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31.8.09

Ionarts at Large: From the ARD Music Competition

It's been a year since the 2008 ARD Competition (reviews & reports here). And tonight the ARD Music Competition 2009--Voice, Harp, Violin, & Double Bass--began with the first round of double bassists getting under way at Studio 1 of the Bavarian Broadcasting building. I began my 18-day competition marathon by taking it easy and listening only to half a dozen of the 13 musicians on display. Those six performances indicated a fairly low standard, but from that low level two artists stood out all the more impressively: Ha Young Jung from Korea and Olivier Thiery from France. More of that later, as I will report from every day of the competition here, starting tomorrow evening.

'Two Towers'


Ludwig Wicki conducting a Fellowship of the Ring at Wolf Trap (photo by Priska Ketterer Luzern / Wolf Trap)
This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Following up on a successful screening of the first volume of Peter Jackson's sprawling Lord of the Rings trilogy in May 2008, the Filene Center at Wolf Trap hosted two screenings of The Two Towers this past weekend. In spite of intermittent rain on Saturday night, which provided atmospherically appropriate lightning and rumbles of thunder, the lawn was filled with umbrella-toting Tolkien fans -- we saw at least one Gandalf impersonator, complete with tall, pointy hat -- as were the more expensive seats in the theater, with some empty patches at the back. Why were people willing to pay $25 to $55 to see a movie that came out in the theaters some years ago? Because a pick-up orchestra of area players, the City Choir of Washington, and two vocal soloists performed Howard Shore's alternately ethereal and booming score live during the screening. The main outdoor screen, attached to the wall of theater, was pretty small, but the one inside the theater, hung in line with the proscenium arch, was cinematic in size, and the sound of the massive performance forces swept over us in the front of the orchestra section with tidal might.

Conductor Ludwig Wicki, who has led these screening-performances all over the world, led with a veteran's hand, lining up most of the pieces of the score, divided up into discrete numbers, with the visual cues, which he followed on an individual laptop screen on the podium. In a few places, of course, the music did not quite synch up with the film, as when Gandalf and the Balrog fall through the mineshaft of Moria near the beginning -- as we see the flaming demon fall into a large cavern with an underground lake, there is a shift in the score, which came a few seconds late, for example. Most of the success or failure of this kind of performance is due to how well the ensemble can imitate the performance on the soundtrack, and that it mostly did, from the dynamic swells and chanted Tolkien languages of the choir to the amplified solo violin (Norwegian fiddle) of the Rohan music. The same was true of the vocal solos, including the white-toned soprano solo of the Arwen music (although Kaitlyn Lusk's rendition of Gollum's Song, the pop song that is heard with the credits, with lyrics by Fran Walsh, was embarrassingly over the top, complete with arm movements).

Although Master Ionarts would not normally be allowed to watch such a violent movie at his age, he went with me on Saturday night to support his friend and musical colleague, treble Nolan Peters, who was spot-on in the elfin, otherworldly treble solos toward the end of the film. Fortunately for the younger audience members, the shorter, theatrical version of the film was screened, which with a welcome intermission, still lasted over three hours. Howard Shore may not be a great original composer -- witness the abject failure of his opera The Fly -- but he is a brilliant chameleonic imitator of evocative styles. Minor-to-minor mediant chords and minor (mostly) pentatonic scales evoke the rough, folksy feel of the Rohirrim, with a skillful use of exotic instrumental color, and an imitation of Holst's Mars music, in 5/4 even more slavish than John Williams's adaptation of that famous music for the Star Wars Imperial March, serves nicely for the marching orcs. All in all, an effective way to combine two of my nerdy tendencies, orchestral music and Lord of the Rings.

If you missed these performances at Wolf Trap, you could take a trip to the screening of the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring , also with live music but at a considerably higher ticket price, at Radio City Music Hall in New York (October 9 and 10).

Classical Month in Washington (November)

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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!

November 1, 2009 (Sun)
1 and 3 pm
NSO Family Concert: Spooky Sounds and Scary Tales
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 1, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
Verdehr Trio [FREE]
Phillips Collection

November 1, 2009 (Sun)
5:30 pm
Midori (violin) and Robert McDonald, piano
Shriver Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 1, 2009 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Till Fellner, piano
Beethoven piano sonata cycle, Part 4
National Gallery of Art

November 2, 2009 (Mon)
7 pm
Ariadne auf Naxos
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

November 3, 2009 (Tue)
12:10 pm
Noontime Cantata: Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn, BWV 132
Washington Bach Consort
Church of the Epiphany

November 3, 2009 (Tue)
8 pm
Zemlinksy Quartet [FREE]
Library of Congress

November 4, 2009 (Wed)
12:10 pm
Pro Musica Rara [FREE]
Music by Marais, Rameau, and Telemann
National Gallery of Art

November 4, 2009 (Wed)
12:10 pm
Benjamin Hutto, organ [FREE]
St. John's, Lafayette Square

November 4, 2009 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Avanti: Orchestra of Friday Morning Music Club
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

November 5, 2009 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Vadim Repin, violin
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 5, 2009 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Apollo Ensemble: Baroque Jewish Music
Pro Musica Hebraica
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

November 5, 2009 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Ariadne auf Naxos
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

November 5, 2009 (Thu)
8 pm
Duke Ellington Orchestra
With Paul Mercer Ellington, leader
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 6, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
Szymanowski Quartet [FREE]
Library of Congress

November 6, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Vadim Repin, violin
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 6, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Susanna Phillips, soprano
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 6, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
King's Singers
George Mason University Center for the Arts

November 7, 2009 (Sat)
5 pm
Wagner, Götterdämmerung (in concert)
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

November 7, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Vadim Repin, violin
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 7, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Susanna Phillips, soprano
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 7, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
Left Bank Concert Society: Starry Night
Dumbarton Concerts
Dumbarton Church

November 7, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
National Philharmonic: Haydn and Mendelssohn
Music Center at Strathmore

November 8, 2009 (Sun)
2 pm
Ariadne auf Naxos
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

November 8, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Susanna Phillips, soprano
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 8, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
Fine Arts Quartet [FREE]
National Academy of Sciences

November 8, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
Lucille Snell, flute [FREE]
Reynolds Center for American Art

November 8, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
Eclipse Chamber Orchestra
Music by Wagner, Stravinsky, Strauss
George Washington Masonic Memorial (Alexandria, Va.)

