November 25th in Philadelphia) rose slowly to life under the hands of soloist Colin Currie. Amplified new-agey marimba sounds wafted about until the orchestra ripped through the calm with tortured strength. With that raucous orchestral backup (Ms. Higdon says “meaty,” I say “thumping”… if not necessarily in a bad way), Mr. Currie moved from one percussion station to the next. From right to left he took his excess energy out on a vibraphone, marimba, a collection of wood blocks and cowbells, and a drum kit as you’d expect it in a rock concert. While he gets to use these toys up front, the hyperactive Philadelphia Orchestra’s percussion section under their Maestro Christoph Eschenbach, too, got in on the action. The rumbling, rambling finale of this one-movement concerto ended with a marimba/piano-driven race preceding Colin Currie’s free-wheeling cadenza on the drum kit. Perhaps it is unfair to judge the work upon one hearing alone… but that alone says something about the quality of the work. I have heard music of Higdon’s - a friend of Marin Alsop's - on recordings that I liked much better – although the very enthusiastic audience reaction in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall suggested great (initial) popularity. That the composer was present in the audience may have helped a little for such a reception, too.

Following the concerto – it seemed half an hour long, but I take it that it was only a twenty-minute work – was one of the trustiest workhorses in the repertoire, Beethoven’s Eroica. Like two lashed slaps in the face of the audience Eschenbach placed the two pillars at the third symphony’s entrance that lead unto the path of the Romantic symphony as we know it. It was one of the few moments that I thought stood out as particularly novel or exciting in a performance that was more pleasing than anything else. Like his predecessor (one of the greatest and least noticeable maestros) Wolfgang Sawallisch, I don’t suppose that the former conductor of the Houston SO approaches Beethoven with a particular agenda. That is neither good nor bad in itself. Trying to make Beethoven sound new or ‘different’ can be great (Zinman, Gardiner, Harnoncourt, and in a very different and old-fashioned way, Barenboim) – but can just as easily become a painful miscalculation.

Other Articles:

Emily Cary, Higdon's percussive premiere (The Examiner, November 23)
Even if we shall never hear the true radicalism of the Eroica, simply because we cannot unmake the cumulative experiences of the last 200 years, the symphony has so much to offer from its music alone (simple as the underlying motives are) that just playing it extraordinarily well will make for a great experience. Fortunately and expectedly, the Philadelphia Orchestra did play well and the mix between aggressively energetic and old-fashioned European with full forces and a gravitas-laden Marcia funebre that one could actually have walked along the coffin without stumbling was just fine, too. The arrangement saw antiphonal violins and placed the cellos center-left, but how much that seating yielded in better differentiation in the Concert Hall was difficult to tell. The brass generally disappointed, either with timid sound in soft passages or lack of suave in the more forceful moments, but the string section played with energy and dedication that was visibly and audibly admirable. The program was presented by WPAS. I don't need to mention anything about speeches today - another, more prominent critic has already done that for me.

Lutefisk & Jesus



Light Norwegian Christmas Tree at Union Station: Check

Get tickets for Lage Lund at Blues Alley: Check

Make note not to miss the accordion (!) recital at the NGA: Check

Make good use of the open bar at the Norwegian Embassy’s Christmas reception: Che-hi-ck

Lorenzo Veneziano in Tours

Lorenzo Veneziano, Saint Bartholomew, from the altarpiece of San Giacomo Maggiore in Bologna, painted in 1368, Pinacoteca Nazionale BolognaThe Musée des beaux-arts in Tours has an exhibit -- Autour de Lorenzo Veneziano: Fragments de polyptyques vénitiens du XIVe siècle, open until January 23 -- of 30-some paintings by this lesser-known painter of the 14th century. Most of them have never been shown in public before, although they are mostly owned by museums. Anne-Marie Romero reviewed the show (Lorenzo Veneziano, fils de Byzance et de Giotto, November 28) for Le Figaro (my translation and links added):

In the twilight of a long red room, the brightness of sumptuous gold and polychrome of some thirty unframed, primitive Italian paintings, works for the most part by a little-known master, Lorenzo Veneziano: that is how this exhibit is presented, in all finesse and refinement, with its choices thought out in great detail, as proposed by Philippe Le Leyzour, director of the Musée des beaux-arts de Tours, and Annie Gilet, curator at the museum. An original exhibit because, among the 30 paintings and small works on wood that have come from a dozen museums in France and abroad, most have never been shown to the public, like the 14 saints from the Musée Sainte-Croix de Poitiers, which have just been restored.

"There are about fifty of Lorenzo Veneziano's works in the world," explains Annie Gilet, "and we are lucky to have four of them, including a major piece, a Coronation of the Virgin that was part of the polyptych of the church of San Giacomo Maggiore in Bologna, painted in 1368, and the Burial of John the Baptist, which we acquired last month from a gallery. [...] "Our museum," Mme Gilet continues, "was lucky to receive, in the 1940s, a donation by a Parisian painter, Octave Linet, who was from Tours and a devoted collector of medieval Italian art, who gave us the Coronation of the Virgin and other works by Lorenzo Veneziano.
This museum has no Web site, but another review by Didier Rykner (Autour de Lorenzo Veneziano. Fragments de polyptyques vénitiens du XIVe siècle, November 6) for La Tribune de l'Art has some beautiful images, which I have linked to above. The exhibit brings together, for the first time, all the known surviving fragments of the San Giacomo Maggiore altarpiece: the Coronation of the Virgin, Crucifixion, and Angel Concert owned by the museum in Tours, two fragments (Saints Bartholomew and Anthony) from Bologna, a Saint Leonard from Syracuse, a piece of the predella, depicting the Marriage of the Virgin, from Philadelphia. The Web Gallery of Art has a few images of works by Lorenzo Veneziano, including the fabulous Lion Polyptych now in the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice. His later paintings are particularly striking, like the rather surreal Annunciation also at the Accademia and the opulent Madonna and Child in the Louvre, both from the 1370s.

