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31.3.10

Music to Eat By, or Not

available at Amazon
Biber, Mensa sonora / Battalia, Baroque Band, G. Clarke

(released on February 23, 2010)
Cedille CDR 90000 116 | 56'50"

available at Amazon
Mensa sonora (music by Biber, Muffat, others), Masques, O. Fortin

(released on April 5, 2007)
Analekta AN 2 9909 | 69'10"

Online scores:
Biber: Mensa sonora | Battalia | Sonatae tam aris quam aulis servientes
Those who revere classical music often cringe, as pianist Stephen Hough recently did, when people like to listen to classical music because "it's so relaxing." As Hough put it, "It's anything, everything but that." (Greg Sandow has made similar observations about how many people enjoy classical music because it is "soothing.") Well, the assumption that classical music is too profound, too affecting to be merely relaxing reflects attitudes about classical music mostly from the 19th century onward: the fact is that much of the music we now call classical, especially instrumental music from the 17th and 18th centuries, was written for exactly that purpose, to divert the ears of a patron and his guests. Furthermore, it was often intended to be played while the listener was doing something else, dancing with friends, reading, or even gathered with guests eating dinner at table. This sounds very much like how many people "use" classical music now, playing it at home while they make dinner or read in the evening. Most of us cannot hire our own chamber orchestra, so we have radios and MP3 players. Going one step further, Steve Almond has recently wondered if the iPod culture has made music into a permanent background to which one does not ever seriously listen.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) published his collection of six little instrumental suites, Mensa sonora, in 1680, each one a group of five to seven miniatures on dance rhythms or following instrumental forms. The publication was dedicated to Biber's employer in this period of his life, Maximilian Gandolph von Khüenburg, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg (the predecessor in that see of the famous employer of Leopold Mozart and his son). The title, meaning the "sonorous table," refers to the purpose of this music, lighter and less demanding than much of Biber's music, which was to be played while people ate.

It seems unlikely that one was intended to hear the entire suite at one sitting: well, at least, that is a fairly unsatisfying way to listen to it, as experienced in the new recording of the complete Mensa sonora by Chicago's Baroque Band. Biber specialists might want to own a recording of the complete set, but some of the intonation and blend problems heard in this disc prevent me from recommending it. The group's director, Garry Clarke, opts to perform the work with a larger ensemble of sixteen players, rather than with a chamber group playing one to a part. Nothing wrong with that approach, but it is hard not to wonder if the result would have been of a higher quality with just a handful of the ensemble's best players. It is less of an issue in the much more (intentionally) raucous performance of the D major Battalia, one of many instrumental works from this period meant to depict the sounds of battle. The second movement of this piece is one of the most outrageously dissonant pieces of music I have heard from before the 20th century.

What I definitely can recommend is a slightly less recent recording by another relatively new early music ensemble based in Montréal. Masques played at the National Gallery of Art this past October, but Ionarts was not able to hear their performance, a missed opportunity indeed on the basis of this lovely disc. The program matches two of the suites from Mensa sonora with some much more interesting works by Biber and his contemporaries. The ensemble of six players includes various combinations of two violins and three violas da gamba, led by director Olivier Fortin from the harpsichord and organ. The tone of the instruments is clear, beautifully tuned and balanced, and captured in luscious, detail-heavy, warm sound (Analekta, sessions in 2005 at the Church of Saint-Augustin de Mirabel). All of the selections -- by Georg Muffat, Johann Michael Nicolai, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, and Augustinus Kertzinger, as well as Biber -- are worth hearing, with Nicolai's sonata for three violas da gamba standing out as something I could listen to every day, especially its tragically gorgeous ciacona final movement, for a long time and not tire of hearing again. We sincerely hope that Masques returns to Washington soon.

30.3.10

Doisneau's California Dreamin'





available at Amazon
Palm Springs 1960, Robert Doisneau
Everyone knows the Paris photographs of Robert Doisneau, from their Romanticized form in countless reproductions. A new exhibition in Paris, starting on April 1 at the Galerie Claude Bernard (7-9, rue des Beaux-Arts), considers a group of photographs from an assignment in California that Doisneau undertook as a photojournalist for Fortune in November 1960. Valérie Duponchelle has a long reflection on the photographer's view of the Golden State (Robert Doisneau sous le soleil de la Californie, March 29) for Le Figaro (my translation):
Doisneau, the poet of the suburbs, visiting the billionaires of the New World -- "Why did they send me to Palm Springs, California? To make photographs of golf. All I know is that one has to send a little white ball far away on some green grass, to put it in a hole barely big enough for it to fit in," is how he noted it in his souvenir book, this "near Parisian" [Parisien de proximité] who gave homage to little people, the "nice guy from Gentilly" as his fans know him. "Everyone here comes from far away, even the palm trees have come by road from Mexico, and the the grass seeds, which tend to fly away on the night wind, were fixed in the soil thanks to a rain of glue dumped from helicopters." [...]

Claude Bernard is showing 50 of these unknown photographs in his gallery and says that he is expecting 3,000 people to attend the vernissage on Wednesday night. "Doisneau brings a perspective that is a little shocked, child-like, amused by this spoiled America, these women wrapped in their chinchillas in the heat of the desert," says Claude Bernard. "His malice and his empathy toward human beings are always there, but there is also a mocking and melancholy tone, a Piaf side applied to the New World."
Ten new prints of each of these forgotten photos have been made, which will be on sale for between 3,000 and 5,500 € -- as Duponchelle notes, photography collectors who have purist tastes will not be satisfied by prints made so long after the photos were taken. Flammarion is publishing a new book on the photographs, with text by Jean-Paul Dubois.

Great Food, Wonderful People, Blocked

Amazing China, a country of great beauty, insane growth, overwhelming pollution, and underwhelming Internet access. Since I began my most recent trip to China, Google's decision to close its mainland operations and move to Hong Kong has been widely covered (an irate Chinese government responded with a massive sand storm). I tend to believe the story of Google accounts being hacked by the government, although I’m not sure cutting and running is the answer either.

I despise censorship and find it a bit creepy that the Chinese government employs a hoard of Internet goons to block whatever the key search words of the day may be. On this day for instance I’m sitting in the lobby of my hotel in Shenzhen and can’t access anything! Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, Tumbler: I did access Flickr -- for a flickr.

To most Chinese, however, this is the most open and transparent it’s ever been. With a little effort and rerouting I could find a way to get online to any site. Newspapers, TV, and radio are free-streaming. Daily access to foreign visitors is the norm, and a fast-growing middle class allows many Chinese to gather frequent flyer miles. Our relationship with China, with a population of over one billion people, is much more complex than a tiff with Google.

This trip to China did not allow me much time to hit the galleries -- next trip. The next big event will be the World Expo, beginning May 1st in Shanghai: it's going to be big and impressive, but has anyone outside of the region heard of it? Or try the Canton Fair, and annual expo for everything -- literally. There will be 115,000 exhibitors. I just wish access to Blogger weren’t blocked so I could post this in a more timely way.

