Concert Reviews | CD Reviews | DVD Reviews | Opera | Early Music | News | Film | Art | Books | Kids

30.6.08

Anne Midgette to Stay at WaPo

Style masthead

Full disclosure: Since April, I have been doing some freelance reviewing of classical music for the Washington Post.

We hear through the grapevine that the Washington Post has appointed Anne Midgette as its new classical music critic. Since January, she has been serving as interim critic during the sabbatical of Tim Page. After many accomplishments in Europe, she became the first woman to review classical music for the New York Times. When Tim Page's departure from the Post was announced as final, Midgette's succession to the position was widely expected. Still, with newspapers all over the country dumping their classical music critics, some of us held our breath. It is a relief to report that the answer to the question, "Could the Washington Post really not have a full-time classical music critic?", is -- not yet.

Take this opportunity to look back at what Anne wrote, shortly after she began writing for the New York Times, in an article called A Critical Difference (Andante, June 2002). It is about what being a woman writing reviews of classical music is like, a topic that assumes even greater relevance today:

I'm sure there are other women besides myself whom people would be readier to accept as critics. The larger issue for all female music critics — akin to that faced by female conductors — is how to find and assume the kind of authority they need to help their statements be heard. It seems to me that as music critics, women come in for a certain amount of negative stereotyping: too shrill, too dumb, too ineffective. [...]

I lack the objectivity to say how far my own critical writing is marked by the fact that I'm a woman. The perspective that I bring to the table includes a number of things that may or may not be gender-specific. When I'm writing a review, I do want to set a scene; to communicate something about the experience; to give my (necessarily subjective) opinion; and to write something I think someone might want to read, according to my own possibly idiosyncratic views of what constitutes that.

But I also seem to have a reputation as a ball-breaker, even though I feel I'm often pulling my punches. "I never want you to review me!" a conductor interrupted my conversation to announce at a recent event. And when someone attends the same concert I did and thinks I was gentle in the review — which has happened not infrequently — they react in astonishment: "You were so kind!" as if that were completely unexpected. [...]

In fact, classical music badly needs to be helped out of its privileged position and to play on the same field as the other arts. Film critics, after all, men and women, express themselves strongly all the time, in terms that would make classical audiences sputter in horror. Unlike film, pop music, art or literature, classical music is widely seen as an endangered species that needs special protection, special advocacy. Meanwhile, it threatens to lapse into mediocrity, in part precisely because its pretensions of privilege ensure that many non-aficionados in the audience, when they fail to be transported by an orchestra concert, assume that the fault lies in their own lack of understanding rather than in the indifferent quality of the event itself.

For any critic, one of the points of the exercise is to speak out and make clear to readers why it is that we care. And ultimately, as classical music coverage seems increasingly at risk, the issue of being a woman critic seems to me less about being a woman than about being a critic: the challenge of how to make what we do more vital and reach as wide an audience as possible, but by virtue of the inherent merits of our art and our writing, rather than by dumbing down in deference to anyone's idea of who "she" [the female classical music listener] is and what "she" wants.
Congratulations to Anne and to the Post for making it official! We need classical music coverage in our major newspapers, and Anne has proven herself to be a strong-minded and incisive critic. Also check out her latest article, in today's Style section.

UPDATE:
The media watchers at Fishbowl DC have published the Washington Post internal memo that had the news.

UPDATE 2:
Susan Elliott has the announcement from Musical America.

29.6.08

À mon chevet: Opera and the Morbidity of Music

Joseph Kerman, Opera and the Morbidity of Music

Beethoven, Piano Concertos, Levin/Gardiner
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
One [performer] who does not play [Beethoven's] own cadenzas is Robert Levin, the fortepianist and musicologist who has developed an impressive gift for improvisation in the styles of Mozart and Beethoven. His recent series of Beethoven concerto recordings with John Eliot Gardiner gives us a sense -- sometimes a vivid sense -- of what the concerto was like in its pretextual stage when it was dependent on personal performance. Flamboyant, powerful, and -- the first time you hear them at least -- admirably unpredictable, Levin's cadenzas make these recordings distinctive, indeed unique.

Of course, all improvisation is part prestidigitation. The musician has his formulas, as the conjuror has his tricks; if a virtuoso is like an athlete in some ways, he is like an illusionist in other ways. Levin creates the magical illusion of a pocket of music history innocent of and prior to scores -- though not of course innocent of cues and aides-mémoires. His art is built on internalizing historical documents like the opus 77 and opus 80 fantasies, which capture spontaneity and preserve it like a pinned butterfly. In his case preservation is accomplished through recording, and his recorded cadenzas and ornaments bring us closer to the actual experience of improvisation than any scores can.

-- Joseph Kerman, Opera and the Morbidity of Music (2008), "Text and Act: Beethoven's Concertos," pp. 190-91
Kerman published this essay in the New York Review of Books in 1999. In it he reviewed the Robert Levin recording he is discussing in this passage, as well as Carl Dahlhaus's book on Beethoven's concertos, released in the same year. The recording, to my dismay, has been discontinued, although you can still buy one of the volumes, with the Emperor Concerto and the Choral Fantasy.

28.6.08

Tombes de Mes Aïeux!


My great-great-great-great-grandmother, Josephine Gladieux, is the root of my proud French ancestry. As a child, she came from Vellescot, a little town in the Doubs (near Besançon) in 1844, with her parents, Jean-Pierre Gladieux and Rosaline Rossat. They settled in the aptly named Besancon (pronounced, à l'américaine, with the accent on the middle syllable instead of the last, as in French), a little farm town outside Ft. Wayne, Indiana. My mother's hobby is genealogy, and she has documented this part of our family's history. When we were living in France in 1997, my parents and I traveled to the town of Vellescot on a winter day and had a look at the cemetery. Researching things on this end, she has discovered that several of the Gladieux are buried in the cemetery by the Church of St. Louis in Besancon (shown at left -- note the Indiana limestone blocks carved to look like rusticated stone). The Gladieux family even paid for one of the windows in that church (shown at right), which bears the names of Jean-Pierre (Josephine's father), Célestin (her brother, born in America), and François (her eldest brother, also born in France). Records even show which pew they sat in at Mass.

27.6.08

Bartoli as Maria as Clari

Think of it as Maria, Part 2. After releasing an album devoted to repertoire sung by Maria Malibran, Cecilia Bartoli convinced the Zurich Opera to revive a mostly forgotten opera composed for Malibran, Jacques Fromental Halévy's Clari. The story concerns a girl, Clari, deceived by a nobleman with a promise of marriage. She learns of her own trouble only when watching an operetta within the opera. George Loomis was there to review it ( Zurich Opera and Cecilia Bartoli revive Halévy's opera 'Clari', May 27) for the International Herald Tribune:

In a program note, Bartoli extols Malibran's artistic freedom and, following the earlier singer's example, interpolates other arias - the beguiling Willow Song from Rossini's "Otello," sung with ravishing tenderness, and a pyrotechnical showpiece from Halévy's "The Tempest," which makes for a sizzling final scene. In their updated production Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier also accord themselves a measure of freedom, as they seem to hedge their bets on whether to take this rare bird of an opera seriously. There was also some unwelcome tinkering with Halévy's tuneful score, such as starting the action with an aria plucked from the middle of Act 1. Christian Fenouillat's set for the Duke's salon - a sort of gaudy art gallery that included an enormous red bust of a gorilla - was over the top, but it was clever to set Act 2 in a modern hospital for Clari's emotional recovery.
Adam Fischer led the HIP ensemble in residence at the Zurich Opera, the Orchestra La Scintilla.