29.11.05

Opera on DVD: Massenet's Thaïs

Available from Amazon:
available at Amazon
Jules Massenet, Thaïs, Eva Mei, Michele Pertusi, Marcello Viotti, Gran Teatro La Fenice (production by Pier Luigi Pizzi, 2004)
available at Amazon
Jules Massenet, Thaïs, Renée Fleming, Thomas Hampson, Yves Abel, Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine (2000)
available at Amazon
Jules Massenet, Thaïs, Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, Nicolai Gedda, Lorin Maazel, New Philharmonia Orchestra, John Alldis Choir (1976)
For their opera Thaïs (1894), Jules Massenet and his librettist, Louis Gallet, used Anatole France's novel of the same name (English translation by Robert B. Douglas) as their starting point. Like Esclarmonde, it was one of the operas that Massenet conceived specifically for the startling voice of the American soprano Sybil Sanderson. Its stark juxtaposition of the carnal and sacral was born in the same fin-de-siècle Parisian salon atmosphere as Oscar Wilde's French play Salome (1893), which gave Richard Strauss the naughty idea for his operatic adaptation of Hedwig Lachmann's German translation, which he saw in Berlin in 1903. Strauss premiered his scandalous opera Salome in 1905 in Dresden, with an American premiere at the Met in 1907. Massenet's opera is not as outwardly salacious as director Pier Luigi Pizzi makes it, but it absolutely works with the carnal part of the opera amped up to the max. This is what immediately brought Salome to my mind as I watched Pizzi's gorgeous and psychologically weighty production from the Gran Teatro La Fenice, which was released on DVD last year. If you have Netflix, you can watch their copy, which is what I did.

The story is the descendant of the sacre rappresentazioni of the 17th and 18th centuries, operas (or semistaged oratorios) on the lives of saints or allegorically represented spiritual topics (see my review of Cecilia Bartoli's recital for some examples). A fallen Christian woman named Thaisis or Thaisia, known as a public sinner (read prostitute) in Alexandria, Egpyt, in the fourth century, was converted to Christianity by St. Paphnutius. Repenting her sins, she became an incluse, meaning that she was enclosed in a cell in a convent, where she lived for three years, dying shortly after she was professed as a member of the community that took her in. Most hagiographers believe the story is almost certainly legend, and it makes good opera.

Musically, I would not say that this performance, recorded live in Venice in 2002 (before the grand reopening of the rebuilt La Fenice), is better than either of the most important complete recordings of this opera on CD. Massenet created quite a role in his baritone hero, Athanael, and Michele Pertusi does a fine job, acting well and singing capably. However, both Thomas Hampson and Sherrill Milnes have him beat vocally. The same is true for Eva Mei, but going up against Renée Fleming and Beverly Sills is rather tough competition, too. The sound is not always good, which is no surprise for a live stage recording, but this was definitely good work, led admirably by conductor Marcello Viotti and an all-around good cast.

Warning: Spoilers within!

What makes this DVD so interesting is that it is not only the sole version on DVD, to my knowledge, but a striking and intellectually challenging one, too. A lot of reviews of this production are quite negative: people have apparently been put off by the extratextual aspects of the staging, and prudish and pious Anglo-Saxons have been offended by the sparse costumes of some of the performers. However, Pizzi's staging emphasizes the sexual aspects of the story, the secret motivation behind Athanael's obsession with Thaïs. In the opening scene, the monastic community of the cenobites is gathered in an image like the Last Supper, with white-robed men at a table around their leader, Palémon. In fact, the libretto specifies that precise scene, calling for 12 cenobites and Palémon "assis autour d'une longue table rustique" (seated around a long rustic table). Behind them, however, Pizzi places a large cross-like T, which seemed to me to stand for Thaïs, hovering above.

Also on Ionarts:

Charles T. Downey, Summer Opera: Massenet's Cendrillon (June 16, 2005)

Charles T. Downey, Massenet's Esclarmonde with Washington Concert Opera (April 10, 2005)

Jens F. Laurson, Esclarmonde, Part 2 (April 12, 2005)

Charles T. Downey, The Phoenix (on La Fenice's reopening, November 23, 2004)

Charles T. Downey, Werther at the Met (January 11, 2004)
It is at the foot of that T or cross that Athanael kneels for his prayer at the end of the scene, falling down and experiencing a vision. This is supposed to show, according to the libretto's text, Thaïs miming a scene about the loves of Aphrodite, on the stage of the Alexandria amphitheater. Pizzi gives us instead a much more erotic ballet scene, lit in gorgeous red light, with the principal dancer, mostly nude, leading a group of dancers covered by a heavy cloth. Even if Athanael does not realize it yet, we are made to realize that he is driven by his lustful desire for Thaïs, not by any hope of converting her, as he finally admits as she dies at the end of the opera. Is this a subject that fascinated Massenet? After all, Manon also features a young clergyman (Des Grieux is studying in the seminary) seduced by a whore with a heart of gold.

The nudity is not limited to the female dancers, as Thaïs appears at the opening of Act II with two unclothed male attendants. They are both careful to face away from the audience (even in Italy, there are limits). The libretto says only that Thais is accompanied by "quelques histrions et d'un petit groupe de comédiennes," or a few actors and a small group of actresses. You might think that this is gratuitous on Pizzi's part, but the aim, I think, is to show the carnal delights of the life that Thaïs will sacrifice.

The most famous music of the whole opera is the famous Méditation, a sweet melody for solo violin, accompanied mostly by light strings and harp. The libretto gives no direction for what this music depicts, only the word meditation. Just before we hear it, Thaïs rejects Athanael's demand that she repent, laughingly vowing to live as freely as she wants. Pizzi has her recline on a couch as Athanael kneels and continues to pray. During the Méditation music, the vision of a single nude female dancer appears above Thaïs. (If you have ever wondered what a ballet dancer's body looks like, it is shockingly muscled.) The dancer is raised up on the same T-cross, now with rungs like a ladder. At the climax of the music, she climbs to the top and hangs on the crossbar, as if on the cross. It was truly stunning to watch, creating an image in the background like the crucifix. As Eros/Christ dies and slumps on the cross, the roses on Thaïs's couch instantly fall to the floor, revealing a thorny bed. The audience did not even applaud but waited in stunned silence until the next scene, in which Thaïs tells Athanael that his words convinced her, began.

