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30.9.09

Australian Chamber Orchestra, Part 1

Australian Chamber Orchestra, photo by Stephen Oxenbury
Australian Chamber Orchestra, photo by Stephen Oxenbury
The Australian Chamber Orchestra came to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater last night, as the season opener of the Fortas Chamber Music Series. The visit was made possible in part with the help of the Australian Embassy, which also brought along a large representation to fill the audience and mingle before the concert and at a subsequent reception. Those who are familiar with the ACO from their recordings or from their 2007 concert at the Clarice Smith Center know that one can count on the group to provide unusual programming, uncanny unity of ensemble, clear attack, and cogent musical ideas. None of those things was lacking in this daringly played and musically incisive concert.

The program opened with Baroque music, which has been to my ears where the ACO has enjoyed the greatest success in recording. They gave a little-heard Handel concerto grosso (op. 6, no. 7, B-flat major -- p. 95 in this online score) a stylish, precise, carefully considered performance. After a plush Largo introduction, the group rendered the repeated-note opening theme of the Allegro -- so simple that it could be a Suzuki exercise -- in such a crisp, unified way that it helped point and articulate the entire movement. Harpsichordist Erin Helyard (on the tour only to play this piece) and the group's director and lead violinist, Richard Tognetti, provided (presumably) improvised cadenzas to smooth some of the harmonic transitions between movements. The ACO sound is nice in that the first violins are not always (and not even often) the most dominant sound in the texture, which allows more of the inner voices and bass to be heard. The continuo realization, here provided by harpsichord alone, was adequate and stylishly done, but a little subdued in volume. There were moments where other groups would have allowed the harpsichord figuration a little more presence.


ACO:
available at Amazon
Bach, Keyboard Concerti 1, A. Hewitt


available at Amazon
Bach, Keyboard Concerti 2, A. Hewitt


available at Amazon
Vivaldi, Flute Concerti, E. Pahud
The rest of the program was composed (or arranged) in the 20th century, but the rhythmic verve of the Handel work percolated through much of it. Australian composer Carl Vine, whose piano sonata Joyce Yang has championed, arranged his own third string quartet, Smith's Alchemy from 1994, for the ACO at Richard Tognetti's request. After a shaky start fraught with some (ultimately minor) rhythmic uncertainty, the piece rocked and rolled its way through outer movements bubbling with a neo-Baroque love of figuration, repetition, and rhythmic action. Vine's work is a model of the best way to incorporate popular music influences into a classical composition, not merely quoting and imitating but transforming them into something original, as brutal rock-bass ostinati formed the foundation of the work's driving rhythmic pulse. An elegiac slow central section featured solos by cello, viola, and Tognetti's violin over glassy, Bernstein-esque chords. The jarring multimetric style of the closing section was rock solid.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, A Rough-and-Ready Ensemble (Washington Post, October 1)
Two large works written specifically for chamber orchestra balanced the two halves. Elgar's Introduction and Allegro, op. 47, had a huge broad opening, more lush sound than seemed possible for seventeen strings (5-5-3-3-1). Bartók's Divertimento for Strings was the more substantial of the two, sweeter in terms of consonance than one might expect, with a moody middle movement of suspenseful night music filled with oscillating stepwise motifs. In the third movement, many closely aligned solo entrances, one after the other, briefly recalled the layering of string instruments in Bach's third Brandenburg Concerto. Tognetti's arrangement of Ravel's Deux mélodies hébraïques provided a moment of lyrical repose, with Tognetti's throaty, guttural solo backed by the three violas in harmonics to open Kaddisch (a fitting, if unintentional, tribute to the late William Safire). Tognetti adapted, more than arranged, Paganini's fifth caprice as a little amuse-gueule that probably would served better as an encore. What did serve that purpose was an arrangement of the gorgeous lullaby Good Night, from Janáček's On the Overgrown Path, with its soporific ostinato figure and gentle melody, played delicately and con sordini.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra returns to the Terrace Theater this evening for a second, completely different program (September 30, 7:30 pm), with oud player Joseph Tawadros and percussionist James Tawadros. An arrangement of Shostakovich's seventh string quartet is matched with arrangements of Sephardic and Egyptian music.

29.9.09

NSO Opens Season with Kissin

available at Amazon
Chopin, Piano Concertos, E. Kissin, Moscow Philharmonic, D. Kitayenko
(recorded live in 1984, when Kissin was 12 years old)
Symphony orchestras like to open their seasons with a crowd-pleasing program, combining some flashy favorites and a soloist with enough star power to pack the house. Lang Lang did the job for the BSO earlier this month, and at Saturday's National Symphony Orchestra season opening ball concert it was Evgeny Kissin who provided the wattage. Some in the audience came mostly for the dinner gala, an evening with lots of recognizable Washingtonians -- David Gregory, Alan Greenspan and Andrea Mitchell, Nina Totenberg, Charles Krauthammer -- in a temporary pavilion outside the Kennedy Center providing shelter from the evening's storm: a worthwhile endeavor in that it raised $1.4 million for the NSO. Those whose primary interest was the music -- like pianist Cédric Tiberghien, who had played a lovely recital in the Terrace Theater earlier in the day and whom we spotted in the parterre boxes -- came to hear Kissin play Chopin's second piano concerto.

The Russian pianist, who has made a name performing the Chopin concertos since he was a child, did not disappoint. Kissin played with his accustomed technical mastery, with only one obtrusive note not struck precisely head-on out of a very long work. The phrasing was immaculate, and all the soft and delicate parts set off by carefully scaled dynamic contrasts, well supported by NSO principal conductor Iván Fischer, who helped contain the orchestral sound until the outbursts that were needed. The second movement was rhapsodic, with a gentle, tender opening that took the listener into another internal world (we saw Tiberghien, leaning his head on the box railing, lost in thought). The slow movement's gorgeous conclusion had barely dispersed when the subsequent Allegro vivace commenced, a dramatic finale capped by a fluid, flawless coda.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Start of NSO Season Is at Once Colorful and Lackluster (Washington Post, September 28)
The evening's other soloist, Hungarian violinist József Lendvay, Jr., does not require as many superlatives. He played Pablo de Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, a work that he and Fischer have been performing with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Lendvay, the son of a folk violinist, had an easy way with Sarasate's tribute to gypsy fiddlers and their folk tunes, a sort of mother tongue for the performer. Some technical bravura, a charming sense of humor, with a few sour notes along the way, but it was enough to please a gala crowd, who stood and cheered. To round out the Central European theme, Fischer chose Kodály's Dances of Galánta, a pleasing but over-long tribute to the composer's love of folk music from his own hometown of Galánta.

