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31.1.07

Happy 70th, Philip Glass

Philip Glass, b. January 31, 1937As the previous post should have indicated, American composer Philip Glass is 70 years old today. In honor of this milestone, English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera have undertaken a new production of the composer's opera Satyagraha, scheduled for this April at ENO and next year at the Met. We offer some past Ionarts coverage of the music of Philip Glass and, in a separate post, a review by Jens of the essential recordings.

Other Tributes:

Sequenza 21 | Alex Ross | Opera Chic | Joshua Kosman | That's pretty much it

The next (only?) major live performance in the Washington area is an all-Glass program of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Philip Glass was born in Baltimore, after all), conducted by Marin Alsop. This includes the Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and the world premiere of LIFE: A Journey Through Time, a new score by Glass that accompanies photographs by National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting. Dates set for February 22 (at Strathmore) and February 23-25 (Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore). Please use the comments section to announce other Philip Glass events.

Listening to Philip Glass. Listening to Philip Glass. Listening to Philip Glass

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Sy. 2, SAX Q4 (Nonesuch)


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Sy.3, Civil WarS, Light (Nonesuch)
Philip Glass, a Baltimore native, turns 70 – a fact that bears repeating. Over and over. Just like any joke about Philips Glass’ uniquely recognizable brand of minimalism. (Nevermind that Glass doesn’t like the term ‘minimalist’. It might be confining but it’s too useful not to use.) But I have written a little about his musical style when reviewing a recording of his Eighth Symphony or the performance of his Seventh and wish not to repeat myself too much. (No pun intended). This is simply a reminder of which discs are among the best to acquaint oneself with his music.

Eschewing a successful relationship with Nonesuch, Philip Glass has decided that the musical world needed much more than just one Philip Glass release per year and founded his own label, Orange Mountain (distributed by Harmonia Mundi). Not much on it is so terribly exciting that it would merit recommending as a starting- or discovery point for your own Philip Glass exploration. His Sixth Symphony – “Plutonium Ode” - is one of the exceptions. There are, however, plenty gems that every good classical music collection should contain.

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Sys. 2 & 3 (Naxos)
Marin Alsop knows how to do good Glass – on February 22nd she will prove for us it with the BSO at Strathmore. Meanwhile she has given us one of the best introductory discs of Glass-music: the accessible symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 on an excellent (and economic) Naxos disc. For the money, this is the best Glass-intro. For equally impassioned performances of the same works coupled with very worthy ‘fillers’ go for the two Nonesuch discs with Russell-Davies: Symphony No.2 with the Concerto for Saxophone Quartet – and (easily my favorite disc of Philip Glass’ music) Symphony No.3 coupled with the Civil WarS interludes and the orchestral work The Light.

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String Quartets (Nonesuch)
His rather ‘ambient’ but largely delectable string quartets (Nos. 2-5, at any rate) can – and ought – to be had in the recording of the Kronos Quartet. The quantity is controllable (although we habitually listen to entire CDs, rarely just one or two pieces on it), the playing superb, the sound good, and the music different enough (not just in timbre) from the orchestral works to merit your ears. It is certainly a more easily digestible next step from the symphonies than his operas would be.

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Einstein on the Beach


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Akhnaten


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Music in 12 Parts
Writing of which… with operas the choice is easy: Einstein on the Beach is de rigeur for your Glass collection, even if it will catch as much dust as the least practical Jay Strongwater figurine. It’s perhaps the most famous Philip Glass work; it certainly provided the biggest splash among them. Two recordings are available (hard to believe) – the second one is the one to have. More music (not that that is an argument) on fewer discs (and less expense), while the sound is far superior; the performers more precise.

You don’t have to be a masochist to listen to nearly 200 minutes of random words, numbers, musical phrases, texts, but it certainly helps. There are not going to be many occasions where you will listen to it all in one sitting. In fact, don’t listen to it sitting. Listen to it while lying down. Be softly rocked by its repetitiveness, its swirls and swooshes… until you notice minute changes in the musical patterns to feel like the subtle pattern-changes of the waves that gently rock you up and down (like oceanic waves would you, being at their mercy in a life-jacket) are enormous in all their minimal distinction. Akhnaten is more accessible by far. With no string instruments involved, the sound is remarkably different (even if the tricks are the same). Unlike Einstein, you might catch yourself listening to this by free will on an innocent afternoon.

Music in 12 Parts may also be famous, but it makes Einstein sound whimsical. It’s all about the ‘experience’ – not the sound. About how you feel after having listened to over 200 minutes of running pulses and endless arpeggios – not how you feel while listening to any given part. It may well be an example of what is great about Philip Glass, but it is not a great place to start finding out why he is great. In fact, any other recording will be a better starting point.

It took me some time to appreciate Philip Glass’ music.

30.1.07

Film: Tristram Shandy

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Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, directed by Michael Winterbottom (released on July 11, 2006)
Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67) first came to my attention in a seminar on Enlightenment literature, where we were reading Denis Diderot's Jacques le Fataliste. Tristram Shandy is a sprawling, nutty book that plays with narrative in ways owing much to Cervantes' Don Quixote. True, Samuel Johnson may have disparaged Tristram Shandy as a flash in the pan, but the book has been favored reading of Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Woolf, and John Updike (who has called the book a "gabby proto-modernist masterpiece of self-inquisition, a merry challenge to the conventions of the realistic novel"). It is fascinating and obscure in equal parts. Anyone who would try to make it into a movie must be crazy.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story adds another layer of complexity, by making a book about nothing into a movie about making a movie about a book about nothing. It may well be the oddest movie made in 2006, and not surprisingly it has been overlooked at award time. This is due at least partially to the time of the film's U.S. release, which was last January, meaning that it is long forgotten. Only one critic, to my knowledge, put this film on his Top 10 list for 2006: once again, Desson Thomson at the Washington Post proves himself the movie critic closest to my own tastes. We usually like the same movies, and when he hates something, he writes hilariously venomous take-downs (e.g., "Just a few more tweaks and Crossover could have been something special -- a truly terrible movie to savor for the ages. But nooo, this street ball movie has to settle for middle-of-the-road badness"). [NB: Tristram Shandy was in Reel Fanatic's Top 11 of 2006, too.]

