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30.4.08

Masur and the Orchestre National de France

Kurt MasurWashington Performing Arts Society brought the Orchestre National de France to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday night, for its first visit to Washington in 17 years. The orchestra's current U.S. tour is being offered as a valedictory of sorts for departing Music Director Kurt Masur, who has stepped down from several podiums in the last few years. Masur's health issues sadly have worsened visibly since his last visit here: he shuffled to and from the podium, and when his hands dropped to his side, they shook. If this concert turns out to be Masur's final appearance in Washington, then the odd program is surely the best of the possibilities offered on this tour. How welcome the chance to hear Masur conduct Bruckner instead of Tchaikovsky or Dvořák, especially since the planned Bruckner 4th of Masur's last visit (with the London Philharmonic) was replaced with Brahms. The only regret, perhaps, was not to have the Bruckner combined with Masur's Shostakovich.

Bruckner 7th:
available at Amazon
NY Phil/Masur


available at Amazon
Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, Herreweghe


available at Amazon
NDRS/Wand


available at Amazon
Lucerne/Abbado
We reviewed the Bruckner 7th just last year from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but you will not hear us complain. Masur shepherded expansive crescendi in the first movement, adding the brass carefully until ear-crushing volume was reached. The intonation of all of the suspensions and sequences was lovely, and the woodwind principals had bucolic solos in the Rühig section, as Masur paid careful attention to the soft as well as the loud. Problems in the certainty of brass attacks, especially in the horns and Wagner tubas, began here and continued throughout the work. This was doubly unfortunate because the low brass's transition to the Moderato section of the second movement was utterly mysterious and showed what we were missing at other points.

For you Brucknerians keeping track, Masur opted not to include the disputed cymbal crash (or other percussion) in the second movement, a decision supported in no uncertain terms by Robert Haas in his edition (but opposed by Leopold Nowak). An active scherzo revealed a few woodwind intonation clashes, when they were exposed in high range in the Trio, and the movement rattled out of unity as cross-rhythms pulled the texture apart. In general, though, the ONF played with an impressive sense of ensemble and showed clear devotion to their departing director.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Masur Evokes A Golden Bruckner Memory (Washington Post, April 30)

Matthew Guerrieri, A master performance, decades in the making (Boston Globe, April 30)
The concert opened with Beethoven's second piano concerto (more of Masur's Beethoven, after his last appearance with the NSO). The young, mildly eccentric French pianist David Fray was the soloist, seated slouch-backed in a chair and humming along in a technically polished, pearly-toned reading. Fray's gentle, flat-fingered touch made for a fairly reserved performance in the first two movements, balanced appropriately by the ONF, guided expertly by Masur. Fray handled the pseudo-cadenza at the end of the slow movement (marked Con gran espressione and Ped.) with dreamy freeness, allowing the triadic gestures to ring out as echoing chords. Fray provided more of a dazzling show in the third movement, paced at a breath-taking speed for all those trills, runs, and arpeggiation. Generous applause from the capacity audience earned an encore, a finely tooled Allemande from Bach's sixth partita (E minor, BWV 830). Masur sat in an empty chair at the back of his violin section and listened, too.

The penultimate concert in the WPAS season will be this Sunday (May 4, 4 pm), a recital by violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Rohan DeSilva at Strathmore.

Beethoven, Lots of It

Style masthead

Zuill Bailey and Simone Dinnerstein
Washington Post, April 30, 2008

Beethoven, Sonatas for Cello and Piano
Zuill Bailey (cello) and Simone Dinnerstein (piano)
National Gallery of Art

29.4.08

Verdi in Annapolis

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Annapolis Chorale's 'Aida,' Still Getting Primed
Washington Post, April 29, 2008

Giuseppe Verdi, Aida (concert performance)
Annapolis Chorale and Annapolis Chamber Orchestra
Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts (Annapolis, Md.)

Feast of St. Catherine of Siena

Having spent a magical summer studying Dante in Siena, I could not let April 29 go by without observing the feast of St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). A Dominican tertiary, Caterina Benincasa lived most of her life as a lay person, organizing a network of people to help the poor and sick in Siena. She was both an intense mystic (like Dante she described visions of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, as well as many other ecstatic revelations) and one of the most influential women in medieval history, through her letters and private counsel given to the Pope and other church and secular leaders. She may be more responsible than any other single person for the eventual return of the papacy from Avignon to Rome.

On an embassy to Rome to support the claim of Urban VI during the Great Schism, she died on April 29, 1380. She was buried in the Roman church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (she was staying with the Dominicans there when she had a fatal stroke), but her head was brought back to Siena by subterfuge, where it is kept in the church of San Domenico. For her theological writings, especially the Dialogue, she was given the rare honor of being named a Doctor of the Church.

Image: Giovanni di Paolo, Disputation of St Catherine before the Pope at Avignon, c. 1460 (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) -- with thanks to the excellent Web Gallery of Art

28.4.08

Egarr's Take on Handel

available at Amazon
Handel, Organ Concertos, op. 4, Richard Egarr, Academy of Ancient Music

(released February 12, 2008)
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807446
Richard Egarr's tenure with the Academy of Ancient Music has launched an interesting series of new Handel recordings, beginning with last year's op. 3 concerti grossi. The next installment brings together the six organ concerti of op. 4, brilliant examples of Handel's dazzling virtuosity at the organ, which are rarely performed, at least in my recent experience. One might hear them occasionally in a church context, where there happens to be an orchestra gathered near a pipe organ. As this recording shows, however, that is somewhat inappropriate, since Handel wrote most of his organ concerti for himself to perform in concert settings, such as during intermissions of his oratorios. He likely played on a smaller chamber organ that could be moved into place without too much hassle. That is the sort of instrument, built by British maker Robin Jennings, played by Richard Egarr on this recent release.

Ever concerned with recreating, as much as possible, the conditions of Handel's London, Egarr had the instrument tuned to what is called Early English Organ temperament. This makes for some hair-raising chromatic excursions. Happily, to my ear, Egarr ornaments intensely and thickly, modeled on the example of an 18th-century performance of two of the op. 4 concerti, actually "recorded" on a cylinder in an 18th-century barrel organ. Even less to the taste of someone with set notions about these concerti, Egarr has put his stamp on these performances with some unusual transcription choices. This includes having William Carter's Baroque guitar provide continuo underpinning in no. 5 and refashioning no. 6 with reference to its original instrumentation for lute and harp, including adding an archlute part created by William Carter for this disc (Handel's lute part having been lost) and removing the recorder parts from the orchestra.

Egarr's playing is as reliable and stylistically appropriate as it ever was, far from what one could call flashy, which is not to say uninteresting. The playing of the Academy of Ancient Music is beautifully scaled to the size of the small organ. Lead violin Pavlo Beznosiuk, stepping into Andrew Manze's shoes, and cellist Catherine Jones have admirable turns in the concertino group with Egarr on the third concerto. The good news is that, even if you already own recordings of all or some of these concerti, this one is unusual enough to find its own place on your shelf.

27.4.08

In Brief

LinksHere is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.

