Concert Reviews | CD Reviews | DVD Reviews | Opera | Early Music | News | Film | Art | Books | Kids

30.6.11

Ionarts-at-Large: Serving Mahler With a Side of Haydn


Only because the beauty of Haydn’s 44th Symphony cannot be completely spoiled by an under-rehearsed, under-enthused performance, that doesn’t mean it ought to be performed that way. Not even if it serves as the ‘throw-away overture’ ahead of Mahler’s top-billed Fifth Symphony. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’d be better to have no Haydn at all than loveless Haydn… after all, any Haydn is good for the orchestra. (Just not necessarily for the audience.) And one ought to be glad any Haydn is played at all these days, especially by the large symphonic and philharmonic orchestras.

While every conductor will extol how greatly important and splendiferous Haydn is—musically and for tuning orchestras—no one does much about it. (See also: Why Haydn Should be Mandatory) The more lacking the performances are, the fewer the arguments in favor of putting more Haydn on the program, of course. Haydn is terribly difficult to pull off well and won’t delight listeners as much as he could if he is dispensed with carelessly in a ‘good-enough’ fashion, with a general pleasantry and ‘niceness’ about it. When an orchestra is careless about Haydn, and sticks him in the also-run spot on the program, it sends an ultimately self-reinforcing message to the audience. Haydn belongs on the top of the bill, which is to say at the end of the concert to signify his importance to musicians and listeners alike. And he needs to be done over and over again (there are enough symphonies to chose from), and not just by the occasional stop-over of an early-music specialist.


available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.5,
V.Neumann / Leipzig Gewandhaus
Brilliant

With these more general remarks on the state of ‘classical-classical’ music out of the way, it’s good to note that the Munich Philharmonic programmed Haydn’s 44th Symphony at all, and that the young non-specialist conductor Juraj Valcuha conducted it. But it was in the typical ‘throw-away-symphony’ setup, that the Haydn was performed, and rehearsal-time allocation spoke loudly to what was important that night, and what not. With the result on the first night reported to have been somewhere between less-than-ideal and downright pointless, the Haydn on the second night had a good deal of merit. The first movement, with robust oomph and drive, succeeded on its own terms (which a philharmonic orchestra obviously ought to retain; there’s no point pretending to be a 20-piece HIP band). The second movement might have been a touch too heavy on the lachrymose for a “Menuetto – Allegretto” (even for a Symphony nicknamed “Mourning”), and the third movement (Adagio) ought to have been infused with more life, but the fourth movement (Presto) constituted a perfectly plausible big-boned storm. The whole thing was far from perfect, but perfectly enjoyable. A good omen, perhaps, for the next concert when early-music specialist Ton Koopman makes a stop-over with more Haydn, and Bach, and Mozart. (July 11th through 13th)

Studded with young academy players (a great means against bored, routine playing), the Munich Philharmonic then set upon Mahler’s Fifth—only four days after having played four consecutive performances of Mahler’s taxing Seventh. Juraj Valcuha, the 34 year old principal conductor of Turin’s RAI National Symphony Orchestra, has been much fêted by the Munich Philharmonic this season, being assigned a New Year’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth and now the 2010/11 season’s last Mahler performance. (One year ago he made his debut with the NSO with—incidentally—Haydn and Mahler, plus Szymanowski.)

Whether fluke or genius was involved, the result in Mahler sounded like that greatest accomplishment in art: utter artlessness. An orchestra need not necessarily know why they’re doing what they are doing, nor feel their interpretation to be natural for matters to come together… and together it all came. Covered by a slightly homogenizing acoustic haze that nicely covered up infelicities and the occasional lack of cohesion, the result pleased with its organic, inconspicuously natural way—very much in contrast to the dazzling and brilliant ‘concerto for orchestra’ approach in which the New York Philharmonic’s Fifth in Leipzig was held. That said, Jörg Brückner’s horn solo was terrific and impressive in every way; secure and seemingly effortless even at the lowest dynamic levels. The lilt of the Scherzo was ingratiating with its fine terracing and the reoccurring deliberate tempo reductions. Artlessness particularly reigned in the Adagietto; neither milked for effect nor rushed to self-consciously avoid looking like one is milking it for effect. Sassy woodwind work sweetened the finale with the tempo (at last) picking up a swift pace that flowed nicely to the climax of the finale.

This was perhaps ‘incidental excellence’, less dependent on the musical leadership than on orchestral instinct, and it might have sounded just as fine with more rehearsal going toward Haydn… but for the listener it matters not how the sausage was made, only that it was—in this case—sound and good.

29.6.11

What to Hear Next Season: Chamber Music



See my preview of the new season of chamber music at Washingtonian.com:

Chamber Music in Washington: 2011-12 Season Preview (Washingtonian, June 29):

available at Amazon
Xenakis, String Quartets,
JACK Quartet
(2009)
Washington has all the best ingredients for chamber music lovers: a range of appropriately sized venues with excellent, intimate acoustics, and a number of concert presenters that host performances by some of the world’s best musicians. In fact, there are really too many concerts for one person to hear, let alone afford. Of the concerts announced so far for next season, which are the best? We’ve laid out our top picks below. (To help reduce the vast number of choices, this post doesn’t even take into account the free concerts on offer. We’ll deal with those in a later entry.)

String Quartets
The Fortas Chamber Music series presents concerts in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, a venue where there are no bad seats either for eyes or ears. Foursomes that should be worth hearing next season include the Tokyo Quartet (October 26) and the superlative Takács Quartet (March 13). Depending on how you feel about a trip to Rockville, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington hosts a surprisingly good concert series in its small auditorium: We’d like to hear the Daedalus Quartet, the winner of the 2001 Banff Competition for string quartets (September 25). The JACK Quartet, one of the cutting-edge quartets in the world at the moment, will play an all-modern program including one of the Ives quartets in the Strathmore Mansion (November 5), part of the Post-Classical Ensemble’s wide-ranging Ives Project. [Continue reading]
What Else to Hear Next Season
Washington Performing Arts Society | Opera | National Symphony Orchestra
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra | Vocal Music

28.6.11

Hercules and the Amazons

available at Amazon
Vivaldi, Ercole sul Termodonte, R. Villazón, R. Basso, P. Ciofi, D. Damrau, J. DiDonato, V. Genaux, P. Jaroussky, Europa Galante, F. Biondi

(released on February 15, 2011)
Virgin 6945450 | 144'01"
The musicological rediscovery of Antonio Vivaldi continues apace, with the image appearing over the last decade or two of a great operatic composer who also wrote some concertos. It is one thing to say that Vivaldi wrote prolifically for the opera, but it has been something else entirely to hear his works return to life in recording. Along with Armida al campo d'Egitto, La fida ninfa, Atenaide, Griselda, and several others in Naïve's Vivaldi Edition, we have reviewed recordings of Orlando furioso (by Modo Antiquo, part of a series for cpo) and Motezuma (from Il Complesso Barocco, in a rare diversion from the Handel opera series Alan Curtis is doing for Archiv). We will even be reviewing an actual staging of Vivaldi's Griselda later this summer, when Ionarts returns to Santa Fe Opera.