Other Reviews:

A. O. Scott | David Denby | Village Voice | Slate | Variety | Washington Post | Rotten Tomatoes

It would be impossible to make a film that could contain even a small portion of what is in Tristram Shandy's nine volumes. By following a film crew trying to do just that, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story can pick and choose: some parts of the story are mentioned only in passing, as plot lines that are being considered or that have already been cut. Most of the script is faithful to the book, although some things have been conflated or simplified. This is reportedly the final collaboration between screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (writing under the pseudonym Martin Hardy) and director Michael Winterbottom, and arguably the best parts of the movie are outside of the film within a film. With the help of fine improvisation from the actors (lead actor Steve Coogan reportedly signed on to the film without even seeing a complete script -- there was none), we see how the movie is continually being shaped by the egos and personal battles of the creative team.

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, directed by Michael Winterbottom
Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, directed by Michael Winterbottom
This includes not only Steve Coogan (who plays Tristram Shandy and his father, Walter Shandy) and Rob Brydon (Uncle Toby) -- who have extensive scenes as caricatures of themselves, shooting the shit about their teeth, their billing, their dueling impersonations of Al Pacino -- and the other actors. Coogan's dressing room rehearsal of a scene, ultimately cut before shooting, in which a hot chestnut falls down his pants, is a sly vivisection of actors' methods. Only when an assistant actually drops a hot chestnut down Coogan's pants does he get the tone quite right. Because of the film within a film conceit, the irony is that we know all of these "takes," false and real, are acted, Coogan playing "Coogan." They are also hysterically funny.

Just as entertaining, the director, screenwriter, and producer (another longtime collaborator, Andrew Eaton) have appearances, played by Jeremy Northam (Mark), Ian Hart (Joe), and James Fleet (Simon), respectively. From what I know of Winterbottom, Boyce, and Eaton, these scenes are an examination of their own working relationships, down to personal details like Boyce's seven children (yes, true).

On one level, Sterne's novel is about how not to write a novel -- the narrator takes us through a couple volumes worth of digressions before finally getting around to describing how he was born. In a parallel way, the movie dissects the foibles of the movie industry, as a vast committee of competing egos is massaged and compromised with. The person who seems to know the Laurence Sterne novel the best and has the most profound understanding of the history of film -- Coogan's personal assistant, Jennie (Naomie Harris) -- has the least influence on how the film gets made. It is not by chance that Coogan's girlfriend is also named Jenny (Kelly Macdonald): Sterne's narrator addresses one "dear, dear Jenny" as if she is is a lover or confidante, someone who knows his story. She has not made the cut into the film within the film, but her dual presence (Jennie/Jenny) dominates the shoot.

It is no use pretending that a film like Tristram Shandy could or even should be nominated for an Academy Award. It is too esoteric and odd to please widely enough for that to be appropriate. According to the figures I have read, the movie has only just managed to make back enough money to cover its estimated $3 million budget. Having watched it several times, I'm with Desson Thomson: this film is odd but among the best of 2006.

SVILUPPO:
A kind message from the curator of Shandy Hall reminds me that I need to visit Sterne's home in the village of Coxwold, in north Yorkshire.

Yuri Bashmet and Wu Man at the Library of Congress

Wu ManLast week, the Russian violist/violinist Yuri Bashmet and his Moscow Soloists presented a classical music program at the Library of Congress that not only attempted to bring “East” and “West” together – but actually succeeded in doing so. It began with Toru Takemitsu’s Nostalghia (written in memory of Andrei Tarkovsky and not afraid of hinting at a film-music-like melodic style) where Bashmet’s gorgeous violin (!) sound came to bear in the romantic, oceanic ebbing and swelling of the work.

When I saw Tan Dun’s First Emperor I bemoaned that it was hardly as successful (or novel) a composition as his “Ghost Opera” (for string quartet, pipa, and water bowl, stones, paper, and metal) which I have loved ever since I heard the Kronos String Quartet’s recording on Nonesuch almost 10 years ago. With the stunning pipa player Wu Man, the Moscow Soloists (now conducted, awkwardly, by Mr. Bashmet) presented the souped-up version of it, now titled Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra. If it does not have the variety of the original (no stones, no water-bowl), it certainly is a more practical piece in this form – and its essential appeal is hardly diminished by the thicker textures of the strings. The appeal of the concerto (replete with shouting and huffing from the players) extended to every listener in the Coolidge Auditorium, not the least due to Ms. Wu Man’s impeccable and engaged performance, who then proceeded to give a traditional virtuoso encore which received enthusiastic standing ovations.

Yuri BashmetUnsurprisingly, Yuri Bashmet’s playing (which has not suffered, unlike his once roguish-wild good looks: now with thin, matte hair he resembles a sixty-year old Mad Max, gray of age and red of alcohol) on the viola is every bit as good as on the violin – if perhaps a touch more hesitant-sounding in Hikaru Hayashi’s Concerto “Elegia” for Viola and Strings. By far the most western sounding of the works on the program it made for a wonderful concertino for strings that any violist should like to have in their repertoire. Modern but lyrical (as its name would suggest, anyway), it requires many precise, squealing high harmonic notes, and endless cadenza, and compellingly primitive sounds.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Bashmet: From Russia With a Pipa (Washington Post, January 26)
Toru Takemitsu’s Three Film Scores for strings are older film music of his rehashed for the concert hall – and “Music of Training and Rest”, “Funeral Music”, and “Waltz” (for José Torres, Black Rain, and Face of Another, respectively) are amiable, easily digestible stuff. If it had been a wonderfully entertaining concerto so far, Schnittke’s whopping, whacky, all-over-the-place Polka, the third of three encores, gave it the riotous finish that made it very special indeed. (Stravinsky and a string quartet transcription before that had already set a more western mood.) Led by the beaming and graceful Georgian violist Nina Matcharadze, they then broke into Happy Birthday (royalties paid?) for Yuri Bashmet, who turned 53 that day.

