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30.4.07

In Memoriam: Hearing Mstislav Rostropovich

On April 27th, Mstislav Rostropovich died in Moscow, age 80. The world mourns one of the greatest cellists and indeed one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. Musicians like Rostropovich, Fischer-Dieskau, von Karajan, Sviatoslav Richter, Heifetz, Stern, Horowitz, Bernstein defined classical music for many of us - and are indelibly connected with what might be perceived - wrong or right - with a Golden Age of classical music. Especially of recorded classical music.

Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra from 1977 to 1994, Washingtonians (despite being such a transient town) have a special relationship to Rostropovich - and thanks to his name and his connections did much to bring the NSO greater renommé and leave it in a state where Maestro Slatkin could qualitatively take it to the level it has now achieved. Still, it won't be as a conductor that Mr. Rostropovich will be remembered - and his last concert in Washington, exactly one year ago, is better forgotten if one wishes to remember him as a great musician.

I cannot claim, even now, that I was ever in the Rostropovich fan-club - and I cringed reading The Gramophone Magazine's hagiographic "Rostropovich Issue" in April. But having been a difficult man, someone above all concerned with his own image (Sviatoslav Richter, for example, admired his art but wasn't too keen on Rostropovich's putting Rostropovich ahead of the music), someone who was never shy to posture as 'Shostakovich's Messenger'... all that makes him no less a cellist. He lives on in our memories and, because memories need to be jogged every so often, recordings.


available at Amazon J.S.Bach, Cello Suites,
EMI

UK | DE | FR
"Slava" has left over 100 recordings as a soloist and several dozens as a conductor. A notable absence in the list below is his 1995 EMI recording of the Bach Cello Suites. This is not an oversight but because, for all its fame and acclaim, the recording bores me to tears. Whether he is blisteringly fast or laggardly, he is dynamically limited, listless, and without any hint of dance to be found anywhere. The recording has moments of beauty, but they are few and far between and not even for Bach's sake can I sit through the whole thing to wait for them. For the Suites, one best look (or listen) elsewhere.

available at AmazonDvořák, Cello Cto.,
DG

UK | DE | FR
That being out of the way, I should like to embrace one of the classic Rostropovich recordings: his Dvořák Cello Concerto under Karajan, coupled on DG Originals with the Tchaikovsky Roccoco Variations. If I had to turn a complete classical music neophyte on to the genre with five CDs, this one would definitively be among them. I feel strongly about Du Pre/Celibidache which is of one piece like molten stone (Teldec) and Queyras/Bélohlávek which is the most felt in the slow movement (Harmonia Mundi), but none quite nudge the Russian/German combination from the top of my list.

available at Amazon Brahms, Cello Sonatas,
DG

UK | DE | FR
If you know Rudolf Serkin only through (late) recordings, where few really satisfy... least of which his flawed late recordings on Deutsche Gramophon, you might think of him as more famous than great. But there are the Brahms Cello Sonatas with Rostropovich - and perhaps it is the latter's smooth, loving, unabashedly (and wholly appropriate) romantic playing that has Serkin rise to the occasion with an equally brilliant and sensitive account. The marvelous János Starker/György "Create excitement, don't get excited" Sebők recording (Mercury Living Presence) may have a better balance between the musicians - but when the playing is like this, Rostropovich's overly dominant cello is no distraction. (DG)

available at Amazon LvB, Triple Cto., EMI
UK | DE | FR
The Beethoven "Triple Concerto" is a work that doesn't live up to the composer's other concertos, but when it is played well, I gladly listen to it all the same. There are more great recordings of it than I'd want to own, but the super-all-star extravaganza of Rostropovich / Richter / Oistrakh / Karajan / Berlin Philharmonic (EMI), contrived though it may be, is rightly among the top, especially for those who wish three virtuosic soloists to take the part, rather than a 'piano trio'. Argerich/Maisky/R.Capuçon/EMI, Aimard/Hagen/Zehetmair/Warner, and the Eroica Trio/EMI are other splendid accounts... but for the combination alone, the Russian trio is the one to go with.

available at Amazon DSCH, Cello Cto.1,
CBS/Sony

UK | DE | FR
An old (1959) but nigh unbeatable classic is the Sony Classics premiere recording of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No.1 with Rostropovich and Eugene Ormandy with his Philadelphia Orchestra. Make what you will of Rostropovich's annexing the Shostakovich-halo by constantly reminding everyone of just how strong and great their friendship was, this concerto was written for him, premiered by him, and this first recordig of it catches 'Slava' in his prime as regards (musical) zeal and technical skill.

available at Amazon Britten, Cello Suites 1 & 2, Sonata,
Decca

UK | DE | FR

Rostropovich laudably championed contemporary music, especially when it was dedicated to him. As are, for example, Britten's three Cello Suites, the first two of which Rostropovich recorded for Decca in the 60s. They are coupled with Britten's Sonata for Cello and Piano in C major, Op. 65. (The composer proves his incredible mastery of the piano, even if - again - the cello dominates.) For fans of Britten's music at least, this is a 'must-have'.


available at Amazon Myaskovsky et al., Cello Concerto,
EMI

UK | DE | FR

Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante and Rachmaninov's Vocalise are splendidly served by the - then - seemingly infallible Rostropovich in his 1956/57 recordings. The best reason to own this EMI "Greatest Recordings of the Century" release is the Myaskovsky Cello Concerto, though. It is a masterpiece from a much underrated composer - and until Jamie Walton's recording is released [Ed.: It has been, by now, and it's top-of-the-heap] or Misha Maisky's re-released, Rostropovich is the only good choice, anyway.


available at Amazon Prokofiev / DSCH, VCs No.1,
Warner

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon Prokofiev / DSCH, VCs No.2,
Warner

UK | DE | FR
If these are my favorite recordings with the cellist Rostropovich, there are some that are worth noting where he conducts. His undeniable understanding of the music was, when coupled with outstanding collaborators, enough to overcome his limitations as a conductor. His recordings with Maxim Vengerov and the London Symphony Orchestra of the Prokofiev and Shostakovich Violin Concertos (one of each on two Telarc CDs - lest you find the European Warner/Apex re-issue with the two Shostakovich concertos extracted unto one disc) are superb for either composer - and despite ever-stiffening competition in the Shostakovich (last year alone I've heard excellent new recordings of Daniel Hope, Leila Josefowicz, Arabella Steinbacher, and Sergey Khachatryan) they are still the recordings to judge all others against.