Glinka's overture to Russlan and Ludmilla and that omnipresent gala piece, the Blue Danube Waltz, sufficed for their purpose, although I, for one, would not have missed all those repeats observed in the Strauss. The one odd note was the choice of Richard Strauss's Salome's Dance, adapted from what is still one of the most shocking, even stomach-churning sequences of events in opera. Can this piece really ever be something one hears while sipping champagne and speculating about the economic recovery? As the "Er ist schrecklich" (he is hideous!) theme was floated on a big Romantic waltz, the grotesquerie of the programming choice was palpable.

Iván Fischer's next Hungarian-centered program will combine Bartók's complete score for the ballet The Wooden Prince and Beethoven's sixth symphony (October 1 to 3).

Cédric Tiberghien

Cédric Tiberghien:
available at Amazon
Brahms, Hungarian Dances


available at Amazon
Bach Partitas 2-4


available at Amazon
Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1


available at Amazon
Chopin/Brahms, Ballades
On the basis of some of Cédric Tiberghien's recent recordings, of the first Brahms piano concerto and some Bach partitas, we had the 30-something French pianist pegged as a velvety colorist. That impression more or less held true in his recital on Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, which opened the fall season for Washington Performing Arts Society. His programming tendencies indicate a completist's mind, tending toward sets and single composers, much appreciated when shelving CDs and pleasingly thorough, if less essential, in the concert hall.

His interpretation of all four of Chopin's ballades, which he has recorded in an interlocking program with the Brahms ballades, focused on contrasts, as in the reticent and introspective main theme of the G minor, which was followed by manic fast passages that whirled out of control, and not always in a good way. He tended to stretch the tempo to the point that it was bent out of shape and lost cohesion over the course of an entire work. Add a hazy, even soporific reliance on the sustaining and soft pedals, and the effect was a little out of touch, more gossamer gauze than technical audacity. The playing never approached the force and daring of Marc-André Hamelin's recent recording, but it had improved by the fourth ballade, with a striking rendition of the blazing final pages.


Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Tiberghien Brings a Deft Touch to Chopin (Washington Post, September 28)
Tiberghien's strengths, for gently etched, coloristic effects, came to the fore in the all-French second half, beginning with a nuanced, somewhat subdued performance of Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. His Ondine seemed a little on the slow side, allowing Tiberghien to emphasize the rippling water effect of the right-hand figure, as was Le gibet, more atmospheric than horror-struck, with the ostinato bell figure clanging louder at times and then almost imperceptibly. The high point was the eccentric, unpredictable reading of Scarbo, jumpy and prone to devilish outbursts, and once again most technically assured at the work's conclusion. It lacked the technical force of Yevgeny Sudbin's recent performance, but also his somewhat careless brashness, and the broad dynamic range of voicing heard from Anna Vinnitskaya recently on disc.

Three Debussy selections proved much the same, with a pleasingly transparent texture that allowed inner lines to shimmer, relishing the playful guitar-like sounds of Masques, the lyrical lines and jazzy harmonies of D'un cahier d'esquisses, the decorous elegance of L'isle joyeuse. This was Debussy of sometimes nearly unbearable délicatesse, perhaps even a bit fussy. Announcing his single encore as another Debussy work with "some more bells," Tiberghien gave an equally idiosyncratic (some strange tempo shifts) performance of the prelude La cathédrale engloutie.

The next recital in the WPAS classical series will feature Murray Perahia (October 17, 4 pm) playing Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, and Chopin in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

An O'Keeffe I Hardly Knew

A flower is never just a flower. I suppose that's true once it's manipulated through a camera or, in Georgia O'Keeffe's case, paint. No matter how profusely she denied it, the sexual connection in O'Keeffe's work dogged and frustrated her from her very first exhibit in 1917 at Alfred Stieglitz's gallery, 291. To me her work often has a sensuousness about it, throughout her long career.

But clearly from around 1916 through the 30s, as the new exhibit Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction at the Whitney Museum proves, the young O'Keeffe is at her most provocative and challenging best. Long before she became known as the high priestess of a Southwestern kitsch, she was among the first American artists to embrace a pure abstraction that in her words, "is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint."


O'Keeffe forged a rare independence in a very conservative turn-of-the-century America, where abstraction and feminism (she was way ahead) could brand you a communist or at least un-American -- sound familiar? In a now legendary art world relationship with Stieglitz, he would take control of promoting O'Keeffe's image and exhibiting her work and she would be his muse. A darkened gallery of his nude photographs of her is part of the exhibit -- she was quite an attractive woman, hairy armpits and all.

To avoid what critics of her 1917 show called "portraits of female sexual experience," she shifted focus for her next exhibit in 1924, saying, "my work this year is very much on the ground. I suppose the reason I got down to an effort to be objective is that I didn't like the interpretation of my other things."


Abstraction, however, would remain the foundation of her life's work, but all the large scale sun-bleached skulls and adobe architecture to follow can't compare with the stunning -- yes, sensuous -- ground-breaking early charcoals, watercolors, and paintings of her early years. I was blown away by the power of her simple charcoal drawings, the washy, bleeding watercolors, and her brilliant thinly layered paint. She was laying down paint in colors and hues never before seen, which would influence many of the men who followed her lead like Dove, Rothko, Avery, Marsden Hartley, and many more -- she was an American original.

This exhibit moves to the Phillips Collection on February 6, 2010.

28.9.09

'Cinderella' Not a Dream Come True

This review comes from guest contributor Sophia Vastek.


Cinderella, Opera Vivente (photo by Cory Weaver)
Friday night, Opera Vivente opened its twelfth season with Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella. A simple set in the small (but somehow cavernous) room at Emmanuel Episcopal Church had a few delightful sparks of eccentricity, such as mirrors painted in the wrong direction and a chandelier hung at a right angle. These quirks enlivened what could have easily been another stock set built for flexibility. And as Cinderella, portrayed worthily by Ann Marie Wilcox, began to sing, her rich voice warmed the wooden room. Hearing Rossini sung in English was jarring, as when Prince Ramiro sang the quick and necessarily light “Quiet, quiet, quiet” when discussing what Dandini has learned about Clorinda and Tisbe. The words became almost obscene, highlighting the English language’s rampant diphthongs. But Prince Ramiro, sung by Gran Wilson, handled the words as best as possible and was certainly one of the more technically adept singers in the production.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Opera Vivente opens season with Rossini's 'Cinderella' (Baltimore Sun, September 27)

Joe Banno, Conductor, Singing Enliven Lumbering "Cenerentola" (Washington Post, September 27)
The most disappointing musical faults were several instances of severe ensemble discrepancy between the orchestra and singers, although conductor Philip Lauriat did his best to keep the orchestra and singers together. This disconnect can probably be attributed to the physical orientation of the orchestra and conductor, who were situated to the side of the stage. Lauriat was not in the sight line of the singers, and when making strong, large gestures in their direction, his motions seemed to go unnoticed. On a whole, and looking past the glaring ensemble flaws, the production was largely enjoyable, especially listening to Cinderella and Prince Ramiro, whose voices mingled wonderfully. However, it seemed under-rehearsed and made for a disappointing start to the company’s season. Perhaps it was simply opening night jitters?