26.6.08

Terezín

available at Amazon
Terezín | Theresienstadt, A. S. von Otter, B. Forsberg, C. Gerhaher, G. Huber, D. Hope, B. Risenfors, I. Hausmann, P. Dukes, J. Knight

(released March 25, 2008)
Deutsche Grammophon 477 6546
This recital disc, anchored by the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, is one of the most anticipated releases of the year. It brings together seventy-some minutes of rarities, jewels of sound both gloomy and sentimental from the early 20th century. This is music by composers less known than they should be, although not all of them are major discoveries that call for further investigation. The songs are sung, with exquisite diction and concentrated tone, by von Otter and another favorite Lied singer, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher. Their respective collaborating pianists, Bengt Forsberg and Gerold Huber, are among the best, most refined practitioners in the field today.

The selections range from the bluesy cabaret (Karel Švenk and Martin Roman) to the sugary tones of Austro-Hungarian operetta (Adolf Strauss and an adaptation of Emmerich Kálmán), from the simplest strophic songs in line with Schubert (Ilse Weber) to more cutting-edge examples of avant-garde trends (worthy sets by Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krása, and Pavel Haas). The result is a most convincing cross-section of emotions, embracing the optimistic, the despairing, and the brutally analytical. Brief appearances by accordion and guitar (Bebe Risenfors), clarinet (Ib Hausmann), viola (Philip Dukes), and cello (Josephine Knight) add affective touches of color to what is a fairly somber tapestry. Daniel Hope provides a stark conclusion with Erwin Schulhoff's spiky, moody sonata for solo violin.

A further level of emotional power is found in the historical background of this music, all composed by musicians imprisoned in the Terezín ghetto after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia (except for Schulhoff, who died at the Wülzburg concentration camp in Bavaria). Most of them died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, which was the final destination of most of the prisoners at Terezín. The context may make this extremely difficult listening, as it continues to do for me, especially Ilse Weber's lullaby, which she reportedly sang last in the gas chamber as she was executed with the sick children she nursed at Theresienstadt. Even worse is Carlo Sigmund Taube's Ein jüdisches Kind, set to a poem by the composer's wife, Erika Taube, about their young son. All three were killed at Auschwitz in 1944. Without the unifying concept, this album is full of worthy musical discoveries; with it, it becomes a memorial of the depth of human suffering.

71'40"

25.6.08

À mon chevet: Opera and the Morbidity of Music

Joseph Kerman, Opera and the Morbidity of MusicÀ mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

After an initial impulse, soon stifled, to extend a hand to Eric Altschuler in commiseration, I have turned instead to brooding about today's musical culture, the culture that produced him [and his book Bachanalia: The Essential Listener's Guide to Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier"]. Years ago I floated an idea about Western music history, that it might be viewed as falling into millennium-long phases: initially an oral tradition, with people performing music from memory; then a period of literacy (a term Leo Treitler was using at the time), predicated on scores and partbooks to sing and play from; and now a new model determined by sound recording and the activity (or passivity) of listening. Musicians will have a tendency, and they should fight against it, to brush Bachanalia aside as a case of the deaf leading the deaf. Aloof from performing music, from reading it, and even from reading about it, this book is a true, dismaying product of the new dispensation.

-- Joseph Kerman, Opera and the Morbidity of Music (2008), "A Guide to the Well-Tempered Clavier," p. 85
A dear friend sent me a copy of this wonderful new collection of the authoritative and entertaining essays written by Joseph Kerman for the New York Review of Books. Kerman's point of view is always incisive, and he has updated many of the articles with more recent references and thoughts. Whether he is dismantling Joseph Horowitz's gloom and doom prophecies about the death of classical music, surveying the understanding of William Byrd's Catholic faith, or reviewing this non-specialist book, the voice is opinionated and memorable. This essay, which so accurately targets the modern problem in classical music -- the listening shift toward recording -- was written, remarkably, in 1994.

24.6.08

Ionarts at Large: Krystian Zimerman at the Concertgebouw

Krystian Zimerman's June 15th recital at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw featured unparalleled virtuosity in the works of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Szymanowski as part of the Master Pianists Series. After a strongly worded announcement for the audience to keep very still and quiet for the concentration of both performer and listeners, Zimerman descended the long stairway to begin Bach's Partita in C Minor in a softly lit room.

Zimerman realized his ideal to always discover new frontiers of pianism: such a fascinating array of textures in the partita's multiple movements often came at the expense of simplicity as slow movements became mushy (at times over-pedaled) and some faster movements pushy. Zimerman remarked in a recent Financial Times interview that he often avoids practicing works he is planning to perform so they will be pristinely fresh on stage. Combining this with a high-speed train approach to Bach caused lines to become lost and the music to often railroad past the audience. Grand Romantic crescendos into final cadences, sounding as if the performer were strangling a baby, have been abandoned in HIP Holland now for decades.

Beethoven's Sonata No. 32 in C Minor provided more of a vessel to handle Zimerman's spritely virtuosity. In the final movement particularly, there were multiple musical moments of the sun bursting from behind the clouds. Zimerman youthfully exploited the entertaining qualities of this work as was the case in Brahms's Klavierstucke, op. 119. These four pieces -- Brahms's last for the piano -- lacked the often tormented\inner-struggle found in much of his oeuvre due to Zimerman's sweeping approach to the final three works. A heightened transparency was experienced in the first Intermezzo in B Minor with gorgeous falling lines. Zimerman played with pure abandon in the final Rhapsody in E-flat Major producing a full sound that the Concertgebouw's perfect acoustics accepted.

Szymanowski's Variations in B Minor on a Polish Folk Tune finally allowed Zimerman to shine as a master pianist. The theme is melodic, yet complex, with an underlying Scriabin-like, ambiguous harmony. Szymanowski is definitely a composer with whom one should become better acquainted. Here is a snapshot of my notes -- Var. 1: Right hand flying like a butterfly; Var. 2: Crazy octaves. It sounds like he has 8 hands, yet everything is sublimely beautiful as the walls shake. How does he get more clarity in this barrage of notes than in the Bach that opened the program? Var. 3: Szymanowski briefly quotes Chopin's Sonata No. 3; Var. 4: Soft and flighty; Var. 5: Dark funeral-march leading to ffff chords; Var. 6: A vast commotion with super-small arpeggiated notes, each sparklingly clear. Powerhouse; Var. 7: Bach-like and fugal. Bombast. Hitting everything with a grand ending.

Zimerman suggested he should play something either Italian or French as an encore. He announced the Second Movement of... but I unfortunately missed the name of the French composer. Zimerman gently allowed colors to merge and unfold as the primary driver of the piece.

23.6.08

Giorgio Morandi at the Pope's

Even on a non-peak day, visiting the Vatican Museum is a trial. Like a corpuscle in a pulsing artery, one is swept along in a vast crowd that grows more intense as you approach the Sistine Chapel, through hallways and chambers that were never meant to accommodate that number of people. On a visit earlier this month, something leapt off the wall, as we passed from the Stanze painted by Raphael back toward the Sistina. The route you take if you follow the detour to see the Stanze is through the papal collection of modern art. Most people do not even bother to stop there, because there is just so much in the antiquities and Renaissance. If you do pause there, however, you can see some amazing things, including five exquisite still lifes by Giorgio Morandi. My favorite one of the five is shown here. Sorry, no further information.

