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30.4.09

May Concert Planner

After a calmer month of April, the May schedule is burgeoning with far too many excellent concerts for one pair of ears to hear. The Ionarts crew is going to be working overtime.


Composer Lera Auerbach (photo by F. Reinhold)
CONTEMPORARY:
>> The month opens with the CrossCurrents Contemporary Music Week, a festival at the Kennedy Center focusing on the music of fifteen living composers. Hear Lera Auerbach play her own music with cellist Alisa Weilerstein and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (May 1), the adventurous string quartet ETHEL playing Phil Kline's Space (May 2), Joan Tower with the Muir Quartet and Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio (May 4), a new work by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (May 5), the Nash Ensemble of London playing music by Oliver Knussen and others (May 6), Leila Josefowicz playing Knussen's new violin concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra (May 7 to 9), and a special concert of contemporary music with the NSO (May 10).

>> In other events not part of the Kennedy Center festival, Jenny Lin will play music by Ligeti, Messiaen, and Unsuk Chin at the Strathmore Mansion (May 7), the young composer Tudor Dominik Maican will play works for piano, including his own, with pianist Timothy Andres, also at the Strathmore Mansion (May 14), composer Sofia Gubaidulina will appear with the Moscow String Quartet at the Freer Gallery of Art (May 21), composer Philippe Manoury and violist Christophe Desjardins will give a concert at La Maison Française (May 28), soprano Carole Farley and pianist John Constable will perform Poulenc's La voix humaine at the Library of Congress (May 29), and the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Orchestra will play a concert of music by Weinberger, Takemitsu, and Higdon at the Church of the Epiphany (May 31).



Pianist Till Fellner
88 (OR FEWER) KEYS:
>> It would be a shame to miss the chance to hear Nelson Freire playing Beethoven's fourth concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (May 1 to 3). Washington Performing Arts Society will present a recital by pianist Louis Lortie (May 2) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. His last performance of this program, all of the Chopin etudes (at Shriver Hall), was very good, if not as impressive as his 2006 recital at the National Gallery. The third installment of Till Fellner's Beethoven sonata cycle is scheduled, on the Embassy Series, for the Austrian Embassy (May 11). Compare Fellner's take on the Hammerklavier sonata with that of Valentina Lisitsa, who will give a recital at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (May 20). For more Haydn, also at the Austrian Embassy, check out Christopher Hinterhuber in an all-Haydn program (May 15).

>> In the historical keyboard department, put down the concert by fortepianist Ludwig Sémerjian at the Library of Congress (May 1). Legendary harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock performs with flutist Emmanuel Pahud at Baltimore's Shriver Hall (May 3). La Maison Française brings back harpsichordist Maude Gratton will her ensemble Il Convito (May 14).

OPERA:
>> Staged opera productions this month include Britten's Albert Herring from Baltimore's Opera Vivente (May 1, 3, 7, and 9), the third installment of Francesca Zambello's American Ring Cycle with Siegfried at Washington National Opera (May 2, 5, 9, 14, and 17 -- already almost sold out), and Puccini's warm fuzzy Turandot, also from Washington National Opera (May 16 to June 4, various dates).

Magdalena Kožená, mezzo-soprano
Magdalena Kožená, mezzo-soprano
>> For opera not staged, you could hear a very rare performance of Saverio Mercadante's Il Giuramento from the Washington Concert Opera at Lisner Auditorium, with With Elizabeth Futral and Donnie Ray Albert (May 31). Recitals by opera singers include Stephanie Blythe with soprano Nathalie Paulin, sponsored by Washington Concert Opera (May 3), Alessandra Marc with the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra at the National Gallery of Art (May 3), Sasha Cooke on the Embassy Series at the Austrian Embassy (May 4), Magdalena Kožená with the Vocal Arts Society at the Austrian Embassy (May 6), and Teddy Tahu Rhodes at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (May 12).

>> If you are looking for a way to introduce children to opera, the Children's Chorus of Washington will perform a new children's opera by Imant Raminsh, The Nightingale, at the Harman Center for the Arts (May 2 and 3).

FURTHERMORE:
>> In the world of historically informed performance (HIP) practice, the Washington Bach Consort will present a program of Handel favorites at Strathmore (May 3), as well as the final installment of this season's free Noontime Cantata series, with Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21) at the Church of the Epiphany (May 5). There will also be concerts by the Suspicious Cheese Lords in the Mansion at Strathmore (May 6), Purcell's masque King Arthur with the Bach Sinfonia at Strathmore (May 9), and violinist Nicholas Kitchen playing the Bach solo violin works and demonstrating five historic violins by legendary Cremonese makers at the Library of Congress (May 23).

>> For the chamber music lover, there are welcome appearances by the Klavier Trio Amsterdam at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (May 3) and La Maison Française (May 4), the last visit of the Musicians from the Marlboro Festival at the Freer Gallery of Art (May 6), and more flutes than you could shake a stick at when the flute sections of the NSO and KC Opera House Orchestra combine for a concert at the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (May 16).

>> Noteworthy concerts by string quartets include the Emerson Quartet playing music by Haydn, Ives, and Beethoven at the National Museum of Natural History (May 17) and the return of the Jupiter Quartet, with violist Roger Tapping and cellist Natasha Brofsky at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (May 31).

>> The visiting orchestra to hear is the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Manfred Honeck and cellist Alisa Weilerstein, presented by WPAS in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (May 4).

The Eclipse of the Sun

It seems appropriate that it's overcast in Baltimore this morning. In a move that of course shouldn't be so shocking, but it is, the owner of the Baltimore Sun newspaper put several more nails in its coffin on Wednesday by firing 60 employees in one swoop, including some of its last remaining top editors.

Founded by Arunah Shepherdson Abell, a journeyman printer from Rhode Island who believed in the concept of a people's paper devoted to the news that most directly affected the lives of its readers, The Sun first appeared on Wednesday, May 17, 1837. That issue consisted of four tabloid-size pages, sold for a penny, and was in marked contrast to the six-cent "literary" dailies then in fashion all along the East Coast.
For some the Sun died with Mencken: I put it to rest physically this past January, when I canceled my home delivery after some 25 years; emotionally it ended when my good friend Linell had left in frustration two years ago. Linell would work on stories for months, digging, checking, rewriting, and making last-minute phone calls to be sure the interviewee's memory was correct. Then the lay-outs with photographs would have to be scanned one more time. It was a very satisfying, yet emotional process.

Linell was from the post-Vietnam, civil rights, post-Watergate generation that reinvigorated the newspaper industry. It was a moral issue -- how could you not become a reporter? Just like for me becoming an artist, just like Mencken.

I remember, with fondness and grief, rolling out of bed on a nasty cold New England morning, riding my bike to the newspaper office of the Worcester Telegram and finding a large bundle of newspapers with "Barry" hand written on the wrapping, (not to be too sentimental, but you could smell the ink, one of the reasons I now love making lithographs). For an eleven year-old boy that was an amazing sight to behold, I sensed the great responsibility to see that each paper got delivered, I was part of the cycle of news.