November 8, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
Yuliya Gorenman (piano) and Bonnie Hampton (cello) [FREE]
Phillips Collection

November 8, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
‘Mon Cuer: Chansons des Femmes’
Armonia Nova, with Marjorie Bunday (alto) and Allison Mondel (soprano)
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (3rd and A St. SE)

November 8, 2009 (Sun)
5 pm
Washington Chorus: The Essential Puccini
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 8, 2009 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Yakov Kasman, piano [FREE]
Music by Prokofiev, Schumann, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky
National Gallery of Art

November 8, 2009 (Sun)
7 pm
Apollo's Fire: Mediterranean Nights
Friends of Music
Dumbarton Oaks

November 9, 2009 (Mon)
7:30 pm
Paris Piano Trio
Mansion at Strathmore

November 9, 2009 (Mon)
8 pm
Apollo's Fire: Mediterranean Nights
Friends of Music
Dumbarton Oaks

November 10, 2009 (Tue)
7 pm
What Makes It Great: Bach's Double Violin Concerto
Peabody Chamber Players with Rob Kapilow, conductor
National Museum of Natural History

November 10, 2009 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Ariadne auf Naxos
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

November 10, 2009 (Tue)
8 pm
Twelve Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic
Music Center at Strathmore

November 11, 2009 (Wed)
12:10 pm
Zephyrus Ensemble [FREE]
Music by Couperin, Rebel, and Rameau
National Gallery of Art

November 12, 2009 (Thu)
7 pm
Conversations with Legends: Kiri Te Kanawa
WPAS
Embassy of New Zealand

November 12, 2009 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Musicians from Marlboro I [FREE]
Music by Mozart, Brahms, Messiaen, Takemitsu, Saariaho
Freer Gallery of Art

November 12, 2009 (Thu)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano (Gershwin)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 13, 2009 (Fri)
7 pm
François-Frédéric Guy, piano
Beethoven piano sonata cycle, Part 1
La Maison Française

November 13, 2009 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Ariadne auf Naxos
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

November 13, 2009 (Fri)
7:30 pm
New York Festival of Song, with Steven Blier
Vocal Arts Society
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

November 13, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Lang Lang, piano
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 13, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano (Gershwin)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 13, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
Haochen Zhang, piano
2009 Van Cliburn Competition Gold Medalist
Barns at Wolf Trap

November 14, 2009 (Sat)
3 pm
Pavel Haas Quartet [FREE]
Baltimore Museum of Art

November 14, 2009 (Sat)
4 pm
François-Frédéric Guy, piano
Beethoven piano sonata cycle, Part 2
La Maison Française

November 14, 2009 (Sat)
7 pm
Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano) and Warren Jones (piano)
WPAS
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 14, 2009 (Sat)
7 pm
François-Frédéric Guy, piano
Beethoven piano sonata cycle, Part 3
La Maison Française

November 14, 2009 (Sat)
7:30 pm
L'Invitation au Voyage: Music by Duparc, de Falla, Piazzolla, and others
Ibis Chamber Music Society
Clarendon United Methodist Church (Arlington, Va.)

November 14, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
Shanghai Symphony Orchestra
George Mason University Center for the Arts

November 14, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano (Gershwin)
Music Center at Strathmore

November 15, 2009 (Sun)
1 pm
American Youth Philharmonic
George Mason University Center for the Arts

November 15, 2009 (Sun)
2 pm
Kennedy Center Chamber Players
Music by Fauré, Tchaikovsky
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

November 15, 2009 (Sun)
2 pm
Wagner, Götterdämmerung (in concert)
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

November 15, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano (Gershwin)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 15, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
François-Frédéric Guy, piano
Beethoven piano sonata cycle, Part 4
La Maison Française

November 15, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
Lucille Chung, piano [FREE]
Phillips Collection

November 15, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
Choral Arts Society of Washington
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 15, 2009 (Sun)
6:30 pm
National Gallery Vocal Arts Ensemble [FREE]
Music by Gevaert, Janequin, Rameau
National Gallery of Art

November 15, 2009 (Sun)
7 pm
Keyboard Conversation with Jeffrey Siegel
George Mason University Center for the Arts

November 16, 2009 (Mon)
7 pm
Lecture by Alfred Brendel: On Character in Music
WPAS
Embassy of Austria

November 16, 2009 (Mon)
7 pm
François-Frédéric Guy, piano
Beethoven piano sonata cycle, Part 5
La Maison Française

November 16, 2009 (Mon)
7 pm
Kronos Quartet, Public Reading [FREE]
Clarice Smith Center

November 17, 2009 (Tue)
7 pm
François-Frédéric Guy, piano
Beethoven piano sonata cycle, Part 6
La Maison Française

November 17, 2009 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Zukerman Chamber Players
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

November 17, 2009 (Tue)
8 pm
Fessenden Ensemble
Music by Haydn, Weingarter
St. Columba's Episcopal Church

November 18, 2009 (Wed)
12:10 pm
Thomas Mastroianni (piano) and Stephen Ackert (narrator) [FREE]
"A Suite Bergamasque in Art and Music"
National Gallery of Art

November 19, 2009 (Thu)
1:30 pm
Bach Cantata Series [FREE]
University of Maryland School of Music
Clarice Smith Center

November 19, 2009 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Joshua Bell, violin
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 19, 2009 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Mozart, La Finta Giardiniera
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

November 19, 2009 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Vogler String Quartet
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

November 19, 2009 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Malcolm Bilson, piano
Mansion at Strathmore

November 19, 2009 (Thu)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano (Liszt, Berlioz)
Music Center at Strathmore

November 20, 2009 (Fri)
7 pm
François-Frédéric Guy, piano
Beethoven piano sonata cycle, Part 7
La Maison Française

November 20, 2009 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
"Pictures Reframed" (Mussorgsky, multimedia concert)
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

November 20, 2009 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Ad Jesum per Mariam (Anniversary Concert) [FREE]
Choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

November 20, 2009 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Donizetti, L'Elisir d'Amore
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

November 20, 2009 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro
CUA School of Music
Catholic University, Ward Hall

November 20, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
Haydn Trio Eisenstadt [FREE]
With Lorna Anderson (soprano) and Jamie MacDougall (tenor)
Library of Congress

November 20, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano (Liszt, Berlioz)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 20, 2009 (Fri)
8 pm
Julia Wolfe, Steel Hammer
Trio Mediaeval with Bang on a Can All-Stars
Clarice Smith Center

November 21, 2009 (Sat)
11 am and 1:30 pm
NSO Kinderkonzert
Kennedy Center Theater Lab

November 21, 2009 (Sat)
4 pm
New York Philharmonic
With Riccardo Muti, conductor
WPAS
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 21, 2009 (Sat)
7 pm
François-Frédéric Guy, piano
Beethoven piano sonata cycle, Part 8
La Maison Française

November 21, 2009 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Mozart, La Finta Giardiniera
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

November 21, 2009 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro
CUA School of Music
Catholic University, Ward Hall

November 21, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Joshua Bell, violin
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 21, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano (Liszt, Berlioz)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 21, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
Concertante (sextet)
Candlelight Concerts
Howard Community College, Smith Theater (Columbia, Md.)