Ionarts-at-Large: From the 2009 ARD Competition - Extra

Artistic competitions may seem like an oxymoron. But for musicians aiming to be stars, they're the key to a successful career. DW follows young hopefuls as they brave the jury that could decide their future.


The Deutsche Welle article can be read here, below is the hazy version that hasn't seen professional trimming.


Johannes Brahms’ father, in his time Hamburg’s foremost double bassist, is said to have pointed out that a correct note on his instrument is a crapshoot—at best. That rings true, if you listen to bass players struggle, but I had always wondered why that was. After all, they have so much more space to hit the right note—inches, seemingly—than violinists. A German first-round participant at the ARD International Music Competition, now a double bassist in the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra and formerly a violinist, finally explained that incongruence to me: “We don’t have more space for the right note. The right note is just as precise a point on the fingerboard as on the violin. But we have two inches of wrong note between each right one. And we have to move our arms inches, not our fingers millimeters, to get from one note to the next. In essence we have to have the delicacy and lightsomeness of the violinist’s wrist in our elbows and navigate tiny islands of proper pitches amid some two feet of off-key treacherousness.” That’s good to keep in mind when listening to a first round of double bassists in any competition. Right notes are indeed exceptions to a cacophonous rule.

19 year old Ha Young Jung, born and raised in Seoul and now London-based, was one of the 40 bassists who were accepted and made the trip to Munich. She was excited to participate because it involved learning so much new repertoire in relatively little time. “Competitions and concerts a very different, of course, but I think competitions are very good because we have to play and prepare for so many pieces in such a short period. The experience is great. But doing only competitions wouldn’t be good, either, because it can get a little bit tense when you think about how to play without making mistakes or that one needs to be perfect all the time. Fortunately, I don’t think too much about what the jury would like to hear. I go out and play what I can play. At the end of the day, music is so personal that I can’t possibly know what it is the jury really likes. So I do what I like. Or”, she giggles with a view to her regular Russian pianist who fulfils a role somewhere between ersatz-mother and drillmaster, “what my accompanist wants”.

Ten, fifteen years ago women playing the double bass were still a rare sight, which is changing now. But it’s still a popular topic to ask musicians like Alexandra Scott, the very petite blonde English double bass player of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra who made it to the second round of the ARD competition—and few questions annoy her more. So she rolls her eyes, instead. Ha Young Jung finds that the funny looks she gets, rather than being a woman playing the double bass, come from her being—or wanting to be—a solo bass player.

“Many people don’t consider the bass a solo instrument. Its register is low, its sound difficult to project when you play with an orchestra. But I think it depends on how a player brings out the qualities of the instrument, rather than on the instrument itself. Not that I’d want to limit myself just to ‘solo bass’. I love playing chamber music, I love playing with chamber orchestras… well, I just love playing bass, really. I’d like playing in an orchestra, too, but when I play orchestra for a few days, I get very, very ill, because I just give out everything. Even though I look very healthy” she says with a waggish smile, referring to her hearty physique, “my physical health isn’t very strong.

There’s something about the very big picture that’s part of playing in an orchestra and I enjoy it very much—and some aspects are even more demanding than playing solo. But three Mahler symphonies in as many days and I’d have to rest for a month. I’ll need to work on my health if I ever wanted to be able to play in an orchestra.”

I picked Ha Young Jung out of the double bassists because among the players of the first day, only she and Frenchman Olivier Thiery’s glorious “Arpeggione Sonata” by Schubert impressed me thoroughly. Playing Bottesini’s “Elegy and Tarantella”, every phrase made musical sense and her unbridled energy was like someone opened the windows in the (windowless) Studio 1. “There isn’t a lot of repertoire for the bass anyway, compared to other instruments anyway. But Bottesini is one of the few composers who really tried to expand the repertoire and I think he’s very musical, very much fun to play, and fun to listen to” said Jung, and it sounded just like that. Except only with her.

But when I knocked on her practice room’s door after the second round of the competition, I found her dissolving into tears, deeply unhappy with her own performance. Not that her Adolf Mišek sonata or the Serge Koussevitzky concerto performances were outright bad; any mistakes or squeaks were the acceptable price for recklessness in the name of musicality. But her instinct was right, and she didn’t advance. The trouble probably started with her rendition of the specially commissioned composition of Nicolas Richter de Vroe “Atlas Textures”. It begins with heavy heaving, inhaling and exhaling. At the heart of the matter is a “Gravity Dance” preceded and followed by a “Gravity Song”, a song interrupted by threatening intrusions of indefinite low notes. The strings are allowed to resonate richly in the pointed pauses, moments of respite, distant cousins of silence.

Before getting there, the work sounds like an old steel bridge slowly folding, or an ocean liner’s death song. Richter de Vroe has the players elicit sounds from the instrument in almost every way for which the double bass was specifically not intended. That can be great fun, but when applied gratuitously or not well integrated by the interpreter, it loses the novelty aspect. When Ha Young Jung dug into the work, the sinking ocean liner changed into a warped didgeridoo, and her effort was always audible. There was more sense to be made of “Atlas Textures” in Olivier Thiery’s quicker interpretation: he made the spiky trial sound downright elegant. And Thiery, the latest addition to the bassists of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, went on to the finals and won a third prize with his smoothly sensitive playing of Nino Rota’s Double Bass Concerto.

Ha Young Jung was upbeat again, a day after her moment of tears, waiting for the ride to the airport and looking forward to a recital at Wigmore Hall with famous violinist Sarah Chang. “It would have been nice had I gone on, of course, but based on what I played the other day, I felt it wasn’t coming. If I can play ‘100’, I felt that was ‘2’ or ‘3’. I’m disappointed because I was really looking forward to going to the final and play with the orchestra: I love Rota’s concerto that I’d have gotten to play and I’ve never had the chance to play that with an orchestra. But now I’m not going to stress too much about the result. Had I played my best and failed to go through to the semi final then maye I should think there is something wrong with me and that I don’t play well enough or don’t practice hard enough. But it was a worst case of me, so in that sense I’m not too disappointed.”

Before she parts I ask if she ever feels stuck with the double bass and so little music to be grateful for? “Well, there are many ways to look at this. For me, I don’t envy pianists or violinists, because no matter what music, I just try to play musically. I don’t envy the particular repertoire they have, even if it is so much bigger and, well, better. I’m happy playing bass and I like it. But”, she perks up, looking at colleagues hauling basses about “what I envy is the size of other instruments!”

27.9.09

Ben Folds Live with NSO

In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this article and Ben Folds are distantly related, although they met for the first time on Friday for a brief interview. The author also studied conducting with Sarah Hicks at the Curtis Institute of Music.