Some people have been and probably would be offended by this staging, but the ballet in this production is just gorgeous, visually stunning, and beautifully choreographed. I found nothing in it in bad taste or offensive to me as a Catholic. Instead, it did what opera directors can sometimes do, revealing something profound about the work beyond what is on the surface of the music and libretto. However, one could definitely not show this DVD to high school humanities students.

Kudos to Gunther Schuller

According to a little article (Library's living legend, November 29) in the Washington Times, the Library of Congress has named Gunther Schuller a Living Legend. The 80-year-old composer and performer will receive the award at the December 16 concert at the Library, by the Jupiter Quartet. Our Boston correspondent covered the GuSchu festivities in Boston earlier this month: see Frank's reports, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Miranda July at NMWA

The National Museum of Women in the Arts (1250 New York Avenue NW) hosts interesting exhibits and performances, and I am passing along information on two film screenings there that might be of interest to Ionarts readers. First, the NMWA is showing Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know (see Todd's review on September 16) this Thursday, December 1, at 7 pm. This was the director's first feature film, and it won awards at Sundance and Cannes this year. Tickets are $5, and you must make a reservation by phone (202-783-7370) or e-mail (reservations@nmwa.org).

Unfortunately, I cannot go to see that (grumble, grumble), but I may be able to make another screening of a selection of Miranda July's short video works on Monday, December 12, at 7 pm: The Drifters, The Amateurist (1998, 14 min), Atlanta (1996, 10 min), Nest of Tens (1999, 27 min), Getting Stronger Every Day (2001, 6.5 min). Tickets and reservation information is the same as above.

28.11.05

Fischer's Mahler's 6th

available at Tower Records
G. Mahler, Symphony No. 6, I. Fischer / BFO
The ticker has barely come in with news of Iván Fischer's appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, when Fischer issues the first Mahler recording of his career. It almost feels as though Fischer is flirting with me. Doesn't he know that nothing makes me so gentle like a lamb and weak in the knees as does good Mahler? Ten years studying, preparing and playing Mahler finally led him to the courage to record the Austrian giant's sixth symphony - Mahler's harshest one in many ways... but also one that, once you are acquainted with it, is an endless source of delight. It comes close on the heels of Abbado's live 6th with the Berlin Philharmonic, and it is only natural to compare the two. Additionally, I ran it against other modern versions: Pierre Boulez (DG), Charles Mackerras (BBC Music Magazine disc 251), Benjamin Zander (Telarc), and Mariss Jansons (LSO live). Just to remind myself what it is not I also blew the dust off Barbirolli (EMI Rouge et Noire / EMI double forte), Karajan (DG Originals), Mitropoulos (EMI Great Conductors of the Century), and Kubelik (DG), most of which I wrote about in my Abbado review.

ConductorAllegroScherzoAndanteFinaleTotal
Mitropoulos 5918:5111:4014:3029:3874:42
Barbirolli 6721:1413:53 (*)15:5132:4383:53
Kubelik 6921:0711:4114:3926:3774:16
Karajan 7422:0913:1617:0330:0082:54
Boulez 9423:0612:1914:4729:1079:22
Zander 0125:2712:2916:2331:5986:18
Mackerras 0218:3612:01*14:1030:0274:52
Jansons 0223:0112:55*15:1330:4381:52
Abbado 0422:4812:43*13:5729:4479:13
Fischer 0522:2312:52*13:4329:2378:49


The timings put Fischer close to Abbado's most recent - and the recordings have been said to be alike. There is certainly some truth to that... both are more or less 'well-behaved' readings that don't overdo the dark and brooding nature of this symphony. Both take the Andante first and neither include the "Essen-Version" third hammer-blow. Both are smooth and superbly executed. The Channel recording has a distinct advantage on the sound (in both, regular or SACD version -- the acoustic of the Budapest National Concert Hall, opened in March of 2005, makes this the best-sounding Fischer recording on Channel Classics) and in emotional vibrancy, too. I find Fischer more charged, taut... slightly less patrician, less floating. The latter two qualities can make for some of the greatest Mahler - just not, in my opinion, in the sixth. (The current edition of the American Record Guide takes the Abbado recording to task for that very reason: "This is the most benign and effete Mahler 6 I have have ever heard. I [...] can't imagine one less fiery and energetic than this. For a moment, I wondered if it was a deliberate send-up of the symphony" (Nov/Dec 05). Harsh, but essentially my feelings, too. Abbado's Mahler 6 is too shy, friendly, apologetic. The 6th is better at being nasty and a hyena. It doesn't have to be (Fischer proves that point, and so does Karajan) - but it surely ought not be Nemo, the friendly clown fish.

As always in the sixth, the question as to which inner movement to place first comes up. Should the conductor go with Mahler the Composer's plan of having the Scherzo first, hammering away right after the very similar Allegro... or should he follow Mahler the Conductor, who ultimately placed the Adagio before the Scherzo? The last couple of years conductors seem to have preferred the latter - in years before, conductors almost uniformly placed the Scherzo first. (Barbirolli is the exception - in his EMI recording he decided that the Andante should come first. In the first re-issue (or perhaps already in the orginal) a well-meaning editor reversed the order... perhaps to conform to standard practice. In the latest reissue on the EMI double forte the original sequence has been restored.)