29.3.10

Feltsman Returns to Washington

available at Amazon
Musorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition


Online scores:
Haydn, Hob. XVI:49
Beethoven, op. 13, "Pathétique"
Musorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition
Washington Performing Arts Society brought Vladimir Feltsman back to Washington, for a recital at Strathmore. After being welcomed to the United States by the Reagans in 1987, including performing his American debut at the White House, the Russian-born pianist gave a number of recitals in Washington in the last decade of the 20th century but has not performed here recently, at least not in the history of Ionarts. This long absence and lack of showy notoriety may explain why the Music Hall was relatively undersold, with more empty seats throughout the house than expected for an artist at Feltsman's level. True, he has never not had a contract with a major recording label in recent years, but he has made several highly regarded recordings, with a burgeoning set of particularly fine Bach (Jens has reviewed the concertos and the Goldberg Variations). To be sure, those who did show up were treated to quite a show.

A Classical first half paired sonatas by Haydn and Beethoven that were composed within a decade of one another. Feltsman, who has recently made a number of performances of the Mozart sonatas on his own fortepiano, gave a semi-detached articulation to many sections of the Haydn sonata (E♭ major, Hob. XVI:49) but was not afraid to take advantage of the qualities of the modern Steinway, like its booming bass. It is a work of many attractive qualities, like the mysterious turn to A♭ in the closing section of the exposition, which Feltsman drew out for its suspenseful qualities, further enhancing that motif's return later in the development, used by Haydn to torque up the anticipation of the recapitulation. The second movement featured finely etched handling of the many filigree turns and embellishments, as well as a Beethovenian touch to the fantasy-like middle section in the parallel minor. The third movement, set in a Tempo di Minuetto, was graceful and impeccably athletic in its fingerwork.

Feltsman's interpretation of Beethoven's op. 13 ("Pathétique") was wild and woolly, as if always seeking the elusive and unheard interpretation and often coming up with the merely odd one. It was an approach to Beethoven, broad-toned and even angrily stormy, that is expected by many listeners, which pointed out just how polished and restrained the same sonata was in the hands of Till Fellner earlier in the week, during the continuation of the Austrian pianist's Beethoven cycle. Risks taken in the choice of fast tempi paid off in the overall excitement level of Feltsman's performance, with the inevitable hand slips here and there. In the Grave sections of the first movement, he rendered the forte-piano markings in an unforgettable way, especially on the very first one, lifting the pedal slightly to allow the sound to decay strikingly, creating an almost overtone-like sound.


Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Feltsman offers pianistic "Pictures" (Washington Post, March 29)
By far, however, the high point of the evening was the second half, a prismatic and vividly told Pictures at an Exhibition. There is something to the way a Russian can play the work, which opens, let us not forget, with a Promenade theme marked with the indication "Tempo giusto, in the Russian way, without happiness, but a little sustained" (emphasis added). Feltsman's playing was technically assured, making for thrilling sweeps in the difficult movements, although with some minor imperfections in the devilish Baba-Yaga, which did not detract because they seemed like part of the movement's impishness.

Each movement really caught the spirit of the mood of the viewer confronting a new picture: a gloomy Vecchio Castello (true to the marking of "con dolore"), an antic tumble of kids at play in Tuileries, a hilarious tableau of newly hatched chicks going in every which direction in "Ballet des poussins." Just as the score markings instruct, Feltsman gave a fluttering lightness to the right-hand tremolos in the "Con mortuis" movement, allowing the mystical statement of the promenade theme, transformed into minor and marked "il canto marcato," to be heard. Two Chopin waltzes (F minor, op. 70/2, the ending in A♭ major dovetailing enharmonically with the beginning of the C♯ minor, op. 64/2), offered as a tribute to the Chopin Year ("although for a pianist, every year is a Chopin Year," Feltsman noted wryly), happily showed that rubato is about more than just slowing the tempo down; sometimes it is about speeding up, too.

For fans of fine piano playing, three recitals on the WPAS schedule the next two months will be must-hear affairs: Maurizio Pollini (April 15, 8 pm, Kennedy Center), Mitsuko Uchida (April 21, 8 pm, Strathmore), and Yuja Wang (May 22, 8 pm, 6th and I Historic Synagogue).

28.3.10

In Brief: Holy Week Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • Happy Birthday to Rudolf Serkin, who would have celebrated his 107th birthday today. In 1988, Serkin received the National Medal of Arts with a distinguished class that included Saul Bellow, Helen Hayes, Gordon Parks, I. M. Pei, Jerome Robbins, and Virgil Thomson. [National Medal of Arts]

  • Pierre Boulez has turned 85. Also, a happy 75th birthday to one of the great survivors, composer Harrison Birtwistle, celebrated in concert by the Nash Ensemble. [Boulezian]

  • After a compelling first season with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop's season last year was enough of a dud that, frankly, we have not reviewed the BSO all that much this year. I'm glad to see that she has put together a much more interesting season for next year. [Baltimore Sun]

  • Sadly, the BSO's finances continue to worsen, causing the musicians now to accept a return in their base salary to 2001 levels, which does not inspire much optimism about the orchestra's future. You know what to do: buy tickets to as many of their concerts this year as you can. [Washington Post]

  • Philip Kennicott has the goods on Frank Gehry's design for the Eisenhower Memorial. It looks like a carefully planned Roman ruin, with an enormous screen that will hide the Department of Education building from view. [Washington Post]

  • Terry Teachout, jazz and theater critic, writes about how the tide may be turning at PBS, as far as high-cultural arts programming goes. Will the United States ever have something like the European Arte network? [Wall Street Journal]

  • Anthony T. Grafton has a review of Louis Menand's new book about the failure of the humanities disciplines. [The New Republic]

27.3.10

A Trophy Wife for the Munich Philharmonic: Maazel Signs His Contract

Previously on this topic: Lorin Maazel succeeds Christian Thielemann in Munich
A Mahler Cycle And Uncomfortable Silence: The Munich Philharmonic in 2010/11


Today, at 11am CET sharp, Lorin Maazel signed the contract that will make him the new chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic from 2012/13 until, God willing, 2014/15. This ends, for now, the saga that started with the botched contract renewal negotiations with Christian Thielemann, in the process of which the orchestra’s reputation has suffered considerably and which revealed most involved administrators and politicians as surprisingly inept. (Perhaps that’s what having to deal with “CT” brings out in people.)

Now Maazel. Who will be 82 years old when he begins his second Munich tenure—having led the BRSO from 1993 until 2002. Unkind souls might speak of ‘sloppy seconds’ for the Munich Phil, but the most prominent sentiment of the press conference with Maazel, chief cultural administrator Hans-Georg Küppers, Intendant Müller, and the mayor, Christian Ude was relief. The word was mentioned several times and in the refreshingly straight-forward introductory remarks of the mayor himself—not particularly a man of ‘high-brow’ culture but certainly concerned about the reputation of his town—said (in a single, long sentence): “Many thanks to Lorin Maazel, because it very much pleases the city, because it makes us proud, and because it very much relieves us that he has agreed to this commitment; therewith the international reputation of the Munich Philharmonic is now no longer in danger of entering a ‘critical period’. Instead we have guaranteed that an internationally preeminent figure that is well familiar with Munich can continue the successful path the MPhil is on and who will enthrall and captivate the orchestra and the audience.”