22.6.08

In Brief: See You at the Lake Edition

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

  • Via Maud Newton, Edmund White has an essay on French writer Marguerite Duras, in which he labels her "preposterous." Like so many of her generation in France, it turns out that Duras has a questionable past in the Pétain era, having worked as a government censor. [New York Review of Books]

  • If we have ever quoted from or linked to the news organization that is doing this absurd thing, we apologize. [Boing Boing]

  • David L. Stern has the story of the next hot kid conductor. Following the example of Gustavo Dudamel, the young German conductor Jan Moritz Onken has received high praise at the podium of the national youth orchestra of Kazahkstan. [International Herald Tribune]

  • Another one bites the dust: the Kansas City Star has fired Paul Horsley and eliminated the position of classical music critic. [Detritus Review]

  • By popular vote, Duke Ellington should be on the District of Columbia's [not a] state quarter, edging out Frederick Douglass. However, as nothing is determined by democracy in our nation's capital, Ronald Reagan will probably end up on our quarter. They named our airport after him, too. [DCist]

  • Rolando Villazón has returned to the stage, in the Don Carlo at Covent Garden. George Loomis says it is lavishly cast, noting especially that Villazón "pours out handsome tone," but that "sometimes the sound turns grainy and the role seems a stretch for his lyrical instrument." [International Herald Tribune]

  • Hugh Canning, much more candidly, says that Villazón "is not, never has been and never will be the 'new Domingo'." [The Times]

  • Bruce tells us that concerts from the Aspen, Aix, and Verbier festivals will be made available as Webcasts. Must. Listen. To. All. Of. It. [Monotonous Forest]

  • This made me laugh. The people making an awful movie based on an awful book, Angels and Demons, wanted to film some scenes in two churches in Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo and Santa Maria della Vittoria. Denied! says the Vatican. [Hollywood News]

  • 1,001 books to read before you die. Get to work! [Listology]

21.6.08

Die tote Stadt @ Summer Opera


Michael Hayes (Paul) and Kara Shay Thomson (Marietta)
in Die tote Stadt, Summer Opera Theater Company
The founder and guide of Summer Opera Theater Company, Elaine Walter, is taken by Erich Korngold's most successful opera, Die tote Stadt. In only thirty seasons, the company has now mounted this unlikely work not once but twice, last in 1998 (in what was by all accounts an extravagantly strange production) and again this month. Perhaps it is justified by the coincidence with the 50th anniversary of Korngold's death, which was observed last November. For whatever reason, the production that Walter directed was stripped down to its essence, in musical and visual terms.

The libretto is credited to one Paul Schott, only in the 1970s revealed to be a pseudonym for Korngold's father, the powerful music critic Julius Korngold. The odd, psychological story was drawn from Bruges-la-Morte, a short novel by the Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach. Published only in 1892, it was a notably current choice of subject, which librettist and composer lightened considerably in tone. A man in Bruges (the dead city of the title) struggles to keep the memory of his dead wife, Marie, alive by preserving their house in its exact state like a shrine. A woman who is her uncanny double, an uninhibited dancer named Marietta, shows up in his life and haunts his dreams (this is where the Korngolds changed the details quite a bit).

The singing on Wednesday night was good among the leads, especially tenor Michael Hayes in the role of Paul. It is a voice that has been around, that sounds lived in but with the fortitude to project with confidence and almost all of the high notes. Sadly, there was not much believable chemistry between Hayes and soprano Kara Shay Thomson, making her debut with the company as Marietta/Marie. Her voice opened up in a similar scope, making for an expansive lute song, for example, in the first scene. As Frank/Fritz/Pierrot, Mark Whatley had his own impressive, perhaps overeager debut with the company, while Alexandra Christoforakis's performance as the maid, Brigitta, was sensitive but at times covered. The supporting cast in the second act, with its musical quotations of Meyerbeer and Wagner, made a valiant effort to get past the reduction of numbers to a handful instead of a larger scene.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Not Much Depth To 'Die Tote Stadt' (Washington Post, June 16)

T. L. Ponick, Lush 'Dead City' revived (Washington Times, June 16)

Tim Smith, Korngold's 'Die tote Stadt' gets rare revival in DC (Critical Mass, June 19)
In both musical and directorial terms, this was Die tote Stadt reconceived as a chamber opera. The set by Thomas F. Donahue was framed by large canvas pieces, on which projections of trees or buildings occasionally appeared (lighting designed by Donald Edmund Thomas). Mark C. Graf, who held the performance together at the podium, made the reduction of Korngold's vast score. The orchestra, listed as the Student Orchestral Institute, was in fact composed of a mixture of students and professional ringers. They played remarkably well, considering the demands of such a task: it was in the strings that problems were most evident, where special effects (harmonics especially) and large swells of sound were less than satisfying.

Die tote Stadt is rife with references to the idea of the resurrection and transformation of bodies. In the second scene, Paul watches Marietta reenact the scene she is dancing at the opera, the Resurrection scene from Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable. In the third act of that grand opera, there is a ballet of debauched nuns who rise from their graves led by their Abbess, Helena. Then, in the third scene, Paul and Marietta hear the Corpus Christi procession through the streets of Bruges. (Although it is not identified as such, the children sing of accompanying Christ's blood in the procession -- the feast is the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ -- and the monks sing the hymn Pange lingua gloriosi corporis mysterium, usually sung on this feast during the public procession.) References to Salome crop up, too, in the dancing and sexual hunger of Marietta. With such a rich background, this production had an air of the quotidian about it, which was on one hand refreshing and on the other a little too plain.

Die tote Stadt, rare enough that it would be a shame to miss it, will be performed only once more, tomorrow afternoon (June 22, 2:30 pm) at Catholic University's Hartke Theater. The company's second production, Carmen, will be mounted next month (July 20, 23, 27) at Sidney Harman Hall downtown.

Sampling the Washington Early Music Festival

Style masthead

Treble and More Treble for La Ménéstrandise
Washington Post, June 18, 2008

La Ménéstrandise
Washington Early Music Festival
Christ Church, Capitol Hill

20.6.08

Puryear @ the National Gallery


It would be near impossible to top the installation of Martin Puryear's incredible sculptures in the atrium at MoMA this past year: the space was made for his work and the white cube galleries allowed for a clean viewing for the remainder of the collection. I was, however, looking forward to the next venue, the neoclassic background of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The atrium of the NGA's East Building proved to be a challenge, swallowing the work in granite and Tennessee marble, treating them as toys under the floating Calder mobile. (In response to a question at the press preview about a relationship to Calder's art, Puryear spoke of his nine months working at Calder's studio in France, getting to know his family, his work regimen and deep respect for Calder's mixture of playfulness and seriousness; qualities he considered were in his own work.)

As with the East Building, unfortunately, the rotunda of West Building is not very gracious to Puryear's Ladder For Booker T. Washington either. When I first heard of its placement there I thought it was a perfect choice -- dueling cultural aesthetics; however, the piece seems insignificant, hung off center to the rotunda's massive black marble columns and fountain.