The late art critic for the Baltimore Sun, John Dorsey, gave me my first review back in 1983. It was a group show at School 33 Art Center. I remember waking up to a full-color picture of my painting on the cover of the Feature section and a very thoughtful positive review, but John was always thoughtful and always positive in all his writing. By 8 o'clock that morning I had two phone calls inquiring whether the painting was for sale. Hell yeah, it was and all three in the exhibit sold. Several years later the Sun purchased one of my paintings, and it proudly hung in the Calvert Street lobby for many years.

Where the future lies for the news industry is an ongoing debate. It's already in an online transition, forming, changing rapidly, and that's good. I now get most of my news online and get the Sunday New York Times print edition so I can get lost in the folds of the paper. I mourn the loss of local papers, and I'm disgusted by the crudeness with which career reporters are shown the door. Let's take a moment to remember.

UPDATE:
After my initial worries, it has just been confirmed that classical music critic Tim Smith is not among the casualties. --Ed.

29.4.09

New Bach Recordings: Flute Sonatas

available at Amazon
Bach, Flute Sonatas, E. Pahud, T. Pinnock

(released on November 11, 2008)
EMI Classics 50999 2 17443 2 7

Online scores:
BWV 1030-1032 | BWV 1033-1035 | H. 524.5 (formerly BWV 1020, now attributed to C. P. E. Bach) | BWV 1039 (Trio sonata for two flutes)
Emmanuel Pahud, principal flutist of the Berlin Philharmonic, is an Ionarts favorite, with our recent assessments of his playing including a striking Vivaldi album and an exclusive review of his 2007 concert here in Washington. On this new 2-CD set, Pahud has partnered with harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock in recording all of Bach's flute sonatas. This is only one on the pile of new Bach recordings to cross my desk recently. Many years ago, Trevor Pinnock made essentially the same recording, now a classic, with Jean-Pierre Rampal (Sony, with solo flute partita instead of the trio sonata for two flutes). Like Rampal, Pahud plays on a modern instrument in a clean, rhythmically etched style, adding very few and largely inconsequential ornaments. Thankfully, the Baroque style is mostly provided by Pinnock, who lends considerable expertise, particularly in realizing the continuo harmonization in the pieces where Bach did not write out the keyboard part. Fine, if unobtrusive playing comes from cellist Jonathan Manson, sustaining the basso continuo line, and flutist Silvia Careddu as second banana on BWV 1039, the trio sonata for two flutes.

In short, this is a sort of hybrid recording, part modern performance and part historical instrument performance. It may appeal then as a middle path for those who are not completely sold on the charms of historically informed performance. My ears are so taken by the sound of the traverso flute, the much breathier, softer instrument that Bach had at his disposal, that for one's only recording of the Bach flute works, my recommendation would go to Lisa Beznosiuk and Paul Nicholson ($47.98 -- Hyperion, plus solo flute partita). At half the price, however, Pahud's set is hard to resist. To take it for a test run before you buy it, go hear Pahud and Pinnock live this Sunday (May 3, 5:30 pm) at Baltimore's Shriver Hall, where they will play four of the Bach sonatas, as well as some Purcell and Varèse.

100'47"

28.4.09

British Choir Festival at Washington National Cathedral

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Washington National CathedralSunday afternoon’s exceptional three-hour-long British Choir Festival sponsored by the Cathedral Choral Society, featured the choirs of Washington and Canterbury Cathedrals and the choir of Saint Thomas Church, New York City, respectively conducted by Michael McCarthy, David Flood, and John Scott. In addition to repertoire sung individually by each of the choirs, monumental works of Allegri and Parry ambitiously performed by the three choirs combined left the most lasting impression.

Gregorio Allegri’s polychoral Miserere mei (Psalm 51), which was once restricted under threat of excommunication for use only in the Sistine Chapel, was well matched antiphonally to Washington National Cathedral’s grand acoustic. With the St. Thomas Choir at the west end of the nave, Canterbury choir at the crossing, Washington National Cathedral Choir in the north transept balcony, and a small ensemble in the south transept balcony, a comprehensive aural experience was attained with choirs alternating verses antiphonally. Led by Canterbury’s David Flood, all choirs eventually sang together in perfect ensemble with the aid of video links. It was pleasing to hear the iridescent high notes in the bits for small ensemble sung by boy soprano soloists, whose voices inherently widen at the top end and are remarkably enhanced by the Cathedral’s stone as pitch increases.

C. Hubert H. Parry’s Hear my words, ye people was robustly performed with all singers at the crossing and conducted by John Scott, formerly of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, and accompanied on the organ by the Cathedral’s own Scott Dettra. John Scott’s formal, yet beautifully minimalist conducting approach was expanded for the most part by having his right hand quite high above his head making slow gestures. Parry’s compositions generally sound like a blend of Bach, Mendelssohn, and Reger, with Hear my words, ye people very much an emulation of the former two. The section for trebles alone on the text “For as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and garden causeth things that are sown to spring forth” was most beautiful in its delicate simplicity. Dettra’s registrations allowed one to experience the multiple string divisions of the Cathedral organ, whose $12 million replacement project is currently on hold.

The Canterbury Choir’s performance of Frank Martin’s Sanctus featured arresting chromaticism and colorful droning clusters by the men of the choir. Martin repeatedly emphasized the word “Hosanna” in a powerful way. Even though the pitch of the ensemble was beginning to move, the Canterbury choir’s intensity and fluency were gripping. St. Thomas Church’s performance of Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis featured flawless ensemble and diction, and a gentle yet substantial build in volume to the end that was carefully controlled over a long period of time. Michael McCarthy and the Washington National Cathedral Choir did a nice job exploiting the Voldemort moments -- McCarthy has recorded film music for Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings -- in William Walton’s The Twelve, based on a poem by W. H. Auden. Musical word painting setting up the words “Dark Lord,” “starry heavens,” and “the Truth” were especially gripping.

In a break with the British choral tradition, both the girl and boy choristers were singing together in the Washington National Cathedral choir, with the more mature, laser-like tone of the girls often dominating that of the boys. This was particularly the case in Michael Tippett’s arrangement of Five Negro Spirituals, which were musically interesting but lacked a bit of the “the Spirit” in the AME sense -- (Sir) Tippett is English. With the success of this event, it is discomforting to hear that according to a chorister alum, funding for Washington National Cathedral Chorister Scholarships is under review. Perhaps a special appeal should have been made to the full house of more than one-thousand devoted listeners on Sunday afternoon.

The next concert at Washington National Cathedral will feature the Cathedral Choral Society in a French program including Berlioz's Te Deum and the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony (May 10, 4 pm).

27.4.09

More HIP Recordings of Haydn's Seasons

STILL let my song a nobler note assume,
And sing th'infusive force of Spring on Man;
When heaven and earth, as if contending, vie
To raise his being, and serene his soul.

James Thomson, The Seasons (1730)
The 200th anniversary of Haydn's death, which will be observed officially on May 31, has happily been bringing more of his music to our ears, both in recordings and concerts. Along with not one, but two concerts featuring Haydn's baryton trios, the National Symphony Orchestra this week is performing his greatest oratorio, The Creation, and two lovely recordings of his less successful sequel, The Seasons, have come across my desk (the "Spring" portion was performed on Sunday by the Choral Arts Society). This coincides conveniently with the premiere of the work, which occurred in Vienna on April 24, 1801.

