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31.10.10

In Brief: Video Edition


Jan Švankmajer - Dimensions of dialogue
Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • The Forum des Images in Paris has presented all of the films of the Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer (made between 1964 and 2010), with the filmmaker present (the festival concluded today). His stop-motion animated film Dimensions of Dialogue (Možnosti dialogu) caused a sensation at film festivals in Annecy and Berlin, with heads made of fruits and vegetables or clay carrying out hallucinatory action. Terry Gilliam, who calls Švankmajer's work "nightmarish," put it on his list of the ten best animated films of all time. Marie Lechner has an appreciation and an interview. [Libération]

  • If you live in France, you can enter a contest to win a DVD of some of Švankmajer's short films. [Forum des Images]

  • Marie-Aude Roux informs us in Le Monde of the new Web site where concerts will be streamed live and online for a limited duration, from the Cité de la musique and from the Salle Pleyel. [Cité de la musique Live]

  • For example, Paavo Järvi conducting the Orchestre de Paris and violinist Vadim Repin in concert. Also, Maria-Joao Pires, the Quatuor Ebene, and many others. [Orchestre de Paris]

  • Baroque music, too, like Sandrine Piau and Bernarda Fink singing Pergolesi's Stabat mater with the Berliner Barock Solisten. Les Arts Florissants and many other groups, going back several years. An embarrassment of riches. [Pergolesi]

30.10.10

Les Noces and Oedipus Rex

available at Amazon
Stravinsky, Les Noces / Oedipus Rex, S. Semishkur, E. Nikitin,
E. Semenchuk, G. Depardieu,
Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus,
V. Gergiev

(released on June 8, 2010)
MAR 0510 | 73'49"
Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater have joined the trend and formed their own personal recording label, launched last year. Their Parsifal received many admiring reviews (thoughts on that one forthcoming), and this recent disc, pairing Stravinsky's rustic wedding dance ballet Les Noces and lean, neoclassical opera Oedipus Rex, is another winner. Gergiev and his Russian musicians have a beautiful angle on Les Noces, a work whose all-percussion score of four pianos and battery is one of the most austere and rhythmically dynamic of Stravinsky's career. As he revised the original, more traditional scoring, Stravinsky was aiming for a percussive, folk-percussion kind of sound, and he experimented with an all-mechanical version for pianola and other automated instruments (a solution that he ultimately abandoned, although a Dutch reconstruction/completion of the idea was recently attempted). The frenetic nature of the work is right up Gergiev's alley, and he turns in a boisterous performance, fraying just a bit at the edges from vodka-inspired excess. At new release prices, this disc may not be the best deal, as some classic recordings of Les Noces, conducted by Bernstein and the composer himself (the former with Martha Argerich and Krystian Zimerman among the pianists, and the latter with Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, and Roger Sessions at the keyboards), are cheaper (although only as part of large sets).

Stravinsky distilled the devastating Greek tragedy of Oedipus by Sophocles into a two-part short opera-oratorio of ritual tautness. With an austere orchestration and the adaptation of Cocteau translated into Latin (the sung parts, not the narration), which Stravinsky insisted be sung with a classical, not ecclesiastical pronunciation, Oedipus Rex aims to take opera back to its roots in Greek tragedy. Julie Taymor famously directed a production of the work in Japan, using elements of Nobuki theater to capture that ritual aspect of the work: it is available on DVD, and you can see a snippet of Jessye Norman's unforgettable Jocasta in the video below. Gergiev entrusts the role to the volcanic mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, who is the best part of the cast, supported by the full-throated Mariinsky Chorus. Strangely, for a Russian version of the work, Gergiev chose to have the narration read in the original French: Gérard Depardieu turns in a beautifully declaimed and affecting performance. The result is not as universally good as Gergiev's Les Noces, but worth a listen.


29.10.10

Free Tickets for Alice Coote Recital

Alice Coote was at the Library of Congress a couple weeks ago, on tour with the English Concert and violinist Rachel Podger. The extraordinary British mezzo-soprano returns to Washington next Thursday (November 4, 7:30 pm), for what promises to be a remarkable recital of English songs, presented by Vocal Arts D.C. at the Kennedy Center. The kind folks at Vocal Arts D.C. are offering some free tickets to this recital to you, faithful Ionarts readers. Just send an e-mail message, with "COOTE" in the subject line to info@vocalartsdc.org, listing your first and last name, address, phone number, and e-mail address, and let them know how many seats you want (a limit of two seats per e-mail address).

Embedded below is video of Alice Coote's performance of Brahms's Alto Rhapsody at the opening concert of the 2009 Proms, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Almost as entertaining is the little introductory panel discussion about the piece, led by Proms presenter Clive Anderson.


See Part 2 of this performance

28.10.10

Cherry Tree

available at Amazon
The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols,
and Ballads for Christmas
,
Anonymous 4

(released on September 14, 2010)
HMU 807453 | 58'40"
The program heard on this new CD from the esteemed vocal quartet Anonymous 4 received the coveted Ionarts Best Holiday Concert award for 2009. In fact, a snippet from my review of that live performance, at Dumbarton Oaks, for the Washington Post is blurbed on the CD's back cover. The CD's title is drawn from a 15th-century English carol, in which the yet-to-be-born Jesus, inside Mary's womb, causes a cherry tree to bend down for his mother to pick its fruit, as a sign to her betrothed, Joseph. This song also provides the thematic thread that weaves together this selection of late medieval chant, 15th-century English polyphony, and Anglo-American folk song: although the Cherry Tree carol is found in Renaissance English sources, Marsha Genensky sings it in a version written down in Kentucky in the early 20th century (just a few steps in style from versions of the tune by Joan Baez or Peter, Paul, and Mary).

Purists worried about getting something other than the medieval and Renaissance repertory associated with the group can relax. The lion's share of the music on the disc is from Irish and English sources of the 14th and 15th centuries, some in Latin and some in Renaissance English. The folk tunes are taken from the collection Southern Harmony and one from the works of William Billings, sung in a way that emphasizes beauty of tone over trying to recreate some "unlearned" (ugly) sound. That fabled Anonymous 4 sound -- seamless blend, near-faultless intonation, sensitive phrasing in both chant and polyphony -- is back, too, after some years of the group being less in view in concert and on disc. (As many publicists and fans reminded me, the group's farewell tour in 2004 did not mean that Anonymous 4 disbanded -- how silly of me even to think such a thing! -- they continued to work together but with less frequency.) Johanna Maria Rose, who struggled vocally in the group's 2004 concert here in Washington, has been replaced by Ruth Cunningham, returning to sing alongside Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, who replaced Cunningham when she left the group in 1998. This is a no-brainer recommendation for a Christmas gift for that early music (or folk music) nut in your life.