After a very successful Bajazet, Europa Galante undertook another Vivaldi opera in a mini-series for Virgin Classics, Ercole sul Termodonte. (Alan Curtis has released a DVD of another performance of the work, by his group, Il Complesso Barocco, rather notorious for the performance of his Ercole, tenor Zachary Stains, who half-wears the skin of the Nemean Lion and sometimes does not.) Appropriately enough, Europa Galante's music director and lead violinist, Fabio Biondi, undertook a Herculean labor to reconstruct this opera, which relates the story of one of the labors of Hercules, stealing the girdle of the Amazon queen. The opera does not exist in a complete score, but with the guidance of a complete libretto, Biondi matched the arias, preserved in separate sources, in some cases making replacements or substitutions for musical purposes, and composed the recitatives de novo. The word for the result is not "authentic," that bugbear term that became the badge of both honor and shame for the early music movement, but "speculative," and that's just fine. The premiere in Rome, in 1723, had a cast composed almost exclusively of castrati, for example, and Biondi sees no need to try to recreate it (even if one could).

Instead of his more usual team of early music specialists, who were cast in Biondi's first live performances of the opera, Biondi recorded it with a dream team of superstars not generally associated with Baroque music. Rolando Villazón, having struggled for some time with vocal health issues, is a rough-hewn Ercole, with odd vowel colors, a sometimes strained tone, and pitch often shy of true. Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux is a proud, volcanic Antiope, the Amazon queen who refuses to cede to Hercules, and soprano Patrizia Ciofi has a knife-like edge as Antiope's warrior sister, Orizia. There are two pairs of lovers, whose impossible love is finally united in marriage: a tightly coiled Joyce DiDonato as Ippolita (who has a gorgeous aria, Amato ben, recycled from an earlier opera in the third act, accompanied by theorbo and Biondi, presumably, on violin solo), who spares the life of the captured Teseo (the rich, almost manly mezzo Romina Basso, a Vivaldi favorite), and Alceste (a lyrical Philippe Jaroussky) paired with the soaring, fluttering Diana Damrau as Martesia, the queen's daughter (with faultless, pure high staccato notes in one of the more memorable arias, Se ben sente arder le piume). It is remarkable to realize that that aria was composed for a castrato, the notorious soprano Giacinto Fontana, known as Farfellino (Little Butterfly), who specialized in female roles of this type.

The only minor reservations are tenor Topi Lehtipuu, who struggles just a bit with the cleanness of his melismas as Telamone, and the women's chorus (the Santa Cecilia chamber chorus of Borgo San Sepolcro), which sometimes sounds off-pitch and acerbic, just a little too rough and Amazonish, and not in a good way. The players of Europa Galante make nothing but beautiful sounds, unified marvelously by Biondi's leadership. It is a generally good outcome, considering that the recording sessions stretched over three years: Joyce DiDonato blogged about her work on this recording at the first sessions, in oppressive heat in Florence, in July 2008. DiDonato noted a planned second session for some of the participants in January 2009, but a third session was then done in June 2010, for unspecified reasons. At the current price, about $18 for two CDs, it is a steal.

27.6.11

What to Hear Next Season: Vocal Music



See my preview of the new season of vocal recitals at Washingtonian.com:

Vocal Arts 2011-12 Season Preview (Washingtonian, June 27):

available at Amazon
Era la notte, A. C. Antonacci, Modo Antiquo, F. M. Sardelli
(2006)
The difference between a song recital and opera is somewhat like the difference between reading a gripping novel and seeing the same novel made into a flashy movie: If you’re a book person, you may be a song recital person, too. In few other art forms can you hear a beautiful voice quite so close and concentrated on meaningful words in poetic form. Washingtonians who are adherents of the song recital, as well as those who might think they are, should know about the fine series of recitals presented by Vocal Arts DC.

From the seven recitals of the upcoming 2011-12 season, the three obvious top choices begin with the opening concert by bass-baritone Eric Owens (September 10), at George Washington University’s Marvin Center Theater. Owens has a smooth, puissant voice matched by an ease of musicality, which those who saw him in last year’s revival of Porgy and Bess at Washington National Opera will recall. Our other picks would be the incandescent Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci (April 11) and the rakish bass-baritone Gidon Saks (May 30), both in the series’ regular venue, the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. If you are really into song recitals, other concerts will be worth the full subscription: We’ve heard good things about baritone Mathias Hausmann (October 12), and if Graham Johnson believes in soprano Lydia Teuscher (January 26), then we’re all ears. [Continue reading]

26.6.11

In Brief: June Opera Edition

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

  • Nico Muhly's new opera, Two Boys, premiered Friday night at English National Opera. Mark Berry has an early report: "For Muhly’s music is the real problem. I had thought that Donizetti hit rock bottom with respect to operatic composition until hearing this score. It does not even have the courage to become truly unbearable, in the manner of Muhly’s mentor, Philip Glass." [Boulezian]

  • Another perspective on the premiere of Two Boys, from William Robin: "In several choral numbers, easily the best parts of the opera, Muhly transformed the unrelenting buzz of the Internet into a kind of ecstatic glossolalia, in which hundreds of words are layered atop each other to create a tableau of chanted gibberish (a technique already known to anyone familiar with the composer’s album Mothertongue)." [Washington Post]

  • Norman Lebrecht saw Two Boys in a box. He kicked off his shoes and drank coffee and was reminded of the experience of the Duke of Wellington in his box at the opera. Also, Nico Muhly made a really effective and widely viewed promotional video for the opera. Muhly has apparently saved the entire genre of opera from an ignominious death but I have no idea what it sounded like. [The Telegraph]

  • Speaking of things I wish I could see and hear in Washington, Francesca Zambello's American Ring cycle was finally completed -- at San Francisco Opera. Philip Kennicott reports. [Washington Post]

  • Tim Smith informs us that we have only a few days to watch the online video of Die Meistersinger from Glyndebourne. Also, mark August 21 on your calendar, when the Glyndebourne production of The Turn of the Screw will also be streamed online. [Clef Notes]

  • Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen is one of my favorite operas, so I admire Alan Gilbert for programming it with the New York Philharmonic. Reports of the success of this performance have varied, but here is a report from Seth Colter Walls. [Washington Post]

  • More opera and more in your online listening bonanza this week: Wagner's Tristan und Isolde from the Opéra de Lyon (online for only a few more days); the world premiere of Pascal Dusapin's Morning in Long Island, Concert N°1 with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, plus Leonidas Kavakos playing the Brahms violin concerto; Harry Christophers and the Sixteen singing music by Victoria at Sherborne Abbey; David Fray with the Orchestre National de France (Schoenberg's piano concerto); Brahms's German Requiem with the Orchestre National de Lille; more from Lugano with Martha Argerich and friends; and a recital by Joshua Bell in Prague. [France Musique]

  • Online video, too: La Venexiana's performance of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria. [Cité de la Musique Live]

  • Also, online video of the opening concert of the Rheingau Musik Festival, with Paavo Järvi conducting Mahler's fifth symphony and Elīna Garanča singing Berg's Sieben frühe Lieder. [ARTE Liveweb]

25.6.11

Zehetmair's Latest for ECM

Style masthead

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

available at Amazon
Manto and Madrigals,
T. Zehetmair, R. Killius

(released on May 17, 2011)
ECM New Series 2150 | 65:32
Charles T. Downey, Classical CD review: “Manto and Madrigals”
Washington Post, June 24, 2011
Thomas Zehetmair is a serious violinist. He has the chops to play the war horse concertos but is known for playing meatier modern concertos by the likes of Karol Szymanowski, Leos Janacek, Heinz Holliger and Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Like many of his adventurous recordings for the ECM label, Zehetmair’s new disc is not for the listener who cannot abide music more recent than Debussy. It will be a welcome diversion, however, for those who like to have their ears pulled in other, even uncomfortable directions.