  • Apparently, with the computers, one can make Charlie Rose interview himself. About advances in technology. Greg Allen has the video. [greg.org]

  • A great look at the art of the opera prompter. [Wall Street Journal]

  • This week's episode (Succession) of 30 Rock, the funniest show on television, makes extensive and hilarious reference to Miloš Forman's film (on Peter Shaffer's play) Amadeus. [30 Rock]

  • Molly Sheridan has taken the blog plunge and is now hosted by ArtsJournal. [Mind the Gap]

  • Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman made a point of mentioning the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay during his last recital in the area. Jessica Duchen says the Zimerman told her he would not be returning to the United States "until the Iraq situation is sorted." [PIANIST Magazine]

  • Gert has links to everything -- EVERYTHING! -- related to the premiere of Harrison Birtwhistle's The Minotaur. [Mad Musings of Me]

  • Via greg.org, artist Olafur Eliasson and his studio have a blog. [Spatial Vibration]

26.4.08

Tallis Scholars Continue Complete Josquin Edition

available at Amazon
Josquin des Prés, Missa Sine nomine / Missa Ad fugam, Tallis Scholars

(released March 11, 2008)
Gimell CDGIM 039


Other Josquin Masses:
available at Amazon
M. Pange Lingua / M. La Sol Fa Re Mi / L'homme armé Masses
(half-price 2-CD set)
To all those choir directors out there willing to program Palestrina, Victoria, and Byrd, you need to branch out and try some Josquin. By all accounts, Josquin des Prés (c. 1440-1521) was the Beethoven of his age, the undisputed "master of the notes, which must express what he desires, while other composers have to do what the notes dictate." To get to know the glories of the most contrapuntal era, there are fewer better ambassadors than the Tallis Scholars, who with this recent release have announced their plan to record a complete cycle of the Mass settings of Josquin (two older discs have been rechristened as the first and second parts). And to appreciate Josquin's mastery of the notes, what better repertoire than his two Mass settings based entirely on canonic imitation?

Josquin gives a tribute to his teacher, the contrapuntist par excellence Johannes Ockeghem, when he quotes from his own funeral chanson for Ockeghem, Nymphes des bois in the "Et incarnatus est" section of the later of the two Masses recorded here, Missa Sine nomine. It is presented first, the summa of Josquin's composition using strict canons, with his youthful attempt at the process in Missa Ad fugam. In a nice touch, Peter Phillips has made a recording of a rare surviving Renaissance revision, transcribed from a manuscript in the Jena University library, more concise versions of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei from Missa Ad fugam. The sound, captured in Norfolk's Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, is warm and full. The singing hews to the Tallis Scholars standard, full-throated and impeccably tuned, straight of tone and nicely balanced. My recent complaints about the occasional mixture issues are in evidence here, too, as here one voice or there another growls obtrusively instead of yielding to the ensemble. Those concerns are negligible in what is a most pleasing account of this complex music.

25.4.08

Witches and Wizardry with the BSO

Yuja Wang, pianist, photo by Christian Steiner
Yuja Wang, pianist
(photo by Christian Steiner)
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened this week's series of concerts last night to a well-sold house in the Music Center at Strathmore. A major part of the excitement about this program was the latest appearance of the sensational young pianist Yuja Wang. Returning to the BSO after a well-received 2005 outing with the first Liszt concerto, Wang's ferocious technique has become seasoned and more formidable, as was displayed during her Terrace Theater recital in January. This time, it was the compact and daring first piano concerto (D-flat major, op. 10) by Sergei Prokofiev, and if it was an uneven performance, it was not due to Wang's technique. Plowing through the masses of notes with urgency, she pushed the tempo of the first movement (Allegro brioso) from the start. There were not many noticeably dropped notes, it seemed, until the third movement, where the issues of pacing and alignment between soloist, conductor, and orchestra became most pronounced.

Guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier clearly had the BSO feeling energized, but his unusual gestures and unorthodox beat proved confusing among sections throughout the evening. This was most disastrous at the return of the first-movement theme toward the end of the third movement, which took considerable time to settle into the right tempo. The balance between the orchestra and the Strathmore Steinway, which seemed too mellow in voicing for the work, was weighted toward the former direction. Wang can pack a wallop for such a slight young woman, but there was much wizardry from her hands that was simply lost in the wash. Most regrettably, the audience, although clearly impressed by the show, did not have enough stamina in its applause to coax an encore from Wang. To get an idea of what we may have missed, watch the video embedded below.

UPDATE:
Yuja Wang played two encores at the Friday performance, including the Mozart-Volodos.


Sarasate-Horowitz, Carmen Fantasy, played by Yuja Wang
(see also her Mozart-Volodos, Rondo alla Turca)

The headline of the program was saved for the second half, Berlioz's incendiary Symphonie fantastique, op. 14. This is music of theatrical appeal, the combination of the composer's hallucinatory autobiographical program and his legendary mastery of orchestration. Falling desperately in love with English Irish actress Harriet Smithson, only to be rejected, Berlioz worked out his frustrations by writing a symphony about his obsessive love and bizarre opium-induced dreams of murdering her, being guillotined for his crime, and watching his soul tormented during a Black Mass celebrated by a coven of witches, including his beloved. Against all odds, Smithson later heard the work and sought out Berlioz. Although they eventually were married, they divorced not long afterward -- who could have seen that coming?


Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor
(photo courtesy of IMG Artists)
Here Tortelier used no score, which allowed a greater freedom of communication with the players but also tends to reinforce idiosyncratic interpretative choices. In the first movement, the Tempo I marking at measure 28 was not really observed until the Plus vite tempo was re-established at the marking sans rallentir (measure 49), and the long rest (three measures dramatically marked SILENCE at measure 231) seemed cheated. Quibbling aside, the playing was often richly colored and arresting, especially the first statement of the idée fixe (the melody that represents the object of the artist's love throughout the piece), over percussive string attacks, and the confusion of sounds in the wild passion of the recapitulation. The coda, marked Religiosamente (Tout l'orchestre aussi doux que possible), could have been much closer to ppp. The second-movement Bal was a feverish dance, a waltz to drive you mad (before Ravel's La Valse), and the English horn and off-stage oboe duet in the pastoral third movement was pleasingly rustic (quite demanding for the oboist filling in for the principal, reportedly on maternity leave).

The memorable parts of the symphony, of course, are the opium hallucinations in the final two movements. Tortelier turned in a "forced march" to the scaffold, set at a harried pace that seemed to unsettle the brass a little, leaving the performance less solid that it should have been. As is most commonly done, the two ophicleide parts were played by tubas, a change that Berlioz himself sanctioned in later revisions of the score. I missed a little more splat from the third trombone on those low B-flats in the blaring sections conjuring revolutionary bands, but the dynamic indicated is only mf. The fifth movement was the high point, with bone-chilling bells tolling, the gloomy strains of the Dies Irae, and cackling solos from the E-flat clarinet and other woodwinds for the witches.

Other Reviews:

T. L. Ponick, Fantastic sounds on piano dazzling (Washington Times, April 26)

Anne Midgette, The BSO's Freaky 'Favorites' (Washington Post, April 28)

Tim Smith, Vibrancy of Tortelier, BSO resonates loud and clear (Baltimore Sun, April 28)
The opening of the concert was given to an attempt to revive the neotonal music of Richard Yardumian, with the revised version of the Armenian-American composer's Armenian Suite. If, as the program notes by Janet E. Bedell put it, the piece does refer to the "sad history of the Armenians, especially in the early 20th century when hundreds of thousands were slaughtered by the Turks" (just don't call it a genocide!), it gives a fairly saccharine view. Bedell also inform us that "in our post-serial, neo-Romantic era, [Yardumian] seems ready for rediscovery," coinciding with recent pronouncements that serialism is indeed dead. If the music of Elliott Carter is to be succeeded by facile, bottom-drawer fluff like the Yardumian suite, we will be the poorer for it. A couple of percussion swells, brass fanfare, some Hollywood string writing -- it could have been the soundtrack of a grand historical drama on the big screen. Please put it back in the drawer where you found it.

