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28.2.06

Gil Shaham and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

Gil ShahamGil Shaham was very much the Primus inter pares amid the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields during their performances of Anton Arensky’s Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, op. 50, and the Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence, op. 70, at Strathmore last Sunday. The group performed beautifully, compact and like a well-oiled machine. If there was a touch of routine beneath the surface of beauty in the Arenksy, it was outshone by the sheer professionalism of these two dozen players. And not only was the Academy in good form in their WPAS-presented concert, the very fact that Arenksy – a much underrated composer – made it onto the program was a delight. Marvelously Romantic and original, even when he riffs off Tchaikovsky as in his Variations, which he first culled from a Tchaikovsky song (“Legends”), for his string quartet where it served as the second movement. It went over just as well as the concluding echt-Tchaikovsky. The Souvenir is a lush show-off piece for string ensembles, and the Academy and Shaham knew how to milk it to its maximum effect without going overboard. No wonder they elicited enthusiastic cheers and a Mozart encore.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, St. Martin in the Fields (Washington Post, February 28)
That composer was also served for the main course: with two horns and two oboes added to the 19 strings (plus Mr. Shaham), they were ready for the ‘2006 Mozart obligato’, the Violin Concerto in A Major (no. 5, K. 219), which was a delight par excellence. All European bands have plenty of Mozart experience and many have won their merits with his music, too. But apart from the English Chamber Orchestra, there isn’t an English ensemble with more Mozart running through their collective veins than the Academy. Which classical music lover hasn’t a couple of those almost iconic Philips CDs with Mozart, Marriner, and the Academy on his shelves?

available at Amazon
W. A. Mozart, Violin Concertos 3-5, Manze/English Concert
Gil Shaham didn’t even pretend that the band needed any guidance from him – they knew how to take care of themselves while Shaham could focus on his playing. And so he did, adding dynamism and explosiveness to the work as was a rare delight to hear. Pouncing on the music like an eager ocelot ready to play, he injected an already lively concerto with more life, still. In doing so he took risks, had small slips and tiny wobbles here and there – and it was so much better for that. Cadenzas (Mozart meets Bach) were thrown in with virtuosic ease… had he played in front of a jazz audience, spontaneous applause would have erupted – and no harm done. “Turkish” may be the fifth concerto’s nickname, but few today would find the third movement’s janissary kinks, so popular at the time of composition, particularly Turkish. But they make for nice color, rhythm, and flourishes, sprinkling the joy of this music throughout Shaham’s bravura performance of the Rondeau. The audience that had weathered the cold in droves thanked him with instantaneous standing ovations.

Classical Month in Washington (March)

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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!

Wednesday, March 1, 7:30 pm; March 2 and 3, 7:30 pm; March 4 and 5, 1:30 and 7:30 pm
New York City Ballet (various programs)
Kennedy Center Opera House
See the review by Sarah Kaufman (Washington Post, March 3)

Thursday, March 2, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony: Khatchatryan’s Award-Winning Sibelius
With violinist Sergey Khatchatryan and guest conductor Andrew Constantine (replacing Yuri Temirkanov, unable to return from Russia for personal reasons)
Music Center at Strathmore
[On March 3 and 4, 8 pm, and March 5, 3 pm, at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore]
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 3)

Friday, March 3, 8 pm
Ensemble Corund (Stephen Smith, Artistic Director)
A cappella choral music on Shakespeare texts
Library of Congress
See the review by Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, March 6)

Friday, March 3, 8 pm
Parker String Quartet
Tower, Quartet "Nightfields"; Schumann, Quartet in A Minor; Mozart, C Major Quintet, K. 515 (with Roger Tapping, viola)
Corcoran Gallery of Art
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 5)

Friday, March 3, 8 pm; Saturday, March 4, 8 pm
Matthias Soucek, piano
Embassy Series
Embassy of Austria
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 8)

Friday, March 3, 8 pm; Sunday, March 5, 2 pm
Mozart, Così Fan Tutte
Directed by Joe Banno
Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia
Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre (Alexandria, Va.)
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, March 4)

Friday, March 3, 8 pm; Saturday, March 4, 5 and 8 pm; Sunday, March 5, 2 pm
Folger Consort: Hildegard and Jaufre
Folger Shakespeare Library

Saturday, March 4, 1:30 pm
Gounod, Roméo et Juliette
With Natalie Dessay and Ramón Vargas
Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcast

Saturday, March 4, 8 pm
Leslie Savoy Burrs, Vanqui
Opera in concert version
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)
See the review by Karren L. Alenier (Ionarts, March 9)

Sunday, March 5, 3 pm
Spiritus!: A Choral Celebration of the Spirit, with baritone Steven Combs
Music by Vaughan Williams, Tallis, Rutter, Finzi, and David McCullough
Free subscriber-only concert
National Presbyterian Church

Sunday, March 5, 5 pm
Alan Mandel, piano [FREE, with admission to museum]
Phillips Collection
See the review by Joan Reinthaler (Washington Post, March 8)

Tuesday, March 7, 12:10 pm
Noontime Cantata: Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott, BWV 101
Washington Bach Consort
Church of the Epiphany (13th and G Streets NW)

Tuesday, March 7, 12:15 pm
The Garden of Earthly Delights: Music of early centuries on historical harps [FREE]
Constance Whiteside, harp
St. George’s Episcopal Church (915 N. Oakland Street, Arlington, Va.)

Tuesday, March 7, 7:30 pm
Musicians from Marlboro II [FREE]
Beethoven's Piano and Woodwind Quintet, op. 16; Nielsen's Woodwind Quintet, op. 43; Eliot Carter's Eight Etudes and a Fantasy; and songs by Schubert from his op. 129, D. 965
Freer Gallery of Art
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 11)

Wednesday, March 8, 7 and 9 pm
Turtle Island String Quartet
The Mansion at Strathmore
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, March 10)

Wednesday, March 8, 7:30 pm
American Piano: Copland, the Piano and Politics, with various artists [FREE]
American Piano Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)
See the review by T. L. Ponick (Washington Times, March 11)

Wednesday, March 8, 7:30 pm
Sharon Isbin, guitar, with Susanne Mentzer, mezzo-soprano
Fortas Chamber Music Series
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

Thursday, March 9, 7:30 pm
American Piano: Charles Ives and the American Pianist [FREE]
Lecture on and performance of Ives's Concord Sonata (Steven Mayer)
American Piano Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

Friday, March 10, 8 pm
Ian Bostridge, tenor, Julius Drake, piano, and the Belcea Quartet
Fauré, "La bonne chanson," op. 61; Shostakovich, String Quartet no. 3 in F Major, op. 73; Vaughan Williams, On Wenlock Edge
Library of Congress
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, March 13)

Friday, March 10, 8 pm
Russian National Orchestra
Stravinsky’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Excerpts from Sleeping Beauty, Stravinsky’s La baiser de la fée (“The Fairy's Kiss”), and Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 for Orchestra in G Major, Op. 55
George Mason University Center for the Arts (Fairfax, Va.)
See the review by Mark J. Estren (Washington Post, March 13)

Friday, March 10, 8 pm
Peter Sirotin (violin), Claudia Chudacoff (violin), Michael Stepniak (viola), Julius Wirth (viola), Fiona Thompson (cello)
Mozart String Quintets I
Embassy Series
Embassy of Austria

Friday, March 10, 8 pm
St. Lawrence String Quartet
Discovery Series
Barns at Wolf Trap
See the review by Tom Huizenga (Washington Post, March 13)

Friday, March 10, 8 pm; Saturday, March 11, 8 pm; Saturday, March 12, 8 pm
Biava Quartet
Dumbarton Oaks (Friends of Music)

Saturday, March 11, 1:30 pm
Verdi, La Forza del Destino
With Deborah Voigt, Ildikó Komlósi, Salvatore Licitra, Juan Pons, and Samuel Ramey
Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcast

Saturday, March 11, 4:30 pm
Boston Symphony Orchestra (with James Levine David Robertson)
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sings Neruda Songs
Kennedy Center Concert Hall (WPAS)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 12)

Saturday, March 11, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony: Strauss's Ein Heldenleben and Prokofiev's second violin concerto
With Sayaka Shoji, violin
Music Center at Strathmore
[Also on March 9 and 10, 8 pm, and March 12, 3 pm, at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore]
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 16)

Saturday, March 11, 8 pm
JCC Symphony Orchestra, with violinist Nicolas Kendall
Music includes Sibelius violin concerto and Finlandia, and excerpts from Smetana's Má Vlast
Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (Rockville, Md.)