The four-dozen duos by Bartok are among the most famous works for violin duet, and Zehetmair and his wife, Ruth Killius (also the violist in the Zehetmair Quartet), play a youthful Bartok duo arranged for violin and viola. The score, reproduced in the booklet, with a thoughtful essay by Paul Griffiths, is 22 simple measures in G major for the first violinist. Turn the score upside down and it is to be read by the second violinist. It is an ingenious idea that makes for a pleasing little trifle when played. [Continue reading]

24.6.11

Ionarts-at-Large: Mahler in Munich - Nagano's Seventh


When it rains, it pours. Mahler’s Seventh Symphony has long been the hold-out among Mahler’s mature works as the only Symphony (or Song Cycle) I had never heard in concert. Now I’ve heard it four times in relatively short succession: with Boulez, Haitink, Nezét-Séguin, and, last week, Kent Nagano, who crossed the Isar from the Bavarian State Opera to conduct the Munich Philharmonic—in historical principle, if not current practice, one of the great Mahler orchestras—which he had last done in 2008 for Messiaen.

The three performances prior to Nagano may not have helped me wrap my head around the work yet (orchestra musicians have suggested to me that only playing it ten times in a row on tour helps), but that last experience in Leipzig, Nezét-Séguin driving the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra through the fifth movement like a musical madman, set the bar high for pure enjoyment.

Harking back, that reckless speed-demon finale—testing the limits even of the so assured BRSO—was so overwhelming that it left everyone in the Gewandhaus stunned, indeed speechless. When Riccardo Chailly found his speech again, he kindly-critically tut-tutted Nezét-Séguin’s tempo choices, suggesting ‘the obviously talented young man has still much to learn about Mahler’s tempo indications’, but even then he admitted that the result was too spectacular to quibble for long.

Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien: Voltaire knew about a music critic’s dilemma. This was quite good, but in comparison (and given the onset of seasonal Mahler-fatigue), it suffered.

Playing the Seventh for a fourth time in four days, including a day trip to Ravenna and back, the Munich Philharmonic turned in a very good, slightly tired performance that was—not the least thanks to Nagano—more than the sum of its occasionally wobbly parts. From the calm-yet-energetic beginning over a (too) homogenous tremolo to the (initially) solid and sonorous, even brass (the domineering horns, with Jörg Brückner in front) to the unbridled timpanist (Germany’s loudest): all contributed to a rich, dark sound with lots of depth that came through even when the first violins got entangled in the notes or when the non-horn brass rejected the idea of unison work.


available at Amazon
Mahler, Symphony No.7,
Barenboim / St.Kp.B.
Warner

The cowbells—there must be standard issue cowbells that most orchestras have, and they all sound pretty awful—were not as bad as I’ve heard lately, but too direct for the inner movements, and too clear. Mahler’s “Night-music”, which doesn’t shy away from banality, sounds better (to these ears) when it is hushed and distanced; the conductors I have lately heard seem to opt for something more strident and well lit. Darker clouds moved in—appropriately—in the Scherzo, which was littered with exclamation marks and wonderfully exaggerated retarded stops and false starts. The second Nachtmusik went by without mishaps or particular distinction, but the finale was well led up to through the fifth movement, surviving a temporary slacking of energy.

The third concert in Munich was a ‘student concert’, not quite sold out but packed with a youngish crowd between 20 and 30. Unfortunately no one told them that only coughing, sneezing, and tuning are appropriate noises between movements, whereas any show or betrayal of emotion is of course much frowned upon. What do these kids think? They’re not in the Philharmonic hall for entertainment. This is culture! Serious business, best approached with a stern furrow between the brows polite applause starting no sooner than one note before the symphony has finished (so as to indicate one’s intimate knowledge of the score)!

What to Hear Next Season: NSO



See my preview of the National Symphony Orchestra's new season at Washingtonian.com:

National Symphony Orchestra 2011-12 Season Preview (Washingtonian, June 23):

The National Symphony Orchestra had a dynamic first season with its new music director, Christoph Eschenbach. Eschenbach has shown that his rapport with the musicians is strong, that he chooses some interesting repertory off the beaten path, and that he knows how to blend those unusual choices with some bones tossed to the more conservative audience member. Certainly, Eschenbach’s presence has nudged the NSO back into position as the local orchestra we most want to hear, a place it had arguably lost to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra during the early years of Marin Alsop’s tenure. The chance to watch how the NSO grows and develops with Eschenbach is worth the price of admission to at least some of next season’s concerts. [Continue reading]

OTHER SEASON PREVIEWS:
Opera | Baltimore Symphony Orchestra | Washington Performing Arts Society | Summer Concerts

23.6.11

À mon chevet: Apollo's Angels

book cover
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
For the real truth was that ballets did not belong to the rigorous and rational world of classical theater, and would always exist at the edges of the liberal and fine arts. Rather, the province of ballets was the more inchoate world of le merveilleux. This expansive arena, with its pagan and Christian resonances and fascination with miracles, magical, and supernatural events defying material logic and human reason, seemed purpose-made for opera and ballet, and had long been associated with court spectacle. All the more so since for many at the time, le merveilleux was not an unreal or imaginary world outside of daily experience: belief in enchantment was commonplace, and spirits, fairies, ghosts, and vaguely religious ideas of devilry, witches, and black magic inhabited the minds of even the most educated people.

In theatrical terms, le merveilleux meant machines and ballets: deus ex machina, spectacular effects in which men and gods were transformed and seemed to fly up into the clouds or disappear suddenly through trapdoors, and scenery that suddenly revolved, transporting the spectator to exotic lands in the blink of an eye. Charles Perrault explained that effects and fantastical creatures, so frowned upon in tragedy or comedy, were perfectly dignified in opera, which took le merveilleux as its subject tout court. Similarly, La Bruyère reflected that opera could "hold the mind, the eyes and the ears under the same spell."

It was in this spirit that in 1697 Perrault published what would later become an iconic text for ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. [...] Today, we often forget that The Sleeping Beauty was not merely a children's story: it was a tribute to Louis XIV, le merveilleux, and the modern French state.

