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30.6.10

Lulled by Ravel, Bored by Golijov

The National Symphony Orchestra capped off its regular season with a special non-subscription concert last night that had the feel of a "summer nights" kind of program, and not in a good way. Guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane led a soporific selection of an hour's worth of Ravel's most subtle orchestral music. Yo-Yo Ma's appearance as soloist guaranteed that the hall was sold out, likely by some people who ended up feeling cheated by the piece he was playing, Osvaldo Golijov's Azul, which did not really spotlight Ma's best side.

While I continue to find Golijov's opera Ainadamar a seductive work, little else that he has composed seems to merit the media hype and number of commissions that he receives. He premiered Azul, an atmospheric "concerto" for solo and exotic percussion, at Tanglewood in 2006, with Yo-Yo Ma as the cellist: like so much of Golijov's work, including Ainadamar, it was finished at the last minute, and the composer later revised the work for another cellist, Alisa Weilerstein. Since then, orchestras all over the place have performed the work, the latest being the NSO. The piece is about a half-hour of not that much: a pleasing melody or two, some snappy rhythms, the reedy sound of the "hyperaccordion" of Michael Ward-Bergeman, and a children's treasury of odd percussive effects (wielded theatrically by soloists Cyro Baptista and Jamey Haddad).

The sounds are initially quite alluring -- of the "world music" sort that one might call NPR Music, but really not many steps above Yanni -- but then nothing really happens; themes are merely repeated, not developed, resulting in a sort of lush stasis that eventually collapses like a meringue. Golijov chose to rework some ideas from a previous piece, Tenebrae, and imported some melodic and harmonic ideas from Couperin's Leçons de ténèbres. The appeal of the forms referenced here, the repeating harmonic patterns of the passacaglia and chaconne, is not in their repetition, however, but in the variation introduced with each repetition. The big finish of the final movement, a resolution to the tonic that dissolves into a few minutes of shapeless glissandos, ultimately collapsing into the amplified repetition of sounds whispered into a microphone by one of the percussionists, gave the impression of a big tire or balloon expelling all of its air. The orchestra, reduced basically to being a sort of backup chord machine, must have been bored to tears.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, In performance: NSO and Yo-Yo Ma (Washington Post, June 30)
The first half included enough luxuriant Ravel to stun a small cat, a series of pieces in a similarly atmospheric style that seemed like overkill even for a summer evening. At least the Pavane pour une infante défunte or Bolero did not make an appearance, but something less dreamy, like La valse, would have been a welcome shot in the arm. The composer's orchestration of Alborada del gracioso was evocative, although one questions having the trumpet -- and, worse, the French horn -- play those repeated-note guitar motifs. Putting the suite from Ma Mère l’Oye in the middle of the half required an awkward reseating -- the work calls only for strings and paired woodwinds and French horns, plus some percussion -- and the rough start in terms of intonation was a reminder that a more careful retuning after such a move is a good idea. This was lovely playing of a luscious orchestration, taken by Ravel through a number of incarnations after its creation as a four-hands piano piece for children. The oboe and especially English horn solos were beautiful, and the violin solos were in good hands with associate concertmaster Elisabeth Adkins. Kahane is a conductor more efficient than revelatory, clear of gesture but perhaps overly cutting and emphatically so (louder, more percussive page turns from a conductor have never been heard). For all that incision of gesture, orchestral ensemble was not always unified, as at several moments in the last movement of the Rapsodie espagnole. Ravel was such a masterful orchestrator, something that can be appreciated most in his arrangements of works originally for piano. This score has its own surprises, too -- was that a sarrusophone spotted at the end of the woodwind section playing the part Ravel wrote for it?

29.6.10

Yundi Plays Fryderyk

available at Amazon
Chopin, Nocturnes, Yundi [Li]

(released on April 20, 2010)
EMI 6 08391 2 | 104'27"

Online scores:
Chopin's First Editions Online
We have been reviewing plenty of recordings and concerts devoted to the music of Chopin in this 200th anniversary year. Yundi Li's first release since switching from Deutsche Grammophon to EMI is arguably one of the most keenly anticipated of them. The Chinese pianist, now known simply as Yundi, was the youngest winner at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw -- in 2000, when he was just 18 -- and he has a guileless (not to say artless) way with the less purely virtuosic pieces in the composer's oeuvre, which play to his strengths as a coloristic artist skilled with vignettes sketched with just a few strokes. As noted of one of these nocturnes played by Li at his 2008 recital at Strathmore, he "simply let the tune sing, making for a graceful, peaceful performance, if perhaps undistinguished."

These are some of the most successful moments in this recording, too, which at its best is dreamy and melancholy (like, for example, op. 55/2): after all, simplicity is one of the most difficult things for some musicians to achieve. There is also, when necessary, a big, full-handed broadness (as in op. 48/1) and a mercurial sense of rubato and liberal use of the sustaining pedal that might go too far for some listeners. It is in keeping with what we have heard from this exceptionally talented, if perhaps not yet full formed pianist in the works of Chopin, including the piano concertos, a disc of scherzos and impromptus, and a Chopin recital (including a couple nocturnes, now supplanted by this complete set). It's a good recording, but not to be preferred above the now classic recording of the nocturnes by Maria João Pires (rare enough at this point to be priced at a premium) or the regal Claudio Arrau (re-released in a Philips set with all of the impromptus as a bonus, for less than either Pires or Yundi).

28.6.10

O'Dette's Take on dall'Aquila

available at Amazon
M. dall'Aquila, Pieces for Lute, P. O'Dette

(released on April 13, 2010)
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907548 | 77'17"
American lutenist Paul O'Dette continues his series of discs devoted to lesser-known masters of the lute, on the Harmonia Mundi label. We have already praised his selection of music by Melchior Neusidler and the start of his complete Bach set, but there is also a disc of J. H. Kapsberger (re-released on the Harmonia Mundi Gold label) and a 5-CD compilation of Dowland and some of his other earlier recordings. For his latest release O'Dette has recorded a generous selection of music composed or arranged by Italian lutenist Marco dall'Aquila (c. 1480-1544), tracks made in the summer of 2009, a few months after the earthquake that devastated the medieval town of L'Aquila. The extensive structural damage to many buildings in the region scuttled plans to make the recording in a church in L'Aquila and then another one near Capestrano. The mayor of Capestrano stepped in at the last minute to save the project by offering the Castello Piccolomini, which crowns the town of Capestrano, for the recording. As O'Dette explains in a brief note, the acoustic is echo-heavy but historically significant, not least as a place likely known to the composer.