Jenůfa

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Janáček, Jenůfa, Elisabeth Söderström, Eva Randová, Vienna Philharmonic, Charles Mackerras


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Janáček, Jenůfa, Karita Mattila, Anja Silja, Covent Garden, Bernard Haitink (2004)
I listened to the opening night broadcast of Jenůfa from the Met on Sirius last night. (Master Ionarts, unable to sleep for some reason, even shared one of my earpods for about ten minutes, when he came downstairs. Thankfully, the opera being in Czech, I did not have to explain why someone was throwing a baby into an icy river.) This opera should be one of the Met simulcasts this year but -- no surprise -- is not. Leoš Janáček is one of the big three opera composers of the first half of the 20th century, but he does not sell tickets. This production of Její pastorkyňa, as it was called originally in Czech, boasts soprano Karita Mattila in the title role, as well as Anja Silja as the dragon lady, Jenůfa's domineering stepmother, Petrona Slomková, whom everyone calls the Kostelnička, or the sacristan lady (an important position in the village church). Thanks to the work of pioneering conductor Charles Mackerras, the world has mostly readopted the score that Janáček wanted for this opera, not the revisions forced on him later by the Czech National Theater in Prague.

Other Bloggers:

Alex Ross | An Unamplified Voice | My Favorite Intermissions

It's a dark, troubling opera -- verismo but without the kitsch -- which Washingtonians will also have a chance to see on the stage, in a new production at Washington National Opera in May. (Edward Seckerson reviewed the Alden staging for The Independent when it premiered at English National Opera last fall.) Although the David Alden staging will be visually quite different, there is some musical overlap, beginning most importantly with the conductor, Jiří Bělohlávek. The Met and WNO have also cast the same Števa, Raymond Very (not all performances at the Met), and the same Laca (Kim Begley -- except, for whatever reason, at last night's premiere), but the female leads are all different: Patricia Racette (Jenůfa), Judith Christin (Grandmother Buryjovka), and Catherine Malfitano (the Kostelnička -- she sang the role at ENO and was greatly admired by Seckerson).

Only five performances remain at the Met, all with tickets still available. The Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of Jenůfa from the Met is scheduled for February 17, at 1:30 pm, the final performance of the run.

29.1.07

The Best Films of 2006?

OscarNominations for the 79th Annual Acedemy Awards were announced last week. Here are the main categories, with links to Ionarts and DCist reviews, and corresponding honors at the Golden Globes (GG) or Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards noted:

1. Best Picture

2. Actor
  • Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond
  • Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
  • Peter O'Toole, Venus
  • Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
  • Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald) [GG] [SAG]
3. Actress4. Supporting Actor
  • Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
  • Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children
  • Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond
  • Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls [GG] [SAG]
  • Mark Wahlberg, The Departed
5. Supporting ActressContinue reading this article.
6. Directing
  • Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Babel
  • Martin Scorsese, The Departed [GG]
  • Clint Eastwood, Letters From Iwo Jima
  • Stephen Frears, The Queen
  • Paul Greengrass, United 93
7. Foreign Language Film
  • After the Wedding (Denmark)
  • Days of Glory (Indigènes, Algeria)
  • The Lives of Others (Germany)
  • Pan's Labyrinth (Mexico)
  • Water (Canada)
8. Adapted Screenplay
  • Sacha Baron Cohen and Anthony Hines and Peter Baynham and Dan Mazer and Todd Phillips, Borat Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
  • Alfonso Cuaron and Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, Children of Men
  • William Monahan, The Departed
  • Todd Field and Tom Perrotta, Little Children
  • Patrick Marber, Notes on a Scandal
9. Original Screenplay10. Original ScoreOther Films from 2006 [with nominations, if any]:We will keep updating this list as we review the other nominated films, in advance of the Academy Awards ceremony on February 25.

Fine Pianism From Tanya Bannister

Tanya BannisterTanya Bannister was the latest exponent of her art in the WPAS Hayes Series’ presentation of beautiful young ladies that play the piano. The last one did not fare so well (pianistically, at any rate) – but the Hong-Kong born Tanya Bannister fortunately proved able enough that her inclusion in this generally prestigious series was merited on musical grounds.

Robert Schumann’s Abegg Variations were proof for that: an exquisite balance and coherent presentation, marred only by a carelessly sounded upper register, charmed right off the bat. To hear Clara Schumann in Three Romances op.21 held much appeal, too… and not only because she is a rarely played ‘novelty composer’ but because her compositions – a few piano pieces and songs, mostly – are very enjoyable works. The dense Andante is perhaps weighed down by its portentousness, the Allegretto is lovingly flimsy, the Agitato sounds like east-of-the-Rhine Chopin. Played with all the requisite tenderness and panache, if with something less than utmost care and attention, it ought to have put Clara Schumann a little bit further back on the map of piano recitals.

Albéniz is more substantial – and challenging – fare; Evocación and El Puerto from Book I of Iberia were extraordinarily well played: with facility, faint touches and bold assertions. Even if it stayed ‘piano music’ throughout, evoking less the smell of Spain than that of a conservatory hallway, this was impressively done.