Pianist, singer, and songwriter Ben Folds joined the National Symphony Orchestra Pops to open their 2009-2010 season in an uplifting show conducted by Sarah Hatsuko Hicks. The full house comprised the youngest, most casually dressed audience your reviewer has ever seen in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, and they let out a cheer when Folds entered the stage under lighting that frequently changed hues. Hicks, who is Assistant Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, Staff Conductor at the Curtis Institute of Music, and Folds’s conductor of choice states that “all pop singers say there is nothing like having eighty musicians behind you.”

The numbers programmed for Folds’s orchestral performances are his well-known songs orchestrated or “charted” by external consultants and performed with the composer singing at the piano. When asked why he does not do his own orchestrations, Folds mentioned that he does “alter smaller string sections” and does “revisions of the orchestral scores -- especially the percussion,” as he studied percussion and piano formally. Responding to a question about whether he had ever pondered writing something specifically for orchestra, Folds responded, “I heard a few things that would be fun to score that could be done. Now I have so much crap to do. When I was younger I used to hear much more.” Folds also said that he hears ideas before “puttering around on the piano” and keeps the evolving song in the original key in which it was first heard in his mind’s ear.

Should the NSO find more avenues to approach Thursday evening’s wonderful audience? Folds says that “if an orchestra acts like a horse and buggy, it will go the way of the horse and buggy.” Hicks, too, is worried about the fate of concert halls and their orchestras given that “classical composers are no longer rock stars as they were in the 19th century.” Folds says that “every generation must find ways to crack the code and be adaptable; great art and music from the 17th century will always be great art and music.” How adaptable are our orchestras? How popular is contemporary classical music when less than fifty people showed up for one such performance earlier this month at the Corcoran Gallery of Art? When thrown a bone and asked if there is anything he would like to say to the classical music world out there, Folds quickly said, “Kiss my ass.” Folds never finished music school for a number of reasons, including his refusal to learn fixed “Do” solfège. He once asked his ear training professor if he could use movable “Do,” the professor made an exception, whereby Folds brilliantly recited his melodic example by singing up and down “Do, Do, Do, Do, Do, Do, Dooooo.”

It was unfortunate that a lot of text was lost due to a microphone that echoed through the room. Regardless, with a smooth, heady voice, Folds offered about fifteen songs without intermission. Some featured his blues-infused piano introductions and tags, one dropped the f-bomb quite often in its chorus refrain about getting enough food at Denny’s, and another had the audience beautifully singing two chords in three parts at certain points in the piece -- Folds rehearsed us before the song and conducted from the stage. A song for his daughter Gracie featured lyrics such as “some day you’ll be a lady, but until then you’ve got to do what I say.” Other earthy lyrics suggested that hope is a “cheat and a tease,” another explored the life of a “textbook hippie man,” and the political in (this is Washington, of course) “Levi Johnston’s Blues,” which contained lyrics that approximated: “Your mother-in-law might be a heartbeat from the Presidency… I’m not getting married!” The show ended with Stephen’s Last Night in Town followed by thunderous applause.

In Brief: September's End Edition

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

  • "Nadir Of Western Civilization To Be Reached This Friday At 3:32 P.M." -- " 'From the prehistoric Lascaux cave paintings to the stirring symphonies of Mozart to today's hot-dog eating competitions and action films with comical gerbils, culture has descended into a festering pool of mass ignorance', said Yale sociologist Paul Riordan, who has spent his career analyzing western civilization's fall into the depths of depravity." [The Onion]

  • Folks who work in downtown Washington have another option for a musical lunchtime, a new free concert series on the first Wednesday of the month (starting in October), at the gorgeous church by the White House. We congratulate our own Michael Lodico, who is the parish's new organist and associate choirmaster. [St. John's, Lafayette Square]

  • Here are some images of the stunning find of a treasure burial in Staffordshire, dated to the 7th century, the era of Beowulf, and three times the size of the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial. [The Guardian]

  • The Washington Nationals joined a club of dubious renown this week by being one of the limited number of baseball teams to have lost 100 games in a season. "I'm pretty sure that such examples of the suckiest bunches of sucks that ever sucked don't get a letter from the President, at least not the one who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Yes, instead of being celebrated, these squads inherit one of two difficult to swallow legacies: either they are written off as hardball experiments gone wrong and forgotten or remembered as terrible abominations, a stain on the fabric of the American pasttime." [DCist]

  • One of my favorite sopranos, Sandrine Piau, runs the 20 Questions gauntlet. [Playbill Arts]

  • One of the things I love to do while traveling is to visit locations described in beloved books and the homes and tombs of favorite authors, artists, or composers. Michael Kimmelman is on the trail of Chopin in Poland. [New York Times]

  • Jessica Duchen interviews mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. [The Independent]

26.9.09

Click, Click, Click


Major photography exhibits seem to be everywhere. Since I've been traveling, I'm going to bounce from coast to coast here. A few weeks ago I got to visit my co-bloggers, the painter extraordinaire Anna Conti and her husband, photographer Dave Sumner, in San Francisco. Anna graciously toured me around the SFMOMA and a few galleries -- thank you, madame -- and the most memorable exhibits of photography. The touring Avedon show, recently at the Corcoran, was at the SFMOMA. In his unmistakable style Avedon takes us not only through an era of American celebrity and high fashion, but his striking portraits from his American West series are gritty and straightforward, exposing the facial wrinkles of a life time -- unfortunately this unique history is what botox is now attempting to erase. They're some of my favorite Avedon images, other than the series he did of his father during his battle with cancer.


Much less formal, in a snapshot manner that I lean towards, are Robert Frank's images from his series The Americans, that just opened at The Met in NYC (and was at the earlier this year). Starting off with a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955 and an idea for a book, Frank, a recent immigrant himself, set off by car from New York to photograph America, passing through Detroit, the South, Texas, L.A., and back through Chicago. All along the way pointing and shooting by intention and often by chance, Frank the outsider recorded an uncompromising view of an America the world hadn't seen before. He literally changed the way we look at and take our own pictures.

Back in SF a photo exhibit that I truly identified with was Nicholas Knight's very timely Taking Pictures, at Steven Wolf Fine Arts. Knight takes pictures of people taking pictures of -- what else -- pictures, in galleries and museums. Everywhere I go these days someone is taking a picture, with a camera or cell phone and I'm happily one of them and happen to think it's a wonderful thing.

My pocket always has a camera in it, which is important to remember when doing laundry (yes, I have, twice). As an art blogger I take many pictures in galleries and museums. I prefer to try and capture the essence of an art installation, especially with people interacting with the work. There are some common sense manners and rules to follow -- such as no flash in the galleries, fools!