Saturday, March 11, 8:15 pm; Wednesday, March 15, 7:30 pm; Friday, March 17, 8:15 pm; Sunday, March 19, 3 pm
Jake Heggie, Dead Man Walking
Baltimore Opera
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, March 14)

Sunday, March 12, 3 pm
Left Bank Quartet, with pianists Larissa Dedova, Bradford Gowen, and Rita Sloan [NOT FREE]
Foote, Piano Trio in B-flat Major (1907-08); Ives: Violin Sonata No. 2 (1907-10); and Amy Beach, Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor (1908)
American Piano Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

Sunday, March 12, 5 pm
Lina Bahn, violin [FREE, with admission to museum]
Phillips Collection

Sunday, March 12, 7:30 pm
New York Festival of Song (VAS)
Marie Lenormand (mezzo-soprano) and Hugh Russell (baritone)
Steven Blier, pianist
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
See the review by Stephen Brookes (Washington Post, March 14)

Sunday, March 11, 7:30 pm
Nicolas Kendall, violin
Music by Mozart, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Kreisler, and Sarasate
Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (Rockville, Md.)

Tuesday, March 14, 7:30 pm
Dora Seres, flute
Young Concert Artists Series
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 19)

Tuesday, March 14, 7:30 pm (pre-concert lecture by Dr. Peter Casarella, 6:30 pm)
Manuel de Falla and the Music of Faith (music by Victoria, Soler, and de Falla)
Post-Classical Ensemble, with soprano Rosa Lamoreaux [FREE]
Virginia Theological Seminary, Lettie Pate Auditorium (3737 Seminary Road, Alexandria, Va.)

Thursday, March 16, 7 pm; Friday, March 17, 8 pm; Saturday, March 18, 8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra with Garrick Ohlsson, piano
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
[Free performance by members of the NSO, Saturday, March 18, 6 pm, Millennium Stage]
See the review by Daniel Ginsberg (Washington Post, March 17)

Thursday, March 16, 8 pm; Friday, March 17, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Emanuel Ax, piano
Yardumian's Armenian Suite, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9, and Stravinsky's Petrouchka
Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)
[Same program, without the Yardumian piece, as a Casual Concert on Saturday, March 18, 11 am]
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 17)

Thursday, March 16, to Sunday, March 19
Mozart, Così Fan Tutte
Directed by Cindy Oxberry, conducted by Kate Tamarkin
Hartke Theatre
Catholic University of America

Friday, March 17, 8 pm
Mezzo-sopranos Margaret Lattimore, Stephanie Novacek, and Mary Phillips, with flutist Eugenia Zukerman [FREE]
Song cycles of Ricky Ian Gordon and Jake Heggie (also songs by Bernstein and Sondheim)
Library of Congress

Saturday, March 18, 1:30 pm
Tchaikovsky, Mazeppa
With Olga Guryakova and Larissa Diadkova, conducted by Valery Gergiev
Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcast

Saturday, March 18, 2 pm
Roberto Cominati, piano
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (WPAS)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 21)

Saturday, March 18, 8 pm
Francis Poulenc Trio
Embassy Series
Embassy of the Republic of Poland
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 24)

Saturday, March 18, 8 pm
National Philharmonic: Famous Opera Choruses
Music Center at Strathmore

Saturday, March 18, 8 pm
Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, with cellist Zuill Bailey
George Mason University Center for the Arts (Fairfax, Va.)

Sunday, March 19, 2 pm
Kennedy Center Chamber Players
Music by Beethoven and Mozart
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
See the review by Tim Page (Washington Post, March 21)

Sunday, March 19, 3 pm
Chamber music and jazz by Washington composers, with Holly Bass, poet
Washington Musica Viva
Atlas Performing Arts Center (1333 H Street NE)

Sunday, March 19, 5 pm
Michael Sheppard, piano [FREE, with admission to museum]
Phillips Collection

Sunday, March 19, 5:30 pm
Jordi Savall with Hesperion XXI
The Paul and Barbara Krieger Early Music Concert
Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins (Baltimore, Md.)

Sunday, March 19, 6:30 pm
Egidius Kwartet [FREE]
17th-century Dutch music for vocal quartet
National Gallery of Art

Tuesday, March 21, 8 pm
Washington Bach Consort and Cathedral Choral Society
Music of Bach, plus Orff's [yawn] Carmina Burana
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 25)

Wednesday, March 22, 7:30 pm
Sara Daneshpour, piano [FREE]
National Museum of Women in the Arts (for reservation, call 202-783-7370 or e-mail reservations@nmwa.org)

Thursday, March 23, 7 pm; Friday, March 24, 1:30 pm; Saturday, March 25, 8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra with Emanuel Ax, piano
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
See the review by Robert R. Reilly (Ionarts, March 24)

Thursday, March 23, 7:30 pm
Pedja Muzijevic (Broadwood piano) and Tanya Tompkins (cello)
Music by Hummel, Schumann, and Chopin
The Mansion at Strathmore

Thursday, March 23, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony: Mozart's Birthday Celebration
All-Mozart program, with pianist Christian Blackshaw
Music Center at Strathmore
[Also on March 24 and 25, 8 pm, and March 26, 3 pm, at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore]
See the review by Tim Smith (Baltimore Sun, March 25)

Friday, March 24, 8 pm
Bach Collegium Japan (Maasaki Suzuki, Artistic Director) [FREE]
All-Bach program
Library of Congress
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 28)

Friday, March 24, 8 pm
Peter Sirotin (violin), Claudia Chudacoff (violin), Michael Stepniak (viola), Julius Wirth (viola), Fiona Thompson (cello)
Mozart String Quintets II
Embassy Series
Embassy of Austria
See the review by Andrew Lindemann Malone (Washington Post, March 27)

Saturday, March 25, 1:30 pm
Verdi, Luisa Miller
With Barbara Frittoli, Neil Shicoff, and James Morris
Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcast

Saturday, March 25, 7 pm; Thursday, March 30, 7:30 pm; Sunday, April 2, 2 pm (four more performances through April 14)
Wagner, Das Rheingold
Washington National Opera

Saturday, March 25, 8 pm
National Philharmonic: Brahms, German Requiem
With baritone William Sharp and soprano Linda Mabbs
Music Center at Strathmore

Saturday, March 25, 8:30 pm; Sunday, March 26, 7:30 pm
Alisa Weilerstein, cello
Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (Rockville, Md.)

Sunday, March 26, 6:30 pm
Rachel Barton Pine, violin, and Matthew Hagle, piano
Music by Biber, Corigliano, Mozart, and Schumann
National Gallery of Art
See the review by Charles T. Downey and Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 28)

Monday, March 27, 8 pm
London Philharmonic Orchestra (Kurt Masur, music director)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 30)

Wednesday, March 29, 8 pm
Murray Perahia, Peter Serkin, piano
Music Center at Strathmore (WPAS)
See the review by George A. Pieler (Ionarts, March 31)

Thursday, March 30, 6 and 7 pm
Sound artists Richard Chartier and Taylor Deupree
World premiere of a new musical work, Specification Fifteen, created especially for the Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibition
Lerner Room
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, March 31)

Friday, March 31, 7:30 pm
Vadim Repin, violin, and Nikolai Lugansky, piano
Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

Friday, March 31, 8 pm
Takács Quartet
Mozart, String Quartet No. 19 in C Major, K. 465 “Dissonance”; Bartók, String Quartet No. 2, Op. 17; Schubert, String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden”
Corcoran Gallery of Art

Friday, March 31, 8 pm
Judith Bettina (soprano), Robert Taub (piano), Curtis Macomber (violin) [FREE]
Chamber Music of Milton Babbitt
Library of Congress

Friday, March 31, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony: What Dreams Are Made Of
Sibelius, Swan of Tuonela; Stravinsky, The Firebird; Michael Daugherty, Hell's Angels
Symphony with a Twist Series
Music Center at Strathmore

Friday, March 31, 8 pm; Saturday, April 1, 5 and 8 pm; Sunday, April 2, 2 pm
Folger Consort: Landini and Machaut, with Trefoil
Folger Shakespeare Library

Happily Stranded on the Left Bank

The cheap quip would be that whenever metronome markings are given as movement titles, you know you are in for a long evening. Alas, I was at the Left Bank Concert Series’ concert at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater last Saturday where such works as George Walker’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (1979) are to be expected. And whenever modern music from that perilous time of the latter half of the 20th century doesn’t show us why modernism should be embraced (because it is so much more than a mere intellectual exercise, discarded as its listeners get older), it usually shows us why many people think differently and run away. Walker’s piece is surely not in the first category, but to be fair, it isn’t in the latter either. crotchet = 50, especially has touches that delight in their own way, crotchet = 69 has a spunky ending of considerable wit. The very opening – in quaver = 60 – seemed least digested.