27.10.10

Musicians from Marlboro

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.


Clarinetist Sarah Beaty (Photo: sarahbeaty.co.uk)
Marlboro Music, the venerable music festival in Vermont, comes to Washington three times a year when performers bring some of the summer's programs to the Freer Gallery of Art. These free concerts are most welcome to those of us, unlike Alex Ross, not lucky enough to spend some time in the summer at Marlboro, chatting with Mitsuko Uchida over her personalized plate and cappuccino cup at the campus coffee shop. The first installment of this year's three Musicians from Marlboro concerts was last night, and it combined one beloved gem of the chamber music repertoire, Mozart's clarinet quintet, and three less familiar, more recent pieces.

The discovery of the first half was mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson, a current participant in the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development program. She produced a rich, limpid tone, evenly balanced from a coffee-dark bottom to a ringing top that was never strained or strident, a voice one hopes to hear many times more. She sang Ottorino Respighi's extended song Il Tramonto from memory, the Italian translation of Percy Shelly's poem The Sunset illustrated by the composer's string quartet arrangement of the score. The sound of this kind of warm but not overpowering voice with string quartet is so appealing: one wishes for an entire program of such pieces for a future season of Vocal Arts D.C. The quartet pieced together from Marlboro provided lush chords, searching lines curling upward, and a dark-hued background for the song's tragic turn, unfortunately with some infelicitous intonation. Johnson's other piece was just as effective, a 2003 song cycle, Der Gayst funem Shturem, by last year's composer-in-residence at Marlboro, Robert Cuckson. These Yiddish poems (.PDF file) by Binem Heller are a reflection on the tragedies of the Warsaw Ghetto, which the poet managed to escape. The score's odd combination of instruments may reflect the ensemble that was available to the composer, but the possibilities of bringing together a string quintet with harp, clarinet, and horn must limit the future life of the work, as moving as it was. It featured evocative and assured performances from harpist Sivan Magen and horn player Angela Cordell Bilger.

The bon-bon offered between these substantial and tragic vocal works was Dvořák's waltzes, two of the pieces from op. 54, arranged by the composer quite effectively for string quartet plus double bass, the latter played beautifully by Zachary Cohen. Both waltzes -- the first melancholy and pleasingly varied in rubato and the second overflowing with vitality and fun -- provided just the right diversion. As for that Mozart clarinet quintet, the always marvelous K. 581, it featured the best instrumental performance of the evening in clarinetist Sarah Beaty. John Adams, himself a clarinetist, wrote in his recent autobiography that the clarinet's technical enhancements have made it a relatively easy instrument for a competent person to play: be that as it may, Beaty had a consistent and pure tone, controlled and never forced, shaped immaculately into beautiful phrases. The second-movement Larghetto was exquisitely delicate, inwardly focused and the harmonic tension of the passages in suspensions not overdone, and the third movement's dances were charming. Extensive tuning of the string quartet's instruments at many breaks seemed to indicate that the evening's many intonation problems were due to the humid weather or the excessive air conditioning in the Freer's beautiful auditorium. (The group performed the same program at the Gardner Museum on Sunday, and the recording should appear on their podcast series eventually.) The concluding variations were gay and lively, crisply articulated, with a fun duel between the first violin and clarinet in the fourth variation and an exciting flourish of clarinet cadenza at the end of the penultimate variation.

The last two concerts of the Musicians from Marlboro series at the Freer Gallery of Art are scheduled for the spring (April 7 and May 5).

26.10.10

Philadelphia in Good Hands: Interview with Yannick Nézet-Séguin

This is excerpted from a longer interview with Yannick Nézet-Séguin to appear on Classical WETA in January. Friday through Sunday, October 29th through the 31st he will lead his first concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra since being named their new music director.



To say that Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a busy young man would be an understatement. The impossibly charming conductor with the boyish face and petite frame looks even younger than his 35 years when he appears at the terrace of the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg on a lovely August day this Summer. The fact that he’s had three free days in six weeks doesn’t show. In Salzburg he conducted 16 performances of Don Giovanni and Romeo and Juliette, and because there was a lacunae in his schedule, he took the Rotterdams Philharmonisch, one of the four orchestras he now has a close, contractual relation with, to the Proms. If Dudamel is the most hyped of the young generation, and Andris Nelsons quietly the one with the with the greatest potential, Nézet-Séguin is congenial whizz kid who heads from success to success. This season alone the Music Director Designate of the Philadelphia Orchestra will make his debuts with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome, Milan’s La Scala Orchestra, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

On October 29th, he will conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra for the first time since being named Charles Dutoit’s (and Christoph Eschenbach’s) successor. The program—Haydn’s 100th and Mahler’s 5th Symphony—had been decided before he was appointed, and he explains what he meant to achieve with it: “It was supposed to be my third visit with an orchestra which I already adored and with which I was wishing to continue a partnership. After having already done one program which was Russian, really romantic with ‘Tchaik 6’ and ‘Rachmaninoff 2’ [Piano Concerto], the second program was a very tricky one, but one we pulled off very well… with the Franck Symphony, and a new—well, not a new piece, but a new piece for them: “Orion”, by Claude Vivienne Vivier, and Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. So we had explored already a few things so we decided that ‘OK, on the third visit I should go in for something that the orchestra doesn’t do a lot, which is Mozart and Haydn, so I wanted to meet with them in a late Haydn symphony. And also Mahler, which I think is one of their great, great strengths.

“But of course now that this is a well-anticipated date in Philadelphia, for myself as well, I think this makes a lot of sense, actually. Because it is two angles which I want to keep doing a lot with the orchestra. Especially, if I may say, the classical repertoire. I mean: this is very early to decide which kind of repertoire I will be exploring in the next five years; we’re just starting the discussions about that. But definitely more Mozart and more Haydn is something I want to do, because it’s always good to for any orchestra to do in the first place.”

