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30.4.12

Ionarts-at-Large: (Pretty, Boring) Thank God for Dogs!

Jerome Robbins’ Goldberg Variations is a snoozer of interminable prettiness. Jiří Kylián’s Gods and Dogs is a visual and acoustic treat; as spectacular as modern ballet gets.



Dance is as old as rhythm, and rhythm is older than man. It started when a particularly musical chimp first went to work on a hollow tree trunk and churned out trendy beats in accompaniment to his (pri-)mates’ elastic gyrations and approving hoots. That’s not literally what Arcadi, Robert, Boesche, and Buttress claim in PRIMATES, 39(4), October 1998, but the gist is about right. Soon the ground rules were established: excitement = fast. Solemnity = slow. The steps have since changed, but the essence remains the same.

During the early Renaissance dance went from unregulated, convulsive free-for-all into an art-form. Eventually distinct rhythmic patterns and rhythms found their way into music that was not intended to be danced to. Via the French Keyboard Suite, the principal form of stylized dance in baroque music, German composers adapted dance movements in the French and Italian style. What started with Johann Jakob Froberger cumulated in Bach and his Suites and Partitas.


If dance, turned into abstraction, became music through Bach and his colleagues, the process is now working in reverse: the music of Bach is becoming the impetus for modern dance. The music that was once formed by motion, now gives motion. The earliest dance/ballet to the music of Bach I could find preserved on film—thanks be to YouTube!—is Doris Humphrey’s 1928 Air for the G String [sic]. With Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco (1941), set to the Concerto in d-minor for Two Violins, BWV 1043, the Bach-dancing renaissance really got under way. Countless others have followed: The all-male drag group Les Ballet Trockadero with the costume-laden spoof Go for Barocco. William Forsythe’s meta-ballet Artifact—half speech-theater, half Kraftwerk aesthetic. Rodrigo Pederneiras and his Grupo Corpo created Bach, a mix of Las Fura del baus, National Aerobics Championship video, and Wendy Carlos. Nacho Duato’ s 1999 Multiplicity / Forms of Silence and Emptiness is perhaps the epitome of the genre: pure genius and heart-wrenching entertainment. (Video from the Bavarian State Ballet here.)

The Goldberg Variations alone have attracted dozens of choreographers: Marie Chouinard with her darkly mechanical-sexual Body Remix – Goldberg Variations. Susan Jaffe’s classical duet Royenne. Eponymous improvised solo and duo efforts by Mark Haim, Steve Paxton, and a very lyrical choreography by Gregory Dawson. Plots are either absent or superimposed; it is as if the element of abstraction of the music carried over the choreographies. The same is true for the most famous ‘Goldberg Variations Ballet’, Jerome Robbins’ which premiered with the New York City Ballet in 1971. Now the Bavarian State Ballet has taken up Robbins’ Goldberg Variations and coupled them with Jiří Kylián’s Gods and Dogs.

For half the opening Aria, performed by pianist Elena Mednik in the raised orchestra pit, the black curtain is down. When it rises on a clean and wide, off-white stage – empty but for two elaborately costumed dancers, the visual effect elicits “Aaaah’s” from the capacity crowd. Martina Balabanova and Christian Assis present stylized formal dance of courtly France, further stylized into neo-classical ballet steps – somehow reminiscent of figure skating. What follows are variations of dancers, groups and couples, wearing simplest costumes in a colorful array of pastels and tans. The costumes, very slowly, become progressively more elaborate and opulent, until 80 very long minutes later, the Quodlibet’s penultimate number is a ring-a-ring-o' roses in full regalia. Very, very pretty, indeed.

Around the 1970s, the idea that Bach’s Goldberg Variations were meant as a cure for insomnia was still popular: Perhaps Robbins’ work tries to pick up on that. Apart from a few notable moments – a hint of silent movie, a burst of energy amid complacency, folk-dance episodes – there is very little going on, accompanied by a drab, but cruelly repeat-observing performance that made me wish more than once that the music came from a CD, instead. (Perhaps Evgeni Koroliov’s recording on Hänssler, which also observes the repeats but establishes irresistible forward momentum in the variations.) With so much stately harmless hopping about, and figures that looked like a belabored circus act of contortionists, it’s no surprise that Robbins’ work has a strong somniferous effect. It’s too long by half, if not three quarters. Overheard from an elderly couple just behind me: “Very nice, and such adorable costumes. But the music was so awfully monotonous… all that soporific tinkling.” Unfortunately they weren’t Bach-ignorant, they were right on the money.