The question of money was on everyone’s mind. Mayor Ude said that no details would be disclosed but that in times where governments everywhere need to be particularly prudent with their expenses, he could affirm that the monetary parameters of Maazel’s contract did not exceed those of CT’s contract. Küppers confirmed that there were no outside sponsors involved in footing the Maazel-bill (as there had been, when he was at the BRSO). Thielemann wasn’t cheap, but Maazel is known to be even more expensive. Incidentally his price tag makes perfect sense in the US, where his ability to facilitate fundraising more than makes up for the healthy premium he generally asks for. It is that, not his sheer excellence or reputation, that has made him the alleged ‘most expensive conductor in the world’. Unfortunately that premium doesn’t make much sense in the fiscal-cultural environment of Germany and a city-run symphony—where the culture of private and corporate giving is different, not to say non-existent. In any case, if Maazel made concessions on the financial front, it is probable that the city made concessions on the ‘residency’ front. The official number is that Maazel will conduct 30 concerts in Munich, annually. But that’s a soft number which could apply to a host of scenarios. Most likely this will consist of six different programs conducted by the maestro in three blocks of two successive concerts with four performance each—plus a few kids-concerts, youth-events, and show-biz appearances like the annual Open Air shtick and a New Years bon-bon razzmatazz. The former all events that Thielemann, unable to hide his disdain for- and impatience with- such events, avoided like the plague. When Paul Müller mentioned the new-and-improved range of the repertoire, replete with the “masterpieces of modernity, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Bartók”, one wanted to interject: “Yes, modern, when Maazel was a young man.”

The atmosphere of the press conference was reasonably friendly; Maazel and Ude had managed to defray most tension with their mix of half-hearted candor and their genuinely sunny mood. And it’s admittedly difficult to ask someone like Maestro Maazel straight to his face whether he knows that he’s just the expensive fig-leave for the administration’s ineptitude over the last year. Maazel’s age was addressed ‘pro-actively’, as one might say: Never have I heard the word “future” so often as in this presentation of the Munich Phil’s new octogenarian boss. Future-this, future-that… and amidst that the calculatingly candid admission of Maazel that during negotiations he had asked whether the orchestra didn’t fear that he might kick the bucket: Laughter, and any possible questions about his age nipped in the bud. No jokes, therefore, about whether he had been second choice after Kurt Sanderling turned down an initial offer. Or about taking shovel and pick-ax uptown to dig out Knappertsbusch for another go at it.

Consequently the questions from the press were ingratiating lobs, not intended to open old wounds and letting bygones be bygones. Thielemann’s name came up once or twice. The only potentially charged question on whether Lorin Maazel would bring a record contract to the Munich Philharmonic (an item that was so important to the orchestra when they found Thielemann’s activities on that field lacking) was avoided with suave platitudes on ‘all options being considered’, everyone being ‘open about possibilities’, and ‘not ruling out eventualities if they arise’. Maazel initially wrapped humor around his slightly barbed response when he suggested that he had already 300-some recordings to his name. Küppers chuckled as if to say “Good one, Lorin”. But would the orchestra members—currently on tour in Japan with CT—have chuckled, too? Maazel having already saturated the market with two versions of everything surely doesn’t do the Munich Phil any good.

The fact remains that nothing, absolutely nothing that was purported to be the problem with Thielemann has been addressed with this succession. In fact, it is obvious that what the solution Maazel addresses is not something that Thielemann could not achieve, but merely the lack of Thielemann itself. The relieve at the conference didn’t stem from having found someone who will do all that CT did for the orchestra, plus A, B, and C. But someone who prevented the departure of CT from becoming an utter, outright disaster. Now it’s merely a stain. The hiring of Maazel, for all his qualities as an orchestra educator, remains a naked grab for name recognition that allows all the involved, including the orchestra, to safe face. The decision pro-Maazel had nothing to do with musical questions, but was solely a matter of the city convincing itself that it was, indeed, still, a ‘cultural metropolis’ of world rank. No wonder Küppers positively beamed when he entered the neo-gothic Ratstrinkstube with Maazel on his side like a hot young trophy-wife.


video

Maazel, a diplomat par excellance, plays along and tells them exactly what they want to hear. Asked, later on, if he would be willing to jolt the orchestra into action if they ever got into one of their complacent moods, he long-distance schmoozed himself around it, saying: “I didn’t know they were without fire. When I had the great pleasure of conducting them the last time, I found they had everything that a great orchestra needs to set fire to the world. If they haven’t it’s not because of any lack of vitality on their part. The musicians are first class and can be compared to any major orchestra in the world… It’s just that sometimes they have been overshadowed by the Vienna Philharmonic or the Berlin Philharmonic or the Philharmonia or the New York Philharmonic. And that’ll be my job: to give the concerts in the right places at the right time so that people recognize the true value of the orchestra.”

The idea—mentioned in asides and the less veiled in the press statement—that Maazel could make the Munich Philharmonic a more cosmopolitan orchestra and help it get its name out there is folly. If anyone could have established the Munich Philharmonic as an international force to be reckoned with it would have been CT, whose style and repertoire—focused, but less narrow than made out to be—played to its strengths and to a ‘story’. CT divided opinions, and strongly so, but so did and do most successful conductors. Divisive excellence and distinct individuality were more likely the Munich Philharmonic’s ticket to getting some international respect than a cosmopolitan blend of bland—inoffensive to all, exciting to no one—will be. Anyone who thinks otherwise is encouraged to read the reviews and comments about the Munich Philharmonic’s last US-tour with Lorin Maazel, or the one before that, with James Levine. To loosely paraphrase Norman Rockwell et al.: “Maybe we’ll bother going to hear Lorin (James) tonight to hear them with that third rate orchestra they’re in town with.” Back to the future, it is.


video

Asked if he would be willing to apply the necessary tension to the orchestra, because it seems to thrive on just that, Maazel puts on his most disarming, sunny smile, and croons with his wonderfully soft-sonorous voice: “Well, but that’s what I’m known for. What the Germans call Spannung. That’s my thing. I love music, I’m very enthusiastic about it and very passionate about it and every performance for me is a life-time experience in microcosm; I think we’ll get along very well. Musicians respond to that; in fact they ask for nothing more than to be inspired and to be challenged. And I’m the man to do that. I think.”


Good luck, Maestro.



