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28.2.09

Jurowski, Fleisher, and the LPO

Vladimir Jurowski
Conductor Vladimir Jurowski
Thursday evening, the Washington Performing Arts Society hosted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the Music Center at Strathmore. The venerable ensemble, founded in 1932 by Sir Thomas Beecham, has had Vladimir Jurowski as its 12th Principal Conductor since September 2007, and he has quickly cultivated a good rapport both musically and with non-musical duties (that conductors often abhor) in the community. The youthful Jurowski’s unique energy was evident as he quietly entered the stage at a quick clip, then once at the podium impatiently waited for the house to become sufficiently quiet before beginning the intensely dissonant Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No. 10.

One of the LPO’s greatest attributes is the focused, robust quality of its string sections, which is on par with the great continental orchestras. The attacks, or beginning of notes, were always placed together gently as a unit before allowing the tone to soar. The Adagio was an interesting programming choice in that the lengthy, demanding slow movement allowed a close inspection of the orchestra with an aural magnifying glass. As always with the highest quality of playing, minor fumbles become more obvious, such as botched pizzicato notes in the bass section, placed on the wrong side of the road to the audience’s left. It was also challenging for the audience to absorb such a lengthy slow movement out of the context of an entire symphony.

Leon Fleisher joined the LPO, reduced to chamber orchestra size, for Mozart’s Concerto in A major, K. 488. While the orchestra exuded stylish personality in Mozart’s pristine lines, Fleisher was unable be an equal partner due to technical preoccupations. After a long battle with focal dystonia, the natural state of the fifth finger of Fleisher’s right hand is curled into his palm. When needed to strike a note, it must be unnaturally uncurled. From the vantage point of your reviewer’s close seat, it appeared that Fleisher’s fourth finger had the same tendency, though not as severely as his pinkie. Fleisher struggled to compensate, by at times trilling with his thumb and second finger, and by fingering some scales with 1-2-1-2, etc. Understandably, technical demands outweighed musical demands on Fleisher, begging the question of how much longer he can sustain a concert career. Jurowski and the LPO seemingly preferred brisker tempos than Fleischer could maintain, given that they sped up at most orchestral tuttis. Gary Graffman, whose career has been left hand alone now for decades, had an 80th birthday concert a month ago at the Curtis Institute of Music that was much more dignified.

Other Reviews:

Philip Kennicott, Maestro Pulls Out All the Stops (Washington Post, February 28)
The second half of the program comprised Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, both of which are featured in part in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jurowski cunningly fused the short Atmosphères, a rhythmless cacophony of sound, to the powerful Strauss with only a few beats of silence between them. The rich musical rhetoric of Strauss’s tone poem is perhaps the closest instrumental music can get to narrative language. Strathmore Hall's acoustic embraced the width of voluptuous sound produced by the LPO, with the brass and percussion never covering the strings. Jurowski's understated conducting resulted in an abundance of memorable music making.

The next classical concert sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society is the much-anticipated recital by Evgeny Kissin tomorrow (March 1, 4 pm) at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

NSO Powders Its Face

Hannu Lintu
Conductor Hannu Lintu
The folks at Detritus Review do not generally like critics to make this observation, but there had to be some connection between this week's 20th-century program from the National Symphony Orchestra and the paltry audience in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Friday night. Conservative listeners can latch onto certain names in a program and decide that this is the week to stay home. That's a shame, because it was one of the best programs heard from the NSO in quite some time -- they are on a roll this month -- full of unexpected delights and references to American popular music. Any program that combines two works never before played by the orchestra with two pieces last performed over a decade ago presents a welcome change to these ears.

The adventurous program was apparently already in place when rising Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang, a protegée of Lorin Maazel's at the New York Philharmonic, was slated for the podium. Zhang withdrew from these concerts, due to "the need to extend maternity leave" according to the Kennedy Center Web site, but her appearances in January and February have included guest spots with the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Orchestra of St. Luke's at Carnegie Hall. The NSO was able to keep the program intact by bringing in Hannu Lintu, the 40-something Finnish maestro who will take over as Chief Conductor of the Tampere Philharmonic this fall, as Zhang's replacement. He is apparently a quick study and, in fact, just conducted one of the works on the program, the Divertimento arrangement from Stravinsky's Le baiser de la fée, last week with the Houston Symphony.