Fischer does not pretend that this is a clear-cut matter. I quote from his comments in the liner notes:
Putting the scientific arguments aside I have been fascinated by the question of what Mahler's doubts felt like when he suddenly abandoned his beautifully constructed original symphonic plan. To relive this experience we took the sixth symphony on a long European tour and changed the order of the middle movements every single concert. In the Scherzo-Andante peformances the transitions from one movement to the next felt wonderful, the whole architecture made sense but I felt a clear unease about the size and weight of the Scherzo after the first movement. In the Andante-Scherzo concerts there was a fantastic balance and variety. I became convinced that Mahler's abrupt decision was a stroke of genius.
I've said before: Who am I to differ with luminary conductors who know more about Mahler than I ever shall. Alas, from my level of understanding I respectfully disagree. The left-right double blow does not concern me much in a symphony that is supposed to be devastating, anyway. In fact, I like it. Nor does the similarity of the Allegro and Scherzo disturb my listening pleasure. And the transitions make much more sense in the original order... listening and reading the symphony, there can be no doubt that it definitely was composed in and for the original order. Performance practices (or compromises) concern me less. The fact that Fischer's shift from Allegro to Andante is less than smooth (not nearly as organic as Mackerras, who chose the same order) does not help his cause, either. (It should be said, though, that this moment is about the only performance-related quibble I have with the CD.)

And then of course there is the issue of two vs. three hammerblows. Fischer feels the following way about it:
Even if Alma Mahler was right and it was Mahler's superstition that made him erase the fatal deathblow from the final version I feel there must have been another reason, too. I am convinced that the muted climax near the end is better. It is less theatrical and with its modest sound it balances beautifully with the final desperate outburst. This great finale is better with two hammer blows.
Again, I disagree. First of all I am not sure if "less theatrical" is really something desireable to aim for in a Mahler symphony... or 'modesty' for that matter. And I simply don't find the third hammerblow cheap or crude... I find it utterly devastating, heart- and neck-breaking. The third hammerblow, striking a few bars later than one would expect, is the death sentence. The 'hero' is felled like a tree. In the version sans hammerblow - with the slightly reduced orchestration around these bars - the hero receives something more akin to a slap on the ass. It may be enough to make him tumble... but it lacks the compelling drama I love in the 6th.

For all these choices, Fischer's 6th is still one of the finest I have heard in quite a while. I don't agree with some of the high praise heaped on Jansons' LSO live recording, which I find distinctly blasé, even unengaging and boring. That, Fischer is never. Boulez, too, isn't unlike Fischer - only that Boulez is meaner, more taut at a few places and his recording is - next to Zander - one of the last to put the Scherzo first. Fischer's strength is that he manages fluidity and a wonderful lyrical approach without emasculating the symphony too much. I find Zander's sixth exceptional - but especially those who complain about an erratic quality and pulled tempi in Zander should find the Fischer to be near ideal. At least on non-high-end systems, the sound of the Fischer is a good deal better than Abbado, because of increased presence and audibility of the soft parts. The Abbado recording may not be bad, despite its low levels... but what is the point if it only sounds impressive on a high-end system that has Wilson Watt Puppies as rear (!) speakers. This is the first recording of any kind in the Palace of Arts in Budapest (which houses the Concert Hall), and it promises many a great sounding recording to come.

Channel Classics CCS SA 22905

Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs

Peter LiebersonOf all the commissions requested for the 125th anniversary season of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the most anticipated has been a song cycle based on the poetry of Pablo Neruda by American composer Peter Lieberson. Neruda Songs, jointly commission by the BSO and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was premiered in L.A. in March and received its east coast premiere this weekend on a concert that also featured Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks by Strauss, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. The new work was performed by mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the composer’s wife, for whom the piece was written.

Lorraine Hunt LiebersonLieberson set five of Neruda’s love poems in the original Spanish with a striking and refreshing harmonic language that is primarily tertian. Abstract but never unappealing, the songs are constructed such that the mezzo line weaves in and out of the texture and does not compete with the orchestra. The only pitfall occurs in the fourth song of five, when Leiberson gives in, lets the maracas take over, and with a blatant Latin groove, disrupts the charm and balance of the piece, only to settle back into his obvious and naturally elegant writing in the closing movement. Hunt Lieberson’s singing is clear and beautiful, her Spanish luxuriant, and her presence commanding.

Other Reviews:

Richard Dyer, Lieberson's voice, husband's music make lovely pairing (Boston Globe, November 26)

David Cleary, BSO finds singers in fine voice, short supply (Boston Herald, November 26)

Anthony Tommasini, Love, Neruda and the Mezzo Who Returned to the Spotlight (New York Times, November 26)
Mahler’s delicate Symphony No. 4 featured soprano Heidi Grant Murphy in the last movement. Grant Murphy was called in at the last minute to replace Dorothea Röschmann, who cancelled citing a family emergency. James Levine stated in a program insert announcing the change in lineup that Röschmann and Grant Murphy are “the only sopranos” he calls to perform this work; however, it was unfortunately obvious that Grant Murphy was incapable of cutting across the orchestra. In addition, her over-affected performance and extraordinarily tense facial contortions distracted from the beauty of the writing and sensitivity of the orchestra’s playing. Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks opened the performance with a romp - the horn section and its first chair, James Sommerville, led the charge.

On Monday, November 28, the Boston Symphony will be presenting this same program at Carnegie Hall in New York. On March 11, the BSO will perform the Lieberson in Washington, D.C., while on a tour of the northeast.

UPDATE:
See also Alex Ross, News good and bad (The Rest Is Noise, November 29).

27.11.05

Alberto Giacometti's Little Brother

Diego Giacometti, L'Autruche, or the OstrichOne of those Ionarts things we do is translate articles from foreign-language newspapers. It looks you may be able to get your translations directly now, at least from Le Figaro, which now has an English-language site, Le Figaro English. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, it is not complete, and very few of the Culture articles are in it. So, for now, you will have to keep reading Ionarts if your French is not up to snuff.

An article (Diego Giacometti, le frère oublié, November 25) in Le Figaro made me aware that Alberto Giacometti's younger brother, Diego, was also an artist. A collection of his art will be auctioned on December 14 (my translation and links added):

"The great man was not me, it was Diego," as Alberto Giacometti often said. Nevertheless, he was the one who had the glory, while Diego, his younger brother by 13 months, hid himself to create in the sculptor's shadow. Alberto designed, and Diego executed, separate but indivisible. They both kept the same studio, at 46, rue Hippolyte-Maindron, in Paris. Their collaboration was so close that it is difficult to separate their work. At Alberto's death in 1965, Diego kept working, continuing to elaborate on the stunning bestiary in bronze, stucco, forged iron. Work that was discreet, sensitive, that he signed himself only after 1970, afraid of being thought a usurper.