What works best, as I had hoped, are Puryear's works displayed in the more intimate formal galleries of the West Building, especially how these masterfully crafted yet often quirky forms relate even between rooms, such as the long graceful shaft of Desire against the rugged structure of Thicket. Desire, which could owe its origin to some form of antique farm equipment or maybe a lighthouse, grandly occupies its own gallery, a very different experience than the MoMA exhibit, another example of how sensitive the work is to location. I'm going to let Ionarts summer intern Hannah finish with her observations of the day.



Morning was something I had been looking forward to, but the reality of the early hour wake-up had made me, for a moment, a little less excited for the journey. My day seemed to be all about journeys really: first our car ride to the train station, the subsequent hour we spent on the train and finally our 5-something block walk from the train station to the National Gallery. When finally arriving and after listening to Mr. Puryear speak about his work, I realized that the subjects he chooses to focus on in his work are his own journeys, the experiences that have brought him to where he is today.


As is true of any artist, the works of Martin Puryear seem to me to be a personal representation of his travels, experiences, and interests throughout his life. Mr. Puryear's unique life has led to the creation of a select group of sculptures that highlight the path and his learning that he has gained from journeys throughout the world.

While speaking of his love for nature as a child he recalled finding himself in a city -- Washington, D.C. -- that was separated into two different worlds within. During his early years family vacations such as camping or trips to the Natural History museum would take him away from the discomfort. Searching for a new environment Mr. Puryear enrolled in a university in Sweden, where he studied Scandinavian building and furniture crafting. Much of his work shows the tools and skills he was taught during that time. Pieces such as Lever No.1, which has the distinct characteristics of an early Scandinavian viking ship. The work feels like a modern interpretation of an old world vessel, using the same simple techniques as would have been used hundreds of years ago. Other pieces such as Bower have cage structures resembling the ribs of a ship. He connects his interest in nature and the craft of ship building and the correlation between shipbuilders and their uses of the animal form to keep their ships afloat.

The scale of each piece gives one the sensation of walking through a field planted with crops that are head high: one is not able to ignore a single piece as you walk immersed in each. When standing in this space I was made to feel quite literally small by the size of these sculptures, in particular Desire. The immense size shuts me up, to have the experience Puryear hopes for rather than allowing me to try to (by my nature) define so much. Mr. Puryear has said he wants his work to "delight" those who take the time to stop and appreciate them. By better understanding Puryear's story, I was able to appreciate his sculptures as being single thoughts that make up his intriguing and truly original tale, while seeing a bit of his own personal journey.

Martin Puryear opens on Sunday, June 22nd, and runs through August 28th at the National Gallery of Art. More images of the exhibit on Flickr and from the MoMA exhibit here and in my MoMA post.

19.6.08

À mon chevet: The Rest Is Noise

Alex Ross, The Rest Is NoiseÀ mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

Strauss's behavior was not always as contemptible as it seemed. In the case of the Bruno Walter affair [replacing the conductor in Berlin], the outside world had no idea that Strauss accepted the agreement with reluctance, and only after a Jewish-owned concert agency, Wolff and Sachs, informed him -- truthfully or not -- that Walter himself had asked Strauss to step in. In general, Strauss refused to take part in the de-Jewification of musical life. He avoided signing papers that would have set in motion the removal of Jews from the Music Chamber. He resisted the ban on Jewish composers and announced that the symphonies of Mahler, among other things, should continue to be performed. Planning an international music festival in Hamburg in 1935, he became exasperated when the Propaganda Ministry demanded an "Aryan French" substitute for Paul Dukas's opera Ariane and Bluebeard. Strauss promptly declared his "total lack of interest in the Hamburg Festival from now on . . . I am not coming to Hamburg and, for the rest, Götz v. B." Götz von Berlichingen is the Goethe play whose hero famously says, "Lick my ass."

-- Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise (2007), "Death Fugue: Music in Hitler's Germany," p. 324
People on the east coast say they are going "to the beach," while back home we say, "We are going to the lake." Hope you are doing one or the other.

18.6.08

Kenneth Leighton and the Orchestra

available at Amazon
Kenneth Leighton, Orchestral Works, Vol. 1, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, R. Hickox

(released May 27, 2008)
Chandos CHAN 10461
Most of my knowledge of the music of British composer Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) comes from having sung some of his sacred choral pieces, an extensive and worthy body of work composed for the Anglican Church. His widow still lives in Edinburgh, where the Yorkshire-born composer held his last teaching post, and heads the Kenneth Leighton Trust, which has provided some of the funding for this inaugural installment of the complete orchestral works (as well as other recording projects). Not surprisingly, judging from Leighton's choral works, his orchestral music is worth getting to know.

All three works on this disc by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales are available for the first time in commercial CD release (two of the three were reportedly once available on LP). The Symphony for Strings (op. 3, 1948-49) is an advanced student work, premiered by Gerald Finzi's Newbury String Players and not surprisingly sounding a lot like Vaughan Williams and Howells. After finishing degrees in classics and music (with Bernard Rose) at Oxford, Leighton went to Italy on a Mendelssohn Scholarship, where his music went in a more avant-garde (but still neoclassical) direction after studies with Goffredo Petrassi at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (Peter Maxwell Davies was another of Petrassi's British students).

A greater openness to dissonance is heard in the two later works, especially the striking Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra, and Timpani (op. 58, 1970). This is an especially good performance, featuring John Scott as organ soloist, who like Leighton got his start as a boy chorister at Wakefield Cathedral (not too long ago, Scott succeeded Gerre Hancock as music director at St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan). The most austere selection is the Concerto for String Orchestra (op. 39, 1960-61), with pronounced use of twelve-tone melodic themes, not exactly serial but more stubbornly dissonant. Even so, it does not sound much thornier than the thorniest music of Benjamin Britten. Conductors looking for programming off the beaten path (but not too far so) should have a listen.

77'34"

Va-Va-Voom


It is being reported that the dancer and actress Cyd Charisse has died. One of the giant sex symbols of the 50s, she was a classically trained dancer (before her Hollywood work, she actually toured with the Ballets Russes) with legs that seemed to go on forever. The clip above shows her heart-stopping turn in an otherwise forgettable extraneous sequence in Singin' in the Rain. Rest in peace.

17.6.08

Early Verdi @ Wolf Trap

Ulysses
Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Verdi: A Biography
Verdi's two attempts at opera buffa bookend his career, with Falstaff (1893) preceded only by the much less often performed Un Giorno di Regno (1840). The story of that early comedy concerns the King of Poland, Stanisław Leszczyński, who sends someone disguised as himself to France because of a crisis of succession to the throne. Kudos to Wolf Trap Opera for giving this ugly stepchild a chance, in the first production of the most exciting season the company has offered in recent memory. No one is likely to suggest that this youthful opera would ever enter the mainstream repertory, but this production more than acquitted itself, in fact demonstrating that, if performed well and mounted with a tasteful eye, Un Giorno di Regno can reign for more than just one day.