“My way of conceiving of what a symphony orchestra should bring nowadays (and this is without being aimed directly at the Phillies) is to have this advantage of exploring 400 years of music. From Gabrieli to now. And draw some lines or connections between generations and how music is so really interrelated, stylistically. And that is what really puts me on. And I think that for most of the audience this is also something very interesting and it doesn’t have to be very intellectual and it doesn’t have to be rocket science. I don’t just want to do the usual, an overture—classical, then a concerto—romantic, and then… and we end up very often with a concert that contains fifteen years of distance between the oldest and the youngest work. Going back to that question of Haydn for the symphony orchestra: it’s true that many orchestras feel deprived nowadays. ‘Oh… we don’t know how to do it anymore, because we can’t’, they might say. And some specialized instrumentalists in baroque and classical are still horrified that a symphony orchestra on modern instruments would dare still do this. But this is not my vision. I think that maybe it’s a question of generation as well. That younger generation of musicians has now benefitted from what the specialists have done and we still need those specialists. But we now need to incorporate this in the larger tradition of our culture of sound. When I just did the Proms with the Rotterdam Phil last week, in between operas…” here he chuckles with the half-knowing, half-apologetic grin of a confessing workaholic… “and one of the great things was to have the same orchestra to play Wagner (Tannhaeuser Overture) and then Eroica and it sounded like two different orchestras and yet it was the same musicians. And I think that’s what we have to achieve now and that’s very good for the orchestra, because it is good for the concert experience as a whole.”


made possible by the:

Washington Concert Opera's "Tosca in Paris"

available at Amazon
Scotto / Domingo / Levine

($13.99)

available at Amazon
Tebaldi / Del Monaco / Capuana

($33.98)

available at Amazon
Olivera / Corelli / Rossi

($11.58)
Washington Concert Opera is at its best when it performs works that have little chance of seeing a staged production: such was the case with its performance of Cilèa's Adriana Lecouvreur, on Saturday night at Lisner Auditorium. Francesco Cilèa (1866-1950) is a composer on the margins of Italian Romantic opera. His operas are often classed with the trend of verismo, but little about their plots -- convoluted and melodramatic, it's true, but hardly ripped from the headlines or even emotionally raw -- fits with that identification. Adriana, the most familiar, suffers from a spectacularly bad libretto, an Italian adaptation, by Arturo Colautti, of a French play by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé.

The title character is based on a historical person, a celebrated actress at the Comédie-Française, but the multiple confusions that follow -- her lover is actually a Polish count, and he is simultaneously involved with the wife of a patron of the theater, who is herself mistaken for a rival actress at the theater, who never actually appears in the opera -- are all invented, as is Adriana's death by poisoned violets. It may be the only case of an opera in which the characters themselves are just as confused as the audience about who is who on stage. The opera has yet to see a staging at Washington National Opera, but it received a rare production last year at the Metropolitan Opera, with Plácido Domingo again as Maurizio, the role of his Met debut back in 1968. The opera has beautiful music, better for listening to without too much worrying about the silly plot, as in any of the recordings listed on the left.

As usual, the savvy conductor Antony Walker assembled a first-rate cast. Dramatic soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, who was the best part of a doomed Tosca last year (appropriately enough, as Adriana was premiered two years after Puccini's opera about another tempestuous actress), gave a booming, gut-wrenching, emotionally overflowing performance in the title role. It had just about everything one could wish for, including a regal stage presence and dramatic recitation of the spoken lines: a rare exception was made to have a fainting couch brought on to the stage just for Williams to have a place to breathe her last. The puissant mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop was a perfect foil for Williams as the spiteful Principessa di Bouillon, and tenor James Valenti made an elegant, smooth-toned, and occasionally ringing Maurizio (a demanding role created, let us not forget, by none other than Enrico Caruso).


Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Washington Concert Opera's 'Adriana Lecouvreur' at Lisner Auditorium (Washington Post, October 26)
First among the supporting cast was the polished Michonnet of baritone Donnie Ray Albert, powerful and nuanced, if not always rhythmically in step. The rest were all up to snuff, especially a fey rendition of the Abate di Chazeuil by tenor Timothy Oliver, and the brash, laughing actresses Jouvenot and Dangeville portrayed by soprano Erin Sanzero and mezzo Cynthia Hanna, respectively. The pick-up orchestra, perhaps a little light on strings, especially violins, for the score, had a rough start and some ensemble issues throughout the evening, but Walker's attentive conducting kept things from becoming too ragged. The chorus has little to do until the divertissement scene, where a ballet on the Judgment of Paris is presented, but sounded strong and on its game, especially in the lead-up to Adriana's Phèdre scene. In the dance music and in the extended orchestral introduction to Act IV, the orchestra sounded at its best.

You will have to wait until late spring for the second -- and only other -- performance by Washington Concert Opera this season: Massenet's Werther (May 22, 6 pm), with Giuseppe Filianoti and Jennifer Larmore, at Lisner Auditorium.

25.10.10

Ionarts-at-Large: "Julian Rachlin & Friends" in Dubrovnik 3

There is little by way of culture in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik once the local Summer Festival is over and done with in August. Not that Dubrovnik needs culture to be a gorgeous tourist attraction. The fortress town, shaped by ever improved-upon wall erected in the 14th century, has proved an impenetrable beauty (Serbian shelling in the 90s not withstanding)—except of course for those tourists that marvel at the perfectly preserved old town and its scenic location on the Adriatic Sea.

It’s hard to say how many of Dubrovnik’s 40.000-some population feels culturally deprived without first class Franck or Tchaikovsky ready at hand, but for the visitors that still pour in during the first two weeks of September (less busy and arguably even nicer than during peak tourist season), the joint is classed up significantly by the Julian Rachlin & Friends Festival that celebrated its tenth year this fall.

What makes the Festival special—apart from location, location, location—is quickly told: the casual, even familial atmosphere among musicians and audience, the extraordinarily high level of musicianship, and the programming that reaches across the concert hall aisle to include actors to participate in programs. Roger Moore is a regular, and as of late John Malkovich is, too—all owing to Rachlin’s love for music and his connections.