available at Amazon Prokofiev / Rachmaninov, Piano Concertos,
DG

UK | DE | FR
Another double-Russian/Russian combination is very appealing: Prokofiev/Rachmaninov with Rostropovich/Pletnev. Piano Concertos No.3 of both composers make as compelling a combination as an odd one - and the excellent playing, filled with excitement and delightful accents and exclamation marks, all in stunning sound from DG, make this a most worthy traversal of both concertos, even if you already have them in other versions.

available at Amazon DSCH, Sy.8,
LSO Live

UK | DE | FR
Of his Shostakovich symphonies (the complete set - largely with the NSO - is available on Teldec), I cannot recommend many when there is always an interpretation that I'd much rather hear. The early recordings are uneven, lacking in the necessary tension, and are often let down by the NSO's lack of will or ability. Any complete set I know is preferable, be it Jansons (EMI), Barshai (Brilliant), Kitajenko (Capriccio), Kondrashin (Aulos/Melodiya) or Haitkink (Decca). The LSO recordings on the orchestras' own label are better, by-and-large, but hugely overrated. His Eighth on that label, though, is a worthy contender. Slowness in that symphony is no detriment to the grim and stark atmosphere and I rate his account above Gergiev (Philips) and Wiggelsworth (BIS), alongside Barshai and Kitajenko and only marginally behind Jansons.

available at Amazon DSCH, Lady Macbeth,
EMI

UK | DE | FR
If Rostropovich had recorded nothing but Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, he'd have done the world of music - and the composer - a service enough to forget all the gratuitous boasting I've griped about before. With his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya as Katerina Izmailova, this is the recording that put the opera firmly back on the map (though still not firmly enough for the masterpiece it is) and it is the only recording you need to think of acquiring, if you are looking for Audio-only, at least. Any and all of these recordings serve his memory in the best possible way.

New Opera Notes

Franz Schreker's Der ferne Klang (1912) was performed in a concert version by the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein. Here is part of the review by Martin Bernheimer (Der ferne Klang, Avery Fisher Hall, New York, April 16) in the Financial Times:

The plot, a quaint fusion of 19th-century fantasy and petty-bourgeois morality, concerns a composer, Fritz, who abandons his beloved Grete in obsessive quest of an elusive ideal – the “distant sound” of the title. In his absence Grete endures gross degradation. Fritz returns and realises too late that the spiritual tones he sought emanated from the woman he left behind.

The mystical motive emerges from the celesta. Schreker wrapped his idealistic narrative in a score that throbs with passion one moment, floats in reverie the next, and occasionally succumbs to trite formulas. His language is predicated on bold harmonic and thematic juxtapositions punctuated with percussive pomp. Vast orchestral outpourings envelope extended Sprechgesang exchanges and arioso indulgences. The inspirations are staggering, and even the lapses are fascinating.
Covent Garden's next season will include the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle's new opera, The Minotaur [Opera News]

The British Empire abolished slavery 200 years ago, an anniversary which has already motivated the release of a Hollywood film, Amazing Grace. London's Pegasus Opera Company has also mounted a production of a little-known opera by Delius, Koanga, set on a slave plantation in Louisiana in the late 1700s. Here is part of a review by Richard Fairman (Koanga, Sadler’s Wells, London, April 16) in the Financial Times:
Any number of hands have had a go at improving the libretto, but nobody has succeeded in bringing its main characters to life – not even the strongly cast central couple here, with Leonard Rowe the embodiment of the enslaved population as an imposing and noble Koanga and Alison Buchanan singing with heartfelt, sometimes vibrato-heavy, commitment as Palmyra. Admittedly, it did not help that so few of the words could be heard.

The communal scenes featuring the slave population fare better, and were lustily sung, but the opera’s main claim on our attention lies in Delius’s atmospheric scene painting. Making use of native black American songs, he created an aural landscape that is part banks of the Mississippi, part banks of the Thames English pastoral, but always headily suggestive of sun-soaked, oppressive afternoons.
On April 22, the Prague National Theater opened a production of A Walk Worthwhile, a 1960s Czech jazz opera by Jiri Suchy and Jiri Slitr, staged by Milos Forman [Associated Press]

Benjamin Britten's Owen Wingrave was produced at London's Linbury Studio. Here is part of the review by Andrew Clark (Owen Wingrave, Linbury Studio, London, April 27) in the Financial Times:
The problem with Owen Wingrave is not that it was made for television, for Benjamin Britten always had a staged performance in mind. Nor is there any problem with the music: it’s all insidiously top-drawer, with a percussion orchestra that ranks as one of the 20th century’s most expressive achievements. No, the real problem is ambiguity. The opposing forces are too bluntly defined to lure us into the mystique that envelops the anti-heroes of Britten’s other operas. The Wingrave family is a caricature – Owen’s fate is sealed from the start. I don’t see Owen Wingrave as a pacifist tract – Britten was too clever for that – nor as an opera about a gay coming-out. It’s just one-sided and melodramatic.

But with the right treatment it can exert a fascinating grip – as it does in this new staging, part of a Britten series that the Royal Opera is presenting in its uncomfortable studio theatre. Brilliantly conducted by Rory Macdonald (a real find) and staged by Tim Hopkins with cinematic projections that remind us of the opera’s TV origins, Owen Wingrave comes across as swifter and meatier than before – in no small part due to a new chamber orchestration by David Matthews, one of Britten’s former assistants. Matthews’ version is actually an improvement on the original because we hear all the essentials of the instrumental score in better profile, while being able to hear every word: in my experience it was always a problem that the ensembles and even some of the solos, notably Owen’s climactic Peace aria, were overwhelmed by the surging gamelan-intensities of Britten’s orchestra. Now the woodwind motifs exert an even greater magic, the rustling percussion a more beguiling mystique.
Lost Highway, the 2004 opera by Olga Neuwirth and Elfriede Jelinek, based on the 1997 David Lynch film, is being co-produced by English National Opera and Young Vic Theater. [What's on Stage]

Ionarts-at-Large: Munich. Lucinda Childs / Kenneth MacMillan

I am trekking through my home town, Munich, to which I had not been for longer than was healthy. Perfect weather (even if the news bemoan the lack of rain) helps to show it from its best side - although I am not sure just which side that is. I do know that I am bound to love a town that is plastered with posters advertising such tantalizing things as: "6. Akademiekonzert: Henze - Mendelssohn - Riehm" or, simply, "Nono! Ligeti! Boulez!". Where there is a report on the Bavarian-wide evening news about the production of the Munich State Ballet, replete with interview of the dancers and footage from the dress rehearsal, filmed earlier that day. (The public classical station may not have many listeners anymore - the remaining ones seem to have drifted to the commercial alternative which successfully offers "Classical music so light, you won't even know you're listening!" - but otherwise culture still seems lovingly at the center of life in this provincial capital in the wild south of the Germanic lands.)