Most of Marco dall'Aquila's music survives in a single manuscript, preserved in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich (Mus. Ms. 266 -- yes, Internet be praised, you can peruse it online! It will not do you much good, however, unless you can read Renaissance lute tablature: have a look and bite your tongue the next you time you think of disparaging a musicologist). In his liner essay, O'Dette describes this source as "fascinating -- but frustratingly inaccurate," fraught with puzzles for transcription. The pieces selected here include examples of Marco's penchant for contrapuntal imitation, sometimes dense, in the ricercars and fantasias, as well as a delight in bouncy rhythms and homophony, borrowed from dance and popular song. Some of the quirks of his style -- odd chromatic shifts and clashes, repeated notes that enliven the texture, and extensions of register (leading O'Dette to play on two instruments, both six-course modern instruments based on Italian historical models, one in the higher alto range and the other with more fundamental bass notes) -- can be appreciated in the online editions by Prof. Arthur J. Ness. O'Dette plays from his own edition of the Complete Lute Works of Marco dall'Aquila, edited with the late Maurizio Pratola, published by the Istituto Abruzzese di Storia Musicale in L'Aquila. All in all, a fascinating listen.

'We Sing of God'

available at Amazon
We Sing of God, Choirs of St. Paul's
Parish, K Street, R. McCormick
(released on June 18, 2010)
Pro Organo CD 7238 | 74'01"

Available only from Pro Organo
This new CD, released last week, is the first to be recorded by the Choirs of St. Paul's Parish, K Street, under the current director of music, Robert McCormick, who was appointed in 2008. It would not be appropriate for me to write a review of it, because Master Ionarts was for a time a chorister there, including when this CD was made. However, I can give this excellent choral program another plug by letting you know about the CD, which has a beautiful selection of unusual music in the Anglican tradition that is its specialty: Sidney Campbell, Peter Hurford, Charles Wood, Herbert Howells, as well as the lesser-heard Evening Service in E Minor by Leo Sowerby and the first-ever recording of McNeil Robinson's Missa Brevis. It is not all performed by just the boys' choir but includes performances by the adult, girls, and teen choirs, along with organ improvisations and pieces played by McCormick and his assistant, John Bohl.

The boys' choir sings at the weekly Sunday evensong (6 pm) during the school year, and for any parents looking for a top-notch musical education for their son, I cannot recommend the boys' choir highly enough. It is a choir of boys and men in the high Anglican tradition, and the boys sing an impeccable and extensive repertory of the best historical music. Boys can enter the program at any time, beginning at around age 8 and until their voices break, and the application and audition process is painless and puts no pressure on the boys. Unlike many children's choirs, furthermore, there are no fees to pay, just the commitment to bring your child to rehearsals and performances. It is an intense experience but also extremely fulfilling for both children and their parents.

27.6.10

In Brief: Back from the Lake Edition

funny pictures of cats with captions
Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • Probably everyone in the world has seen it by now, but if you missed it, check out three brass players from the Berlin Konzerthaus Orchestra trying to show that real music can be played on vuvuzelas. [The Rest Is Noise]

  • Germany will knock England out of the World Cup. So says a psychic octopus. Just follow the link. [Cronaca]

  • After the news that the Musée du Luxembourg would close earlier this year, the French Senate has decided not to relinquish control of the museum to another private management company. Instead, the state will take control, through the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. [Libération]

  • With hat tip to ArtsJournal, artist Bruce Munro has created CDSea, an installation in a 10-acre field in Wiltshire, England, said to resemble "an ocean of light that from one angle glows with a soft blue haze and from another, dazzles with the light of 600,000 mirrors." The medium? Discarded compact discs. [BBC]

  • French composer Pascal Dusapin premiered his new Opéra de feu on the beach at Deauville this week, as part of the city's 150th anniversary celebrations. It involves his music coordinated by computer with the explosion of fireworks created by pyrotechnicians Groupe F. [Le Monde]

  • When you are hungry and want to have another of those perfect tacos from that
    roadside food truck you saw that one time, how do you find it again? Follow its Twitter feed, of course. [DCist]

  • Terry Teachout dismisses some masterworks because they are difficult. [Wall Street Journal]

  • Plácido Domingo talks to Jessica Duchen, about retirement among other things. [The Independent]

26.6.10

Philippe Jordan's Strauss

available at Amazon
Strauss, Eine Alpensinfonie, op. 64, Orchestre de l'opéra national de Paris, P. Jordan

(released on May 25, 2010)
Naïve V 5233 | 52'35"
Last fall we noted the beginning of the Philippe Jordan era at the Opéra national de Paris. The young Swiss-born conductor made his first official appearance as music director with a concert that featured Strauss's last symphonic poem, Eine Alpensinfonie, and György Ligeti's violin concerto, with Isabelle Faust as the soloist. Jordan said that he chose the Strauss, an operatic work for a massive orchestra that straddles the composer's two major interests of tone poem and opera, as a way to acquaint himself with his new orchestra's full expanse, in preparation for the Ring cycle planned in Paris (it began earlier this year). Jordan says in a brief liner note that the program of the Alpine-Symphony -- a journey that begins and ends in darkness as we make an all-day ascent of a mountain summit, climbing through peaceful woods, riversides, and Alpine pastures (complete with clanging cowbells) to reach the dangerous heights of a glacier and majestic craggy height, and then descending again through a menacing storm -- was also significant for him as he began a grand trek up a different kind of musical mountain (my translation):
[The work] was not chosen randomly for the program of my first concert at the head of the Orchestre de l'opéra national de Paris: this musical setting of a day spent on high clearly marks the beginning of a voyage. And that was how I felt as we prepared for this concert: a concert of firsts. This grandiose work sums up all of western orchestral art: we could have chosen it as a culmination, but we preferred to make it a beginning, and I am pleased by the audacity and enthusiasm shared by the orchestra.
Jordan's specialty as a conductor, not surprisingly, has been opera, like the highly praised performances of Busoni's Doktor Faust he led in Zurich a couple years ago. We managed to miss his debut with the National Symphony Orchestra in January 2009, but Anne Midgette gave him a mixed review in the Washington Post. Surely, this recording of just the Strauss work, made in live performance at Jordan's opening concert at the Bastille (complete with creaks and other sounds, like the oboe soloist gasping for breath), is not going to supplant the best of the many recordings available (Thielemann with the Vienna Philharmonic, Jansons with the Royal Concertgebouw, Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic, Sinopoli with the Dresden Staatskapelle, to name just a few). The orchestra has as a whole a grand, occasionally brash sound, but there are individual and sectional question marks. The Paris reviewer, Renaud Machart, characterized the interpretation quite well when he wrote of Jordan's "expressive reservedness that can leave the listener just at the edge of real emotion," as if when the absence of voices and the operatic drama causes the orchestra to be wholly on its own as the main actor, it leaves Jordan a little flustered. Still, this release is of interest to anyone looking for a snapshot of this orchestra at the beginning of what most critics think will be an important era in its history.