November 21, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
Fairfax Symphony Orchestra
George Mason University Center for the Arts

November 22, 2009 (Sun)
1:30 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Joshua Bell, violin
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 22, 2009 (Sun)
2 pm
Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro
CUA School of Music
Catholic University, Ward Hall

November 22, 2009 (Sun)
3 pm
Donizetti, L'Elisir d'Amore
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

November 22, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
François-Frédéric Guy, piano
Beethoven piano sonata cycle, Part 9
La Maison Française

November 22, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
Ryan de Ryke (baritone) and Daniel Schlosberg (piano) [FREE]
Phillips Collection

November 22, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
Amadeus Virtuosi, with WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists
Amadeus Concerts
St. Francis Episcopal Church (Great Falls, Va.)

November 22, 2009 (Sun)
5:15 pm
Jeremy Filsell, organ [FREE]
Washington National Cathedral

November 22, 2009 (Sun)
6 pm
Gounod, Faust
Washington Concert Opera
Lisner Auditorium

November 22, 2009 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Richard Stoltzman (clarinet) and Yehudi Wyner (piano) [FREE]
Music by Carter, Reich, and Wyner
64th American Music Festival
National Gallery of Art

November 22, 2009 (Sun)
7 pm
Vienna Chamber Orchestra
With Philippe Entremont, piano/conductor
WPAS
Music Center at Strathmore

November 22, 2009 (Sun)
7:30 pm
Modigliani String Quartet
With Jose Franch-Ballester, clarinet
JCCGW

November 23, 2009 (Mon)
7:30 pm
Mozart, La Finta Giardiniera
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

November 24, 2009 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Viviane Hagner, violin
WPAS
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

November 24, 2009 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Donizetti, L'Elisir d'Amore
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

November 25, 2009 (Wed)
12:10 pm
Ensō String Quartet [FREE]
Music by Reich and Jalbert
64th American Music Festival
National Gallery of Art

November 28, 2009 (Sat)
8 pm
A Chanticleer Christmas
George Mason University Center for the Arts

November 29, 2009 (Sun)
4 pm
Elena Ulyanova, piano [FREE]
Phillips Collection

November 29, 2009 (Sun)
6:30 pm
National Gallery Orchestra [FREE]
Music by Aikman, Bermel, Corigliano, Lerdahl
64th American Music Festival
National Gallery of Art

30.8.09

In Brief

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

  • It's official: someone has placed an evil curse on Joyce DiDonato. After breaking her leg in the middle of a performance of Barber of Seville, the lovely and talented mezzo-soprano has gone on to a performance at the Edinburgh Festival with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. During the concert, in Usher Hall, just newly renovated to the tune of £25 million, a fuse blew and the hall was veiled in darkness -- just as Joyce was singing. Does anyone know a good witch doctor or exorcist or something? [The Scotsman]

  • Bob Shingleton proposes separating the BBC from the Proms, in a hard-hitting piece of journalism. [On an Overgrown Path]

  • Wow, the possibilities for my next fishing vacation back home in Indiana just got a lot more interesting after a boy catches a 13-inch piranha in the Wabash River. [Boing Boing]

  • After making waves for writing an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, in which he publicly spoke out against the Star Chamber ethos at major piano competitions, Michael Johnson has published a more extended article on the issue, complete with quotations from pianists and others involved in competitions. Certainly, the absolute least that could be done would be to make the jury process as transparent as possible, making juror votes and scoring public, diversifying the membership of juries, perhaps keeping the identity of the performers unknown to the jurors with a screen. Critics can play their part as well, by reviewing the performances at competitions, to offer an unbiased assessment of the playing that could be compared to the official results. [Facts and Arts]

29.8.09

Muti Lets Rossini's 'Moïse' Go

Before Guillaume Tell, Rossini made several French adaptations of his earlier Italian operas for Paris, including one Moïse et Pharaon, reworked from Mosè in Egitto. The work has an influential champion in Riccardo Muti, who convinced Jürgen Flimm to mount the Parisian version of the opera -- ballets and all -- this summer at the Salzburg Festival. The financial crisis meant that the original production, to be directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, had to be sacrificed, causing Flimm himself to step in and direct for free (well, he did pay himself 1 €). As reviewed by Nicolas Blanmont (Rossini, en version française, paraît-il, August 26) for La Libre Belgique, that is not the only cost-saving measure taken (my translation)

So Muti was in the pit, conducting with more competence than passion and more reason than brilliance. The Vienna Philharmonic was somptuous, of course, although audibly less comfortable with the Rossini flash than in the Germanic repertory of its tradition. On the production side, Flimm's work was not uninteresting in its interpretation of the characters (especially in the Egyptian family, with a capricious Aménophis struggling with his Oedipal complex between a colorless Pharaoh and a castrating mother), but does not go too deep into the political dimensions of the story (banal direction of the choral masses) or the symbolic ones (making the supernatural phenomena ordinary). The idea of giving the complete ballets without any choreography at all, in front of a lowered curtain on which the Biblical text (in German) was projected, relating the seven plagues of Egypt, was so un-theatrical that it smelled of economic cost-cutting.
While Blanmont could have perhaps suffered reducing the opera to a "bourgeois drama," he draws the line at "saving money" by not hiring a French coach for the singers. The cast was already "nothing special," he adds, aside from Marina Rebeka's Anaï and, eventually, Eric Cutler's Aménophis, but "most of the singers expressed themselves in an unintelligible pidgin French (sabir) deprived of any relation with our language." I know some French friends who would say similarly uncharitable things about what they speak in Belgium, but that is another story...