Lucinda Childs - Chamber Symphony - Bavarian State BalletAs it happened so, earlier that day just before noon I was strolling by the Nationaltheater which houses the Staatsoper and Staatsballett (no translations necessary, I assume) and saw people congregating at the house on that beautiful, sunny Friday, and disappearing in its bowels. Before I knew it - looking lost or longing, apparently - I was kindly given an extra ticket to what turned out that dress rehearsal. "Chamber Symphony/Das Lied von der Erde" the ticket said. It was to be my first cultural exposure in Munich in many years, back in the house that stores so many memories for me... that served as the center of my 'second cultural awakening' in 2001.

A double bill of modern ballet was presented. Lucinda Childs' "Chamber Symphony" set to John Adams' work of the same name and Kenneth MacMillan's "Das Lied von der Erde" based on Mahler's unnumbered Symphony set to the chinoiserie poems of Hans Betghe (1876-1946), themselves based on translations and adaptations in Marquis Hervey-Saint-Denys' Poésies de époque des Thangs and then altered by Mahler. If the text is Chinese only trice-removed, conductor Ryusuke Numajiri lovingly plucked the chinoiserie out of the score and let them shine in gentle sunlight. The Bavarian State Orchestra played the Mahler so well that, even lacking some final polishing, it sounded better than most Mahler I've heard in the last few years. In the second movement, Der Einsame im Herbst, it was almost eerie how the strings emerged so audibly as something that, if isolated, Philip Glass would have been proud to call one of his compositions. (An impression that was no doubt supported by the dance and the preceding near-minimalist score of John Adams.) Tenor Kevin Conners contributed more than ably and mezzo Daniela Sindram was marvelous to hear.


Lucinda Childs - Chamber Symphony - Bavarian State BalletMacMillan's 1965 work (premiered in Stuttgart and just now entering the State Ballet's repertoire) is a classic that has barely aged. A free flowing narrative of movement to Mahler's music and text it sets moods (rather than telling a story) subtly in front of the (later added) sets and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis and John B. Read's lighting design. It features three primary figures: The Man (Roman Lazik), The Eternal - or "Messanger of Death" - (Tigran Mikayelyan) and The Woman (Lucia Lacarra) who alter and interact with different ensembles... all men in Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde and Der Trunkene im Frühling; larger ensembles led by the Ballerina in Der Einsame im Herbst and Abschied. The costumes are no longer blue, as they were in pre-Georgiadis set - but are black for The Eternal, who wears a mask à la Phantom of the Opera, light gray for The Woman, dark earth tones for The Man.

The stage is plain and black in fitting contrast to the Ronaldus Shamask set for Lucinda Childs' 1994 creation (written for the Bavarian State Ballet) which is largely set in white and off-white. Shamask, also responsible for the costumes, clad his dancers in the same off-white trousers and dresses with subtle patterns, giving larger scenes the impression of a Jean Paul Gautier designed slumber party. (Not this season, though - JPG is hardly using white for 2007.) The combination of Adams' score and Childs' choreography, had me think of it as "The Rite of the Chamber Spring" - a tame, strangely clinical bacchanal. Sweeping, engaging, infectious movement in "Roadrunner" (the 3rd movement). A small army of dancers marches in to the ominous sounds of the music before they are catapulted into frenzy and action. The first movement ("Mongrel Airs") especially contrasts the squeaking and rumbling music with utter sparseness. Here, as in "Aria with Walking Bass" (2nd movement), the busy minimalism of Childs is most obvious. All dancing seems to happen in sterile silence - not part of the music at all, but rather a commentary on it. If it all looked strangely familiar to me, the program (a luxurious 72-page book with essays, texts, illustrations and pictures) jogged my memory: I had rather unwittingly attended the 2001 premiere of Lucinda Childs' "Händel/Corelli" - also written for the Bavarian State Ballet - which was the first performance of modern ballet that I, a late starter in appreciation of this art, had attended. An auspicious beginning to what I hope will be a cultural odyssey through a few European cities while I am on this side of the Atlantic.

29.4.07

Australian Chamber Orchestra, Pieter Wispelwey

Australian Chamber Orchestra, photo by Stephen Oxenbury
Australian Chamber Orchestra, photo by Stephen Oxenbury
As part of its current American tour, the Australian Chamber Orchestra stopped by the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center Friday night, on the way to Carnegie Hall. Richard Tognetti, the group's lead violinist and artistic director, led the sort of energetic, polished, unified performance that dedicated listeners have come to expect. Traversing music in a range of styles, the ACO exploited the full range of dynamic contrasts and textures. No element was out of place, and yet the level of precision did not lead to a feeling of coldness or emotional distance. The group gives the air of joyful collegiality, warmly applauding their own soloists, for example, and sharing smiles and knowing glances, although more often than not, a serious devotion to music making reigns.

Australian Chamber Orchestra:
available at Amazon
Bach, Keyboard Concerti 1, A. Hewitt


available at Amazon
Bach, Keyboard Concerti 2, A. Hewitt


available at Amazon
Vivaldi, Flute Concerti, E. Pahud



Pieter Wispelwey:

available at Amazon
Bach Suites


available at Amazon
Beethoven Sonatas/Variations, D. Lazic


available at Amazon
Haydn Concerti
Two Baroque selections were idiomatic and dramatically etched, especially the F major concerto grosso by Corelli (op. 6, no. 2). Tognetti's cadenzas wove together the sectionalized first movement, joining pulse-racing Vivace with the searing suspensions of the Adagio. All players contributed equally well in the contrapuntal sections, as in the opening of the second movement and the interplay of the fourth. The Vivaldi selection, the concerto for four violins (B minor, op. 3, no. 10), is far more familiar but was less even, not least because Tognetti's solo contribution stood out so much from those of his three colleagues. One had the sense that Tognetti was trying to drive the tempo forward, but it flagged slightly when he was not playing. The juxtaposition of the two composers forces a comparison of their music, which leaves one wondering how on earth Vivaldi can be so much more popular today than Corelli.