With some trepidation I made it back for Gods and Dogs, a modern work that goes to Ludwig van Beethoven – namely String Quartet op.18 / 1 – for its musical inspiration. The effect after sitting through Goldberg Variations is much that of receiving a reward: Unspeakable beauty by way of an aesthetic that is aggressive, abrupt, abstract, and anguished. Cinematic lighting, elastic bodies with ghastly-robotic, smooth and spellbinding movements, an endlessly fascinating back curtain of metal chains, strong shadows, and a continuous, however nonfigurative, narrative all captivate the audience. Dirk Haubrich bends Beethoven’s first string quartet into shape, projecting and modifying dark industrial sounds into it that would have you grip your armrests, if the newly upholstered seats of the National Theater had any. Then, suddenly, unexpected and brilliantly, the work ends within minutes of its climax, a quality impossible to overrate.

The only overt clue as to the title of the work was a projected slow-motion wolf that runs ominously toward the viewer. Elsewhere the ballet looks less like “Gods” than advanced Capoeira. True to its name in one other way: It is divine!

Pictures courtesy Bavarian State Ballet, © Wilfried Hösl

'Nabucco' at Washington National Opera


Soloman Howard (High Priest of Baal) and Csilla Boross (Abigaille) in Nabucco, Washington National Opera, 2011 (photo by Scott Suchman)
Nabucco was Giuseppe Verdi's first real success as a composer, and although it is a decidedly early work, almost unworthy to be placed near the great achievements of his late career, in it one can already discern the kernel of what Verdi would be able to achieve. In a preview of his struggles with the conventions of Italian opera, Verdi includes all of those conventions -- cavatinas paired with cabalettas, the banda marching across the stage, standard aria types -- but is already looking for ways to integrate them as realistically as possible into the drama. The libretto by Temistocle Solera, based loosely on the Biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar's subjugation of the ancient Hebrews, is a bit of a muddle, with two antagonists -- the eponymous despot and his spiteful virago of a daughter, Abigaille, created by Verdi's eventual wife, Giuseppina Strepponi -- who cannot quite decide if they are villains are not. Later in his career, it was the sort of libretto Verdi would likely have insisted on revising more extensively than he did.

The music, however, can be rather beautiful, when it is not pedestrian, as heard in Washington National Opera's first-ever production of the opera, which opened on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The casting requires a killer soprano for Abigaille, which this production almost had in Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross, with a searing top, more zing than finesse in the fioriture, but not much venom at the bottom. Baritone Franco Vassallo made an uneasy company debut in his first attempt at the title role, singing under pitch at many points, seemingly from the effort of pushing his voice uncomfortably. Turkish bass Burak Bilgili had a swallowed tone as Zaccaria, but an affecting resonance in the prayer scene Vieni, o Levita, with its somber cello sextet. Young tenor Sean Panikkar had another pleasing turn as Ismaele, singing with more heroic verve than polish (some work on Italian diction is in order). Soprano Géraldine Chauvet was a mostly undistinguished Fenena, a pretty but pale voice making an already weak character vanish even more into the scenery. Among the supporting cast, the standout performance came from Washington, D.C., bass Soloman Howard, who was a booming High Priest of Baal, tottering about with his long-taloned hands gripping two canes.

After an intriguing production of Thomas's Hamlet two years ago, director Thaddeus Strassberger has created a staging of Nabucco that is both traditional -- tributes to 19th-century hand-painted sets (designed by Strassberger, with reference to images from the Ishtar Gate, for example), candle lighting (designed by Mark McCullough), old-school costumes (designed by Mattie Ullrich) -- and off-putting -- a play-within-the-play evocation of the Risorgimento associations of the opera's first performances, with added supernumeraries representing the conflict between the Italians and their Austrian occupiers. Unfortunately, Strassberger messed with the one piece in the opera that requires absolutely no meddling -- the famous Hebrew chorus Va, pensiero, set as if backstage, with no particular dramatic benefit (in fact, cluttered with all sorts of action and superfluous ideas, the less said about it, the better) -- and left many parts of the opera that could have used dramatic sharpening unaltered.


Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Opera review: ‘Nabucco’ at the Washington National Opera (Washington Post, April 30)

---, Opera: ‘Nabucco’ at Washington National Opera (Washington Post, April 20)

Stephen Brookes, ‘Nabucco’ primed for first D.C. run (Washington Times, April 26)
The chorus, so important to the success of this opera, sounded in excellent form when it sang, but Strassberger left the direction of its movements sometimes uncertain and stilted. Strassberger's plan with Va, pensiero was to save the almost obligatory encore for an added dramatic moment before the curtain call. With some uncertainty from both singers and orchestra, and without much of an ovation, the encore happened anyway at the traditional place, making the added encore at the end, with Italian supertitles encouraging the audience to sing along, a little unwelcome at the end of a long performance (and risky, sung unaccompanied). At the podium, music director Philippe Auguin gave the music finely etched shape, if some of the tempi were a bit stodgy or harried, with fine playing from the brass in the overture, a quicksilver piccolo player, and those burnished cellists in Zaccaria's prayer. If the overall feeling was of a performance a little at sixes and sevens, the production is sure to have the kinks ironed out of it as time goes by.

This production continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House, through May 21.

Tanya Tomkins @ LoC

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Charles T. Downey, Cellist Tanya Tomkins plays Bach at the Library of Congress
Washington Post, April 30, 2012

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Solo Cello Suites,
T. Tomkins
It is not easy to give a distinctive performance of Bach’s suites for solo cello, something that makes those familiar pieces sound new. That is what baroque cellist Tanya Tomkins did Saturday afternoon in an insightful traversal of all of six suites over two concerts closing out the Library of Congress’s Bach festival. Tomkins, who had to cancel these concerts last season because of illness, came close to doing so again because of an allergy set off by the odor of painting in the building.

As she explained between suites, Tomkins played on a historical instrument fitted to 18th-century standards: higher strings made of gut, lower strings made of gut wrapped with metal, lower string tension (and tuning at A415), a lighter bow that danced across the strings. Specialization in baroque music, from her work as principal cellist in the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Portland Baroque Orchestra and other ensembles, helped her interpret the cues in the score about interpretation. The preludes had an improvisatory character in cadenza-like sections, and the dances lilted with the sense of movement. The allemandes were noble and genteel, the courantes rippling and fleet, the sarabandes graceful but not too slow and the gigues a little rough and folksy. [Continue reading]
Tanya Tomkins, Baroque cello
J. S. Bach, Suites for solo cello
Library of Congress

SEE ALSO:
Marianne Lipanovich, Cellist Tanya Tomkins: Suite Phase of Life (San Francisco Classical Voice, November 15, 2010)

Bach Cello Suites (Ionarts, May 26, 2010)

Moscow Soloists Turn 20

available at Amazon
Schubert, String Quartet ("Death and the Maiden," arr. G. Mahler), Moscow Soloists, Y. Bashmet


available at Amazon
Haydn, Cello Concertos, A. Gastinel, Moscow Soloists, Y. Bashmet


available at Amazon
Brahms, Quintet in B Minor (op. 115, arr. Y. Bashmet), Moscow Soloists, Y. Bashmet
The Moscow Soloists chamber orchestra celebrates its 20th anniversary this year (officially, on May 19), and their victory lap through North American included a stop in the Music Center at Strathmore on Friday night. Unlike their last visit to the area, a 2007 concert at the Library of Congress, the programming of this concert was more staid, featuring some of the ensemble's greatest hits over the years, including some of their signature arrangements of chamber music for a small complement of seventeen strings. Unfortunately, these performances suffered by comparison to memories of the group's glory days, as did the solo turn of the group's founder, violist Yuri Bashmet, in his much-admired arrangement of the Brahms B minor clarinet quintet.

The best reason to hear this concert, by far, was the guest solo appearance of inimitable cellist Mischa Maisky. My aversion to Tchaikovsky's syrupy music is probably too well known, but there is no one I would rather hear in a piece like that composer's D minor nocturne, arranged for cello and chamber orchestra from the piano original (Six morceaux, op. 19/4). Maisky played this little bonbon as an encore during a 2010 performance with the National Symphony Orchestra, and once again he played it with a fluid, striking sense of rubato, spontaneous in its shifts, mingling effortlessly with the solo violin descanting above him.