-- Jennifer Homans, Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet, pp. 44-45
This book was widely recognized as a much-needed, authoritative look at what ballet is all about from a historical perspective -- not only because it came at a moment when ballet itself, as the author herself acknowledges, may be on the brink of an ultimate decline. The early chapters, which draw connections between what we see in modern ballets and the court ballet of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, are particularly revelatory.

22.6.11

Muti Champions Cherubini, Again

available at Amazon
Cherubini, Masses, Overtures, Motets, R. Muti, N. Marriner

(released on September 14, 2010)
EMI 6 29462 2 | 481'23"
We have already written in praise of the music of Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), one of the most beloved, long-lived, prolific, and largely forgotten composers of the early 19th century. Beethoven was an ardent admirer -- it was Cherubini's first setting of the Requiem Mass that was performed at Beethoven's funeral -- although Schumann, writing near the end of Cherubini's life, recognized him as a master, albeit of a style that had become part of the past. Berlioz, sparing no chance to disparage Cherubini in his Mémoires, found him equally old-fashioned, "the most academic of academicians, past, present, and future." (Mostly, Berlioz crossed swords with the older composer in his role as director of the Paris Conservatoire, although his Masses get a grudging good word.) Certainly, Cherubini's dramatic -- not to say operatic -- settings of the Mass were a distillation of Classical models like those of Haydn and Mozart and laid the groundwork for the essentially non-liturgical form of the Mass of the 19th century. The repetitions of text that elongate many movements, helping to create musical forms, and the dramatic contrasts, like the rocket of a "Resurrexit" movement following a solemn "Et sepultus est" in the Missa in F, for example, are familiar from Mass settings by Verdi, Berlioz, and others.

EMI marked the 150th anniversary of Cherubini's birth last year with this 7-CD set of mostly older recordings of Cherubini's Masses (only about half of what Cherubini finished, plus the two settings of the Requiem), overtures, motets (only a fraction of the two-score examples), and a few other miscellaneous pieces, priced to move at $30. Riccardo Muti's admiration for Cherubini is second to none, and these performances gleam with the loving care lavished upon them, with the Bavarian RSO, the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. My own tastes would tend toward a performance on period instruments, like that of Boston Baroque, but it is difficult not to love these suave, heartfelt, Romantic (occasionally overblown) renditions. The Missa in F, dubbed the "Messe de Chimay" because it was composed after a visit to a village church in Chimay, where he was staying with the local prince, marks the beginning of the composer's late efflorescence in sacred music, after experiencing disappointment as an opera composer. In Chimay, Cherubini reportedly rediscovered his earliest training in counterpoint and the works of Palestrina, later writing a treatise on the subject. His striking settings of liturgical texts reach their apogee with the setting of the Requiem Mass for male voices only, a somber, monastic, but also full-throated work he wrote for his own funeral. The selection of overtures and other instrumental pieces, in performances from Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, is a nice complement to the main course.

21.6.11

For Your Consideration: 'La Princesse de Montpensier'

Anyone who has had to take a course on 17th-century French literature (merci, Prof. Michael Koppisch!) has likely had to read Madame de Lafayette's novel La Princesse de Montpensier (and/or the perhaps more famous La Princesse de Clèves). So, it comes as quite a surprise that Bertrand Tavernier has made the first film adaptation of this ready-made grand historical epic (the script, a bit of a committee affair, is credited to Jean Cosmos, François-Olivier Rousseau, and Tavernier himself). As noted last year, the film was featured in the sélection officielle at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, but it has just made its way to this side of the Atlantic last month, to generally positive American reviews. The Avalon Theater, in collaboration with La Maison Française, presented a special one-night screening of the film last Wednesday.

In some ways, Tavernier has made a grand historical epic, reminiscent of another excellent French film of that sort, La Reine Margot, which Tavernier said inspired him. The sword fights, the vistas and interiors of medieval and Renaissance châteaux, the battle sequences: all of the elements are there, with gorgeous cinematography by Bruno de Keyzer. At the same time, the drama that drives the film is personal, the disasters of love and marriage unfolding over the background of the Wars of Religion, a bloody conflict of Frenchman against Frenchman that lasted much longer than the American Civil War. The savagery of his own people inspired Michel de Montaigne, in one of his most famous Essais, to defend the practice of cannibalism among some native tribes in the New World as at least inspired only by vengeance instead of conflict of religious belief:
I am not so concerned that we should remark on the barbaric horror of such a deed, but that, while we quite rightly judge their faults, we are blind to our own. I think it is more barbaric to eat a man alive than to eat him dead, to tear apart through torture and pain a living body which can still feel, or to burn it alive by bits, to let it be gnawed and chewed by dogs or pigs (as we have not only read, but seen, in recent times), not against old enemies but among neighbors and fellow-citizens, and -- what is worse -- under the pretext of piety and religion. Better to roast and eat him after he is dead.
The most emblematic and tragic event of the Wars of Religion, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre -- depicted so memorably in La Reine Margot -- features in Tavernier's film, too, because one of Madame de Lafayette's characters famously died in it, but it is presented almost without explanation, just as if the Comte de Chabannes was caught up accidentally in an unspecified riot. Most effectively, the film self-consciously does not take sides in the conflict, presenting both Catholic and Protestant characters objectively. In the memorable opening scene, the Comte de Chabannes (a moody, sharp-eyed Lambert Wilson, from Of Gods and Men) becomes the film's touchstone in many ways, as we see him taking part in a battle-related slaughter of civilians. We have no idea if Chabannes is a Catholic or a Protestant, or whether the innocent people he kills are Catholics or Protestants: although we learn those details later, all we need to know is that the folly of the killing has made Chabannes resolve to remove himself from the conflict.


Other Reviews:

Roger Ebert | New York Times | Los Angeles Times | Toronto Globe and Mail
Washington Post | Village Voice | The New Yorker | Movie Review Intelligence

Mélanie Thierry, best known for her role in that celluloid abortion called Bablyon A.D., is a smoldering presence as Madame de Mézières, who becomes the title character. The character's beauty and wealth and intelligence make her attractive to four men and, worse, a valuable chip for her father to trade in the noble marriage market. She is loved, seemingly earnestly, by Henri de Guise, played dashingly by Gaspard Ulliel, best remembered as the Romantic lead in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Un long dimanche de fiançailles, as well as by her humanist friend and tutor the Comte de Chabannes, and highest and mightiest of them all, by the brother of King Charles IX himself, the Duc d'Anjou, played by a smirking, ear-ringed Raphaël Personnaz -- and, oh yes, by her husband, the Prince de Montpensier (the mild-mannered Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). Evelina Meghnagi has a short appearance as the Queen Mother, Catherine de Médicis, but there is little time spent in the Louvre, and little reference to other major players of the War of Religion, like the Huguenot leader Coligny or Henri de Navarre, who will become Henri IV and find a solution to end the Wars of Religion. At least for a while.