It is to this "forgotten brother" that Piasa dedicates its December 14 sale at Drouot, with a collection of furniture and sculpture acquired directly from the artist by Jean-Paul Binet. This great professor of surgical pathology at the Paris medical school was also a great art lover. He was friendly with Diego, to the point of becoming the inspiration of one of his most emblematic works, l'Autruche [The ostrich]. The collector commissioned the decoration of two ostrich eggs from Marc Chagall (20,000 to 25,000 €, Le Profil, a signed and dedicated painting) and from Joan Miro (50,000 to 60,000 €, L'Orgueil, watercolor with gouache, dedicated on the back "For Dr. Jean-Paul Binet as a good memory, March 15, 1967, Paris"). For the third, the sculptor imagined this gracious animal as "the ideal support to reveal the value of the object carried."
Diego outlived his brother by many years, dying in 1985. His final major commission was to create the interior decoration of the Musée National Picasso Paris, which sadly opened only a few months after he died. If you know the quirky lighting fixtures and furniture of that museum, that is the work of Diego Giacometti. You can see a few of his other works here.

Classical Week in Washington (11/27)

Classical Week in Washington is a weekly feature that appears on Sundays, in conjunction with my Classical Music Agenda at DCist. If there are concerts that you would like to see included on our schedule, send your suggestions by e-mail (ionarts at gmail dot com). Plan your fall concert schedule with our Highlights of the Concert Season, Fall 2005, and Classical Month in Washington (December), or your fall opera listening with our Opera Preview, 2005–2006.

Monday, November 28, 7:30 pm
The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach (WPAS)
Kennedy Center, Concert Hall

Monday, November 28, 8 pm
JCC Chamber Music Series, performed by members of the National Symphony Orchestra
Programs selected by Leonard Slatkin
Gildenhorn/Speisman Center for the Arts, Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (Rockville, Md.)

Wednesday, November 30, 7:30 pm
Frank Huang, violin (WPAS)
Kennedy Center, Terrace Theater

Thursday, December 1, 7 pm; Friday, December 2, 8 pm; Saturday, December 3, 8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra, with Lang Lang, piano
Music by Chopin (first piano concerto), Schumann, and Walton (first symphony, 1968 version)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

Thursday, December 1, 7:30 pm
Wolfgang Holzmair, baritone, and Russell Ryan, piano
Austrians in Exile: Songs by Eric Zeisl, Franz Mittler, and Robert Fürstenthal
Embassy of Austria

Thursday, December 1, 8 pm
Let's Fall in Love: A Tribute to Harold Arlen (b. 1905)
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Andrew Constantine and John Pizzarelli, guitar
Music Center at Strathmore

Thursday, December 1, 8 pm (open dress rehearsal)
Friday and Saturday, December 2 and 3, 8 pm; Sunday, December 4, 3 pm
Haydn, The Creation
American University Chorus and Symphony Orchestra
Katzen Arts Center, American University

Friday, December 2, 7:30 pm
National Association of Professional Asian American Women, 4th Annual Memorial Concert in Honor of Susanna "Susie" Kim
Kennedy Center, Terrace Theater

Friday, December 2, 7:30 pm; Sunday, December 4, 4 pm
Handel's M-word
Combined Choirs of Washington National Cathedral, WNC Baroque Orchestra
Washington National Cathedral

Friday, December 2, 7:30 pm
17th Annual Christmas Concert for Charity (Admission is free: a collection will be taken to benefit Save Our Aging Religious)
Choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine, Choirs and Orchestra of Catholic University
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Friday, December 2, 8 pm
Amelia Trio, with flutist Eugenia Zukerman
Music by Beethoven, Roussel, and Mendelssohn
Library of Congress

Friday, December 2, 8 pm
Aulos Ensemble, French Baroque Christmas concert
The Barns at Wolf Trap

Friday, December 2, 8 pm; Sunday, December 4, 2 pm
Gounod, Roméo et Juliette
Virginia Opera
George Mason University Center for the Arts (Fairfax, Va.)

Friday, December 2, 8 pm
Zhang Daxun, bass, and Tomoko Kashiwagi, piano
Embassy of the People's Republic of China
Embassy Series

Saturday, December 3, 7:30 pm
Stephen Salters, baritone, and David Zobel, pianist
Washington premiere of William Bolcom, To My Old Addresses, and music by Ravel, Michael Ching, and others
Vocal Arts Society
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

Saturday, December 3, 8 pm
National Philharmonic: Handel's M-Word
Music Center at Strathmore

Sunday, December 4, 3 pm
Suspicious Cheese Lords, Christmas Concert
Franciscan Monastery

Sunday, December 4, 3 pm
The Consort Sings Christmas
Washington Bach Consort
National Presbyterian Church

Sunday, December 4, 5 pm
Irina Nuzova, piano [FREE, with admission to the museum]
Phillips Collection

Sunday, December 4, 6:30 pm
Geir Draugsvoll, accordionist [FREE]
Music by Mozart, Grieg, Bach, and Nørgård
Presented in connection with the Norwegian Christmas Festival
National Gallery of Art

——» Go to last week's schedule, for the week of November 20.

26.11.05

Baiba Skride Kindles a Fire at Strathmore

Baiba SkrideTo the unfamiliar sounds of Stephen Albert’s Tapioca orchestral work, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened their Turkey digestion concert (Friday after Thanksgiving) under the baton of Hans Graf at Strathmore. With bells and whistles, this charming and amusingly cacophonous appetizer of a fanfare – no longer than three minutes – is not a dyslexic's attempt at mimicking Sibelius but a 14-year-old Zinman concocted running joke involving the BSO and Tapioca Pudding à la Rhubarb Pie, courtesy of Garrison Keillor. It depicts, in part, the dubious pleasure that a lactose-intolerant person (Albert) would derive from that dessert.