If anything, the musical ingenuity of the wily elder Haydn in The Seasons is even more pronounced than in The Creation, although it is difficult to argue with the common wisdom that the earlier oratorio is the greater one. The culprit that usually catches the blame is the libretto, adapted by the Baron van Swieten from the English poetry of James Thomson, an extended allegorical treatment of the subject (The Seasons, 1730). Van Swieten adapted translations of selected lines as dialogue for three characters -- the older tenant farmer Simon, his daughter Hanne, and the young farmer she falls in love with, Lukas -- who also interact with a chorus of peasant voices. The four episodes are resolutely light in tone (although turning toward God in each final chorus) until the winter arrives, and in the closing numbers the heart of the man in the winter of his life -- like Haydn himself, who struggled for two years to complete the score -- dwells on thoughts of what comes after death.

available at Amazon
Haydn, Die Jahreszeiten, C. Oelze, S. Weir, P. Lika, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, R. Norrington
($36.98) [live, 1991]
(re-released on September 30, 2008)
Profil Hänssler PH07076


Online libretto:
German (Baron Gottfried van Swieten | English (trans. Neil Jenkins, .PDF file)
Given my proclivities for historically informed performance (HIP) practice, it is no surprise to find me recommending recordings of that sort for this work, of which there are several. From the 1990s, the sets by John Eliot Gardiner (1990, Archiv -- English Baroque Soloists/ Monteverdi Choir, $42.98) and Helmuth Rilling (1992, Hänssler Classic -- Stuttgart Bach Collegium / Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, $38.98) are both fine, if a little pricey. One of the earliest recordings on historical instruments, conducted by Sigiswald Kuijken (Virgin Classics Veritas -- La Petite Bande, $10.98) has been discounted to a price that makes it an absolute steal. The version to beat is the most recent, a stylish recording by René Jacobs (2004, Harmonia Mundi -- Freiburg Baroque Orchestra / Berlin RIAS Chamber Chorus, $30.98), also discounted in price for its 2008 re-release. Harmonia Mundi has announced that Jacobs will release a new recording of Die Schöpfung, with the same forces, this fall.

Add to the list of worthy competitors this re-released live recording made by Roger Norrington with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, which plays with consummate refinement and occasional rustic raucousness (to hilarious effect in both the belches of the contrabassoon and the lusty hunting calls of the horns). The fortepiano that accompanies the recitatives is sparkly and mellow, and the timpani boom boisterously. The choral sound, from the RIAS Kammerchor, is also consistently strong and balanced, and the expected drawbacks of audience noise in a live recording are kept to a well-behaved minimum. The strong point of this recording is the exemplary solo performances, especially the puissant bass of Peter Lika, as Simon, and the sweet-voiced American tenor Scot Weir, as Lukas the farmer. The soprano of Christiane Oelze (Hanne) is overall focused and lush, but marred every once in a while by an over-active vibrato that robs the performance of some clarity.

131'17"


available at Amazon
Haydn, Die Jahreszeiten, Concentus Musicus Wien, N. Harnoncourt
($24.98)
(released on March 17, 2009)
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88697 28126 2
Nikolaus Harnoncourt has also just released a live recording, made more recently and recorded over several performances in the summer of 2007. What Harnoncourt has is a carefully balanced trio of solo voices -- Christian Gerhaher, Genia Kühmeier, Werner Güra -- all with native pronunciation of German (a fault of the Norrington recording's tenor). As a group they are superb, and they are all singers highly admired here at Ionarts, but by comparison to the heft from Norrington's male soloists especially, one might trade some of the subtlety for a little more grit. Gerhaher's baritone has more buzz than gravitas at a high wattage, and Güra's high notes can lack a certain resolute ping. The upper hand clearly goes to Kühmeier, however, and the Austrian soprano's superlative performance here, along with a nicely discounted price for the set, makes this version very competitive with Jacobs (whose soprano, Marlis Petersen, is the weak link), especially since Jacobs also has Werner Güra as his tenor.

Harnoncourt seems to encourage a more refined approach from the players of Concentus Musicus Wien, as well, and the performance is more polished in general, whereas the Norrington recording, shorter by a few minutes, edges close to outright disorder in ensemble cohesion a few times. The Harnoncourt recording also wins in sound quality, captured by Berlin's Teldex Studio, the company that arose from the ashes of Teldec after it was shut down by Warner. The range of dynamic levels is to the advantage of Harnoncourt's more nuanced interpretation, allowing the Arnold Schoenberg Chor to rage out in the summer thunderstorm, for example, the large textures pierced by brass (although the clamor of the timpani, brought forward in the Norrington recording, is missed). In a similar way, the brass in the autumn hunting song seem a little too washed and perfumed by comparison.

136'47"

From Bas to Picasso to the Psycho-Kinetic

I'm not so sure I know what's going on in Hernan Bas's paintings, but the more I scanned them at his opening this past Thursday night at Lehman Maupin, the more mesmerized I became. At first glance they have a German, New Leipzig feel to them, Neo Rauch or Matthias Weischer. Many themes interchanging, some old school blending with contemporary abstraction and just plain beautiful areas with layers of paint and scumble to get lost in -- good stuff.

If you're a regular gallery-goer you are well aware of the profusion of large-format C-print photographs, most notably the images of Ryan McGinley's band of gypsy trust fund babies -- nude night swimming in the ocean, nude in trees, nude smoking cigarettes. Don't get me wrong, I like them and it looks like fun, but there's no there-there for me. I'm sure it's my age, too young to appreciate the angst.

Lately I've been noticing a shift towards a theme of the common people on the street, the workers and the out of work, as the depression era photos of Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Jack Delano, Russell Lee, and many others are being dusted off. Tyler Green recently wrote of what looks like a wonderful exhibit at the Nelson-Adkins Museum in Kansas City, of someone unknown to me, the Photographs of Homer Page. I would like to get there but am enjoying the images on line for now.

The Bruce Silverstein Galleries exhibit E.O. Hoppe: Early London Photographs features one gem after another, mostly small 3" x 4" prints proving that great imagery can also come in a small size. Silverstein also represents my favorite contemporary photographer, Zoe Strauss. Zoe will put on her ninth annual Under 95 exhibit coming up on May 3rd, where she attaches her photos to the concrete supports under the I-95 overpass at Front and Mifflin Streets in downtown Philadelphia -- be there!

How are you coping in these times of economic torture and swine flu? Via the fine ladies at Artblog, First Person America has a national competition in the areas of photography, writing, and video asking just that question: details here.

Several galleries in New York have either closed or moved to new locations. Cheryl McGinnis is one of the movers, recently going from way uptown to the Hell's Kitchen area at 555 Eighth Avenue, bringing her closer to Chelsea and more wall space for her first show of Stephanie Hightower's juicy little abstractions on gessoed paper.

Always an entertaining read are William Powhida's latest reports and gossip from the art world. This time we must suspend our sense of reality as he reports from late 2009 after being released from a Thai jail. I know, but it's funny stuff.