The Divertimento, drawn from Stravinsky's attempt to compose a Tchaikovsky ballet for Ida Rubinstein's new ballet company, received the strongest performance. My aversion to Tchaikovsky's music can be lessened if it is conducted in as clear-cut and non-soupy way as possible: in short, if you conduct Tchaikovsky as if it were actually Stravinsky, which is what the Divertimento is (Stravinsky used scraps of Tchaikovsky scores as the basis for his music), it really works. The ensemble was extremely tight, with memorable sounds from the low winds and brass in the heavy-footed Dances suisses section and a lustrous, long-lined solo from Principal Cellist David Hardy, over bell-like harp accompaniment, in the pastoral final movement. At times Stravinsky's mimicry is truly startling, as in the Scherzo, whose enigmatic chords create as menacing a feel for the eponymous fairy as anything in Sleeping Beauty.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, From the NSO, an Unbalancing Act (Washington Post, February 27)
The most exciting work on the program, one of those debuted by the NSO this week, was the Overture, Waltz, and Finale from Powder Her Face by the accomplished British composer Thomas Adès. This opera on the scandalous life of the Duchess of Argyll relies on snippets of American jazz to evoke the subject's posh life in the 1950s and 60s, from a trashy tango and boozy, Gershwinesque standard (after too much gin) in the overture to the swing strains run through a musical blender in the finale. The middle movement, a waltz of brittle sounds from staccato flutes and piccolo, harp, pizzicato strings, and the clatter of metallic percussion like dropped utensils in a hotel kitchen, showed again how the composer of The Tempest is a masterful orchestrator. Here, in the shifting accents of that waltz, Lintu seemed less sure-handed, but the impression of a performance just at the edge of his control only furthered the impression of a life teetering at the brink.

Popular music also was prominently featured in the Suite from Kurt Weill's Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, with the strains of Whiskey Bar and the sentimental Moon of Alabama featured prominently. As you may recall, the Los Angeles Opera's new DVD of the full opera won a Grammy earlier this month. It is a work that could be rather unlikeable if it were not for all the memorable and fun music, and especially the guest players on saxophones, guitar, and banjo made this performance pleasing. Least satisfying of all was the generally toneless, scratchy performance of Stravinsky's violin concerto, in which the orchestra often overpowered the solo part of Gil Shaham. The work's neoclassical asperity can make it difficult listening, which was made worse by Shaham's often dodgy intonation high on the E string and in the many harmonics and multiple stops, especially in the first two movements. The Coplandesque dance-like gait of the conclusion was better but ultimately the performance did not convince. That is no reason, however, not to take advantage of the chance to hear this daring program for yourself, at the final performance tonight at 8.

After a couple of weeks off, the NSO returns next month with pianist Jonathan Biss and conductor Herbert Blomstedt in a program of Brucker's ninth symphony and Mozart's 27th piano concerto (March 19 to 21).

27.2.09

Classical Month in Washington (May)

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Small eye = recommended

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!

May 1, 2009 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Composer Spotlight: Lera Auerbach
Lera Auerbach (piano), Alisa Weilerstein (cello), and Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano)
Kennedy Center Family Theater

May 1, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Nelson Freire, piano
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

May 1, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
Plácido Domingo: From My Latin Soul
DAR Constitution Hall

May 1, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
Britten, Albert Herring
Opera Vivente (Baltimore, Md.)

May 1, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
Ludwig Sémerjian, fortepiano [FREE]
Library of Congress

May 1, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
Haydn, Creation
With Helmuth Rilling, conductor
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 2, 2009 (Sat)
11 am and 1 pm
NSO Teddy Bear Concert
Kennedy Center Family Theater

May 2, 2009 (Sat)
4 pm
Louis Lortie, piano
WPAS
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 2, 2009 (Sat)
6 pm
Wagner, Siegfried
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 2, 2009 (Sat)
6 pm
Phil Kline, SPACE [FREE]
ETHEL (string quartet)
Kennedy Center Millennium Stage

May 2, 2009 (Sat)
7 pm
Imant Raminsh, The Nightingale
Children's Chorus of Washington
Harman Center for the Arts

May 2, 2009 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Composer Spotlight: Bruce Adolphe
With Apollo Trio
Kennedy Center Family Trio

May 2, 2009 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Richard O'Neill, viola
Korean Concert Society
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

May 2, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Nelson Freire, piano
Music Center at Strathmore

May 2, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
Haydn, Creation
With Helmuth Rilling, conductor
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 2, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
Axelrod Quartet
Renwick Gallery

May 2, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
Fairfax Symphony Orchestra
With Christopher Zimmerman, conductor
George Mason University Center for the Arts

May 3, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Nelson Freire, piano
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

May 3, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
Imant Raminsh, The Nightingale
Children's Chorus of Washington
Harman Center for the Arts

May 3, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
Britten, Albert Herring
Opera Vivente (Baltimore, Md.)

May 3, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
In Praise of Music: All-Handel program
Washington Bach Consort
Music Center at Strathmore

May 3, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
Eclipse Chamber Orchestra
George Washington Masonic Memorial (Alexandria, Va.)