Wherever Mr. Salness and Ms. Valentine’s performance wasn’t of virtuoso caliber, it was served plenty well with bounds of passion and commitment. The composer was present – which mean spirits proclaim assured trouble for the fine senses. At Ionarts we have a stern “tsk, tsk, tsk” reserved for such attitudes, but acknowledge that George Walker’s music – here or in the following song selections – is of a nature that would only have had those sharp tongues think their statement proven once more. Well, perhaps not the songs. “Softly, Blow Softly” on a D. S. Hayes poem was Walker’s (he accompanied Patricia Green himself) most recent work, and of five accessible and clever and enjoyably slight works, it was perhaps the finest. Themes and poems ranged from the cutesy (Mother Goose – ca. 2054 “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall / A nonelectromagnetic ball / All the supers’ polariscopes / Couldn’t revitalize his isotopes / His isotopes”) to the spiritual influenced, Porgy & Bess-like “Mary Wore Three Links of Chain,” which included a moment where the mentioned train’s ‘toot-tooot’ was banged out on the keyboard in hilarious manner.

I would have said that I needn’t hear “Amazing Grace” ever again after the disgrace of Fleming/O’Connor’s performance… but I’ll take that back for Curt Calioppo’s Contrapuntal Fantasy on John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” (1996). Shostakovich’s Preludes & Fugues, op. 87 it isn’t quite… (despite a few bars that sounded as if lifted quoted from it) but close enough to qualify an unqualified delight. Ms. Valentine’s performance must surely have met with the composer’s (yes: present) warm approval.

What else could you ask for on an innocent Saturday night but a “Cycle of Afro-American Spirituals for Voice, Percussion Quartet (!), and Amplified Piano”? Welcome to George Crumb’s booming, variously ethereal, and sometimes downright silly work. You’ll never have heard “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” like that before – with Indian camel bells, Chinese temple blocks, (international?) knitting needles, and eighty-three other percussion instruments aimed at the singer (Ms. Green – mercifully amplified within that mess of sound) from the four batteries of noise paraphernalia in the four corners of the stage. Nor with such an Asian touch “Go Down Moses (Let My People Go).” Clearly excess is part of the game plan in this work – the frenzy alone was worth watching; it had its own (un?)intended humorous effect. A fun composition, no doubt, but the real prize should go to the composition student who can inventively trim this work down to a dozen instruments and have it sound just as fine. But once again the mighty percussion instrument manufacturing complex and its lobbyists stand between this noble wish and its realization. Mr. Crumb has a tom-tom addiction… but at least he did something for otherwise New York cab-driving percussion-majoring music school graduates. The tentacled beneficiaries of his songs were Sean Harleem, Lee Hinkle, Tom Jones, and Douglas Marween. Caught in the middle were Colette Valentine (piano) and the aforementioned Ms. Green. James Ross, with only a baton to defend himself, was given the kind illusion of bringing order into designed chaos. Surprising, perhaps, amid all the commotion, how tender these songs were on more than one occasion.

The nature of the Left Bank Concert Series (LBCS) performances is such that when the LBCS Quartet performs another quartet of the standard repertoire, they do so to the expectations of ‘professional Hausmusik’… out of competition with the many top quartets that play in Washington. As such their third of the Razumovsky quartets – Beethoven’s op. 59, no. 3 – was charming, worthy and enjoyable to all but the most pitch-sensitive.

The next concert will take place on April 15th, with a program that includes music by recent Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Moravec, Ewazen, Dutilleux, Stucky, and Bartók.

Condemned Art

Also on Ionarts:

Inventor Art (April 2, 2005)

Artists' Squat on the Rue de Rivoli (March 31, 2005)

Saving Outsider Art (September 13, 2004)

Maison Picassiette and Other Oddities (December 17, 2003)

Saint Elizabeths (November 26, 2003)

Rock Sculptures (August 4, 2003)
File this under odd art projects from around the world (well, mostly France). A recent article by Sophie Landrin (La "Maison du chaos" sommée de revenir à l'ordre, February 21) in Le Monde describes the work of an art collective, Salamander Spirit, which has transformed an abandoned house near Lyon into an art project (my translation and links added):
Is this the end for Chaos Mansion? On Thursday, February 16, a court [the Tribunal Correctionnel de Lyon] ordered Thierry Ehrmann, the owner of a middle-class house in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or (Rhône), transformed into a work of art, to put his house back in order. For four years, this iconoclastic businessman, owner of Art Price, a world leader in the online cataloguing of art sales, has been working on "deconstructing" his former 17th-century country home to make it into a "monumental collective art work," working in several stages on the theme of chaos.

Demeure du Chaos
Some fifty artists, including Ben, are coordinating their participation in this undertaking. Carbonized walls, façades recovered with corpse heads, a portrait of Bin Laden and his right-hand man Ayman Al-Zawahiri, crashed airplanes, melted luxury cars, a response to Ground Zero in New York, rivers of lava and blood: hundreds of idlers parade through each weekend in this village located about ten kilometers from Lyon, to assist in the metamorphosis of this war landscape.
For now, Ehrmann has appealed the ruling, which allows him to continue the work for now. Lunettes Rouges covered this on his blog earlier (La création artistique doit trouver sa forme dans la loi et l'expression de la volonté générale, February 18), and the post has a long string of in-depth comments attached to it.

27.2.06

Wiener Klaviertrio, Shriver Hall

Vienna Piano TrioThe Vienna Piano Trio was the latest group to play in the extraordinary 40th anniversary season at Shriver Hall, and so I found myself compelled to drive up to Baltimore Sunday night to hear them. After all, it's only a few minutes more in the car to get to Johns Hopkins than it was to get to Meredith Monk at George Mason. They brought an attractive program (.PDF file), too, a slice of their namesake city over about a century, beginning with Mozart and ending with Schoenberg, by way of Schubert. In response, Shriver Hall was nearly full with spectators, who heard some extraordinary playing.

First was the earliest, the B-flat trio, K. 502, one of two that Mozart composed in 1786. This work is mostly a showcase for the pianist, who begins each movement by himself and has the lion's share of the challenging music, and Stefan Mendl did a fine job on this part, which at times sounds like a sketch for one of Mozart's piano concerti. In spite of an annoying plinking timbre in the piano (heard only when the una corde pedal is depressed, a condition a technician might be able to correct), Mendl gave a beautiful, understated reading, all melody and Rococo filigree. The other musicians added to the generally restrained, elegant performance in their largely supportive roles. I was pleased to hear the happy first theme, tinged with minor mode shading in the consequent phrases, several times in the monothematic first movement, played with the repeat of the exposition.