Picture © Andreas Gebert

26.3.10

San Francisco Symphony Comes to Town

Michael Tilson Thomas
Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas

Online scores:
Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto
Ravel, Valses nobles et sentimentales
Liszt, Tasso: Lamento e Trionfo
Since the last visit by the San Francisco Symphony to Washington, in 2006, Ionarts has kept up with the ensemble in a couple reviews, in 2008 with Alan Gilbert and in 2009 with Semyon Bychkov, and of course we have been following the orchestra's CD releases on their personal label. (Mahler's second symphony was the other program on their current American tour, most recently performed at Carnegie Hall.) By most critical accounts, the SFS is one of the top American orchestras, and their latest visit to the Kennedy Center, on Wednesday night, courtesy of Washington Performing Arts Society, showed why. Not least among those reasons was the programming of the group's conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, who presented a widely acclaimed new work by composer Victor Kissine, as well as a little-known (but well worth knowing) symphonic poem by Liszt, along with two more commonly performed pieces that nonetheless provided thought-provoking parallels and comparison to the other two.

available at Amazon
Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto, C. Tetzlaff, RNO, K. Nagano
The other reason was the orchestra's playing, which was for the most part rarefied in tone, technically assured, and organically unified. The most noticeable problems came in the least satisfying piece of the evening, Tchaikovsky's epic violin concerto. Soloist Christian Tetzlaff had a particularly rocky first movement, his E string going raucously sharp for some reason, but Tilson Thomas's minimal style of gesture at the podium helped make the orchestra into a soft cushion underneath the solo, allowing Tetzlaff's big, luscious tone to be heard. A quick adjustment before the second movement solved most of Tetzlaff's intonation issues in the rest of the piece, allowing one to focus more on his striking technical mastery as he roared through the work's many demands with mercurial volubility. That unpredictable quality caused the ensemble unity with the orchestra to suffer, especially in the third movement, as Tetzlaff played very fast but not always evenly. Although his recording of the concerto for Pentatone has garnered some praise, it does not strike me as a work naturally matched to Tetzlaff, although he certainly has the chops to play it.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, San Francisco Symphony at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, March 26)

---, Anne Midgette interviews conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (Washington Post, March 21)

Philip Kennicott, Tilson Thomas at the Kennedy Center (Philip Kennicott, March 24)

Harry Rolnick, Eclectic And Electric (ConcertoNet, March 26)

David Patrick Stearns, Thomas shows mastery of Mahler (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 25)

Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Symphony's Mahler (San Francisco Chronicle, March 13)

---, Symphony premieres musical essay (San Francisco Chronicle, March 6)

Richard Scheinin, San Francisco Symphony gives a stunning performance of Mahler's 'Resurrection' Symphony (San Jose Mercury News, March 12)

---, San Francisco Symphony debuts shimmering new work by Victor Kissine (San Jose Mercury News, March 6)

Allan Ulrich, San Francisco Symphony (Financial Times, March 10)

Cedric Westphal, SFist Interviews: Composer Victor Kissine (SFist, March 4)
The orchestra was at its most suave in an elegant performance of Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales, ranging from a grand sweep, as in the first movement, to the sultry lilt of a perfumed salon, as in the second movement, never indulgent in too much distortion of the tempo but still lithe. The woodwinds, who had stood out in the Tchaikovsky with their gloomy sound in the second movement, continued to excel, helping to give a sense of lift and grace to the various dances. Tilson Thomas has made his own re-orchestration of Liszt's Tasso: Lamento e Trionfo, a work that was originally orchestrated by Joachim Raff, at a point early in Liszt's tenure at Weimar when he admitted he did not know all that much about orchestration, and then later revised by Liszt. Considering that Liszt more or less invented (pace César Franck) that very Romantic orchestra form, the symphonic poem, it is surprising that one rarely hears any of Liszt's symphonic poems in performance, with the possible exception of Les préludes. The resonance between Liszt and Wagner is striking, with a heroic brass section with chromatic rolling motifs reminiscent of Tannhäuser and a forlorn and beautifully played bass clarinet solo, sometimes accompanied with low horns and harp, that reminded one of Wagner's use of the instrument in his operas.

Victor Kissine, a Russian-born composer now residing in Belgium, describes his new work Post-Scriptum as "a variation on the theme of Ives's The Unanswered Question." The theme may come from Ives, but the piece evokes more the pointillism and Klangfarbenmelodie of Webern in many ways, a compendium of dissonant clusters and instrumental effects similar to what film composers borrowed from Bartók to depict scary scenes. The work opened in a serene mist of percussion, mute cymbal roll and shimmering tones from bowed xylophone, building up through washes of orchestral color, swelling and receding in Doppler-like effects. Kissine calls for a huge orchestra, with quite a workout given to the five percussionists, but also the harpists and pianist/celesta player: this huge canvas is then marked with a few bright, expressionist splashes of vivid color. In a way, later after the Ravel work, it seemed like a deconstruction of a piece like Ravel's waltzes, an etude in orchestral color, broken into its parts and reassembled in a Cubist collage. After such an innovative and unexpected program, it would have been crass to offer a traditional encore, but Tilson Thomas did no such thing, ending with the prelude to Delibes's ballet Sylvia, music for a chaste huntress that was dedicated by the conductor to "the brave women of the world." He did not have to mention that the story of that ballet comes from Aminta, a poem by none other than Torquato Tasso.

The final visiting orchestra to be brought to Washington by WPAS this season will be the Los Angeles Philharmonic (May 17, 8 pm), with their music director, Gustavo Dudamel.
[EDITED TO ADD: Actually, there are two more orchestras on the WPAS schedule: the Philadelphia Orchestra will also play in the Music Center at Strathmore (May 26, 7:30 pm).]

25.3.10

Cage Inspires Art


Su-Mei Tse, Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (2001, Collection Frac Lorraine)
The Fonds régional d'art contemporain (FRAC Lorraine), a contemporary art museum in the French city of Metz, has teamed up with the Ecole supérieure d'art de Metz Métropole to present an exhibit that combines music and art in intriguing ways. In Listen to Your Eyes artists have created works in response to the work of American composer John Cage. Véronique Mortaigne has a report (Le son, les images et le silence, March 20) in Le Monde (my translation):
Dutch artist Manon de Boer (b. 1965) conceived Two Times 4'33" in 2008, a video reinterpretation of one of Cage's most controversial works. A pianist performs, without playing, the sole line of the score that the composer marked with three signs. For Cage, environmental sounds and the laws of chance created the music, and Manon de Boer superimpose that plan and the piano's silence onto an intense sonic activity (wind, cars, etc.). The work is intelligent, like that of Artur Zmijewski, The Singing Lesson I (2001): fourteen minutes of choral music sung by deaf children, who go off key, emit growls and screeches, with a happiness that contrasts with the discomfort that the listener-viewer may experience. Aesthetic ideals of beauty can also be used to exclude, says the Polish artist.