Mary Ryan always has something worth seeing. I think Robert Stuart's recent exhibit of paintings was one of her best shows in a while. They sneak up on you, quietly, slowly, and then a subtle hypnotic glow of luscious color radiates forth and stays with you -- still.

This Saturday signals the true beginning of Spring when the American Visionary Art Museum's wacky, crazy, fun Kinetic Sculpture race takes to the streets and waterways of Baltimore! I'll have loads of pictures and video on Monday.

More Haydn Baryton Trios

Style masthead
Read my review in the Style section of the Washington Post today:

Charles T. Downey, Geringas Baryton Trio
Washington Post, April 27, 2009

Geringas Baryton Trio: Haydn and Italian Music
Library of Congress

Luigi Tomasini, Baryton Trio in C Major
Rossini, Duo for Cello and Double Bass (arr. for two cellos)
Haydn, Duetto in D for 2 Barytons, Hob.X:11 (arr. for two cellos);
Baryton Trio in C Major, Hob. XI:82; Baryton Trio in D Major, Hob. XI:97

BONUS -- The Baryton Sings Again (Ionarts, March 17)

26.4.09

In Brief: Misericordia Domini Edition

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

  • Congratulations to Steve Reich, who should have won a Pulitzer Prize long ago, for his Pulitzer Prize. Hate to say it, but it strikes me that this is an award for lifetime achievement that just happens to be given nominally for the Double Sextet, a piece that did not impress me all that much at first hearing last year. Shows what I know. Also important: for the first time this year, several Pulitzer categories were open to entries from publications that are online only. The industry has seen the writing on the wall. [CNN]

  • Color me jealous: Prof. Michael Tinkler was recently standing in Hagia Sofia. [The Cranky Professor]

  • David Nishimura asks the burning question: why has the cost of running a university increased so much? Where is all that extra money going? [Cronaca]

  • The print media news continues to worsen. After Pierre Ruhe (and all the other arts critics) took a buyout from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bryant Manning shares the news that Time Out Chicago is shrinking. [Mysteries Abysmal]

  • It has been twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall? Daniel Barenboim, who will conduct the anniversary concert, spoke to J. S. Marcus about it. [Wall Street Journal]

25.4.09

Manuel Legris Exits Stage Right

Manuel Legris
Manuel Legris, dancer (photo courtesy of manuel-legris.com)
One of the celebrated ballerinos of the Opéra de Paris's ballet, Manuel Legris, will accept the company's mandatory retirement (at age 44 1/2), in a special performance on May 15, after final appearances in the debut production of John Cranko's Onegin, with music from Tchaikovsky's opera. An article by Ariane Bavelier (Les adieux de Manuel Legris, meilleur danseur du monde, April 23) for Le Figaro takes a look at his career (my translation):
The Garnier was his home since the age of 11. Everything happened within its walls: the life of a "ballet rat," the competitions to climb up the hierarchy of the corps de ballet, the nomination for stardom by Maurice Béjart (annulled by Nureyev, who still wanted to wait), the taking of roles, the ovations. "The memory that still blows me away was my entrance audition at the École de danse. I can still see myself in a bus coming up the Avenue de l'Opéra with the Palais Garnier at the end. Was it really there that I was going to spend my life? The cattle calls were like a medical visit: we were 120 kids in our underwear. My mother flipped out: 'I have never seen so many children as beautiful as that in my life: how could you possibly make it?' After that, I was never afraid again." The Legris rocket had found its launching pad.
The director of the École de danse remembers Legris for his enthusiastic style, marked by "extraordinary musicality and natural coordination," saying that "he left everything on stage and sometimes no one arrived who could follow him, which was his only fault." Legris will also give a performance as Charlus in the Roland Petit ballet Proust ou les intermittences du cœur at the end of May. The May 15 performance will be preceded by a special honor, the grand défilé du corps de ballet, during which the 100 students of the École de danse and the 154 dancers of the company will process solemnly across the stage.

24.4.09

NSO Plays Brahms

David Zinman
David Zinman, conductor (photo by Priska Ketterer /
Tonhalle Orchester Zürich)
Thursday evening, the National Symphony Orchestra presented a pleasing program of high-Romantic music by Webern, Schoenberg, and Brahms conducted by the esteemed David Zinman. The program was further satisfying given that the orchestra was allowed to carry the entire program without resorting to the overused inclusion of a soloist and a concerto. The first half of the program comprised Webern’s Langsamer Satz (“Slow Movement”) transcribed by Gerard Schwarz, and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”), op. 4, both for string orchestra.

Originally for string quartet and written when Webern was at the fresh age of twenty-two, Langsamer Satz embodies the lush ideal of late Romanticism. The NSO string players did not quite attain that ideal since the lower string sound was often narrow, and from all sections a luxuriant legato never materialized – a challenge in such an unhurried work. Most disappointing was the frequent descending triplet figure that was the same each time and heard ploddingly as unshaped notes. Fortunately, the Schoenberg tone poem accomplished an ideal balance of legato, fluency, and flow.

Verklärte Nacht is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel that explores the complex emotion of anxiety due to an imbalance of truth between two people, which is then reconciled so that life is renewed and hope is found. Intense pain expressed by the entire ensemble is followed by sincere dialogue between equals as depicted by the concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef and the first violist. She gives him the bad news, they are frightfully upset, and then gradually healing occurs and musical motifs rise as perhaps morning breaks. The dark night of the soul is eventually over.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, The NSO Does Mod in a Romantic Mode (Washington Post, April 24)
Zinman’s superb leadership of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E Minor helped create a memorable performance. The stately tempo of the first movement (Allegro non troppo) allowed adequate space for nuance and clarity, while additions of brass lines added color instead of volume. Not overly controlling, Zinman allowed the NSO musicians to unfold this substantial work at their own pace. The sublime clarinet solos in the second movement (Andante moderato) enhanced the perfect transitions and carefulness carried over from the first movement. It was a pity that the violins and oboes did not quite have the technical capacity to keep up with Zinman’s tempo in the third movement (Allegro giocoso). Zinman, having reserved his energy through the entire evening, demanded a striking intensity; the orchestra met those demands, except for in the most difficult technical passages, where there were some blemishes. Friday and Saturday’s performances should be perfect.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night (April 24 and 25, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Serse at Maryland Opera Studio


Countertenor Christopher Newcomer (Xerxes) and his little tree in Handel's Serse, Maryland Opera Studio, 2009 (photo by Cory Weaver)
This month the musical world is celebrating a major anniversary for Handel, an event observed this month by Maryland Opera Studio with a production of the composer's Serse, which was premiered in London on April 15, 1738. The absurd libretto, such as it is, is a mixture of comic and supposedly serious, mangled by an anonymous hand from libretti of previous operas. The action is set in the fifth century B.C., during the military campaign of the Persian despot Xerxes into Greece. As recounted by Herodotus (Book 7), whose sympathy to the Greek side of the story should be taken into account, Xerxes's campaign was halted by the unruly Hellespont crossing, where insufficiently stable bridges prevented the forward movement of his army. Herodotus focuses on the megalomaniacal eccentricity of Xerxes, who so admires an oriental plane tree he comes across -- a grand tree of massive trunk and broad, leafy branches, wholly unlike the puny potted orange tree that takes its place in this production -- that he decorates it with gold and appoints a guardian over it, an office that is to be handed down to a successor in perpetuity. Handel's opera opens with Serse singing one of the most famous arias ever penned, Ombra mai fù, to that plane tree.