This year’s interdisciplinary program was a clever evening called “The Music Critic”, thought up and written by Aleksey Igudesman, the violinist-half of the Little Nightmare Music-famous duo Igudesman and Joo. In it the assembled musicians perform works that some contemporary critic had just torn apart in a review read by Malkovich. Thus—lovingly, of course—music critics are made to look like the droll fools they apparently are. Is that so!? Well, too bad John Malkovich is such a talentless hack. But seriously folks…

If there is one disappointment about the Festival, it’s that the weather—usually and largely superb—can’t be controlled entirely. The Rector’s Palace courtyard, the most impressive venue and with a surprisingly superb acoustic (what lovely Fauré and Brahms—in good part thanks to Boris Brovtsyn—on my first day there!) can’t be used when rain looms, and the current alternative—the Dubrovnik Assumption Cathedral—sounds even worse than the Washington National Gallery’s Atrium. That didn’t keep Lily Maisky from turning in very lovely Chopin Nocturnes (enhanced by bird calls inside and torrential rains outside the cathedral), but it did make any attempt at chamber music positively pointless—whether Rachlin & Friends were at work in Brahms or Maisky pere et fille in Shostakovich.

Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields was a first revelation. Rachlin’s conducting style might look eerily reminiscent of my nephews' with two knitting needles in front of the mirror, but the results he gets speak for themselves and they speak for the impressive professionalism and passion of the Academy’s players. The real pianissimo passages were tremendous in the concerto, and the following “Haffner” Symphony—in it’s old-fashioned explosive way—was just as fine. Definitely undeserving, I would have thought, of the rudeness of one after another local yokel getting up and walking out. Perhaps they thought they were hearing Haydn’s Symphony No.45? It was an ambitious program for playing-and-conducting Rachlin. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto loomed in the second half, which is difficult enough for any well rested, well rehearsed violinist to pull off. Was Rachlin perhaps substituting for his good friend Janine Jansen who had to cancel her participation this year? It doesn’t take much cynicism to fear the worst—instead it got only more impressive. The performance wasn’t just ‘not disappointing’, it was positively among the handful of best I have heard in concert.

Wind or weather, real or predicted, kept the closing concert of the Festival inside the Revlin Fortress as opposed to having it on the fortress rooftop. From there one would have a stunning view over Dubrovnik’s harbor, but also more than just a case of tussled hair, were the wind to blow. (It did blow.) Fortunately the acoustic is awfully good, wherever one sits in the three chambered top floor of the Revelin, even if one has to contend with the temperature creeping up and pillars infringing the sightlines for half the audience on the right and left of the center vault.

Misha Maisky and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields opened with Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. Maisky, who can be counted on for style-statements of his own, appeared in a ruffled yellow-black shirt, looking like a shackled canary—quite in contrast to his voluminous, free-wheeling performance that got the crowd ready for the premiere of Giya Kancheli’s Violin-Viola concerto “Ciaruscuro for soloist”. Written for the Dubrovnik Festival and tailored to Julian Rachlin’s love for both violin and viola, this is a tremendous work that combines as serious an approach to ‘classical music’ as any curmudgeon could ask for and combines it with pop (or rather: rock) qualities of catchiness to which the bass guitar—nicely blending in with the other instruments—contributes its part. Terje Rypdal is never far afield. Skilful simplicity, repetition, and sparse textures, restrained melancholy made this an instantly appealing work with instant audience feedback suggesting that it was wildly popular with the non-classical crowd as well as with ‘Beethoven-ears’. (By which I mean traditional concert-goer types, not deaf people.) From perilous heights to soft flageolets, Rachlin proved complete mastery over his instrument adding yet another highlight to the week in Dubrovnik. Even the full bodied, zesty, fleet and energetic Eroica Symphony that concluded the 10th Festival played along: Without forcing the work to say something new, the performers managed anyway, from a very slow Funeral March, that teetering at the grave’s edge for a second before proving capable of a terrific build-up to the light Scherzo to a maximum-contrast Finale this was simply terrific. For all the credit due to the orchestra, the conductor that Rachlin had pulled him out of his hat last-minute for that evening could not be overpraised on this occasion: Ryan McAdams was simply astounding; look out for his name to appear much more often in the future.

24.10.10

In Brief: Death of the Humanities Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • Giorgio Strehler directed a legendary production of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro in the Opéra royal de Versailles in 1973, which the Opéra de Paris is reviving this fall for only the latest of twenty-some revivals. Of course, for its traditional tendencies, it was one of the favorite Parisian stagings that Gerard Mortier quite literally shelved, even ordering the sets to be destroyed and the costumes (like the gown for the Countess, shown at right) sent off to a historical collection. Just as intentionally, Nicolas Joël has reversed Mortier's attempted assassination, a process that included reconstructing the costumes and sets according to the memories of those who worked on the original production. Philippe Jordan conducts, and the two casts include Christopher Maltman, Barbara Frittoli, Dorothea Röschmann, Luca Pisaroni, Erwin Schrott, Karine Deshayes, and Isabel Leonard, among others. [Le Monde]

  • As mentioned in last week's link dump, the core disciplines of university education, the humanities, are in danger of disappearing. Students, faced with huge debts for an undergraduate education, are more and more choosing technical and other non-humanities majors. The University of Southern California has already eliminated its entire German department, and now SUNY Albany has announced it will axe programs in French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theater. Stanley Fish has a piece about this sad state of affairs. He lays at least part of the blame on "progressive academics," many of them professors of the very disciplines now under threat, who argued that there was no reason to maintain traditional humanities requirements for all students just because universities had for so long, that some of those areas were "relics from the past." Those same "visionary faculty members" may now suffer elimination of their jobs as a result. [Opinionator]

  • Joseph Lin will be the new primarius of the Juilliard String Quartet in 2011, replacing Nick Eanet. [Arts Watch]

  • There is an exhibit of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Musée de l'art moderne de la ville de Paris. A few pictures. [Le Monde]

  • Leonard Bernstein and Dimitri Mitropoulos. Ugly. [Parterre Box]

  • In the first five days of the exhibit Hitler and the Germans at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, 20,000 visitors passed through. It is apparently the first exhibit in Germany on the subject. [Le Point]

  • See my weekly column with picks for this week's best in classical music performances in Washington. [DCist]

Vienna Weekend

Renaissance man--Homo Universalis, if you wish--Tzimon Barto, a soon-to-be-regular in Washington, performed with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra at the Musikverein last weekend in a program that coupled the 20th century Nordics Einojuhani Rautavaara and Sibelius with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1. The VSO’s music director Fabio Luisi had to replace Mikko Franck who bailed out on scheduling issues, and impressively did so without changing the program despite not having conducted either the Sibelius (Symphony No.5), or the Rautavaara (“Apotheosis”, the re-worked finale of his Sixth Symphony) before.

available at Amazon
J.Sibelius, Symphony No.5 (two versions),
O.Vänskä / Lahti SO
BIS