28.8.09

Four Centuries of Anonymous Chant

available at Amazon
Four Centuries of Chant,
Anonymous 4

(released on September 8, 2009)
Harmonia Mundi HMX 2907546
For almost twenty years after four women came together in 1986 to found a group dedicated to the performance of medieval chant and polyphony, Anonymous 4 was a fixture on the shelves of early music collectors. Their trademark sound was noted for its clarity, faultless unity of intonation, and pure and translucent vocal color, and they created programs that were both beautiful on the auditory surface and of considerable musicological interest, due to the guiding hand of one of their members, Susan Hellauer. Vocal problems began to appear in the early years of this millennium, heard at the group's 2004 concert in Washington, around the time that, for whatever reason, Anonymous 4 stopped touring and being an active ensemble, at least temporarily. For the first time since, a reconstituted Anonymous 4 will return to Washington this fall, a concert listed in our preview of the best on the upcoming classical music calendar. Johanna Maria Rose, who did not sound well at that 2004 concert, will not perform, replaced by Ruth Cunningham, who will now sing alongside Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, who had replaced Cunningham when she left the group in 1998.

Their new CD features no new material but is instead a repackaging of the monophonic tracks from ten of Anonymous 4's earlier albums. So, Anonymous 4 fans who might think, quite understandably, that the group has released a new recording do not need to rush out to buy this disc. On the other hand, someone looking for an introduction to the sound of Gregorian chant could do a lot worse than this lovely compilation, rather than one of the many wildly selling chant discs from the monks of Solesmes or Santa Domingo or elsewhere. What I love about Anonymous 4's approach to chant is that Hellauer makes transcriptions from manuscript sources and that the group uses research on regional pronunciation of Latin. What you hear on many chant recordings is the Solesmes editions, which are reconstructed amalgamations made from comparing many individual readings of chant melodies from all over Europe, performed according to the Solesmes method.

This is nothing against the monks of Solesmes, whose work I admire greatly and with whom I have visited and worked -- believe me, few things are as transcendent and beautiful as hearing the choir at Solesmes celebrate the Mass or Divine Office. However, the experience of singing and listening to chant in the Middle Ages was in no way homogeneous from place to place. Canons, monks, and nuns pronounced Latin differently, wrote Latin differently, and sang different versions of all chants. If you are used to singing the hymn Ave maris stella, for example, you will recognize that the Anonymous 4 version is that hymn but in a form that marks it as distinctly English (originally on the English Ladymass CD), as if you were a monk from somewhere else visiting an English monastery and hearing how things were sung differently there. Likewise, there are transcriptions from Aquitanian sources (with a memorable sort of trill to render the quilisma), the Codex Calixtinus (for the Sant'Iago CD), and an unforgettable Hungarian version of the Te Deum.

76'22"

27.8.09

Boulez Pairs Mozart with Berg

available at Amazon
Mozart, Gran Partita / Berg, Chamber Concerto, M. Uchida, C. Tetzlaff, Ensemble Intercontemporain, P. Boulez

(released on November 11, 2008)
Decca 478 0316

Online score:
Mozart, Gran Partita, K. 361
Mozart's remarkable serenade for thirteen wind instruments (B-flat major, K. 361/370a), also known as the Gran Partita, is one of the greatest compositional achievements for wind ensemble (the Library of Congress has Mozart's holograph score in its collection -- view it online). All chamber orchestras and similar groups will assay it, like the wind players of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment did at the Library of Congress a couple years ago, and with so many recordings available, this recent one is certainly not needed. The Ensemble Intercontemporain plays well but, with its diet generally composed of contemporary music, sounds just a little uncomfortable here, especially the oboes, whose solo parts are so crucial. Anyone who already owns a recording of the work need not rush out to buy it, and for the Mozart, a version with historical instruments, especially the basset horns Mozart had in mind, is recommended. As he often does in his conducting Pierre Boulez keeps things moving, trimming some of the fat off a very familiar work, but also seems much more engaged by the Berg that rounds off the recording.

Mozart, Gran Partita, K. 361, holograph score, Library of Congress
Mozart, Gran Partita, K. 361, holograph score, Library of Congress
The interest behind this pairing of works on the disc is more formal, in that Boulez, who does not normally go this far back into history [on disc, of course--Ed.], conducts the Gran Partita. In an interview with James Jolly in the liner notes, Boulez speaks briefly about the work, noting that what interests him is the varied use of the instruments to create unusual sonorities. This is one of Boulez's strengths, to shape a score through careful dynamic control section by section. Most of the interview, however, is given over to the Berg work, the Kammerkonzert für Klavier und Geige mit 13 Bläsern, a completely different use of thirteen wind instruments (here brass and woodwinds together) with guest spots for violin and piano. The work is an infamous example of Berg's fondness for complexity, with reference to historical forms, but here especially in numerological symbolism, other puzzles (the second movement's palindromic form), and allusions to all three names of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern, himself), embedded in the work by use of tone rows and other recurring motifs.

This sort of repertory is much more Ensemble Intercontemporain's specialty -- in fact, Boulez has previously recorded the work with this ensemble, just with Pinchas Zukerman instead of Christian Tetzlaff and Daniel Barenboim instead of Mitsuko Uchida. Truth be told, the combination featured on this disc is to be preferred, as the work is allowed more room to breathe (the timing is a couple minutes longer than the earlier version), especially in the moody Adagio movement, with the "midnight" section at the middle of the palindrome, with its twelve low C#s tolling in the murky distance. In fact, one listener who heard one of the concerts of this program at the Salle Pleyel last March (the work was recorded at IRCAM the following weekend) reports that many people in the audience arrived after intermission -- that is, intentionally skipping the Mozart to get to the Berg. Since the reverse has been known to happen at National Symphony Orchestra concerts, what does that say about the divide between traditionalist and contemporary listeners?