In theory it might be lamented that even in the serious classical arts business, much emphasis is placed on how a performer looks. It may not yet be a requirement to be a runway model in order to strut onto the stage of major concert halls, but it helps and is increasingly important. How many female violinists do you know that are – how to put this diplomatically – less convincing visually than they are acoustically? Nor are male artists safe from this trend. (Even Ionarts has discussed a performer’s hair recently.)

In practice, however, we don’t really mind. Especialy not if as delectable a Latvian as Baiba Skride comes on stage in a fiery red dress that tantalizingly threatened to fall off. Our shallow side is addressed and our shallow side duly responds. But good looks didn’t win this 24-year-old the Queen Elizabeth competition in 2001 and surely were not the deciding factor for the Nippon Music Foundation to loan her the Wilhemj Stradivarius. With that instrument in hand, Mlle. Skride produced a very rich and resonant, burnished and blooming sound (like an ideal viola) in Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. In the first movement her playing that was not always a model of cleanliness but throughout her tone was supported by an enviably electric, tight vibrato.

available at Amazon
Mozart/Haydn, Violin Concertos, B.Skride / Haenchen CPEB Orch.
A few weeks ago I found a Sony release with the then still unknown-to-me violinist on my desk. The combination of another Mozart concerto and pretty girl draped across the cover (in the Janine Janson style) didn’t seem very promising (speaking of which – a review of Anne Sofie Mutter’s new disc will be forthcoming shortly) but proved to be highly agreeable. The Mozart is very entertaining and interestingly coupled with a Michael Haydn concerto. I’ve since listened to the recording many more times with unabated joy, which created some anticipation for her live appearance. She was kind enough not to let us down.

Other Reviews:

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Washington Post, November 28)
Hans Graf milked the BSO’s brass in the Andante to broad and full effect, reveling in the noise the players made in the rich sounding and no longer booming Strathmore Hall. Baiba Skride elicited strong approval in the preceding movements already (the audience duly applauding every single one of the five movements) but showed that the lyrical section suited her just as well if not better. A nearby colleague wiggled and nodded along through the concluding Rondo – a good sign, certainly, and visually affirming my perception of the light-footed and agile way she had with this anti-Brahms virtuoso piece. Part of the delight came from a performance that audibly placed joy over note-perfection (not that there were any glaring mistakes in it, anyway), which made it so infectious. It was a performance like a broad smile – enthusiastically received.

After intermission, however, the concert experience was seriously derailed by a speech of the orchestra librarian, Ms. Plaine. Nomen est omen. Sorry that I did not care that there is a copy and fax machine (and some workspace!) in the BSO music library. Or that I think that a good orchestra librarian’s job is to work efficiently in the background, not give murderously boring and inarticulate speeches. Bonding with the audience had better be left to the musicians, Maestro Graf, and Tchaikovsky’s 1st Symphony – the slight Winter Dreams-subtitled work of a then 26-year-old composer. The “sin of [his] sweet youth” (Tchaikovsky about the first symphony) and meticulously revised work heavily foreshadows the Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker in the first movement, and while it is a far cry from the last three symphonies of his, it is charming in its own right, nothing too heavy yet impeccably Russian and Romantic. Hans Graf, Kapellmeister with a Romantic touch, reigned over an amiable at first, then excellent, performance (the finale, a sort-of five-minute “variation on how to end a Romantic symphony,” was brought to its elongated climax beautifully) that far more eloquently made the point that audiences ought to turn out to hear the BSO’s concerts at Strathmore. Repeat performances will take place in Baltimore’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall tonight at 8PM and tomorrow, Sunday, at 3PM.

The Little Prince

Other Articles:

K. E. Watt, Rachel Portman and "The Little Prince" (WattWork, November 13)

Willa J. Conrad, An opera that won't scare the children (Newark Star-Ledger, November 14)

Ben Mattison, Photo Journal: Rachel Portman's The Little Prince at New York City Opera (Playbill Arts, November 15)

David Salvage, "The Little Prince" at City Opera (Sequenza21, November 15)

Peter G. Davis, Pilot Error (New York Magazine, November 28)
Rachel Portman's new opera, The Little Prince, was premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2003. Francesca Zambello directed a new production at New York City Opera, from November 12 to 20. This is one of my favorite books for children, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, although its sensibility always seems to appeal much more to adults than children. (Three-year-old Mini-Critic could care less about this book right now, for example, but he will probably come around to it in a few years.) In fact, as Margaret Talbot showed in her excellent article on Roald Dahl's children's stories in The New Yorker this summer (The Candy Man, July 11 and 18, 2005), the stories that children actually love are often the bane of the adults in their lives. The opera's target audience was children, but The Little Prince is getting plenty of praise from adults, too. Anne Midgette gave a somewhat positive but fairly cursory review (From Grown-Ups, a 'Little Prince' for Children, November 14) for the New York Times:
Francesca Zambello has directed with a fine, sure hand. The young cast is decent, with Keith Phares getting a workout in the narrator's role of the Pilot and Robert Mack as a sound, sinuous Snake. Other good singers include Joshua Winograde and Hanan Alattar. Gerald Steichen conducts an orchestra so smooth it sounds unctuous. But that's really because of the score: eminently functional, pretty and (Ms. Portman being an adroit film composer) telling the audience what to feel at every turn. What it lacks is a real melodic gift: the tunes may stick in your head afterward, but they sound like jingles. Even more jingly are the clunky rhymes of Nicholas Wright's libretto, which shoves large blocks of text into the story to give the fine children's chorus more to do. Well and good, but the opera would lose nothing (except half an hour) by losing many of these.
Fred Kirshnit, who wrote a review (A Hummable Treat for All Ages, November 14) for the New York Sun, proudly claims that he has never read the Saint-Exupéry book and equally proclaims his disapproval of modern opera:
Rachel Portman, The Little Prince, Houston Grand OperaMs. Portman deserves high praise for creating a score of warm melodic inventiveness, with especially memorable music describing flying, both physical and fanciful. More important, she should be recognized for having the courage to paint her landscapes in the language of diatonic tonality, and for putting the lie to the notion that userfriendly music has gone the way of the dinosaur. She offers singable, hummable music. When was the last time that you read that about an opera composed after 1950?
The polemics of the reviewers often came out in their reactions to the music: Portman was often labeled, sometimes derisively, a "film composer." That term seems to indicate immediate comfort for those turned off by modernist dissonance and just as surely marks a sell-out composer to the high-minded. Of all the reviews, I most enjoyed the one by Justin Davidson (A kids' opera hits the mark, November 16) for New York Newsday, because he went in the company of an eight-year-old mini-critic:
Had I been alone at its New York City Opera premiere on Saturday, I might have smirked at the honeyed harmonies and "Greensleeves" turns of phrase, or sulked snobbishly that the adorably costumed creatures onstage had nothing on the magical menagerie in Ravel's "L'enfant et les sortileges." Instead, I was aided by the ears of my demographically correct son, who followed the adventures of his golden-curled alter ego and barely blinked in two hours. Most children's operas - "L'enfant" included - resonate less with kids than with adult imaginings of childhood. Portman, who wrote the soundtracks for "Emma," "Chocolat" and "Cider House Rules," has a film composer's feel for how to stroke an audience and how to nudge wandering emotions into line. "The Little Prince" is among the most direct and effective of contemporary operas, never trying to be something it isn't, never falling short of what it is.
A few years ago, Davidson wrote a Father's Day article about being a father and coping with his son's fears (Fear and Fatherhood, July 8, 2002) for Salon. It is also excellent reading. Given the success of this opera, my chances of being able to take my own Mini-Critic to see it one day are better than average.