Tchaikovsky is among those composes whose beauty can easily be taken for granted… a failing I am not immune to. I was moved by the nuanced and very flexible opening of Barto’s, intelligently moving between brawn and lurid tenderness where many another interpreter merely thrashes the hell out of the instrument, to ever less effect the louder they play. As familiarity set in, I was only occasionally jolted out of the Tchaikovsky-routine: for worse when the clanky upper register of the instrument called strident attention to itself; for better when the second movement’s duos between first the cello and piano then the oboe and piano were played with gallantly-fresh accentuation. I found myself rather less in the position to extract anything particular special from the finale, but judging from the excited hollers and “Bravos” from the otherwise reserved Musikverein audience, it must have been a greater success of communicating a particular vision than I picked up on. (A few naifs in the audience had even dare applauded after the first movement... followed, without fail, by the haughty hissers. It's good to know that modern audiences know better how to reverently treat a Tchaikovsky concerto than, say, Tchaikovsky himself.) As it turned out, that particular warm reception would be a blessing because it elicited an encore from Barto, who played Schumann’s Mignon. Playing with the softest of touches—which, despite superficial suggestions that it might be otherwise, suits this musician best—he forced the ears to focus, forced a natural hushed silence onto the audience, and delivered something unreservedly magnificent. Radically daring pianissimo is where, for all his ability to destroy any instrument of choice, Barto’s true strength lies.

For Finn Mikko Franck, already a veteran conductor at the tender age of thirty-something, programming Sibelius and Rautavaara made eminent sense—he is on record, after all, claiming Rautavaara “the best composer. Period.” It has been over ten years since I read that statement of his (I remember him conducting a Shostakovich Seventh Symphony with the Munich Philharmonic, then barely into his twenties), and perhaps it was a comment borne out of youthful enthusiasm, meant to make a statement more than anything else. But the statement certain had had its effect on me. Never having even heard of Rautavaara before that, I have keenly followed the composer’s output since—which thanks to the many excellent recordings on the Ondine label is easy. “Best composer, ever” might be pushing it, but certainly one of the most interesting and enjoyable composers of our time. For Luisi—who is more of a stranger to these musical ideas of north—to leave the program intact was laudable and daring. Laudable to bring composers unknown or neglected in continental Europe to an audience not likely to get much exposure to this music; daring because it meant entering a different language.

The ruminatingly-gorgeous sounds of Rautavaara’s “Apotheosis” were bleeding through the doors of Musikverein as I made my belated way back to the seats for Sibelius. The beginning of this gorgeous work—probably the second-most accessible of Sibelius’ Symphonies after the terrific, relatively conventional Second—was precise and unafraid of jarring sounds. The separation of instrumental groups—as if put together from extensive Stimmproben and then skillfully re-arranged into proper common order—sounded like an interpretive choice for a while. Then the confusion set in. Not unlike Bruckner I’ve heard in Italy, this sounded like the perfectly proper recitation of a poem in a language the speaker doesn’t actually understand. All the letters and words are there and in the right order, but the sense is lost somewhere between them. It’s not entirely surprising that Sibelius still baffles many continental listeners when faced with performances itself so thoroughly baffling. Consequently the applause was gentle and confused, leaving open the question whether the case of Sibelius had been served or not, that Friday night.









Poulenc’s Trois Movements is a gay and frolicking little nonet for winds, strings, and a horn, rather typical of Poulenc’s engaging chamber music and it opened a matinee at the Vienna Konzerthaus I attended. Admittedly, I wasn’t there for the nine members of the Vienna Chamber Orchestra to perform Poulenc, and had I been, I might have been more disappointed with the ‘it’s-too-early-in-the-morning-to-be-doing-this’ performance than I was. I was there to hear the young cellist Julian Steckel, the freshly crowned winner of the ARD Competition. To say I was underwhelmed with the whole cellist’s side of this year’s ARD Competition—including Steckel, even as I, too, thought him primus inter pares—would be putting it kindly. All the more reason then to hear him in his natural environment: under non-competition conditions in a concert hall; a ‘real’ performance, conducted by his teacher and (former) colleague Heinrich Schiff.

available at Amazon
Saint-Saëns & Dvořák, Cello Concertos,
du Pré / Barenboim, Celibidache / Philadelphia, Swedish RSO
Teldec


My impression of his being awarded the ARD prize was that he received it based on what the jury knew he has been and would be capable of, rather than what they heard from him during those weeks. That might not be my idea of how to dole out prizes at competitions, but it serves well enough to pique my intrigue, of wanting to hear that potential materialize; perhaps in this performance on a grisly-gray, misty Sunday morning in Vienna, with the ear-pleasing Saint-Saëns Concerto No.1 in a-minor. And voila: the bold opening was right on, Steckel’s sound easily filing the Konzerthaus’ smaller, charming Mozart Hall. Technically unimpeachable, interpretively polite, and enhanced by an obvious sensitivity to what he was playing, this was a different league from the competition performances—supported by the sincerely engaged orchestra under an engagedly baton-waving Schiff, who looks ever more like a rotund, friendly bear on his quest for another pot of honey-mead.

23.10.10

15-16-17-*18



“18” – Munich. Schumann, Paradise & Peri. Simon Rattle / Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

Just back from Bill Viola's and Esa-Pekka Salonen's Tristan in Dortmund, I caught the BRSO’s Season-opener:

With the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s concert over, the audience was expulsed from Munich’s Herkulessaal—left to ponder whose sins, Schumann’s, the conductor’s, or perhaps theirs, had caused them to barely glimpse, yet never truly experience paradise on this ambitious occasion.


available at AmazonR.Schumann, Das Paradies & die Peri,
Röschmann, Fink, Güra, Gerhaher / N. Harnoncourt / BRSO & Chorus
RCA SACD
None other than Simon Rattle, in his first appearance with a German Orchestra other than his Berlin Philharmonic, opened the season for the BRSO, and he brought a program dear to him: Schumann’s cantata Das Paradies und die Peri, and soloists dear to him: very dear alto Magdalena Kožená (Angel) of course, and professionally appreciated sopranos Sally Matthews (Peri) and Kate Royal (Maiden), tenors Topi Lehtipuu (narrator) and Andrew Staples and baritone David Wilson-Johnson.

