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31.10.09

Kubrick's Napoleon

Stanley Kubrick's planned movie (.PDF file) on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte is one of those chefs-d'œuvres manqués of which history has cheated us, like Verdi's dream of an opera on King Lear. A new collector's set of ten volumes, recently published by Taschen, reproduces images of the entire archive of materials Kubrick compiled while working on the project, which was planned for production by MGM but eventually shelved. An article by Éric Neuhoff (Le Napoléon impossible de Stanley Kubrick, October 27) for Le Figaro provides some more details (my translation):

Kubrick kept everything in trunks and desks. Research was carried out in Yugoslavia, France, Italy, Romania, Belgium. Andrew Birkin, the brother of Jane, was sent on location. For the battles, 50,000 soldiers were recruited. Costume fittings took place. Actors posed in uniforms of Hussars and Dragoons. Kubrick bought the rights to Felix Markham's book on the subject. He bombarded that professor, the author, with countless letters, harassing him endlessly on detailed points and hiring him as as a consultant.

He was so meticulous that he asked him if Napoleon could have celebrated New Year's Day in 1799 or if the revolutionary laws had forbidden this sort of celebration. Another question: how were the army's horses equipped? Several actors had been approached about the title role, including Oskar Werner and Ian Holm. Ultimately, the role fell to David Hemmings. For Joséphine, Audrey Hepburn politely declined the offer, in a letter sent from Switzerland on blue paper. The reasons for the refusal are not clear, but in the script Napoleon meets Joséphine in the middle of an orgy.
David Hemmings was launched into a film career after creating the role of Miles in Britten's Turn of the Screw (as the composer's protegé), but I have to say that the young Ian Holm seems like pretty much the ideal actor to have played Napoleon (he later played the character in a very different movie, The Emperor's New Clothes). Taschen has arranged the small volumes of text and images to fit in a space carved out from a box made to look like a large leather-bound book. Only a thousand copies were produced, at a price of €500.

30.10.09

Classical Month in Washington (January)

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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!

January 2, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Salute to Vienna: New Year's Concert
Music Center at Strathmore

January 6, 2010 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Steven Isserlis (cello) and Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Music by Britten, Schumann, and Rachmaninoff
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Review -- Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, January 8)

January 7, 2010 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Nikolaj Znaider (violin) and Leonard Slatkin (conductor)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
Review -- Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, January 9)

January 8, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Folger Consort and Friends
Monteverdi, 1610 Vespers
Washington National Cathedral
Review -- Charles T. Downey (Washington Post, January 11)

January 8, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Nikolaj Znaider (violin) and Leonard Slatkin (conductor)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

January 9, 2010 (Sat)
11 am, 1:30 pm, 5 pm
NSO Teddy Bear Concert
Kennedy Center Family Theater

January 9, 2010 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Cornell University Glee Club
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Review -- Alfred Thigpen (Washington Post, January 11)

January 9, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Folger Consort and Friends
Monteverdi, 1610 Vespers
Washington National Cathedral

January 9, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Nikolaj Znaider (violin) and Leonard Slatkin (conductor)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

January 9, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Philharmonic
Bizet, Carmen
Music Center at Strathmore
Review -- Joe Banno (Washington Post, January 11)

January 10, 2010 (Sun)
1:30 and 4 pm
NSO Ensemble Concert
Kennedy Center Family Theater

January 10, 2010 (Sun)
2 pm
Kennedy Center Chamber Players
All-Brahms program
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Review -- Joe Banno (Washington Post, January 12)

January 10, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
Smithsonian Chamber Players
Smithsonian American Art Museum

January 10, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
Baltimore Mandolin Quartet
Mansion at Strathmore

January 10, 2010 (Sun)
4 pm
Douglas McNames (cello) and Steven Silverman (piano) [FREE]
Music by Beethoven, Rachmaninoff
Phillips Collection

January 10, 2010 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Astrid Walschot-Stapp (harp) and Karen Johnson (flute) [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

January 10, 2010 (Sun)
7 pm
Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Choral Arts Society
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

January 12, 2010 (Tue)
7 pm
Yuliya Gorenman, piano
What Makes It Great? Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

January 14, 2010 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Emanuel Ax (piano) and Michael Stern (conductor)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
Review -- Robert R. Reilly (Ionarts, January 15)

January 15, 2010 (Fri)
1:30 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Emanuel Ax (piano) and Michael Stern (conductor)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

January 15, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Daedalus Quartet
Barns at Wolf Trap
Review -- Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, January 16)

January 15, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Royal Fireworks Music
Weinberg Center (Frederick, Md.)

January 16, 2010 (Sat)
11 am
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Royal Fireworks Music
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

January 16, 2010 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Di Wu, piano
Embassy Series
Embassy of China
Review -- Anne Midgette (Washington Post, January 18)

January 16, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Emanuel Ax (piano) and Michael Stern (conductor)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

January 16, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
American Balalaika Symphony
Music Center at Strathmore
Review -- Anne Midgette (Washington Post, January 17)

January 17, 2010 (Sun)
4 pm
Hee-Young Lim (cello) and Noreen Polera (piano) [FREE]
Sonatas by Beethoven, Chopin, Beethoven
Phillips Collection

January 17, 2010 (Sun)
6:30 pm
National Gallery of Art Vocal Ensemble and ARTEK Early Music Ensemble [FREE]
Music by Monteverdi from 1610
National Gallery of Art
Review -- Charles T. Downey (Washington Post, January 19)

January 20, 2010 (Wed)
12:30 pm
Anne-Marieke Evers (mezzo-soprano) and Stephen Ackert (organ) [FREE]
Music by Bach from 1710
National Gallery of Art

January 20, 2010 (Wed)
8 pm
Zodiacrobatic
Mobtown Modern
Metro Gallery (Baltimore, Md.)
Review -- Charles T. Downey (Washington Post, January 22)

January 21, 2010 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Iván Fischer (conductor), Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano), and Stig Andersen (tenor)
Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
Review -- Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, January 23)

January 21, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
Menahem Pressler (piano), Alexander Kerr (violin), Kim Kashkashian (viola), Antonio Meneses (cello) [FREE]
Library of Congress
Review -- Joe Banno (Washington Post, January 24)

January 22, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Iván Fischer (conductor), Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano), and Stig Andersen (tenor)
Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

January 22, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Garrick Ohlsson (piano) and Jiří Bĕlohlávek (conductor)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