The Danish artist Eva Koch, in Approach (2005), has reconfigured lines from Dante's Commedia, read by an actor on an audio track on one side, and in images on the other, with silent actors declaiming Dante in sign language. Music is a cycle, and the Lithuanian Zilvinas Kempinas represents that with three fans pasting to the wall three magnetic tapes glued in a circle and left to unroll at liberty. At the Ecole supérieure d'art, by the same logic, Mozart's Turkish march, played on a piano without strings and filmed by the Lebanese artist Ziad Antar, is accompanied by engravings by Aurélie Nemours, the vertical and horizontal abstraction in black and white depicting the rhythm.
This exhibit is part of a series called Diagonales, an exploration of the relationships between sound and the plastic arts lasting through next January throughout France, with exhibits in Bourges (La Box, March 26 to April 18), Nevers (Médiathèque Jean-Jaurès, at the same time), Paris (Le Centquatre, May 7 to 9), and Arles (the Musée Réatu, July 3 to October 31), among others. Cage was also recently the subject of an exhibit at the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona.

Su-Mei Tse, the Japanese artist whose video is shown in the still reproduced here (bandaged hands playing one of Bach's preludes), has had music figure in many of her works (La Marionnette, L'Echo): see several images in this profile.

24.3.10

Till Fellner's Beethoven Cycle, Part 6

Style masthead

Read my review published today on the Washington Post Web site:


Pianist Till Fellner (photo by Francesco Carrozzini)

Fellner Beethoven Cycle:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Charles T. Downey, Fellner's Beethoven sonata journey moves into home stretch
Washington Post, March 24, 2010
On Monday evening at the Austrian Embassy, Till Fellner performed the sixth of seven concerts devoted to Beethoven's piano sonatas. The Austrian pianist began this journey of journeys back in December 2008 at the National Gallery of Art, which has co-sponsored the cycle with the Embassy Series. Last month's snowstorms forced the cancellation of the fifth of these concerts, and because the National Gallery has no plans to reschedule it, Washington will end up with an almost-complete Beethoven cycle from Till Fellner.

While Fellner's unmannered approach thus far in the cycle made it seem like he was merely tossing off some of the early sonatas, he gave a pearl-like finish to the Op. 14 pair on this program. Understatement was still his calling card, especially in the comic third movements, the humor acknowledged with nothing more than a wink of an eye. A more impatient pianist might be tempted to rush the tempos of these less challenging works, but Fellner allowed the music to play itself out, like thread unwinding from a spool. The dramatic contrasts of the Op. 13 sonata ("Pathétique") came to the fore, with a rhythmically free Grave section in the first movement answered by a windswept Allegro. [Continue reading]
Till Fellner, piano
Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle, Part 6
Op. 14/1 | Op. 14/2 | Op. 13 (“Pathétique”) | Op. 22 | Op. 81a (“Les Adieux”)
Embassy Series
Embassy of Austria

Lorin Maazel succeeds Christian Thielemann in Munich

Previously on that topic: A Mahler Cycle And Uncomfortable Silence: The Munich Philharmonic in 2010/11 (14.3.10)


And the winner is: Lorin Maazel. After the city of Munich had already spilled the beans, confirmation came today that Maazel will be the new chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, starting 2012/13. From the press release it is not clear how long Maestro Maazel will grace Munich with his presence, but apparently for he is projected to last for three seasons. (Maazel would be 86 by the end of his tenure.)

On the surface this is a success. Lorin Maazel is one of the most renown conductors in the world, had a career second to none, and he is, without question, the most skilled conductor. With his name recognition—furthered in Munich by the fact that he had long been the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s conductor—his signing is a very transparent move to keep the subscription audience, most of them ardent Thielemann fans, from fleeing in droves. He is the quintessential subscription-holder-retention-director.

Whether that will work remains to be seen. As a news item on KlassikInfo.de noted with subtle snark, after posing the same question: “After all, Munich audiences already know Maazel’s work.” And therein lies just one of the problems.

Whether Maazel was leading the New York Philharmonic or guest conducting, he has been responsible for the singularly most boring concert experiences of any such skilled conductor. (The North Korea concert being an exception, but there the programming was timid.) I’m happy to grant him the absolutely most thrilling performance of “The Turn of the Screw” during those same years, but that was with the young musicians of his foundation. They brought their own fire to the job, Maazel then guided it into perfect shape.

Unfortunately that’s not what Munich needs. Although the orchestra—which, should it be necessary to point out, I love more than any other and have, as a ticket-less youth, snuck into more performances than any other—overestimates itself woefully, it’s not that much in need of more precise conducting. It is in need of motivation and a very swift kick to the rear. It needs to be spurred on to live up to its own (and the audience’s) expectations. And that includes even, perhaps especially, those concerts where they haven’t happened to fall in love with the (guest) conductor. An orchestra’s quality is as much measured by its worst performances as it is by its best. I’ve heard some of the very best from them, and some of the very worst, and although that hints at their great potential, the average and the mean are still way too low.

The obvious question is: Will the (then) octogenarian Maazel, in his few weeks in Munich (the city wasn’t going to get more money for him than they had for Thielemann, so they more than likely made concessions on the amount of time spent in town), really bother to stir the wasps’ nest and get tough with the orchestra, if and when it is necessary? We know well enough from the time of James Levine’s tenure that that simply isn’t very likely. Chances are that they’ll be allowed to continue in their old ways, without tight control, oversight, and the tough love they so dearly need. I can only hope to be proven wrong; I wish nothing more. But I rather fear that the time of Thielemann, who took his job extremely seriously, will be sorely missed. Not only by audiences, but also by those musicians who still have some of that musical flame licking inside them. He may have been the occasional jerk, or difficult, but he was bent on achieving greatness. Which is very different from achieving sameness.

To the best of my knowledge Lorin Maazel will not bring a record deal with Deutsche Grammophon (or any other label) to his stint with the Munich Philharmonic. This might be considered surprising, since not recording enough with the orchestra was one of the orchestra's criticisms leveled at Thielemann. (Christian Thielemann will continue to ‘not record enough’ with the Dresden Staatskapelle for DG and Unitel CMajor and Profil.) Another such complaint concerned the lack of touring: Will Maazel go on more tours with the Munich Philharmonic than did Thielemann (who is currently on Tour with the orchestra in Japan)?

Why am I so suspicious? Perhaps because of the press statement, full of empty puff and finally a quote from the new maestro himself, where Lorin is kind enough to lie on the city’s and the orchestra’s behalf: “I consider the chief conductor position of the Munich Philharmonic as one of the most representative positions in the world of classical music. The quality of the orchestra is unsurpassed. Its remarkable history of collaboration with most preeminent conductors like Maestro Celibidache [a plural, revealed by a singular, if it needs pointing out] means a challenge that I will meet with pleasure.”

In his defense, what else is he supposed to say? “I was bored just with the Châteauville Foundation, I can really use the cash, my wife loves Munich, it’s just a few weeks a year, and it can’t hurt my reputation, because no one will be looking.”?



Picture (modified) © Silvia Lelli

23.3.10

Classical Month in Washington (June)

Last month | Next month

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!