More clips on YouTube

20.6.11

Isserlis, Walton, and the National Symphony

available at Amazon
Shostakovich, Symphony No. 10, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, V. Ashkenazy
Saturday evening, the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Vladimir Ashkenazy presented William Walton's Cello Concerto, with Steven Isserlis as soloist, and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10. For the NSO's first performance of the Walton Cello Concerto (1957), Isserlis took the opportunity to address the audience, declaring the concerto "one of the very greatest works for cello and orchestra," and a work of "Romanticism and drama" written as an expression of Walton's love for his wife. It begins with the lushness of a June garden and becomes a cello frenzy in the second movement, marked Allegro appassionato, in which Isserlis would sometimes hide in the orchestra's texture and then spring from it beautifully, while shaking his grey curly locks. The final Tema ed improvvisazione movement features a soothing, meandering theme with the orchestra at times taking a variation alone. Isserlis demanded the full gamut of his instrument in the variations for solo cello, particularly its vocal low range with profound open low Cs that foreshadowed the final one upon which the work ends. More exposure by audiences and critics will help determine whether the concerto as a whole is more a cellist's piece or one for the listener.

Other Reviews:

Robert R. Reilly, Ashkenazy & NSO Find Much Beauty In Shostakovich (Ionarts, June 18)

Robert Battey, Vladi­mir Ashkenazy conducting the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington Post, June 17)

Charles T. Downey, Isserlis and Gerstein, Terrace Theater (Ionarts, January 8, 2010) -- on Isserlis's soft, subtle tone being due to his use of wound gut strings
Ashkenazy, gripping his baton with a tight fist, led Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 with mixed results. The amount of tension brought to the podium seemingly limited his ability to rally the orchestra. It was a further burden when momentum in slower movements waned or Ashkenazy would allow the brass to rush him. Horn flubs aside, the NSO has a great, eager sound and showed their immense power in the second movement, which is a supposed portrait of Stalin as this work was composed in the liberating wake of Stalin's death in 1953. In contrast, though big, loud, and Soviet, the final movement (Andante-Allegro) featured a Georgian folk tune skillfully played by the contraforte leading to the work's optimistic end.

The NSO now enters its Summer Pops phase, with concerts in the Filene Center at Wolf Trap in July and August, beginning on July 8.

19.6.11

In Brief: Lakeside Edition

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

  • If you have missed the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, you can read this unidentified correspondent's assessments. Moldovan soprano Valentina Nafornita was the winner. [An Unamplified Voice]

  • What caused the woes of the New York City Opera or the Philadelphia Orchestra? According to Joshua Kosman, "The same way Lehman Bros. and Bear Stearns did: through poor - and specifically shortsighted - leadership. And just like on Wall Street, the people making these decisions aren't really the ones whose livelihoods are on the line." [San Francisco Chronicle]

  • You thought that foot pain was a ballerina's worst nightmare? What about pulling their hair back into a bun all the time? [New York Times]

  • With hat tip to Bookslut, does Ulysses really translate into other languages? Like, say, Mandarin? [The Atlantic]

  • Scholars have completed a dictionary of the Akkadian language. [Cronaca]

  • Peter Maxwell Davies calls for fines against concertgoers who allow their cell phones to ring during a performance. [The Telegraph]

  • For your online listening this week, Britten's War Requiem from the Festival de Saint-Denis, Yefim Bronfman in recital at the Konzerthaus in Vienna, Mauricio Kagel's Mare Nostrum from the Cité de la Musique, Julia Fischer with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg in the Salle Pleyel, a recital by baritone Bo Skovhus from Copenhagen, Nikolaj Znaider conducting and playing violin with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Graham Johnson leading a recital of music associated with the salon of the Princesse de Polignac, the Schola Gregoriana Pragensis chanting at the Abbaye de Payerne, and Christian Thielemann conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Brahms and Schoenberg. [France Musique]

18.6.11

Ashkenazy & NSO Find Much Beauty In Shostakovich

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra gave guest conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy everything he asked for in William Walton and Dimitri Shostakovich. He should have asked for more. The NSO excelled in everything it did, but Ashkenazy cut off some of the expressive potential of the evening by not aiming for a true orchestral pianissimo where and when it seemed called for. I have heard true pianissimo from the NSO this season under music director conductor Christoph Eschenbach—so I assume this was Ashkenazy’s preference, not orchestra-unwillingness.

available at Amazon
D.SCH, Symphony No.10,
H.v.K / BPh (1982)
DG
available at Amazon
D.SCH & W.Walton, Cello Concertos,
J.Walton / A.Briger / Philharmonia
Signum
This was no deficit in Walton’s youthful jeu d‘espirt, the Portsmouth Point Overture, which was played with élan and the requisite rhythmic sharpness. It was a fun, boisterous romp. Ashkenazy’s affinity for Romantic music—shown early on in his conducting career with his excellent set of the Sibelius symphonies, or the more recent recording of Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony—was evident in his treatment of the Walton Cello Concerto. Cellist Steven Isserlis began by giving an annoying pep talk about the Walton piece (please, just show us; don’t tell us), played by the NSO for the first time, but went on to deliver a very finely nuanced and affecting performance. Isserlis’ playing was (visually) passionate and fully engaged. The orchestral accompaniment was brilliant but could have shimmered with more delicacy. Ashkenazy’s lack of pianissimo meant that Isserlis—not endowed with a particularly large sound to begin with—was swamped in a few places, creating a sound imbalance between the cello and orchestra. In the moving finale, at least and at last, they melded perfectly.

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony should begin with the strings sounding as if they are emerging from a mist. Karajan perfectly captured this effect in his 1982 recorded performance with the Berlin Philharmonic. Once again, an opportunity for an ear-challenging, imagination-stimulating pianissimo was missed. But if there was an element of desperation missing from the affair, Ashkenazy still built the first, very long movement convincingly. Like the first movement of the Eighth Symphony, this is almost as long as the rest of the symphony. Ashkenazy was not afraid to let the music breathe in the latter part of this movement in a way that was very affecting, which made up for not quite reaching the cataclysmic heights at its climax (though coming very near). The string backbone of the piece, with its wonderful fugues, was right in place with the NSO players; the second movement was powerful, not manically oppressive. And the solo horn call in the third movement was performed simply magnificently. Catching the strings’ ebb and flow, Ashkenazy made the first part of the last movement sound as if it were a Sibelian tone poem, an impression abetted by the exquisite clarinet and flute playing floating above the brooding strings—“The Swan of Moscow”? There is music of real beauty in this symphony and Ashkenazy was communing with it in a way that made me notice things that I had missed before. My admiration, indeed affection, for this work is greater thanks to this performance. [RRR]

Brickner and Wór

Style masthead

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

Charles T. Downey, Embassies celebrate new European Union council presidency in song
Washington Post, June 18, 2011

available at Amazon
Chopin, Songs, Elzbieta Szmytka, Marcolm Martineau
Hungary’s six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union, its first since joining the EU, ends this month, when Poland will take over. To celebrate the event, the embassies of the two countries co-sponsored a pair of singers, one Hungarian and the other Polish, to perform at both embassies. The first of these concerts, under the auspices of the Embassy Series, was held at the Hungarian Embassy on Thursday night.

Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór is already familiar from her years in Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program. In the first half, devoted to Polish songs by Chopin and Feliks Rybicki, she showed the velvety side of her voice. As Wór has shown on the stage, she has a dramatic presence and expressive face, qualities that helped her bring across the meaning of the Polish texts she sang with such exquisite diction. The top of her voice strained slightly, the vibrato going a little wild, but the dry acoustic, something like that of a large living room, might have left her feeling exposed. [Continue reading]
Magdalena Wór (mezzo-soprano) and Szabolcs Brickner (tenor)
Embassy Series
Embassy of Hungary

17.6.11

What to Hear Next Season: At the Opera



See my preview of the 2011-2012 opera season at Washingtonian.com:

Washington National Opera’s Future An Uncertain One (Washingtonian, June 17):

The Plácido Domingo era at Washington National Opera officially ended this month. The company heads into uncertain territory, having just saved itself from bankruptcy and possible dissolution by finessing a desperate merger with the Kennedy Center earlier this year.

Who will be leading the company into the future? Rather than strong central leadership, WNO announced that it has appointed one of the company’s favorite opera directors, Francesca Zambello, to be its artistic advisor.

At the same time, current Chief Operating Officer Michael L. Mael has been bumped up to the position of executive director. If this sounds like a terrible idea, that’s because it is one. Zambello has many of the same negatives as Domingo­—her work as a director takes her all over the world, for example—but none of the glamour. If she does indeed push the idea of an opera company mounting musicals, it might finally finish the job on WNO’s subscriber base, after years of rising ticket prices.

The rosiest news for WNO is the appointment of Philippe Auguin as music director. Every score that Auguin has touched so far in Washington he has enriched with a perceptive knowledge, able to coax cohesive, multi-colored performances from the Opera House Orchestra. Along with the dynamic work of Christoph Eschenbach in the concert hall next door, Auguin’s tenure makes being a classical-music listener in Washington most exciting right now. Make a note of the three operas that Auguin will conduct next season at WNO. [Continue reading]

16.6.11

Argerich and Friends Last Year

available at Amazon
Martha Argerich and Friends,
Live at the Lugano Festival 2010

(released on March 29, 2011)
EMI 0 70836 2 | 240'04"
We have recommended the series of discs from Martha Argerich's annual summer concerts in Lugano before. The elusive pianist is leading the tenth installment of the Swiss Progetto that bears her name right now: you can listen to some of those concerts via the streaming audio from France Musique. If you missed what she and her merry band played last summer, you can listen to it on this affordably priced set of three jam-packed CDs from EMI.

Last summer, as in many places in the world, Argerich was celebrating the Chopin and Schumann anniversaries, beginning with her own performance of Chopin's first piano concerto, with the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana and conductor Jacek Kaspszyk. This performance stands up to either of La Argerich's previous recordings of the work, with Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra (DG, made shortly after her triumph at the Warsaw competition) or Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (EMI, made thirty-some years later): it is mercurial in the way that an Argerich performance generally is, and conductor and orchestra had better be on their toes. Schumann is represented as Argerich partners with each of the Capuçon brothers, in the first violin sonata (with Renaud, smoky and debonair) and the op. 70 Adagio and Allegro (with Gautier, sebaceous and oozing). As usual with Argerich's programming, there are many rarities, including three piano quintets by Korngold, Granados, and Schnittke; the first two are lovely discoveries, and the last one is an intense, enigmatic, sometimes ear-grinding, poly-stylistic experience.

Most pianists love to play with other pianists, in four-hands or multiple-piano pieces, and Argerich is no different. We have admired many of the pieces and arrangements of this kind she has championed and performed over the years, always orchestral in scope. Last summer, she and her colleagues unearthed Brahms's Variations on a Theme of Schumann (for two pianos), Bartók's sonata for two pianos and percussion (a visceral, sometimes earth-shaking interpretation led by Argerich), transcriptions of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (a madcap version for three pianos, including strange effects like spidery strummed or plucked piano strings plus a climactic bit for triangle, by Carlo Maria Griguoli, who is also one of the performers) and Liszt's Les Préludes (a fascinating version for two pianos, with Argerich at the helm), and Percy Grainger's toe-tapping Fantasy on Porgy and Bess (for two pianos, with Gabriela Montero on primo). These are all pieces it would be excellent to hear more in live performance, and at this price the set gets an easy recommendation.

15.6.11

Chornobyl-Fukushima Benefit Concert

On last Thursday evening at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York City, one Japanese and two Ukrainian musicians donated their services to benefit victims of the nuclear disasters at Chornobyl and Fukushima, with a concert sponsored by the Music at the Institute (MATI) series. The Ukrainian Institute is housed in the grand Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion that was sold by Sinclair after the Teapot Dome Scandal in the 1920s. Its grand parlor overlooking the tree tops of Central Park provides a wonderfully authentic venue for chamber music. The program comprised works for violin, piano, and cello, performed respectively by Solomiya Ivakhiv, Valentina Lisitsa, and Kaori Yamagami.

This being the 25th anniversary year of the Chornobyl tragedy and with the Fukushima Daiichi disaster so recent, the tone of the concert was shaded darkly, and the musicians chose works to reflect this feeling. Musically, these disasters were brought to our shores as if without knowing any details: one sensed a dimension of personal loss and grief from the musicians through their playing.

Pianist Valentina Lisitsa played through the entire first half of the program uninterrupted by applause. High points included Schubert's song Gute Nacht, transcribed for piano solo by Liszt, which began darkly yet for a brief while moved into major, showing hints of Lisztian pianism. Ravel's Ondine from Gaspard de la Nuit was suspended and clear, while Chopin's Nocturne in E-flat, op. 9 -- a popular piece for intermediate piano students -- was sweetly delicate with the twirling notes at the end executed without hesitation. Lisitsa ended the first half of the program with Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, which despite the pianist's captivating playing, after a while seemed of less musical quality than her previous selections.

German-based cellist Kaori Yamagami seemingly approached Bach's Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor with the intention of emulating the warm sound of the viola da gamba with gut strings. With limited vibrato and technique to spare, faster movements were quick and light, while slower movements were beautifully phrased.

Violinist and Artistic Director of the MATI series Solomiya Ivakhiv joined Lisitsa in Franck's Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major. Ivakhiv produced an old tone from her violin while adding unusual portamenti, convincing rubato, and a fast narrow vibrato used as a lyrical tool that fit this piece perfectly. Although sometimes losing the full connection of her bow to her strings, Ivakhiv conveyed the element of fantasia in this work beautifully. Ivakhiv nicely played figurations to accompany the piano in the fiendishly difficult Allegro molto second movement. In perfect tempo, the final Allegretto poco mosso movement's memorable tune soared freely and elegantly.

The author acknowledges the financial assistance of the MATI series, which made it possible for him to cover this concert.