January 23, 2010 (Sat)
2 pm
Jeremy Denk, piano
WPAS
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Review -- Michael Lodico (Ionarts, January 25)

January 23, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Iván Fischer (conductor), Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano), and Stig Andersen (tenor)
Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

January 23, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Garrick Ohlsson (piano) and Jiří Bĕlohlávek (conductor)
Music Center at Strathmore

January 23, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Pacifica Quartet: Beethoven Cycle I
Candlelight Concert Society
Smith Theater, Howard Community College (Columbia, Md.)
Review -- Charles T. Downey (Washington Post, January 25)

January 23, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Fairfax Symphony Orchestra
George Mason University Center for the Arts
Review -- Anne Midgette (Washington Post, January 25)

January 24, 2010 (Sun)
2 and 4 pm
NSO Children's Concert
With Iván Fischer
Kennedy Center Family Theater

January 24, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Garrick Ohlsson (piano) and Jiří Bĕlohlávek (conductor)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

January 24, 2010 (Sun)
3 and 4:30 pm
Papageno (retelling of The Magic Flute for children)
Peabody Opera Outreach
Smith Theater, Howard Community College (Columbia, Md.)

January 24, 2010 (Sun)
4 pm
Irina Nuzova, piano [FREE]
Music by Schubert
Phillips Collection

January 24, 2010 (Sun)
6:30 pm
National Gallery of Art Piano Trio, String Quartet, and Wind Quintet [FREE]
Music by Beethoven from 1810
National Gallery of Art

January 26, 2010 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Carolina Ullrich, soprano (with Marcelo Amaral, piano)
Young Concert Artists
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Review -- Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, January 28)

January 27, 2010 (Wed)
12:30 pm
Auryn String Quartet [FREE]
Music by Berg and Webern from 1910
National Gallery of Art

January 27, 2010 (Wed)
8 pm
Radu Lupu, piano
WPAS
Music Center at Strathmore
Review -- Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, January 28)

January 28, 2010 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Mischa Maisky (cello) and Iván Fischer (conductor)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
Review -- Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, January 30)

January 28, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
The Rheingold Curse: A Germanic Saga of Greed and Revenge [FREE]
Ensemble Sequentia
Library of Congress
Review -- Joan Reinthaler (Washington Post, January 30)

January 29, 2010 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Matthias Soucek, piano (Schubert's birthday)
Embassy Series
Embassy of Austria

January 29, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Mischa Maisky (cello) and Iván Fischer (conductor)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

January 29, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Aspen Ensemble
Barns at Wolf Trap

January 30, 2010 (Sat)
11 am and 1:30 pm
NSO Kinderkonzert: Magical Mozart
Kennedy Center Family Theater

January 30, 2010 (Sat)
11 am
Mozart's Magnificent Voyage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Classical Kids Live!)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

January 30, 2010 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Anne Schwanewilms, soprano (with Malcolm Martineau, piano)
Vocal Arts Society
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Review -- Charles T. Downey (Washington Post, February 1)

January 30, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Mischa Maisky (cello) and Iván Fischer (conductor)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

January 30, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Philharmonic
With Leon Fleisher, piano
Music Center at Strathmore
Review -- Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, February 1)

January 31, 2010 (Sun)
2 pm
Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

January 31, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
National Philharmonic
With Leon Fleisher, piano
Music Center at Strathmore

January 31, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
American Youth Philharmonic
George Mason University Center for the Arts

January 31, 2010 (Sun)
4 pm
Olivier Cavé, piano [FREE]
Music by Scarlatti
Phillips Collection

January 31, 2010 (Sun)
4 pm
Triple Helix Piano Trio
Corcoran Gallery of Art

January 31, 2010 (Sun)
5:30 pm
Emanuel Ax, piano
Music by Schumann, Chopin
Shriver Hall (Baltimore, Md.)
Review -- Tim Smith (Baltimore Sun, February 1)

January 31, 2010 (Sun)
6:30 pm
National Gallery of Art Vocal Ensemble and Great Noise Ensemble [FREE]
Music by Bayolo and Carillo from 2010
National Gallery of Art

January 31, 2010 (Sun)
7 pm
Capuçon-Angelich Trio
Dumbarton Oaks

Ariadne in Washington


(L to R) Iréne Theorin as Ariadne, Lyubov Petrova as Zerbinetta, with Nathan Herfindahl, Corey Evan Rotz, Greg Fedderly, and Grigory Soloviov, in Ariadne auf Naxos, Washington National Opera (photo by Karin Cooper)
Let's face it: we will take just about any chance we can to hear and see Richard Strauss's operas. Ariadne auf Naxos, one of the odder and more beautiful of them, has been under review recently at Wolf Trap and at Covent Garden, both in 2008. It is a shame that this quirky opera, revised by Strauss and his brilliant librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, as a postmodern dissection of the perils and vanities of creating opera, returns to Washington National Opera at this time. The company's precarious financial situation has led to a season cobbled together to fulfill contracts, hardly a context for great Strauss to thrive. Even though many aspects of this production were disappointing, as heard at Wednesday night's performance, the score and libretto are so worth the experience, we still recommend attending, especially if you can take advantage of the discount prices currently being offered.

In my fall preview, I hoped to have the chance to hear the much stronger Iréne Theorin who reportedly showed up at the end of last year's run of Siegfried. Unfortunately, her Ariadne had a few beautiful, soaring moments among a lot of subdued, even inaudible stretches. Either it was an extremely subtle conception of the role or she is saving her voice to sing Brünnhilde in the concert performances of Götterdämmerung next month. (Actually, that is a pretty cruel thing to do to a soprano, to mix in two performances of Brünnhilde at the end of a run of Ariadne.) Theorin's reticence put the remarkably beautiful performance of American mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson as Der Komponist into greater relief, something that was sadly not fully acknowledged at the bizarre curtain call that occurred at the end of the prologue, long after the applause had stopped.

Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova is not the ideal Zerbinetta, but she got the job done vocally and had a charming, coquettish stage presence (put to good use in the publicity stunt engineered on opening night, when Petrova plopped herself down in the lap of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who appeared as a supernumerary.) Petrova did well in the showy coloratura parts of the second part, especially a flighty, acrobatic Großmächtige Prinzessin! delivered largely from the top of an immense prop piano. As noted of her Lucia this summer, she did not have the flowing legato and broad swath of tone needed in the duet with the composer in the prologue. It was hard not to think of the 1979 Met recording I listened to all this week, with Edita Gruberova's Zerbinetta and Tatiana Troyanos's Komponist.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, WNO's 'Ariadne' fails to find its voice at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, October 26)

T. L. Ponick, Satirical 'Ariadne' sparkles (Washington Times, October 26)

Philip Kennicott, Ariadne auf Naxos at the Washington National Opera (Philip Kennicott, October 25)
The most regrettable part of the casting was Bacchus, a punishing and mostly thankless role, as most of what Strauss wrote for tenors was. Both of the originally announced tenors withdrew: Pär Lindskog (whose repeat cancellation after last year's troubles in Siegfried cannot be appreciated by the opera administration) and Ian Storey, who was scheduled to replace Lindskog for a couple nights. The originally cast Scaramuccio, Corey Evan Rotz, stepped in with reportedly minimal preparation. While we have admired Rotz in other roles and we should thank him for making the show go on, he should probably not be singing Bacchus. Occasional coughing and vocal troubles throughout the second act may have been the result of illness, too. (It couldn't hurt for someone at WNO to try to call Diego Torre.) Gidon Saks was blustery, if occasionally indistinct, as the Musiklehrer, while Nathan Herfindahl, a former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, distinguished himself as Harlequin, among the commedia dell'arte sidekicks of Zerbinetta, with a robust baritone.

Chris Alexander's production, which was premiered by Seattle Opera in 2004, updates the wealthy home where this chaotic entertainment is staged on the fly to "the private gallery of a very rich man [...] let's say in Washington, D.C." The concept is not particularly innovative and it does not really transform the story, except to make one wonder why such a modern patron would want to have a chamber opera and a commedia dell'arte farce performed his guests. However, the director balances the comic and serious elements of this odd work well, not allowing one to distract from the other. Andreas Delfs made his company debut at the podium, controlled but hardly scintillating. It was hard not to miss the more experienced hand of ailing music director Heinz Fricke, who conducted the opera the last time it was mounted by WNO, in 1994. WNO will eventually have to confront the music director issue, in the eventuality that Fricke may have to retire. Having some continuity in the pit is exactly what is needed for the Opera Orchestra, and Fricke's tenure proved, if nothing else, the benefit of conductor stability.

Six performances of Ariadne auf Naxos remain, from October 31 to November 13. A promotional offer of seats in the orchestra section for $50 and $75 each may still be available: mention Source Code 9234 when ordering.

29.10.09

Renaud Capuçon Deals with Celebrity

Last spring violinist Renaud Capuçon married Laurence Ferrari, the star anchor of the evening news on French channel TF1. The event was accompanied by a French media circus, which continues to dog Capuçon, but only in France, as he notes in comments for an article by Olivier Olgan (Renaud Capuçon, le violon dans le vent, October 23) for Le Figaro (my translation):

Renaud Capuçon arrives punctually for his interview. Courteous. Normal. Before sitting down, he looks a place to secure his cumbersome violin case, protecting his indispensable partner, the magnificent "Panette" Guarneri del Gesù, which once belonged to Isaac Stern. "The hubbub around my wedding has changed neither my way of living nor my way of making music," he says emphatically. "Abroad, no one knows who my wife is. When we travel beyond a certain group of the press, Laurence is just a journalist and I am just a musician." [...]

With his accomplices -- his brother Gautier, Nicolas Angelich, Gérard Caussé, Jérôme Ducros, Martha Argerich -- he has put together one of the most beautiful chamber music discographies. With them, he knows that he can test the rules and mount projects that others would have believed doomed to failure, [...] a complete Brahms chamber music cycle begun last year at the Salle Pleyel and completed last weekend, or the festival Rencontres artistiques de Bel-Air à Chambéry, which his friends and family have brought to life for some fifteen years. "2010 will be the last season," he says. "What was born out of friendship, the emotion and love of music, should not end in drudgery. I prefer to be nostalgic than to feel the regret of putting on one season too many. We brought the greatest musicians there (Barenboim, Argerich), and I do not want something that was a beautiful utopia to slip away."

28.10.09

This Fall at the NGA

Judith Leyster was one of the prominent women painters largely lost to history until the rediscovery undertaken by art historians in recent years. Born in 1609, Leyster is the subject of a small exhibit organized by the National Gallery of Art, which owns her most famous painting, the self-portrait from the 1630s that everyone who has taken an art history survey in the last twenty years has had to study. Sandwiched into two rooms in the museum's Dutch and Flemish galleries -- placing Leyster squarely between Rembrandt and Vermeer -- the exhibit puts the NGA's two Leysters (well, one of them is promised to the NGA, the exquisite little Young Boy in Profile) among eight other canvases lent by other museums and collections.


Judith Leyster, The Last Drop, c. 1630-1631, oil on canvas (overall: 89 x 73.7 cm / 35 1/16 x 29 in.), Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917
The prevalence of frivolity (A Game of Tric-Trac), sexuality (The Proposition), and entertainment of the senses, especially through music (the underlit lutenist of Serenade and the gorgeous Young Flute Player from Stockholm) in her work has led to a hypothesis that Leyster studied with Frans Hals. At the very least their work has many similarities of subject and tone, and Hals is represented in the show with three small portraits. The smiling, drunken revelers of Leyster's Merry Company (1630-31, from a private collection) are shown in a much more serious light in that work's supposed companion piece, The Last Drop (from the same period, now owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Here we see two of the three revelers in the left foreground of the former painting, identified by the same clothing and physical attributes. Now they are at the end of their binge, smoking and drinking the last of their liquor, oblivious to the skeletal figure of death at their elbows, holding up an hourglass down to its last grains of sand. The third figure from Merry Company, the violinist in blue, ended up instead on the canvas in progress on Leyster's easel in that famous self-portrait, painted over what she originally planned to depict there, a portrait of a young woman, possibly herself in a different guise.

The exhibit is rounded out with a few works by Leyster's husband, Jan Miense Molenaer, whose career appears to have eclipsed Leyster's after their marriage in 1636. The selection of works on musical subjects by both artists shows how important music was in their household. Leyster appears to be singing from a book in her lap in her own painting The Concert (the wall text at one point speculates that she is only keeping time with her hand), and husband and wife play on a lute and cittern in their wedding portrait The Duet (Molenaer's group portrait Family Making Music -- not in the exhibit -- paints an even more vivid picture of the importance of art and music in their household). One of the best parts of the exhibit is the inclusion of actual historical instruments, which are not only beautiful to look at but show just how knowledgeable the artists were in their depiction of instruments.