This concert will be repeated tonight (8 pm), Saturday (8 pm), and Sunday (3 pm), in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.

24.4.08

Leif Ove Andsnes @ Strathmore

Leif Ove Andsnes, pianist (photo courtesy of NRK)
Leif Ove Andsnes, pianist (photo courtesy of NRK)
Washington Performing Arts Society brought Leif Ove Andsnes to Strathmore on Tuesday night. While the Norwegian pianist may be less famous than some of the musicians who are reliable WPAS favorites, he drew a respectable audience who impressed by their silent attention, the sort who glare at a dropped program. Although we have recommended several recordings by Andsnes, including his Mozart concerti, Schubert (with Ian Bostridge), and Bartók (with Christian Tetzlaff), this is the first live review at Ionarts, and it was worth the wait.

After opening with Bach's E minor toccata (BWV 914), Andsnes launched into Beethoven's E-flat major sonata (op. 27, no. 1 -- see this online score). The work has been often in my ears recently, in recordings by András Schiff and Paul Lewis and, most importantly, on Alfred Brendel's farewell recital. Like Brendel and Lewis, Andsnes took the indication of "Quasi una fantasia" as a prompt for a detached, dreamy style for much of the piece, with a gentle approach to the first movement's first subject and aloof wonder at those unexpected C major chords. By contrast, the Allegro section was a wash of very fast notes and hammered accents. The second movement was even and clear-themed, and after holding the final note for a long time, Andsnes proceeded into an easy, straightforward third movement, as if it were marked attacca. The only complaint was related to the register shifts of the fourth movement's theme, which sounded a little hammered, although Andsnes never gave ground on the fast tempo.

Aspen eye
Birch, the national tree of Finland
The high point of this program was at the end of the second half, a set of lesser-known Scandinavian works, introduced with brief and entertaining comments by Andsnes. Four short pieces by Sibelius, left off the official program, gave glimpses into the Finnish composer's sound world, known primarily for orchestral works and less for the piano. The final piece of Kyllikki (op. 41, based on an episode from the Kalevala) was a flighty account of the inveterate party girl's late night adventures, with a murky ballad in the middle. A waltz marked Elegiaco (op. 76, no. 10) recalled a tragic memory, leading into The Birch (op. 75, no. 4), a folk-inspired evocation of Finland's national tree. Oscillating chords seemed to recall quivering leaves, and the pentatonic melodic snippets were redolent of the mythic north (once, visiting rural Sweden, I was struck by how much it looked like my own home state of Michigan where, above the tree line, white birch and conifers dominate). A gloomy Barcarola (op. 24, no. 10) was more appropriate to a skiff among icy floes than to a gondola, Venice by way of Finland.

Concluding the set was the G minor ballade by Grieg, which Andsnes has played everywhere since the Grieg centenary last fall, including on top of a Norwegian mountain (the video of the piano being lifted up there by helicopter -- to the strains of Grieg's piano concerto, of course -- is a hoot). Composed after Grieg's parents had died, it is akin to Chopin's ballades (and their connection to the poetry of his native Poland) in its nostalgia for family and home. However, much like Grieg himself, the piece joins together Scandinavian folk elements and more southern, extended harmonies that would fit in with Ravel, Debussy, or even Poulenc.


Grieg, Ballade in G minor, op. 24, Leif Ove Andsnes

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Pianist Andsnes, Better Than the Hype (Washington Post, April 24)
To seal that connection, Andsnes closed with a second-half selection of less familiar Debussy preludes, mixed together from Books 1 and 2. Was it my imagination or were preldues chosen for their possibly nordic connection? There were murky chromatic clouds of fog that wrapped the listener in veils of ambiguity (Book 2/1), jerky melodic bits tossed up by the wind in the plain (1/3), footsteps on white snow in dusky silence (1/6), and a glacially beautiful Ondine (2/8). Andsnes was at his best creating a varied palette of color, as in the ethereal enigma of Canope (2/10), the Spanish dance and clanging guitar of La Puerta del vino (2/3), the playfully interrupted serenade (1/9), and the bucolic heather lea of Scotland (2/5). In pure virtuosic displays, as in the wild toccata of Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest (1/7), he was formidable but slightly constrained toward squareness. This detracted not in the least from an innovative program, one of the high marks of this season's piano recitals.

For the next WPAS concert, Kurt Masur will lead the Orchestre National de France next Monday (April 28, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Beethoven (Piano Concerto No. 2) and Bruckner (Symphony No. 7) are on the program.

23.4.08

Tharaud's Preludes

available at Amazon
F. Chopin, Preludes / F. Mompou, Alexandre Tharaud

(released March 11, 2008)
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901982


Scores: Chopin's First Editions Online
Alexandre Tharaud's top-notch recordings of Bach, Couperin, and Rameau might make you think that this French pianist is a Baroque specialist. Add to this music of the 18th century a stunning complete Ravel recording (as yet unreviewed, only out of laziness), an extraordinary, understated set of Chopin waltzes, and as yet unheard, a complete Poulenc chamber music set and a Milhaud disc, in collaboration with the composer's widow. This is not to mention his duo recordings with cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and a number of earlier discs harder to come by in the U.S. We hope, perhaps unrealistically, that Tharaud will make a recording of the original piano-only version of Pelléas et Mélisande, which he played at the Musée d'Orsay in 2004. Tharaud's twice-postponed return to Washington, promised by La Maison Française (the cultural attaché, Roland Celette, assures me that he is working on it), will eventually allow me to atone for missing his 2005 WPAS recital.

For the time being, this new Chopin recording will have to suffice. This program, no less inventive than Tharaud's previous ones, is centered on the op. 28 preludes, mostly conceived during Chopin's fatal trip to Majorca. Schumann described these quasi-fragmentary pieces as "sketches" or "ruins" of more fully developed etudes. The ambiguous name chosen for them (preludes to what?) gives the impression of paired major-minor improvisations that lead only to each other, in an endless cycle of fifths always circling back on itself. Tharaud writes in the notes about how he sees the Preludes only as a set, and that comes across, for example, by the way he takes no. 22 attacca from the end of no. 21. The most curious point to my ears in the cycle's continuity is the cadence on an F dominant seventh chord at the end of no. 23, setting up not B-flat but no. 24 in D minor.

In the liner notes, Tharaud describes the set as "shot through with violence and death," restless with a sense of fear even in the most serene movements. The doom of mortality reaches its most overt expression in no. 14 (E-flat minor), which Tharaud plays like a deathly shudder. Uneasy echoes resonate in the booming bass pedal point of no. 17 (A-flat), the low fz notes phrased in a hairpin over the concluding minute, as the other voices float above, disembodied. The only, very minor reservation about Tharaud's pianism is that his technical mastery weakens just a bit in the most demanding passages. Yes, no. 16 (B-flat) is appropriately on fire and in no. 24 (D minor), he produces electric and impassioned shrieking runs up and down the keyboard (marked con brio, con impeto, impetuoso, con audacia, brillante -- [ridiculously, by some later editor -- Ed.]). It is only with comparison to other slightly more flawless performances that one even notices (as with Tharaud's rendition of Couperin's Tic Toc Choc -- with hip-hop video -- compared to the just slightly more technically mind-blowing Grigory Sokolov).