May 3, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
Raphael Trio [FREE]
Phillips Collection

May 3, 2009 (Sun)
5 pm
Klavier Trio Amsterdam
Corcoran Gallery of Art

May 3, 2009 (Sun)
5:30 pm
Emmanuel Pahud (flute) and Trevor Pinnock (harpsichord)
Shriver Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

May 3, 2009 (Sun)
5:30 pm
Suspicious Cheese Lords
Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen (Baltimore, Md.)

May 3, 2009 (Sun)
6 pm
Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano
Washington Concert Opera
Lisner Auditorium

May 3, 2009 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Alexandria Symphony Orchestra [FREE]
With Alessandra Marc, soprano
National Gallery of Art

May 3, 2009 (Sun)
7:30 pm
Axelrod Quartet
Renwick Gallery

May 4, 2009 (Mon)
7:30 pm
Composer Spotlight: Joan Tower
With Muir Quartet and Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio
Kennedy Center Family Theater

May 4, 2009 (Mon)
7:30 pm
Klavier Trio Amsterdam
La Maison Française

May 4, 2009 (Mon)
7:30 pm
Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano) and Pei-Yao Wang (piano)
Embassy Series
Embassy of Austria

May 4, 2009 (Mon)
8 pm
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
WPAS
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 5, 2009 (Tue)
12 noon
Noontime Cantata: Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21) [FREE]
Washington Bach Consort
Church of the Epiphany

May 5, 2009 (Tue)
6 pm
Wagner, Siegfried
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 5, 2009 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and Miami String Quartet
New piano septet by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

May 5, 2009 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Nash Ensemble of London
Music by Oliver Knussen and others
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

May 6, 2009 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano) and Karel Kosarek (piano)
Vocal Arts Society
Embassy of Austria

May 6, 2009 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Musicians from Marlboro [FREE]
Freer Gallery of Art

May 6, 2009 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Suspicious Cheese Lords
Mansion at Strathmore

May 6, 2009 (Wed)
8 pm
Mobtown Modern: Out to Lunch
Contemporary Museum (Baltimore, Md.)

May 7, 2009 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Oliver Knussen (conductor) and Leila Josefowicz (violin)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 7, 2009 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Jenny Lin, piano
Music by Ligeti, Messiaen, Unsuk Chin
Mansion at Strathmore

May 7, 2009 (Thu)
8 pm
Britten, Albert Herring
Opera Vivente (Baltimore, Md.)

May 8, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Oliver Knussen (conductor) and Leila Josefowicz (violin)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 9, 2009 (Sat)
11 am and 1 pm
NSO Teddy Bear Concert
Kennedy Center Family Theater

May 9, 2009 (Sat)
2 pm
The Revolutionary Violin [FREE]
Lecture-Demonstration by Peter Sheppard-Skaerved
Library of Congress

May 9, 2009 (Sat)
6 pm
Wagner, Siegfried
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 9, 2009 (Sat)
7 pm
Giuseppe Albanese, piano
Châteauville Foundation (Castleton Farms, Va.)

May 9, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Oliver Knussen (conductor) and Leila Josefowicz (violin)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 9, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
Britten, Albert Herring
Opera Vivente (Baltimore, Md.)

May 9, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
Purcell, King Arthur
Bach Sinfonia
Music Center at Strathmore

May 10, 2009 (Sun)
2 pm
Celebrate Haydn! Orchestra Festival
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 10, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
Mendelssohn Trio [FREE]
Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture

May 10, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
Washington Sinfonietta
Sligo Seventh-Day Adventist Church (Takoma Park, Md.)

May 10, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
Cathedral Choral Society: French Spectacular
Washington National Cathedral

May 10, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
Maurizio Moretti, piano [FREE]
Phillips Collection

May 10, 2009 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Nancy Marriott, soprano [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

May 10, 2009 (Sun)
6:30 pm
National Chamber Ensemble
Music by Miaskovsky, Rachmaninoff, Arensky, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky
Rosslyn Spectrum Theater (Arlington, Va.)

May 10, 2009 (Sun)
7:30 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Oliver Knussen (conductor) in contemporary music program
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 11, 2009 (Mon)
7:30 pm
Till Fellner, piano
Beethoven Sonata Cycle, Part 3
Embassy Series
Embassy of Austria

May 12, 2009 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Teddy Tahu Rhodes, baritone
With Craig Rutenberg, piano
Vocal Arts Society
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

May 12, 2009 (Tue)
8 pm
Fessenden Ensemble
St. Columba's Episcopal Church

May 14, 2009 (Thu)
6 pm
Wagner, Siegfried
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 14, 2009 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Jun Märkl (conductor) and Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 14, 2009 (Thu)
7 pm
Tudor Dominik Maican and Timothy Andres, piano
Mansion at Strathmore

May 14, 2009 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Il Convito (Maude Gratton, harpsichord)
Baroque music
La Maison Française

May 15, 2009 (Fri)
1:30 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Jun Märkl (conductor) and Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 15, 2009 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Christopher Hinterhuber, piano
Homage to Haydn
Embassy Series
Embassy of Austria

May 16, 2009 (Sat)
2:30 pm
Flutists of the Kennedy Center [FREE]
Flute sections of the NSO and KC Opera House Orchestra
Flute Society of Washington
Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church

May 16, 2009 (Sat)
7 pm
Puccini, Turandot
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 16, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Jun Märkl (conductor) and Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 16, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
Passing the Torch: Haydn and Mendelssohn
Cantate Chamber Singers
St. John's Norwood Parish (Chevy Chase, Md.)