The Library of Congress has lent some superb examples from its extraordinary flute collection, the Folger Shakespeare Library lent a lute, and local violinist Risa Browder even lent a 17th-century Flemish violin. I was most taken by the tiny pochette, also on loan from the Library of Congress, included only because such an instrument, known in the Netherlands as a clopscheen, was inventoried among Molenaer's belongings at the time of his death. The instrument was a miniature violin -- just four strings with a fairly limited range, here displayed with its leather case -- used by dancing masters to play dance tunes while they taught choreography. Some of the choreographers I studied in my dissertation actually composed the ballet music for royal ballets in 17th-century France around this time, and it is believed they improvised melodies on these instruments that were later written down.

Through November 29.



Follower of Tullio Lombardo, Saint Sebastian, c. 1510
(marble; overall: 51 x 40 x 4.4 cm / 20 1/16 x 15 3/4 x 1 3/4 in.)
Church of Santi Apostoli, Venice
Another mini-exhibit, An Antiquity of Imagination: Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture, has taken over a couple rooms in the Italian painting galleries and is well worth a visit. Tullio was the best sculptor of the Venetian school in the High Renaissance, known for both exceptional realism and emotional extremes, and this is the first exhibit ever devoted to him in the United States (!). One of the striking pieces in the exhibit is credited to a follower of Tullio, a relief bust of Saint Sebastian, that one might compare in its neo-Platonic detachment to Michelangelo's Pietà. It shows Sebastian against the trunk of a tree, the traditional pose of his torment, but there are no signs of arrows, wounds, or blood. The only indication of the young man's agony is the pained expression on his face, the parted lips and row of hidden teeth, the pupil-less stare upward, and especially the knitted brow, which is remarkable to see rendered in marble.

A couple examples of Tullio's reliefs, including some stunning "double portraits" (perhaps not intended to be specific people), draws attention to the question of viewer position in these works. The signature on one of these "double portraits" seems to suggest that the intended vantage point was below the sculpture, with the signature approximately at eye level. If you crouch down before them as they are shown at the NGA, it does seem that the realism and emotional impact are optimal seen from that angle. The show's curator, Alison Luchs, also notes, however, that details on the tops of the heads of the same reliefs are so fine that it seems unlikely that a view from above was not also somehow intended. You have to love an aesthetic mystery!

Through October 31.

The big show at the NGA at the moment, The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits from Imperial Spain, is a blockbuster, to be sure. Anyone who studies the period covered, the era from the Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I (1508) to King Philip IV (1665), should see it, as it offers the chance to see portraits of these emperors and kings, in armor, alongside the actual surviving pieces of armor, all of it precious and beautifully decorated. There are also some interesting pieces that illuminate how these imperial scions in Austria and Spain used artistic objects to support the legitimacy of their claims to power. While I can appreciate the importance of the show, for whatever reason, I spent the least time there.

Through November 29.

27.10.09

Emma Kirkby at NGA

On Sunday evening, early music soprano Emma Kirkby graced the National Gallery of Art’s West Garden Court with a program titled “Orpheus in England – Dowland and Purcell,” accompanied by whiz lutenist Jakob Lindberg. Both veteran stars of the historically informed performance (HIP) movement, Kirkby and Lindberg utilized discoveries in performance techniques from historical treatises to enhance or even supersede their respective musical intuitions. Rather than vibrato, Kirby makes use of resonance and abrupt curtailing of phrases for purposes of expressivity. Lindberg even performed on a lute still containing its original soundboard, from around 1590, with the wood dating from as early at 1418.

Lindberg mentioned to the audience that manuscripts of the period instruct the performer to play with the fingertips – never with the fingernails – and that those fingertips should be as soft as a “baby’s bottom.” Additionally, the performer should also put their pinkie against the soundboard to perhaps warm the tone of the instrument, leaving the player only four fingers with which to pluck. Lindberg’s solos included Dowland’s Lachrimae -- which Britten used in his work for viola -- which was slow, free, and mellow. His own arrangements for lute of six pieces by Purcell included A New Irish Measure, which had a tune that may now be a Christmas carol; A New Ground, which had a theme that wound lower and lower; and A New Scottish Measure with its flavors of “Loch Lomond.” It is difficult to describe the beauty of Lindberg’s sound beyond it sounding of something between the quietness of a clavichord and sweetness of the harp.

Seated next to Lindberg, Kirkby sang from memory, with meticulously manipulated breath support and diction, gently serenading the audience through about twenty songs that touched upon human themes of love, things “Sweeter than Roses,” and even one song that courted death. Clever texts argued that “tis true you worthy be, yet without love nought worth to me.” What a Sad Fate Is Mine, by an anonymous poet set by Purcell goes as follows:

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Emma Kirkby's delicate and delightful recital (Washington Post, October 27)
My love is my crime;
Or why should he be,
More easy and free
To all than to me?

But if by disdain
He can lessen my pain,
‘Tis all I implore,
To make me love less,
Or himself to love more.
Kirkby, with the help of “English Orfeuses” Dowland and Purcell, brought the texts alive by singing with unpredictable freedom and ornamental agility. Reasonable tempos assisted in facilitating this ornate level of detail given to every phrase. Closing the magical program, Kirkby stood for Purcell’s well-known Music for a While, which featured painted staccato notes on the word “drop” and a melancholic ground bass throughout that ascends chromatically.

The series of fine free concerts at the National Gallery of Art continues this week with a concert of Couperin and Rameau by an ensemble called Masques on Wednesday (October, 12:10 pm, in the West Building's ground floor Lecture Hall) and Till Fellner's fourth concert in his Beethoven piano sonata cycle (November 1, 6:30 pm).

26.10.09

21st Century Consort's Maw Retrospective

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

Charles T. Downey, More Maw, in memoriam
Washington Post, October 26, 2009

available at Amazon
Nicholas Maw, La Vita Nuova / Ghost Dances / Roman Canticle, 20th Century Consort
The 21st Century Consort opened its season of concerts at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Saturday with a tribute to the British-born composer Nicholas Maw, who died last May. The group celebrated its long relationship with Maw, who lived in Takoma Park for more than two decades (and whose "Sophie's Choice" was staged by the Washington National Opera in 2006), by performing some of his most accomplished music for chamber ensemble.