All the ingredients of success were given: A glorious cast, an orchestra rearing to get the season started in style, perfectly primed for this perfume-drenched score we very rarely (if at all) get to hear in concert, and a conductor to whose heart the work is clearly close. After an hour and a half of unwavering beauty, sumptuous sameness, and amorphous gorgeousness, the feeling was not so much elation as it was exhaustion and oversaturation. On the upside, there had been much to marvel at. Kožená may be a mandatory item when hiring Sir Simon, but no complaints (yet): Nepotism has rarely sounded better. Matthews and Royal are among the UK’s very loveliest. A compliment about their singing, that—but one easily extrapolated to cover any other imaginable aspect. Topi Lehtipuu proved very satisfying to my ears, too. His voice was not at all that of the opera singer he is (I had last heard him in Eötvös’ "Tragedy of the Devil"), but rather a pure Mendelssohn voice, a round and warm oratorio tenor with minimal vibrato, great calm and comfort.

Peri, from one of the four stories of Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh collection, is a figure of Persian mythology who—thanks to some never explicitly mentioned all-too-saucy behavior—finds herself with Paradise lost, trying desperately to regain favor with the powers of the Garden of Eden. Life-loving yet repentant, earnest and perhaps naïve, it seems to fit Sally Matthews like a glove. Matthews, a supreme actress capable and willing to participate in any romp, exudes extreme tastefulness and grace, almost modest and yet subversively awesome. Next to her natural understatement and a very clever black dress even the stylishly donned-up Kožená—a Grande Dame between two lovely girls—was reduced visually to a supporting role.


With appropriate vibrato, pronounced but never allowed to roam free, her strong, deep, almost throaty soprano was put to simply exquisite use, assuming one likes a sound that is not at all round or creamy but also devoid of harsh edges . Thus she sings Peri seemingly straight down the middle, lovely, light, and clean, innocent… except only on the surface. Matthews lets on with more than a fair share of subtle signs that the still waters of her Peri run deep, that she hasn’t been denied paradise for nothing. All the way down to how she colors her vowels we are afforded suggestions of depth and delightful depravity. The final scene with her and the magnificent BR Chorus—“Freud, ewge Freude, mein Werk ist getan…”—was the spectacle that Schumann had aimed for—a true treat for all who stayed awake.


If this evening didn’t turn out a pean to Schumann, at least it was one to Matthews.


22.10.10

15-16-*17-18



“17” – Dortmund. Wagner - Bill Viola, Tristan & Isolde, Esa-Pekka Salonen / Philharmonia Orchestra

Just back from the Munich Philharmonic’s Season-opening Verdi-Mozart-Mahler, I took the next train to Dortmund to finally see what video artist Bill Viola has done to Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde. I had initially planned to see the production in London, a few days later, but that would have meant forgoing another interesting concert there… and thus Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmoina’s little continental tour with the Viola-production came in very handy. The Konzerthaus in Dortmund is a functional, no-frill place with a fine acoustic in the middle of tow, surrounded by kebab-places and assorted fast-food chains; a white, tall shoe-box with steeply inclining orchestra seating and several balconies.

available at AmazonR.Wagner, Tristan & Isolde,
D. Barenboim
Teldec / Warner

The Bill Viola video addition to Tristan was originally presented in LA in three concerts with the Philharmonic under Salonen, each featuring one act and music that relates in some way to Tristan—Berg’s Lyric Suite, Debussy’s Pelleas & Mélisande, Saariaho’s Cinq reflets. Since its second performance in Paris, Salonen has performed the work as a whole. He believes in it, that way—but I don’t understand why. The result is no longer a presumably compelling mix of acoustic and visual allusion to Tristan from all sides but a stage performance of Tristan with a silent movie running in the background, taking the eyes of the semi-dramatic delivery of the singers.

That’s not inherently bad, especially when even the half-hearted acting is as bad as that of Matthew Best (King Mark). But there are three hours of mix-and-match video, to content with: some of it painstakingly detailed sequences timed to refer to the music in subtle ways (Tristan’s eyes blinking at a specific point), some of it all-too-explicitly matching the story with visual cues (Isolde in Irish green, Tristan in English Red and White). Some of it as if taken from the shelves of stock footage; “Don’t I have some neat-o, out-of-focus ocean scenes from a recent trip to the Bay of Biscay? Ah, here it is. Let’s incorporate!” So we get ten minutes of that… only to eventually be led back to the high-gloss fire-burning-everywhere or water-pouring-from-bodies sequences that have definite visual appeal, and would have more, still, if they didn’t all overstay their welcome. The methods—Bill Viola likes to run sequences backwards or upside down, add post production grain, and use obviously fake ‘nuit américaine’ scenes—become too obvious too soon; most scenes look as if they could have been filmed in his backyard pool with one savvy lighting crew and a heavy-duty garden hose. What Peter Sellars—credited as “artistic collaborator”—did at all, staging-wise, can’t be detected by the outside observer.

In front of all that, the singers—struggling only with the loud orchestra—managed to acquit themselves quite nicely: Violetta Urmana’s Isolde especially, but also Gary Lehman’s Tristan, a baritone successfully stretched to the heights of a heroic tenor. He might have slurred a bit by the time his ‘Liebestod’ segment came around in the second act, but saving best for last, he still attacked his part with vigor late in Act III. Anne Sofie von Otter really is more suitable to Grieg songs than Brangäne, but then again the aged quality of her voice wasn’t necessarily inappropriate for the role. Matthew Best has a talent for dramatically unsuitable poses and is best enjoyed with open ears and closed eyes; Jukka Rasilainen voiced Kurwenal impeccably-unmemorably, and with Stephen Gadd a former Operalia-finalist (1993) was on stage as a solid Melot. The Symphonic Chorus of the Dortmund Konzerthaus Choral Academy—long name, brief appearance—sang their Act I bit well, but musically this Tristan was remarkable really only (or mainly) for the gorgeous, massive, sonorous sound form the Philharmonia Orchestra. Certainly loud, but occasionally detailed and always impressive, Tristan was blared about in glorious, saturated colors and, smoothly guided through the score by Salonen. Wagner-Salonen-Philharmonia is a good combination, indeed. As for Bill Viola’s take: Good to have seen and good to know that one need not see it again.