Carl Vine is an Australian composer, barely over 50, who wrote Five Bagatelles to explore his ideas for small keyboard works – inspired by the fifth bagatelle, “Threnody”, which he had composed for himself to perform. “Darkly”, “leggiero e legato”, two untitled movements, and said “Threnody” are amiable enough to disappoint the veteran avant-gardeists (not many at the Hayes series, I surmise) but too wild and tonally ambiguous to be enjoyed by conservative ears. They are, however, wist- and playful enough to put a smile on the minority of listeners that falls between the two camps. The music goes by the ear much like rain beats against window panes; awareness of it is spurious, the reaction to it perhaps more dependent on the mood of the moment than the music itself. Anyone who likes Debussy and Ligeti, for example, would gladly listen to Vine’s Bagatelles.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, From Pianist Tanya Bannister, A Smart, Lyrical Performance (Washington Post, January 29)
With a little (no… actually a rather long) introduction for Suzanne Farrin’s “This is the story she began”, Ms. Bannister, a friend of Ms. Farrin’s from their days at Yale, began the second half of the program. Had there not been Brahms’ Handel Variations waiting at the end of the program, more people might have left at intermission. But Suzanne Farrin’s piece turned out to be of the perfectly harmless modern kind that I, for one, have an infinite capacity for mild appreciation or, sometimes, even enthusiasm. (The best of Benjamin C.S. Boyle’s work, for example.) “This is the Story” (washed-out Frederic Rzewski meets Thomas de Hartmann, perhaps) won’t have a lasting impact on the piano repertoire apart from that of Ms. Farrin’s friends – but it is a nice step along what seems a promising career in composition.

Not very much of Brahms’ solo piano repertoire excites me terribly – and plenty leaves me cold, entirely. It seems that, more with Brahms and Schumann than, say, Schubert or Scriabin, or Field, it is best to pick only the cherries from it. One such cherry is undoubtedly the set of Variations on a Theme of Handel. Its subject alone makes for slightly lighter, less masculine, stern, and earnest music (except the concluding Fugue). It still demands plenty power – as Brahms always does – but not so much that the muscular but lithe Ms. Bannister would have had to strain to achieve the desired effect. All murmured along nicely to cap a pleasant recital in style.

28.1.07

Getting Balmy in NYC

Gwyn Hanssen Pigott

I saw a few good shows in midtown Saturday afternoon. There were absolutely gorgeous porcelain works at Garth Clark Gallery, by Austr[al]ian ceramicist Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, shown above. The displays reminded me of a Giorgio Morandi painting.

I have to nominate Jane Wilson to the Cloud Appreciation Society. Her latest show of paintings at DC Moore Gallery is all cloudy, and she’s a very good painter.

Due to unforeseen circumstances -- it was too cold -- my group didn’t make it to MoMA Friday night, as expected, to see the Doug Aitken production, sleepwalkers. Saturday turned out to be the night. The temperature was closer to a balmy 28.

I really enjoyed the experience of these video projections on the exterior walls of the Museum of Modern Art. However, the theme of individuals trapped in the mundane rituals of their lives -- kind of a Lost in Translation take -- didn't quite work for me, no matter how many times the film looped.

IMG_3104.JPG

The work itself was beautiful, projected over the front entrance to the museum, two screenings on the side of the Folk Art Museum walls, which is next door, and in MoMA's sculpture garden the three walls radiate with alternating segments which ultimately blend as one, as do the lives of the characters. My favorite part is where the circular image of their coffee cups radiates through a series of colors and forms, ultimately becoming the sun. That was well done: it made me think of Kubrick's Space Odyssey.

I'm sure this must have been an immense project to pull off, but well worth the effort. In a city that inundates your senses with lights and video imagery, it's not easy to be distinctive. One of the most important results is the social nature of the experience, with large groups of art lovers gathered in the dark to view the projections on the exterior. We we also got to view the diners in the museum cafe and the hundreds of visitors milling about the main hall and galleries. It was a lot of fun and great business for MoMA. See my flickr site for more pictures.

Susan Graham at the Terrace Theater

Although Washington teems with cultural offerings (if you know where to look), there is always the veil of the provincial that covers the scene – and you can tell it from the distinct absence of excitement that accompanies concerts, recitals, or opera productions. There is scarcely the feeling of an ‘event’ that electrifies large audiences or, even better, the (usually self-declared) connoisseurs.

To have two ‘events’ in as many weeks is a fine fettle for DC: First the NSO’s Salome with Debbie Voigt and this Friday Susan Graham’s recital – alongside pianist Malcolm Martineau – at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, courtesy of the Fortas Chamber Music Concert series.

Presenting a delectable “French tasting menu” designed to present the entire palette of Mélodies (22 composers, only Fauré and Debussy once repeated), split by the intermission into 19th and 20th century-works, Graham/Martineau gave the rapt audience a musical gift to cherish for some time to come.

Assembled by Mr. Martineau (with Graham Johnson and Jörg Demus one of the greats among Lied and Mélodie pianists), these songs were ordered into five groups. The fathers (and grandfathers) of French song – “Night” – sparse anti-romanticism (although no French song is ever truly anti-romantic) – humor / quirkiness – and a closing work by Francis Poulenc.

The consummate artistry with which the two artists presented this (mercifully) varied program was something to behold in its entire impression as well as every detail. Whereas it would be easy to tire in a recital if it presented 24 songs by, say, Fauré, the ability to hear so many different variations on that distinctively French style of art song easily kept your attention and made the evening seem to go much faster than the 100-plus minutes it lasted.

After introducing herself with George Bizet’s Chanson d’avril the duo (as opposed to ‘singer and accompanist’) went through Franck’s Nocturne, a vocalized Chopin/Field-like song of anxious, uncertainty (Graham) above a contemplative mood (Martineau). Upbeat and vigorous and utterly French (like a beret-wearing frog jumping onto red-white checkered picnic cloth with a baguette and bottle of wine under his arm) was “Dans les ruines d’une abbaye” by Fauré. (The Victor Hugo text is about making out in an old abbey, a perfectly French pasttime, after all.) Guitare op.17, No.1 by Lalo (also on a Hugo text) was as brief as it was pressing, tense, and intense; Où voulez-vous aller? a rolling, rollicking lighthearted work on an touchingly innocent poem by Théophile Gautier. Saint-Saëns’ characterful, restless, and pleasantly uncomfortable Danse macabre was musically hiding one or two of the animals from Saint-Saëns’ so-titled carnival.