A rainbow of iridescent instrumental colors was featured in "La Vita Nuova," including a bucolic opening horn solo, trilling avian woodwinds and amorous violin sighs. Soprano Lucy Shelton sang the Italian poetry with a mostly crystalline tone, but the down side of a veteran's experience was the raggedness of her top notes. That deficiency was less exposed in the local premiere of "The Head of Orpheus," in which twin clarinet parts in yearning, fluttering accompaniment revealed Maw's mastery of the instrument that he studied as a performer. No one begrudged Shelton a spontaneous encore, happy to hear this enigmatic work, with its harmonic references to Berg's "Wozzeck," a second time. [Continue reading]
21st Century Consort
Music of Nicholas Maw
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Art Seen Upstate

If you've not had a chance to tour the Hudson Valley area of New York State recently, there's a lot of art to see. Last Saturday evening I made my way to Hudson for an opening of my friend John Ruppert's sculpture exhibit at the John Davis Gallery. Hudson is a cool little town, loaded with antique shops, restaurants, galleries, and a great number of New York City's diaspora. Interesting history, too: it was first settled by New England whaling captains from Nantucket and the New Bedford area.

The galleries were full and in party mode, with some good work to also mention. The Davis Gallery has a main townhouse with three levels of exhibition space, a gravel courtyard, perfectly installed with a signature Ruppert orb of formed chain-link, and a carriage house in the rear, also with three levels of exhibition spaces. It's often filled with multiple artists, seven this month, but thoughtfully displayed.

One of my favorite memories of last year's Olympic games in Beijing was an image of John Van Alstine assembling his sculpture. It reminded me of a medieval scene, soldiers preparing for battle, forging strange weapons. His work was chosen from a list of hundreds of artists that had made proposals for the site: it was quite an accomplishment and a good choice. I've always felt his work blended an East-West sensibility. In this case his use of natural materials, stone with industrial methods of grinding and welding, related in my mind to the bold surge of China from an ancient to a contemporary society -- the games were a proud showcase.


Some of Van Alstine's small-scale work occupies the top floor of the carriage house this month. As with his larger work, these small-scale pieces play with a tension between natural and forged elements. Since I recently went on a canoe trip, the piece pictured felt like a canoe navigating waters of stone. If you've ever been in a canoe you'll relate to the balancing act, especially when someone, whom I will not mention (Suzy), wouldn't sit still.

Ruppert has found a way to make a mass-produced industrial product, chain link fencing, commonly used to repel or restrict the unwanted, and form it into graceful orb shapes that adapt to whatever environment they inhabit. In this instance the gravel courtyard seemed to have a glowing otherworldly visitor.

Also check out Kathy Burge's paintings at Carrie Haddad for some very nice painting to get lost in.

25.10.09

In Brief: End of October Edition

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

  • We have already celebrated it at Ionarts, but now it's official: the 30th anniversary of the founding of Les Arts Florissants. [Le Figaro]

  • As if we needed one, another reason to love Nino Rota: the score of a film we have not seen and must soon, The Glass Mountain. [Jessica Duchen]

  • Tyler Green interviewed Elizabeth C. Gorski, who created that brilliant New York Times crossword for the 50th anniversary of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, with Frank Lloyd Wright's famous spiral incorporated in the puzzle as dark spaces. [Modern Art Notes]

  • A computer in California spits out some bars of imitation music. Is it inspired? Norman Lebrecht thinks not and exults. [Slipped Disc]

  • Speaking of the intersection of the cruise industry and classical music, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato just did a concert gig on an Alaskan cruise. Her accompanist, the composer Jake Heggie, was also doing research -- whale watching -- for the orchestration of his new opera, Moby Dick. [Yankee Diva]

  • Wednesday was the 25th anniversary of the death of François Truffaut. Watch this video of the French director speaking about his métier. [Le Figaro]

24.10.09

À mon chevet: Satori in Paris

book cover
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
But the quiet soup gentleman moves on to a broiled fish and we actually start chatting across the restaurant and turns out he's the art dealer who sells Arps and Ernsts around the corner, knows André Breton, and wants me to visit his shop tomorrow. A marvelous man, and Jewish, and we have our conversation in French, and I even tell him that I roll my "r's" on my tongue and not in my throat because I come from Medieval French Quebec-via-Brittany stock, and he agrees, admitting that modern Parisian French, the dandy, has really been changed by the influx of Germans, Jews and Arabs for all these two centuries and not to mention the influence of the fops in the court of Louis Fourteenth which really started it all, and I also remind him that François Villon's real name was pronounced "Ville On" and not "Viyon" (which is a corruption) and that in those days you said not "toi" or "moi" but like "twé" or "mwé" (as we still do in Quebec and in two days I heard it in Brittany) but I finally warned him, concluding my charming lecture across the restaurant as people listened half amused and half attentive, François's name was pronounced François and not Françwé for the simple reason that he spelled it Françoy, like the King is spelled Roy, and this has nothing to do with "oi" and if the King had ever heard it pronounced rouwé (rwé) he would not have invited you to the Versailles dance but given you a roué with a hood over his head to deal with your impertinent cou, or coup, and couped it right off and recouped you nothing but loss.

Things like that--

Maybe that's when my Satori took place. Or how. The amazing long sincere conversations in French with hundreds of people everywhere, was what I really liked, and did, and it was an accomplishment because they couldnt have replied in detail to my detailed points if they hadnt understood every word I said. Finally I began being so cocky I didn't even bother with Parisian French and let those blasts and pataraffes of chalivarie French that had them in stitches because they still understood, so there, Professor Sheffer and Professor Cannon (my old French "teachers" in college and prep school who used to laugh at my "accent" but gave me A's).

-- Jack Kerouac, Satori in Paris, pp. 45-46
This is the latest book from the Paris Reading Project to make it onto my nightstand, and it was a quick and extremely enjoyable read. It is one of Kerouac's later novels, an autobiographical piece about his trip to Paris and Brittany in 1964, in an attempt to research his family's roots in Brittany. As he explains in the opening page, Kerouac saw the trip as the beginning of a new stage in his life, the result of a satori, the Japanese word for "sudden illumination," "sudden awakening," or as he puts it, a "kick in the eye."