80'18"

26.8.09

The Walter Felsenstein DVD Edition

A much welcome contribution from the Munich based music critic Klaus J. Kalchschmid who is otherwise busy writing for--among other publications--Süddeutsche, Die Welt, RheinPfalz, and Klassikinfo.de.

available at Amazon Walter Felsenstein Edition, 8 DVDs, ArthausMusik
The pleasure and insight gained from the seven opera films of Walter Felsenstein, the legendary founder and Intendant of the Komische Opera Berlin from 1950 to 1976, differs from case to case. All films, restored and published in a box with additional, insightful video and audio material, are interesting documents of theater history. At the same time it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that stage productions (and their screen adaptations) can age a bit more quickly than do other forms of art.


Nevertheless, even sixty years after its making, Felsenstein’s black and white, rather liberal adaptation of Fidelio—filmed outdoors, ‘on location’—still impresses. His meddling with the script (his first spoken scene introduces Don Pizarro as the people’s menace, for example) adds intensity and authenticity of feelings, if anything. It’s the only among the films that wasn’t connected to a staged version, and it was not made for the East-German Television Broadcasting Service, but in Vienna. The acceptable mono sound and picture quality (not too far from watching F.W. Murnau) doesn’t get in the way at all, the spoken text—not particularly useful though that may be to a non-German speaking audience—is delivered in theater-, not opera quality.

Verdi’s Othello (in German, of course) works well, too, with its explicit depiction of a jealousy drama that necessarily ends in catastrophe. From 1969 and in color, it’s a happy chimera of stage production and film, with the orchestra in good form under Kurt Masur. Hanns Nocker is, as in the 1963 production (filmed a decade later) of Blaubart (Offenbach’s Barbe-bleue) the protagonist. Bluebeard, which was an unlikely, world-wide, success for the Komische Oper, ambles through several fussy scenes (that need to be understood as intentionally ironic to be appreciated—a predecessor of ‘camp’) before reaching the truly grand entrance of the title role in his wildly ostentatious renaissance costume. The other performers reward with equally quirky, impressively intensive, and sometimes over the top satirical scenes. Felsenstein takes the work seriously; a social critique veiled with much humor and parody. Hoffmanns Erzählungen (Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”, 1970) similarly benefits from a fine adaptation for the screen that consoles for the few antiquated, if not musty, scenes.

Leoš Janáček’s Das schlaue Füchslein (“The cunning little Vixen”) was a model-staging of Felsenstein and rightly lauded. Too bad that the 1956 black and white film version suffers from less than ideal sound and picture quality; Vaclav Neumann’s conducting would come across better without the distortions. And yet, the enchanting poetry and perfectly bearable lightness of this performance—quite like Max Reinhart’s 1938 Midsummernight’s Dream—invariably casts its spell on the viewer. Thanks to the camera perspective and switching angles that negate our sense of proportions, the actors (kids) who play the insects look well-nigh realistic. And that was, after all, the conviction and maxim of Felsenstein which gave his style—romantic realism—its name. The whole thing reminds of Ladislas Starevich’s L’horloge magique ou La petite fille qui volait être princesse, but with real people. Ideally suited to entertain old and young alike.

Don Giovanni and Figaro—the former from 1966, filmed in the theater, partially underexposed and characterized by the print’s soggy black/white, the latter from 1976, made shortly after Felsenstein had died, filmed in color and splendid quality—ask for more patience of the viewer. Intense performances can’t caché the pointedly aged aesthetic of these two operas; and even Germans are no longer comfortable listening to either in German instead of Italian. Subtitles in English, German, French, and Spanish are provided throughout, including the Bonus material.

All seven films and the extensive additional material (watch it, where available, before the respective opera) contained on altogether 12 CDs, show the unbending will with which Felsenstein pursued theatrical truth. That was a rare, most fortunate occasion on the opera (or film-) stage then, and it remains so today.

Christian Boltanski Bets Against the House

Christian Boltanski, one of France's most important conceptual artists (see some more of his work toward the bottom of this post), continues to make waves. After creating a library of recorded heartbeats that will be housed on a Japanese island, Boltanski has struck an unusual deal with a man in Tasmania. This man used his extraordinary mathematical gifts to amass a huge fortune by gambling, until he was banned from every casino in the world. He wanted to add something by Boltanski to his art collection, and the artist decided to appeal to the man's love of gambling, as Boltanski explained in an interview with Philippe Dagen (Christian Boltanski : "Je joue une partie contre le diable", July 30) for Le Monde (my translation):

"Beginning on January 1, 2010, four cameras will film the rest of my life and relay it live, up to the moment of my death. That's the main idea. The images will be broadcast live to a cave on his property, but he will be forbidden to interrupt the live broadcast and to show taped excerpts because they might be more interesting. The cave will be open to everyone, to whoever might want to see me living, doing nothing, speaking with you, eating, or sleeping. In Tasmania, the crowds should not be too large.

This morning, with his agent, we discussed a payment plan en viager [in which the seller of a house continues to live in the property until his death, while the buyer pays the mortage, gaining the property when the seller dies]. If I die in the next eight years, he profits. If I live longer than eight years, he loses money. He will pay more than he should have. Since he never loses, he is crowing about having conquered fate. But who can say such a thing other than the devil? So, I am playing a hand against the devil, and I really hope I win. Let's be grandiloquent: it is like the chess match against death in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal.
Boltanski will celebrate his 65th birthday next month. He goes on to say later in the interview that there are four or five essential, unchanging questions asked in his art, including love, nature, sex, death. "My job," he said, "is to ask these questions with forms, sound, light, to ask them with anything but words." Boltanski insists more than once that he is a traditional artist in the old style: he has no assistants or secretary, because to pay for them would put too much pressure on him to sell his work. "I am not the boss of a little company," he adds, "which is something I see far too often." When he was young, the most important people were critics; then it became the curators of exhibits; now it is all about the price tag, which he calls "a sign of intellectual weakening, a sad debasement through speculation."

25.8.09

Washington Concert Preview, Fall 2009

Readers often suggest that Ionarts needs to offer more recommendations for listening in advance. We keep a detailed calendar, updated in the right column, and offer regular previews, here (monthly) and at DCist (more or less weekly). The goal of this Fall Preview is not to list every concert, or even every concert we look forward to in the next four months. As summer draws to an end, what are the biggest tickets coming up this fall that you should put on your calendar immediately? Where possible, links to previous reviews of the artists recommended are included; the links on dates will take you to the place to buy a ticket.

available at Amazon
Chopin, Piano Concertos, E. Kissin, Moscow Philharmonic, D. Kitayenko
(recorded live in 1984, when Kissin was 12 years old)
SYMPHONY:
>> From the National Symphony Orchestra this fall, put us down for Evgeny Kissin playing the second Chopin concerto, even if it is in the context of a gala concert (September 26), Nelson Freire trying to recreate his award-winning recording of the first Brahms concerto (October 8 to 11), Vadim Repin playing the Brahms violin concerto (November 5 to 7), and Yuja Wang finally premiering the new piano concerto that Jennifer Higdon intended to write for Lang Lang (December 3 to 5).