Alicia de Larrocha, 86

available at Amazon
The Art of Alicia de Larrocha: Box set of Mozart, Bach, Haydn, de Falla, Granados, Mompou, Turina (inter alia)
The beloved Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha died last night, at the age of 86, in a hospital in her native Barcelona. She was admitted to the hospital some days ago, suffering from cardio-respiratory problems; her health has reportedly been bad since she broke her hip two years ago. Born in 1923, de Larrocha was a child prodigy, giving her first solo concert and first concerto appearance before her teens, and she continued to perform until 2003. She is survived by a son and daughter, children from her marriage to pianist Juan Torra.

I first came to love de Larrocha's playing as a teenager, when my piano teacher assigned me my first Mozart piano concerto to start practicing. My teacher loaned me an LP recording of Alicia de Larrocha playing that same concerto, and for a while her interpretations of the Mozart concerti -- elegant, patrician, controlled, lusciously beautiful -- were the only ones I thought of as valid. Of diminutive stature, just under five feet tall and with very small hands, she accomplished miraculous things, especially with Mozart and the Spanish composers she championed. Lovers of piano music everywhere have much to thank her for: may she rest in peace.


Alicia de Larrocha plays "Evocacion" from Iberia by Albeniz

25.9.09

BSO Gets Bloggy with It

Well, it's happened, blogging really must be dead, because the press offices of arts organizations all around the country are courting bloggers as part of their new media outreach. It must be why publicists for performers and recording companies are now asking to meet me for coffee when they come through Washington. Last night, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra joined the trend, hosting a Bloggers' Night at Meyerhoff Hall before the opening concert of its regular season. Food and drinks were consumed, business cards and URLs were exchanged, and a panel including Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun, and yours truly spoke about the perils of blogging. It was a very enjoyable evening and will hopefully become an annual tradition.


Time for Three (Nick Kendall, Zach de Pue, and Ranaan Meyer) -- they must be cool
Marin Alsop opened the BSO's series of subscription concerts with another recent work by an American composer. This is the best reason to attend a BSO concert, other than the generally fine playing of this orchestra these days, the chance to hear contemporary music, often for the first time in the area. Philadelphia-based Jennifer Higdon is well on her way to becoming known as the Queen of the Concerto, as we have reviewed or will soon review her concertos for percussion, piano, and violin. (One cannot help but remember Karlheinz Stockhausen's refusal to accept concerto commissions.) For the most part to my ears, Higdon's music has melodic appeal, rhythmic verve, and interesting formal ideas, but with Concerto 4-3, premiered by 2007 and featured by the BSO on this concert, she may have crossed the line into pandering to soloists with specialty music. Higdon conceived the piece for the trio that premiered it and that played it in Baltimore, Time for Three, "a charismatic ensemble with a reputation for limitless enthusiasm and no musical boundaries" (so reads their bio boilerplate) formed by three students from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where Higdon is on the faculty.

The group's shtick is crossover, fiddling around with bluegrass and country-western music, and Higdon went with that, seasoning the piece with a few blue notes, some folksy bends and open 5th drones, some down-home tunes. This harmless piece, uncomfortably close in feel to countless Windham Hill recordings and the film scores of Howard Shore, should be a huge hit on NPR although it was not as awful as Mark O'Connor. For some reason the trio played with amplification, although for the most part Higdon's large orchestra is kept to a minimum of sound while the soloists play. One of the risks for this kind of group dabbling in other music is that you have less time to keep your classical work honed -- I have noted it before and so have other critics. The trio's performance was viscerally exciting, cool and full of flair, but troubled by less than flawless intonation. They apparently played an encore after I left the hall to get an early start on intermission.


Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, BSO opens subscription concerts with fiery Tchaikovsky and crossover concerto by Higdon (Baltimore Sun, September 25)

T. L. Ponick, Higdon's BSO triumph (Washington Times, September 28, 2009)

Joe Banno, The BSO and TF3: Time for Energy (Washington Post, September 28)
Ironically, for someone who generally tires of Tchaikovsky's orchestral music, I found the BSO's performance of the Russian composer's fourth symphony to be the evening's high point. From an ominous intro by the steely Baltimore brass section, to a suave, subtly shaded second theme in the first movement, to the melancholy oboe solo from principal Katherine Needleman that opened the second, it was played superlatively. Alsop's interpretation was, thankfully, the opposite of that heard from Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic last fall, more soft and varied than loud and with rubato applied judiciously rather than slathered on everywhere. The third and fourth movements were on the breathless, almost incoherent side because of Alsop's tendency to push tempi too fast, but it was exciting to hear. Not so much the Brahms's Hungarian Dances that opened the concert, a weird trio of bonbons likely chosen as a parallel example of folk music incorporated into a classical work. They did not serve either of their typical purposes as encore pieces, to give the light-footed feeling of dance or devilish flair, in spite of an over-zealously dinged triangle, which proved a little too much paprika in the Hungarian goulash.

This concert will be repeated tonight (September 25, 8 pm) in Baltimore and tomorrow night (September 26, 8 pm) at Strathmore.

24.9.09

Rimbaud Me Fecit


Isabelle Rimbaud (Jean-Jacques Lefrère/Flammarion)
Recently discovered photographs, drawings, paintings, and other things made by Arthur Rimbaud (and some of them now proven to have been passed off as Rimbaud's by his family) will soon be published by Jean-Jacques ­Lefrère, the author of a biography of the French poet and editor of his correspondence, in a new book called Les Dessins d'Arthur Rimbaud, coming out next month from Flammarion. Mohammed Aïssaoui wrote a preview (Rimbaud inédit, September 24) for Le Figaro (my translation and links added):
The legend that Arthur Rimbaud was a terrible sketch artist is unshakable -- his talents lay elsewhere. Unlike his friends Verlaine and Delahaye, his pencil drawing was far from excellent: one could even call it basic, even childish, judging by the little stick men, the scenes of daily life, the animals or objects that he tried to reproduce, in his youth, in school notebooks, on the back of atlas maps, or in letters sent to some of his correspondents. That has not stopped us from attributing several illustrations to him, some of them fairly good, that were not perhaps actually made by him.

[This book] brings to light some documents never before seen: drawings, yes, but also photographs and an iconography that is rich and completely unknown. [...] Among the most moving pieces is a photograph of Isabelle Rimbaud, the poet's younger sister who supported him in his final days. This photograph is so intense, so expressive that it almost seems to be in color. And what an extraordinary physical resemblance to her brother! What is also striking, in this piece, are her hands, all out of proportion, those "assassin's hands" that her brother Arthur must have had, too, if we believe the reports of the poets who met him during his stay in Paris in September 1871. [...]

Another strong section of the book is the new testimony from a woman who lived in Roche and knew Isabelle Rimbaud and her mother and paints them in contrasting ways: "Her features were hard, a little like an old owl, rather surly, in spite of having very blue eyes, of a blue that was a little mauve, such as I have rarely seen." The album also includes some photos, drawings, and paintings of the Rimbaud house, in the hamlet of Roche, and one can distinctly see the grain loft where Rimbaud, wracked with fever, wrote Une saison en enfer (trans. A Season in Hell). It is one of the most striking views, and also the most tragic, in this book.
You can see a few images in a slide show published by Le Figaro.