Who Were the Rioters in France?

Also on Ionarts:

Les émeutes (November 5)

More on Les émeutes (November 9)
A recent post on the riots in France got Ionarts mentioned in the Financial Times, so it seems like a good idea to follow up on who did what in the suburbs of Paris and other areas. In an interview with Deborah Solomon (Continental Drift, November 20) in New York Times Magazine, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard had the following, perhaps not too helpful things to say:
As one of France's most celebrated philosophers, can you give us any insight into the civil discontent that is pitting a generation of young people against the rest of the country?

It will get worse and worse and worse. For a long time, it was a relatively friendly coexistence or cohabitation, but the French haven't done much to integrate the Muslims, and there is a split now. Our organic sense of identity as a country has been split.

Perhaps that was inevitable. Many of us here were surprised last year when the French government banned hijabs, head scarves, and other religious emblems from public schools.

Yes, in America there is more of a history of immigration. America is constituted by ethnic communities, and though they may compete with one another, America is still America. Even if there were no Americans living in the United States, there would still be America. France is just a country; America is a concept.
That is only the beginning of a rather odd but entertaining interview. We also recommend an article by Alan Riding (In France, Artists Have Sounded the Warning Bells for Years, November 23) in the New York Times, which summarizes the French film and music that seem to have pointed to the recent rioting as historically inevitable. Also, I wrote recently about politician Nicolas Sarkozy's hard-nosed response to the rioters. Nathalie Guibert, in an article (La majorité des mineurs présentés aux juges étaient "inconnus" des tribunaux, November 26) for Le Monde, takes a look at just who the youths involved in the riots were, or at least who got arrested by French police (my translation):
They are French, 16 to 17 years old, working or out-of-work fathers, mothers more or less overwhelmed, with poor report cards at school. And they have, by and large, no previous record with the courts. The youths arrested in the recent urban violence in the the Ile-de-France do not correspond to the profile laid out by the Interior Minister, that of "riff-raff" of whom "80%" will probably be known to police already for delinquent acts. From October 29 to November 18, according to the last official report, 3,101 people were detained following the riots, 135 judicial cases have been opened, 562 adults were imprisoned (with 422 already sentenced to prison), and 577 minors have appeared before family court judges (with 118 placed in detention centers). [...]

The hardened circle of delinquent youth has not been implicated in the riots, or at least was not arrested by the police. The administration of the PJJ in Seine-Saint-Denis confirmed that its precinct had remained rather calm. "Some of those participating in the violence were motivated by hate and the desire to break free, but there was also a playful dimension in all of this," thinks Régis Lemierre, of the educational service of the Nanterre courts. Far from any political or social purpose, "the Gameboy generation reacted as if in a virtual world: there were their buddies, everything was on fire, and it was cool," he continues.
Many of those arrested were known to the government only because of their social and home conditions but had not yet gotten involved in anything criminal. Some may have been told what to do by others who were not arrested or simply followed their bad example. In any case, Sarkosy's planned deportation cannot possibly apply to them. The article gives a selection of those arrested, with names changed to protect their identities, of course. The first, Eddy S., is a 16-year-old, arrested several times since the age of 11, for shoplifting, defacing public property, and violence. His family came to France from Mali 10 years ago. His father is an invalid, and his mother cleans houses. Although they live separately, they have nine children. Eddy was expelled from middle school, or rather he was asked to sign a letter of "resignation" after extensive behavior problems. This process is supposed to be illegal in France, but it does happen.

25.11.05

Dip Your Ears, No. 49 (Berezovsky’s Rachmaninoff)

available at Amazon
S.Rachmaninoff, Préludes,
B.Berezovsky
Mirare 004

Have Rachmaninoff’s solo piano works ever ‘escaped’ you? Have you ever been slightly annoyed or uninvolved by the sonatas or even the Préludes? There is no shame in admitting immunity to these works’ charm – Charles, for one, has done so in public, at least with regards to the sonatas. Add me to the list, too. Then strike me right off that list, though, where the Préludes are concerned, because I’ve finally come to terms with them thanks to a new recording that may do the trick for the similarly afflicted, too. What’s good for the uninitiated is even more ear-opening for the converted: Rachmaninoff lovers should put this disc very high on their Christmas wish-list. It is a new recording by Boris Berezovsky; not the one on Warner Classics (those are the op. 10 études of Chopin coupled with their corresponding Godowsky transcriptions, although that’s a really fun disc, too) but on the smaller and exciting label MIRARE. That label’s presentations so far have been beautiful on the in- and outside… and their Scarlatti discs with Pierre Hantaï (vol. 1 and 2) are very high on my own holiday want-list.