Handel's Serse:
available at Amazon
P. Rasmussen, I. Bayrakdarian, S. Piau, A. Hallenberg, Les Talens Lyriques, C. Rousset
(DVD -- $26.99)


available at Amazon
A. S. von Otter, S. Piau, L. Zazzo, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie
(CD -- $29.49)


Online score:
Serse (HWV 40)
Angered by the uncooperative winds and waters of the Hellespont, Xerxes ordered his soldiers to bind it (by casting shackles into the water), beat it with a lash, and even brand it with an iron. The "bridge" that he eventually constructs is made mostly of his navy's ships lashed together across the span. Director Nick Olcott has updated the action to the recent colonial past, with Xerxes in a European dress military uniform, as if he were the area's British Royal Administrator, while Xerxes' actual betrothed, Amastre, is disguised in a khaki Australian regimental uniform with cocked hat, and Ariodate, the father of the woman Xerxes is trying to marry, appears in a British pith helmet like a modest major-general. It is hard to see how the theme of foreign domination could be relevant, since the Greeks Xerxes is going to attack are not even mentioned.

Although Handel created the role of Serse for Caffarelli, a soprano castrato, its high-sitting arias are frequently given to a high female voice or transposed down for either a mezzo-soprano or an alto countertenor. The justification for a male or female voice should always come down to musical considerations, rather than the dramatic preference for a male singer over a trousered woman. This production cast countertenor Christopher Newcomer in the role, which was a bit too much of a reach, its heights leading him to sound rather forced and shrill, often bending out of tune, as heard on Wednesday night. The voice struck my ear as modeled too much on that of David Daniels, more sharp than rounded. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast was also mostly lackluster, not necessarily below expectations for a collegiate production but definitely in need of some more finishing. High points came in the buffo roles, the bumbling servant Elviro, played by bass Andrew Adelsberger (a student of François Loup), who was hilarious in falsetto and en travesti as a flower girl, and the scheming sister of Onyu Park's Atalanta. Ms. Park stood out for the brilliance of her ornamentation and for having the best Italian pronunciation among a cast that sounded disappointingly unpolished and very American (Park studied first in Germany and has more training behind her).


Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Maryland Opera Studio offers lively staging of Handel's 'Serse' (Clef Notes, April 21)

Joan Reinthaler, Two Early Works in Capable Young Hands (Washington Post, April 20)
With fewer recitatives and da capo repeats, Handel made the opera flow more dramatically, which a few cuts in this production -- the choral numbers in Act I, maybe some of the recitatives (I think it was about 20 minutes shorter than a complete performance) -- as well as reshaping three acts into two, to have only one intermission. The choice of conductor, Kenneth Slowik (he also accompanied the recitatives), was a good one, and he did his best to keep things moving, in spite of lots of unclean intonation and poor coordination among the strings. The scoring and articulation were largely unvaried, creating an orchestral sameness that ran through most of the evening, with a few accents, mostly nice from a pair of oboes and a bassoon, generally sub-par from the pair of recorders. Creating some room here and there for the theorbo, which was practically inaudible [in fact, not in the pit, although listed in the program! -- Ed.], could break up the monotony. There is no substitute for having a more experienced conductor, especially when combined with a fully formed ensemble over which he is the established leader. Handel's operas have come a long way, but at the moment, the best results still come from leaving them to the specialists.

Handel's Serse will be repeated tonight (April 24, 7:30 pm) and Sunday afternoon (April 26, 3 pm), at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park.

23.4.09

Minkowski's B Minor Mass

available at Amazon
Bach, Mass in B Minor, Les Musiciens du Louvre • Grenoble,
M. Minkowski
($25.19)
(released on March 31, 2009)
Naïve V 5145


available at Amazon
George B. Stauffer, Bach:
The Mass in B Minor



Online score:
Mass in B Minor (BWV 232)
Many years ago now, musicologist Joshua Rifkin stirred up the performance practice pot by suggesting that much of Bach's choral music should be performed with one singer on each part, and he proved his point by recording the B Minor Mass in just that arrangement. Because early performances in the 19th century treated the work as a slobber-fest for oversized chorus, that conception has lingered even into performances in this century. In the liner notes of this new recording, Bach specialist George B. Stauffer, who has published a fine book on the B Minor Mass, lays out the historical evidence to believe that "the B Minor Mass was conceived as a chamber piece rather than a massive choral-society work," saying that the vocal parts required for the solos "point to a chorus of ten to fifteen singers" and the instrumental parts call for "a modest ensemble of twenty to twenty-five players." While an old-school Romantic version can be enjoyable, for me the superior recording to own is one that fits with the work's intended mode of performance.

Marc Minkowski has finally undertaken a recording of the B Minor Mass (in an interview with Minkowski in the liner notes, Rémy Louis describes this set as the first installment of a "long-term Bach cycle") with his group Les musiciens du Louvre • Grenoble, whom we have admired many times before especially for their opera recordings, such as Gluck's Armide and Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie. The version to be beat is the second recording made by Philippe Herreweghe (2007, Harmonia Mundi), which at the moment is about twice as expensive ($45.98) as Minkowski's. Jens has also reviewed two of the other newer HIP recordings, also from 2007, by Bach Collegium Japan ($43.98) and Netherlands Bach Society ($57.98), which are in competition. The older HIP recordings like the pioneering Harnoncourt or Gardiner still sound great but are no longer at the top of the list in terms of musical quality, although they tend to be heavily discounted.

The speed of Minkowski's recording is right in line with all of those 2007 recordings, nearly as fast as van Veldhoven's Dutch recording and a little faster than Herreweghe. Not all of the voices are quite right for the many demands, although there are pleasing turns for soprano Lucy Crowe, countertenor Terry Wey (a former chorister with Vienna Boys Choir), and the molten contralto of Nathalie Stutzmann (in an Agnus Dei that stops time), and the sweet-voiced tenor Colin Balzer (matched nicely to the traverso of Florian Cousin in the Benedictus, an obbligato line that was not specified by Bach in the score, so it is sometimes given to a solo violin, although the range is better suited to the transverse flute). In general the singers sound best in the chamber-sized movements, in various combinations like the Et incarnatus est and Crucifixus movements, but are sometimes pushed to stridency in the full sections like the Cum sancto spiritu and Et resurrexit.

Least pleasing in the orchestra are some tuning infelicities in the grouped strings, but the winds and brass generally have the best possible balance of accuracy and period-instrument "authenticity." Minkowski's choice of tempo is often fleet, but not as manic or edgy as Rinaldo Alessandrini, for example, and he has sculpted the instrumental sound as much as possible to conform to his ensemble of voices, especially allowing cantus firmus voices to emerge from the texture (gliding above the other voices in the Credo in unum deum and Confiteor sections, as if disembodied in a different time signature). It may not be quite the perfect B Minor Mass, if such a recording even exists, but it is exceptionally good and its discounted price seals the deal.