The Poet Speaks: András Schiff the Storyteller

available at Amazon
Schumann, Davidsbündlertänze, Symphonic Etudes, A. Schiff


available at Amazon
Schumann, Noveletten, Sonata No. 3, A. Schiff
(MP3 download)

Online scores:
Schumann, Waldszenen
Davidsbündlertänze | Kinderszenen
Symphonic Etudes
The periodic recitals by András Schiff presented by Washington Performing Arts Society have been a welcome opportunity to appreciate the Hungarian pianist's unaffected and meticulously detailed style of playing. We have long admired Schiff for his clear and articulate Mozart and Bach, and over the past several years he has been performing and recording a unique Beethoven piano sonata cycle. He came to Strathmore on Wednesday night with a program honoring the 200th anniversary of Robert Schumann's birth. In our appreciation of Schiff's intellectually rigorous side, we may have forgotten the exquisite way that he plays Schumann -- his recordings of the German composer's works are now harder, but not impossible, to acquire. This beautifully turned performance was an irrefutable reminder of it.

He opened with the lesser-played Waldszene, little forest vignettes that have a menacing, fairy-tale air to them. Here and throughout the evening, some of the most technically challenging passages sounded a little reserved or logy, but Schiff proved himself an extraordinary storyteller, a master at limning a broad range of character piece. A serene entrance song (Eintritt) led to the fragile, lonely flowers of Einsame Blumen, the enigmatic, unsettling terrors of Verrufene Stelle, and the exotic avian prophecy of Vogel als Prophet, that last one rendered with the rhythmic freedom, almost unmetered, of birdsong. Schiff's Davidsbündlertänze, which concluded the first half, was not as delicately colored as that of Mitsuko Uchida earlier this year, but it was a dynamic and vivid performance. Schiff's highly delineated voicing brought out numerous inner lines, often lost in the jumble like the countermelodies of no. 12, and giving a meandering and moonstruck quality to no. 4, a clipped gallop to no. 6, and an adventurous boldness to no. 15.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, András Schiff lifts Schumann to the sublime (Washington Post, October 22)

Mark Swed, András Schiff plays Schumann in Disney Hall (Los Angeles Times, October 14)
Schiff's performance of Kinderszenen brilliantly captured the playful sensibility of these pieces, rather than the sometimes sugary sentimentality of other performances. Throughout the evening, Schiff played with a remarkably free rubato, stretching the tempo in every conceivable direction, but without seeming grotesque or crossing the boundary into manipulation for its own sake. The music just seemed to breathe and open up into a grand space, like a painting in a frame. The only slight disappointment, perhaps, was the concluding Symphonic Etudes, where one missed the volcanic power of the breathtaking performance by Yuja Wang, who gave these pieces a truly orchestral scope earlier this year, or the steely polish of someone like Maurizio Pollini. Schiff played the 1852 version, that is, with several of the etudes dropped from the published score (Wang -- and indeed Schiff himself on disc -- have restored some of those deletions). As at his 2008 recital, where Schiff offered the entire Italian concerto as an encore, here he was equally generous, playing the entire Papillons, in a fluttery and iridescent performance.

The next piano recital presented by WPAS at Strathmore should be excellent, too, featuring Emanuel Ax (November 10, 8 pm).

21.10.10

Mariinsky's Downsized Mahler 8

available at Amazon
Mahler, Symphony No. 8, LSO, Choral Arts Society of Washington, V. Gergiev (live)


available at Amazon
Mahler, Symphony No. 8, BSO, S. Ozawa
(available as an MP3 download for $7)

Online score:
Mahler, Symphony No. 8
The last time we heard a performance of Mahler's grandiose eighth symphony in Washington, in 2006, Leonard Slatkin arrayed some 600 performers around the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Singers overflowed into the house balconies near the stage, and the supplemental brass corp and the Mater Gloriosa of Christine Brandes were heard from the upper tier near the back of the hall. Even that National Symphony Orchestra performance was still nowhere near the thousand-odd performers amassed by Mahler at the work's premiere on September 12, 1910 -- one hundred years ago -- for which a savvy promoter dubbed this overblown symphonic oratorio "The Symphony of a Thousand," a name never sanctioned by the composer. (An attempted reconstruction of the premiere took place in Duisburg, Germany, on the anniversary.) Valery Gergiev, in a performance presented by WPAS on Tuesday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, mustered barely three hundred performers between his Mariinsky Orchestra and about one hundred sixty singers from Choral Arts Society of Washington and a Spanish choir called the Orféon Pamplonés.

Though this somewhat downsized force still produced a wall of sound when they needed it, it was hard not to miss the panoply and spectacle of a larger ensemble -- unwieldy, to be sure, but visually and sonically overwhelming. Worse, Gergiev drove and lashed the performers through an amped-up rendition of the work, by my count lasting only about 71 minutes (shorter than Gergiev's London performance with the Choral Arts Society). The pacing of Part I was relentless, viscerally exciting at times but not always holding together, and even Part II was often breathless and rushed, allowing no sense of timeless expanse to unfold, even in the sublime Chorus Mysticus from Faust. This fell far short of my favorite recording of the work, recommended some years ago by Jens Laurson, with Seija Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (now available very cheaply as a download). Part of this is because of the impetuous, often mercurial approach of Gergiev, but it is hard not to think that a performance that bordered on perfunctory could be related to the fact that Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra have been performing Mahler symphonies everywhere this fall. Gergiev's hurricane Mahler tour was in Michigan and Chicago earlier this month, and more recently in New York, New Jersey on Saturday, and back at Carnegie Hall this weekend, all scheduled around Gergiev conducting performances of Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, October 21)

Tim Smith, A brisk, bracing Mahler 8 from Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra in Washington (Baltimore Sun, October 20)

---, Orchestras, concert presenters need to learn from opera and add supertitles (Baltimore Sun, October 21)

Alex Baker, Two Mahlers (Wellsung, October 20)
The Mariinsky Orchestra played with its customary edge, calibrated well to the reduced scope of the choral forces and especially the occasionally vulnerable cadre of soloists, placed near the back of the orchestra in an acoustically unfavorable spot. The lead trumpet seemed overly fatigued, cracking in the opening few measures and several more times in exposed places, and the piccolo often squealed disturbingly off pitch. One also missed the booming organ of the Ozawa recording, a sound present in the Concert Hall but not all that noticeable. Most impressive among the soloists were baritone Alexei Markov as Pater Ecstaticus, although his top notes were slightly strained, and bass Yevgeny Nikitin as Pater Profundus. Of the two sopranos, the shimmering voice of Anastasia Kalagina as Una Poenitentium surpassed the occasionally shrill and off-pitch Magna Peccatrix of Viktoria Yastrebova, while the Mater Gloriosa of Lyudmila Dudinova, heard from somewhere in the chorus above, was discolored and flat, perhaps because of the distance. Tenor August Amonov struggled with the heroic and high parts of Doctor Marianus, but mezzo-soprano Zlata Bulycheva made a thick and full-throated Maria Aegyptiaca. The most charming choral performance came from the Children's Chorus of Washington, who cupped their hands to their mouths with bright-eyed eagerness and sounded pure and unified.