Alexandre Tharaud, pianist
Some of Tharaud's choices are unpredictable, which is one of the qualities that makes listening to his playing so rewarding. The fff final chords of no. 18 (F minor) are attacked like vicious axe-strokes, and he treats the opening anacrusis of no. 7 (A major) as if it had an unseen fermata over it. Although in no. 15 (D-flat), Tharaud wisely avoids all sentimentality, it's not clear he really observes the midpoint Poco più animato marking at all [Probably because it is not in the first edition -- Ed.], but he does bring out a detail unnoticed before, in measure 17, where he has the top of his left hand echo the right-hand motif in the previous measure.

Tharaud has rounded out his op. 28, clocking in at just over 38 minutes, with five other similar works by Chopin, the op. 45 prelude, the A-flat major Petit Prélude, and the Trois Nouvelles Etudes ("which one can well imagine Chopin might have called 'Preludes'," Tharaud writes in the booklet). Finally, as he has done to brilliant effect on his other solo discs, he has added a later composer's tribute to the program's subject. Here, as on his Chopin waltz CD, it is music by Federico Mompou (1893-1987), all of it worth knowing, especially in this context. The melody of op. 28, no. 4, is the basis for Música callada no. 15, and Chopin is the obvious model for Mompou's preludes, of which Tharaud selects no. 9. A more extended Mompou prelude, El Lago (The lake), concludes the disc, which Tharaud often plays as an encore to op. 28 in concert. "Whenever I do," he writes, "I'm always struck by the quality of silence in the audience."

22.4.08

Stephen Hough's Mozart Album

available at Amazon
Stephen Hough, A Mozart Album (music by Mozart, Cramer, Friedman, Hough, Liszt)

(released March 11, 2008)
Hyperion CDA67598


Online Mozart scores (Neue Mozart-Ausgabe)
British-born pianist Stephen Hough generally does not disappoint in terms of programming. His latest CD, A Mozart Album, combines two fantasias (K. 396/385f and 475) and one sonata (K. 333) with pieces derived from Mozart by later composers, including himself. Hough's Mozart is exemplary, with the Fantasias approached with a free sense of tempo and a careful attention to the dynamic contrasts and articulations in the score. Hough has a precision touch and smashes the idea that the often reduced textures in Mozart equate with preciosity. Yes, there are crystalline soft passages, delicate enough to crack if mishandled, but there are also flights of fancy and operatic excesses. The pendant piece is the Liszt-Busoni fantasia on themes from Marriage of Figaro, in which Hough displays his considerable technical wizardry and whimsical attention to details.

The genesis of this program was in the 2006 Salzburg Festival when, for the big anniversary year, Hough gave a recital with the intention of joining Mozart to the contemporary (as Gloria Coates did with her 15th Symphony). He composed his Mozart Transformation (after Poulenc) for that event, in three movements based on Mozart juvenilia (the K. 1 Minuet and the K. 33 Klavierstück) and a later song, salvaged from the K. 595 piano concerto. Although the melodies are quoted exactly as Mozart wrote them, the harmony is tarted up with all kinds of trashy colors. Introducing it are two Romantic tributes to Mozart, Johann Baptist Cramer's Hommage à Mozart and Ignaz Friedman's Menuetto in D major, a refashioning of a movement from Mozart's K. 334 divertimento for string quartet and two horns.

Hear Stephen Hough for yourself this week, when he appears as soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra (April 24 to 26), even if he is playing one of the Saint-Saëns concerti (no. 5, "Egyptian").

21.4.08

Guarneri Quartet and the Grosse Fuge

available at Amazon
Arnold Steinhardt, Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony
(1998)
Friday evening, the Guarneri String Quartet, in their 26th year in residence at the University of Maryland, performed an all-Beethoven concert as part of the school’s Scholarship Benefit Series (postponed from Leap Day, due to a player injury). The program included the “Harp” String Quartet No. 10 (op. 74, E-flat major) and String Quartet No. 13 (op. 130, B-flat major), which featured its original finale, the Grosse Fuge. Hearing the venerable ensemble, now in their 44th year and penultimate season, should be a high priority on one’s cultural to-do list. Their final season, 2008-2009, is anticipated to be heavy.

The “Harp” is unique in that it lacks the torrential quality often expected of Beethoven. In its place, Classical charm filled the ideally wet, yet intimate acoustic of the Dekelboum Concert Hall, with its tall ceiling and narrow breadth. Pizzicato notes in the first movement (Poco adagio allegro) were expertly passed between the players amid gentle flutters. The movement became beautifully expansive as it neared its end, in a settled tempo seemingly neither fast nor slow. The Guarneri’s tempos are always just right. Beethoven’s good humor extended through the following three movements, in particular, the third (Presto: Piu presto quasi prestissimo), where the Quartet created a crack intensity without becoming heavy or bogged down.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Guarneri String Quartet (Washington Post, April 21)
Overall, the quality of the first half of the concert was not sustained into the second half. This was due to some tuning issues in the inner voices that prevented harmonies from fully locking into place and textures from sparkling like sapphires in the sun, as they had before. Additionally, the rather low-energy performance of op. 130’s six movements made one yearn for the complete Guarneri experience, such as their program of Bartók, Haydn, and Smetana last January.

Regardless, hearing the Grosse Fuge as the final movement of op. 130, instead of the easier replacement movement requested by Beethoven’s publisher, is a unique journey. The bouncy dotted theme and contrastingly piercing four-note theme are overtly kept away from each other until the very end. The point of this tour de force is finally revealed when these subjects simply, and magically, merge with the first violin and cello at the work's end. Alas, the subjects were meant to be together all along.

The Guarneri Quartet will hold its next open rehearsal, free and open to the public, at the University of Maryland next Wednesday (April 30, 5 pm).

Ionarts at Large: Satyagraha at the Met


Philip Glass, portrait by Chuck Close (left) and recent photograph (right) -- see the exhibit of Chuck Close portraits of Philip Glass in the Met lobby
Arguably, the most significant difference to arrive with the Peter Gelb era at the Metropolitan Opera is a greater openness to contemporary opera (also the unforeseen success of the HD broadcasts, although that has had both positive and negative effects). Rather than a real step toward the future, however, the shift in favor of new operas, however slight, is actually a return to the great house's historical tradition, during the period that ended approximately with the premiere of Howard Hanson's Merry Mount. The repertorial concretization at the Met of recent years was actually a dangerous flirtation with provincialism, meaning that the wealthiest American company was regularly being upstaged by smaller, more adventurous outfits like Santa Fe Opera, in terms of world premieres and American premieres.

Sanskrit text from the Bhagavad-GitaAs a result, the recently opened production of Philip Glass's Satyagraha was a cause for celebration, and critics descended from far and wide for opening night last week (including Washington's own Tim Page, who spoke eloquently on the Sirius broadcast) to witness the Met turning this important page (next season will have Adams's Doctor Atomic, reportedly with The Ghosts of Versailles and Golijov's new Daedalus to follow). Ionarts was able to get there for the third performance of the run, Saturday's matinee.