At the time that Verdi took up the (admittedly ludicrous) libretto, by Felice Romani, he had just lost his wife, Margherita, and young son (not long after their daughter had died) and he was convinced that he was not cut out for the opera composer's life. At this point in his career, Verdi was not able to influence the creation of the libretto as much as he wanted. He later recalled that he chose Il Finto Stanislao because it was the "least bad" of several libretti offered to him for his second opera, at La Scala. Verdi did what he could to improve the libretto, possibly with the help of Temistocle Solera, and rushed to finish the opera. Lackluster singing sealed the fate of the opera, which was withdrawn after a single performance. The audience's whistles and boos scarred Verdi badly, as he wrote in a later letter:
At 25 I already knew what "the public" meant. From then on, successes have never made the blood rush to my head, and fiascos have never discouraged me. If I went on with this unfortunate career, it was because at 25, it was too late for me to do anything else and because I was not physically strong enough to go back to my fields (Letter to Filippo Filippi, quoted by Phillips-Matz, p. 103).
Liam Bonner (Belfiore) and Tamara Wilson (Marchesa) in Un Giorno di Regno, Wolf Trap Opera, photo by Carol Pratt
Liam Bonner (Belfiore) and Tamara Wilson (Marchesa) in Un Giorno di Regno, Wolf Trap Opera, photo by Carol Pratt
Although the opera was revived during Verdi's lifetime, he did not revise it. Accordingly, Wolf Trap presented the opera with all of its numbers, although a significant number of cuts were made within numbers. Suffice it to say that the opera does not suffer. All the same, the spirited and precise conducting of Brian Garman kept this rather silly train rattling on its tracks. A crack orchestral ensemble, reduced in size to fit in the pit of the Barns but still sounding full and properly balanced, kept the score tight, clean, and bubbly.

The cast was exceptional, consisting of younger voices with great promise and an already impressive dramatic sense, honed by strong direction. Ryan McKinny and Joshua Jeremiah found their comic timing as the Barone di Kelbar and his conniving friend, Treasurer La Rocca, respectively, without going too far over the top. Liam Bonner's voice could perhaps have been scaled back just a notch at times, but his wicked grin and twinkling eye were a great fit for Belfiore, the French officer masquerading as the King of Poland. For the female leads, Tamara Wilson was full-voiced as the Marchesa, who is in love with Belfiore and nearly undoes his plan to help the King of Poland. Marjorie Owens was indisposed but bravely sang as Giulietta, the Baron's niece, to everyone's relief. Giulietta is supposed to be married to La Rocca but is actually in love with his nephew, Edoardo, sung by the elegantly voiced but dramatically stiff tenor Beau Gibson.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Youth Reigns Supreme in 'King' (Washington Post, June 16)
The production was delightfully simple, updating the action from a castle in Brittany in the 18th century to Paris in the 1950s. Director Kristine McIntyre did a fine job of arranging the cast in convincing movements, in front of the basic but beautiful set by Erhard Rom. The concept called for elegant but basically modern costumes (designed by Carol Bailey). The only time that the production faltered was when McIntyre could not resist having a moped speed onto the stage for the final exit of Belfiore and the Marchesa. Been there, done that. The picture of Verdi on the wall of the set may have rolled his eyes.

One performance of King for a Day remains, this evening (June 17, 8 pm). The rest of the season includes stagings of Handel's Alcina (July 13 and 15) and Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos (August 15, 17, and 19).

16.6.08

Eugene Onegin with the NSO

Ekaterina Semenchuk
Ekaterina Semenchuk, mezzo-soprano
This is a week for summer opera, and there is not a single chestnut on the schedule, at least not yet. For the penultimate concerts of his tenure at the National Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin programmed another opera. Much of Tchaikovsky's showy instrumental music leaves me cold, but in his songs and operas the composer's melodic gifts and dramatic sense are in the right place. His masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, is an almost perfect work, in which no gesture is superfluous: every stroke is calculated to advance the story, a tale not of operatic clichés, but of gut-wrenching regrets. Like so much Russian art, the libretto draws on Pushkin, a novel in verse (in English translation) that Vladimir Nabokov said could not really be translated into English (see his poem On Translating Eugene Onegin).

The opera is hardly a rarity, having been mounted by Virginia Opera earlier this year, quite memorably last season at the Met, and by the Kirov Opera in 2003. In fact, Leonard Slatkin programmed scenes from the opera for the NSO Season Opening Ball Concert in 2006, with two of the same singers under his baton this week. As heard on Saturday night, the best part of the mostly Russian cast, largely from Valery Gergiev's stable, was the mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Olga. Much as she did in the Kirov Opera performance of Verdi's Requiem in 2006, Semenchuk soared but especially plunged into a molten bottom range, wallowing in the earthy depths of Tatiana's playful sister.

Irina Mataeva, soprano
Irina Mataeva, soprano
At her side was the lovely soprano Irina Mataeva, who was also a gorgeous Desdemona in the Kirov Opera's Otello last year. Hers was not the most vocally crystalline or powerful Tatiana, and some of the top part of the tessitura was a little strained, but there was a similar girlish fragility here, as with her Desdemona, that was utterly convincing. The male leads were good, if not quite as good. We had good memories of tenor Daniil Shtoda in Il Viaggio a Reims (DVD and at the Kennedy Center), but his timbre was disappointingly dull at first. By the duel scene, however, his voice had warmed considerably, and he gave an exquisitely sensitive and moving rendition of Lensky's final aria. Veteran baritone Sergei Leiferkus was a patrician Onegin, weary of the world vocally and dramatically, unraveling his tightly wound control only in his despair at the end of the opera.

Most impressive among the supporting cast was a smart, graceful cameo by local tenor Robert Baker as the poetry-spouting Frenchman Triquet. Bass Gustav Andreassen attacked the role of Gremin with incisive snarl, perhaps too much for the nature of the role. Mezzo-sopranos Irina Tchistjakova and Mzia Nioradze were appropriately maternal as Larina and Filipyevna, respectively. The Washington Chorus, bolstered by at least a couple professional ringers, was a frenzied presence in the chorister seats above, shouting folk songs and comments. Tenor Gerald Kavinski (a longtime friend of Ionarts) had a fine little moment, uncredited, as the leader of the peasants in Act I, returning from their backbreaking work in the fields.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Russian Roots Run Deep, and Strong, in NSO's 'Onegin' (Washington Post, June 13)
While the Russian cast knew the opera very well, the NSO had a lot to prepare for these concerts, and the results, while pleasing, left some polish and unity to be desired. Slatkin opted for a nearly complete performance of the score, including almost all of the worthy dance music, much of it among the most famous sections of the opera, cutting only the écossaise in Act III. Slatkin has a tendency to shave off a little wedge of the start of his beat sometimes, which can create havoc as he pushes the tempo forward (as in the accelerando of the introduction to the Letter Scene, which was otherwise very satisfying). The horn and oboe solos, the latter by soon-to depart Acting Principal Rebecca Henderson, were particularly well performed.

This concert will be repeated once more, this evening at 8 pm. The farewell concerts for Leonard Slatkin, which we will unfortunately miss, are scheduled for June 26 to 28, with Sol Gabetta playing the second Shostakovich cello concerto (much better than the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations originally announced), as well as a welcome performance of Copland's third symphony. It is not a program of old favorites, for which Slatkin is to be commended: a meaty departure.

À mon chevet: Ulysses

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

The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace. Far away in the west the sun was setting and the last glow of all too fleeting day lingered lovingly on sea and strand, on the proud promontory of dear old Howth guarding as ever the waters of the bay, on the weedgrown rocks along Sandymount shore and, last but not least, on the quiet church whence there streamed forth at times upon the stillness the voice of prayer to her who is in her pure radiance a beacon ever to the storm-tossed heart of man, Mary, star of the sea.