23.9.09

Vive la Différence: Luc Bondy

Marcelo Álvarez as Cavaradossi
Marcelo Álvarez as Cavaradossi at canvas of Mary Magdalen, Tosca, directed by Luc Bondy, Metropolitan Opera, 2009 (photo by Mary Altaffer/AP)
As mentioned on Sunday French critic Renaud Machart was in New York this weekend. After covering the opening of the New York Philharmonic season, Machart attended the gala opening of the Metropolitan Opera and the controversial new production of Puccini's Tosca by Luc Bondy. The booing in the house was reportedly intense, and the caterwauling in the press and the blogs afterward has been even more so. By contrast, in his review (L'exemplaire "Tosca" de Luc Bondy, soirée d'opéra parfaite, huée à New York, September 24) for Le Monde, Machart wrote of a "perfect night at the opera" (my translation, Italian quotations, and links added):
Tosca [was] presented in a gala evening before a trendy audience (where furs, haute couture gowns, and altered noses were in abundance), causing a terrible stir, a vengeful booing from the heart of an audience furious that "its" Tosca had been taken away. The one it has seen on the Met stage since 1985, concocted by the Italien Franco Zeffirelli. Because the Met audience, or at least its noisy majority, wants a Tosca in CinémaScope, with its Baroque church in the first act, its Palazzo Farnese in the second, and in the third its Castel Sant'Angelo, with that impossible view of St. Peter's and the Vatican. One suspects that many in the audience have never visited Rome, read the libretto of Luigi Illica, or read the play by Victorien Sardou, but, offended, they want a Tosca in line with how they picture it, and that's what they pay for.

It is true that Zeffirelli's production is the exact opposite of that made by Bondy and his talented designer, Richard Peduzzi. In visual contrast with the Italian and his orange sunrise in Act III in particular, Bondy preferred a simple tower and a sky of an opaque blue-gray, the color of blueness in one's soul, the tint of despair in a condemned man. Above all, he has transcribed the exact color of Puccini's orchestra at the moment of the bells that announce Cavaradossi's execution, the hue that the libretto describes as "a light uncertain and gray" (la luce incerta e grigia che precede l'alba). Therein lies the problem: the opera audience often takes false traditions as primary truths and confuses abusive reinterpretations (they are legion, it is true, on operatic stages) with respect for the letter of the law. One saw spectators getting offended that Tosca, in Act II, sang her famous aria Vissi d'arte seated on a sofa. But what does the libretto say? "Tosca falls, spent, on the couch" (Tosca affranta dal dolore si lascia cadere sul canapè).

A wave of indignation was perceived when, in Act II of this production in 19th-century costumes, Art Deco furniture appeared, suggesting with elegance and discretion that Scarpia, the chief of police, had some traits in common with Mussolini. Is it so wrong to show Scarpia with three prostitutes when he says, literally, that he wants to have a taste of different wines and different women (Dio creò diverse beltà e vini diversi... Io vo' gustar quanto più posso dell'opra divina!) and when Sardou, in his play, denounces the morals of this "filthy satyr," bloodthirsty even in his orgies?
No mention of the technical problems that spoiled the opera's dramatic conclusion. Machart does note that this is the first season at the Met completely under the Gelb aegis and that it is "a season marked by novelty (nine new productions, a number last attained in 1966) and audacity because he is bringing to New York some European directors who have never mounted an opera there, notably Patrice Chéreau and Luc Bondy." Perhaps Martin Bernheimer had the best criticism of the production, admitting first that he loathed that tired, old Zeffirelli production before also admitting that he loathed Bondy's version just as much.

22.9.09

Hamelin Makes Chopin His Own

available at Amazon
Chopin, Piano Sonatas 2/3 (inter alia), M.-A. Hamelin

(released on January 13, 2009)
Hyperion CDA67706

Online scores:
Chopin's First Editions Online
Chopin has figured in the recital programs and even recordings of Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, but this is the first time that he has devoted an entire disc to the Polish composer and pianist's pianist. Since Hamelin has not played any Chopin on his area recitals, in 2004 and an unscheduled substitution for Krystian Zimerman this past April, I had not given his interpretation of Chopin much thought until this recent release in Hamelin's fine series of recordings for Hyperion crossed my desk. Not only is Hamelin's playing extremely virtuosic, but here as noted of his recording of the Ives Concord Sonata, he is willing to push that extraordinary technique to the breaking point in the interest of a daring, dramatic interpretation. So while there is plenty of extraordinary Chopin on disc, this is the sort of Chopin that, far from wilting in a wan, tubercular introspection, grabs you by the collar and shouts to the rooftops.

In fact, Hamelin has more or less jumped near the top of the list of my favorite living Chopin players, surpassing Louis Lortie, Hélène Grimaud, Grigory Sokolov, Nelson Freire, and Ingrid Fliter to attain the heights of Yundi Li and even Maurizio Pollini, if not quite yet Evgeny Kissin. As a point of reference, Grimaud's playing of Chopin's second sonata paled in my ears next to the memory, still vivid, of Pollini's rendering of the Marche funèbre, voiced to imitate the sound of a military band, of the sort that accompanied funeral processions in Paris. The third sonata has an example of Hamelin's brinkmanship in the unhinged second movement, a scherzo in which he takes the meaning of the Molto vivace tempo marking literally, playing at the edge of manic disintegration. There are moments of softly shaded colors, too, but for the greatest variation in search of the broadest range of moods and contrasts, Alexandre Tharaud is my current favorite.

76'40"

21.9.09

M Is for Museum Leuven

A new museum opened yesterday in Leuven (Louvain), Belgium -- dubbed "the M" for Museum Leuven, the updated name of the old Museum Vander Kelen-Mertens -- so new that the Web site is still under construction. Architect Stéphane Beel created a "sober and magnificent" building, near the Place Mgr Ladeuze Ladeuzeplein, at the cost of 20 million €, of which 5 million were raised by the Flemish community. See some lovely photographs of the completed building on Flickr. Guy Duplat published a preview ( Musée "M", pureté, lumière, September 19) in La Libre Belgique (my translation and links added):

It is above all four times larger and more contemporary [than the museum it replaces]. As the result of a competition, it was Stéphane Beel's project that was chosen. The architect is one of the Flemish stars: after having built the Raveelmuseum and the Rubenshuis, he completed the new wing of De Singel and is going to begin the transformation of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. Here he has built a museum of 13,500 square meters, including 6,000 square meters of exhibit space, which is an area, in terms of surface space, on par with the S.M.A.K. [Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art] in Ghent. Stéphane Beel incorporated two existing buildings, the old conservatory and the old museum, to transform them and integrate them into two new buildings in a complex ensemble that still manages to have fluidity.