The cicadas (Les cigales) of Chabrier were extraordinarily well behaved and made for a contemplative, impressionist, hazy piece, striving for more sunlight. Emile Paladilhe, perhaps the least known of the composers among the 22, offered, channeled through Graham and Martineau, the most delicate (and most Schubertian) song of the bunch… although the French language will never allow a song to sound very German for any length of time – and Psyché is no different in that regard. Debussy is always unmistakably Debussy: like matter you can see but not put your hands on… evasive and lingering like a scent that one cannot decide whether to like or dislike: Harmonie du soir. More straight forward is Chausson’s Les papillons in its fluttering, murmuring way and its short intensity very obviously about more than mere butterflies. Chère nuit is another nocturne (Alfred Bachelet); gently searing away, a discomfited Wagneresque melodic turn appearing once or twice. This second segment was capped by Henri Duparc’s Au pays où se fait la guerre. If you know Duparc (and you really should!), you’d not be surprised that this could well have been considered the most precious of a first half of gems. No one stirs the heart and musical sensibility as much as the strange (and rather mad) composer whose name lives on, solely on the strength of the 20 songs that he left posterity.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Susan Graham's French Fare Is Delectable (Washington Post, January 29)

Charles T. Downey, Susan Graham and French Song (DCist, January 29)
Maurice Ravel and Le Paon (“The Peackock”), a little, cute drama was sung (and performed as much) with an abundance of humor and grace. André Caplet created musically illustrated Aesop with Le corbeau et le renard (“The Crow and the Fox” – the original “Who moved my Cheese”), footprints and animal sounds all included and delightfully acted out during delivery. The witty Réponse d’une épouse sage (“Response of a Virtuous Wife”) op.35, No.2 by Albert Roussel has a precious and (British?) thin-lipped delicacy about it – which is a façade before a knowing and earthy sense of humor. The 20th century makes itself heard, by now, with increased, gentle dissonances. The same is true for the Messiaen and Debussy that followed (La fiancée perdue, a song in direct musical lineage from Debussy and Duparc – and Colloue sentimental, like faint little bells and frosty breath on a gray winter day ending on nothingness).

It is arguable if a Vocalise is a particular challenge – or just an excuse for laziness or inability to set the composed melody to fitting text. Then again, the gros of listeners appreciates most songs – even the ones in their native tongue – as absolute music with little or no attention to the (usually indiscernible) text. And as such, a Vocalise like Fauré’s is appreciated for its beauty and honesty.

Although Reynaldo Hahn was as French as any Venezuelan could ever hope to be, there is something in his Tyrandis (from Études Latines No.7) that sets his song apart from all the others. For one, there is always a hint of Mozart nearby with Hahn. “The Mad Hatter” (Le cahelier) by Satie on a Gounod melody is as fickle and silly as it can be expected from this l’enfant terrible of French music… while Arthur Honegger proved that you can achieve an old fashioned sound with modern compositional techniques in Trois Chansons de la Petite Sirène. All roads lead to Rome and all Mélodies invariably end up sounding specifically French. Technically not French but ‘Auvergnese’ is Canteloube’s “Lullaby” from his songs of the Auvergne; as irresistible as distinct – caressed by Graham and Martineau. Compared to that soothing sound, Manuel Rosenthal’s La souris d’Angleterre (“The English Mouse”) is a wild little tipsy bout until the trappings of a rough and tragic demise of the protagonist end the English mousey’s life and the song.

The morbid marvel of Francis Poulenc’s La dame de Monte-Carlo officially ended the recital before Hahn’s faux-Bach and incomparably beautiful A Chloris and the Noël Coward ditty of there being something fishy about the French left the audience with memorable encores. Merveilleux, indeed.

In Brief

LinksHere is your regular Sunday dosage of interesting items, from Blogville and beyond:

  • Mark Swed shows up everywhere, including at the North American premiere of Philip Glass's 2005 opera, Waiting for the Barbarians, at Austin Lyric Opera, of all places. [LA Times]
  • On his toward retirement, tenor Plácido Domingo will realize a long-held dream and sing the title role of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra (an opera I adore, too). The only hitch is that it's a baritone role. [CBC]
  • David Gockley does it again, now at San Francisco Opera. Philip Glass will premiere his new opera, Appomattox, there in 2009. [San Jose Mercury News]
  • You thought had worries. Anne-Carolyn Bird may have to sing in Czech, while pretending to be ten years old, on the stage of the Met, and not knock Karita Mattila's wig awry with the force of her consonants. [The Concert]
  • Dig anywhere in or around Rome and you will find something. Check out the photographs of spectacular relief sculptures of gladiators locked in combat, recently excavated from the garden of a private home near Fiano Romano. [Cronaca]
  • My doctoral dissertation dealt with the many operatic adaptations of stories from the epics of Tasso and Ariosto. It's nice to see these things getting mainstream attention. [Washington Post]
  • Dicapo Opera Theatre will present the New York premiere of Tobias Picker's third opera, Thérèse Raquin (February 16 to 25). Gene Scheer wrote the libretto, based on the novel by Emile Zola. [All about Opera]
  • The London Philharmonic will have a big Erich Korngold year, for the 50th anniversary of the composer's death, including the U.K. premiere of Korngold's opera Das Wunder der Heliane. [Jessica Duchen]
  • Teenage composer Jay Greenberg's honeymoon with the press is over. In The Guardian, Philip Hensher says it like it is about Greenberg's Fifth Symphony, recently recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. Thanks to Bob Shingleton for bringing it to our attention. [From an Overgrown Path]

27.1.07

This Week in MP3

Ionarts got covered in gadgetry this holiday season, with a much-loved Sirius radio subscription. Then for my birthday, I finally joined the MP3 player generation, to the great delight of my students, who cannot believe that I walk around the campus listening to opera or whatever. Thus begins a new Saturday feature of what was at the top of the Ionarts playlist for the week. Click on the link to read a review (if we have one) or the album picture to buy it through Amazon.