The three girl friends were seated on the rocks, enjoying the evening scene and the air which was fresh but not too chilly. Many a time and oft were they wont to come there to that favourite nook to have a cosy chat beside the sparkling waves and discuss matters feminine. Cissy Caffrey and Edy Boardman with the baby in the pushcar and Tommy and Jacky Caffrey, two little curlyheaded boys, dressed in sailor suits with caps to match and the name H.M.S. Belleisle printed on both. For Tommy and Jacky were twins, scarce four years old and very noisy and spoiled twins sometimes but for all that darling little fellows with bright merry faces and endearing ways about them. They were dabbling in the sand with their spades and buckets, building castles as children do, or playing with their big coloured ball, happy as the day was long.

-- James Joyce, Ulysses, p. 346
Happy Bloomsday! One of these years, I am going to make the pilgrimage to see the manuscript in Philadelphia.

This scene, from the thirteenth episode ("Nausicaa"), sounds like just where one wants to be this time of year, and where indeed we will be very soon.

Wagner Society

Style masthead

Wagner Society Singers
Washington Post, June 16, 2008

Thomas Stewart and Evelyn Lear Emerging Singers Concert
Wagner Society of Washington, D.C.
Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany

15.6.08

In Brief: Father's Day Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond, just a little bit late.

  • Via Alex Ross, we hear that critic Alan Rich's blog has gone live. [So I've Heard]

  • Guest blogger Ralph Locke points out the American-British conflict over Anthony Payne's completion of Elgar's Third Symphony. [Dial "M" for Musicology]

  • A man in Texas (must be a Stars fan) is suing the owners of the Detroit Red Wings to stop the practice of throwing octopi onto the ice. I think you know where I stand on this. [Puck Daddy]

  • Thank you, Bruce Hodges, for making us aware that June is Accordion Awareness Month. While Bruce blames Lawrence Welk for the instrument's lack of popularity, it always makes me think of Judy Tenuta, the comedian who often calls the accordion in her act "my I.U.D." [Monotonous Forest]

  • Meanwhile, did you know that Lucy Liu plays the accordion? That the accordion is a member of the reed family? That the accordion is the official musical instrument of the city of San Francisco? [United States National Accordion News]

  • Curse that "Brian," who is now in Vienna watching Renée Fleming in Strauss's Capriccio. Longtime readers may recall my rapture at seeing her in that opera in Paris in 2004. It's one of the monuments of 20th-century opera, and Fleming is at her best in repertory like Strauss and Korngold. [Out West Arts]

14.6.08

Sibelius Is My Hero

Style masthead

From the BSO, a Heroic Approach to Sibelius
Washington Post, June 14, 2008

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Dausgaard, guest conductor
Barry Douglas, piano
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concert No. 3
Sibelius, En Saga (op. 9) and Symphony No. 7
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)



Some research that could not be accommodated in the word limit:

Andrew Barnett, Sibelius
Andrew Barnett, Sibelius

Sibelius Studies
Sibelius Studies, ed. Timothy L. Jackson and Veijo Murtomäki
Andrew Barnett, in his 2007 biography of Sibelius, tries to tease apart some of the mystery behind the autobiographical program of En Saga. The work followed the more massive Kullervo, composed for more modest orchestral forces in response to criticism that Kullervo would not be performed often enough. Its first version, in 1892, was never published, but Sibelius uncharacteristically held onto the manuscript which is preserved at Ainola, the composer's home. It was composed shortly after the composer's marriage and his collecting of examples of Finnish runic singing in Karelia. Sibelius made it clear that the unspecified "legend" of the title was autobiographical but refused to go into detail.

A clue can be found in the library at Ainola, a painting by Axel Gallén from 1894. Often called En Saga, it is a watercolor in three parts: a portrait of Sibelius, a mysteriously colorful landscape, and a blank space left for the composer to notate part of the tone poem. Sibelius left it empty, but a clue to the meaning of the tone poem may be in it.

Barnett and Veijo Murtomäki note that there is a musical clue, too. The hero's crisis was like that found in so many ballads: the hero destroyed by sexual hubris, the temptation of libidinal urges. The quotation of Wagner's "Tristan chord" in En Saga also points to a wound that is related to a forbidden love. There are themes in En Saga, especially in the slow middle section (mostly excised by Sibelius in the 1902 revision), that recall what Richard Taruskin has called the "nega topos," serpentine, especially chromatic melodic lines often associated with a female seducer who enslaves men. Axel Gallén, who was part of the Symposium drinking club with Sibelius, the conductor Robert Kajanus, and critic Oskar Meribanto, may have known something about the episode behind the tone poem.

Online scores:
En Saga and other tone poems

Recent performances of Sibelius 7th symphony:
University of Maryland Orchestra (October 26, 2007)
National Symphony Orchestra (May 29, 2008)

Barry Douglas:
With Camerata Ireland (March 23, 2007)

Grimaldis @ Area 405

It's a long way from from its perch on Charles Street, and culture shock comes to mind when thinking of the C. Grimaldis Gallery teaming with Area 405 to stage a sculpture exhibit. Grimaldis, consistently one of Baltimore's best galleries, is known for its high-end stable of artists, clean white walls, and polished wood floors. They made a bold move by choosing to stage an exhibit at Area 405, a down and out former factory, in a neighborhood known more for the flashing blue lights of police surveillance cameras and stray bullets than art galleries. That said, it's one of my favorite art spaces in town, with a buzz of studio activity and very cool living spaces, an art fortress in East Baltimore.

In conversations with gallery owner Costas Grimaldis over the past few years I got the feeling he was thinking more about retirement than pushing boundaries and expanding his roster of artists, but he's gotten a second wind and lucky us. Grimaldis @ Area 405, a selection of large-scale sculpture from gallery artists, is as close to a perfect fit as a show could be.

I've seen several exhibits at 405 in the past few years. The space, for several reasons, is challenging at best to display most work in, but it has met its match: with generous spacing and a tactical use of spot lighting these large-scale works by eight artists inhabit the space organically, as with John Ruppert's tall slender cast wood Lightning Strike Series, freezing the mysterious remnants of natural disaster. Jene Highstein's carved wood form, similar to an enormous shovel handle, has a striking ghost-like presence. Next to it is another Ruppert, one of his formed chain link orbs, which sits among his cast stones. I thought of the recent NASA probe landing on Mars, scooping up soil samples. (The piece has a video component that wasn't working at the time.)

Jon Isherwood's stunning black granite obelisks, standing side by side and titled Both and Between, passionately explore the material and as always are precisely executed, the work of a true master craftsman. The Isherwood relates nicely with Christina Iglesias's large steel, glass, and plaster pieces in the front gallery. Maren Hassinger bundles wire roping like Van Gogh painted wheat bales, an agrarian in a factory setting.

John Van Alstine's mixture of stone and steel would be amazing on a huge scale. I'm going to get my wish when his piece Rings of Unity -- Circles Of Inclusion is unveiled at the Beijing Olympic Park -- very cool, John. Sir Anthony Caro, probably the most noted sculptor in the group, is represented by small welded ribbons of rusted steel, propped on a pristine plywood display, titled Table Piece CCL.

The biggest surprise and attention-getter at the opening reception was Chul-Hyun Ahn's dazzling Mirror Tunnel. I'm still trying to figure out how he created this Alice in Wonderland illusion, but as with a good magician, I really don't want to know -- just do more!


Here's to more collaborations at 405: maybe the Walters or the BMA could be next? More pictures on Flickr.