Also on Ionarts:

Jens F. Laurson, Vienna Piano Trio at the National Gallery of Art (March 10, 2004)
The highlight of the concert concluded the second half, Arnold Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night, 1899), an early work for string sextet, here in a winning arrangement for piano trio by Eduard Steuermann. It's a program work, a musical description of the late-night walk and conversation of the man and woman in Richard Dehmel's poem Zwei Menschen (Two people) [another translation] from a collection called Weib und Welt (Woman and world). Schoenberg finished the piece in a few weeks, while on vacation with his friend and composition teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky and Zemlinsky's sister Mathilde, the future Frau Schoenberg. It is a radiant work, making it hard to believe that it caused a minor riot at its premiere. (Gustav Mahler was impressed when he heard it for the first time.) Now it does not seem any more radical than Richard Strauss.

The piano trio arrangement, which the group played two years ago when Jens reviewed them at the National Gallery, puts emphasis on the main violin and cello parts of the piece, condensing most of the middle texture of Schoenberg's original into the piano part. In a most striking way, however, the Vienna Piano Trio brought more color and subtlety to the work than could have been imagined, setting the steady walking music of the opening in a heavy, hushed character, with muted, almost reedy sounds from cellist Matthias Gredler and violinist Wolfgang Redik. Mendl's piano shimmered in the moonlight of its lovely, soft tremolos, and the players brought such intelligence and Romantic sweep to the sometimes frenetic sounds of the woman's confession (she tells the man she has just fallen in love with that she is already pregnant with another man's child).
Just see how brightly the universe is gleaming!
There’s a glow around everything;
You are floating with me on a cold ocean,
But a special warmth flickers
From you into me, from me into you.
As the section ends on somber minor chords, we expect the worst, but the man insists that the night will transfigure the child, making it his own. Schoenberg takes us into a major tonality, corrupted with Wagnerian extended harmony and harplike textures under a soaring violin melody. The couple starts to walk again, as the opening music returns. Judging from the reactions I heard among members of the audience, the Vienna Piano Trio converted several people to Schoenberg's cause, at least as far as his early works are concerned. Having loved this work in its original sextet form and the composer's own arrangement for chamber orchestra, I was predisposed to like the piano trio arrangement, and I certainly did.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Vienna Piano Trio (Baltimore Sun, February 28, scroll down to the bottom)
In a way it was greedy to think that the concert's final piece, Schubert's E-flat major trio, D. 929, could be as good, but it nearly was, up until the last movement. I will put this into context by recalling an excellent performance of this piece by the Beaux Arts Trio, which Jens and I reviewed in October. The Vienna Piano Trio's performance opposed two characters, a daring, heroic Schubert and a wavering, introspective one. After a first half that was all about transcendence and restraint, the players finally cut loose. Again, it was pianist Stefan Mendl who got the workout, beautifully navigating the triplets and whirring sixteenth note arabesques of the first movement. The second movement was decidedly more con moto than the stately Beaux Arts performance, but cellist Matthias Gredler was too reticent with its famous melody. By the fourth movement, with its tricky repeated-note triplets at such a fast tempo as the Vienna Piano Trio drove itself to, the pianist's fatigue finally showed (the group had played on Friday and Saturday evening, in Boston and Long Island, respectively), in a few dropped notes here and there. The returns of the second movement's melody seemed rushed and without the necessary impact, but the overall impact was still impressive, a fine ending to an excellent concert. In perhaps another sign of exhaustion, the group decided against playing an encore to reward the audience's approving applause.

The Vienna Piano Trio will continue its tour of the United States through March 6. The next event at Shriver Hall is a highly anticipated concert by Jordi Savall with Hesperion XXI (March 19, 5:30 pm). Ionarts will certainly be there.

26.2.06

Meredith Monk, Impermanence

Meredith Monk and members of her Vocal Ensemble, photograph by Stephanie BergerI'm not sure why experimental vocalist and composer Meredith Monk chose Fairfax for the Washington-area performance of her new multimedia work, Impermanence (2004-2005). Perhaps the venue at the George Mason University Center for the Fine Arts had the video, sound, and lighting capabilities required for the piece, but what it meant, inevitably, was a meager audience filling, by a rough estimate, one-third of the Concert Hall. Some left after only a few minutes, visibly perplexed or turned off, and many more left at intermission. This is unfortunate, because the impact of this multifaceted performance piece -- like much of Monk's œuvre, combining voice, movement, video, rhythm, and light -- should be universal, but it can be so only when it falls upon open minds.

As we took our seats, we heard recordings of a tune, Mieke's Melody #5, composed by choreographer Mieke van Hoek, Meredith Monk's partner, who died of cancer in 2002. Shortly after that tragic event in her life, Monk received an invitation from Rosetta Life, a group in England that connects patients in hospice care with artists. (This reminds me of another group I wrote about here in 2004, Musicians on Call, that brings classical musicians to play for the homebound.) Monk went to England, met with several patients, played her music for them, and talked to them. The recording we heard was of their timorous voices, singing the melody composed by Mieke van Hoek, each with an independent sense of pitch and rhythm. This was matched visually by video shots of faces, large silent closeups that melted from one into the next, which opened the performance.

Other Reviews:

Georgia Rowe, Monk's poignant 'Impermanence' teems with life (Contra Costa Times, February 9)

Allan Ulrich, Meredith Monk's eerie vocals have led her to unique synthesis of arts (San Francisco Chronicle, February 13)

M. C- (who will join my audience of one), Impermanence (The Standing Room, February 16)

Steven Yi, Meredith Monk: Impermanence (Kunstmusik, February 16)

Joshua Kosman, Monk's newest work an ode to loss: 'Impermanence' meditates on the passage of time (San Franciso Chronicle, February 17)

Stephen Brookes, Meredith Monk Ensemble (Washington Post, February 27, under the heading of "Pop Music")
Impermanence is a sequence of scenes or sketches, beginning most memorably with Meredith Monk alone at the piano for Last Song, a series of minimalistic chords over which she riffs hypnotically on every possible combination of words implying finality ("last song, last breath, last ditch, last minute") and the frenzied disintegration of those words into phonemes. The eight members of the ensemble all sing at some points, and three of them -- Bohdan Hilash on clarinet and other wind instruments, John Hollenbeck on percussion instruments of many kinds, and Allison Sniffin on piano and violin -- were found mainly in the stand of instruments to the left of the stage. The next scene, Liminal, featured a recitation of the sometimes nonsensical actions, presumably to be attributed to the patients: "she called tofu pillows," "she called the bed a nest," "he talked back to the radio." This was just one example of how the first half of Impermanence evoked the individuality of each person confronting death, that is, all of us. The performers all wore clothes of different types both casual and formal, jeans and blouse, a ball gown, shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt. A vibrant scene, Particular Dance was the only real light-hearted moment of joy in this rather somber work, where recorders, pan flute, train whistle, and every kind of percussion that could be shaken or struck accompanied the wild, silly gyrations of the dancers.

In the second half, the whole group appeared again in the same cuts of clothing they had worn in the first half, but now all the costumes were of the same light gray or lavendar, recalling the "hospital gown" color we associate with the end of life all the "characters" have in common. That common nature is emphasized again by the video images shown in this half, again closeups of impassive faces, over which the camera hovers and then zooms in upon for a tight view of the right eye, all in the same way. That process is then reversed, beginning with a very close magnification and gradually zooming out to reveal the thing we could not recognize before, a cog, a leaf. At one point, some of the performers sat on the floor and looked, as the audience did, toward images of historical photographs, which always evoke the frailty of life, all those aspirations and proud personalities, vanished like the wind. In the closing scene, the music is reduced voice by voice (perhaps a tribute to the "Farewell" Symphony) as the performers sink to the floor and roll slowly off to the right side of the stage, like human waves back to the sea.

Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble, Impermanence, George Mason University Center for the Arts, February 25, 2006
The best singing came from Katie Geissinger, who has a pure and pretty soprano voice and works also in "good old classical music" (an upcoming concert with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, for example). Theo Bleckmann has a nice baritone voice, too, and had far too much fun zooming around on roller skates at one point in the second half, to the sounds of a train horn. (He wore those shoes with hidden skate rollers in them that my friends and I loved in the 1980s.) John Hollenbeck's performance with mallets on a bicycle tire, silhouetted on the big screen by a light behind him, was a memorable Dada moment. The best group moment came at the opening of the second half, when the whole group gathered around the piano, playing at the keyboard or strumming or plucking the strings manually. Under a bright spot, they proceeded to reproduce the same music they had been playing but with their voices only. It was a good reminder of Meredith Monk's start, working exclusively with voice, a sound world that she has now considerably expanded with this latest work.