June 1, 2010 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Thomas, Hamlet
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

June 2, 2010 (Wed)
12:10 pm
Karin Paludan-Sorey (soprano) and Danielle DeSwert Hahn (piano)
All-Gershwin program
National Gallery of Art (West Building, Lecture Hall)

June 2, 2010 (Wed)
12:10 pm
Scott Dettra, organ [FREE]
St. John's, Lafayette Square

June 3, 2010 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
Music by Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov (Iván Fischer, conductor)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

June 3, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With André Watts, piano
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

June 3, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
Faculty Chamber Music Recital [FREE]
National Orchestral Institute
Clarice Smith Center

June 4, 2010 (Fri)
1:30 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
Music by Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov (Iván Fischer, conductor)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

June 4, 2010 (Fri)
7:30 pm
3-11: A Concert of New Music
The Lyceum (Alexandria, Va.)

June 4, 2010 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Thomas, Hamlet
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

June 4, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With André Watts, piano
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

June 4, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Orpheus
Washington Early Music Festival
All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church (2300 Cathedral Ave. NW)

June 5, 2010 (Sat)
2 pm
Friday Morning Music Club: International Voice Competition [FREE]
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

June 5, 2010 (Sat)
7:30 pm
National Chamber Ensemble
Music by Vivaldi
Rosslyn Spectrum Theater

June 5, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
Music by Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov (Iván Fischer, conductor)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

June 5, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With André Watts, piano
Music Center at Strathmore

June 5, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Orchestral Institute
With Sara Daneshpour, piano
Clarice Smith Center

June 5, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Vivaldi Project
Washington Early Music Festival
St. Columba’s Episcopal Church (4201 Albemarle St. NW)

June 6, 2010 (Sun)
12:30 and 4:30 pm
National Orchestral Institute Chamber Music Marathon [FREE]
Clarice Smith Center

June 6, 2010 (Sun)
2 pm
Kennedy Center Chamber Players
Music by Gieseking, Szymanowski, Schubert
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

June 6, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With André Watts, piano
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

June 6, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
American Youth Philharmonic
George Mason University Center for the Arts

June 6, 2010 (Sun)
4 pm
Soheil Nasseri, piano
Music Center at Strathmore

June 6, 2010 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Joaquin Achúcarro, piano
Music by Spanish composers
National Gallery of Art

June 6, 2010 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Olga Pasichnyk (soprano) and Natalya Pasichnyk (piano)
Music by Chopin, Ravel, Lutosławski, Lysenko, Szymanowski
Pope John Paul II Cultural Center

June 6, 2010 (Sun)
7:30 pm
3-11: A Concert of New Music
D.C. Arts Center (2438 18th St. NW)

June 8, 2010 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Marjorie Bunday (mezzo-soprano) and C. P. Thompson (tenor)
The Lyceum (Alexandria, Va.)

June 10, 2010 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Kristjan Järvi (conductor), Evelyn Glennie (percussion)
Music by Tüür, Bernstein, Ellington
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

June 10, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
Matthew Locke, Music for The Tempest
With actors Derek Jacobi, Lynn Redgrave, and Richard Clifford
Folger Consort
Lutheran Church of the Reformation (212 E. Capitol St. NE)

June 10, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Brahms, German Requiem (with Washington Chorus)
Music Center at Strathmore

June 10, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
Harmonious Blacksmith
Washington Early Music Festival
St. Peter's, Capitol Hill

June 11, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Kristjan Järvi (conductor), Evelyn Glennie (percussion)
Music by Tüür, Bernstein, Ellington
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

June 11, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Brahms, German Requiem (with Washington Chorus)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

June 11, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Carmina/Illuminare
Washington Early Music Festival
St. Peter's, Capitol Hill

June 11, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Matthew Locke, Music for The Tempest
With actors Derek Jacobi, Lynn Redgrave, and Richard Clifford
Folger Consort
Music Center at Strathmore

June 12, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Visitation (Beethoven), Empire Garden (Ives), and V
Mark Morris Dance Group
George Mason University Center for the Arts

June 12, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Kristjan Järvi (conductor), Evelyn Glennie (percussion)
Music by Tüür, Bernstein, Ellington
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

June 12, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Brahms, German Requiem (with Washington Chorus)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

June 12, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Orchestral Institute
Music by Barber, Sibelius, Strauss
Clarice Smith Center

June 12, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Countertop Quartet
Washington Early Music Festival
St. Peter's, Capitol Hill

June 13, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Brahms, German Requiem (with Washington Chorus)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

June 13, 2010 (Sun)
3:30 pm
Harlem String Quartet
Music by Haydn, Ravel, Marsalis, Strayhorn
Candlelight Concerts
Smith Theater, Howard Community College (Columbia, Md.)

June 13, 2010 (Sun)
4 pm
Suspicious Cheese Lords
Washington Early Music Festival
La Maison Française

June 13, 2010 (Sun)
7 pm
Denyce Graves, mezzo-soprano
WPAS
Music Center at Strathmore

June 14, 2010 (Mon)
8 pm
Beethoven Found Philharmonic
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

June 17, 2010 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Juraj Valcuha (conductor), Jennifer Koh (violin)
Music by Szymanowski, Haydn, Mahler
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

June 18, 2010 (Fri)
7 pm
National Orchestral Institute Chamber Music Finale [FREE]
Clarice Smith Center

June 18, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Juraj Valcuha (conductor), Jennifer Koh (violin)
Music by Szymanowski, Haydn, Mahler
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

June 18, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Repast
Washington Early Music Festival
St. Mark's, Capitol Hill

June 19, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Juraj Valcuha (conductor), Jennifer Koh (violin)
Music by Szymanowski, Haydn, Mahler
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

June 19, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Modern Musick
Washington Early Music Festival
St. Mark's, Capitol Hill

June 19, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Orchestral Institute
Music by Dukas, Wagner
Clarice Smith Center

June 22, 2010 (Tue)
12:10 pm
ArcoVoce
Washington Early Music Festival
St. Mark's, Capitol Hill

June 24, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
Ensemble Gaudior
Washington Early Music Festival
St. Mark's, Capitol Hill

June 24, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
National Orchestral Institute New Lights Concert [FREE]
Clarice Smith Center

June 25, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
When Love was Art: Passionate Music from the Age of Chivalry
Armonia Nova
Washington Early Music Festival
St. Mark's, Capitol Hill

June 26, 2010 (Sat)
3 pm
Arabella Teniswood-Harvey, piano [FREE]
Program on Chopin, Beethoven, and James Whistler
Freer Gallery of Art

June 26, 2010 (Sat)
7 pm
St. Mark's Church Choir
Washington Early Music Festival
St. Mark's, Capitol Hill

June 26, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Four Early Keyboards
Washington Early Music Festival
St. Mark's, Capitol Hill

June 26, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Orchestral Institute
Music by Brahms, Higdon, Elgar
Clarice Smith Center

June 27, 2010 (Sun)
2 pm
The Westminster Chorus
George Mason University Center for the Arts

June 29, 2010 (Tue)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Jeffrey Kahane (conductor), Yo-Yo Ma (cello)

June 30, 2010 (Wed)
7:30 pm
American Youth Harp Ensemble
Austrian Cultural Forum
Embassy of Austria

Thinking of Spain, While in China

So much to write about, so little Wifi at 50,000 feet. Since the beginning of February I have seen quite a bit of art, the Whitney Biennial, which I did write about, the Armory Show, eh, and my trip through Spain. Each time I planned on getting a post together while in flight, but Wifi on international flights hasn’t quite "taken off" as yet. Well, I’m currently in China, taking a pollution/sandstorm day off and attempting to post on heavily censored Wifi. Even Google closed their offices on the mainland and left for Hong Kong; China responded with a giant sandstorm.