The first half concluded with a Viennese classical concerto, Haydn's C major cello concerto (Hob. VIIb), for which the ACO was joined by Pieter Wispelwey. The Dutch cellist, at home on period and modern instruments, set the tone for the piece with a full-throated sound that lent a certain rustic, jolly quality. Wispelwey's extended cadenzas, similar to what he played on his recording of the Haydn cello concerti, were eclectic and fun, if not particularly idiomatic to the period. Replete with challenging pizzicati, strummed chords, and multiple stops, the cadenzas played against the earthy simplicity established in the first movement. An expansive, stately slow movement and a white-knuckled "very fast" Allegro molto, showing off the facility and accuracy of the entire group, rounded out a fine rendition of this popular concerto, rediscovered only in the mid-20th century. One hoped for a movement from a Bach suite -- on the basis of Jens's review of Wispelwey's recording -- as an encore, as he had played in previous appearances on this tour. No one was disappointed when, quietly observing the passing of Mstislav Rostropovich earlier in the day, Wispelwey offered instead a movement from Benjamin Britten's suite for unaccompanied cello (the passacaglia from the third suite, I think), composed for and dedicated to Rostropovich. As the final notes trailed off into the air, sotto voce and morendosi, it made me imagine Slava circling the earth to listen to the many tributes offered in his memory that night.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, Aussies Have Lots of Style, And Even More Substance (Washington Post, April 30)

David Perkins, Australian orchestra outshines its guest (Boston Globe, April 24)

Richard S. Ginell, Dry Baroque pieces from Down Under (Los Angeles Times, April 18)

Laura Stewart, Chamber group from Down Under is tops (Daytona Beach News-Journal, April 18)
The best playing of the evening was on Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, op. 70, which constituted the second half. A meaty and extended work conceived for string sextet and arranged here for string ensemble, it is based on music sketched out during the composer's visit to Florence. The first-movement waltz featured beautiful duets between Tognetti and the whiskey-voiced viola, leading up to a wild accelerando to an exciting conclusion. The second movement's delicate melody, played with admirable purity by Tognetti, was accompanied by guitar-like pizzicato chords. The hushed, quick middle section was shaped into wind-like sweeps of sound. The Russian-flavored third and fourth movements added to the impression that the strings of the Australian Chamber Orchestra were a larger group than they were, with the dynamic scope of a full orchestra but a finer sense of cohesion. Two encores capped off the evening, with the sugary frosting of Tognetti's own string ensemble arrangement of Debussy's prelude for piano, La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair) washed down with a more nutritious arrangement of the Allegro molto movement from William Walton's second string quartet.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra plays the same program this evening at Zankel Hall in Manhattan (April 29, 7:30 pm).

28.4.07

Art D.C.

Steve Gibson

Another addition to the art fair trend has come to the Capital City's Convention Center, called Art D.C. This is by the same group that produces the Art Expo Fair at the Javits Center in NYC, a more commercial brand of fair than say the Armory or Pulse, etc., so many I spoke with were at first skeptical. Some of that skepticism is valid here as some of the galleries are on the kitsch side. But there are many highlights and proudly they are from the Baltimore/D.C. area.

Baltimore’s C. Grimaldis Gallery has a solid group of artists and is showing a beautiful vertical cast piece by John Ruppert and one of Ruppert’s chain link wire forms (shown here), along with some Grace Hartigan and Anthony Caro works.

The feisty Douz Mille of Bethesda was showing an Angela Bonadies video, Plano_Contraplano, and the cubicle was enlivened by accompanying bass speakers.

In addition to an exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, William Christenberry is also represented here by the Hemphill Fine Art, with a suite of mixed media silkscreens. I’ve seen quite a bit of his work lately: I’m enjoying the simplicity, a simple truth. I'll post about my SAAM/NPG visit next.

Along the way I was asking exhibitors why they chose D.C. over the the Art Chicago fair, also this weekend. Many had done the Chicago fair in its varied lives and were searching, looking for something different and alternative. Susan Teller, a NYC gallerist, was looking to the Washington market to expand her collector base for mid-20th century work, WPA, and Modernist; I predict she’ll sell out. This fabulous James Daugherty painting should find a nice home in the District.

Another Baltimorean, Goya Girl Contemporary, formally Goya Girl Press, is showing a mix of paintings, prints and works on paper, and a few new mixed media glass pieces by that sweet lady, Joyce Scott. She has a great singing voice too.


Even though Randall Scott, no relation to Joyce, explained it to me, I still don’t know how Etsuko Ichikawa lays molten glass on to rag paper, to great effect, and it doesn't burst into flames. They’re bold, quite striking works.

Francks DeceusOne of the sad moments Friday evening was that two Madrid galleries were without work to display. Somehow it was lost or held up in transit: ouch. On a high note, Avisca Gallery, of Marietta, Georgia, introduced me to the work of Francks Deceus. His paintings were the gems of the show.

I was at the convention center last year for the book fair, BAE, which took over the entire center and was swarming with people. Art D.C. covers a small portion, hall E. Hopefully this will take off, entice a stronger selection of exhibitors, and become a valuable asset to the region. D.C. is a much easier, more hospitable venue than Chicago, with a treasure trove of cultural activity. Let’s hope. As always visit my Flickr site for more images of the show.

I unfortunately missed the J. T. Kirkland-curated show, Supple, at the Warehouse, across the street. Lenny Campello at, Mid Atlantic Art News, covers the "cutting edge" event. Ouch! [Video on view at YouTube, and photos at Flickr--Ed.]

Speaking of activities, if you see my mini-me in the mob of thousands of high schoolers camping out on the mall this weekend, in cardboard boxes, with iPod of course, say hello. It’s part of the amazing project, Displace Me, which brings awareness to the plight of children displaced and abused by the scourge of war. Peace.