Here we are again, face to face with the crossover issue, but from a different angle. Monk's creative style combines many idioms and therefore is none of them. Listeners expecting any one of them alone -- classical composition, jazz extemporaneity, operatic singing, pop vocals, experimental dance, theater -- are likely to be disappointed. In effect, what I see as the major drawback of the crossover impulse for the high culture side of the equation is that it may actually decrease one's audience rather than increasing it. Here were singers, most of whose voices -- all of them assisted by microphone -- are not traditional classical voices, singing music that does not have any of the thorny, serial qualities that supposedly distance audiences. Indeed, the harmonic palette is -- like Adams or Glass -- a not particularly challenging vocabulary providing a basis for meditative repetition. Isn't that familiarity of the sounds of popular music exactly what should interest audiences? That being said, where Meredith Monk is concerned, I don't care. I will be an audience of one, if need be.

Classical Week in Washington (2/26)

Classical Week in Washington is a weekly feature that appears on Sundays, at the same time as my Classical Music Agenda for 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 winter concert schedule with our 2006 Concert Preview and Classical Month in Washington (March), or your opera listening with our Opera Preview 2006.

Monday, February 27, 8 pm
Jerusalem Symphony with Leon Botstein, conductor
Martinů, Památník Lidicím (Memorial to Lidice); Copland, Appalachian Spring; Prokofiev, Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100
Music Center at Strathmore

Wednesday, March 1, 7:30 pm; March 2 and 3, 7:30 pm; March 4 and 5, 1:30 and 7:30 pm
New York City Ballet (various programs)
Kennedy Center Opera House

Thursday, March 2, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony: Khatchatryan’s Award-Winning Sibelius
With violinist Sergey Khatchatryan and guest conductor Andrew Constantine (replacing Yuri Temirkanov, unable to return from Russia for personal reasons)
Music Center at Strathmore
[On March 3 and 4, 8 pm, and March 5, 3 pm, at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore]

Friday, March 3, 8 pm
Ensemble Corund (Stephen Smith, Artistic Director)
A cappella choral music on Shakespeare texts
Library of Congress

Friday, March 3, 8 pm
Parker String Quartet
Tower, Quartet "Nightfields"; Schumann, Quartet in A Minor, Int.; Mozart, C Major Quintet, K. 515 (with Roger Tapping, viola)
Corcoran Gallery of Art

Friday, March 3, 8 pm; Saturday, March 4, 8 pm
Matthias Soucek, piano
Embassy Series
Embassy of Austria

Friday, March 3, 8 pm; Sunday, March 5, 2 pm
Mozart, Così Fan Tutte
Directed by Joe Banno
Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia
Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre (Alexandria, Va.)

Friday, March 3, 8 pm; Saturday, March 4, 5 and 8 pm; Sunday, March 5, 2 pm
Folger Consort: Hildegard and Jaufre
Folger Shakespeare Library

Saturday, March 4, 1:30 pm
Gounod, Roméo et Juliette
With Natalie Dessay and Ramón Vargas
Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcast

Saturday, March 4, 8 pm
Leslie Savoy Burrs, Vanqui
Opera in concert version
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

Sunday, March 5, 3 pm
Spiritus!: A Choral Celebration of the Spirit, with baritone Steven Combs
Music by Vaughan Williams, Tallis, Rutter, Finzi, and David McCullough
Free subscriber-only concert
National Presbyterian Church

Sunday, March 5, 5 pm
Alan Mandel, piano [FREE, with admission to museum]
Phillips Collection

——» Go to the previous schedule, for the week of February 19.

25.2.06

Redemption the Conductor (Gergiev's Verdi Requiem)


Valery GergievPerforming the Verdi Requiem in the Opera House – which is where the Kirov Orchestra under Valery Gergiev played on Friday night – is a musical smirk (even if there was also a more practical reason behind that choice of venue: next door played Midori), given that it already has the reputation of being a “sacred opera.” It does so, because of its highly dramatic, even bombastic nature and the demands it makes on the singers. Verdi doing what he did best, such an outcome should not have been surprising.

There are now many hundreds of pages written in the attempt to free the Verdi Requiem from that early and allegedly cheap pun (coined by none other than Hans von Bülow) that some see a stigma sticking stubbornly to the work. Leave it to Gergiev and his band to obliterate any and all such efforts with a performance like the one conducted at the Kennedy Center. With brilliant support from his four soloists – as even a cast as that work could reasonably expect live – Gergiev delivered a performance of proportions such as I have not heard at the Kennedy Center (or anywhere else, for that matter) in a long, long time. The NSO’s performance last year – which didn’t impress me then, either – was a malnourished urban pussy next to Gergiev’s Liger. The orchestra may not have known quite what to do with the oddly spiritual sound world of Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel (too religious?) – but this language they could believe in and respond to with their best and most dedicated playing all week. Every nervous hand-flicker of Gergiev’s was responded to, their trademark sloppiness all but gone. The timpani attacks in the Dies irae and again the Tuba mirum were ripping through the Opera House with intimidating force in an acoustic that revealed itself as not only superior to the Concert Hall’s but altogether good.


Ekaterina SemenchukThe soloists make or break a performance of the Requiem. Whether they are up to the challenge (and a challenge it is) is established right off the bat as Verdi has them all ‘present themselves’ in the Kyrie, right after the Requiem aeternam in the order of tenor, bass, soprano, mezzo soprano. Daniil Shtoda was first with the fiendishly difficult tenor part, and he kept the portamento within reason and proved honey-voiced and good. The voice could have been a bit more open or forceful, but it sounded fine by all accounts. If he was the weakest link in the soloist chain, it was a strong chain. Ildar Abdrazakov, in a slightly more comfortable, easier range, upped the ante a bit further... very good, indeed. An absolute strong point amid many strong points in the whole performance, solid and reliable like a rock, supple and with a beautiful tone. Olga Kondina – a dark silver snow-queen next to her younger colleague’s black penitential dress – was clean, clear, flawless. Her voice rang, she didn’t narrow on the high notes (especially important toward the end) and performed with an admirable mix of pure skill and experience. And then Belarussian Ekaterina Semenchuk opened her mouth to a low growl that had your blood freeze. An animal of the kind that immediately said: “Kundry.” Where were you, last Tuesday, when we needed you?

Other Reviews:

Philip Kennicott, The Kirov Delivers a Requiem Full of Life (Washington Post, February 25)

Tim Smith, Kirov Opera presents a stirring version of Verdi's 'Requiem' (Baltimore Sun, February 28)

What. A. Voice! Low notes like I’ve not heard hurled at me since Waltraud Meier; nor sung like that since Anna Larsson. A spine in her voice, a fierce brilliance, unfailing confidence, and an unfailing sound: beautiful, tasteful, note perfect; if anything a little too subtle at the beginning of the Agnus Dei. It had a quality that was so immediately outstanding that it wanted to make me shout “Brava” mid-Liber Scriptus, blow kisses at the sounds that swooshed by my ears. Her lower register easily challenged Daniil Shotda’s higher. You couldn’t have foreseen such a performance by her CV as of yet, but it should be easy to project her future career based on it.