>> From the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, we will take Leila Josefowicz playing the John Adams violin concerto (October 29 and 30, only in Baltimore). Maybe Simone Dinnerstein's Mozart (concerto K. 488) will be worth it (October 22 to 25), and we want to hear Jennifer Higdon's Concerto 4-3 even if Marin Alsop's Brahms and Tchaikovsky are not our cup of tea (September 24 to 26), but not much else is high on our list of priorities.

>> As for visiting orchestras, we would hate to miss the latest visit of the Australian Chamber Orchestra (two different programs on September 29 and 30), as well as the chance to watch Riccardo Muti at work with the New York Philharmonic (November 21). Finally, for a chance to hear Stravinsky's Dumbarton Concerto, written and named for the Bliss home at Dumbarton Oaks, don't miss the first concert of the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra at the Renwick Gallery (October 11).

OPERA:
>> The best part of Washington National Opera's fall season will likely be another chance to hear Iréne Theorin (pictured at right) -- who was reportedly much better than she was when I heard her in Siegfried last season -- this time in the title role of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos (October 24 to November 13). Lyubov Petrova's Zerbinetta, Kristine Jepson's Komponist, and Gidon Saks's Musiklehrer will also be good, if it is a shame that Heinz Fricke had to withdraw (nothing against his replacement, Andreas Delfs). Yes, Theorin will bring back her Brünnhilde in the company's Götterdämmerung, but with the American Ring Cycle postponed indefinitely (sob!), it will be only in two concert performances (November 7 and 15).

>> For more unusual opera, there is the collegiate company also reliable for at least some adventurous productions, Maryland Opera Studio, with Mozart's La finta giardiniera (November 19 to 23). Opera Bel Cantanti opens one of its more unusual seasons with Handel's Giulio Cesare, which will feature the orchestral part rendered by harpsichord and a small group of string players (October 10 to 17).



Pianist Till Fellner returns for fourth installment of his complete Beethoven piano sonata cycle at the National Gallery of Art (photo by Francesco Carrozzini)
KEYBOARD:
>> Cédric Tiberghien (September 26), Murray Perahia (October 17), Leif Ove Andsnes (November 20), and Angela Hewitt (December 3), all from WPAS, are obvious choices. However, don't forget the chance to hear Christopher Taylor play the Goldberg Variations, on a special instrument that somehow combines the harpsichord and piano (October 14), Malcolm Bilson on the Broadwood piano in the Strathmore Mansion (November 19), or Danish pianist Jens Elvekjær at the National Gallery of Art (December 6).

>> Two complete Beethoven piano sonata cycles are happening this fall. Austrian pianist Till Fellner returns for the fourth installment of his Beethoven cycle, spread over a couple years, this time at the National Gallery of Art (November 1). Around the same time, François-Frédéric Guy's barn-storming Beethoven sonata cycle will take place at La Maison Française (November 13 to 22).

>> Alfred Brendel may not be playing in public anymore, but we would hate to miss one of our favorite pianists giving his first lecture on music in the area (November 16), sponsored by WPAS at the Austrian Embassy.

CHAMBER MUSIC:
>> The chance to hear two nonets, by Martinů and Spohr, will likely take us to one of the concerts of the Fessenden Ensemble this fall (September 29), and we certainly want to catch the Shanghai Quartet giving the Washington premiere of Penderecki's third string quartet at the Freer Gallery of Art (December 9), as well as the Ensō String Quartet at the National Gallery of Art (November 25). For other string quartets, a trip to Baltimore may be in order for concerts by the Belcea Quartet at Shriver Hall (October 18) and the Pavel Haas Quartet at the Baltimore Museum of Art (November 14).

EARLY MUSIC:
>> Opera Lafayette's performance of Charpentier's Les Arts Florissants (October 19) should be worthwhile among the local groups, and as always the free noontime cantata series of the Washington Bach Consort, on the first Tuesday of the month, will be a golden lunch opportunity for those who can make it to the Church of the Epiphany downtown (October 6, November 3, and December 1).

>> Her voice may not be what it used to be, but we have to hear the celebrated English soprano Emma Kirkby, in concert with lutenist Jakob Lindberg (both pictured at right), either at Columbia's Candlelight Concerts (October 24) or at the National Gallery of Art (October 25, a free concert). Other visiting artists at the top of our list are Jeannette Sorel and Apollo's Fire (November 8 and 9) and, just to see what they sound like now, the women's a cappella quartet Anonymous 4, although the program is not related to their upcoming chant compilation (November 29 and 30), both at Dumbarton Oaks.

WILD CARDS:
>> Lastly, a few eclectic programs that caught our interest, but that we will not really be able to recommend until we hear them for ourselves: the always adventurous American Opera Theater will feature soprano Sylvia McNair in a one-woman show called Songspiel, which will spin together music by Kurt Weill (November 6 to 14, Baltimore Theater Project); the 21st Century Consort opens its season with a tribute to composer Nicholas Maw, who died this past spring, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (October 24); one of our favorite local groups, the Post-Classical Ensemble, will open its season with an unusual program featuring eclectic bass trombonist David Taylor and an intriguing combination of Schubert and Stravinsky, at the Harman Center (October 1).

24.8.09

Celebrating 'Atys': Arts Still Flourishing

available at Amazon
Lully, Atys, G. de Mey, G. Laurens, A. Mellon, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie

(re-released on September 8, 2009)
Harmonia Mundi HML 5901257-59

Online score:
Atys, 2d ed. (1708)
In the 1970s, a young American musician named William Christie, having received degrees at Harvard and Yale, decided to move to France. His goal was to pursue an interest in the reconstruction of Baroque music in historically informed performance, but moving to France also helped Christie avoid being drafted into the war in Vietnam, to which he was vehemently opposed. In 1979, in an event whose 30th anniversary is being celebrated with this re-release, Christie founded a group of promising musicians who shared his interests, under the name Les Arts Florissants. He took the name from one of his favorite operas, by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, in which (surely not coincidentally for Christie) the arts are shown threatened by war but prospering under the reign of La Paix. The new ensemble scored a major success in 1984 with a landmark recording of Charpentier's stunning Médée (the second version Christie did, in the 1990s, helped introduce singers like Mark Padmore and Lorraine Hunt to the world). Suddenly, it became clear that these seemingly unwieldy operas, long relegated to the junk heap of music history, still had considerable appeal for audiences.