The Met's first and, until now, only experiment with Philip Glass, the 1976 performance (not really production) of Einstein on the Beach, was a watershed event in opera history. That work, more experimental theater than real opera, is often described as a one-time test case, but Satyagraha, premiered only four years after Einstein, has much more in common with its predecessor than not. Its libretto (in Sanskrit -- it may as well be numbers and solfege syllables, in terms of audience comprehension), adapted by the composer and Constance DeJong from texts in the Bhagavad-Gita, does not actually tell the story of its purported subject, the years that Gandhi spent in South Africa. The audience is required to familiarize itself with that story beforehand, and the tableaux of stage action refer to it and connect it with other stories, both ancient and modern, religious and secular.


Satyagraha, Metropolitan Opera, 2008, photo by Ken Howard
The work's title indicates that the opera is not really about its central character, Gandhi, at least not exclusively. Satyagraha, a Sanskirt word usually translated as "truth force," is how Gandhi described his tactic of nonviolent protest, and three historical figures who influenced it or were influenced by it (Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore, and Martin Luther King, Jr.) look down on the three acts like guardian angels. The paradox of the work is that it sprawls so widely, passing without borders from mythology to the modern and back again, and yet does so immersed in an enveloping stasis. There may be more of an actual story than Einstein, at least in the background, but the process of relating it -- or not relating it, perhaps -- is remarkably similar.

Other Reviews:

Ronald Blum, Glass' 'Satyagraha' Reaches Met (Associated Press, April 13)

Anne Midgette, 'Satyagraha': Simplicity & Splendor in the Glass (Washington Post, April 14)

Anthony Tommasini, Fanciful Visions on the Mahatma’s Road to Truth and Simplicity (New York Times, April 14)

Daniel J. Wakin, Puppets enliven Metropolitan production of opera 'Satyagraha' (International Herald Tribune, April 14)

Jeremy Eichler, Gandhi at the Met, Glass in transition (Boston Globe, April 14)

Mark Swed, Live: 'Satyagraha' (Los Angeles Times, April 14)

Patrick Cole, Selling Gandhi, Glass: `Satyagraha' Uses Posters, Yoga Teachers (Bloomberg News, April 16)

Tim Smith, Glass' hypnotic opera at Met (Baltimore Sun, April 17)

Vibhuti Patel, Gandhi’s Wonder Years (Newsweek, April 17)

Heidi Waleson, History and Hypnotic Magic (Wall Street Journal, April 19)

Karren L. Alenier, Satyagraha (Culture Vulture, April 20)

Other Articles:

Matt Blank and Stephen Kent, Satyagraha: Can Opera Help Fight Climate Change? (Playbill Arts, April 3)

Elena Park, Metropolitan Opera: The Force of Truth (Playbill Arts, April 11)

---, Philip Glass: The Message in the Music (Playbill Arts, April 21)

David Cote, Puppet Regime (Opera News, April 2008)
This performance is anchored by the astounding interpretation of tenor Richard Croft as Gandhi. Whenever Glass's score was metered unevenly, the other singers seemed to be changing notes more on the cues of the conductor than on a sure internal pulse. Croft was not only rock solid from his first note (unaccompanied, he opens the opera, just after he has been famously thrown from a train), no matter how complex the rhythms, but his line always sounded like a melody, lyrical and flowing. Conductor Dante Anzolini had his work cut out for him, keeping the complicated and regularly changing meter with one hand, cuing all of those singers' entrances and cutoffs with the other, and even mouthing words to the chorus. That Anzolini was able to keep the largest parts of the score together at all was remarkable. When the chorus, after a solid start in the indelibly memorable Ha-Ha scene of Act II, began to rush, however, he was not able to retain control.

All members of the supporting cast are to be congratulated for surviving the score's grueling demands, especially soprano Rachelle Durkin (Miss Schlesen) who sang so many high notes again and again (not always right where they needed to be, but still), it was hard to keep track. Of the quartet that often sings together, baritone Earle Patriarco (Mr. Kallenbach) was the most consistently impressive. As Parsi Rustomiji, bass-baritone Alfred Walker was too easily covered by other sounds when he was anywhere but near the apron. Mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips had a grand presence as Mrs. Alexander, the wife of the regional governor, who protects Gandhi with her umbrella. Phelim McDermott's direction emphasized statis, sapping all of the personality from the characters, as they mostly stood in place or walked in slow motion with no impetus or direction.

The production, which comes to New York from English National Opera, is beautiful, monumental, and puzzling. Julian Crouch's set is a raked stage surrounded by a ring wall of nondescript color, and the largely monochromatic costumes designed by Kevin Pollard follow the course of Glass's score, towards a more and more austere set of colors. Thankfully, an element of whimsy and menace was added by the puppeteers and supernumeraries of the Improbable Theatre Company, the only thing that saved Glass's ponderous, philosophical opera from its own sententious seriousness. Most of the evening's visual souvenirs involved the puppeteers, creating a halo for Richard Bernstein's Lord Krishna, crumpling newspapers to form heads and limbs, flying on wires, manipulating the over-sized capitalist goons behind the Ha-Ha chorus in Act II and the giant bird puppet, and unrolling undulating bands of packing tape across the stage.

Photo by Ken Howard
Satyagraha, Metropolitan Opera, 2008, photo by Ken Howard

Eventually, one gives up caring about the words being sung, as the text just flows over the listener (in spite of the beautifully realized projections). Someone should make a video like the Carmina Burana with alternate lyrics, with the Sanskrit of Satyagraha replaced with nonsense (beginning with "Raja, naba do wa, gola wookie, nipple pinchie?," the gibberish spoken by Jaba the Peter in Family Guy). This Buddhistic relinquishing of conscious comprehension is likely part of Glass's strategy in the third act, where he prolongs the plainest music (all those endless unison string arpeggios!) to separate the listener from harmonic expectations. That austerity sets up the memorable conclusion, with Gandhi repeatedly intoning that ascending phrygian scale (heard earlier, in the flute, in the first act) over more complex orchestral textures that blossom in the final bars.

The production of Satyagraha, which is an event not to be missed, continues for four more performances (April 22, 25, 28, and May 1), at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Feast of St. Anselm


Manuscript of opening of Anselm's Monologion,
with illumination of St. Anselm in his pallium
April 21 is the feast of a favorite saint, Anselm of Canterbury, not least because he is the patron of a certain beloved Benedictine abbey in Northeast. He was an Italian, born in Aosta in 1033, and received a calling to the monastic life when he was still a young man. His father prevented him from joining a monastery, after which Anselm fell into a life of dissolution and wandering, abandoning the vocation of monastic learning for a time. Fleeing his father's severity, Anselm set out on foot across the Alps, wandering north all the way to Normandy. He was taken in as a student and later a monk at the Abbey of Bec, where he finally found a mentor in the scholar Lanfranc, who was the prior. Anselm was to succeed Lanfranc in many positions, first as prior (and eventually abbot) at Bec and later as Archbishop of Canterbury in England.

Anselm is often cited as the founder of the Scholastic movement of philosophy and was in later years given the rank of Doctor of the Church for his theological and philosophical writings, especially the treatise quoted below. He staunchly opposed the interference of the state in church affairs but just as staunchly opposed the crusades as wars sponsored wrongly by the church. He died in peace on April 21, 1109.
Excerpt from Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man, completed in 1098), Book II, ch. 13
But tell me whether, in this likeness to men which he ought to have, he will inherit also our ignorance, as he does our other infirmities? [...] For why will he not be like them in their ignorance, as he is in their mortality?