106'49"

22.4.09

Lulu at Home in Lyon


Berg, Lulu, directed by Peter Stein, Opéra de Lyon, 2009
The Opéra de Lyon has mounted a new production of Berg's Lulu, the first ever (!) of the entire opera and in its original language in the company's history. The debut was entrusted to German director Peter Stein, who adds Berg's masterpiece to his growing CV at the Opéra de Lyon since 2004, including three Tchaikovsky operas (Mazeppa, Eugene Onegin, and Pique Dame). Marie-Aude Roux wrote a review (A Lyon, une "Lulu" puissante et sensuelle dans une mise en scène digne des Années folles, April 23) for Le Monde (my translation):
At 71, Peter Stein is still a formidable director of stage action: precise, pertinent, often inspired -- there was not a note of the score that did not have its repercussion on the stage. Stein wanted his Lulu to be like that of the silent film of George Wilhelm Pabst (Loulou, 1929), the angelic face and boyish haircut of the actress Louise Brooks. The seductive costumes of the Roaring 20s (by Moidele Bickel) are equally hymns to the ravaging beauty of Lulu. The same is true of the pompous Art Deco sets by Ferdinand Wögerbauer and the veiled, quasi-mystical lighting by Duane Schuler, which complete this luxurious vision, sometimes at the edge of kitsch. American soprano Laura Aikin possesses the entire arsenal of seduction of the heroine, a femme fatale in the curvaceous body of a teenager. With a mutinous pout and splayed body, long legs and stratospheric top range, she unleashes desire and death with an impudence as palpable as Berg's sensual score, explosive up to the point of Jack the Ripper's knife, who will take credit for the seductress's defeat in a shabby London brothel.
We have been following Laura Aikin's successes in Europe, especially in contemporary opera, for several years, and this is only her most recent triumph as Lulu. (Speaking of which, Washington National Opera has yet to mount a production of Lulu, but I suppose that will have to wait for financially more secure times.) This production continues in Lyon through May 2 and will later travel to La Scala in Milan in April 2010 and to the Wiener Festwochen that summer.

21.4.09

Quatuor Mosaïques Worth the Wait

Quatuor Mosaïques:
available at Amazon
Haydn op. 20


available at Amazon
Haydn op. 77


available at Amazon
Beethoven op. 18/1,4


available at Amazon
Mozart Quartets
Ionarts has been recommending the recordings of the Haydn quartets by the Quatuor Mosaïques for years, but we had the first chance to review them live on Saturday night in an exceptional concert at the Library of Congress. The group was formed in the 1980s by cellist Christophe Coin and other members of Nikolaus Harnoncourt's historically informed performance (HIP) ensemble Concentus Musicus. Over two decades, their recordings of Classical string quartets, performed on historical instruments with gut strings, have changed the way we hear Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Two Haydn quartets on the first half had all the superlative qualities expected from the group's recordings: rhythmic clarity, impeccable balance among parts, and clean intonation partially due to a sparing use of vibrato. The G minor quartet (op. 20, no. 3) had a crisp first movement, a wistful yearning treatment of the second movement (with a more dance-like trio), Venetian glass-like layering of sound in the third movement, and an active, energetic finale (albeit with a few squeaks here and there in the first violin).

Even more pleasing was the last published of Haydn's complete string quartets, the F major (op. 77, no. 2), in which the clever handling of the formal outlines of each movement was noteworthy, like the transition from development to recapitulation in the first movement. The jokingly clumsy return from the trio to the minuetto, like a sputtering engine trying to get started (in a coda that haltingly gets us back from D-flat major to the home key), played right into the hemiola games of duple versus triple that unsettle the second movement. In general, second violinist Andrea Bischof seemed a little too retiring and could have brought out her occasional solos with more flair, while the perceptive and sonorous playing of cellist Christophe Coin marked him as the group's leader.


Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Quatuor Mosaïques at the Library of Congress (Washington Post, April 20)

Vivien Schweitzer, Thankful and Soulful on the Road to Recovery (New York Times, April 20)

Alan G. Artner, Satisfying debut for the Mosaïques (Chicago Tribune, April 20)

David Patrick Stearns, Early-music quartet at the Kimmel (Philadelphia Inquirer, April 18)
Beethoven's C minor quartet (op. 18, no. 4) was of the same approximate vintage as the later Haydn example, Beethoven's op. 18 set having been commissioned by Prince Lobkowitz at the same time as Haydn's (unfinished) op. 77 set. The comparison of the two quartets side by side highlighted the basic qualities of the young Beethoven's compositional style: the restless character of the first movement's main theme, the hammered tonic and dominant chords (as in the rewrite of the bridge of the first movement), the fugal writing of the second movement, and all of those sforzandi on third beats in the menuetto. Gut-stringed 18th-century instruments cannot produce the same violence of sound as later ones, but there is such a thing as way too much sound in a Beethoven string quartet, and what is gained in the soft end of the spectrum makes the overall range of dynamics still very broad, just more subtle. The nature of the instruments also makes it much less easy for the first violin to dominate the texture, making the triplet accompaniment figure of the third-movement trio more transparent, for example. The Quatuor Mosaïques played with remarkable physical energy in the final movement, cranking up the wattage with each return of the rondo theme and then exploding in the Prestissimo coda.

The feast of HIP ensembles continues at the Library of Congress, with a concert by the Geringas Baryton Trio this Friday (April 24, 8 pm).

900th Anniversary, Feast of St. Anselm

Manuscript Vita of St. Anselm, detail
Manuscript Vita of St. Anselm, detail
April 21 is the feast of Anselm of Canterbury, who died 900 years ago today. Anselm is a favorite saint, not least because he is the patron of the Benedictine abbey and school in Northeast, where I teach music and art history. He was an Italian, born in Aosta in 1033, and received a calling to the monastic life when he was still a young man. His father prevented him from joining a monastery, after which Anselm fell into a life of dissolution and wandering, abandoning the vocation of monastic learning for a time. Fleeing his father's severity, Anselm set out on foot across the Alps, wandering north all the way to Normandy. He was taken in as a student and later a monk at the Abbey of Bec, where he finally found a mentor in the scholar Lanfranc, who was the prior. Anselm was to succeed Lanfranc in many positions, first as prior (and eventually abbot) at Bec and later as Archbishop of Canterbury in England.

Anselm is often cited as the founder of the Scholastic movement of philosophy and was in later years given the rank of Doctor of the Church for his theological and philosophical writings. His most famous philosophical idea is the so-called ontological proof of the existence of God, quoted below. Anselm staunchly opposed the interference of the state in church affairs but just as staunchly opposed the crusades as wars sponsored wrongly by the church. He died in peace on April 21, 1109. He is buried at Canterbury Cathedral, the loss of which to a heretical sect (in fact, a result of the most egregious interference of the English government in church affairs) he would certainly condemn.
Excerpt from Chapter 2 of Anselm's Proslogium (translated from the Latin by Sidney Norton Deane, with some updating):

And so, Lord, who gives understanding to faith, give me, so far as you know it to be profitable, to understand that you are as we believe; and that you are that which we believe. And indeed, we believe that you are a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Or is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart, there is no God? (Psalms xiv. 1). But, at any rate, this very fool, when he hears of this being of which I speak -- a being than which nothing greater can be conceived -- understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding; although he does not understand it to exist.