Through Charpentier Christie came to work on the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who jealously drove Charpentier out of the opera business. For the 300th anniversary of Lully's death, in 1987, Christie was chosen to help create a staged production of one of the composer's tragédies en musique at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Christie chose Atys (1676), according to him, "for its libretto -- it was the purity and the absolute beauty of the text that attracted me." Musicologist Jean-Paul Montagnier, who wrote the liner essay for this anniversary edition of the recording, recalls the performance thus:
Like all those present in the auditorium of the Opéra-Comique [that day], I believe I can state that the production of Atys by Jean-Marie Villégier (director), Carlo Tommasi (designer), Patrice Cauchetier (costumes), Francine Lancelot and her company Ris et Danceries (choreography) and William Christie and his Arts Florissants was an undisputed and unprecedented triumph which enabled the public to rediscover and gain a lasting appreciation of a work forgotten since its previous performances at Fontainebleau in November 1753, and more generally to rediscover a genre long regarded with a certain dignified condescendence.
The New York Times even sent John Rockwell to review the event ('Atys', by Lully, in Paris, January 18, 1987), and Andrew Porter described a later performance at Brooklyn Academy of Music as "one of the most important productions of our day; a revelation of what early opera can offer to a modern audience when inspiring direction, skilful, stylish performers, and ample funds conspire" (Alan Rich had similar praise, although there were some critical reservations about cuts and other directorial changes).

In the weeks after that performance, Christie and his forces laid down this historic recording, in the studio of La Maison de Radio France. It has been reissued a couple times, always remaining available, but this anniversary edition is the most affordable and deluxe version yet, with reproductions of a 17th-century copy of the libretto printed in parallel with the English and German translations. This 20-year-old recording still sounds gorgeous, a testament to Christie's musical vision, so clearly captured in sound during his group's first decade. The ensemble's rhythmic cohesion is so solid, even as the many dance rhythms that pervade Lully's music are given balletic lilt. The recitative, which in Lully's trademark style constantly shifts back and forth with more metered arioso-like sections, is flexible and speech-like, accompanied with a varied palette of instruments, the harmonies realized by various combinations of harpsichord, lute, theorbo, archlute, piccolo lute, and guitar. The winds are remarkably varied in the way the parts are assigned to different sections, with five recorder players (heard to hypnotizing effect in the famous sommeil scene in Act III) and eight double reeds, spread among oboes, alto oboes (tailles d'hautbois), and bassoons.

The cast is generally lovely, although one could imagine a slightly prettier, purer voice for Atys than Guy de Mey. Agnès Mellon has an affecting, rarefied sound as Sangaride, who falls in love with Atys. As the domineering goddess Cybèle, Guillemette has the same grainy, puissant edge to her tone that gave her such success as other forceful women, like her spectacular Armide for Philippe Herreweghe and as recently as Pulcheria in the new recording of Vivaldi's Atenaide. Since a critical edition has still not been published in the Lully complete works edition, in progress under Herbert Schneider and Jérôme de La Gorce for Georg Olms Verlag, the performers worked from original sources, apparently with advice from Schneider himself and the eminent French musicologist Jean Duron, among others. The version of the score, as far as I can tell, is complete or nearly so, with plenty of dance music included throughout the opera.


Watch more YouTube videos of telecast of 1987 production of Atys

Lully's librettist, Philippe Quinault, adapted one of the stranger stories of Greek mythology, that of Cybele and Attis, given in an account of an exotic cult by Pausanias (Guide to Greece, 7.17.9-13). The Phrygian earth mother goddess, Cybele, became part of the Greek pantheon, along with her son, Attis, who according to some versions of the story was born of the male part of Cybele's formerly hermaphroditic self. As Ovid retold the story in Fasti (fourth chapter, on the feasts of April), which was likely Quinault's main source, the goddess fell in love with a handsome Phrygian boy and bound him to serve in her temple. When he disobeyed the command to keep himself chaste for the goddess, Cybele drove him mad, causing him to castrate himself. In imitation of Attis, some of Cybele's male followers, the Corybantes, supposedly castrated themselves, a fate abhorred by Catullus in Carmen LXIII. Stricken with remorse for Attis, Cybele changed him into a pine tree, mentioned by Ovid in his take on the Orpheus legend in Metamorphoses (link to Anthony S. Kline's online translation, Book X).

Quinault and Lully leave out the castration part of the story, having the madness inflicted by Cybèle instead cause Atys to murder Sangaride. When he realizes what he has done, he takes his own life, leading Cybèle to transform him into a pine tree. With the question of genital self-mutilation out of the way, the main crisis of the opera is the mismatch of the couples, the two young lovers, Atys and Sangaride, forced into alliances with more important, older partners, Cybèle and Célénus, respectively. This issue of age-disparate relationships had some resonance with 17th-century society, and it was even seized upon in a parody of the opera by Fuzelier and Dorneval at the 1726 revival as La grand-mère amoureuse.

One final point about Christie's achievements over the last thirty years: surveying the list of names of the musicians who participated in this recording, it is clear that Christie has created not only one of the most distinguished discographies in the early music movement. He has also taught and mentored many musicians who have gone on to lauded careers: Bernard Deletré, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, and Véronique Gens all sang minor roles; Christophe Rousset played the harpsichord in the orchestra's Petit Chœur, with Stephan Stubbs on lute; John Holloway sat first violin and played the ritournelle solos; Bruno Cocset was somewhere near the middle of the basse de violon section; Marc Minkowski played third bassoon; and Hervé Niquet can be heard in the tenor section of the chorus.

170'39"

The Love of 'Elixir'

Style masthead
Read my review in the print edition of today's Washington Post:

Charles T. Downey, Opera Bel Cantanti
Washington Post, August 24, 2009

This weekend’s performances of Opera Bel Cantanti’s new summer music festival, at Alexandria's Westminster Presbyterian Church, were timed conveniently for the slowest stretch of the classical music calendar. General Director Katerina Souvorova led an intensive two-week training program for young singers, who received coaching and master classes from professionals in return for modest fees to cover expenses. The goal was to stage an opera and present a recital of arias and scenes.