25.6.10

Elgar and Schnittke on the Viola

available at Amazon
Elgar / Schnittke, Viola Concertos,
D. A. Carpenter, Philharmonia
Orchestra, C. Eschenbach

(released on August 25, 2009)
Ondine ODE 1153-2 | 64'50"
Christoph Eschenbach champions the work of young musicians wherever he goes, and when he takes over the National Symphony Orchestra this fall Washingtonians are likely to get to know all of Eschenbach's favorites during his tenure here. American violist David Aaron Carpenter came to Eschenbach's attention when he won the 2005 Philadelphia Orchestra Young Artists Competition, earning the chance to perform Walton's viola concerto with the orchestra. Carpenter then went on to win first prize at the Walter W. Naumburg Viola Competition the following year, as well as being sponsored by Rolex in a special mentoring program in 2007, which led to studies with Pinchas Zukerman. It's hard to imagine more things going right for a young musician's career, and now he can add to his resume a CD debut, on the Ondine label, again with Eschenbach but this time with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Carpenter leads with his own adaptation of Elgar's cello concerto, based on the one by Lionel Tertis that was approved by the composer himself, and while one wishes that he had recorded the Walton concerto instead, this is a beautiful performance of a curiosity that may find a place as an alternate version of the work. The draw of the CD is Alfred Schnittke's enigmatic viola concerto, composed for Yuri Bashmet in 1985 (the one with full orchestra, not the later one for small orchestra), just before the composer suffered a life-altering stroke. Carpenter has also studied with Bashmet, whose name is (almost) spelled out in one of the concerto's musical themes, but the student's attempt does not yet supplant the teacher's recordings. Schnittke was at the height of his powers when he composed the work, and it is not only an exploration of the instrument's expressive powers -- all of which Carpenter displays, from velvety purr to junkyard bark -- but also unites in one piece some of the most unusual instrumental, harmonic, and melodic colors ever created (especially in the hallucinatory second movement, where the combination of tam-tams, flexatone, xylophone, vibes, harpsichord, piano, and no violins is at its most surreal, with some passages sounding like a demented carousel.)

24.6.10

Vivaldi Edition: 'Armida'

available at Amazon
Vivaldi, Armida al campo d'Egitto,
Concerto Italiano, R. Alessandrini

(released on May 25, 2010)
Naïve OP 30492 | 2h50
Vivaldi Edition:

available at Amazon
La fida ninfa (2009)


available at Amazon
Atenaide (2007)


available at Amazon
Griselda (2006)


available at Amazon
Tito Manlio (2006)


available at Amazon
Arie d'opera, with Sandrine Piau (2005)


available at Amazon
Orlando finto pazzo (2004)


available at Amazon
La verità in cimento (2003)


available at Amazon
L'Olimpiade (2003)


available at Amazon
Juditha Triumphans (2001)
Opera composers have turned again and again to Torquato Tasso's late Renaissance fantasy epic Gerusalemme liberata (translated in English as Jerusalem Delivered): Handel's Rinaldo and Armida abbandonata, Gluck's Armide, Monteverdi's Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, and Lully's Armide, to name but a few. Add to that list the latest installment from Naïve's Vivaldi Edition, the fruit of a quixotic project to record all of Antonio Vivaldi's work, as found in the manuscripts discovered in the Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino. Rinaldo Alessandrini and his historically informed performance (HIP) ensemble Concerto Italiano return to the project some years after their first full opera contribution, L'Olimpiade. As we have come to expect of Alessandrini's hand at the rudder, the performances are fleet of tempo, taut of ensemble, and just so slightly on edge (for example, in the frenetic fast sections of the overture), drawing a maximum of color from the strings-only ensemble (two horns are occasionally added) -- what Vivaldi had to work with because of the smallness of the pit at Venice's Teatro San Moisè, where Armida al campo d'Egitto was premiered during the 1718 Carnival season.

Tasso's sprawling work intertwines many narrative strands, and Vivaldi chose to set a secondary episode that is somewhat unusual. Librettist Giovanni Palazzi picks up the story of Armida after the two knights have rescued Rinaldo from her enchanted island: as at the memorable end of Lully and Gluck's Armide, when the sorceress destroys her palace in rage and flies off in a winged chariot. In Canto 17, as the Caliph of Cairo, Godfrey's principal enemy, assembles his army in Egpyt -- drawn from throughout the Muslim world -- Armida arrives in her winged chariot, followed by an impressive retinue ("Her chariot like Aurora's glorious wain, / With carbuncles and jacinths glistered round: / Her coachman guided with the golden rein / Four unicorns, by couples yoked and bound"). She offers to surrender herself in marriage to the warrior who can kill Rinaldo, thus causing the Muslim leaders (represented in the opera by Adrasto, Emireno, and Tisaferno) to quarrel in jealousy. The libretto focuses on two love stories, between Osmira (the Caliph's niece, a character added by the librettist) and Adrastus, and between Emireno (an Armenian Christian who renounced the faith and turned to Islam) and his prisoner Erminia (the captured daughter of the King of Antioch, who remains faithful in her love for the Christian knight Tancredi). The usual deceptions, entanglements, and discoveries of opera seria ensue and have to be resolved before the army can march for the final battle, in which they are mostly doomed to die at the hands of the Christians.

If the drama of the plot is mostly lacking, the opera's history had one interesting wrinkle, in that the music for the second act disappeared from the manuscript at some point. What is recorded here is part detective work — three arias that were found in other sources because they were imported into other operas — part reconstructive approximation — taking the text of the libretto (which survives) and making it fit to other arias by Vivaldi — and part outright composition, as in the recitatives, in imitation of Vivaldi's style. The restored second act is the work of Rinaldo Alessandrini and musicologist Frédéric Delaméa, who also contributed the essays in the ample and excellent booklet. (They carried out their work apparently independent and unaware of an American graduate student who was undertaking the same process, under Prof. John Hill at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champlain.) While it is nice to get a sense of the work's dramatic arc, however approximate, it might have been better only to have recorded the three actual arias that survive, while printing the libretto text in the booklet -- especially if it had kept the release down to two discs instead of three.

The cast is generally very good, starting with the chocolate-smooth Armida of contralto Sara Mingardo and the virile mezzo-soprano Romina Basso as the blustery Adrasto (both were created by Vivaldi as trouser roles). A notch below are the Osmira of mezzo-soprano Monica Bacelli, the Emireno of mezzo-soprano Marina Comparato (conceived for a low castrato), and the Erminia of soprano Raffaella Milanesi. Martín Oro is an odd choice for Tisaferno (although Vivaldi did create the role for contralto castrato), a countertenor that sounds quite abrasive at the top and a little throaty and swallowed at the bottom, but baritone Furio Zanasi is appropriately patrician as the Caliph.