New:
available at Amazon
Strange Imaginary Animals (music by Higdon, Fitzell, Mackey, Gordon, DeSantis), eighth blackbird (November 28, 2006)

Review
available at Amazon
Trumpet Concertos (Gruber, Eötvös, Turnage), Håkan Hardenberger, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Peter Eötvös (August 8, 2006)

Review
available at Amazon
Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito, Mark Padmore, Bernarda Fink, Freiburger Barockorchester, René Jacobs (September 12, 2006)

Review

Old:
available at Amazon
Debussy, Etudes, Mitsuko Uchida (remastered, 2006)

Review
available at Amazon
Reich, Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards / Adams, Shaker Loops, San Francisco Symphony (remastered, 2006)
available at Amazon
Richard Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek, James King, Vienna Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm

Old:
available at Amazon
Igor Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps, arranged for two pianos by the composer, Fazil Say (2001)

Review
available at Amazon
Franz Liszt, Piano Sonata in B Minor, Martha Argerich (Steinway Legends, 2006)
available at Amazon
Franz Liszt, Piano Sonata in B Minor, Maurizio Pollini (Steinway Legends, 2006)

Review (in concert)

Freezing in fffff, NYC

The fashion of the day for Chelsea gallery cruising was woollen ski hats, gloves, and even a few ski masks. Dang, it was cold. I did my best to see as much art as possible, but the wind won this one.

Not to worry, I did see some amazing legs by Victor Skrebneski at Winkleman Gallery and eight really nice small paintings by Georges Lebar next door at Black and White Gallery. If you haven’t been to the terminal building yet, stop by: it’s an incredible location with seven or eight galleries so far and a new coffee shop, to sit and plan your gallery strategy.

Larry Zox

Stephen Haller has a small retrospective of the late Larry Zox’s paintings (shown above). I wasn’t familiar with his work, but he was a contemporary of Frank Stella and the many painters of that era. There are several very strong works in this show.

Perfect for a freezing day, James Cohan’s exhibit, Cosmologies, explores the various depictions of the human relationship to the universe, from 10th-century Mimbres pottery to the present. It’s a fascinating show, so take your time: the gallery is nice and warm.

There is some video of interest, including Sergio Prego at Lehmann Maupin, Robert Wilson at Paula Cooper: beautiful imagery. Jacco Oliver’s moving paintings are wonderful, and Uri Lev Aran has a video/poetry piece, at Moti Hasson’s new space on 25th Street, that I really enjoyed.

More painting I that liked a lot: Andrew Forge’s pointillist works at Betty Cunningham and L.A. painter John Sonsini’s Alice Neel-inspired portraits of Latino day laborers at Cheim Read. There are more images on my flickr site. I’ll have another post tomorrow, with images of Doug Aitken at MoMA.

26.1.07

Dip Your Ears, No. 75 (Loussier's Brandenburgs)

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach / Loussier, The Brandenburgs,
Jacques Loussier Trio
Telarc

available at Amazon
Play Bach

available at Amazon
Play Bach II

available at Amazon
Plays Bach

available at Amazon
40th Anniversary

available at Amazon
Goldberg Variations
“Crossover” need not be the dirty word it has come to be to most engaged lovers of classical music. Although Il Divo, Andrea Bocelli, various string quartet ‘tributes’ to rock bands, and a slew of other ill conceived, badly performed, tasteless schlock have ingrained a natural gag reflex in some of us, there is nothing about classical music that would make it inherently less qualified to be picked up by another style of music and transformed, adapted, or deconstructed – or vice versa.
The examples I am aware of that work best are largely mergers of various degrees between Classical and jazz idioms. Take the avant-garde Uri Cain, a favorite of mine, especially with his Mahler-explorations, for example, or Kálmán Oláh (among other works his Jazz interpolations for the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra recording of the Goldberg Variations), and then of course the ‘mother of Jazz/Classical crossover, Jacques Loussier.

I’ve loyally followed his work ever since I hit upon – and fell in love with – his “Play Bach”. I’ve gone down the road of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with him, Debussy and back, to Chopin’s Nocturnes, made stops at Handel’s Watermusic and the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I can’t say that all of these have been unqualified successes (I liked the Chopin and Beethoven; Vivaldi and Haendel were harder to get used to) – and even where these adaptations or renderings for piano, bass, and drums work well enough, they don’t quite have the special ‘something’ that Loussier brings out of Bach (or Bach brings out of Loussier). Naturally I am glad to see Loussier back with Bach for the first time (?) in six years since he recorded “Take Bach” with the Pekinel sisters on piano.

This time he tackles the Brandenburg Concertos (in somewhat looser adaptations than much of the other Bach that went into his jazzy-counterpuntal versions) and the result is some of the best Loussier I’ve heard in a long time. Nothing short of the original “Play Bach” recordings, Loussier, Benoit Dunoyer de Segonzac (bass), and André Arpino (drums) (all presented in excellent sound by Telarc) deliver an hour of romping through the Brandenburg concertos in great style; abbreviating and exploring along the way, always completely recognizably Bach and Loussier at the same time. (A hint of the Reger piano 4-hands transcriptions blinks through, here or there, but Loussier is, of course, less literal.) A great discovery for anyone new to Loussier’s take on Bach; a most rewarding continuation of those who have followed him thus far.