This Week in MP3: End of April

Here is what was at the top of the Ionarts playlist for the week. Click on the link to read a review (if we have published one) or the album picture to buy it through Amazon (if available).

available at Amazon
Gluck, Armide, M. Delunsch, Musiciens du Louvre, M. Minkowski (1999)

Review
available at Amazon
Massenet, Esclarmonde, J. Sutherland, National Philharmonic Orchestra, R. Bonynge (re-released, 2006)

Review
available at Amazon
Handel, Il Floridante, Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis (April 10, 2007)
available at Amazon
Mozart, Piano Concerti, K. 453/467, M. Pollini, Vienna Philharmonic (April 10, 2007)
available at Amazon
Verdi, Macbeth, M. Zampieri, R. Bruson, N. Shicoff, Deutsche Oper Berlin, G. Sinopoli (re-released, 2007)
available at Amazon
Handel, Agrippina, A. Miles, D. Jones, D. L. Ragin, English Baroque Soloists, J. E. Gardner (re-released, 2007)

27.4.07

Mstislav Rostropovich, 1927-2007

Mstislav RostropovichThe sad news has arrived that Mstislav Rostropovich has died in Moscow early this morning, after a battle with cancer. His death is especially tragic for Washingtonians because of the great Russian cellist and conductor's long relationship with the city, as Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra from 1977 to 1994. Lacking words to express the enormity of Rostropovich's musical and humanitarian achievements, here is an excerpt of the tribute published by Jean-Louis Validire (Dissident et défenseur de Soljenitsyne, April 27) in Le Figaro today (my translation):

On November 9, 1989, in the very first hours after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mstislav Rostropovich, seated on a chair against a section of the Berlin Wall, played a Bach sonata [he means suite--Ed.]. The image broadcast on international television made him one of the architects of the struggle against a world that was crumbling and earned him worldwide recognition. But the cellist's actions in support of democracy and especially in defense of his persecuted friends did not date from that moment immortalized by photography.

Rostropovich always demonstrated an active sense of compassion for the victims of the purges. For example, he always defended the family and memory of Sergei Prokofiev, too often accused of collusion with the authorities, so much had the image of official composer been established. [...] Rostropovich's admiration for [Shostakovich] never flagged. He bought and renovated the apartment in St. Petersburg, in which Shostakovich had lived from 1914 to 1934. He brought together there a large amount of documents and souvenirs that had belonged to the composer to create a museum devoted to Shostakovich at 9 Rue Marat.

It was the defense of Solzhenitsyn that ultimately brought the Rostropoviches to their disgrace. Since 1969, the Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya couple had supported the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, by allowing him to live in their dacha outside Moscow. They also wrote, in 1970, an open letter to Brezhnev protesting Soviet restrictions on cultural freedom. These actions had as an immediate consequence the cancellation of the couple's concerts and recording projects, as well as all travel abroad. Later, in 1974, exit visas were granted that allowed them to go into exile, and four years later, they renounced their Soviet citizenship.
See also the tribute by Tim Page in the Post today.

Sopranos Work Their Magic

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Gluck, Armide, M. Delunsch, L. Naouri, E. Podleś, M. Kožená, Les Musiciens du Louvre, M. Minkowski
(1999)
Mrs. Ionarts and I were living near Paris when this live recording of Gluck's Armide was made, at the Cité de la Musique in the fall of 1996. I remember seeing the ads for the performances in the Métro and inquiring about cheap tickets, but there was some reason that I was not able to attend. I was happy indeed a few years later when the recording was released, because this was an opera I had spent some time studying in Paris, as I mentioned in my review of a local production of the opera earlier this week. Gluck deserves to have his operas produced more than they are, but this opera has just not quite made it into the mainstream repertory. The Washington National Opera, for example, has yet to stage a single one of Gluck's operas. For the American premiere of Gluck's masterpiece, Arturo Toscanini conducted a production at the Metropolitan Opera, with the unlikely cast of Olive Fremstad as Armide and Enrico Caruso as Renaud. Even with that introduction, Armide had fewer than a dozen performances at the Met, between 1910 and 1912, after which it disappeared.

From La Cieca's Unnatural Acts of Opera, a live performance of Gluck's Armide:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

That recording features the lovely Anna Caterina Antonacci in the title role and Riccardo Muti conducting at La Scala (December 7, 1996). In the supporting cast, Donnie Ray Albert (Hidraot), Vinson Cole (Renaud), someone named Juan Diego Flórez (Le Chevalier danois), and someone named Violeta Urmana (La Haine).
This recording merits repeated listening, and it is the only (almost) complete recording currently available. Since it is a live recording, it is possible to imagine better versions of some parts, but overall the performances are excellent. Marc Minkowski, who has given us so many fine recordings, particularly of French opera, leads with an assured hand and mastery of texture and color. His players and chorus were in top form, as was the solo cast. Mireille Delunsch has moments of sweetness where the role demands subtlety and a reedy graininess in the more strident parts. Ewa Podleś is unforgettable as La Haine, her large apocalyptic mezzo cutting through the somber tones of the magic scenes like a buzzsaw. Laurent Naouri is an imposing Hidraot, and American tenor Charles Workman, who is heard more in Europe than he is here (sadly), is a lyrical and unforced Renaud. A young soprano named Magdalena Kožená also has quite a nice turn in the small role of Un Plaisir. Her contribution to the Act V divertissement is lovely, especially the sultry, avian C'est l'amour qui retient dans ses chaînes. Finally, an authoritative essay by Italian scholar Mario Armellini -- author of a magisterial study of Armide operas called Le due Armide (Florence, 1991) -- in the liner notes makes this CD irresistible.

Archiv 459 616-2


available at Amazon
Massenet, Esclarmonde, J. Sutherland, H. Tourangeau, C. Grant, G. Aragall, National Philharmonic Orchestra, R. Bonynge
(re-released in 2006)
One of the best operatic experiences I have had in Washington was the Washington Concert Opera's performance two years ago of Massenet's Esclarmonde. Massenet created this opera, among others, for the American soprano Sibyl Sanderson, as well as Thaïs and probably also La Fée in Cendrillon. (The daughter of a Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, she was Massenet's favorite in the role of Manon, too -- here is to hoping that someone somewhere has a recording of her voice.) Esclarmonde, with its rather ridiculous libretto and outrageously difficult vocal demands, remains a vehicle for a great soprano in the title role. For the WCO performance, it was Celena Shafer, whom I subsequently heard in a stunning outing in Santa Fe Opera's Lucio Silla. Dame Joan Sutherland apparently regarded this 3-CD set of Esclarmonde, originally released in the 1970s, as her best recording, and that is saying something when you look at that woman's discography. The next opera company to stage this crazy opera will get a gold star from Ionarts.

available at Amazon
Jack Winsor Hansen, The Sibyl Sanderson Story: Requiem for a Diva
(2005)
Sutherland's voice is at its most terrifying, and as with Mireille Delunsch and Ewa Podleś in Armide, it is the female voice that creates the force behind the sorceress's magic spells. Massenet wrote one of the most virtuosic parts for soprano, and La Sutherland shatters all expectations. The famous invocation ("Esprits de l'air! Esprits de l'onde! Esprits du feu!") of the magical spirits of air, water, and fire opens with a leap up to a B-flat. The incantation concludes with the spine-shivering phrase "Entendez ma voix!" (Hear my voice!), with its octave leap up to high E-flat. Every time I hear Sutherland do that, it leaves me breathless. It is not only Sutherland who appeals, however, as Richard Bonynge sculpts a brassy, dramatic reading of the score from the National Philharmonic Orchestra, a group of crack players assembled regularly for studio recordings in London. Huguette Tourangeau is a dusky Parséïs, and tenor Giacomo Aragall is stentorian, if a little shouty, as Roland. Recently re-released by Decca, this recording is a curiosity that a collector must have.