The book is full of passages like this, where Kerouac explores literary or linguistic or musical alleyways throughout France. Of course, one should always keep in mind the warning of the writer of Languagehat, that non-linguists should not speculate on linguistic matters, which seems to apply in this passage to Kerouac's conversation about pronunciation history. One of the problems with his analysis is that "moi" and "toi" were both found spelled "moy" and "toy" just like "roy" and "Françoy." This is a minor point in a passage with all kinds of wonderful cross-language jeux de mots.

23.10.09

Ionarts-at-Large: Gurrelieder Celebrate 60th Birthday of BRSO

available at Amazon
Schoenberg, Gurrelieder,
Philharmonia O./ E-P. Salonen
Signum SACD
available at Amazon
Schoenberg, Gurrelieder,
SWRSO / M.Gielen /
Hänssler SACD
available at Amazon
Schoenberg, Gurrelieder,
J.Levine / Munich Phil
Oehms
available at Amazon
Schoenberg, Gurrelieder,
G.Sinopoli / Staatskapelle Dresden
Telarc
After a massive local advertising and Schönberg*-disinhibition campaign, it wasn’t a problem to sell out the 2500 seat Philharmonic Hall for the Bavarian Radio Symphony’s performance of Die Gurrelieder, after all. For every seat that wasn’t filled by the invited guests of honor (Munich’s cultural who’s-who, including the other orchestra’s conductors Christian Thielemann and Kent Nagano), there were two would-be attendants scouring for tickets.

Schönberg’s Gurrelieder is a daunting work, alright, but less so for the listener, who is bathed in some of the most alluring romantic lather any such oratorio has to offer. It’s daunting for the organizer who has to assemble the orchestral and choral forces that are every bit as massive (=expensive) as those for Mahler’s 8th Symphony, but without the guaranteed sell-out crowd of a Mahler 8th—because the name is Schönberg. And Schönberg is box office poison in any conservative town. That is why a performance of the Gurrelieder is often part of an occasion special enough to merit the expense and risk of assembling 25 winds, 25 brass players (a wall of ten horns, alone), four harps, six timpani, various other percussion instruments, a celesta, 84 strings (why would anyone score for less than 12 double basses?), three men’s choirs, one 8-part mixed choir, and six vocal soloists. Employment of the vocal forces would madden any accountant for its inefficiency, too: The soprano is killed off before half-time, the men’s choirs don’t enter until after the third part, and the full chorus doesn’t sing until the last few minutes.

The occasion on October 22nd was the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the BRSO, and the work may in part have been a gift to Mariss Jansons, the BRSO’s fifth music director after founder Eugen Jochum, Rafael Kubelik, Sir Colin Davis, and Lorin Maazel. (Music Director-designate Kyrill Kondrashin died before he could start he tenure.) Sudden sickness of the scheduled Waldemar, Burkhard Fritz, nearly scuttled the plans, but Stig Andersen was able to fly in from Rome (where he had rehearsed Tannhäuser the night before, the morning of the performance. He’s still got the part fresh in his memory from performing it with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, and for jumping in at such extremely short notice, his performance was very respectable.

The other dropout was actor Daniel Morgenroth, whose speaking part was simply taken over by Michael Volle who already sang the part of the Peasant. The excellent result reminded that Volle’s wonderful Wozzeck had been just around the corner. His Peasant wasn’t much less impressive; Volle is one of those rare, lucky singers who will—even at 80 percent—outshine most colleagues. Mihoko Fujimura brought her Kundry-experienced mezzo to the Wood Dove and made herself heard—which is an achievement in itself in the acoustic of the widely loathed Philharmonic Hall. Herwig Pecoraro delivered a superbly nuanced account of the Klaus-the-Fool and Deborah Voigt, tanned and blonde and awfully cute, made much of Waldemar’s to-be-murdered lover, Tove. Like her royal inamorato, she was occasionally drowned out by the orchestra, but less so. The last time she sang this in the Gasteig Philharmonie (with James Levine and the Munich Philharmonic), she offered a little more power.

But quibbling about individual contributions isn’t really what Die Gurrelieder is all about. As a grandiose piece of over-the-top romanticism that meanders from a smooth Wagnerian orchestral blend to a fine-grained, pixilated style with all orchestral colors differentiated and faintly reminding first of Mahler, then of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, it’s about sheer mass intended to impress the pants off an audience stunned into uncritical awe. The rousing choral finale is not just supposed to be loud, it’s supposed to be overwhelming. As far as Schoenberg and the BRSO are concerned: the evening’s mission was accomplished with style.


* Gurrelieder was composed in 1900 and its orchestration finished in 1912—well before his emigration and spelling-change to “Schoenberg”.

Savall's Latest Word on the Seven Last Words

available at Amazon
Haydn, Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze, Le Concert des Nations, J. Savall

(released on October 13, 2009)
Alia Vox AVDVD 9868
You likely know Haydn's setting of The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross from the oratorio and string quartet versions. Haydn composed the original score, seven movements with an introduction and a concluding Terremoto, in 1786 to 1787, for orchestra. It was a commission from Spain, where his music was known and popular, for a very solemn Good Friday service in the Oratorio of Santa Cueva in Cádiz. Haydn later spoke to Georg Griesinger about what he remembered of the details of the commission. The church was darkened, all of the statues and altars covered in black cloth, with a single lamp in the center: the bishop ascended to the pulpit, pronounced one of the seven words, and gave a meditation about its meaning. The seven orchestral sonatas were played as he came down from the pulpit and prostrated himself before the main altar, a musical reflection on the homiletic meditation.

This is Jordi Savall's second recording of the work (there are several other options, including by HIP ensembles), made in the church of Santa Cueva in Cádiz where the premiere took place (the CD version was already released two years ago). The performance is gorgeous: solemn, expansive, the sound captured in a way that preserves some (perhaps too much) of the place's cavernous acoustic, with rich strings and excellent playing on historical instruments most noticeable with the winds and brass. Savall made an attempt (unsuccessful) to recreate the original circumstances, by including a voice-over with the seven words read in Latin, and two sets of reflections on the seven words that can be played in a separate set of tracks, unfortunately without subtitles available, or read in the booklet. It is too bad that the work could not have been recorded with a priest's actual reflections on the seven words pronounced in the space as they were at the premiere: the reflections included here are not all that traditional (one of them would be considered downright heretical by Catholic theologians). So, this is unfortunately not so much a recreation as it is a modern adaptation.