That union of humanity with the Divine person will not be effected except in accordance with the highest wisdom; and, therefore, God will not take anything belonging to man which is only useless, but even a hindrance to the work which that man must accomplish. For ignorance is in no respect useful, but very prejudicial. How can he perform works, so many and so great, without the highest wisdom? Or, how will men believe him if they find him ignorant? And if he be ignorant, what will it avail him? If nothing is loved except as it is known, and there be no good thing which he does not love, then there can be no good thing of which be is ignorant. But no one perfectly understands good, save he who can distinguish it from evil; and no one can make this distinction who does not know what evil is. Therefore, as he of whom we are speaking perfectly comprehends what is good, so there can be no evil with which he is unacquainted. Therefore must he have all knowledge, though he do not openly show it in his intercourse with men.

In his more mature Years, this should seem to he as you say; but, in infancy, as it will not be a fit time to discover wisdom, so there will be no need, and therefore no propriety, in his having it.

Did not I say that the incarnation will be made in wisdom? But God will in wisdom assume that mortality, which he makes use of so widely, because for so great an object. But he could not wisely assume ignorance, for this is never useful, but always injurious, except when an evil will is deterred from acting, on account of it. But, in him an evil desire never existed. For if ignorance did no harm in any other respect, yet does it in this, that it takes away the good of knowing. And to answer your question in a word: that man, from the essential nature of his being, will be always full of God; and, therefore, will never want the power, the firmness or the wisdom of God.
See also these Other Works by St. Anselm of Canterbury.

20.4.08

In Brief: Is It Summer Yet?

LinksHere is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.

  • The warning on this post reads, "This entry will be of interest only to that tiny minority of readers who both use the Chicago Manual of Style and enjoy pointless bibliographical research." If you see yourself in that description as I do, your destiny awaits. A reader responded in less than a quarter-hour to fill in one bit of the research missed in the post. Yet again, the Internets bring nerds together. [Languagehat]

  • Via Boing Boing, a cat playing a theremin. Srsly. The best part is the saucer-eyed dismay of the cat-musician's companion at the end of the video. "You call that music?" [Laughing Squid]

  • It is hard to imagine the Salle Labrouste, the main reading room of the old Richelieu site of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, being used for anything but the storage and reading of books. Through June 8, the room houses a special exhibit, a reworking of Sophie Calle's Prenez soin de vous, created for the 2007 Venice Biennale. Our favorite French art blogger has a review. [Lunettes Rouges]

  • The idea of this Web site is for people to submit two photos of themselves: one taken when they were children and the other taken recently, but in the same pose as the child photo. The results are memorable. [Color Wars]

  • Ban Al Sobotka twirling the octopus over his head? It's an outrage! [NHL Experts Blog]

  • From our own Mark Barry, mark April 30 on your calendar if you are in New York. [Free Arts NYC 9th Annual Arts Auction Benefit]

19.4.08

Europa Galante / John Holloway @ LoC

Fabio Biondi, violinist
Fabio Biondi, violinist
After singing for the Holy Father and the American bishops on Wednesday, I had plans to get a head start on the crowds for the trip back to Capitol Hill. That evening was one of the most anticipated concerts on the Library of Congress series, featuring Europa Galante, a leading Italian historically informed performance (HIP) ensembles. Unfortunately, the Secret Service and MPD shut down the route of the Pope's motorcade way too early, cutting off our path to the Metro for an hour and a half until the Pope left the National Shrine. So I arrived at the Library in time to hear only the second half.

Thanks to a switch in the program, the first piece after intermission was the D minor concerto by Vivaldi, RV 540, for viola d'amore and lute. The group's leader, Fabio Biondi, had a spiky, electric sound on the viola d'amore, but it was Giangiacomo Pinardi's performance on the lute that impressed most, featured regularly in solo episodes with the violin section on the bass line. After the group's superlative debut complete opera recording of Vivaldi's Bajazet, this live concert was, perhaps inevitably, a disappointment. The intonation, especially from the cello, was disturbingly rough at times, and Biondi's solo work, although ingeniously embellished with ornaments, cut against the ensemble grain more than floated above it. The Suite "Les Nations," Biondi's arrangement of various national dance movements, was a series of pleasing diversions, composers of one nationality aping the musical stereotypes of another. The most striking moment of the evening was the pizzicato dessert, a "little dance" from Gluck's ballet Don Juan.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Holloway/Linden/Mortensen Trio (Washington Post, April 19)

Matthew Guerrieri, Trio demonstrates collaboration in the midst of contrasts (Boston Globe, April 14)

Anne Midgette, Crossing Borders but Often Going Nowhere (Washington Post, April 18)

Bernard Holland, World Tour, in a Baroque Sort of Way (New York Times, April 14)

Joshua Kosman, Daring Europa Galante approach boosts Vivaldi (San Francisco Chronicle, April 7)

Chris Pasles, Live: Europa Galante (Los Angeles Times, April 3)
Never one to complain of hearing too much Baroque music, I was back at the Library of Congress on Thursday night for a recital by three leading HIP soloists, violinist John Holloway, cellist Jaap ter Linden, and harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen. Holloway's sound held up to expectations from his recordings for the ECM New Series, the last reviewed being his unaccompanied Bach. The playing was more solid, less wild than Biondi's, with ethereal high sound in the slow movements but occasional missteps in intonation.

John Holloway:
available at Amazon
Veracini


available at Amazon
Biber


available at Amazon
Biber, Muffat
The best part of the evening was the discovery of two sonatas by Jean-Marie Leclair (1694-1764) and one of the sonatas of Francesco Maria Veracini (1690-1768). The latter especially makes for an instructive comparison to the highly chromatic harmonic language of J. S. Bach. Veracini's op. 2, no. 12 (D minor) has not one but two Passagallo (Passacaglia) movements, as well as a chromatic capriccio on two subjects and their inversions. Programmed at the end of the recital, this work was a suitable climax, followed by a lovely encore from another of the composer's sonatas, a set of variations on a Scottish air. Jaap ter Linden excelled in Vivaldi's cello sonata no. 7 (G minor, RV 4), especially the thrilling moto perpetuo of the concluding Gigue. As an example of the sonata da camera, the precursor of the suite, the Vivaldi was brilliantly paired with a superior Corelli violin sonata (op. 5, no. 8, E minor).

Lars Ulrik Mortensen had his own admirable solo moment in Les Barricades Mistérieuses, from Couperin's sixth ordre for keyboard, evenly articulated as it wandered harmonically. Another welcome discovery was the music of Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755), represented by a trio (op. 37, no. 5, A minor), with its slow movement accompanied on the harpsichord's lute stop and the final movement with a folk dance middle section. While the audience for both concerts was surprisingly not completely full, the even lower attendance for this recital was doubly a shame because of the quality of music-making.

The next concert on the free series at the Library of Congress features Camerata Pacifica (April 24, 8 pm).

18.4.08

Perahia's Partitas

available at Amazon
Bach, Partitas 2-4, Murray Perahia, piano

(released March 18, 2008)
Sony Classical 88697-22697-2
Murray Perahia's latest recording brings together the second, third, and fourth partitas of Bach. That programming reassures me that I was not too harsh on the recording of the same pieces by Cédric Tiberghien. Having loved Perahia's recording of the Goldberg Variations and admired his live performance of the fourth partita last fall, I can hardly be surprised to find myself loving this disc. When it comes to Bach's keyboard music, I almost always prefer a recording on a good harpsichord, but there is room in my ears for fine recordings on modern instruments. Recent favorites are Alexandre Tharaud for balletic, muscular grace and Angela Hewitt for velvet suavity.