Decca Classic Opera 475 7914



Joan Sutherland, "Esprits de l'air!" (from Esclarmonde, audio only)

26.4.07

Festival of Song at the Austrian Embassy

The fifth of eleven concerts offered by the Austrian Cultural Forum’s An das Lied: Festival of Song 2007 featured the songs of Gustav Mahler. The schedule progresses chronologically from Viennese classic composers to those now writing 21st-century Austrian Lieder. The main works on Tuesday's program were Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) and Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), which were deftly accompanied by artistic director Thomas Bagwell.

As pointed out in the informative and well-presented program notes, these works are most often accompanied by full orchestra. In the program notes, Bagwell diplomatically encouraged the audience not to be disappointed with the piano accompaniments and instructed us to “listen with an open mind and you might be surprised to hear something in Mahler’s style you’ve not heard before” in terms of counterpoint and dissonance. Mahler’s vivid orchestration of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen was surely missed. Additionally, a sense of breadth was not ultimately reached by Bagwell and tenor Scott Murphree.

As both text and music were composed by Mahler, a complete ownership and personalization of text is evident. For example, there are certain lines that stand out musically from the rest of the movements. Murphree’s awareness of these moments and exploitation of them was dramatic and very rewarding. This and his clear diction made up for some weakness in coordination with the piano and a lack of intensity that demanded one's full attention.

An das Lied Festival:

Charles T. Downey, An das Lied, Opening Concert (April 13, 2007)
Kindertotenlieder filled the second half of the program and was sung by baritone Robert Gardner. He began the first song of the set leaning against the very end of the piano and then moved up into normal position halfway through the song. Whether one likes his moving around or not, Gardner was acting to great effect. This drama quieted the audience, who had been noisily turning the pages of the translation booklet in the first half. Gardner demanded our attention and, with flawless coordination with the piano, told from the father’s perspective of the dark experiences of losing a child. The guilt, loneliness, and grief expressed seemed genuine. At the end of the contrapuntal Wenn dein Mütterlein (When your mother) movement, when the father imagines seeing his daughter with her mother and feels joy, which is then painfully extinguished with the realization that he had imagined her, a real tear could be seen welling up in Gardner’s eye. In this work, Mahler’s orchestration was not missed.

The An das Lied Festival continues through the end of next month, with concerts on April 28 and May 2, 4, 7, 16, and 24, most of which are free, at the Austrian Embassy.

25.4.07

Classical Month in Washington (July)

Last month | Next month

Classical Month in Washington is a monthly feature. 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!

July 1, 2007 (Sun)
2 pm
John Musto, Volpone
Wolf Trap Opera
The Barns at Wolf Trap

July 1, 2007 (Sun)
5 pm
Paul Jacobs, organ [FREE]
Washington National Cathedral

July 1, 2007 (Sun)
6 pm
Dana LaRosa, organ [FREE]
Summer Organ Recital Series
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

July 4, 2007 (Wed)
11 am
Independence Day Organ Concert [FREE]
Erik Wm. Suter and Scott Hanoian, Cathedral Organists
Washington National Cathedral

July 8, 2007 (Sun)
3 pm
D.C. Youth Orchestra Reunion Concert [FREE, tickets required]
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

July 8, 2007 (Sun)
6 pm
Mickey Thomas Terry, organ [FREE]
Summer Organ Recital Series
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

July 10, 2007 (Tue)
9 am
Preliminary Round 1
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 11, 2007 (Wed)
9 am
Preliminary Round 2
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 11, 2007 (Wed)
7 pm
Washington Symphonic Brass [FREE]
The Lawn at Strathmore

July 12, 2007 (Thu)
9 am
Preliminary Round 3
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 12, 2007 (Thu)
2 pm
Insights: Conversation with Garrick Ohlsson
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 12, 2007 (Thu)
8 pm
Garrick Ohlsson, piano
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 13, 2007 (Fri)
3 pm
Semifinalist Solo Round 1
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 13, 2007 (Fri)
8 pm
Cirque de la Symphonie
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

July 14, 2007 (Sat)
3 pm
Semifinalist Solo Round 2
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 14, 2007 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Puccini, Tosca
Summer Opera Theater Company
Hartke Theater, Catholic University

July 15, 2007 (Sun)
3 pm
Semifinalist Solo Round 3
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 15, 2007 (Sun)
6 pm
Julie Vidrick Evans, organ [FREE]
Summer Organ Recital Series
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

July 17, 2007 (Tue)
11 am
Insights: David Finckel and Wu Han
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 17, 2007 (Tue)
2 pm
Semifinalist Chamber Round 1
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 17, 2007 (Tue)
8 pm
David Finckel (cello) and Wu Han (piano)
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 18, 2007 (Wed)
11 am
Insights: Marilyn Nonken and Jason Eckardt
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 18, 2007 (Wed)
2 pm
Semifinalist Chamber Round 2
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 18, 2007 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Puccini, Tosca
Summer Opera Theater Company
Hartke Theater, Catholic University

July 18, 2007 (Wed)
8 pm
Philip Glass, piano
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 19, 2007 (Thu)
11 am
Insights: Treasures from the Kapell Archives
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 19, 2007 (Thu)
2 pm
Insights: The Performance Piano
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 19, 2007 (Thu)
8 pm
Anne-Marie McDermott, piano
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 19, 2007 (Thu)
8:15 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Lang Lang, piano
Filene Center at Wolf Trap

July 20, 2007 (Fri)
11 am
Insights: Anne-Marie McDermott
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 20, 2007 (Fri)
2 pm
Insights: Steven Mayer (on Art Tatum)
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 20, 2007 (Fri)
8 pm
Ahmad Jamal (jazz trio)
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 20, 2007 (Fri)
8:15 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With James Galway, flute
Filene Center at Wolf Trap

July 20, 2007 (Fri)
8 pm
A Night in Havana
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

July 21, 2007 (Sat)
8 pm
Final Concerto Round (with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)
William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