Berezovsky plays the ten Préludes, op. 23, the thirteen Préludes, op. 32, and the Préludes en ut dièse mineur, op. 3, no. 2, on this almost 80-minute-long disc. The latter are roughly contemporary to the Debussy préludes while the earliest (and most famous), the c-sharp minor, is the second from a set of five short piano pieces written in 1891. Except the 1891 F major and 1917 D minor prélude (generally known as the Andante ma non troppo), all of Rachmaninoff’s préludes are included here. Completists are pointed in the direction of Idil Biret’s recording of those two works, appropriately coupled with the Prélude-based Variations on a Theme of Chopin – Naxos 8.554426). I don’t know exactly what it is that makes Berezovsky communicate these works like I have never heard before, not with Ashkenazy, Alexeev, or Shelley… but he does and I delight in the immediacy of his playing, the enthusiasm he brings to and from the préludes, the way he involves me as a listener. And Berezovsky only gets better as he gets along in these works. At least as far as I and my troubled relationship to Rachmaninoff’s solo piano works are concerned, this is as good as it gets.

18-Year-Old Wins Rostropovich Competition

Ionarts hopes all of our American readers are enjoying a pleasant Thanksgiving holiday. However, we know that many of you are not from the United States, so we have some prewritten posts for you to read while we nap and eat turkey leftovers. Best wishes!

I heard a day's worth of the qualifying rounds of the Rostropovich Cello Competition here in Washington this summer. The final rounds of this prestigious competition were held in Paris, from November 9 to 20. Of the several cellists I heard that day, I was most impressed with French cellist Yves Dharamraj (graduated from Yale, now studying with Joel Krosnick at Juilliard). As it turns out, my estimation in that case matched with that of the jury, and Dharamraj was awarded the chance to go on to Paris. There hasn't been much reported in the press over the course of the last couple weeks, but the final results are coming out of Paris. According to the competition's Web site, Dharamraj played the first round on November 11 at the Conservatoire National de Région de Paris, but that was as far as he went. This is no shame to him, as he plays extremely well and the competition is terribly fierce.

Marie-Elizabeth HeckerSix lucky cellists earned the chance, in the final round, to play with the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Janos Fürst, on November 19: Renaud Déjardin (France), Marie-Elizabeth Hecker (Germany), Giorgi Kharadze (Georgia), Julian Steckel (Germany), Elizaveta Sushchenko (Russia), and Kaori Yamagami (Canada). Incredibly, 18-year-old Marie-Elizabeth Hecker from Germany won the Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris (12,000 €) and a special prize for her interpretation of the Shostakovich op. 107 concerto. Julian Steckel and Giorgi Kharadze took second and third prizes. One award went to an American cellist, Alan Toda-Ambaras, who at 14 years old received the Prix du meilleur espoir for best young cellist.

All six finalists apparently chose to play the Shostakovich op. 107 concerto. As challenging as that must have been for an audience, journalists report that the public stayed and was largely made up of young people, which is a good sign. Marie-Elizabeth Hecker was born in 1987 in Zwickau, and she has already made a recording, in 2004, of the Kodály sonata. (I can't find it anywhere.) Shortly before the competition in Paris, she gave a concert in Brooklyn, at Barge Music, with her brother, pianist Martin Hecker, on October 29 and 30. There is a picture of her playing at the competition in this article.

24.11.05

Gunther Schuller: I Hear America (Part 3)

Part Three: Spectra

For the final installment (see Part 1 and Part 2) of the festival celebrating Gunther Schuller’s 80th birthday, the Boston Symphony Orchestra programmed the composer’s Klangfarbenmelodie fantasy, Spectra (1958). The piece is meticulously organized, eschewing the traditional orchestral seating chart and replacing it with five “chamber” ensembles reinforced with strings and percussion. The purpose of the reorganization, as the title suggests, was to make tone color the thread of the piece, as opposed to melody, or even the orchestra itself. The tonal idea in use here was Schoenberg’s, and altered orchestration was the subject of many similar experiments of mid-20th-century avant-garde composers. A recording exists of the work -- though it might be difficult to get one’s hands on it -- with James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony.

Though the concept of Spectra is a difficult one to handle, especially for 22 minutes, the realization of it through the artistry of Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s magnificent players crystallized the experience. Schuller was a French horn prodigy (playing principal chair in the Cincinnati Symphony at age 17) and, as such, had insights on the difficulties of hearing across the sections of an orchestra. This piece took such concerns out of the equation, while providing an opportunity to hear the technical mastery of some of this orchestra’s players who normally get buried in the texture. Of particular note were the low reeds, anchored by bass clarinetist Craig Nordstrom and contrabassoonist Gregg Henegar.

The strings had their chance to shine at the concert’s opening - Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony No. 35 in D. Upon hearing this piece performed by this ensemble, the mutual respect that exists between the BSO strings and Levine is absolutely clear. Later, the orchestra gave an expansive reading of Debussy’s La Mer – the American premiere of which was given by the Boston Symphony (see page 6 of this concert’s program notes for a history of this premiere, including interesting first reactions by Bostonian critics) – and addressed the lush scoring, which may have been just as good on piano, with sensitivity across all sections.

There is much to sort out after this week’s examination of the life and work of Gunther Schuller thus far. On one hand, there is the educator opening new boxes that deliberately shake the foundations of traditional musical thought, whether that necessitates utopianism, an examination of the role of the conservatory, or the appreciation of the American musical heritage. On the other hand is the largely self-taught, introspective, academic composer. Either way, Schuller is a living composer and educator who can still shed insight on the best and worst that American classical music wanted and tried to be. Examples of his writings on conducting, education and jazz history can be found here and here. As for his work as a publisher, visit Schuller’s own Web site. Amazon.com also has a nice array, including Of Reminiscences and Reflections, for which Schuller won the Pulitzer Prize.