Take that and a choir that – a slightly ‘sticky’ beginning apart – performed as well as one might expect from this crack ensemble and the elements combined for a lavish splendor fit for no other venue than an opera house. (Which itself is, of course, the successful combination of arts temple and bordello.) A Requiem is supposed to soothe and appease the heavens on behalf of the deceased: Gergiev unrepentantly raised hell. Even the searing soft moments were devilishly good, a tail of sulphur flames never far from his frock. Let him be the most overrated conductor of our times, in the hour and-a-half of the Verdi Requiem he redeemed himself from all past and future musical sins, as far as I am concerned. Bravi!


available at Amazon
Gergiev / Fleming, Borodina, Bocelli, D'Arcangelo
available at Amazon
Giulini / Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Gedda, Ghiaurov
available at Amazon
Gardiner / Orgonasova, von Otter, Canonici, Miles
available at Amazon
Harnoncourt / Mei, Fink, Schade, D'Arcangelo

Gergiev has a recording out with the Requiem. Resist the urge to buy it, though. While the heft and thunder and glory (which I hoped to gain when I bought it a few years ago) is more or less present in the orchestra, it’s hopelessly ruined by Andrea Bocelli, who turns in one of his worst, most egregious performances. Step on a cat’s tail and you’ll likely get a better opening “Kyrie.” The rest of the starry cast (pre-mannerism Fleming, Borodina, D’Arcangelo) is good but can’t make up for the sonic crimes committed on this recording. Gardiner has the most impressive chorus and incredibly deft touches; Giulini a feel for theater and stupendous soloists (Schwarzkopf – Ludwig – Gedda – Ghiaurov); his recording on EMI is rightly a classic. Harnoncourt’s is the least operatic, the voices unmannered (Michael Schade very open sounding, but stretched after a while, D’Arcangelo brooding but not very deep, Fink with unusual affectation). The violins come through in astounding detail, nuances can be heard - in part due to glacial tempi - that are quite revealing. My current choice – although that’s in good part because of my personal dislike of portamento. Although impressive, it's quite a different kettle of fish than the type of performance Gergiev gave.

Martinů's Juliette in Paris

I don't really need any more reasons to move to Paris, but one that certainly keeps occurring to me is that the Opéra national de Paris, now under the direction of Gérard Mortier, keeps producing operas that I would love to see and hear. Most recently, it was Bohuslav Martinů's Julietta, directed by Richard Jones. Originally scheduled from December 31 to February 16, the premiere was cancelled because one of the lead singers was unexpectedly not able to perform. An article (Bastille : première annulée de "Juliette ou la clé des songes", January 26) from Abeille has the story (my translation and links added):

The interpreter of the lead male role Michael, American tenor William Burden, called it quits at the last minute. He was replaced by John Graham-Hall who -- imagine! -- needed a week to learn his role. He will be responsible for the other performances in February.
The strange circumstances seem to have caused the production not to be reviewed. Anywhere, as far as I can tell. The libretto was adapted from a surrealist play by Georges Neveux, which Kurt Weill was apparently also interested in setting as an opera. You can find out more about the Paris production, which was premiered in 2002, in an article by Hugh Canning (Julietta, or the Key to Dreams, November 2002) for Andante.com:
Martinu's Julietta was first performed in Prague in a Czech-language version in 1938, but it is based on a 1930 surrealist play by Georges Neveux, Juliette, ou la clé des songes; this brilliant new production was — amazingly — the opera's local stage premiere, and the Opéra sensibly opted to sing it in the version française closely based on Neveux's original text. (The first French performance was only in 1976, in Rouen.) Juliette may have been a long time coming, but it was worth the wait, for this was one of Richard Jones's most imaginative and beautiful stagings.

Martinu's opera is a dreamscape of illusion, obsession and bizarre incongruity: the hero, Michel, arrives in a French port town seeking his ideal fantasy woman, Juliette, whom he claims to have met three years before — but it may have been in a dream. This kind of piece is meat and drink to the director responsible for such remarkably phantasmagoric productions as the Welsh National/Bologna Queen of Spades and the famous Bregenz Festival production of Un ballo in maschera with a 20 meter-high skeleton rising out of the lake, leafing a huge book of choreographic notation.
William Burden sang the role of Michel in that premiere, so I am not really sure what happened this year.

The Frenzy

24.2.06

What to Hear in March

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!

Wednesday, March 1, to Sunday, March 5
New York City Ballet
Kennedy Center Opera House

Thursday, March 2, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony: Khatchatryan’s Award-Winning Sibelius
Music Center at Strathmore

Friday, March 3, 8 pm
Ensemble Corund (Stephen Smith, Artistic Director)
A cappella choral music on Shakespeare texts
Library of Congress

Friday, March 3, 8 pm
Parker String Quartet
Tower, Quartet "Nightfields"; Schumann, Quartet in A Minor, Int.; Mozart, C Major Quintet, K. 515 (with Roger Tapping, viola)
Corcoran Gallery of Art

Friday, March 3, 8 pm; Saturday, March 4, 8 pm
Matthias Soucek, piano
Embassy Series
Embassy of Austria

Friday, March 3, 8 pm; Sunday, March 5, 2 pm
Mozart, Così Fan Tutte
Directed by Joe Banno
Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia
Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre (Alexandria, Va.)

Friday, March 3, 8 pm; Saturday, March 4, 5 and 8 pm; Sunday, March 5, 2 pm
Folger Consort: Hildegard and Jaufre
Folger Shakespeare Library

Continue reading Classical Month in Washington (March).

Rachel Barton Pine and Maud Powell

The National Museum of Women in the Arts is a dynamic place, which regularly offers interesting exhibits, film screenings (like the Agnès Varda film I saw last year with an introduction by the filmmaker herself), and other events. They host only a small number of concerts, but these often showcase musicians well worth hearing, as was the case with the recital by Christine Brewer I reviewed last spring. So, I was not surprised last night to find myself in the audience with some high-profile Washingtonians like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Leonard Slatkin (conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra), and Neale Perl (president of Washington Performing Arts Society). Slatkin has a family connection, since his wife, Linda Hohenfeld Slatkin -- who is a soprano, heard recently on the recording of William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and of Experience -- is one of the artistic directors of this series, the Shenson Chamber Music Concerts. The reservation list was full, but everyone who was waiting on stand-by, myself included, got in to the little concert hall on the museum's fifth floor.

Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu 'ex-Soldat' violin, Cremona, 1742, with Rachel Barton PineAmerican violinist Rachel Barton Pine was in town for the first of those concerts this season. Here was a prominent woman violinist playing an ingenious concert in tribute to the first great violinist in the United States, Maud Powell, who also happened to be a woman. If you have never heard Powell's name before, you should get familiar with the piles of information now available from the Maud Powell Society in North Carolina. For the latter part of her career, she was regarded around the world as the best female violin player anywhere and the best American master of the instrument, man or woman. Karen A. Shaffer, the society's president and founder, was also in the audience last night, clearly thrilled that Rachel Barton Pine was drawing attention to the subject of her life's work.

As an example of Maud Powell's prominence, she gave the American premieres of violin concerti by Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius, with the first of those composers working with Powell directly to prepare the score. Barton Pine began her fascinating program with one movement from each of these three concerti, to show off the range of technical demands that Powell confidently took onto her shoulders. The broad bowstrokes and roaring melismas up and down in the first movement of Dvořák's A minor concerto, op. 53 ("Allegro, ma non troppo"), quickly stripped strands of horsehair off Barton Pine's bow. It's a fiercely difficult movement, with lots of passages in octaves and other multiple stops. Often the movement featured the raw, throaty low register of Barton Pine's instrument, the "ex-Soldat" violin made by Giuseppe del Gesù Guarneri in Cremona in 1742. Tchaikovsky's D major concerto, op. 35, offered its slow movement ("Canzonetta: Andante"), a gorgeous gypsy-flavored melody, in which Barton Pine was at her lyrical, long-lined best. The final movement came from Sibelius's D minor concerto, op. 47 ("Allegro, ma non tanto"), which is a sort of mad dash full of exciting syncopations, a few short parts of which slipped ever so slightly out of Barton Pine's control.

Maud Powell, 1867-1920Powell championed her own countrymen's music as much as she could, and several American composers dedicated works to her. Barton Pine gave us two examples, the second of which was a pretty but fairly unremarkable Romance for Violin and Piano, op. 23, that Amy Beach wrote for Maud Powell and herself to play at a Women's Congress. Far more interesting to me was a piece by Marion Bauer called Up the Ocklawaha, Tone Picture for Violin, op. 6. It began on one of Powell's concert tours in Florida, during which she played in a small town accessible only by an overnight boat trip up a small river. Powell wrote a poem about the experience, which describes the efforts of the "dusky crew" to keep the frightening night at bay. (For someone who was apparently quite forward-thinking about race, she also called the black boatmen the "Trusting darkies guiding the boat / With stealthy instinct, true, unerring.") Barton Pine brought a most evocative sound to this short work of program music: "The arrowed flames / Trick and cheat the eye: / Wanton shapes infest the trees / (Hanks of poisonous moss in the air)."