"It was a challenge being in the middle of the city, but by that same fact, it was very interesting," Beel said. Once you are through the gate, you can descend into the museum or go up to the public garden from where you can admire the new buildings, in warm and tan travertine, pierced by big windows. Pure lines harmonize well with the two older preserved buildings. "We wanted to give back some open space to the historic town center, sparing the trees, creating open corridors typical of Leuven." The architect imagined a complete route for the visitor on one single floorplan, playing with slight differences in level to compensate for the slope of the terrain. He had to keep in mind that the museum could exhibit modern art as well as medieval art. "The fluidity of the floorplan allows one to pass cleanly from one to the other." It is architecture that respects the city's height restriction and does not raise itself higher than the neighboring houses but that is not afraid to be unveiled, with its two little towers that mark off the space, offering magnificent terrace views of the city and showing off the museum to the outside.
The inaugural exhibit, Rogier Van der Weyden (1400-1464), Master of Passions, is a must-see for anyone in that region of the world and will be open through December 6. Duplat also wrote a review of what will likely be one of the blockbuster exhibits of the fall.

20.9.09

In Brief

Leon Kirchner:
available at Amazon
String Quartets, Orion Quartet


available at Amazon
Works for Solo Piano, P. Serkin, J. Biss, J. Denk, M. Levinson
Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • American composer Leon Kirchner died on Thursday. Pianist Jeremy Denk has a particularly poignant remembrance of the man, involving how Kirchner convinced him to think anew about the (lovely) poetry of Walt Whitman. [Think Denk]

  • Has anyone ever seen or heard Leon Kirchner's opera Lily? Has it ever been staged? It is apparently an adaptation of Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King. [New Music Box]

  • The Getty Villa, the museum's new outpost for Greek and Roman antiquities, has a theater, and they are mounting productions of ancient Greek and Roman plays. I must see that on my next trip to Los Angeles. [Out West Arts]

  • Anne Midgette has some thoughts on the hectic pace of life for Christoph Eschenbach, who will take over as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra next fall. [The Classical Beat]

  • With hat tip to Cronaca, some people in Scotland dug into a toilet that had not been flushed for 500 years. No, really, it's a cool story. [Herald Scotland]

  • Are there really "many critics and scholars" who would "denigrate" performances of Mozart's piano concertos on modern instruments as "inaccurate representations of how Mozart should really sound"? Henry Fogel thinks so, although he does not cite any such critic or scholar who actually thinks that way. [On the Record]

  • Reviews of Alan Gilbert's first concert as music director of the New York Philharmonic were published all over the American press. So will the Gilbert era be an exciting, bright beginning, an earnest but boring disappointment, or somewhere in between? Renaud Machart was there, too, and he thinks that the NYP is still "one of the five best American orchestras." Gilbert "proved his originality" by programming the Messiaen and Lindberg pieces, although the latter was "void of substance behind its beautifully decorated window." Machart "got bored" with the Berlioz because of its "clinical and banal" performance, but he will have more to say when Gilbert takes the NYP to Paris next February. [Le Monde]

19.9.09

Kissin's New Prokofiev Concertos

available at Amazon
Prokofiev, Piano Concertos 2/3, E. Kissin, Philharmonia Orchestra, V. Ashkenazy

(released on January 1, 2009)
EMI 50999 2 64536 2 0


available at Amazon
Concertos 1/3


available at Amazon
Concerto 2



Online scores:
Prokofiev, Piano Concertos
No. 1 (op. 10) | No. 2 (op. 16)
No. 3 (op. 26) | No. 5 (op. 55)

Even after admiring Evgeny Kissin's playing for many years, it was still a jolt to realize again how well he played Prokofiev at his last Kennedy Center recital this spring. Of course, Kissin has been playing the Prokofiev concertos for most of his career, even making a couple recordings in the 1980s and 90s. In this recent release from EMI, he offers his latest interpretation of the second and third concertos, both live from concert performances, one week apart, with the Philharmonia Orchestra at London's Royal Festival Hall last year. As noted of his Prokofiev in recital, Kissin's ferocious technique has the necessary force and savagery for the barbaro passages so important in Prokofiev's work. The sound is quite excellent for a live recording, with a minimum of extraneous noise and a close rendering of the piano that reveals the adamantine strength of Kissin's attack. It is the closest one is likely to get to the experience of standing next to the piano while Kissin plays these concertos.

The most striking examples of this come in the second concerto, especially in the cadenza of the first movement, whose brutal challenges Kissin tames with his accustomed technical assurance (more deliberately powerful than impetuously so, as in Yuja Wang's recent reading). The cadenza grows and grows in volume until the orchestra roars back into the movement, one of the most exciting cadenza conclusions in the piano concerto literature. The microphone placement also captures the suave side of Kissin's technique, too, as in the glissandi that swoop downward and upward in the third movement (more refined in quality than, for example, Yefim Bronfman's recording). The sound engineering puts the Philharmonia Orchestra, playing quite well, slightly into the background, but the greater dynamic contrasts of the third concerto require the orchestra to come more to the foreground. Vladimir Ashkenazy, familiar with both sides of the equation in the Prokofiev concertos, keeps things admirably together and helps the orchestra follow Kissin's lead. There are a few moments of misalignment, quickly righted by Ashkenazy, that would be edited in a studio recording but that capture some of the excitement of hearing a work like this performed so well live.

61'48"

Although he will not be playing one of the Prokofiev concertos, one would hate to miss the next opportunity to hear Evgeny Kissin in Washington, at next weekend's season opening concert with the National Symphony Orchestra (September 26, 7 pm), playing the second piano concerto by Chopin. Just a few seats remain at the time of this writing.

18.9.09

From the House of the Dead

Outside that gate is the world of light and freedom, where men live like the rest of mankind. But those living on this side of the fence picture that world as some unattainable fairyland. Here there is a world apart, unlike everything else, with laws of its own, its own dress, its own manners and customs, and here is the house of the living dead -- life as nowhere else and a people apart. It is this corner apart that I am going to describe.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead (trans. Constance Black Garnett), Chapter 1
available at Amazon
Janáček, From the House of the Dead, dir. P. Chéreau, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, P. Boulez

(released on April 22, 2008)
Deutsche Grammophon 00440 073 4426
Schedule permitting, Ionarts tries to review a couple of productions at the Metropolitan Opera here and there. Looking at the fall schedule, there are a couple that definitely catch my eye, beginning with the Rosenkavalier (October 13 to 22, with Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, and Miah Persson making a not-half-bad trio of the Marschallin, Octavian, and Sophie), although I might prefer to wait for the second round (January 1 to 15), with Christine Schäfer stepping in as Sophie. Of even greater interest is the chance to see Leoš Janáček's From the House of the Dead (Z Mrtvého Domu), mounted from November 12 to December 5. The Met will revive the much lauded 2007 staging by Patrice Chéreau, released last year on DVD in a recording from the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Instead of Pierre Boulez, a noted champion of Janáček's last opera, Esa-Pekka Salonen will make his debut at the podium of the Metropolitan Opera, with a couple of the singers from Aix-en-Provence reprising their roles.