May 17, 2009 (Sun)
2 pm
Wagner, Siegfried
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 17, 2009 (Sun)
2 pm
Orff, Carmina Burana
Master Chorale of Washington
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 17, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
Joaquín Achúcarro, piano [FREE]
Phillips Collection

May 17, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
Julian Bliss, clarinet
Châteauville Foundation (Castleton Farms, Va.)

May 17, 2009 (Sun)
6 pm
Emerson Quartet
Music by Haydn, Ives, Beethoven
National Museum of Natural History

May 17, 2009 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Foundling Ensemble [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

May 17, 2009 (Sun)
7:30 pm
Trio Sonatas of Purcell and Handel
Smithsonian Chamber Music Society
Smithsonian Castle

May 19, 2009 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Puccini, Turandot
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 20, 2009 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Valentina Lisitsa, piano [FREE]
National Museum of Women in the Arts

May 20, 2009 (Wed)
7:30 pm
18th Street Singers
Mansion at Strathmore

May 21, 2009 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Moscow String Quartet [FREE]
With composer Sofia Gubaidulina
Freer Gallery of Art

May 21, 2009 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Puccini, Turandot
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 21, 2009 (Thu)
8 pm
Trio Apollon [FREE]
Library of Congress

May 22, 2009 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Daniel Schlosberg (piano), Ah Young Hong (soprano), Ryan de Ryke (baritone) [FREE]
Haydn, vocal music
Embassy of Austria

May 23, 2009 (Sat)
2 pm
Bach in Cremona [FREE]
Lecture-Demonstration by Nicholas Kitchens
Library of Congress

May 23, 2009 (Sat)
5 pm
50th Sängerfest Concert
Washington Sängerfest
National Building Museum

May 24, 2009 (Sun)
2 pm
Puccini, Turandot
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 24, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
Bellini, I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Opera Bel Cantanti
Music Recital Hall, Montgomery College (Rockville, Md.)

May 24, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
Smith Quartet [FREE]
Phillips Collection

May 27, 2009 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Puccini, Turandot
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 28, 2009 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Philippe Manoury (composer) and Christophe Desjardins (viola)
La Maison Française

May 28, 2009 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Hans Gál: What a Life! [FREE]
Washington Musica Viva
Embassy of Austria

May 29, 2009 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Bellini, I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Opera Bel Cantanti
Music Recital Hall, Montgomery College (Rockville, Md.)

May 29, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
Carole Farley (soprano) and John Constable (piano) [FREE]
Poulenc, La voix humaine
Library of Congress

May 30, 2009 (Sat)
7 pm
Puccini, Turandot
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 30, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
National Philharmonic
With Soovin Kim, violin
Music Center at Strathmore

May 31, 2009 (Sun)
1 and 3 pm
NSO Family Concert
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 31, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
Bellini, I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Opera Bel Cantanti
Music Recital Hall, Montgomery College (Rockville, Md.)

May 31, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
National Philharmonic
With Soovin Kim, violin
Music Center at Strathmore

May 31, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
American Youth Philharmonic
George Mason University Center for the Arts

May 31, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Orchestra [FREE]
Music by Weinberger, Takemitsu, Higdon
Church of the Epiphany (1317 G St. NW)

May 31, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
Jupiter Quartet, with Roger Tapping (viola) and Natasha Brofsky (cello)
Corcoran Gallery of Art

May 31, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
Andrey Ponochevny, piano [FREE]
Phillips Collection

May 31, 2009 (Sun)
6 pm
Saverio Mercadante, Il Giuramento
With Elizabeth Futral and Donnie Ray Albert
Washington Concert Opera
Lisner Auditorium

May 31, 2009 (Sun)
6:30 pm
National Gallery Chamber Orchestra [FREE]
With Stephen Ackert, harpsichord
National Gallery of Art

Martin Bruns and the Traces of Hafiz

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Martin Bruns:
Available from Amazon
Busoni Songs