For, it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. When a painter first conceives of what he will paint later, he has it in his understanding, but he does not yet understand it to be, because he has not yet performed it. But after he has made the painting, he both has it in his understanding, and he understands that it exists, because he has made it.

Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.
See also these Other Works by St. Anselm of Canterbury. For a lighter version, a philosophy professor set a version of Anselm's ontological proof to the tune of Waltzing Matilda. A few years ago I had my student choir sing it, and it works quite well.

20.4.09

Don Quixote Rides Again with the Folger Consort

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Don Quixote, new translation by Edith Grossman
(2003)
Like many beloved works of literature, Cervantes's novel Don Quixote (published in 1605, coincidentally the same year as Victoria's setting of the Requiem Mass, performed by the Folger Consort last season) had an extensive afterlife in music. It is by its very nature a musical book, a sonic soul that Jordi Savall documented in a remarkable recording of all of the pieces (or as many of them as possible) performed, heard, or even mentioned in the book. The last program in the Folger Consort's season was devoted to two pieces that came after the novel, musical works intended for the stage that preserve the comic spirit of the novel while also adapting it to their own times and locales, Germany and England in the early 18th century. Excerpts from both works, Telemann's Burlesque de Quixotte and incidental music composed by Thomas D'Urfey for three English plays on the Don Quixote story, were interwoven with dramatic readings. This arrangement recounted the general arc of the story with a few of the most famous episodes.

The instrumental ensemble consisted of a well-balanced string quintet, with most of the emphasis on the demanding first violin parts, played with dexterity if not universally clear and beautiful tone by Risa Browder. Pleasing accents were added by the continuo group of Webb Wiggins on harpsichord, William Simms on theorbo and Baroque guitar, and Christopher Kendall on lute and therbo, as well as some occasional solos by Robert Eisenstein on recorder, contributing some much needed variety in the treble range. Particularly worthy were Telemann's music for Quixote's attack on the windmills, the book's most famous passage, a very fast, agitated performance of music focused especially on a rapid-fire repeated-note motif, and for the sighs of love for Princess Aline, with a chromatic sighing motif for the first violin. A country dance medley was added to the conclusion of the program, to give a sampling of Thomas D'Urfey's poaching of pre-existing dance tunes. This had little to do with the program, coming after the death of Quixote, but the different colors applied -- lute and guitar with only double bass on one, recorder featured on another -- relieved the uniformity of the instrumentation up to that point.


William Sharp, bass-baritone
Actors Floyd King and Robert McDonald narrated the story with humor and bonhomie, speaking lines by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, respectively. Baritone William Sharp was at his best in these broadly comic songs, grimacing and blustery on the hearty guffaws of Sancho in Hat mich der große Menschenfresser, for example. Sharp adapted his elegant and subtle voice to a range of humorous songs, from the mock-epic tribute of Sancho to his donkey (Telemann's Mein Esel ist das beste Tier) to the inebriated stagger of D'Urfey's The Doctor is feed for a Dangerous Draught, sung in praise of a wine bottle. Sharp was paired with soprano Rosa Lamoreaux, who sang first from the upper balcony as a vision of mythical Dulcinea. At times her voice sounded slightly strained, but her performance was especially compelling in the extended and highly varied made scene, From Rosie Bow'rs -- as it turns out, the last piece that Purcell completed, when he was quite ill.

The Folger Consort's 2009-2010 season will be devoted to music from around the year 1610, centered on a performance of Claudio Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers at Washington National Cathedral (January 8 to 9, 2010). Other programs include a comparison of 17th-century music in Italy and China (October 2 to 4), a German Baroque Christmas program with Cantate Chamber Singers (December 11 to 20), a French Baroque program (March 19 to 21, 2010), and Robert Dowland's Musical Banquet, from 1610 (April 9 to 11, 2010).

Felicity Lott

Style masthead
Read my review on the Washington Post Web site today:

Charles T. Downey, Felicity Lott at the Vocal Arts Society
Washington Post, April 20, 2009

Felicity Lott (soprano) and Eugene Asti (piano): "Une Attente Mostly Cordiale"
Vocal Arts Society
Embassy of Austria

See also my review of Lott's recital with Graham Johnson last year: Felicity Lott Channels Yvonne Printemps (Ionarts, May 9, 2008)

19.4.09

In Brief: Quasimodo Edition

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


Leontyne Price appears on What's My Line? (with hat tip to La Cieca)
  • On Easter Sunday we had the most delightful news of another long-desired resurrection, that of Marion Lignana Rosenberg, the author of one of our favorite erstwhile Internet destinations, vilaine fille, and much more. We wish her all possible success with her new project and travel plans. [Re-visioning Callas]

  • Check out the new blog to cover developments on making the photography collection of the Smithsonian more accessible to the public. [The Bigger Picture]

  • Bruce Weber's obit for adult movie star Marilyn Chambers was not intended to be funny, of course, but the way that he summarized the "plot" of the notorious film that lost Chambers her sponsorship deal with Ivory Soap cracked me up: "Ms. Chambers was an aspiring actress and model in 1972 when she starred in Behind the Green Door, a pornographic film about a woman who is abducted to a theater and ravished in front of an audience, ultimately to her great satisfaction, by both men and women." You stay classy, Gray Lady. [New York Times]

  • In this hilarious fake poll ("What Are We Twittering?") one of the responses made me wonder: 22% "Waiting for cue -- flute solos suck." The thought of an orchestral musician tweeting in the middle of a concert seemed so absurd. But is it? Perhaps on stage in a symphony concert would be too brazen, but why not in a ballet or opera pit? Any readers ever seen this happen? No names please! [The Onion]

  • How could Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg audition for the YouTube symphony thing (the gimmick everyone was talking about and about which I could not care less -- Anne Midgette's article in the Post sums up the performance perfectly) and not get chosen? By videoing herself playing the piano, of course. [Oboeinsight]

  • Yeah, whatever did happen to Sofia Coppola the film director? Like Keith Demko, I too described her last film -- three years ago -- as "her first failure," a gorgeous, stylish looker of a film with a dud of a story behind the exterior, like one of the famous Parisian confections featured in it, beautiful colors and sheen on the surface and nothing but air inside. With a better script, it could have been a devastating tragedy, a lesson that Coppola has hopefully learned during the intervening years. Thankfully, the director of Lost in Translation and Virgin Suicides, both extraordinary movies, is getting behind the camera again, with Somewhere, about "a bad-boy actor (Stephen Dorff) stumbling through a life of excess," at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont, who receives a surprise visit from his daughter (Elle Fanning). Coppola has written her own screenplay again (that worked for the two films set in her own times, if not for Marie Antoinette), and she starts shooting this summer. [Reel Fanatic]

18.4.09

What Has Happened to France?