Spain is a painter’s and architect's dream trip which I had looked forward to for many years and I wasn’t disappointed. Starting in Barcelona, quite rightly Gaudí comes to mind: his touch is all over the city, building façades, the flowing balconies of the Casa Mila and his in-progress masterpiece, the cathedral Sagrada Família. The competition for most impressive cathedral in Spain is quite intense, some taking a hundred years or more to complete, which puts the building pace of the Família in context.

There were long lines at the Barcelona museums on the first Sunday of March, as admission is free. The Picasso Museum was packed. It’s an OK collection, overseen by a Picasso family trust in Paris; unfortunately they allow no pictures. One of the highlights is the many drawings and paintings Picasso made over the years detailing his fascination with Velázquez’s Las Meninas, which resides at my next stop, the Prado in Madrid.

An effortless, spotless, new high-speed train from Barcelona to Madrid takes you to Brueghel, Rubens, El Greco, Goya, Velázquez -- the Prado in Madrid is like the Palazzo Medici in Florence -- a painter's dream museum. I could literally spend days there, and if it weren’t for a bout with food poisoning and a visit to the Spanish health system (it was free) I would have.

After recovering I visited an old friend at the Reina Sofia museum, which I used to visit at MoMA, Picasso's Guernica. Although I miss the painting in NYC, it now resides in a grand marbled hall, where it belongs and looks great.


More pictures of my Spain adventure, including Seville -- the Cathedral of Seville, another 100-year project, is quite impressive -- and Carmona on Flickr.

Thielemann Links Outside of Ionarts

Deutsche Welle: Munich critics bemoan loss of star conductor Thielemann [07.25.2009]

Deutsche Welle: Controversy - Munich Philharmonic orchestra and conductor Christian Thielemann [Audio, 07.30.2009]

Classical WETA: Christian Thielemann to Leave Munich Philharmonic in 2011 [07.22.2009]

Classical WETA: Dresden’s Gain is Munich’s Loss: Thielemann Signs With Staatskapelle [10.11.2009]

Dip Your Ears, No. 101 (Schumann's Ghost Concerto)

available at Amazon
R.Schumann, Introd.& Allegro, Ghost Variations et al.,
T.Barto / C.Eschenbach / NDRSO
Ondine

Where Christoph Eschenbach goes—Paris, Philadelphia, Hamburg, soon Washington—he brings along his record deal with Ondine. That’s an asset from which the NSO should benefit handsomely, because the recordings (most of them, at least) are not just superbly played and interpreted, but they’re even more imaginatively put together: chamber music next to large orchestra pieces, sometimes showcasing Eschenbach as a pianist, sometimes select musicians from his orchestra. Or his special friend, pianist Tzimon Barto, as he does on his latest disc—a studio recording with the North German RSO. The disc is all-Schumann, but with a program that reflects Eschenbach’s willingness to turn his back on standard programming and let a little fantasy reign. The two “Introduction & Allegros” for piano and orchestra (opp.92 and 134) are—literally—joined by Schumann’s “Ghost Variations” for solo piano.

I rarely cry listening to a CD. I did here, gladly, and without guilt for any of those tears. The Ghost Variations were written in the last, torn hours of Schumann’s presence on the here-side of sanity, created under heart-wrenching circumstances in his final lucid, intermittently hallucinatory moments. The Variations work perfectly as a slow movement and join the two Konzertstücke on either side to form a complete piano concerto. Barto plays them with muscular romanticism of someone who can relate to the light and dark of late Schumann and indulge in it.

Bringing the disc to over 73 minutes playtime is another painfully gorgeous Schumann rarity, the Six Etudes in Canonic Form, op.56. If you haven’t heard- or heard of them, it’s probably because they were written for the pedal piano that was only very briefly en vogue. With the demise of that contraption (originally intended to ease practicing organ-playing at home by attaching pedals to an extant grand piano), those works written specifically for it sank into obscurity. Debussy caught a glimpse of these Etudes, though, and duly mesmerized (I imagine) transcribed them for two pianos. Eschenbach and Barto sit down to play them… and what a substantial little wonder they are to behold: The stringency of Bach infused with all the romantic essence of Echt-Schumann continues to leave me speechless every time I hear them. The whole album is clear contender for the “Best of 2010” list.

Bach Consort's Birthday Party

Style masthead

available at Amazon
Orchestral Suites, Akademie
für Alte Musik Berlin


available at Amazon
Brandenburg Concertos,
Concerto Italiano


available at Amazon
Other Concertos,
Café Zimmermann
Read my review published today on the Washington Post Web site:

Charles T. Downey, Consort gives Bach birthday a familiar ring
Washington Post, March 23, 2010
The Washington Bach Consort feted the 325th birthday of its namesake on Sunday afternoon, with a concert of J.S. Bach's instrumental music at the National Presbyterian Church. The ensemble has rightfully earned a devoted local following for its groundbreaking exploration of the early history of baroque music performance. As the years have passed, however, the state of historically informed performance of Bach's music has continued to improve, while the Bach Consort appears happy in some of its concerts to revisit the same well-trodden territory.

The opening overture movement of the Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C had a relaxed tempo that allowed the music to circle and glide rather than be angled and sharp-cornered, but the players often struggled against it, a tendency to rush that pushed the ensemble out of alignment. The suite's dance movements were more rhythmically incised, making them and the sinfonia of Cantata 42 the most pleasing parts of the playing. In the wreath of 10 entwined string lines that is the third Brandenburg Concerto, the sequential exposure of solo parts was pleasant enough until one reached the third violin and second and third violas. [Continue reading]
Happy Birthday, Bach!
Washington Bach Consort (J. Reilly Lewis, director)
BWV 42 | BWV 541 | BWV 1042 | BWV 1048 | BWV 1066
National Presbyterian Church

PREVIOUSLY:

22.3.10

Japanese Drumming at GMU

With four kids, liking something -- and taking the family -- means putting your money where your mouth is. Robert R. Reilly likes Japanese Drumming and he left no child behind when he went to George Mason’s Center for the Arts to enjoy -- and review -- Tao's “The Martial Art of Drumming.” Apart from kindly guest-reviewing for ionarts, he writes a regular classical music column for Crisis Magazine at Inside Catholic.