While Maisky is generally not my first choice for music before about 1840 (as in his rendition of the Bach cello suites at the National Gallery of Art in 2004), he brought a sense of verve and lyricism to Haydn's C major cello concerto (H. 7b/1). It was perhaps not as stylistically fluent as the performance of Anne Gastinel, who recorded the Haydn concertos with the Moscow Soloists (and had the added benefit of the oboes and horns called for in the score but omitted here), but it was distinctive, especially the warm interior reflection of the slow movement. To mark the fifth anniversary of the death of Mstislav Rostropovich (April 27, 2007), one of Maisky's former mentors and a local hero because of his leadership of the National Symphony Orchestra, Maisky and the ensemble offered the Pablo Casals arrangement of the Catalan folk song El Cant dels Ocells, a meditative end to the first half.


Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore (Washington Post, April 30)
It was not really clear how much Yuri Bashmet's odd conducting helped or hindered the performance. At times, the musicians seemed to be looking more to their section leaders or to Maisky when he was on stage. His work in rehearsal seemed to have been useful, since the orchestra had some good ideas about shaping lines with a marked sense of crescendo and diminuendo, although the style of playing was often unnecessarily angular. Gustav Mahler's chamber orchestra arrangement of Schubert's devastating D minor string quartet (D. 810, "Death and the Maiden"), is worth a listen, although frankly it is silly to think you could improve on that piece. Straight tone from many of the players made some interesting effects but played havoc with intonation, particularly among the violins. Balance was generally good, although the expansion of the Brahms B minor quintet, op. 115, made the clarinet solo part, transferred to viola, very difficult to hear and not particularly effective.

29.4.12

In Brief: End of April Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio, online video, and other good things in Blogville and Beyond.

  • As reported earlier this week Kurt Masur had an accident falling off the podium during a concert with the Orchestre National de France at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, during the third movement of Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony. That concert was broadcast live on French radio, and you can still listen to it (the Tchaikovsky third movement begins at around 1'30"). We wish the Maestro a speedy recovery: he reportedly fell from the platform into the audience (the audience gasps in fright when the fall happens at 1'36") and was taken to the hospital, where he is reportedly in good condition. [France Musique]

  • Christian Thielemann conducts a performance of Wagner's Die Walküre at the Wiener Staatsoper, from last November. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Also with the above in the same cycle, a performance of Das Rheingold. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • From the Gasteig in Munich, Andris Nelsons conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in music of Janáček and Dvořák, with Janine Jansen playing the Brahms violin concerto. [France Musique]

  • More Andris Nelsons, when he conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, this time at the Musikverein in Vienna, with Hélène Grimaud in Beethoven's fifth piano concerto. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Also the above, without Grimaud, playing Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Listen to actress Fanny Ardant as the reciter in a performance of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under the baton of Arvo Volmer, from the Cité de la Musique earlier this month. [France Musique]

  • An artist has taken one of the most brutal images of suffering in art history, the tortured body of Christ in the crucifixion scene on Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, and made it into a few matching metal sculptures. These are being displayed in the Musée Unterlinden de Colmar, next to the the famous Renaissance work. The creator of the work, Adel Abdessemed, fled Algeria in 1994 because of the rising threat of Islamic fundamentalism. [Le Figaro]

  • Listen to a concert by the Ensemble Intercontemporain and mezzo-soprano Nora Gubisch, conducted by Alain Altinoglu, with music by Stravinsky, Ravel, Dalbavie, Berio, and Lu Wang. [France Musique]

  • The Ballet of the Opera de Paris revived the ballet L'Histoire de Manon, the music of Massenet (but not from his opera on the same story) choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan. Above all performances, in the estimation of dance critic Ariane Bavelier, was the star Aurélie Dupont, who was also an "incredibly captivating" lead in La Bayadère this season. Mark your calendars: Dupont will dance the title role in the first cast of Giselle when the company visits the Kennedy Center in June. [Le Figaro]

  • If you missed the recent recital by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, reviewed in both Washington and Oslo, you can hear the same program from the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, with music by Haydn, Bartók, Debussy, and Chopin. [France Musique]

  • Sol Gabetta joins Leonard Slatkin and the Orchestre National de Lyon for a program of music by Bloch, Bruch, and Tchaikovsky. [Medici.tv]

  • As rumored earlier this year, Charlotte Gainsbourg will work again with director Lars von Trier, after their collaboration in the excellent Melancholia, in Nymphomaniac, which will explore the sexual life of Gainsbourg's character, from childhood (yes, childhood) to her 50th birthday. [Le Figaro]

  • For Washingtonians missing Christoph Eschenbach, listen to him conduct the Orchestre de Paris, in music of Webern, Bruckner, and Berg, the last with violinist Gil Shaham as soloist in the violin concerto ("In memory of an angel"), from the Salle Pleyel. [France Musique]