Available from Amazon
Schubert, Schiller-Lieder
The Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series at the Freer Gallery of Art programs concerts that reflect the nature of the museum's collection, which combines Asian and Near Eastern art with European art, like the work of James Whistler, influenced by those traditions. Some of these concerts that focus exclusively on non-European music are not of much interest to me, but Wednesday night's program, devoted to European and American composers' songs on the poetry of the Persian poet Shams ud-din Muhammed, known by the pseudonym Hāfez (Hafiz), certainly was. The cause of the 14th-century poet from Shiraz, in what is now southern Iran, was advanced in Europe by Goethe, who admired him so warmly that he proclaimed Hafiz his "twin" (whence the nature of the Hafiz-Goethe memorial in Weimar). Goethe even used the Persian poet's collection of poetry, the Divan, as the model for his own work titled West-Eastern Divan. Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said borrowed the name for their orchestra project bringing together young Israeli and Palestinian musicians.

Locating songs on (mostly German) poetry by Goethe and others who translated, adapted, or were influenced by Hafiz's poetry -- mainly Friedrich Rückert, Georg Friedrich Daumer, and Hans Bethge -- Swiss baritone Martin Bruns put together a beautiful and intellectually stimulating program of songs called Hafiz in the West: Songs of Love and Life. He will hopefully record it soon, adding it to his discography devoted to recitals of unexpected composers (Busoni) or of songs arranged by poet (Schiller) -- see also his book on songs that set the poetry of Petrarch. A thorough essay in the program, quite unnecessarily rehashed by Bruns from the stage, introduced the listener to Hafiz's poetry and his favored form, the ghazal. (As we learned from the concert organizer, the plan to have a recitation of Hafiz's poetry in the original Persian, a sophisticated art form of its own, turned out to be too difficult.) The poetry's most common subjects are love and drinking, an intellectual form of partying reminiscent of the ancient Symposium (which, after all, comes from the Greek word to drink with or together).

Bruns has a large voice, and even though he was evidently not fully healthy, repeatedly stepping off stage to drink water and clear his throat, he sang with stentorian power, perhaps tilting too much toward the nasal at the top. His interpretative approach had a disappointing sameness from song to song, however, not providing enough differentiation of tone and emotion to make this a truly memorable performance. A mellifluous legato was welcome in Schubert's Du bist die Ruh, and the voice was scaled down for songs like Schubert's Geheimes versus dramatic, overwrought ones like Granville Bantock's Alá yá! Send the Cup Round. The program was divided into carefully crafted sets, organized around a single composer, a detail destroyed by the audience insisting on applauding after each and every song, making the arc of intended meaning impossible to appreciate.

Some of the evening's best discoveries were in a set of Goethe songs by Hugo Wolf, all on poems from West-Eastern Divan, in which the narrative characters were more clearly etched by Bruns and where the orchestral scope of the piano, played bombastically and even a bit wildly by Jan Philip Schulze, was most needed. A somber, heavy-voiced Brahms set preceded it, seeming to show Brahms as Brahms, even if the inspiration was Persian erotic poetry. Best of all was a practically unknown set of songs by Viktor Ullmann, Liederbuch des Hafis, op. 30, set to poetry by Bethge and composed in Prague shortly before Ullmann was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Ullmann has already come in for praise in our pages, and James Conlon is doing a lot to raise awareness of his music. This set of songs should be on every bass and/or baritone's repertory list, songs that are a sort of boozy mixture of Persian mysticism and the Czech cabaret. Two Hafiz settings by Alan Hovhaness, one of which served as an encore, in much less surely pronounced English, are also well worth your attention.

On Sunday (March 1, 2 pm) the next free concert at the Freer Gallery of Art will combine the traditional instruments of the Music from China ensemble with the saxophones of the PRISM Quartet.

26.2.09

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

Available from Amazon
Bach Violin Concertos, J. Fischer,
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
In the 1980s the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields represented a certain approach to music, a scaled-down, impeccably clean sound, especially in Mozart. Thanks to their work on the soundtrack to Amadeus, that hallmark sound is the way that many people think Mozart's music should sound, and their classic recordings from that period, under Neville Marriner, still hold up to scrutiny. Then the historically informed performance (HIP) movement really got into full swing and took over the group's territory, engulfing the Classical period. Admittedly ASMF had mostly dropped off my radar until the last few years, when some of their recent CDs -- Kate Royal's recital album and Nicola Benedetti's Mendelssohn disc -- came across my desk, and the results have not been uniformly excellent.