23.6.10

DCist: Silverdocs

Dcist logo
The Washington area's most important film festival, Silverdocs, features screenings of documentaries all this week (June 21 to 27). With so many movies covering so many subjects, the writers at DCist have put together a whole series of reviews, some of capsule length and others that are longer, to help you sort out what is important to see. Today's installment includes two reviews by yours truly: while I do not recommend one of the films I previewed, Malcolm Murray's Camera, Camera, people with an interest in contemporary art should be interested in the chance to view The Woodmans, C. Scott Willis's documentary on the all too short life of American photographer Francesca Woodman (1958–1981):
As the title of this thoughtful and beautifully shot documentary implies, the real subject is not only Francesca but the history of a family of artists, especially Francesca's parents, painter George Woodman and ceramicist Betty Woodman. In few families would neither parent raise an eyebrow when their daughter took up photography as she departed for boarding school and then art school. In even fewer would neither parent be alarmed when their daughter's principal photographic subject became her own nude body.

Along with Francesca's parents and brother, who is also an artist, the film features interviews with Francesca's friends from childhood and art school, one of her models in Italy, a former boyfriend, and other artist friends. A much richer understanding of her family life — her parents' obsessive work habits (which she inherited), the family's homes in the United States and Italy, all filled with art, readings from her journal — comes gradually into focus.
The film also features a subtle, gamelan-like score by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, played by the So Percussion ensemble. Screenings are tomorrow (June 24, 5:15 pm) and on Saturday night (June 26, 8:30 pm).

'HIP' Gershwin

available at Amazon
Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, orch. F. Grofé (inter alia), L. Mayorga, Harmonie Ensemble/New York, S. Richman

(released on May 11, 2010)
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907492 | 54'46"
The one reservation we had about Marin Alsop's recent recording of Grofé's arrangements of Gershwin, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, was that it might be better to hear a more jazz-oriented ensemble play those pieces, a group closer to Paul Whiteman's band, for whom they were created. This new Harmonia Mundi release, which came out shortly after that one, answers that question with the performances of Steven Richman's Harmonie Ensemble/New York. The Rhapsody in Blue recorded here features pianist Lincoln Mayorga, one-time staff pianist for the Walt Disney Co. and composer of the score to Fame, and it is not as daring or polished as Thibaudet's. The wind sound is also a little raucous in terms of tone and intonation, with the veteran clarinetist Al Gallodoro (in his 90s at the time of the recording sessions, which occurred not long before he died) on the iconic solo that opens the work. The Rhapsody in Blue is not paired here with the Concerto in F, which is such a signature piece for Thibaudet, but the selection of arrangements of Gershwin songs is also welcome. A slightly boring Yankee Doodle Blues can be compared with a restored version of a 1909 Edison Fireside phonograph recording. All in all, this feels more "authentic" than the Thibaudet/Alsop recording, but still not a necessity.

22.6.10

More (Old) Jaroussky

available at Amazon
Stabat Mater: Motets to the Virgin Mary,
P. Jaroussky, Ensemble Artaserse

(re-released on May 4, 2010)
Virgin Classics 693907 2 | 71'31"
We have admired several recordings featuring Philippe Jaroussky, most recently a fine recital of arias by Johann Christian Bach. Jaroussky's 2006 album Beata virgine, however, was something I had not heard, until this Virgin Classics re-release, sold somewhat confusingly under a new title, arrived recently. It was one of two collaborations (the other being a set of Vivaldi cantatas) between the French countertenor and Artaserse, the instrumental ensemble he formed for that purpose. The program consists of motets in honor of the Virgin Mary, all composed in Venice or Rome in the 17th century. Some are set to standard Marian texts, including the Stabat Mater sequence, here in a florid setting by Giovanni Felice Sances (1600–1679), or the four well-known Marian antiphons, like Giovanni Legrenzi's Ave regina caelorum, one of two duet selections featuring contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux on the second part. Others use antiphon texts from other Marian chants, drawn from the Song of Songs and other sources: the monodic style used in Cavalli's O quam suavis and Caprioli's Vulnerasti cor meum, for example, reinforces the dual nature of the text as erotic love poetry and devotional contemplation. Still others set what seem to be more recent, sometimes rhymed texts, possibly commissioned specifically for a particular occasion, like the multipartite, cantata-like O caeli devota (Colonna) and Corda lingua in amore (Bassani). The latter composer's Sonata prima features the instrumental ensemble on its own, and the instrumental underpinning of many sections of the vocal pieces are driven by dance rhythms or repeating bass patterns. None of the music is overly familiar and all is performed beautifully.

21.6.10

Chopin's Chamber Music

available at Amazon
Chopin, Cellos Sonata / Piano Trio / Grand Duo, A. Brantelid, M. Shirinyan, V. Frang

(released on February 9, 2010)
EMI 6 87742 2 | 68'42"

Online scores:
Chopin's First Editions Online
Here is another release to note in this Chopin anniversary year, which includes almost all of the chamber music that Chopin wrote for instruments other than the piano. The Polish composer took an interest in the cello after meeting French cellist August Franchomme (1808–1884) in Paris, writing his lone cello sonata (G minor, op. 65) for him and teaming up with him to compose the Grand Duo concertant for cello and piano, using themes from Meyerbeer's opera Robert le Diable (Franchomme was playing in performances of this opera in the orchestra of the Opéra de Paris at the time). The only piece from their collaboration that is missing from this new disc is the very early Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major, whose cello part Franchomme helped Chopin to rewrite. The composer's only piano trio (G minor, op. 8) dates from an earlier period, composed for a cello-playing prince back in Poland and with most of the difficult music kept in the piano part, but it rounds out the program beautifully. All of these pieces are amply represented on disc, but if you do not own one of them, this recital by some of EMI's younger musicians -- Danish cellist Andreas Brantelid, Armenian pianist Marianna Shirinyan (a prize winner at the 2006 ARD Music Competition), and Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang (a protégée of Anne-Sophie Mutter, whom we have heard live once before) -- is a good way to get to know them. These pieces are not, for the most part, great music, with the possible exception of the latest one, the cello sonata: something about having to think about other instruments seemed to hamper the freedom of Chopin's imagination. They are played with sensitivity and élan by all three of these young musicians.

20.6.10

Classical Month in Washington (September)

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!