13.6.08

Bridget Riley in Paris

The Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, in the Palais de Tokyo, is one of my favorite museums. It has just opened a Bridget Riley retrospective, the first one in France, which will run through September 14. The point is to resituate our understanding of the artist, in terms of the movement with which she is usually associated, Op Art. Harry Bellet has a review (Bridget Riley, couleurs solaires et effets d'optique, June 14) in Le Monde (my translation):

Riley has her roots not in Vasarely but in Seurat. The sense of rhythm comes from the Italian futurists, and her move into abstraction follows the same process as Mondrian. The first room, where one is recommended to linger, makes this clear.

On the left, a copy of Seurat's Pont de Courbevoie, testifies to the young artist's desire understand the function, as much optical as pictural, of the theory of simultaneous contrasts, of the interaction of one color on its neighbor, of the virtual appearance of a third tone when two complementary colors are placed side by side. On the right, a series of drawings, rhythmically animated like a crowded gym: these are not men in movement but Tuscan vines. Nearby, some trees, in pencil, are so synthetic that almost become abstract.
For lots more information, see this PDF file.

12.6.08

Impermanence

In memory of Jerry Consalvi, who passed on
to the next life on May 28, 2008


available at Amazon
Impermanence, Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble

(released March 18, 2008)
ECM New Series 2026
About two years ago, I reviewed Impermanence, the multimedia work composed by experimental vocalist and composer Meredith Monk in 2004-2005, in a live performance at the George Mason University Center for the Fine Arts. About a year after that, Monk and her Vocal Ensemble recorded the work, in a slightly altered form, for this recent release, which makes for worthy listening (out of focus cover art notwithstanding). She gave an interesting interview about the piece on NPR last month. Of course, as nice as it is to have this recording, a CD tells only one part of the story, as Monk's work combines voice, movement, video, rhythm, and light. (Judging from the hatchet job by reviewer Andrew Clements, the absence of at least the memory of the extra-musical parts can diminish the work significantly.)

Meredith Monk's partner, choreographer Mieke van Hoek, died suddenly of cancer in 2002. Shortly after that tragic event in her life, Monk received an invitation from Rosetta Life, a group in England that connects patients in hospice care with artists. Monk went to England, met with several patients, played her music, and talked to them. She even had the patients, in their timorous voices, sing the melody composed by Mieke van Hoek (Mieke's Melody #5, now moved to the end of the work), each with an independent sense of pitch and rhythm.

The result of those visits, Impermanence is a sequence of scenes or sketches about the irreconcilable conflict between one's identity and the unavoidable ending of it. The recorded version still begins with Monk alone at the piano for Last Song, a series of minimalistic chords over which she riffs hypnotically on every possible combination of words implying finality ("last song, last breath, last ditch, last minute") and the frenzied disintegration of those words into phonemes. Liminal features a recitation of the sometimes nonsensical actions attributed to the patients: "she called tofu pillows," "she calls the bed a nest," "he talked back to the radio." In addition to her usual medium, the voice, Monk has scored the piece for a range of instruments besides the piano, traditional (bass clarinet), folk (ocarina), and makeshift (bicycle wheel).

Monk's music is basically minimalistic, a term that no composer seems to want applied to his or her music. The harmony is fairly simple, quasi-tonal, and repeated with small variations. What is complicated is the rhythmic patterns and the range of singing especially. Many of the sounds in Impermanence are calming, although Monk does use some of her hallmark ultra-high singing (parodied in Meredith Monk Scares an Owl on YouTube, of course) and folk-inspired cantillation (even yodeling and cackling). All-vocal tracks like Passage and Maybe 2 (with a few instruments added) are still the most haunting moments in the piece, a exploration of how overlapping lines merge into a waterfall-like cascade of sound, rushing motion that gives the impression of stasis. Monk's incorporation of pop- and jazz-inspired sounds, which might be expected to annoy me, ultimately creates an effective sort of modern danse macabre, especially in Skeleton Lines and Totendanz.

11.6.08

Classical Month in Washington (August)

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!

August 1, 2008 (Fri)
8:30 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies
Filene Center, Wolf Trap

August 1, 2008 (Fri)
8:30 pm
Jerry Springer: The Opera
Studio Theater

August 2, 2008 (Sat)
8:30 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
Dial H for Hitchcock
Filene Center, Wolf Trap

August 15, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos
Wolf Trap Opera
The Barns at Wolf Trap

August 16, 2008 (Sat)
1 pm
Madama Butterfly (kids version) [FREE]
Washington National Opera
D.C. Public Library, Northeast Branch Library (330 7th Street NE)

August 17, 2008 (Sun)
2 pm
Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos
Wolf Trap Opera
The Barns at Wolf Trap

August 19, 2008 (Tue)
8 pm
Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos
Wolf Trap Opera
The Barns at Wolf Trap

August 19, 2008 (Tue)
8 pm
Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra
Bernstein: A Celebration
Filene Center, Wolf Trap

August 20, 2008 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Washington Musica Viva
With Elizabeth Kluegel, soprano
Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum (Bethesda, Md.)

August 23, 2008 (Sat)
7:30 pm
NAPAW: 2008 Memorial Concert in Honor of Susanna "Susie" Kim
Including Yong Hi Moon and Dai Uk Lee, piano duo
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

August 31, 2008 (Sun)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra: Labor Day Concert [FREE]
U.S. Capitol, West Lawn

Les Journaux: Philip Glass in Paris

Le Monde

My recent trip to Italy passed only briefly through Paris, where the Richard Serra exhibit Monumenta 2008, at the Grand Palais, ends on Sunday. One of the musical events associated with the show was a solo piano recital by Serra's friend Philip Glass. Renaud Machart wrote a review (Philip Glass chez Richard Serra, June 10) for Le Monde (my translation):
The crowd, decidedly young and "bobo" [BOurgeois BOhème], seated even on the floor around the piano, came because Glass is a sort of star. Many have forgotten or have never heard his more austere first compositions from the 1960s, based on a fistful of notes (for example, 600 Lines, from 1968), and know Glass only through his film scores (for Stephen Daldry's The Hours, for example), repetitive and languid like the tide, which brought him commercial success.

The music written by Glass in the last thirty years, especially that he played at the piano at the Grand Palais, is a harmonic canvas barely more complicated than that of the songs of Richard Clayderman [ouch!]. Glass's fans will answer that the "poverty" is the essence of this art and that, on that account, the works of Richard Serra on exhibit are hardly more refined than gigantic steel plates, slightly rusty, in an abandoned navy yard. But the true difference is that Philip Glass's music is sentimental, the opposite of Serra's work.
Pascal Dusapin also gave a concert around the opening of the exhibit.

10.6.08

À mon chevet: The Rest Is Noise

Alex Ross, The Rest Is NoiseÀ mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

Although Berg lived his entire life in Vienna, Berlin was the scene of his greatest success -- the premiere of Wozzeck, on December 14, 1925. Before that night, Berg had been an obscure member of the Schoenberg circle; afterward, he joined the ranks of the most illustrious composers of the day. Ovation upon ovation greeted him when he walked onstage at the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden. If Theodor Adorno is to be believed, Berg was upset by the response. "I was with him until late into the night," Adorno recalled, "literally consoling him over his success. That a work conceived like Wozzeck's apparitions in the field, a work satisfying Berg's own standards, could please a first-night audience, was incomprehensible to him and struck him as an argument against the opera." Schoenberg, on his side, was jealous. "Schoenberg envied Berg his successes," Adorno observed, "while Berg envied Schoenberg his failures."

-- Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise (2007), "City of Nets: Berlin in the Twenties," p. 207
Well, I'm back in Washington, but a research project is taking up most of my time. More to come.

9.6.08

Chamber Music Built for Two

available at Amazon
The Beauty of Two (duos by Grieg, Hindemith, Poulenc, Martinů), Kennedy Center Chamber Players

(released April 8, 2008)
Dorian DSL-90705


KCCP in Concert:
October 28, 2006 | June 6, 2006 | February 9, 2006 | November 17, 2005 | September 24, 2005
The Kennedy Center Chamber Players is an ad hoc ensemble made up of principal players from the National Symphony Orchestra. Each season, this excellent chamber music group presents a few concerts of well-chosen music in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Although they have not been under review at Ionarts in more than a year, that shameful fact is due only to scheduling difficulties on our side, not at all to the nature of their performances. This new release, the group's first on the Dorian label, captures the qualities of their typical concert, with a set of lesser-heard, especially modern pieces centered around a theme, in this case, that of the duo. It would make a lovely memento of some of the best chamber music-making in the area.

The excellent cellist David Hardy is featured in two pieces, the substantial Grieg sonata in A minor (op. 36) and the jazzy third sonata by Martinů, an Ionarts favorite composer. Violist Daniel Foster gives a beautiful rendition of the Hindemith viola sonata (op. 11, no. 4), a work that is one of the most easily lovable of that composer's exhaustive sonata collection. The easy-to-down Poulenc sonata, played earlier this year by James Galway, is heard here from the flute of Toshiko Kohno. Anchoring the set is the accompanying piano of Lambert Orkis on all four works, the playing of a consummate collaborative musician and the veteran of many partnerships, most famously those with Anne-Sophie Mutter and the late Mstislav Rostropovich. Most of the program was captured in clear, warm sound in the lovely and intimate space of Lorin Maazel's Theater House at Castleton Farms, Virginia, back in 2004. The disc is dedicated to the memory of Rostropovich, recently memorialized in an excellent radio program on WETA, for his support of the chamber music initiatives of his NSO players.

8.6.08

À mon chevet: The Rest Is Noise

Oliver Sacks, MusicophiliaÀ mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

At 11:00 a.m. on the same day, a squad of jeeps came up the drive [of Richard Strauss's home], these led by Major John Kramers, of the 103rd Infantry Division's military-government branch. Kramers told the family that they had fifteen minutes to evacuate. Strauss walked out to the major's jeep, holding documents that declared him to be an honorary citizen of Morgantown, West Virginia, together with part of the manuscript of Rosenkavalier. "I am Richard Strauss, the composer," he said. Kramer's face lit up; he was a Strauss fan. An "Off Limits" sign was placed on the lawn.

In the days that followed, Strauss posed for photographs, played the Rosenkavalier waltzes on the piano, and smiled bemusedly as soldiers inspected his statue of Beethoven and asked who it was. "If they ask one more time," he muttered, "I'm telling them it's Hitler's father."

-- Alex Ross The Rest Is Noise (2007), "Zero Hour," pp. 343-44
The nightstand at the moment is in Italy, for one more night in Rome. Normal routine will follow soon. Ciao tutti!

Why Haydn Should be Mandatory


Haydn must not be given up to period specialists. Symphony orchestras more and more tend toward a niche program of exclusively romantic and post-romantic repertoire: from Beethoven to Sibelius and everything in between, with extra stops at Mahler and Shostakovich and occasional excursions to Philip Glass or John Adams.

But baroque music and increasingly classical period music as well are left to the devices of specialized performance groups – usually those that offer some form of Historically Informed Performance Practice (HIP).

The proliferation of original instrument – and modern instrument HIP – groups is a boon to music, generally. Ever since their performance quality has improved from questionable to outstanding, they offer musical joys that delight over and over again, quite regardless of performance ideology.

But if their prominence in Monteverdi, Marais, and even Mozart comes at the expense of important composers and periods being part of the repertoire of ‘regular’ symphony orchestras, then alarm bells should ring for two reasons. (See also: Free Bach from the HIPsters (Part 1))

The first is that the audience would lose much fine music played by what remains the primary musical body of a city. Mozart and Haydn and Bach sound different when a large symphonic orchestra (even with reduced forces) is at work. But that isn’t bad at all, it’s desirable diversity. HIP is to add to our enjoyment by offering comparison and choice – not by replacing the way we’ve heard this music for so long. As much as can be learned from small groups led by gut-strung violins, be it the Freiburg Baroque Orchstra, Academy of Ancient Music Berlin, or the Musica Antiqua Cologne, we can also learn and take away something from an orchestra that plays Ein Heldenleben in one half of a concert and then Mozart’s Jeunehomme Concerto or a Bach Orchestral Suite or a Haydn Symphony in the other.


available at Amazon
W.G.Mozart, Symphonies 21-41,
J.Krips / RCO
Decca

To illustrate the high quality of music-making that can result from this approach (one we might run the danger of losing), nothing serves better than Josef Krips’ recordings of the Mozart Symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1972 and 73. This is Classical Music at its very finest. You won’t find Mozart anywhere else that is played with such lightness, radiating joy, and so being the epitome of musical tip-toeing. Yes, it sounds very different – luxuriously so – than Mozart coming from smaller, HIP groups, but not heavier per se, nor swooningly romantic.

Krips covers symphonies 21 to 41 and they are finally available separately again after having long shared box-set space with the unnecessary Neville Marriner-conducted early symphonies. Even with the excellent, moderately HIP Charles Mackerras / Prague set (Teldec) available, Krips should still be the first choice of any collection’s allotment for Mozart symphonies.

So much for the first reason, the possibility of delight that we deny ourselves when classical period music is ceded largely to small and specialist groups. The second and more important reason – and it cannot be made often enough – is that if a large, ‘generalist’ orchestra doesn’t play enough classical music on a regular basis and play it well, eventually it won’t be able to play romantic (much less baroque) music well anymore, either. The orchestra’s sound coagulates. Thickness enters in place of luxurious sonority; agility gives way to rigidity. A conductor will still be able to make the orchestra sound passable, but the orchestra won’t likely be able to adapt to a conductor’s particular conception of a work.

The Munich Philharmonic, known for its romantic, “old-Europe” sound that makes it stand out even among European orchestras that are more often said to be in the orchestral elite, is a good example of an orchestra that is – rightly – aware of the danger but also willing to something about it. Most recently Haydn’s Symphony No.80, nickname-less yet no less lovely than its more famous brethren, showed up on the program when Hartmut Haenchen took on the orchestra. Generous and lively, with expressive silences and delicacy amid the inevitable heft, this was nicely done, even if the third movement was perhaps a little heavy footed. It may well have been the ‘warm-up’ for the orchestra, but at least it didn’t sound like one.

Elsewhere in their 2007/2008 Season there was some Haydn under Markus Stenz, a Mozart Symphony under Thomas Hengelbrock, and a planned Mozart Piano Concerto to end the season with. Even under Hengelbrock, where the results were very fine, it was audible that this simply isn’t the MPhil’s natural strength. But knowing that without it their Bruckner (recently a brilliant Fourth with Thielemann) wouldn’t be their strength for much longer, either, it’s very much music to my ears.