The group's best work since the turn of the millennium -- when Marriner retired, the group returned to its conductor-less origins, with Murray Perahia serving as Principal Guest Conductor -- has been their partnerships with talented violinists who sit temporarily in the concertmaster's chair. The list includes Joshua Bell (a rather vanilla recording of Vivaldi's Seasons last year, most interesting for also including Tartini's "Devil's Trill" sonata), Hilary Hahn (Brahms and Stravinsky, but with Marriner), Julian Rachlin, Janine Jansen, Gil Shaham, and now Julia Fischer. An Ionarts favorite we have reviewed several times in Washington and Munich, Fischer is so often not merely above reproach but superlative in technical achievement and musicality -- like her extraordinary Beethoven concerto in Baltimore -- that a performance like these Bach concertos at Strathmore on Tuesday night can seem disappointing when it does not thrill.

The Strathmore concert concluded an American tour by the Academy and Fischer, celebrating the group's 50th anniversary and promoting their new recording of the Bach concerti for one or two violins, an album that has become a rave bestseller in the download market. Heard live, Fischer's marvelously clear, lyrical playing was luscious to hear, with all of the notes on the inner parts of the beat pronounced, not "notey" but distinct within the melodic arc. As on some of the best parts of their Seasons disc with Joshua Bell, harpsichordist John Constable's continuo playing came to the fore in the slow movements, engaging in a dialogue with Fischer's violin. Fischer's pianissimo and legato line, especially in the third movement of the A minor concerto, was elegant, but the rare attempts to ornament the solo line only made one realize how spare this rendition was in terms of embellishments.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Julia Fischer: Bach Done Well (Washington Post, February 26)

Kyle MacMillan, Violinist Fischer shares gift in Boulder (Denver Post, February 20)

Philippa Kiraly, Julia Fischer anchors well-designed program (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 17)

Joshua Kosman, Fischer teams with Academy for robust Bach (San Francisco Chronicle, February 15)
      "The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, I suspect, is the tofu of musical ensembles -- hearty and slightly flavorless, but supremely able to adopt the character of whatever musician it partners with."

Mark Swed, Julia Fischer's bestselling Bach live if not always alive (Culture Monster, February 12)

Timothy Mangan, Julia Fischer hooks Bach concertos in O.C. (Orange County Register, February 12)
As noted of Fischer's recording of the Bach solo works, her approach to Bach is a little too clinical, playing Bach with a restraint that is in some ways the polar opposite of Anne-Sophie Mutter's muscular, idiosyncratic way with the Bach concerti on her recent recording (also heard live last year). There must be a middle ground that brings something of Mutter's visceral excitement to bear on this very beautiful but somewhat ethereal performance. The best parts of the evening were the modern English scores that bookended the two Bach solo violin concertos, beginning with Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, op. 10, the young composer's tribute to his teacher, completed as a chamber orchestra commission for the Salzburg Festival when Britten was 24 (coincidentally, close to Fischer's age).

The theme, an enigmatic mix of explosive pizzicati and strong-handed passagework, is run through a series of historical styles, in a way that recalls what a gifted improviser would do to entertain at a cocktail party ("Play Misty in the style of Liszt!"). This rendition featured throaty solos from principal violist Robert Smissen and a Moto perpetuo seventh variation of buzzing tremoli, à la the Flight of the Bumblebee. This pleasing but showy work was matched at the concert's conclusion by William Walton's Sonata for String, the composer's adaptation of his earlier A minor string quartet, made at the suggestion of Neville Marriner and premiered by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. In this beautiful work, as in the Britten, the presence of a conductor was missed: even though Fischer and other section leaders gave cues, there were alignment issues among the ensemble as tempos shifted or at delicate junctions, more in the modern selections than in the Bach. A very disciplined fourth movement, all constant thrumming pulse and jumpy, agogic accents, was capped by the last movement of Mozart's F major Divertimento, a reference to ASMF's history with Mozart and a pleasing ending to a good evening.

This evening at Strathmore, Washington Performing Arts Society will present the London Philharmonic Orchestra (February 26, 8 pm), with conductor Vladimir Jurowski and pianist Leon Fleisher. The varied program includes Ligeti's Atmosphères.

25.2.09

Civilized Freakshow: Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia with Edita Gruberova

Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, his 30th opera, is based on Victor Hugo’s play of the same name, and had its premiere at La Scala in 1833. It features three main characters: Lucrezia Borgia herself, Gennaro the tragic hero (tenor) who, unbeknownst to all but Lucrezia, is her son , and Maffio Orsini, Gennaro’s very, very, close friend who—tellingly?—is sung by a contralto.

The opera features a particularly unbelievable story based on unlikely premises which steer the protagonists into artificially dramatic situations that bear the least possible resemblance to reality. As per usual with Italian opera of the time, a series of unfortunate events/conspiracies/oaths leaves the dramatis personae in life-and-death scenarios where one or more of them die only to turn out to have been the murderer’s daughter/son/lover. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Rigoletto and Il Trovatore, as slightly more sophisticated examples of the same idea, send their regards.