September 4, 2010 (Sat)
11 am
Washington Revels: Songs of Americana [FREE]
Corcoran Gallery of Art

September 5, 2010 (Sun)
8:30 pm
Labor Day Concert [FREE]
National Symphony Orchestra
U. S. Capitol, West Lawn

Small eye
September 10, 2010 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Return of the King (film with live music)
Filene Center, Wolf Trap

September 10, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Season Preview
Music Center at Strathmore

September 11, 2010 (Sat)
Begins at 12 noon
Kennedy Center Open House [FREE]
Kennedy Center

Small eye
September 11, 2010 (Sat)
7 pm
Verdi, Un Ballo in Maschera
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

Small eye
September 11, 2010 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Return of the King (film with live music)
Filene Center, Wolf Trap

Small eye
September 11, 2010 (Sat)
8:30 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Gala Celebration Concert
With Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

Small eye
September 14, 2010 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Verdi, Un Ballo in Maschera
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

Small eye
September 16, 2010 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Verdi, Un Ballo in Maschera
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

Small eye
September 16, 2010 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Damien Guillon (countertenor), Claire Gratton (cello), Kevin Manent-Navratil (harpsichord)
Italian Cantatas from the Time of Farinelli
La Maison Française

Small eye
September 17, 2010 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Verdi, Un Ballo in Maschera
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

Small eye
September 19, 2010 (Sun)
2 pm
Verdi, Un Ballo in Maschera
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House
[Also free simulcast, Opera in the Outfield, at Nationals Stadium]

September 19, 2010 (Sun)
4 pm
Vivaldi Project
C.P.E. Bach, Six String Symphonies
National Presbyterian Church

Small eye
September 20, 2010 (Mon)
7 pm
Verdi, Un Ballo in Maschera
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

September 21, 2010 (Tue)
6 pm
BSO Rusty Musicians
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

September 21, 2010 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Washington Musica Viva
Ratner Museum (Bethesda, Md.)

September 21, 2010 (Tue)
8 pm
Christian Fennesz
Sonic Circuit Festival
Mansion at Strathmore

Small eye
September 22, 2010 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Verdi, Un Ballo in Maschera
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

September 23, 2010 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Nima Sarkechik, piano (all-Chopin program)
La Maison Française

September 23, 2010 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Asteria (soprano and lute duo)
Mansion at Strathmore

September 24, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Mahler, Symphony No. 7
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

September 24, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Post-Classical Ensemble
Gershwin Project: Russian Gershwin
Clarice Smith Center

September 25, 2010 (Sat)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra: Season Opening Ball
With Renée Fleming (soprano) and Lang Lang (piano)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

September 25, 2010 (Sat)
7 pm
Verdi, Un Ballo in Maschera
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

September 25, 2010 (Sat)
7 pm
U. S. Navy Sea Chanters
Washington National Cathedral

September 25, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Mahler, Symphony No. 7
Music Center at Strathmore

September 26, 2010 (Sun)
6 pm
Emerson String Quartet
National Museum of Natural History

September 26, 2010 (Sun)
7:30 pm
Jacques Ogg (harpsichord), Kenneth Slowik (viola da gamba)
Smithsonian Chamber Music Society
National Museum of American History

September 27, 2010 (Mon)
7:30 pm
NOW Ensemble
Music by Alexandra Gardner and others
Mansion at Strathmore

September 27, 2010 (Mon)
8 pm
Jordi Savall with Tembembe Ensemble Continuo
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

September 30, 2010 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
Music by Pintscher and Beethoven (Ninth Symphony)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

September 30, 2010 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Rachel Franklin Quartet (jazz-classical)
Mansion at Strathmore

September 30, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Stefan Jackiw, violin (Mendelssohn concerto)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

September 30, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
University of Maryland Wind Ensemble
With Linda Mabbs, soprano (music by Strauss, Adams, Schwantner)
Clarice Smith Center

In Brief: Vuvuzela Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • That annoying horn thing that fans blow nonstop at the World Cup matches in South Africa is called the vuvuzela. [Wikipedia]

  • Despite apparently not caring much for soccer, Jessica Duchen has put together a fact sheet on this accursed instrument. [Standpoint]

  • All week Twitterers have been coming up with ideas for pieces to commission for the vuvuzela. [#vuvuzelapiece]

  • An acoustical engineer explains why the vuvuzela is such an accursed annoyance. [New Scientist]

  • Speaking of the vuvuzela, how did that thing get on our home page? [Ionarts]

  • It's official, and it's about time: the next generation of conductors is taking over many of the major orchestral posts. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, 35, will be named music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012. We have reviewed him with the NSO in 2008, an appearance that had us speculating whether he was being considered for the post here in Washington. [Playbill Arts]

  • Norman Lebrecht expresses some legitimate concerns about the future of the Philadelphia Orchestra -- and they have little to do with the appointment of Nézet-Séguin. [Slipped Disc]

  • The Paris en Toutes Lettres festival last week concluded with a "Banquet Hugolien," in honor of Victor Hugo, on June 13: literary nuts of all kinds gathered near the author's home on the Place des Vosges (no. 6) in Paris to offer a tribute. [Libération]

  • People who work in opera companies and worry about attracting new audiences should read this little post by Jessa Crispin about how she became an opera addict. Jessa is exactly the sort of person whom you would expect to like opera -- smart, cultured, insanely well read -- but she had never been to one. "I have become a person who goes to the opera. I'm not entirely sure how this happened, except that..." Jessa is buying a season subscription to the opera -- now, grant you, she lives in Berlin and this is the Deutsche Oper -- for next season. [Bookslut]

  • In the same post Jessa also has some great thoughts on the sexism inherent in many operas: "The entire show was about how women are simultaneously three things: brainless automatons, prima donnas, and whores," she writes. Anyone have guesses about the opera she saw? Tales of Hoffmann, maybe? (The answer is in the link at the end.) Now about the sexism in that opera, consider the source, Jessa! Her thoughts about sexism are something to which opera directors may want to give some thought. [Deutsche Oper Berlin]

  • I am so using the word "twiffler" at the next dinner party I attend -- and boring fellow guests with its etymological derivation from the Dutch word twijfelaar. [Languagehat]

  • Starbucks To Begin Sinister 'Phase Two' Of Operation: "Though the coffee chain's specific plans are not known, existing Starbucks franchises across the nation have been locked down with titanium shutters across all windows. In each coffee shop's door hangs the familiar Starbucks logo, slightly altered to present the familiar mermaid figure as a cyclopean mermaid whose all-seeing eye forms the apex of a world-spanning pyramid." [The Onion]

  • Sometimes critics tire of what they cover, and that seemed to be what happened when Terry Teachout started writing mostly about jazz and theater, instead of classical music. Teachout had a new piece this week, in the Wall Street Journal, about what to do about regional orchestras that may be failing in the bad economy. A reader had a few problems with it. [Adaptistration]

19.6.10

Victoria Laments

available at Amazon
Victoria, Lamentations of Jeremiah,
Tallis Scholars

(released on March 9, 2010)
Gimell CDGIM 043 | 64'08"
We have sung the praises of the recordings of the Tallis Scholars many times before, especially the ones from the golden age of their sound. Musical settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah are a recurring topic here this year, to which we now add Victoria's settings of these texts for the Triduum, published as part of his large collection of polyphony for Holy Week. It is not particularly ornate music, like much of what Victoria composed, in a largely homophonic style, with bits of polyphonic imitation here and there, both austere and colored by unusual dissonance. The only gesture of ornamental flourish is that the composer includes alternate versions of the refrain at the end of each grouping ("Jerusalem, Jerusalem"), one for the same number of voices as the rest of the score, which varies from group to group, and another with an added voice (the Tallis Scholars record all of them, for completeness's sake). Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611) is another composer who will celebrate a major anniversary next year, the 400th of his death, and we may certainly expect some performances of his Requiem Mass and motets. The Lamentations lessons and responsories of Holy Week will hopefully make an appearance next year, too. This is a beautifully sung recording, filled out with another setting of a Lamentations reading, by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla. The only widely available competition is also very good, an older recording by The Sixteen, of all nine of Victoria's Lamentations settings, plus two of the composer's other motets for Holy Week.