Powell was the first white soloist to program arrangements of black spirituals, and Barton Pine played a few of Maud Powell's arrangements of these tunes, beginning with her version of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Deep River. Powell often played these arrangements for American troops during World War I, because the familiar melodies mean home. As an encore, Powell sometimes played her own arrangement of four plantation melodies, all of which began life in minstrel shows, the infamous blackface vaudeville acts that grotesquely sentimentalized American plantation life. (uTopianTurtleTop had a couple of great posts about the familiar melody "Jimmy Crack Corn" and the gradual, insidious process by which racist minstrel tunes like it become children's songs. In the same vein, I wrote this post about what Debussy's piece Golliwog's Cakewalk really means.)

Other Reviews:

Gail Wein, A History of Violins (Washington Post, February 25)
The final set were pieces that Maud Powell played on her tours with John Philip Sousa's band, including Max Liebling's Fantasia on Sousa Themes, which used melodies mostly from Sousa's operas. (Yes, he wrote operas. Liebling studied with Franz Liszt.) This was some of the most difficult playing for Barton Pine's partner at the piano, Matthew Hagle, whose playing was sensitive, if somewhat understated, all evening. Herman Bellstedt, Jr., one of Sousa's cornet players, composed the Caprice on Dixie for Unaccompanied Violin as a virtuosic tour-de-force, which it certainly was in Barton Pine's hands. (I don't have a problem with her playing a piece based on that controversial tune, but Barton Pine's explanation of the tune's origin -- named for a kind slave owner in Manhattan named Dixie -- does not have any historical basis, as far as I can determine. The original minstrel lyrics clearly seem to depict -- perversely, as so much about minstrel shows -- a freed slave longing to return to the life of his plantation.) The encore was another Maud Powell arrangement, of Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen, which Powell was playing when she had a heart attack on stage, not long before she died. Rachel Barton Pine offered a most fitting tribute to her memory.

If you missed this excellent concert, you will have the chance to hear Rachel Barton Pine next month, also for free, at one of the Sunday concerts (March 26, 6:30 pm) at the National Gallery of Art. The program will be different, with music by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, John Corigliano, Mozart, and Schumann, but the team of Rachel Barton Pine and Matthew Hagle will be the same. Ionarts, of course, will be there.

NSO and Midori

available at Amazon
W. A. Mozart, Symphonies nos. 36 & 38, Mackerras / Prague ChO
Not surprisingly, Mozart pops up on programs with great regularity this year, which makes for a wonderful opportunity to check in on the progress that the orchestras are making in playing the music of this easiest, most difficult, composer. The choice of the Prague Symphony (no. 38, K. 504) was a good one for the National Symphony Orchestra – it is the first of the late symphonies of Mozart, bigger than preceding opera in that genre. The slow opening of the first movement underscores the novel character only further, employed only once before, in the "Linz."

It was all well played, except woodwinds, which were uninteresting and shy. I guess they may not have even been audible at the back of the house. The orchestra didn’t impress with light-footed playing, although that wasn’t all that necessary since the musicians had been set on a good course, followed it with some aplomb and vigor, and produced a mostly faultless performance that was enjoyable, more coherent than the recent Linz (despite full strings), and a bit boring.

available at Amazon
J. Schwantner, Orchestral Works, Litton / DSO
Meet the Composer:

This afternoon (Friday, February 24, 2 to 4 pm), composer Joseph Schwantner will speak at the Catholic University of America School of Music (Ward Hall, Room 127), as part of the Music Visiting Composers Series, followed by a master class with composition students. For more information, contact Andrew Simpson, associate professor, at 202-319-5564 or simpson@cua.edu.
I was happy to see a work of American Joseph Schwantner on the program, especially since a lovely disc with his music (“Angelfire” and other orchestral works – hyperion) had just crossed my desk, recently. His bombastic, tamely tonal, and sweeping orchestral prelude Morning’s Embrace was a rousing, pleasant world premiere to witness. A Heldenleben-sized orchestra and an almost Missa Latina-proportioned rhythm section (far more tastefully employed!) combined for a twenty-minute-long abstract tone poem that started with a touch of late minimalism, then stuck largely to a musical language not far from, say, Hovhaness, and ended with sounds where I was – literally – reminded of Messiaen. Inspired by nature, New Hampshire sunrises, to be precise, it is an NSO commission for its 75th season and was finished just last November. Most of its power is derived from build-ups that place layer upon layer (Shostakovich, Glass) to ratchet up the pressure. All subsides in an elongated pastoral episode where the threats and thunders are mere hints and reminiscences… before the final leg is a triumphant, strong-faced cruise into timpani-infested waters from which the strings emerge unscathed. Only then does it wither away to a rather cheesy section that loses coherence over the last few dozen bars. A fine addition to the catalogue of one of our finest contemporary composers… if not his best.

available at Amazon
P. Hindemith, Orchestral Works
Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, Years Have Been Kind to Former Prodigy (Washington Post, February 24)
Written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 50th anniversary, the 1930 Concert Music for Brass and Strings, op. 50, is a gorgeous workout for brass with friendly and at times virtuosic support from their string colleagues. Once among the most important composers of the 20th century, Hindemith has fallen somewhat out of favor. In part because he turned his back on the avant-garde when such a move was still risky for a composer’s reputation. Not quite as unique and lushly Romantic as Richard Strauss (whose music and career took a similar turn), he hasn’t recovered in estimation since. Anyone who listened to the iron boots of the Concert Music dancing away so smoothly, pulsating so vigorously, shimmering so seductively as they did under the very fine direction of Leonard Slatkin will have changed their mind. It’s undoubtedly conservative music that Hindemith wrote for the American audience and orchestra under Koussevitzky – but nothing sugary about it, if less angular than works by Hartmann, Fortner, or Egk. The mouth waters for more Hindemith from the NSO, who have already presented the Mathis der Maler Symphony earlier in the season.

available at Amazon
P. I. Tchaikovsky, "Music that stinks to the Ears"
For the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the soloist was Ryo Goto’s older sister, Midori Goto – known in the western world symply as “Midori.” Gentle in the first few notes, she soon squeezed everything out of Tchaikovsky; fond of extremes in speed and with deliberate ac- and de-cellerandi. Along with that came a supple tone from her instrument (around which she wrapped herself like a python with digestive difficulties) that perfectly fit the expectations one might have of the ‘Tchaik’. The orchestral accompaniment had delightfully detailed moments. It was the Romantic blockbuster everyone must have hoped for. And while sans particular new insights or novel touches, it was miles from routine noodling. A grand performance of the kind people hope for when they go to the Kennedy Center with Tchaikovsky heading the bill. I saw few, possibly none, of the audience leave with something other than a big smile. Smile again, if you wish, tomorrow, Friday, or Saturday at 8PM.

23.2.06

Exhibition Development @ MICA

Last evening I attended a presentation at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum by Maryland Institute College of Art students, who are part of George Ciscle’s Exhibition Development Seminar. The proposed exhibit, At Freedom’s Door: Challenging Slavery in Maryland, "will examine Maryland’s integral relationship to the history of slavery in the United States.”

The presenting students were divided into five teams: Writing, Historical Curatorial, Contemporary Curatorial, Art Education, and Public Programs. Using a PowerPoint program, the teams discussed the exhibit content and items to be displayed, gallery flow patterns, and Web site design for the exhibit.

This is a very thorough and consuming project, starting in the Summer of 2005 with discussions, museum and gallery tours, field trips, and workshops with assigned mentors and professionals. The exhibit will be presented jointly by the Maryland Historical Society and the Lewis, opening in February of 2007 and running through January 2008. Throughout, the students will report on their progress of designing exhibits, securing commissioned and borrowed works, and hosting several workshops on installation, art handling, and lighting.