Of course operas like Lucrezia Borgia are not popular for inane story lines that makeMacGyver plots look new and sophisticated. Nor is the repetitive music, worthy of a third rate Sicilian Umpa band, the draw. For one, every scene takes three times longer than necessary because everything has to be spelled out and then trice repeated, with Donizetti unwilling or unable to express any emotion in music. He has but three modes: regular, powerful (loud), and ‘ominous’ (fast string tremolos): it’s like painting with just three colors. Schubert can put the world's emotion in one tiny song... Donizetti, working at the rate of Lucrezia, couldn't put four emotions into an opera the length of Parsifal. Being premiered just six years before Verdi’s Oberto, it’s no coincidence that the music of Lucrezia sounds like very early (and very bad) Verdi.

The draw is solely the achievement of the soprano in the title role for whose vocal high-wire act the opera is one massive vehicle. Everyone in the audience waits through the entire second act for the very last five minutes (taking Orsini’s “Il segreto per esse felice” in the passing) when Madamma Borgia has her gratuitous vocal coloratura moment where the singer—given sufficient ability—has the opportunity to burn off a display of vocal fireworks that seems nearly superhuman. The inevitable roaring approval from the voice fetishists (usually from the second tier upward) make the impression of an old fashioned freak-show, albeit in a fancy setting, inevitable.

The Bavarian State Opera has Edita Gruberova for the title role, who is worshiped in the few towns—Munich, Vienna, Zurich—she regularly performs in. The primadonna assoluta is still a bel canto monster at almost 63. Although the soft hue of her voice is worn down a bit, exposing a touch of harshness, she still indulges in all the highest pianissimo notes she wants to, letting them swell to a piercing forte with ease.

The direction of Munich’s Lucrezia is by Christof Loy, who was named Director of the Year 2008 by the German magazine Opernwelt and is a frequent collaborator of Gruberova’s. His staging—or lack thereof—strips the opera of anything resembling a set. A raked floor and a bright white backdrop with neon-letters spelling out “Lucrezia Borgia” (Gennaro rips the “B” out, when he assaults the Borgia’s coat of arms: “Oh diamin! ORGIA!”) is all there is, apart from a few chairs. Why Loy makes Gruberova take her wig off again (she does so to great effect in his Munich Roberto Devereux) isn’t quite clear. Her three costumes could, with some generosity, be construed as the multiple personalities that live within Lucrezia. The audience booed—as is good tradition, but the minimalist approach struck as refreshingly uncluttered.


The chorus, Gennaro, and his five friends all run around in Pulp Fiction uniform: Black suits and narrow black ties. Only the ruffians in Act II look as if they had been chased through the costume magazine with the mission to pick whichever corniest 1950s Verdi costume first caught their eye. The ill fitting tights in every garish color and bad wigs were probably a clever self-referential joke of the production team, but that joke not being shared with the viewer, it just looked dumb. Zestfully throwing plastic wine glasses about, only for them to bounce off the floor with a hollow thud, is an embarrassment worthy of high-school productions that I thought would never happen at the Munich Opera.

Pavol Breslik as Gennaro and Alice Coote as Maffio Orsini made the most of their duty to pass the time between Gruberova outbreaks. Their tender duet—two men acting like a loving couple, played by a man and a woman—was a dramatic highpoint. Franco Vassallo’s smooth bass mastered Don Alfonso’s part agreeably. Loy’s team consists of lighting designer Joachim Klein, Barbara Drosihn who is in charge of costumes, and Henrik Ahr, responsible for the set. Bertrand de Billy’s conducting didn’t go beyond supporting and cuing the singers, but then he had nothing to work with, musically.



All pictures © Wilfried Hoesl, courtesy of the Bavarian State Opera




A photo-journal of "Lucrezia", put together by Matt Blank, can be found at Playbill Arts.com.

Ionarts at Large: Müller-Schott & Kreizberg in Shostakovich and Dvořák


Yakov Kreizberg
Picture © Marco Borggreve
The Munich Philharmonic’s series of concerts between the 19th and 22nd of February opened—very apropos—with Dvořák’s Carnival Overture op.92. Under the Russian-American Yakov Kreizberg’s direction the orchestra offered a taut little firecracker of an overture, unusually cohesive for a Sunday matinee (otherwise known as “Sloppy Sundays”).

The next jolt of energy came in the form of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto op.107 with Daniel Müller-Schott as the soloist. From his first bright, sprightly note one could hear the difference—in attitude rather than dexterity—from the very un-soloistic tone that Sebastian Klinger had delivered two days before in the Dvořák concerto across town. The immediate opening is one aspect that makes the First Cello Concerto such refreshing Shostakovich: you get to the hyperactive parts without having to wade through all the labored build up. Those in the restless subscription audience who could not befriend the work—not even the askew beauty of the marvelous slow movement—had time to focus on the gorgeous-looking conducting of Kreizberg; so picture perfect the dashing, ever engaged young maestro that it borders caricature. You might say that Kreizberg is the Hugh Jackman of conducting.