18.6.10

Jennifer Koh Sultry in Szymanowski's Exotic Fantasy

Dcist logo
See my review of the National Symphony Orchestra published today at DCist:

DCist Goes to the Symphony: Jennifer Koh (DCist, June 18):

available at Amazon
Portraits (Concertos by Szymanowski, Martinů, Bartók), J. Koh, Grant Park Orchestra, C. Kalmar
For the last subscription concerts of the season, the National Symphony Orchestra brought guest conductor Juraj Valčuha to the podium last night, in an alluring program of Haydn, Szymanowski, and Mahler. This concludes a two-year interim period before incoming music director Christoph Eschenbach takes the reins of the orchestra in the fall. The weekly game of "Who's Conducting This Week?" has given the NSO faithful the chance to make the acquaintance of a broad range of guest conductors, and Valčuha's debut with the orchestra is one of the high points. In one sense, this is a program for cognoscenti rather than those concert-goers who most enjoy hearing the same expected favorites over and over again. On the other hand, it is also excellent listening, plain and simple.

Jennifer Koh, heard in a Terrace Theater recital last month, was the soloist in Karol Szymanowski's first violin concerto, a work not heard from the NSO in almost twenty years. This exotic and sensual piece, conceived in one movement as a series of languorous and ecstatic vignettes, was inspired by the Polish composer's visits as a (homo)sexual tourist in North Africa. Koh's Stradivarius (the ex-Grumiaux ex-General DuPont, made in 1727) pined with sighing portamenti and shimmered in its flowing, pure line colored by blue notes, all perfectly in tune. In the fast sections of the concerto, however, the sound was a little too demure, not quite brazen enough to break through Szymanowski's amassed orchestra, much of it arrayed in full only for a few orgasmic swells, the rest only coloristic touches — harp swooshes, celesta tinkles, the dawn tweeting of woodwind birds, tinges of percussion. [Continue reading]
National Symphony Orchestra
With Juraj Valčuha (conductor) and Jennifer Koh (violin)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

SEE ALSO:

17.6.10

Marx's Piano Music

available at Amazon
Joseph Marx, Pieces for Piano, T. Lemoh

(released on July 29, 2008)
Chandos CHAN 10479 | 54'38"
Having recently raved about the songs of Joseph Marx (1882–1964), I was pleased to get my hands on this new disc of the Austrian composer's piano music. Through the work of the Joseph-Marx-Gesellschaft and supportive musicians, Marx's music, in a stubbornly ultra-chromatic tonal style, is slowly being rediscovered. The performer on this recording, Tonya Lemoh (who thus makes her debut on the Chandos label), was born in Australia, although her father is from Sierra Leone; she studied in Sydney, at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and ultimately at the Royal Academy of Music in Århus. She is now on the piano faculty of the University of Copenhagen, and one can read her Web site in either Danish or English (click on the Australian flag).

Lemoh's eclectic recital debut was noted for its technical achievement (if not interpretative perfection) and unusual repertoire choices. The same fortitude is apparent in the fuller passages of the meat of the selection here, Marx's 40-minute Six Pieces for Piano from 1916, especially in the steely voicing of the entrances of the thickly textured fugue (third in Lemoh's arrangement of the movements). A decadently Romantic wanness is beautifully applied to the more translucent pieces in the set, like the Albumblatt and a Debussy-esque Arabeske, and playful esprit comes to the fore with the Humoreske. Lemoh is the first pianist to make a recording of the four other Marx pieces included here, all of them unpublished and rediscovered from manuscripts in the Austrian National Library. Die Flur der Engel is a little tiresome with its constant harp-like arpeggiation, but the other three pieces -- Herbst-Legende (Adagio), Carneval (Nachtstück), and Canzone -- are worthy discoveries. The full-bodied Steinway D is captured in excellent sound, with a few stray noises. Lemoh's future projects include a disc of piano music by Danish composer Svend Erik Tarp (1908–1994) for Da Capo and a Russian CD for Chandos, which we hope to hear soon.

16.6.10

Wolf Trap's 'Zaide' an Intergalactic Failure

available at Amazon
N. Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment:
Truth, Virtue, and Beauty in Mozart's Operas


available at Amazon
Mozart, Zaide, Academy of
Ancient Music, P. Goodwin


available at Amazon
Mozart, Zaide (dir. P. Sellars)
In 1779, Mozart began work on a full-length Singspiel, without a specific commission but with the possible intention of submitting the work to Emperor Joseph II, who had plans to launch a German language opera theater in Vienna. He worked with a friend in Salzburg, the trumpeter Johann Andreas Schachtner, to adapt an existing libretto, Das Serail, based on Voltaire's tragedy Zaïre (which had already been parodied as Les enfans trouvés, ou Le sultan poli par l'amour by Biancolelli and Co. for the Comédie-Italienne at the time of its premiere). The young Mozart never finished the opera, but what remains of it is known as Zaide (ed. Friedrich-Heinrich Neumann, Neue Mozart-Ausgabe). When Mozart finally escaped Salzburg, he realized that the work was still not funny enough for Viennese audiences, who preferred comic operas, and shortly after began composing a similar but more broadly comic rescue opera set in a Turkish harem, Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

In his book Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue, and Beauty in Mozart's Operas, Nicholas Till calls Zaide "Mozart's most personal, even autobiographical work," revealing the composer's "desperate state of mind in Salzburg during 1779 and 1780." The main character's name, Gomatz, is almost an anagram of Mozart -- indeed, he signed one of his letters as "Romatz" around the same time he was working on Zaide -- and he described his unhappy existence working for Archbishop Colloredo as "Slavery in Salzburg." As Till puts it:

Zaide, the vision who appears to him in his despairing sleep, is his muse: opera, or more particularly, German opera, whose portrait keeps the flame of hope alive in his breast. [...] German opera is unliberated too, an exile like Mozart, 'tearfully yearning for her fatherland' and for the savior who will rescue her. [...] The trinkets which Gomatz takes, and for which Zaide reproaches him, are the false lures of money which Mozart must resist if he is to serve his art without compromise. [...] Allazim is eventually revealed to be the father of both Gomatz and Zaide. Clearly, for Mozart, he represents his father, Leopold. Life Wolfgang, Leopold is a slave, although one who has accepted his servitude and relinquished the dream of freedom. But he is a slave with authority over Wolfgang, and has the power to help his son escape to fulfill his destiny, or to restrain him. (pp. 58–59)
Unfortunately, not even the chance to see Zaide in an all too rare live staging is worth having to sit through Wolf Trap Opera's cosmically awful production, which is what I did at the third performance on Tuesday night. The singing was not the problem, although more than in recent years this cast was heavier on future promise than present polish. Tenor Nathaniel Peake certainly had enough raw power as a menacing Soliman, and Michael Sumuel did his best to keep Osmin's laughing aria Wer hungrig bei der Tafel sitzt light and comic in the heavy-handed context of this staging. Hana Park’s soprano had an overactive vibrato and a tendency to thin out in the high passages of Zaide’s pieces, which are heard from time to time in recital. The imprecision of tone made the high semitone groupings ("daß man Ihre") in Trostlos schluchzet Philomele, for example, an unappealing blur. Paul Appleby made a fine Gomatz, limited by a slightly nasal and unsure top. Daniel Billings must have felt ridiculous as Allazim, at least in this particular costume (something like a Rastafarian drag queen with a Borg laser eyepiece -- costumes designed by Mattie Ullrich), and seemed to force the bottom of his voice, pushing long held notes off pitch (like Sumuel and Peake, mostly concerned with singing as loudly as possible). The small orchestra, jam-packed into the tiny pit, played well under conductor Gary Thor Wedow.

Director James Marvel announced right from the beginning that this was not the slightly fanciful Turkish seraglio of Mozart’s libretto but a terrifying alien setting. It was a somewhat predictable follow-up to Marvel's staging of Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse last summer, which was also set in a futuristic hellscape, just more Mad Max than Flash Gordon. The concept was made clear during the overture, in which Soliman's servants -- three wraith-like specters, one with enormous claws -- tortured the inmates of their intergalactic prison with laser-pointer ray guns and other implements (set designed by Erhard Rom, with video and projections by S. Katy Tucker and lighting by Robert H. Grimes). Mozart did not get around to writing an overture for Zaide, of course, because it was generally the last thing he did in the composition of an opera. Charles Osborne, in his book The Complete Operas of Mozart: A Critical Guide, teases apart the documentary evidence about Zaide, including Alfred Einstein's suggestion (not definitive) that a one-movement, overture-like symphony Mozart composed around this time (K. 318, G major) was the opera's missing overture.


Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Anne Midgette revisits Wolf Trap's staging of Mozart's 'Zaide' (Washington Post, June 14)

---, Wolf Trap lets audience choose the ending to Mozart's unfinished opera 'Zaide' (Washington Post, June 10)

Terry Ponick, Wolf Trap's "Zaide" down for the count (Washington Times, June 13)

Tim Smith, Wolf Trap Opera lets audience choose finale for Mozart's unfinished 'Zaide' (Baltimore Sun, June 17)

Emily Cary, Costumer brings characters in Mozart's 'Zaide' to life (Washington Examiner, June 11)
This production used the first movement of the better-known G minor symphony, K. 183, instead, as the backdrop to an extended torture scene, for no apparent reason. The extant libretto does not even mention the torture and execution that Soliman will visit on the escaped slaves until they are recaptured in the second act. In fact, the first part of the opera emphasizes that the hardship being faced is the imprisonment of slavery, what Mozart felt he faced in Salzburg (and which Peter Sellars emphasized in his modernization of the opera). Soliman even laments that he showed such an easy hand with the young couple, and when he has them again in his power, he swears to be harsh.

How, after this completely invented and gratuitously violent farce of cruelty, the audience is supposed to turn around and accept the milder character of Mozart's actual opera, like Osmin's laughing aria, was a mystery. In such an environment, how could any of the characters appear to interact normally and trust others at all? What possible relevance, as Gomatz points out, does Zaide's Christianity have to Soliman as Ming the Merciless? And why, after this overture, when Soliman gets around to doing the torturing that is actually mentioned in the libretto -- but never actually carried out, nota bene -- does he turn to knives, pistols, and -- what else -- waterboarding? One would think he would call back the wraiths with the pain phasers. If Soliman's cruelty had been actually a little more like Flash Gordon, just a campy joke, the staging might have had a chance, but if we are to take the torture seriously, as the director apparently intends, any sense of dramatic verisimilitude is spoiled.

Most disappointingly, the company's director, Kim Pensinger Witman, musters a half-hearted defense of the production on her blog, but the fact is that she, as a level-headed person who takes very seriously her role of fostering young singers, should have pulled the plug on this terrible production. The director hurts not only himself, hoping to be daring and controversial but ultimately creating something that is merely bad: he makes these young singers, who have put their trust in the name and reputation of the company, look ridiculous. In fact, the violence so overshadowed the entire work that the other added gimmick -- the audience choosing one of the three endings to work left without one by Mozart -- seemed utterly superfluous. As long as the evening came to an end as swiftly as possible, how it ended hardly mattered.

There is one more performance of Zaide at Wolf Trap, on Saturday (July 19, 7:30 pm), for anyone who likes their Mozart with a generous serving of sadism.

15.6.10

Mark Morris Dance Group: 'V' Is for 'Visitation'


Empire Garden, Mark Morris Dance Group (photo by Gene Schiavone)
The historic snowstorms that hit the Washington area in February turned the year upside down in many ways, and not only for someone like me who teaches in a school during the day. In practical terms many performances were canceled this winter, and one of those was finally rescheduled on this past Saturday night at the George Mason University Center for the Arts. In general when the Mark Morris Dance Group comes to the area, we try to attend, even if it involves a long trip out to Fairfax and especially when the journey through the wilds of Virginia means the chance to see the local premieres of three new works by the prolific American choreographer. Rescheduling a touring performance four months later is not easy, especially for a choreographer like Morris, who insists on performing to live music, performed here, as always, by musicians who are associated with the troupe.

The first half consisted of a pair of short ballets premiered only last summer, during the Tanglewood Festival, and since taken on the road to London and other cities. Like the longer work on the second half, V (that's the Roman numeral for five), both are set to chamber music, and they reflect that more intimate type of music for fewer voices, something that was literally designed for a person's home. Morris choreographed Visitation to Beethoven's fourth sonata for cello and piano, performed here by cellist Wolfram Koessel and pianist Colin Fowler (the performances at Lincoln Center featured Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax). Not unlike other Morris choreographies, Visitation opens with an odd number of dancers, five, and seems to be about the search for pairing, both fulfilled and frustrated, here represented by the solo figure of Maile Okamura. There was also a close correspondence between the musical inspiration and the gestures, another typical Morris quality, here pervaded by a child-like innocence in the movements, which also followed the formal structure of each movement. The slow grace of the opening sections of the second movement exploded for the Allegro vivace conclusion, down to the low notes of the cello part being represented by a funeral procession-like carrying of inert dancers to the playful shove of partners to the floor with Beethoven's forceful final cadences.