The students were impressive, very committed to the project. It’s amazing to see just how much work and coordination can go into an exhibit. I’ll post a follow-up as the project continues.

The Kirov's Parsifal May Have No Pulse, but Wagner Survives


Parsifal is an opera great, grand, glorious, weird, absurd in equal measures. Add daunting, challenging, difficult, transporting, and long. There are those whom nothing can stop from attending a performance thereof, or those whom nothing can convince to endure five hours of Wagner’s final musical statement – and few between those two extremes. Should it have been surprising – or natural – that the Kennedy Center’s Opera House was very well filled on a Tuesday evening at 6PM? Or should it have been astonishing – or expected – that it wasn’t sold out?

With the Kirov and Gergiev in town, Ionarts thought it was a unique opportunity to hear and see Wagner as good as it will get in town. While I still think a Parsifal (even this one) is a unique opportunity that ought not be missed, I am not sure I witnessed anything the WNO can’t improve upon on a good day.


Other Reviews:

Charles T. Downey, Saving the Savior (DCist, February 22)

Joe Banno, The Kirov's 'Parsifal': Russo-Profundo (Washington Post, February 23)

Tim Smith, Kirov presents smooth 'Parsifal' (Baltimore Sun, February 23)

T. L. Ponick, Wagner fully expressed by Kirov (Washington Times, February 23)
Parsifal is one of the most interesting operas to direct because it offers inexhaustible material for interpretation, excavation of meaning, superimposition of ideas that are usually buried deep within the text. It’s so complex – philosophically, psychologically, religiously, musicologically – that directors are more likely err by including too much in their setting. Bayreuth’s current Parsifal is a case in point; although Mr. Schlingensief will surely boil his overwrought production down to the essentials over the next few years. Does it go to the credit of director Tony Palmer that this Parsifal did not fall prey to too much meaning but instead suffered from the utter absence of stimulus courtesy of the staging? Or are the travelling-kit restrictions to blame? If so, the limitations and monotony of the set became painfully obvious over five hours. Turandot’s – cheap Chinese Restaurant or not – was better (for a less demanding opera), the brilliance of Boris Godunov wasn’t nearly matched. There is nothing wrong with bringing out the multiplicity of elements that are part of this opera, accentuating details, nuances, allusions that today’s audience will otherwise understand as little as the original audience did. Indeed, it might be expected. Why wasn't it done?

If left with but a frame for the opera, it would help if at least the music were well performed, the singing excellent. Sadly, that wasn’t so. Valery Gergiev didn’t infuse his orchestra with the enthusiasm necessary for a band to brave five hours of music; although, in their defense, they didn’t dilapidate over the course of the opera; if anything, they improved slightly. Whereas brass was the weak-spot in Turandot, the woodwinds were the culprits in Parsifal and offered the weakest performance and the greatest blunders. The synthesizer-produced bell sound was a distorted, god-awful nightmare. Would it have been so difficult to rent a decent bell from the local orchestras? Oversized pasta pots would have made a better noise than whatever came out of the speakers of the Opera House. Gergiev’s interpretation was one of heft: slow but not crawling, he enjoyed the brassy solid moments (as did his orchestra) more than anything ethereal, this Parsifal stepped confidently along with neither idiosyncratic tick nor particular character. Unlike the sugary-sounding Wagner I have heard from Gergiev on the radio, he did not bother to sweeten the deal any more than necessary on Tuesday. In the Vorspiel, the overture, there was little by way of mystery - but insecurity, instead.

Parsifal, Kirov Opera at the Kennedy Center, February 21, 2006The singing – well… it improved from act to act and ended at “good” with stops at “modest” and “decent.” All had weak moments, none were great, some better than others. Among the latter was Oleg Balashov’s Parsifal. Much improved from the young man who sang into the ground, chin firmly on his chest, during Mazeppa two years ago, he was consistent and good as that curious figure in opera that goes from Tarzan to Jesus in just under five hours. But Parsifal is not about Parsifal, as far as the singing is concerned. The opera is – granted great voices – about either Kundry, or Gurnemanz, or both. Gurnemanz was Gennady Bezzubenkov. He, too, turned in a solid performance with notable peaks and some lows and wobbles. I’ve heard older men sing the role with greater authority and clarity (Kurt Moll, to be precise), but in this cast he managed to stand out.

A fairly small role is that of second-Act-only Klingsor. With a amusingly evil, charmingly dark costume (Nadhezhda Pavlova), make-up, and hair, Nikolai Putilin (Mazeppa in that production here in D.C.) was already fetching. An excellent voice put to good use made me wish that he might actually win the Grail and go on singing in the third act. Better, at any rate, than ailing Amfortas Evgeny Nikitin who, even when he found a pitch he could live with, managed only a very few moments of glory.

Kundry, finally, the real star of the opera, was a failure vocally and visually. The direction made her a meek Hausfrau and odd hag, and Larissa Gogolevskaya looked and acted off-character (a supposed fierce and wild she-beast that has enough sexyness lingering beneath the surface to seduce every knight of the order twice over). Temporarily slipping into a gown and donning some make-up for the second act didn’t turn her into a bomb-shell, either (although the right size, literally), and the suspension of disbelief worked overtime imagining that Parsifal might fall for this, after just having rejected a selection of two dozen delightful flower-maidens. At least her second act was sung much better than the first, in which one had to wonder what she was doing on stage, at all.

Parsifal, Act I, Kirov OperaPronunciation was variable, too, not only from singer to singer but moreso even from moment to moment. The Maryland Boy Choir as behind-the-scenes angels didn’t sound so much otherworldly but irresolute, the solo alto voice and the three soprano voices at the end of Act One were off. The Kirov’s male chorus was one of the strong points of the performance. Assorted squires and knights did their job, some of the flower-maidens sang exquisitely in that second act scene that is so unlike most other Wagner; a scene where he sounds nearly French – perhaps a touch of Delibes.

The opera itself had the feel (and often look) of Russian iconostasis. The heavy frame, saturated with warm brass and gold colors, the static action, the flat plane, naively painted or heavily jewel-encrusted backdrops: no individual item may have been particularly Russianesque; the over-all impression, though, very much. Grail Knights were heavily decked out in Baroque armor with gold ornaments, as if they had stepped out of a Rembrandt (possibly Rubens) with a lot of aged varnish. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came to mind upon seeing Amfortas’s Shepherd-Snow-King frock, Gurnemanz became Gandalf for the third act. Kundry stepped into Act Two as a Castlevania dominatrix, and in Act Three she's a very unsubtle Mary Magdalene. The flower-maidens looked like an after-hours at the Papagena convention. The concluding dove was AWOL. Still, the incense-laden atmosphere, the slow procession, and the literal takes of the Christian rituals gave the production a feel that had merits on its own right.

Unfortunately, a discussion of Parsifal and its plot would be beyond the scope of this review; suffice it to say (for now) that there is much juice in this anti-Nietzschean, mother-kissing, self-castrating, Schopenhauer-distorting, Jesus-referencing, nymphomaniac-chastizing, ‘pity-by-fire’-touting, Buddhism-influenced opera – and enough of that remained intriguing on Tuesday night, even if untouched beneath the surface. That, and of course the glorious, transforming, slow music of Wagner’s that had Nietzsche admit through his teeth that Wagner may never have done anything better. As such – having the opportunity to see a live Parsifal in Washington – was a great experience. As far as Parsifal's go, it was a rather modest affair. Time permitting, I’d probably go again on Sunday, February 27th at 3PM.


Recommended Recordings:

Best Parsifal recordings
Recordings of Parsifal can be divided into two categories: Knappertsbusch and not-Knappertsbusch. The former are glorious and very slow and marred by less than ideal sound. The latter include some excellent contenders in various styles and generally excellent sound. Some recommended versions are: Knappertsbusch from 1951 (live - mono), 1952 (live - mono), 1962 (live - stereo), Boulez (1970 - live - stereo), Kubelik (1980 - studio - stereo), Karajan (1982 - studio - stereo), and Barenboim (1991 - studio - stereo).