The cadenza—a movement of its own and awfully extensive—allowed to marvel at Müller-Schott’s abilities more than the music itself, but the brief, hectic finale with the modified DSCH motif that is traded between cello and the solitary horn, brings back the lusty mayhem that even a dark and troubled Shostakovich can provide. The slow movement of Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony was perhaps a little phlegmatic, but the other three were strident, even flamboyant. With nothing not to like for the ears, and Kreizberg for the eyes, this was highly enjoyable, albeit not particularly memorable, stuff.



available at Amazon
Shostakovich, Cello Concertos, Müller-Schott / Y.Kreizberg / BRSO -
Orfeo

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Shostakovich, Cello Concerto No.1 (& VC.No.1, Rostropovich / Mitropuolos / NYP - CBS/Sony

available at Amazon
Dvořák, Symphony No.6 (& 8), Y.Kreizberg / Netherlands PO -
Pentatone

available at Amazon
Dvořák, Symphony No.6 (& 8), Myung-Whun Chung / WPh -
Deutsche Grammophon

24.2.09

Ionarts at Large: Sanderling Jr. for Muti

Kurt Sanderling was too great a conductor for Michael Sanderling (b.1967) not to be introduced as his youngest son. He will know to take it as a compliment of his father’s achievements, not belittlement of his own—very considerable—skills. Thursday and Friday, February 19th and 20th, he had the opportunity to display those skills after jumping in to replace Riccardo Muti (down with a cold) in two concerts with the BRSO on just a few hours notice. Shuttled down from Berlin Monday night to take over rehearsals Tuesday morning, he was able to keep the first half of the program with the popular Musorgsky “Night on Bald Mountain” and Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, replacing only the planned Paul Hindemith Symphony in E-flat, a rarity, with Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony. (Certainly, of all conductors to replace Muti, Sanderling is the only to do Muti’s hair justice.)

In the Musorgksy, he ripped through the “Night on Bald Mountain” in a manner more snappy and explosive than the BRSO tends to play under the gentler hands of Mariss Jansons. If the last bit of precision, here as in the other pieces, was lacking, it was made up for with a palpable sense of merry exuberance.

Under most circumstances, a Dvořák Cello Concerto with the first chair of the orchestra’s cello section would indicate stop-gap programming—with predictably modest results. If the (planned) conductorship of Muti did not already dispel any such thoughts, the quality of young Sebastian Klinger’s playing (of which his Bach Suites, released last year, are proof enough) would. Part of the BRSO’s excellence stems from the individual excellence of its players and certainly most first chairs could be respectable soloists in their own right.

That said, the actual performance was a disappointment. There was beauty and more than ample facility, but the sound of Klinger’s cello remained contained instead of soaring throughout the Herkulessaal, as if his instrument had caught the cold, too. The interpretations sounded a touch labored and shy. Perhaps the largest deficit in Klinger’s performance was the lack of soloist-attitude. With terrific contributions from the flute (Henrik Wiese, loud but beautiful) and the first violin (Andreas Röhn, who made his brief solo part in the last movement stand out with echt-Viennese intensity), the concerto got better as it went on, with Klinger finally hitting his stride in the last five minutes.

Tchaikovsky’s “Winter Dreams” Symphony—appropriate as Munich is covered by a thick blanket of snow—was driven at a clip that prohibited a sugar rush and showed it for the lovely work—full of touches of his ballet music in the first movement—that it is. Resigned to lurking in the shadow of its bigger siblings, Symphonies Four, Five, and Six, the work will surprise upon every hearing with its quality. The BRSO must have taken to it like fish to water under Sanderling’s guidance: romantic fervor was plentiful, chocolaty hues from the strings in the fourth movement, outstandingly executed dynamic nuances throughout, silences that were meaningful, not portentous, and a rocking, swaying finale made a case for Michael Sanderling to be every bit as good a conductor as he was and is a cellist. I should be surprised if the music world was not to hear and see more of him, soon.

The BRSO will play three concerts at Carnegie Hall on March 13th, 14th, and 15th. They will bring the commissioned Shchedrin and Widmann pieces, Brahms and Beethoven symphonies, and Mozart and Prokofiev concertos with Emanuel Ax and Julia Fischer.









available at Amazon
Musorgsky, Night on Bald Mountain et al., Reiner / CSO -
RCA Living Stereo
available at Amazon
Dvořák, Cello Concerto, Dumky Trio, Queyras / Belohlávek / Prague PO - Harmonia Mundi
available at Amazon
Tchaikovsky, Symphony No.1 et al., M.Tilson Thomas / BSO -
DG Originals