In an article in The Independent with Geoffrey Norris (Why Murray Perahia turned to Bach, March 20), Perahia has spoken about his connection to Bach, having become obsessed with his music by studying it when recovering from a hand injury. From what I have heard so far, Perahia's Bach is technically assured and stylistically daring but informed. These three partitas are played with an intelligent understanding of the forms but with flair and interest for the ear, too. Rarely in a way that draws attention to itself, but in a favorite movement like the Rondeau in no. 2, for example, his crunchy articulations and fun embellishments make you wish he had taken the repeat. The distinctive part of the partitas is that Bach breaks away from the rigorous order of dances in the other suites, including a broader range of alternate dances and other forms (Capriccio, Rondeau, Burlesca).

In one of those color pieces, the Scherzo in no. 3, Perahia takes a hard-edged approach, emphasizing the jagged quality of the subject and darting through the movement, with both repeats, in just over one minute. The odd chord in measure 28 of that piece (the A minor triad underneath the rounded binary restatement of the opening subject, undermined by an unexplained G#), according to Paul Badura-Skoda (Interpreting Bach at the Keyboard, p. 220), "makes sense only when it is arpeggiated." That is more or less what Perahia does, making the dyad sound like an ornament.

The same freedom applies to the first-movement preludes: the opening Sinfonia of no. 2 is a model of stylistic polish, from the added lute-like rolled chords of the opening Grave to the filigree 32nd notes and the contrapuntal closing section. In the third partita's opening Fantasia, Perahia uses the piano's greater range of voicing to take what is by appearances a two-part texture and pull it into a greater number of voices, expanding some notes that hang in the air. The first movement of Partita No. 4 is labeled an overture. In the French style, its slow, dotted opening section is far overshadowed by the extended three-part fugue. How does Perahia get those long, held bass notes (F# and then B, right in the middle of the fugue) to sustain so clearly? He does the same thing with the sustained A in the first half of the Aria. The Sarabande, with its moment of reverie in the second measure (and repeated twice later), is thankfully more elegant than moony. The Gigue, while played very fast, never feels frenetic. What can one do but hope that Perahia will recover soon from his latest hand troubles and record the second volume?

17.4.08

À mon chevet: Musicophilia

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

Deutsch et al. have also showed very dramatic differences in the incidence of absolute pitch in two populations of first-year music students: one at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and the other at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. "For students who had begun musical training between ages 4 and 5," they wrote, "approximately 60% of the Chinese students met the criterion for absolute pitch, while only about 14% of the U.S. nontonal language speakers met the criterion." For those who had begun musical training at age six or seven, the numbers in both groups were correspondingly lower, about 55 percent and 6 percent. [...]

This striking discrepancy led Deutsch et al. to conjecture that "if given the opportunity, infants can acquire absolute pitch as a feature of speech, which can then carry over to music." For speakers of a nontonal language such as English, they felt, "the acquisition of absolute pitch during music training is analogous to learning the tones of a second language." They observed that there was a critical period for the development of absolute pitch, before the age of eight or so -- roughly the same age at which children find it much more difficult to learn the phonemes of another language (and thus to speak a second language with a native accent). Deutsch et al. suggested, therefore, that all infants might have the potential for acquiring absolute pitch, which could perhaps be "realized by enabling infants to associate pitches with verbal labels during the critical period" for language acquisition.

-- Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia (2007), "Papa Blows His Nose in G: Absolute Pitch," p. 127
That's the evidence. Get to work, parents!

16.4.08

Arts Varia: The Pope Is Here!

Yesterday Anne Midgette reported the uncomfortable news that Washington National Opera has cut the jobs of nine staff members, including its head of public relations. Add that to the latest bad news from the continuing implosion of the Smithsonian, and it has been a rough week for the city's cultural institutions.

As it turns out, the Post was confused about the musical plans for the White House welcome ceremony for the pope today. To my great relief, Kathleen Battle sang, much more appropriately, Albert Hay Malotte's arrangement of The Lord's Prayer, with harp accompaniment. Unfortunately, the Army Chorus then did sing Battle Hymn of the Republic, in that horribly over-the-top arrangement. It was grotesque.

The music for the papal liturgies is more important, somewhat unevenly assessed by the Post today. Tune in at 5:30 pm for the broadcast of the Pope's celebration of Vespers at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I'm heading over there after lunch.

15.4.08

Washington Concert Opera: Bianca e Falliero

Bianca e Falliero:
available at Amazon
DVD


available at Amazon
CD
When the lights went out in the first few moments of Washington Concert Opera's performance at Lisner Auditorium on Sunday night, one assumed that it was another chance for music director Antony Walker to come to the rescue. The man who recently sang the role of Radames from the podium while simultaneously conducting the last act of Aida, however, simply had to wait for the lights to come back on. As Walker and WCO have done so many times in the past, their latest performance brings to light a neglected opera, Rossini's Bianca e Falliero. In 1819, when this opera was premiered at La Scala, it was the fourth one that Rossini had completed that year. Yes, Bianca sounds like most other Rossini operas and, at about three hours of solid music, could benefit from some judicious cutting. At the same time, it is worth the rediscovery, especially a few memorable numbers.

Vivica Genaux has one of those voices, with an inimitable timbre and a ferocious technique (with unforgettable mandibular manipulations). She has been extraordinary on disc (in Vivaldi operas and recital), while on stage, in Baltimore Opera's L'Assedio di Corinto, her dynamic presence outweighs the compressed volume of her voice. In spite of being "stricken with spring allergies," which may have caused a slight uncertainty at the upper and lower extremities of her range, this was an incisive, marble-solid Falliero (in her red jacket and black ponytail, she also struck a wasp-waisted figure). Genaux was paired in the opera's exquisite duets with the well-scaled light soprano of Anna Christy, familiar to Washington audiences from her appearances at Wolf Trap in 2000 and 2001. Christy may not have that large, steely tone that a Rossini soprano occasionally needs, she was vocally and physically a sweet soprano heroine with some killer high notes when she needed them.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, WCO's 'Bianca' Is Something To Sing About (Washington Post, April 15)

T. L. Ponick, WCO renders 'Bianca' with brilliance (Washington Times, April 15)
No baritone probably wants to replace Teddy Tahu Rhodes, but Daniel Mobbs stepped in robustly as Capellio, Bianca's suitor who ends up saving his rival's life (as the sole dissenting member of the Consiglio dei Tre that judges Falliero). The third lead of the opera is Bianca's domineering father, Contareno, sung here by tenor Charles Workman, with valiant but occasionally forced tone. He was at his best in the extraordinary Act II quartet, embedded as a video from another performance below. Walker conducted with verve and a twinkle in his eye as he drove his forces forward, to which the chorus and orchestra responded effectively, with particularly fine brass swells and flute solo by Sara Stern in the prison scene.

Washington Concert Opera will expand its next season from two to three performances: Donizetti's Maria Padilla (November 9), a recital with Stephanie Blythe and Nathalie Paulin (May 3), and Mercadante's Il Giuramento (May 31).