Hilliard Ensemble at the Freer

Hilliard Ensemble, photo by Friedrun Reinhold
Hilliard Ensemble (L to R, Gordon Jones, David James, Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold), photo by Friedrun Reinhold
The Freer Gallery of Art hosts an eclectic and sporadic series of free concerts, often in sync with the museum's beautiful exhibits. To cap off the fascinating exhibit on early Bible manuscripts at the Sackler Gallery (see the Ionarts review), the Hilliard Ensemble brought a program called Arkhangelos, modern and older pieces in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, to the Meyer Auditorium on Wednesday night. The group is known primarily for their exquisite recordings and live performances of Renaissance and medieval polyphony, as in their acclaimed 2006 CD of music by Gombert. The Hilliards also commission and perform new works of music, and that was the focus of this thorny and challenging concert.

The program takes its name, Arkhangelos, from a piece of that title by English composer Ivan Moody (b. 1964). The text is a 6th-century poem by Agathius Scholasticus, about how a person's mind is affected by meditating on an icon of St. Michael. The musical setting is appropriately inward and mysterious, mostly with very pretty sounds. It goes well with a piece near it in the program, Arvo Pärt's Most Holy Mother of God, an ecstatic litany on the words "Most Holy Mother of God, save us" premiered by the Hilliard Ensemble in 2005. The texture of this piece alternates between layering of slow melodic lines and a harried homorhythmic mantra-like section, which grows from piano in an arching crescendo.

The group also had fine moments in another work composed for them, Alexander Raskatov's Praise, a setting of five liturgical texts from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The very dissonant logic of the first piece, Hymn of the Cherubim, meant that at crucial points, unisons solemnly resolved to seconds, as Raskatov used grating dissonance, piled up in succession, to propel the piece through rocking swells. The opposite effect is achieved in the second piece, The Lord's Prayer, where at certain points the four voices end up on the same note in four different octaves. Gentle Light contrasts the declamation of the text in highest and lowest voices with an ison (drone) of ostinato with glissandi in the middle voices. The fourth movement's speech rhythms were, frankly, a little silly, but the minimalistic repetition of the pulsing fifth movement was exciting, speeding up like a whirling dervish to a sudden end.

Hilliard Ensemble:
available at Amazon
Gombert (2006)

Review

available at Amazon
Mnemosyne, with Jan Garbarek (1999)
The program mostly favored the Hilliard Ensemble's strengths, able as they are to sing with pure intonation even the most complex and dissonant harmonies, with the tightest control of a wide range of dynamics. This was the first time I had heard any of the music that the Hilliard Ensemble recorded on a 2004 trip to Armenia, arrangements by a monk-composer named Komitas of traditional Armenian sacred songs called sharakans. Most of them were unremarkable -- static, atmospheric pieces with drones and cantillation effects -- but Surp, Ter zorutheanc (the text of the Latin Sanctus) was lovely.

The group's vocal quality occasionally shows its age, but nothing more serious than an occasional instability or stridency. Countertenor David James sounded slightly constricted and scratchy in the Nonantolan chant Ote to stauron he sang alone. However, he also had an excellent turn on the top of Sirt in sasani, the strangest and most intriguing sharakan. Its text puzzled me ("My heart trembles, I am terrified, on account of Judah") because it is so fragmentary. After some reflection, the source came to me, from the prophecy of Egypt's fall to Israel (Isaiah 19:16-17), with an interesting liturgical twist, to cast the text in the voice of an Egyptian:
In that day the Egyptians will be like women. They will shudder with fear at the uplifted hand that the LORD Almighty raises against them. And the land of Judah will bring terror to the Egyptians; everyone to whom Judah is mentioned will be terrified, because of what the LORD Almighty is planning against them.
Baritone Gordon Jones's solo in one of the Armenian pieces, Bazmutyung hreshtakac, revealed a voice still remarkably round and full. Although this was an excellent program, I confess with some guilt that my hunger for some Gombert or Tallis only worsened as the evening progressed. That desire was to remain unsated, as even the encore was a modern piece, an arrangement by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis of a traditional lullaby the group recorded on their 1999 recording with saxophonist Jan Garbarek.

The next classical concerts at the Freer Gallery of Art are the second and third appearances of the Musicians from Marlboro (March 28 and May 9). The Hilliard Ensemble's remaining concerts on this American tour take them to Chicago (this evening), Pittsburgh (January 27), and Cleveland (January 28).

25.1.07

Strange Imaginary Animals

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Strange Imaginary Animals (new music by Higdon, Fitzell, Mackey, Gordon, DeSantis), eighth blackbird (released on November 28, 2006)
A post on Monotonous Forest first got me interested in the latest release from new music ensemble eighth blackbird. Strange Imaginary Animals brings together five world premiere recordings of pieces from the last half-decade, plus one golden oldie, Steven Mackey's Indigenous Instruments, which is so 1989. The ensemble's new flutist, Tim Munro, has been writing a fascinating blog, thirteen ways, about the experience of being eighth blackbird. He is the group's first new member in some 10 years. This recording features the work of his predecessor, flutist Molly Alicia Barth.

The playing here is vivid and exciting, and most of the repertoire is worth the energy expended by eighth blackbird (see the group at work in these videos). Jennifer Higdon's Zaka is an edgy, rhythmic 12:50, with raw, percussive flute aspirations and prepared piano sounds. In several sections of differing styles, the piece held my attention over extended listening. My favorite piece here is Steven Mackey's Indigenous Instruments, the older piece re-examined. The composer's program notes describe the work as "vernacular music from a culture that doesn’t actually exist." Mackey's method was a sort of Dada collage of found sounds reimagined, leading him toward microtonal dissonance (the instruments are all mistuned or otherwise prepared) with Stravinsky-esque rhythmic shifts. The bends, whistling sounds, and Doppler effects (like sirens bleating) can make you a little seasick, the disorientation of a foreign land.