July 22, 2007 (Sun)
2:30 pm
Puccini, Tosca
Summer Opera Theater Company
Hartke Theater, Catholic University

July 22, 2007 (Sun)
6 pm
Paul Skevington, organ, and Phil Snedecor, trumpet [FREE]
Summer Organ Recital Series
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

July 27, 2007 (Fri)
6 pm
National Symphony Orchestra Preview Concert
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

July 27, 2007 (Fri)
8 pm
Beethoven, Ninth Symphony
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

July 27, 2007 (Fri)
8 pm
Chabrier, L'Étoile
Wolf Trap Opera
The Barns at Wolf Trap

July 29, 2007 (Sun)
2 pm
Chabrier, L'Étoile
Wolf Trap Opera
The Barns at Wolf Trap

July 29, 2007 (Sun)
6 pm
Maurizio Corazza (San Pietro in Montorio, Rome), organ [FREE]
Summer Organ Recital Series
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Opera Short and Sweet

The Opéra national de Lyon is offering a selection of one-act operas right now, called Festival "Amour et soupçon" (through May 5). It sounds like an excellent idea and the schedule looks interesting, but Renaud Machart sounded a little disappointed in this review (Attente déçue au festival des opéras courts de Lyon, April 24) for Le Monde (my translation and links added):

We did not attend the opening night, on April 17, which brought together the luxurious music of Zemlinsky [A Florentine Tragedy] and the in petto exclamations of Salvatore Sciarrino's Luci miei tradicisti [see photo at right]. The following night, we were overjoyed to hear Djamileh (1872), an orientalist rarety by Bizet. However, an excellent but indisposed singer (Janja Vuletic), a vocally ungracious and shouty tenor (Jean-Pierre Furlan), and a gimmicky and sex-addict staging (Christopher Alden) made the wait not worth our while. Was it necessary to wring the libretto's meaning by the neck in having the slave Djamileh get strangled by his sultan at the work's conclusion, when Musset clearly indicated in Namouna, the source of the libretto, that this was supposed to be a happy ending, the one making the other understand how deep her love was? Alden preferred to conclude the work with a filmed murder scene right out of a snuff film.
The other operas on the schedule are Puccini's Il Tabarro (with Laurent Naouri), Poulenc's La Voix humaine (directed by Laurent Pelly, with Felicity Lott), and Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle (with Hedwig Fassbender and Peter Fried). You know it's bad when what is reviewed as disappointing is so much better than the best of what we have here.

24.4.07

Gluck's Armide, Maryland Opera Studio

Adria McCulloch and Eric Sampson as Armide and Renaud, Gluck's Armide, Maryland Opera Studio, photo © Cory Weaver 2007
Adria McCulloch and Eric Sampson as Armide and Renaud, Gluck's Armide, Maryland Opera Studio, photo © Cory Weaver 2007
What was I just saying about good collegiate opera companies? After mounting a fine, if slightly over-the-top production of Conrad Susa's modern opera Transformations last weekend, the University of Maryland Opera Studio has done another good thing. Why stage yet another chestnut like everyone else when you can showcase your young singers in something of much greater interest that major companies are too craven to try? Showing an awareness of a major trend among European opera houses, if not yet really catching on in the United States, Maryland has now partnered with a historically informed performance ensemble, the orchestra of Opera Lafayette and conductor Ryan Brown. This production of Gluck's Armide (1777) is the follow-up to the Armide Project, which began with Brown's concert performance of Lully's Armide (1686) in February. The Maryland program was richly rewarded, as even the last of four performances, a Sunday matinee, was well attended.

Tara McCredie (La Haine), Adria McCulloch (Armide), and Eric Sampson (Renaud) in Gluck's Armide, Maryland Opera Studio, photo © Cory Weaver 2007
Tara McCredie (La Haine), Adria McCulloch (Armide), and Eric Sampson (Renaud) in Gluck's Armide, Maryland Opera Studio, photo © Cory Weaver 2007
Gluck adapted the libretto of the Lully opera, by Philippe Quinault, in response to a challenge during one of the opera controversies in Paris. In the pamphlet war between the gluckistes and the piccinistes, Gluck was heralded by his supporters, who included Queen Marie-Antoinette, as the champion of French opera. Partisans of Italian composers Niccolò Piccinni and Antonio Sacchini in turn criticized Gluck's operas in favor of Italian ones. As part of the battle for heirship to the French grand siècle, composers on both sides created operas derived from the same sources that Lully had used and even created operas using the same libretti as Lully. In a book called Le due Armide (Florence, 1991), Italian scholar Mario Armellini showed that Gluck had actually been planning to make a new opera on the libretto of Lully's Roland (1685). When he learned that Piccinni and Marmontel were already planning their own version of Roland, eventually premiered in 1778, he turned instead to Armide. Sacchini later piled on with a sequel to Lully's Armide (one of three) called Renaud (1783).

For more information, if you are a masochist, see my doctoral dissertation on operas and other musical theater derived from the epics of Ariosto and Tasso. While I was writing my dissertation, I would have appreciated the opportunities I later had, of hearing Gluck's Armide in a concert performance in Paris and especially owning the superb recording of this opera made by Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre. This is the first time I have seen the opera staged. There are many similarities between the Lully and Gluck versions, musically, that is, beyond the fact that they use the same libretto. (Gluck chose not to set the sycophantic prelude that Lully's opera addressed quite specifically to Louis XIV.)

Other Reviews:

Ronni Reich, This 'Armide' Proves to Be a Choice Blend (Washington Post, April 22)

Karren L. Alenier, The Cruelty of Armide's Beauty (The Dresser, April 21)
Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Gluck, Armide, M. Delunsch, L. Naouri, E. Podleś, M. Kožená, Les Musiciens du Louvre, M. Minkowski
(1999)
A comparison of the two scores, especially when performed live, reveals that neither opera is entirely superior to the other. Lully's dramatic setting of Act II, scene 5 ("Enfin il est en ma puissance") is more electrifying than Gluck's. On the other hand, Gluck's setting of Act III, scenes 3 to 5, when Armide calls on La Haine to give her the strength to overcome her love for Renaud and kill him, is much stronger than Lully's, not least because La Haine is recast from a male role to a mezzo-soprano. One of the most charming scenes in Lully's opera, the sommeil, in which Renaud is charmed into a magical sleep by Armide's demons, is if not prettier in Gluck's version then just as lovely. It is a testament to Armide's powers (and Gluck's) that my concert companion for this afternoon performance, Master Ionarts, was sound asleep after just a few measures and slept soundly until intermission.