Gone are the days of the French passengers on flights to Paris lighting up in Charles de Gaulle at the luggage carousel, much to the irritation of capnophobic Americans. In 2009 some ads on public buses in Paris, for an exhibit at La Cinémathèque Française on the films of Jacques Tati, were censored. The problem? The posters showed an image of Tati's iconic character, Monsieur Hulot, smoking a pipe, that dangerous instrument of tobacco consumption. Worse, he was using it to endanger the life of the child on the back seat of his bicycle! The controversy was reported by Flore Galaud (Evin trouve «ridicule» la suppression de la pipe de Tati, April 17) for Le Figaro (my translation):

"Tati without his pipe is like Chaplin without his hat!" was the exclamation from La Cinémathèque française, [which] decided to furnish the commission with posters where a ridiculous yellow pinwheel takes the place of the famous pipe. "A ridiculous addition for a ridiculous act of censorship," explains La Cinémathèque, an opinion shared by former minister Claude Evin, who introduced the law in question.
Pass your cursor over the picture in the Le Figaro article to see the censored and original versions of the poster. The decision is all the more absurd because Tati never even lit his pipe in any of his films, according to Costa Gavras, who is president of La Cinémathèque. Tati, however, is not the first victim of the law: in 1996, the French post office edited a cigarette out of the mouth of André Malraux on one of its stamps, and in 2005 Jean-Paul Sartre had a cigarette butt edited out of his hand for posters advertising an exhibit at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Even the cartoon cowboy Lucky Luke had to give up his famous cigarette for a stalk of grass. Anti-smoking prudery is not so American anymore.

UPDATE:
According to Le Monde, the RATP has also refused to display promotional posters for Anne Fontaine's new film about Coco Chanel, in which Audrey Tautou is shown with a cigarette in her hand. Yes, because Coco Chanel NEVER smoked.

17.4.09

Kavakos Roars through Mendelssohn

Leonidas Kavakos, violinist
Leonidas Kavakos, violinist
Anyone who heard the last appearance by Leonidas Kavakos with the National Symphony Orchestra, an unforgettable Sibelius concerto, was not going to miss his return to Washington this weekend. Last night, he played one of the other Big Five Romantic violin concertos, the Mendelssohn (E minor, op. 64), to be repeated on Saturday, with a single performance of an even bigger concerto, the Tchaikovsky, scheduled for tonight. The Mendelssohn concerto, as hard as it is to dislike, can be played badly, but that was certainly not the case here. Kavakos, who has technique to burn, tore through the fast outer movements at a breath-taking pace, almost without a single note out of place. As noted of his Sibelius concerto, Kavakos handles adjustments of tempo with extraordinary freedom, a mercurial unpredictability that makes his performances exciting for the listener. At the same time, it poses some problems for the orchestra attempting to play with him, if it lacks the flexibility to follow so many gradations of tempo.

From the opening of the first movement, Kavakos, conductor Iván Fischer, and the NSO had difficulty forming a cohesive unit. At an AfterWords talk following the concert, Kavakos spoke about his way of phrasing, which explained something of the surging nature of his performance, saying that if left to itself a phrase would unfold gently but that if impelled it will have its own spark of energy. This propulsion forward left the NSO players in the dust many times, although there were many calming moments, like the transition to the second theme in the opening movement, where the flow came almost to a stop as Kavakos savored the tender, plangent tone applied to the new theme. Kavakos's approach to music may be benefiting from his recent forays into conducting, since his appointment in 2007 as artistic director of Camerata Salzburg. After the concert, he said conducting has been a long-held dream, motivated primarily by a fascination with the Bruckner symphonies. He noted that the repertory for solo violin has its limits and that he may have reached them (players of even less represented instruments like the bassoon likely do not feel much sympathy for the violinist's plight) and that learning so many new scores for his conducting work, although it takes up much of his time, has given him a more symphonic view in his work as soloist.

The first-movement cadenza displayed the admirable match between Kavakos and his new instrument, a 1782 Guadagnini that he picked up last summer, with pure intonation and present, but not overpowering tone across all strings. Here and in the demanding third movement, the agility and accuracy of Kavakos's left hand were practically faultless, striking a balance between fairy-dust lightness and combustible power.
Daniel Kellogg, composer
Daniel Kellogg, composer
Kavakos also spoke about his new violin after the concert, saying that its tone, if not forced, could fill a large hall like the Kennedy Center's without being overbearing. This was exactly the experience of hearing the simple, radiant sound of the instrument in the slow movement, where even in the B section the melody was voiced with exceptional clarity and with consummate line.

The concert opened with the world premiere of a new orchestral work by Colorado composer Daniel Kellogg, Western Skies, an NSO commission made possible by a gift from the Hechinger Fund. The composer remarked at the AfterWords event that he had cast out most of his first drafts for the commission when he learned that the NSO was planning to take this program on its upcoming tour of China and South Korea. He settled instead upon the idea of depicting in music the mythic expanses of the American West, as seen from his home in Boulder, Colo. He did so with seventeen minutes of music of striking homogeneity, a bubbling unfolding of sound recalling the Klangfarbenmelodie of the Second Viennese School -- from a static repetition that builds and recedes, individual colors condense and evaporate, including clarinet arpeggios, glockenspiel pings, bowed vibraphone irradiations, tuba bleats. Overtones of Coplandesque Americana were everywhere, as well as hints of the Britten Sea Interludes in the second movement (Moonbeams in the Snow), where monolithic brass chords unsettled more stable harmonies. The stasis was finally disturbed slightly with greater rhythmic activity in the third movement (White Mountains on the Horizon), but as easy on the ear as it was there was little to ponder afterward. The composer's program notes read like a Colorado travelogue, to the point that one hopes he received a stipend from the Colorado Tourism Office. The piece may have a future as the soundtrack to future "Ski Colorado" ads.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, For the NSO, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Time Is a Charmer (Washington Post, April 17)
All evening Iván Fischer was a suave and assured guide, with his best contribution coming in the final work, Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony (E minor, op. 64 -- a strange coincidence with the Mendelssohn violin concerto). Regular readers know of my aversion to Tchaikovsky's orchestral music, especially when its excesses, both of the syrupy and sonic boom variety, are overindulged. Fischer did a fine job of moving through the score, as in the agitated first theme of the first movement, perhaps giving in too much to the swooning second theme. This allows some of the more unusual parts of the score to stand out, like the wild growling of the low strings at the conclusion of the first movement, the passionate themes given to the NSO's elegant cello section in the second, and the squawking sounds of the stopped horns in the third. There is nothing you can do with the truly awful coda to the fourth movement, a theatrical flourish of the symphony's fate theme one wishes Tchaikovsky had excised.

This concert repeats tonight (April 17, 8 pm -- with Kavakos playing the Tchaikovsky concerto) and tomorrow night (April 18, 8 pm -- back to the Mendelssohn concerto) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Conductor David Zinman is the star of next week's concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra (April 23 to 25), leading performances of Webern's Langsamer Satz (arr. Gerard Schwarz), Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, op. 4, and the Brahms fourth symphony.