Other Reviews:

Steve Hicken (Sequenza 21)
Another excellent discovery was Friction Systems by David M. Gordon, composed in 2002 and revised in 2005. Dissonant, rhythmically free solos grind against a sort of rhythmic ostinato, on the high keys of the piano and in the percussion. Least immediately appealing were the two pieces by Gordon Fitzell. The opening of violence (2001) is dominated by non-pitch sounds (blowing through instruments, keypad clicking, scratching on strings), meant to evoke the title concept. The more recent evanescence (2006) -- Fitzell has a thing for no capital letters -- refers often, it seems to me, to the synthesized and musique concrète sounds of Edgard Varèse's Poème électronique, especially the fascination with gongs. Some sounds may be outright quotations, but it's hard to tell.

For the final track, strange imaginary remix, Dennis DeSantis put together a house music sort of remix of the preceding five pieces, over a dance beat. Now that I am done reviewing this CD, I will probably delete this track from my MP3 player for good. Still, this CD has been rewarding listening many times. However, I do not recommend it for late at night. When I fell asleep with it on my MP3 player one night, I had very disturbing dreams. It could very easily be the soundtrack of one's nightmares.

Cedille CDR 90000 094

To catch eighth blackbird live in concert, Washingtonians will have to try to attend the concert scheduled for February 21, as part of the group's residency at the University of Richmond.

Film: Babel

The Race to Oscar is on, following Tuesday's announcement of the Academy Award nominations. We welcome back our Hollywood correspondent to help Ionarts get a handle on the field of candidates.

Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt in Babel, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt in Babel, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Babel is the most recent film by Alejandro González Iñárritu. I had in this past season the opportunity, as a member of the SAG nominating committee, to screen the film with its director and three of its now nominated stars. Afterwards, there was a discussion in three different languages with translators, which seemed only fitting considering the vast journey the film captures.

Iñárritu's previous two movies were the exceptional Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Babel is considered the third of this trilogy, and indeed, it shares the scope and depth of the previous two. While there is no direct connection between the three films in terms of plot or characters, Iñárritu's films are a complex crossover of experiences, beauty, and an overwhelming sense of grief lying underneath the surface of every scene. (A feeling Naomi Watts had in Grams and seems to carry in EVERY film she touches.) Here Iñárritu has expanded his scope to cover a multinational palette of characters and experiences ranging from the United States to Japan, Morocco, and Mexico. Yet, as far-reaching as the experiences seem environmentally, Iñárritu has found that common sense of humanity and loss in each varied experience.

Other Reviews:

A. O. Scott | David Denby | Financial Times (partial citation in comments) | Washington Post | Rotten Tomatoes

At the SAG Screening:

When a man in the audience stood to ask the cast a question, he decided to address Cate Blanchett. He went on and on for about three minutes about how Blanchett gets better and better in every role. That she only builds on it in this and how much he blah-blah-blahs. (She studied her shoes.) Then, when reminded he was supposed to be asking a question (oh yeah...THAT), he asked how she did it with practically no dialogue. When the host digested all this, he said into the microphone, "The question is..." Without missing a beat, Blanchett jumped on him and said, "No, what he was trying to say is that I'm terrific." And then blushed at the hilarious uproar. It was my favorite part of the night.
The multiple narratives intersect at the shooting of a woman (Cate Blanchett) vacationing in Morocco with her husband (Brad Pitt). As the story unfolds we are suddenly treated to the events leading up to this accident. A father is teaching his two sons how to tend their herd. In this sequence, the father has acquired a rifle he wants the boys to use to keep away predators that threaten their livelihood. Hence, as the old cinematic rule goes, once you introduce a gun on screen, it’s going to go off. From there, Iñárritu takes us back to the States, where we find the couple's children being attended by a Mexican nanny (played exquisitely by Adriana Barraza) who is urgently trying to get home to Mexico to attend a family wedding. Chauffeured by her nephew (Gael García Bernal) she decides to take the children along with her.

Babel is primarily informed by its deep sense of loss and its characters' desperate desire for those rare moments of joy and transcendence. Iñárritu, himself a buoyant bundle of expressiveness, spoke of his need to speak to something universal after the tragedies of 9/11. Indeed, it is quite fascinating that in all the stories depicted, it is the American couple that seems washed out, grayed, and looking to find some meaning in their marriage and their life after losing a child. Iñárritu orchestrates each of these stories with an overarching sense of dread. Even when the film carries the director's sense of vibrancy (the boys playing, the Mexican wedding, or a girl at a club) one can’t help but feel on edge in these heightened moments of joy.

Poster for Babel, directed by Alejandro González IñárrituBabel is receiving some backlash about town, as all films do once the rewards start stacking up, for its overly sprawling narrative as a device or gimmick. Indeed, last year’s Best Picture winner, Crash, has not held up well under critical opinion for that very reason. Certainly, Babel isn’t above such accusations. There is a fourth storyline centered on a Japanese schoolgirl, her relationship to her father, and the loss of her mother. The girl (Rinko Kikuchi) is deaf and is heart-breakingly desirous for someone to see her. These sequences are some of the film's most tragic and beautiful, as Iñárritu envelops us in her muted world and makes us ache with her desperate attempts at connection. Yet, in hindsight, one finds this distant storyline thinly connected to the others. On its own it is strange, disturbing, and beautiful but feels like it is standing alone in juxtaposition to the rest. Yet, I could argue, writer Guillermo Arriaga (also the scribe for Perros and Grams) would like you to connect the fourth simply through feeling.

At the post-screening discussion alongside Iñárritu were Kikuchi, Barraza, and the luminous Cate Blanchett. What was most catching, besides that graceful bird, Blanchett, was how the cast listened so attentively to one another, even when they did not speak the same language. All were keenly poised, as if they were trying to decipher the other's mystery simply through digestion of their presence. Once the criticism burns off the top layer of this film what will be left is feeling. A feeling of connectedness through loss and an understanding of ourselves through simple humanity.

No matter what the language.