With the church darkened, although the statues are not covered with black cloth, there is not much for the video to show, and some stock footage of Holy Week processions, in slow motion, is added as a diversion. The images of these very pious enactments, with statues and candles carried by members of confraternities (their hoods, of white and other colors, having a rather different visual connotation for American viewers), are a reminder of the secular bent of the reflections offered here. The idea that The Seven Last Words are some sort of humanistic work is silly: produced at the same time as the Paris symphonies, truly secular music, the Words were intended for church performance in one of the most Catholic countries at the time. Haydn's autograph score, likely sent to Spain to fulfill the commission, has been lost, but even though the orchestral sonatas did not use voices, Haydn's initial melody in each movement sets the corresponding Latin text, as if for a voice. Haydn had these texts printed under the first violin part at the start of each movement (they are printed together as an example in Daniel Heartz's Mozart, Haydn and Early Beethoven: 1781-1802). The effect is of vocal music transposed to instruments.

68'

22.10.09

Martin Helmchen's Schubert

available at Amazon
Schubert, Piano Sonata in A (D. 959) / Moments Musicaux, M. Helmchen

(released on August 26, 2008)
PentaTone PTC 5186 329

Online scores:
Piano Sonata in A Major (D. 959)
Moments Musicaux (D. 780)
Having just reviewed Martin Helmchen's fine disc of Schubert violin sonatas, with Julia Fischer, it was a good time to think again about the young German pianist's promising way with Schubert's piano music. Helmchen's credentials, if you trust that sort of thing, are on the money, having won the Clara Haskil Competition in 2001, when he was not yet 20. Much more importantly he has an independent voice in the way he conceives his performances, something that at his age likely indicates that he will be playing and recording things you will want to hear for a long time. On a visit to London last spring, Jens Laurson singled out Helmchen's performance of the first Shostakovich concerto with the London Philharmonic for particular praise. By choosing Schubert for this, his debut solo CD, Helmchen not only signaled an admirable seriousness in his musical interests, he made me hope that a complete set is an eventual project.

Thanks to a piano teacher who foisted lots of her LPs on me as she assigned new pieces, the three sonatas and other pieces recorded by Artur Schnabel have long been my ideal of how to play Schubert (thanks once again to my father-in-law, who a couple years ago transferred the Schnabel LP recordings to CD for me). Keep the tempo fairly constant, avoid soupy rubato, make the articulation clear, and while the demanding bits have to sparkle, the most important parts are the melancholy movements, which really should not be morose or overly sentimental. Among living players, Mitsuko Uchida has generally been my favorite, with plenty of love for Maurizio Pollini, Alfred Brendel, and Murray Perahia, as well as a soft spot for Schubert on fortepiano, as recorded by Malcolm Bilson. Among more recent players to have undertaken the Schubert sonatas, Leif Ove Andsnes has been enjoyable but did not rise into that pantheon (mostly for a certain heavy squareness to the touch), Lang Lang a miss, and Jens Elvekjaer promising.

Only Till Fellner's Schubert seemed to get at the same perfect mixture of elements in his live performance of the sonata Martin Helmchen recorded here, D. 959, and Helmchen's first foray into Schubert supplants even Fellner (another Clara Haskil winner by the way, in 1993; incredibly, Uchida was only a finalist in 1973, bested by Richard Goode). Helmchen's tempi are not the fastest or the slowest, meaning that he avoids the extremes of frenetic and depressive, and he has a delicacy of touch that is beautifully suited for Schubert. That sensitivity affords this recording of D. 959 a broad range of dynamics and sound colors, even in the odd transitional passages that perplex or seem not to interest other pianists. The final statement of the slow movement, with its triplet-echo evocation of death, is a somber, plaintive whisper, and the scherzo is light-footed without being puckish. The op. 94 set of Moments musicaux have the same virtues, interior visions expertly drawn and tinted with just the right shade, evanescent watercolor or more lustrous oil.

67'18"

21.10.09

Music, the Only Innocent Pleasure

Opera Lafayette’s 15th anniversary season opened to a full house at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, with a program featuring the collaboration of Charpentier and Molière. Opera Lafayette Artistic Director Ryan Brown reminded the audience in his concise spoken introduction that music of the French Baroque equally encompasses both the “high and low brow,” a goal to which Monday evening’s program aspired. Following a falling-out with Lully, Molière, not long before his untimely death, began working with Charpentier to produce “comédies-ballets,” three scenes of which comprised the first half of the program.

The Ouverture to Le Sicilien, ou l’amour peintre (1695 version) showed off Opera Lafayette’s crack band of three standing violin players (including Brown) and continuo, who approached notes inégales rhythms gently and relished Charpentier’s calculated dissonance. In a tuxedo, La Peinture (tenor Tony Boutté) expressively sang and cried to his love under her locked window. Her old Guardian (François Loup) soon interrupted, with great vocal presence in the hall, encouraging him to sing major scales instead of minor. The Guardian continued to dash La Peinture’s hopes by referring to the lady as a “deceitful tigress,” and the scene quickly devolved into cat hisses from both gentlemen as they ran offstage.

Tenor Karim Sulayman was most animated in the wife-bashing (“hellish follies…”) scene from La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas. His use of vibrato as a tool for ornamentation instead of as a given was most stylish. Choreographer Catherine Turocy had the gentlemen playing cards during a brief Menuet movement. Dramatic actions onstage were always subtly subservient to the music -- well, that is, until the three gentlemen in Le Mariage forcé were flitting around singing on nonsense syllables, all rhyming with “pantalon,” followed by vocal imitations of the dogs, cats, and nightingales of Arcadia. Musical and dramatic events swiftly unfolded in this program of seventy minutes.

Following a brief pause for retuning and the addition of two Baroque flutes, the “high brow” half of the evening began with the five lightly staged scenes of Charpentier’s chamber opera Les Arts Florissants. Although the libretto is by an anonymous author, a memorable quote quite fitting of Molière proclaimed music the “delight of the spirit, the only innocent pleasure.” La Musique (soprano Ah Hong, heard two years ago in Opera Vivente’s production of Alcina) sang her invitation (“let my divine harmony fill your hearts”) with a lovingly relaxed agility. The chorus portrayed its roles of warriors and furies, depending on the scene, with orchestral interludes elegantly danced or pantomimed by Caroline Copeland. Soloists representing poetry (Stacey Mastrian), architecture (Monica Reinagel), discord (William Sharp), and war (François Loup) expounded the virtues of their respective embodiments.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Lafayette's frothy delivery delights at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, October 21)
Soprano Nathalie Paulin’s sublime portrayal of peace (“Even the hardest warriors shall prefer peace to fighting…”) was underscored by a blissful continuo combination of theorbo, some sort of early guitar, harpsichord, and mellifluously played gamba. Brown conducted the second half of the program most effectively, but he might consider minimizing his presence: his hands mirrored each other 95% of the time, while lateral dance-like motions were somewhat distracting to the audience and perhaps confusing to those onstage trying to focus on a moving target. The outstanding quality of Opera Lafayette’s soloists combined with meticulous preparation made for a remarkable evening in a venue much more appropriate than some past programs in the drafty atrium of La Maison Française.