A mostly undergraduate cast, still very much vocally developing, gave a stripped-down, chorus-less version of Donizetti's airhead comedy "L'Elisir d'Amore" the old college try. If the results on Friday night were far from polished, it was remarkable that untried singers with relatively little preparation time brought off a more or less seamless performance. [Continue reading]
Donizetti, L'Elisir d'Amore
Summer Music Festival
Opera Bel Cantanti
Westminster Presbyterian Church (Alexandria, Va.)

Other recent productions of L'Elisir d'Amore:
Santa Fe Opera (2009) | Caramoor Festival (2009) | Glyndebourne (2009) | Washington National Opera (2006)

23.8.09

In Brief: Summer Ebbs Away Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • A. C. Douglas tipped us off to this hilarious cereal commercial from the 60s, in which music from I Pagliacci is adapted. This may say something about opera's place in popular culture around the time I was born, versus now. Or not. The actor who plays the father, with the perfect Canio laugh ("My tears will not stop / 'Til I hear Snap, Crackle, Pop"), is Johnny Haymer, an omnipresent bit part actor whom you will surely recognize if you watched any television at all in the 70s and 80s. Seeing Haymer's face in this ad instantly made me think of his memorable turn in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, as a cheesy, pathetic comedian explaining his act (at 3:58 in this clip), so that Alvy can write him some new material. [Sounds & Fury]

  • Well, everything does taste better after being seared on an open grill: with hat tip to The Cranky Professor, archaeological evidence that prehistoric humans on the island of Cyprus ate a pygmy species of hippopotamus to extinction, even serving it up diner-style out of a cave. [Reuters]

  • Fabio Vacchi, whose opera La Madre del Mostro we heard in Siena two years ago, is working on a new opera, commissioned by the Petruzzelli Theater in Bari for 2011. With hat tip to The Literary Saloon, the news is that Israeli writer Amos Oz is in Italy working on the libretto, adapting his novel The Same Sea. [Jerusalem Post]

  • NPR introduced Leif Ove Andsnes' new project, Pictures Reframed, a multimedia performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition this week. The Norwegian pianist will perform the work this way at a recital sponsored by WPAS in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (November 20, 7:30 pm). [All Things Considered]

  • Tragedy averted at Glyndebourne -- Jessica Duchen reports that Ana María Martínez, starring in the title role of Rusalka, fell into the orchestra pit. Fortunately, a quick-witted cellist broke her fall and she has already been released from the hospital. [Standpoint]

  • Bryant Manning points out this article about how my boyhood home, the Great State of Michigan, is developing a new business for itself, film location. [USA Today]

  • Alex Ross has published an extraordinary series of pieces this month, beginning with the Nixon documents and tapes he unearthed relating to the premiere of Leonard Bernstein's Mass at the Kennedy Center. Unfortunately, his article this month, an ingenious survey of composers who exist only in works of literature, is not available online. Instead, we direct you to this equally interesting Augustus Saint-Gaudens piece by Peter Schjeldahl. [The New Yorker]

22.8.09

Out of Frame: Cold Souls


David Strathairn (Dr. Flintstein) and Paul Giamatti (Himself) in Cold Souls, directed by Sophie Barthes
Theoretically, Paul Giamatti could make any movie funnier and smarter than its script and director had originally made possible. That seemed to be the strategy of novice director and screenwriter Sophie Barthes. Like her only previous work in English, a short about the concept of actually finding happiness in a box, Cold Souls intends to be both whimsical and philosophical. Giamatti plays himself, an actor with the same name struggling to find his way into the character of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. Reading an article in -- where else -- The New Yorker, he learns of the cutting-edge business of soul storage, the latest "it" trend among New Yorkers, allowing them to remove their soul and all of its baggage and place it in storage. Without much thought or any consultation with his wife (Emily Watson), Giamatti takes the tram to an office on Roosevelt Island and undergoes the procedure in the office of Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), discovering in the process that his soul, when extracted, resembles a chickpea. Barthes, who mines her own dreams for ideas, reportedly credits part of the idea to Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls, about a Russian entrepreneur who purchases the souls of dead peasants, relieving landowners of the need to pay taxes on their deceased serfs.


Paul Giamatti (Himself) and Dina Korzun (Nina) in Cold Souls, directed by Sophie Barthes
Whatever is being extracted in those fancy machines, part MRI and part death ray -- or not being extracted, as it may be some sort of elaborate fraud, for all one can tell -- has a nebulous connection to the person's life and personality. The only thing that Giamatti seems to lose is a certain amount of neurotic inhibition, noted especially as he makes some inexplicably odd and hilarious choices rehearsing Uncle Vanya. Even as Paul learns that his soul has been stolen, part of the inevitable rise of soul trafficking in Russia, it is difficult to take the loss of his soul all that seriously. He meets Nina (Russian actress Dina Korzun), a soul mule who has had many souls implanted in her body, carrying them back and forth to and from Russia, until the fragments left behind by those souls build up to a dangerous level. For some reason, she travels with Paul to St. Petersburg, to help him get his soul back from a vapid model and Russian oligarch's girlfriend, who has had it implanted to help her acting career. It is also a great excuse to have Giamatti wear a ridiculous fur hat in the Russian scenes.

Other Articles:

Anthony Lane | Roger Ebert | Manohla Dargis | Washington Post | Wall Street Journal | DCist | Movie Review Intelligence

So, the soul is really not serious business in Cold Souls, and there is no deep metaphysical question or enigma like that in Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, whose bleak atmosphere Barthes appears to be emulating at times. Nor is there an abundant supply of humorous whimsy, as in Gondry's unforgettable look into one character's fantasy world in La science des rêves or in the magic-realist scripts of Charlie Kaufman (especially Being John Malkovich, but also Adaptation.). The joke of Cold Souls, such as it is, was extended by the production company with a fake Web site for the Soul Storage company. It's fine that the soul does not mean anything in this version of the universe, but long before the end of the film, I had ceased caring about Paul and his quest to have something so meaningless returned.

Cold Souls is now playing at the Shirlington Cinema in Virginia and the E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C.