Ryan Brown led his orchestra through an energetic performance, perhaps a little too strong for some of the smaller voices. Soprano Adria McCulloch was vocally potent and ravishing to behold in the revealing costumes by Martha Mann. She had her best scenes with Tara McCredie's venemous La Haine, as Armide's spiteful alter-ego, and the robust Darren Perry as Hidraot but seemed mismatched with Eric Sampson's Renaud. The singers in minor roles pleased less, and the pathetic attempt to stage the dance music bordered on ridiculous. The production directed by Leon Major, although elegantly minimalistic, may have exaggerated the sense of unevenness between Armide and Renaud, represented by two opposing visual worlds. Armide seems to have been the leader of a cult for leather and bondage freaks -- the natural prop for this Armide to carry would have been a riding crop -- and Renaud was an apparently curious member of a beret-wearing para-militia. Except for the well-acted intensity of McCulloch's Armide, the staging was quickly forgotten. Still, it is impossible to overstate the importance of this production, because it provided the chance to see an operatic rarity live on the stage and in a compelling performance.

The Maryland Opera Studio will conclude its successful season with a revue of opera scenes (April 26 and 27) at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

23.4.07

La Fenice and Arianna Savall, Dumbarton Oaks

Arianna Savall, sopranoThe season of concerts presented by the Friends of Music at Dumbarton Oaks came to a magnificent conclusion this weekend. The French early music ensemble La Fenice performed a mostly 17th-century program related to the pilgrimage route stretching from Strasbourg to Santiago de Compostela. Soprano Arianna Savall added her voice and Gothic harp playing to the versatile performances of the three members of La Fenice, on diverse combinations of voice and instruments. (This concert was created for the AMIA Festival, hosted by the Amis de la Musique sur Instruments Anciens in Strasbourg, this past February.)

Compostela's great church was the destination of such great numbers of pilgrims because it claimed to house the relics of the Apostle James. This ingenious concert brought together religious pieces, mostly in honor of Saint James the Great, with examples of the less than holy activities associated with pilgrimage. As far back as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, pilgrimage was for some people little more than an excuse for tourism. Beginning with a group of travelers in Strasbourg, the route takes us to Avignon, where the French pilgrims meet a group of Italians, who sing a lauda, and to Narbonne, where we hear songs in Occitan. As the group passes through Spain, we hear music in Spanish and Catalan, concluding with an ingenious villancico by Francisco Soler, describing the crush of pilgrims from every nation and language racing to reach the cathedral first.

Previously at Dumbarton Oaks:

Cuarteto Casals (February 19, 2007)

Hopkinson Smith, lute (November 4, 2006)

Paolo Pandolfo, viola da gamba (January 23, 2006)

Musica Alta Ripa (May 10, 2005)
Intellectually and musicologically, the concert was a success, presenting as it did an assortment of interesting obscurities, performed mostly from copies of original sources with consummate care for historical detail. Furthermore, this was an evening of pure musical enjoyment, not least because of the honey-rich, molasses-tinged voice of Arianna Savall, daughter of the renowned Catalunyan viola da gamba player Jordi Savall. Not surprisingly, her pronunciation was stronger when the pilgrims arrived in Spain, but her French is certainly good enough to be understood. The only downside of the evening was the positive organ, which hummed electrically on a pitch that never quite fit any of the final chords it followed. In general, this music would have benefited from a grander acoustic than the humble Refectory, the temporary concert venue at Dumbarton Oaks during the renovation.

The members of La Fenice sang, but it was their instrumental work that was most impressive. Jean Tubéry's solos on the cornetti stood out: difficult instruments that made sweet sounds in his hands. Mélanie Flahaut's turns on the Baroque bassoon were particularly fine, especially her duet with Tubéry on Bartolomeo de Selma y Salaverde's Canzon per canto e basso. Michaël Hell showed flair and strong technique on the difficult harpsichord parts, in particular the Jacara by Bertolomeu de Olague and Andrea Falconiero's Folias para mi Señora Dona Tarolilla de Carallenos.

The Friends of Music are accepting subscriptions for their new season of concerts. Next year the concerts will return to their intended venue, the refurbished Music Room in the main building.

22.4.07

Omar Sosa @ VAE


I don’t often get an opportunity to attend live music performances, especially not at a venue as special as the Vermont Arts Exchange in Bennington, Vt. In addition to offering art programs and classes to children and adults in the southwestern Vermont region, the exchange also has a monthly music program with an eclectic lineup of some of the best jazz, classical, and folk performers on tour.

Luckily the amazing Omar Sosa and his group are touring the U.S. and happened to be playing this past Friday at the Cape May Jazz Festival. When arranging their schedule Omar thought, "Vermont, that’s close to New Jersey, isn’t it?" On Saturday, they drove the six hours to Bennington. It was a very sleepy sound check in the afternoon, but by the 7 o'clock performance the group was immaculately dressed in African garb and ready to play.

Sosa, a twice Grammy-nominated musician, is an amazingly gifted and, I think, breath-taking pianist, who along with his quartet seamlessly blends traditional Western instruments with a wide array of African winds and percussion, creating a fresh Afro-Cuban jazz sound. Along with Omar, the equally gifted drummer Julio Barreto dazzled us with his talents. The set reminded me of another of my current favorite musicians, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and it turns out that Julio toured with him for several years. A charming and animated Childo Tomas played bass and m’bira and sang in his native Mozambican language, Ronga. Mola Sylla, of Senegal, made magical sounds with an array of instruments and sang in his language, Wolof.

This was an evening that reminded me of how much music is a language that the whole world understands. Sosa and his group will play D.C.'s Lincoln Theater this Tuesday, April 24th, at 8 pm, a free concert. Go here for more images from Saturday evening's performance.

21.4.07

This Week in MP3

Here is what was at the top of the Ionarts playlist for the week. Click on the link to read a review (if we have published one) or the album picture to buy it through Amazon (if available).

available at Amazon
Handel/Hasse Arias, Vivica Genaux (September 12, 2006)
available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo, Christian Tetzlaff (April 10, 2007)

Review
available at Amazon
Handel, Il Floridante, Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis (April 10, 2007)


available at Amazon
Bartók, Violin Sonatas, Christian Tetzlaff, Leif Ove Andsnes (2004)
available at Amazon
Mozart, Violin Concertos, Christian Tetzlaff, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie (1995-96)
available at Amazon
Mozart, Concertos K. 453/467, Maurizio Pollini, Vienna Philharmonic (April 10, 2007)