Mark your calendars -- in celebration of their 15th season, all tickets to Opera Lafayette’s next performances, of Gluck's Armide (February 1 in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and February 3 at Rose Hall in New York), will be only $15.

Eight Is Enough

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Read my review today on the Washington Post Web site:

Charles T. Downey, Mendelssohn manuscript gets a period touch
Washington Post, October 21, 2009

available at Amazon
R. Larry Todd, Mendelssohn: A Life in Music
(Google Books preview)
The Eroica Quartet brought four of their friends to the Library of Congress on Monday night for a concert featuring Mendelssohn's E-flat String Octet. The British ensemble interprets 19th-century music according to research in historical instrument technology and playing technique. Of the three composers on the program, the 16-year-old Mendelssohn's work sounded the best under this treatment, with remarkable shading of soft dynamics served up in an infinitely varied palette of color.

Although the octet's Scherzo opened with an unsure sense of tempo among the eight players, its setting of the "Walpurgis Night Dream" in "Faust," as described by Fanny Mendelssohn, was beautifully evoked by the evaporating transparency of the instruments' sound. A somber, half-illumined quality in the second movement seemed to depict Gretchen under a halo of muted light, lending support to the hypothesis of the Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd that the "Faust" program extends to the rest of the work as well. Hearing Mendelssohn's original version of the octet, played here from the library's prized autograph manuscript, added to the sense of historical rediscovery. The manuscript even made an appearance in the lobby at intermission, outside of the display cases and with a white-gloved attendant, as if it were the Stanley Cup. [Continue reading]
Eroica Quartet and Friends
Library of Congress

Mendelssohn, Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, op. 20 (holograph score, Library of Congress -- different from published score)


Mendelssohn, String Quartets, Eroica Quartet
available at Amazon
Vol. 1
available at Amazon
Vol. 2
available at Amazon
Vol. 3

Prof. Todd's analysis of the Op. 20 Octet, in his splendid Mendelssohn biography (pp. 148-53), is worthwhile reading. While admitting that it is pure speculation, beyond Fanny Mendelssohn's story about the scherzo being her brother's depiction of the Walpurgis Night Dream (crickets, frogs, buzzing flies, mosquitoes, magical soap-bubble bagpipe and all), Todd offers a compelling Faustian reading of the entire octet. The demanding first violin part, created for the violin virtuoso Eduard Rietz (who was also Felix's violin teacher), incarnates the ambitious, vain Faust, and the four movements are all drawn from the first part of Goethe's masterpiece (all that Mendelssohn, or anyone else, knew of the story at that point, of course).

There was no room in the review to mention the performers' agitated, bellicose performance of the last movement, the celebrated fugue fused with a sonata-rondo form that Todd describes as the conflict for Gretchen's soul. Once you have read Todd's analysis it is impossible not to hear the fourth movement's third theme, the one in half-notes, as a Handel quotation (sol-do-mi-la-do-fa-mi-re-do, adapted from Messiah's Hallelujah chorus, the melody that goes with the words "And he shall reign for ever and ever"). As Todd puts it, in the fourth movement's final section "the music of the scherzo briefly intrudes as a fourth subject, before being symbolically vanquished by the Handelian subject, triumphantly reintroduced over a massive pedal point" (p. 152). That is exactly what happens at the end of the octet, and to hear it as the cosmic battle for Gretchen's soul is an eye-opener.

I was very sorry to have to miss the pre-concert presentation by Prof. Clive Brown, a prominent scholar from the University of Leeds who is a specialist on the music of Louis Spohr, but I have not been well the past several days. If anyone heard his talk at the Library of Congress and would like to let us know something about what he said, the comment space is at your disposal.

20.10.09

Matt Haimovitz: Not One Iota More

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Read my review today on the Washington Post Web site:

Charles T. Downey, Haimovitz's "Figment"
Washington Post, October 20, 2009

Matt Haimovitz brought his latest CD program, "Figment," to Arlington's Iota Club and Café on Sunday afternoon. For several years, the Juilliard-trained cellist and professor at McGill University has traded on the alt-classical notoriety of performing in unconventional venues, but he drew a crowd that was no more diverse and not much younger than a typical concert hall audience. They even sat in reverent silence for the entire 75-minute program, even though it started half an hour late and had no intermission.

The playing had a bubbly, slightly unfocused energy, adding to the disorienting lack of rhythmic center prominent in the CD's title work, by Elliott Carter. A rasping tone and more elegiac smoothness came to the fore in Ana Sokolovic's "Vez." The amplification of Haimovitz's cello worsened the gaminess of some scratchy high harmonics, in works by Gilles Tremblay and by Haimovitz's wife, Luna Pearl Woolf. It made the noisy electronics component of Du Yun's "San" almost unbearable. [Continue reading]
Matt Haimovitz, cello
Iota Club and Café (Arlington, Va.)
Music by Carter, Sokolovic, Tremblay, Woolf, Du Yun, Stucky, Bach


available at Amazon
Matt Haimovitz, Figment

(released on September 29, 2009)
Oxingale OX2016
Other Review:
New York Times

In the earlier concerts on this tour Haimovitz appeared with composer Du Yun, and the spontaneity of their interaction may have been a large part of what was missing at Sunday's performance (Du Yun had to return to New York after the Philadelphia concert with Haimovitz). The CD has a much more finished (and artificial) sound, which although it is not a must-have by any means features some pieces worth getting to know, including Sokolivic's Vez, the Carter pieces, Tremblay's Cèdres en Voile (Thrène pour Le Liban), and especially Stephen Stucky's Dialoghi.

Matt Haimovitz Previously on Ionarts:
2008 recital | Bach cello suites