14.6.11

Royal Danish Ballet: 'Napoli'

The Washington visit of the Royal Danish Ballet concluded this weekend, with its strikingly updated production of Napoli, seen at the Saturday afternoon performance. The story of this ballet, created by the company's legendary choreographer August Bournonville in 1842, is very simple: Gennaro, a poor young fisherman in Naples, loves a pretty young girl named Teresina, but her money-obsessed mother will not allow them to marry. The company's current artistic director, Nikolaj Hübbe, has updated the title city to Naples in the 1950s -- the Naples of the infamous Camorra, although there was not yet garbage piling up in the streets. (Former dancer Sorella Englund shares credit again with Hübbe for the production.)

The score and scenario are far less interesting than A Folk Tale, which I reviewed for Washingtonian. Again, the quality of stagecraft was admirable, including video animations projected on scrims or on the stage back wall, the latter showing an approximation of Vesuvius with changing weather patterns for the storm and different times of day. The music of the outer acts, by a team of composers including Edvard Helsted, H. S. Paulli, and H. C. Lumbye, represents a sort of garden-variety Romanticism, even making lengthy quotations from Rossini operas, not nearly as distinctive as the work of Niels Gade. The first act's choreography is almost all pantomime, featuring distinctive character work from Lis Jeppesen (Veronica, Teresina's widowed mother) and Fernando Mora and Jean-Lucien Massot as the two undesirable suitors, the last two heavily relying on Italian stereotypes.

Susanne Grinder, who had also been the Hilda in the performance of A Folk Tale we saw, was an equally lovely Teresina, feistier and sexier. She was matched by Ulrik Birkkjaer as a virile, handsome Gennaro, if not particularly virtuosic in the strength of his leaps or the verticality of his turns. The Act I pas de deux, consisting of many mirrored movements, was lovely. When Gennaro rescues Teresina from a boating accident during the storm, her mother relents and the third act is a long wedding entertainment of the sort that features lots of beautiful dancing but grinds to a halt dramatically (think The Sleeping Beauty). Lead dancers, beautiful but not particularly striking, were featured in the pas de six, the sort of ensemble divertissement Bournonville favored in many of his ballets, culminating in a tangy tarantella, with lots of ensemble hand clapping and tambourine striking, that does go on.


Other Articles:

Sarah Kaufman, Royal Danish Ballet’s earthy, pretty ‘Napoli’ (Washington Post, June 13)

Gia Kourlas, Add Audacity To Under-statement, And Stir In Patience (New York Times, June 10)

Lewis Segal, Royal Danish Ballet performs a revamped, updated 'Napoli' at Segerstrom Center for the Arts (Los Angeles Times, May 29)

Kevin Berger, Nikolaj Hübbe electrifies the Royal Danish Ballet (Los Angeles Times, May 22)
Hübbe really left his mark on the work with his complete refashioning of the second act, the Blue Grotto scene, in which Teresina sinks to the bottom of the Grotta Azzurra on the island of Capri. Gennaro, with the help of the otherworldly pilgrim who crosses their path (Hübbe also removes the specifically Christian aspect of the story), frees his beloved from the clutches of an underwater spirit, Golfo, and his harem of naiads. This was the best part of the original score, mostly composed by Niels Gade, which Hübbe jettisoned in favor of an atmospheric experimental score by composer and "sound artist" Louise Alenius (you can watch a video of the opening eight minutes of the Blue Grotto scene at her Web site). Her music, jarringly different from the rest of the score (appropriately enough), includes recorded whispers and other menacing noises, as well as many unusual instrumental effects (bell tree, rattles, timpani glissandi, trombone wah-wahs, corrugaphone or lasso d'amore, just to name a few), but then reverts to the original pas de deux music when Gennaro and Teresina are reunited.

As the scene opens, Teresina is suspended on wires at the top of the set, floating in front of the sparkling video of underwater blue and rays of sunlight from above (sets and costumes by Maja Ravn, lighting by Mikki Kunttu). She sinks downward to the ocean floor and is gathered up by the corps of naiads, dominated in a striking choreography by Golfo, danced with disturbing menace and boundless strength by a white-faced Andrew Bowman, lifting Grinder effortlessly around the stage. The choreography includes very little strict pantomime, with duos between Golfo and Teresina and between Teresina and Gennaro, as well as beautiful group scenes for the sparkling women of the corps as the naiads. Bournonville's choreography having been lost for the second act, this seems a much more striking replacement than an attempt to create something Bournonville-like to the older music (see a sample of that in this video).

13.6.11

More of the Same from the BSO



See my review of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a preview of their 2011-2012 season at Washingtonian.com:

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Serves Up Yet Another "Requiem" (Washingtonian, June 13):

How often does Verdi’s Requiem get performed in the Washington area? At least once a year seems a reasonable guess, and it's generally true, but this season will see even more performances than that. In fact, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s season-ending performance of the work, heard on Saturday night at Strathmore, is the third in less than three weeks, following those by the Prince George’s Philharmonic (May 14) and the National Philharmonic (May 21). Marin Alsop’s blockbuster debut season with the BSO, in 2007-08, seemed to have inaugurated a daring new period for the ensemble—the first “major” American orchestra to be led by a woman as music director. Whatever the reason, Alsop’s programming in subsequent seasons has not been nearly as exciting, and the season past was no different, with a few exceptions. Alsop’s focus on contemporary music, especially by American composers, has continued, albeit with works that it is hard to describe as great. So this performance of the biggest choral chestnut of them all seemed par for the course.

Alsop had an outstanding soprano soloist in Angela Meade, who was frankly the only reason that I wanted to hear another Requiem. The reviews of Meade did not exaggerate: She has a tremendously powerful and flexible dramatic voice, and she blew the rest of the quartet out of the water in terms of both power and subtlety. Even at the loudest parts of the score, with the entire BSO at full bore, Meade’s voice sailed clearly over the fray, while she also had suave control of her voice at soft dynamics, shimmering in the stratosphere in the “Lacrymosa” movement. What Verdi does to the soprano in the closing “Libera me” is sadistic, calling for a high B-flat at pppp. It is unfair to judge an entire performance on the basis of one note, but the sound of that note can make or break the piece. Meade got it and held it, perhaps a little tenuous, the only minor quibble about an otherwise stellar performance. To be fair, this was her third-straight evening singing this very demanding piece. [Continue reading]

June Chamber Festival I

Style masthead

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

Charles T. Downey, June Chamber Festival at the Kreeger Museum
Washington Post, June 13, 2011

available at Amazon
Anna Stoytcheva Plays Schumann
In the house that Philip Johnson built for the Kreegers on Foxhall Road NW, the acoustic of the Great Hall can be like a whispering gallery, carrying distant sounds through its stone arches to one’s ears. The room was designed for musical performance, and on Friday night the Kreeger Museum opened the seventh installment of its June Chamber Festival there. The regular guests, violist Miles Hoffman and the American Chamber Players, generally have their ups and downs in terms of technical polish, although ingenuity of programming is always a point in their favor. This time, it was not enough.