Janáček adapted his libretto from the Dostoevsky novel quoted above, taking much of the dialogue more or less directly from the book while selecting and reordering the episodes. Dostoevsky's narrator presents the story as the memoir of a nobleman sentenced to hard labor in a Siberian prison, found among his papers after his death. Dostoevsky knew something about being a prisoner, because he endured a four-year sentence in Siberia after being convicted for belonging to a proscribed political group (the character of Goryanchikov is a stand-in for Dostoevsky). Pairing up again with Boulez after their ingenious (and, by some, hated) production of The Ring at Bayreuth, Patrice Chéreau goes with the bleak atmosphere of Dostoevsky to make a prison of massive steely walls rising (sets by Richard Peduzzi) into darkness (lighting by Bertrand Couderc) and moving about to close in the stage space claustrophobically. The faded, ratty costumes (designed by Caroline de Vivaise) are all dirty brown, blank gray, and a few faint colors. Chéreau excels at choreographing group movement (assisted here by Thierry Thieû Niang), which is basically all of this opera, requiring skilled acting from characters even when they are not singing.

The cast is strong vocally and largely Czech, which is always a bonus for the pronunciation of this rather complex language. Standing out for particular praise are the obsessive, troubled Luka/Filka of Slovak tenor Štefan Margita (who will make his Met debut this fall, in the same role), the unbalanced Skuratov of John Mark Ainsley, and the solid bass-baritone of Gerd Grochowski's Šiškov. Chéreau emphasizes the paternal relationship of the new political prisoner, Gorjančikov, and the innocent young man, Aljeja (sung by the handsome tenor Eric Stoklossa, rather than as a trouser role for mezzo-soprano, the other option allowed by the score), whom he teaches to read. All of this contributes to the verisimilitude of the production, which does not take place in a specific prison, perhaps, but in a place which all viewers would likely recognize as "prison." Like other Janáček operas (Cunning Little Vixen and Jenůfa, especially) the composer holds his strongest moments for the ending, when some especially transcendent music takes hold of the score, depicting the ultimate fate of the wounded eagle the prisoners have found. This is a very good way to get to know this gorgeous opera, especially if followed up by a live performance at the Met in a couple months.

100' + 48' (with worthy extra tracks of rehearsals and conversations among the creative team)

17.9.09

Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese at the Louvre

Perseus and Andromeda
Veronese, Perseus and Andromeda, c. 1580,
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes
If you are planning a trip to Paris this fall, you should not miss the big exhibit that opened at the Louvre today, Titien, Tintoret, Véronèse - Rivalités à Venise, open to the public through January 4. Éric Biétry-Rivierre published an article about the show (Titien, Tintoret, Véronèse, les faisceaux du génie, September 17) in Le Figaro (my translation and links added):
It is a refrain of art history: Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, the three Venetian geniuses of the second half of the 16th century, supposedly never stopped shooting one another down. One has to imagine their workshop like three big PR firms in fierce competition in an ultraliberal society. To be sure, in their struggle to obtain commissions they often pushed one another out of the way. They lowered their prices, in some cases working without pay. To win the chance to decorate the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Tintoretto cheated by knowing about the commission plans in advance, thanks to some indiscretion. Titian, for his part, had his exquisite little Saint Nicholas installed in the midst of the magnificent church of San Sebastiano, completely decorated by Veronese, to remind his too talented disciple who was the master.

So what is underscored by the exhibit at the Louvre that opens today? A common splendor and flourishing, the richness and smoothness of the medium, brushstrokes in the painting surface that, for the first time, make the paint stand out on its own, a revolutionary primacy of color, freedom of curving shapes, virtuosic perspective, feminine flesh and secular subjects exalted, and of course a sophistication of themes. All of it is captivating.
Also, check out this nice selection of images published by Le Figaro.

16.9.09

Perahia's Partitas, Vol. 2

available at Amazon
Bach, Partitas 1/5/6, Murray Perahia (piano)

(released on August 31, 2009)
Deutsche Grammophon 477 7463

available at Amazon
Partitas 2-4


Online scores:
Bach, Keyboard Partitas (BWV 825-30)
The contrapuntal, mathematical complexities of Bach's music tend to fascinate the most musical minds -- musica was not part of the number-oriented quadrivium for nothing. American pianist Murray Perahia turned to the study of Bach's music when he was recovering from a hand injury in the 1990s, and an obsession was born. At the end of my review of his first installment of Bach's partitas, I hoped that Perahia's latest hand-related miseries would soon end and he would record the other three partitas. Sometimes our wishes are answered, and the result has recently crossed my desk. For whatever reason, the second volume did not bowl me over nearly as much, the understated quality that can make Perahia's Bach so charming perhaps a little too studied, making for an overly plain interpretation.

That said, Perahia's approach to nos. 1, 5, and 6 is mostly after my own heart: rhythmically propelled, crisp, with primary interest given to differences in articulation rather than dynamic contrasts. Surely, one cannot expect a pianist playing Bach to ignore the dynamic possibilities of the modern piano, even if shifts between registers or manuals was the only real dynamic shift Bach could have envisaged. In the B-flat major partita (no. 1, one of my favorites of the set) Perahia does not add many embellishments, preferring more to explore alterations to the texture, for example, lengthening some notes in the stream of eighth notes of the first menuet to make independent lines. The character of both menuets is so refined, almost a parody of gentility, as to make one smile (a similar quality is found in the minuetto and passepied of no. 5), and the clarity of the crossed-hand melodic exchanges in the gigue is something for any keyboard player to admire.

The last two partitas in the set are probably the most difficult to play, with extended preludes, lots of filigree gestures in the dances, especially in the sixth partita, almost as if Bach is showing us how a really talented player might ornament a dance movement. The contrapuntal gigue of the E minor partita (no. 6) has a subject that uses almost all twelve chromatic notes (all but C# and D are used in the first two measures). Bach was interested in chromatic themes, of course, and created many of them or was given them (the Thema Regium of the Musical Offering uses all but one of the twelve chromatic notes), an interest probably related to his interest in keyboard temperaments. Recently Eric Altschuler and Noam Elkies have made claims that Bach used a 12-tone row two centuries before Schoenberg invented the idea, referring to a two-bar passage in the theme of the A minor Prelude from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II (BWV 889). The idea makes for a nice piece on NPR, but it does not really hold water: Bach does indeed use all twelve tones in the middle of his theme, repeating it many times, but he is not really writing a dodecaphonic piece, at least not as Schoenberg, Webern, or even Berg would have understood it.

Murray Perahia's upcoming WPAS recital at the Kennedy Center (October 17, 4 pm) will feature Bach's sixth partita on the program.