Other Articles:

Sarah Kaufman, Mark Morris Dance Group performs at George Mason Center for the Arts (Washington Post, June 14)

---, In the world of choreographer Mark Morris, live music is key (Washington Post, June 12)

PREVIOUSLY:
Mozart Dances (Kennedy Center, 2009)
Dido and Aeneas (George Mason, 2008)
Empire Garden takes its completely different character -- capturing something of the splashy exuberance and corny enthusiasm of an American parade (or perhaps political campaign) -- from the Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano of Charles Ives. The brightly colored costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman recall marching band uniforms or circus outfits, reinforcing the air of stylized, ultimately empty display created by Morris's choreography of often robotic movements (jagged, accented jumps, strutting march patterns, and an alternately disconcerting or amusing gargoyle-like yawning of the mouth). The campiness is most pronounced in the scherzo second movement (which Ives titled "TSIAJ," supposedly an acronym for "This scherzo is a joke"), filled with some corny quotations of American folk songs and even Yale fraternity tunes. Morris's choreography seems equally tongue in cheek.

The more serious work on the second half, V, is set to Schumann's op. 44 piano quintet, a work recently described here as "one of the most perfect works of chamber music" in a gorgeous performance by the Takács Quartet and Joyce Yang. The musical performance presented here was not up to that level but provided a good enough background for the choreography, dating from 2001 and now a Morris classic. Two sets of seven dancers are set off by their different costumes -- satiny bluebird shorts and semi-open blouses versus celery green tank tops and slacks (designed by Martin Pakledinaz). Once again, the score's motifs are matched to memorable movements that help underscore the musical forms: the funeral march of the second movement corresponded to a mechanical crawling on the floor that ran through the whole movement, for example, and the fugal transformation of the last movement's theme was represented by the repetition of the corresponding gestures by a pair of dancers at each statement.

You have to wait only until next season for the Mark Morris Dance Group to return to the George Mason University Center for the Arts, for a stop on its 30th anniversary tour on February 4, 2011.




Mark Morris on the relationship of music and dance

14.6.10

'Tempest' in the 17th Century

available at Amazon
Locke, Music for The Tempest,
Il Giardino Armonico


available at Amazon
The Tempest (music by Locke
and others), Folger Consort


available at Amazon
The Enchanted Island (Music for a
Restoration "Tempest"), Musicians of
the Globe, P. Pickett

[Buy new at Arkiv]
The Folger Consort appended a special program to their 2009–2010 season, heard in its second performance on Friday night in the Music Center at Strathmore. If you are a regular reader here or of my weekly concert picks column at DCist, you heard about the special discounted tickets available for this performance and hopefully took advantage of the offer. As expected, it turned out to be the best concert of the Folger's season, for the strength of the musical selections and the accomplishment of the performers, both musical and dramatic.

The performance was a two-hour distillation of Shakespeare's enigmatic and excellent play The Tempest, arranged and directed by Richard Clifford. Carefully chosen excerpts from the play gave the bare outline of the story and touched on some of its most powerful language. As read (from scripts rather than recited) by Clifford and Derek Jacobi, Shakespeare's words sounded both plain and quotidian and yet grandly poetic. It was not only a well-trained awareness of the meter, which fits with the Shakespearean accentuation of "The Duke of Milan" (with the name of the Italian city pronounced like the last two syllables of MacMillan), for example, but the sort of expertise with the words and phrasing that comes from a lifetime in the British Shakespearean tradition.

Clifford gave a rough-hewn voice and crude gestures to the bestial character of Caliban, an interpretation that somehow recalled the leading academic interpretation of the play, as a deconstruction of colonial exploitation of master-slave relationships. The most memorable readings, no surprise, were by Jacobi, especially the last roar of Prospero and the magician's tender, resigned epilogue, but also a hilariously drunken Stephano. Local actress Holly Twyford filled in for the late Lynn Redgrave, taking the parts of Ariel, Miranda, and Trinculo. The amplification problems that bedeviled the Thursday performance were thankfully resolved (for the most part, other than a few odd noises that crept into the sound).

This unusual story, often comic but not exactly a comedy and sometimes tragic but certainly not a tragedy, has inspired many musical settings, including incidental music to accompany the play by Arthur Sullivan, Sibelius, and many others, as well as several operatic adaptations, the best and most recent of which is by Thomas Adès. Matthew Locke's extensive collection of musical pieces, composed for Thomas Shadwell's quasi-operatic adaptation of the play in 1674 (using the version of the text put together by John Dryden and William Davenant), is among the best, which deserves a chance to be heard with a more complete staging of the Shakespeare original. This pleasing music, infused with Baroque dance rhythms and sounding cut from the same cloth as Locke's approximate contemporary Lully, outshone most of the vocal selections by the other composers involved in that massive 1674 production (John Banister, Pelham Humphrey, and Pietro Reggio).


Other Review:

Joan Reinthaler, The Folger Consort's 'Tempest' with Sir Derek Jacobi (Washington Post, June 11)
The small orchestra fielded by the Folger Consort suffered from a slight lack of ensemble -- especially between the violins, not always in unity of tone and intonation and separated on one side by the continuo group, and the violas and cellos on the other side -- due to the lack of a conductor. The winds, on the other hand, sounded excellent both as part of the whole texture and in their outings as a solo group. Adam Pearl should be commended for stepping in at short notice to replace Webb Wiggins at the harpsichord: the substitution caused a few minor delays as cues were sorted out with the singers, but he played well.

available at Amazon
D. Daniels, Sento amor, Orchestra of
the Age of Enlightenment, H. Bicket
Baritone Robert McDonald's voice was more brash than smooth and mellow, which unbalanced some of the duets with his vocal partner, the outstanding countertenor David Daniels. Most of the vocal selections were forgettable and squandered the talent of both singers: dramatic recitatives (like Prospero's spell Arise, ye subterranean winds, by Reggio) and little duo couplets (like My Lord: Great Neptune, for my sake, by Humphrey). Some were worth discovering, especially the airs for Ariel, like Banister's Come unto these yellow sands and Humphrey's Where the bee sucks, sung by Daniels with clarity and humor.

Two selections taken from Handel's operas were marginally related to the story: the graceful but anguished slow aria Qual nave smarrita (from Radamisto, in which Daniels starred at Santa Fe Opera a couple years ago) and the dizzyingly virtuosic fireworks display Furibondo spira il vento (from Partenope, which Daniels recorded on his album Sento amor). The texts, like most arias written in the 18th century, are meant to be dramatic spare parts, so that singers or composers could take them from their original context and plug them into unrelated operas where the sentiment was similar: the words compare the character's unspecified personal suffering to the tossing of a ship or the lashing of fierce winds. Truthfully, the only reason they were included was that one of the world's leading Handelians was on the stage, and that's good enough for me.



Handel, Furibondo spira il vento, from Partenope
(David Daniels, Sento amor)