Rossini, Bianca e Falliero, quartet from Act II,
Rossini Opera Festival in 2005 (see also the finale)

Double Double Toil and Trouble


A distaff is a tool used to hold unspun wool during spinning. Over time it became a reference for anything domestic, the mother's side of the family, then women in general. In Reimagining the Distaff Toolkit, now at the Bennington Museum, contemporary artists personalize the tools of daily chores and toil. If every picture tells a story, then the domestic tools that women have historically used also have a human attachment. Frying pans didn't cook a meal by themselves as the ghost-like faces in Alison Saar's cast bronze pans, titled Mirror/Mirror, suggest or even more directly in her mother Betye Saar's iron washboard, National Racism: We Was Mostly Bout' Survival, with a photograph of an enslaved laundress; it had a real soul attached.


In Tatana Kellner's Ironing installation, the science and history of ironing are imprinted/burned onto the back of white shirts, and a monitor plays a video of a self-propelled iron with the sound of steam escaping; it's monotonous, repetitive work by a tool with an intelligent, sweating, thinking person attached to it. Lisa Alvarado's Mexican Woman's Toolkit is a large floral tote bag hanging on wooden pegs, which visitors are invited to rummage through. The bag belongs to a Mexican domestic in WWII-era Chicago: her life is service to others, she has no privacy.

When I pass by an old farmhouse or abandoned factory I think of the people and lives that passed through it. That was my response to Marie Watt's Blanket Column. It is what must be a 12' stack of donated blankets, each with a hanging tag attached with notes of the known history of each blanket, bought at a flea market or recently given up by a growing child, very touching, very personal. I had to run my finger along the edge of one of the blankets.

There is humor here, too. Mildred Johnson took a 20th-century advice book for young girls, What Young Girls Ought to Know, and folded the pages, creating some clever book art. A second book, The Joy of Cooking, is shredded and gracefully hung from an old grater; it's one of the most striking pieces in the show. Then there's Dave Cole's Trophy Wife, reminiscent of a 50s captive housewife.

Artists have a long tradition of reconfiguring domestic objects, and of course this is a perfect exhibit for them. Tracy Krumm's Yoke/Folded and Cavity/Strainer have graceful dignity and cast dreamy shadows on the wall. Judith Hoyt's clever Bucket Woman and Grater Woman follow a more traditional folk way. Tiffany Besonen's Mini-Ambiotic consists of flowers crafted from sewing pattern paper, wax, and the artist's hair bursting forth on a vine of wire from a child-size ironing board, perhaps daring to dream a fantastic alternative as only a child can.

Reimagining the Distaff Toolkit, curated by Rickie Solinger, will be at the Bennington Museum, Bennington, Vermont, through June 1st. More on Flickr.

When Worlds Collide

Like most people (including many Catholics), President Bush likes only some parts of the present pope's views, those that already are part of his political stance. Buried deep inside an article in the Washington Post by Michael Abramowitz about the President's admiration for the pontiff (Building Ties With Catholics A Bush Priority, April 15 -- the nuthouse comments on the article are proof positive that newspapers need to moderate all comments posted on their Web sites) is this nugget of information relevant to our subject matter:

A sign of this respect will come this afternoon, when Bush and first lady Laura Bush greet Pope Benedict XVI after his plane lands at Andrews Air Force Base, the first time in his seven years in office that the president will leave the White House to receive a visiting foreign dignitary. Bush will host Benedict tomorrow for a private 45-minute meeting in the Oval Office after an elaborate official arrival ceremony featuring soprano Kathleen Battle singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." About 9,000 invited guests are expected on the South Lawn, more than were present for the arrival ceremony for Queen Elizabeth II last May.
The pope, who in protocol terms is the only person on the planet more or less equal to an emperor, outranks both the President of the United States and the Queen of England. No surprises there, but whaah? -- Kathleen Battle? Battle Hymn of the Republic? What the hell? Why on earth would she sing that?

Yes, that hymn was inspired by a visit to a Union Army camp on the Potomac here in Washington, but any of the spirituals that now make up most of Ms. Battle's repertoire list would be much more à propos. If you read the text of Battle Hymn, however, you find a delicious irony, in the fourth verse: "He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat." Stay the course, Kathleen!

UPDATE:
You can watch the EWTN coverage of the papal visit, live on the Internet.

UPDATE 2:
What actually happened.

14.4.08

Pacifica Quartet @ Kreeger

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Elliott Carter, String Quartets 1 and 5, Pacifica Quartet
(released January 29, 2008)
Naxos 8.559362
Last year the Kreeger Museum made our list of Five Favorite American Buildings, and on Saturday night a concert by the Pacifica Quartet provided another excellent excuse to spend some time in the house that Philip Johnson built. The Pacifica has recently released the first volume of a 2-CD set of the string quartets of Elliott Carter, and the almost-centenarian composer's latest, no. 5, was on the program. The "new vision" Carter has attributed to this work could be described as a postmodern program, with the four instruments not only playing a series of movements but, in a juxtaposed layer of interludes, commenting on each movement. At the same time, the score drives the players through merciless technical demands of all kinds, with very little that sounds like unity. Carter compared it to the process of a quartet rehearsing, that is, the sound of the fifth quartet is a string quartet preparing to play the fifth quartet.

Some time spent with the score confirms that what sounds like misalignment is what Carter intended. In the second movement (Giocoso) and the garrulous sixth movement (Presto scorrevole), when the four voices are actually playing together, they have complicated patterns that do not line up (sixteenths, triplets, fivelets, sevenlets). Expressive moments also abound in the murmuring clusters of the fourth movement (Lento espressivo) and especially the fractalized harmonics of the tenth movement (Adagio sereno). That was the most beautiful part of hearing the quartet live, the sound of those layered harmonics, mostly piano and pianissimo. The sound is memorable on disk, but in a hall, bouncing off stone, the metallic, slicing sound seemed to reprogram my ears, as if my atoms were being split and the particles flung wide across the universe.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Pacifica Quartet (Washington Post, April 14)
The two other selections provided interesting parallels, intended or not, to the theme of conversation. Mozart's K. 387 features a chromatic rising line in the second movement and a fugal subject in the last movement passed among the instruments. Although the cello of Brandon Vamos had a smooth tone in his second-movement solo moments, at other times his tendency to force the sound resulted in strident growls. Simin Ganatra's first violin seemed shallow-voiced at first in the third movement but deepened to a more singing quality. Far more suited to the Pacifica's strengths was the final work, Smetana's first string quartet (E minor, "From My Life"). In this piece, intended as a sort of autobiography, the four instruments, "as in a circle of friends, talk among themselves about what has oppressed me so significantly."

Here, as in the Carter, violist Masumi Per Rostad proved the most distinctive individual voice of the quartet (he also writes a sporadic online journal for Gramophone), playing the part taken by Antonín Dvořák when this quartet was first performed in Prague. The polka had a pleasing folk rubato, contrasted by a more Viennese trio, with a tang of tango in it. The third movement (Largo sostenuto) opened with an intense cello solo, followed by the thick, searing first violin. In another parallel with Carter, Smetana's fourth movement includes a summary of themes from the preceding movement, which came to an impossibly soft conclusion, leaving the audience in stunned silence.

The Pacifica Quartet will be back next month, with a concert dedicated to Elliott Carter at the Library of Congress (May 29, 8 pm), including the piano quintet.