20.10.10

Folger Theater's 'Henry VIII'


(L-R) Ian Merrill Peakes (King Henry VIII) and Louis Butelli (Will Sommers), in Henry VIII, Folger Theater (photo by Carol Pratt)
Last year (June 24, 2009) was the 500th anniversary of the coronation of King Henry VIII. Earlier this month, the Folger Consort gave a concert of music from the time of the Henry VIII's reign, including some pieces attributed to the king himself. Now the Folger Theater has opened a new production of Shakespeare's Henry VIII. At the same time, the Folger Library is hosting an excellent exhibit called Vivat Rex!, which was reviewed by Philip Kennicott in the Post. The play comes very late in Shakespeare's life, and his authorship has been seriously questioned -- at least part of it is the work of John Fletcher, who succeeded Shakespeare as playwright for the King's Men.

While it is not exactly unknown or unperformed, it is rare enough that this production is likely to be of interest to people, like myself, who have never seen the play staged. If you are expecting a more or less complete version, with all of the pageantry associated with a grand history play, you will be disappointed. However, the idea created by director Robert Richmond and dramaturg Michele Osherow was to weave a much more intimate sense of the drama around the person of Henry VIII's somewhat famous court jester Will Sommers. This character, a historical personage not actually in the text of the play, reads the prologue and other narrative passages and takes on several minor roles, both male and female, giving the impression of a whimsical demiurge controlling the action behind the scenes. That the concept works is largely to the credit of the talented and very funny actor, Louis Butelli, who appears remarkably like the known illustrations of Sommers -- at least one of them is in the Folger's exhibit -- with his balding head and stubble but without the monkey literally on his back. He entertains periodically with a box of puppets (designed by Betsy Rosen) and other props, representing the powerful characters in the play, and orchestrates the movements of the other actors with wizard-like gestures.

Shakespeare's text has been either bowdlerized or cut down to a manageable length, depending on your point of view. The running time is about two and a half hours, thanks to removal of several scenes and parts of scenes. This eliminates some of the more esoteric historical aspects of the play, like the interference of orthodox Catholic clergy in these events leading up to the separation of the Anglican church -- there is no reference to either the scheming "Chartreux Monk" (that is, a monk from the Charterhouse, the Carthusian monastery in London that formed the ultra-orthodoxy of Thomas More among others) or Thomas More, chosen to succeed the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey as chancellor and who met his own bad end. Perhaps most regrettably, the cuts slightly diminish the character of Henry's wife, Katherine of Aragon, whom the king decides, after much anguish, to divorce in the hope of producing a male heir with another wife. She is one of the most sympathetic and interesting female characters among the many produced by Shakespeare, and even with the cutsm Helen Hayes Award winner Naomi Jacobson gives a fiery performance in the role, her words tinged with a slight Spanish accent.


Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, Folger Theatre's 'Henry VIII' (Washington Post, October 20)

Philip Kennicott, Shakespeare’s Last Oratorio (October 17)

Barbara Mackay, Folger’s ‘Henry VIII’ an energetic, outstanding show (Washington Examiner, October 18)
This rethinking of the drama as a more personal court intrigue does play into Shakespeare's sympathetic portrayal of Henry VIII, a devoted husband who truly loves Catherine but sacrifices her to the more important interest of the stability of the monarchy and a devout believer who puts his trust in learned churchmen only to be undermined by their greed and corruption. The extraordinary actor Ian Merrill Peakes captures the character's contradictions, his ego and yet attachment to others, his fidelity and his adulterous lust, his rage and vindictiveness when crossed. Fine performances in the supporting cast include the Duke of Norfolk of another Helen Hayes Award winner, Lawrence Redmond, Anthony Cochrane as the scheming and duplicitous Cardinal Wolsey (also responsible for the music and sound design), and the Duke of Suffolk Todd Scofield (full disclosure -- a friend of our own Todd Babcock). As a Lady of the Court, Megan Steigerwald provided some musical diversion, adding discant parts to the recorded selections, including versions of Henry VIII's famous "Kynges Balade" ("Pastime with good company"). The costumes (designed by William Ivey Long) are beautiful and modeled on illustrations of the period, and the set (designed by Tony Clark) is in sharply pointed steel, with a "heavens," a crown-like platform that juts out over the stage, used effectively for some of the scenes.

This production of Shakespeare's Henry VIII continues through November 21, at the Folger Theater.

UPDATE:
The Folger Theater has extended the run of this production through November 28.

19.10.10

Till Fellner Comes Full Circle

Style masthead

Read my review published today in the Style section of the Washington Post:

Charles T. Downey, Pianist Till Fellner ends Beethoven sonata cycle with restrained refinement
Washington Post, October 19, 2010


Pianist Till Fellner
(photo by Francesco Carrozzini)


Fellner Beethoven Cycle:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
On Sunday afternoon, with Till Fellner's performance of Beethoven's final three piano sonatas at the Austrian Embassy, an epic journey came to its end. The Austrian pianist set out to perform the complete Beethoven sonata cycle, planned to span seven concerts, almost two years ago. The fifth recital was one of several cultural victims of February's historic snowstorms, but the sense of achievement was no less great.

Fellner did not program the concert series in chronological order, but it is difficult not to see Beethoven's last three piano sonatas as the cycle's obvious conclusion. As music scholar Charles Rosen has observed, Beethoven intended these sonatas as "exemplars of great spiritual experience," but it is dangerousto assume that we understand what that experience might be. As with some other composers' late works, there is also a sense of whimsy here -- as well as formal experimentation, complication and compression.

In line with his previous performances, Fellner emphasized an ultra-refined, even restrained approach to many of the movements, keeping the jaunty theme of Op. 109's first movement airy and rhapsodic and the energy of the second movement often bubbling below the surface. [Continue reading]
Till Fellner, piano
Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle, Part 7
Op. 109 | Op. 110 | Op. 111
Embassy Series
Embassy of Austria