Standout performances came from the usual suspects, flutist Sara Stern and pianist Anna Stoytcheva, heard together in three lovely romances by Schumann [op. 94]. Originally composed for oboe, the solo part sat rather low for flute, but Stoytcheva, ever sensitive to her partner, did a fine job of resizing the piano part to fit the quieter instrument. Stoytcheva also held her own at the center of Beethoven’s Op. 16 quartet for piano and strings, rearranged by the composer from his own quintet for piano and winds. Stoytcheva dispatched the demanding piano part with grace and force in a performance that had every reason to make the Bulgarian ambassador, who was in the audience, proud of the Bulgarian-born pianist. [Continue reading]
American Chamber Players
June Chamber Festival
Kreeger Museum

PREVIOUS REVIEWS:
June 2010 | March 2010 | June 2006 (2) | June 2006 (1)

12.6.11

In Brief: Et Subito Edition

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

  • Michael Kaiser says that unions are not to blame for the predicament of orchestras or other music organizations, but the treatment of donors and subscribers could be part of the problem. [Huffington Post]

  • George Loomis gives it straight to the "leadership" of New York City Opera. [Musical America]

  • Who owns Spiral Jetty exactly? Well, the State of Utah, for now at least. The former guardian, the Dia Foundation, allegedly did not act promptly enough to renew its lease on the parcel of land at the edge of the Great Salt Lake. [Salt Lake Tribune]

  • Holy crap, the executives of major American orchestras make a shitload of money. [Philadelphia Inquirer]

  • Wha-wha-what??! Dance critic Deborah Jowitt has resigned from The Village Voice because of a conflict with her editor. Another Cleveland Plain Dealer-Donald Rosenberg situation, you wonder, with powerful board members from dance companies pressuring a newspaper? No. "I do not write enough strongly negative reviews," she says. [Dance/USA]

  • It was a week for bizarre interactions in performance. Any sound made by a viola could be cause for a riot, or so would go the old jokes at the instrument's expense. This time, a violist really did cause a sort of riot, provoking another violist in the audience. [New York Times]

  • Critic Luke Jennings had quite a night at the theater. "Further down my row a guy parts his arse cheeks to expose his anus to a visibly alarmed woman. Then he fixes on me, and tries to grab my pen and notebook." Yeah, pretty much just another night at the theater in London. [The Guardian]

  • A major coup for Salzburg, losing the Berlin Philharmonic but getting the Staatskapelle Dresden instead. They are really much better off in Salzburg with Christian Thielemann instead of Simon Rattle. [Bloomberg News]

  • Among many wonderful things (as always) in this week's New Yorker (not to mention another brilliantly written film review by Anthony Lane), some letters written by Vladimir Nabokov during a disastrous American lecture tour in the 1940s. [The Russian Professor]

  • How can one possibly keep up with the online listening possibilities? This week, we have a Mahler eighth symphony from the Théâtre du Châtelet with the Orchestre National de France under Daniele Gatti (soloists include Erin Wall and Marie-Nicole Lemieux), the Talich and Ysaÿe quartets and more at the Festival de l'Epau, Marc-André Hamelin's recital from the Festival de Schwetzingen (program basically identical to what he played here recently), the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra playing Mahler's tenth symphony and the Eroica at the Salle Pleyel, and Nicholas Angelich playing the Goldberg Variations at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. [France Musique]

  • In online video, Les Arts Florissants playing Lully's ballet music. [Cité de la Musique Live]

  • Also, Esa-Pekka Salonen and pianist David Fray with the Orchestre de Paris. [Cité de la Musique Live]

  • Finally, from the Festival de Saint-Denis, Le Poème Harmonique and Vincent Dumestre performing Te Deums by Charpentier and Lully. [ARTE Live Web]

11.6.11

Court Ballet as You've Never Seen It Before

La Délivrance de Renaud: Ballet dansé par Louis XIII en 1617, ed. Greer Garden. Centre d'Études Supérieures de la Renaissance. Collection ‹‹Épitome musical››, dir. Philippe Vendrix. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2011. XXI+293 p., 17 b/w ill. + 68 colour ill., 190 x 290 mm, ISBN: 978-2-503-52347-7

Recently, the postman made the delivery of a much longed-for birth: after over a decade of research, collaboration, sweat, and prayer, a new book on the 1617 court ballet La Délivrance de Renaud has been published. This astounding court ballet, performed by King Louis XIII along with some of the gentlemen of his court and a host of professional dancers, singers, and musicians, was one of the works I studied in my doctoral dissertation. After completing graduate school, I began an attempt to make a critical edition of the music, only to discover that scholars from New Zealand and France were pursuing the same goal. They kindly allowed me to contribute to their undertaking, and after many years of anguish, the book has finally seen the light of day.

The luxurious (and expensive) edition, published beautifully by Brepols, includes a facsimile of the principal source for the ballet, a remarkable document that contains musical notation, a narrative account of the first and only performance (in the Louvre on January 29, 1617), and illustrations of the lavish costumes and sets, as well as an English translation of that document and a critical edition of the vocal and dance music. The first part of the book brings together essays by the team of scholars, myself included, on a range of topics related to this ballet and its unprecedented documentation in archival sources: historical context, literary inspiration, the musical performance and instrumentation, staging, scenography, costuming, and dance.

As a precursor to the development of opera in France, the court ballet in the era of Louis XIII is a frequently mentioned but little understood phenomenon. This volume is a comprehensive and beautifully presented introduction to it, and the fact that it is in both English and French, with some of the articles in only one language or the other, should make it of interest to research libraries and other collections in many places. The obvious goal of this sort of musicological research is a reconstructed performance of the work pieced together from historical sources: for more about that, stay tuned.

10.6.11

What to Hear Next Season: WPAS



See my preview of the 2011-2012 season from Washington Performing Arts Society at Washingtonian.com:

What to Hear Next Season: Washington Performing Arts Society (Washingtonian, June 10):

Washington Performing Arts Society brings a high-caliber roster of the world’s leading musicians to perform at the Kennedy Center, Strathmore, and the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, among other venues. If they tend to return again and again to the same artists, year after year, it’s largely because they know their audience.

High-profile artists demand big fees, and even though WPAS’s concerts are underwritten by many generous donors, the price of its tickets can be steep. At least some of WPAS’s 2011-2012 concerts, announced last month, will likely be among the year’s biggest events in classical music, but on which ones should you spend your ticket budget? Among the big names back (yet again) on the WPAS roster, Joshua Bell (January 23) is the first we advise you to put on your calendar. The American violinist became even more famous in these parts after he took part in a stunt staged by the Washington Post in the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station, and the only criticism that comes to mind about his performances is that they are sometimes too beautiful. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham (February 4) is known for the beauty of her voice and the intelligence of her choice of songs. Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (February 12) returns to a more traditional program after his last, somewhat unusual recital here. Violinist Vadim Repin (March 16) has all the technical facility of Joshua Bell and a lot more grit and power, plus a killer recital program. If Murray Perahia actually plays his recital (March 18) -- he has struggled with hand injuries through the years -- he will play impeccably. [Continue reading]