At the George Mason’s Center for the Arts, the Japanese Tao group presented “The Martial Art of Drumming” on Saturday evening at 8:00 PM. My only experience with traditional Japanese taiko or drumming took place more than a decade ago at the Opera Garnier in Paris, but that was the enough to kindle a lasting fascination. I found it to be some of the most viscerally thrilling, rhythmically demanding music I have heard. So, I was anxious to encounter it again here in my northern Virginia backyard. In fact, I brought the whole family.

Taiko is considered a classical art form in Japan, not only of a martial character, but also of a spiritual one. I recall Igor Stravinsky once saying that African Ashanti drum music was a dialogue with the gods. There is definitely an aspect of this in taiko as well.

However, the attitude of this troupe, as expressed by Tao performer Taro Harasaki, is entertainment. “We call our show entertainment”, Harasaki says, “and it’s not a typical Japanese drum concert because the aim of Tao is to have the show on Broadway or in Las Vegas. It’s a very exciting spectacle.” And this is indeed what we experienced—tremendously exciting Japanese drumming, with a touch of Broadway show biz in the choreography and costumes.

The show also included some humor, which is decidedly not “martial.” However, things never descended to the Las Vegas level, an allusion to vulgarity and garishness that Harasaki may not have intended when he made his statement of Tao’s aim. (Come to think of it: How is the Guggenheim-Hermitage satellite in Vegas doing?) More accurately, Tao director Ikuo Fujitaka calls Tao a “modern respectable culture of drumming.” It certainly requires extraordinary discipline and coordination, which the members of the troupe achieve by practicing 10 hours a day in their semi-monastic headquarters in Japan.

During the two-hour show, Tao members used three massive, six-foot-circumference drums, called o-daiko, varied combinations of other drums, shinbue flutes, koto, gongs and cymbals, and Indonesian bamboo marimbas. But throughout the thirteen segments of the program, the drums predominated.

Sophistication and coordination are ever present, but express something fiercely elemental. To say it was rhythmically exciting would be an understatement. But for the intense discipline, it would be best described as orgiastic. Rhythm is one of the primary human experiences. It beats within us and in nature, and our response to it is an instinctive, involuntary one. That is what was so moving in this performance—the primal level at which the drumming connected with the audience. When the 12 drums in the Aokikaze number cut lose, there is no way your blood is not stirred. In Horizon, the drumming reached a martial pitch that could have led an army to victory or certainly convinced its enemy that its day of doom had arrived.

In Southi, dueling drums added some humor that perhaps would not have pleased a purist, but only a crank could say it wasn’t fun. Solo-Rhythm began with two of the huge drums thundering up stage; then a 5-drum combination unit appeared downstage. The soloist who played them for the rest of this number appeared to be the Japanese equivalent of Gene Kupra. He achieved an astonishing range, from the softest pianissimo to thundering triple-forte.

One of the few missteps was in the Maori number, during which the flautists seemed like they were lip-synching their instruments to canned acoustics. Were they using a recording? I wondered. No, but the unpleasant impression came from having their instruments miked—presumably necessary to not be drowned out by the drums.

In the second half of the program, the Da (the beat) number seemed to be the real taiko for purists. Three drummers faced upstage the three gargantuan bass drums. Both the costumes and the choreography—highly disciplined and stark—conveyed a deep sense of ritual and the sacred. Here was the requisite severity and solemnity for commencing a dialogue with the gods. The drumming on these three massive bass drums reached toward the primordial—and achieved an overwhelming sense of something coming from the very bowels of the earth. I would have shouted bravo but one does not do that in a temple, which is where I felt I had just been. This number alone was worth the entire evening.

The last number, Queen, returned to the show biz world with pageantry and spectacle, flag waving and gymnastics that left the audience cheering on its feet. Designed to reach a broad audience, Toa’s “The Martial Art of Drumming” succeeded by any measure.

My 12-year old daughter said, “I thought it was going to be boring; it was just the opposite.” RRR


Poignant 'Porgy' Returns to the Kennedy Center


Eric Owens (Porgy) and Morenike Fadayomi (Bess), Washington National Opera (photo by Karin Cooper)
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess defies categorization, a piece of our cultural heritage that one does not get to see in full production very often but that draws audience-members in droves. Francesca Zambello’s production, since its premiere in 2005 at Washington National Opera, has had performances in Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, and now, beginning this past Saturday night, Washingtonians are getting a second look. The single set design, swiveling and changing ever so slightly for different locales and moments, is gorgeous. Complete with transformative lighting by Mark McCullough that is somehow a character unto itself, the multi-faceted and -leveled set serves the show well. Porgy and Bess takes place in the 1920s, but Zambello’s production hearkens to the 1950s, when “racial tensions were just about to boil over,” as she puts it. While the show is obviously dated, with themes of race, gambling, addiction, violence, and sex, it is also still just as relevant today as it was in 1935. Despite being set in South Carolina, it is also particularly poignant in our city, which has been, and still is, a unique witness to the African-American story.

Homegrown soprano Alyson Cambridge was one of the standout singers, especially in a gorgeous rendition of Summertime. The chorus and all comprimario roles were filled by local talent. This opera demands across-the-board typecasting, and while the roles were all filled with excellent actors who fit the bill, many, unfortunately, lacked singing prowess. The insatiable Sportin’ Life was portrayed by Jermaine Smith, who often made up for a less than substantial voice with dancing and over-the-top mannerisms. Maria, sung by Gwendolyn Brown, was a joy to watch as a particularly strong presence and character, but also a weak voice. A notable exception was Eric Owens as the steadfast Porgy, with a velvet voice that soared over the orchestra. Particularly moving was the duet Bess, You Is My Woman Now with Morenike Fadayomi as Bess. Owens and Fadayomi blended beautifully, both vocally and emotionally. Fadayomi also shone, but was, unfortunately, often overpowered by conductor John Mauceri’s orchestra. In fact, the general balance between singers and orchestra was frequently off, made worse by a weak chorus and thick orchestration.


Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, National Opera's 'Porgy and Bess' (Washington Post, March 22)

---, Alyson Cambridge returns home for Washington National Opera's 'Porgy and Bess' (Washington Post, March 19)

Emily Cary, Washington National Opera marks 75th anniversary of 'Porgy and Bess' (Washington Examiner, March 16)
Also of note was Lisa Daltirus, as Serena, singing during her husband’s funeral, which garnered the first spontaneous applause from the audience for her stunning and haunting lamentation. Eric Greene's performance as Jake, in the early number A Woman Is a Sometime Thing, was perfect in its homey richness and chemistry with Cambridge, as his wife, Clara. All in all, the production itself is beautiful -- a fitting accolade to George Gershwin’s vision, and never trite. While some of the cast members were more actors than singers, the raw emotion of this show was certainly something to witness. As Porgy hobbled off stage in search of Bess, and all else lost, at the very end, the striking light and angled exit left that gut feeling -- this show is important, and Zambello’s production proved just that.

Porgy and Bess continues through April 3, with tickets to four recently added performances now also on sale.