  • News from Cannes: Nanno Moretti will preside over a jury consisting of Diane Kruger, Ewan McGregor, Emmanuelle Devos, Hiam Abbass, Andrea Arnold, Alexander Payne, Raoul Peck, and Jean Paul Gaultier. [Le Monde]

  • Watch Valery Gergiev conduct the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater in music of Prokofiev for the final concert of the Moscow Easter Festival. [Medici.tv]

  • Bertrand de Billy conducts the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien in a performance of Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • According to research, only 2.6% of the streets of Paris are named after women. In all of the 5e and 6e arrondissements, for example, there are only ten streets that have a feminine name. Claire Fleury explores. [Le Nouvel Observateur]

28.4.12

Classical Month in Washington (May)

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Classical Month in Washington is a monthly feature. If there are concerts you would like to see included on our schedule, send your suggestions by e-mail (ionarts at gmail dot com). Happy listening!

May 1, 2012 (Tue)
12:10 pm
Noontime Cantata Series [FREE]
Bach, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147
Washington Bach Consort
Church of the Epiphany

May 1, 2012 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Louis Schwizgebel, piano
Young Concert Artists
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

May 1, 2012 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Nadia David (cello) and Klára Würtz (piano)
La Maison Française

May 2, 2012 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Washington Korean Symphony Orchestra
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

May 2, 2012 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Verdi, Nabucco
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 2, 2012 (Wed)
8 pm
Eiko and Koma, The Caravan Project [FREE]
Clarice Smith Center, Front Lawn

May 3, 2012 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Morgenstern Trio
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

May 3, 2012 (Thu)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Leon Fleisher, piano
Music by Ravel, Shostakovich
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

May 3, 2012 (Thu)
8 pm
Eiko and Koma, The Caravan Project [FREE]
Clarice Smith Center, Front Lawn

May 4, 2012 (Fri)
8 pm
University of Maryland Symphony
Music by Debussy, Mahler
Clarice Smith Center

May 4, 2012 (Fri)
8 pm
Annapolis Symphony Orchestra
With Rachel Franklin, piano
Maryland Hall (Annapolis, Md.)

May 4, 2012 (Fri)
8:15 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Off the Cuff: Shostakovich, 7th symphony
Music Center at Strathmore

May 5, 2012 (Sat)
1:30 and 4 pm
NSO Kinderkonzert
Kennedy Center Family Theater

May 5, 2012 (Sat)
2 pm
Stefan Jackiw (violin) and Anna Polonsky (piano)
WPAS
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

May 5, 2012 (Sat)
4 pm
Mendelssohn, Elijah
New Dominion Chorale and Orchestra
GMU Center for the Arts

May 5, 2012 (Sat)
5 pm
21st Century Consort
Smithsonian American Art Museum

May 5, 2012 (Sat)
7 pm
Verdi, Nabucco
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 5, 2012 (Sat)
7 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Off the Cuff: Shostakovich, 7th symphony
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

May 5, 2012 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin
Opera Bel Cantanti
JCCGW (Rockville, Md.)

May 5, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
National Philharmonic
With Brian Ganz (piano), Richard Stoltzman (clarinet)
Music by Debussy
Music Center at Strathmore

May 5, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
Axelrod String Quartet
Music by Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms
Hirshhorn Museum

May 5, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
Bach Sinfonia
Music by Jan Dismas Zelenka (Capriccios)
With R. J. Kelley and Alexandra Cook, horns
Cultural Arts Center (Silver Spring, Md.)

May 5, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
Concert Artists of Baltimore
Orff, Carmina Burana; Bernstein, Chichester Psalms
Lyric Opera House (Baltimore, Md.)

May 6, 2012 (Sun)
3 pm
Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin
Opera Bel Cantanti
JCCGW (Rockville, Md.)

May 6, 2012 (Sun)
3 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Leon Fleisher, piano
Music by Ravel, Shostakovich
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

May 6, 2012 (Sun)
4 pm
Benjamin Hochman, piano
Phillips Collection

May 6, 2012 (Sun)
4 pm
Sasha Grynyuk, piano
Châteauville Foundation (Castleton, Va.)

May 6, 2012 (Sun)
5 pm
Annapolis Symphony Orchestra
With Denyce Graves, mezzo-soprano (50th anniversary gala)
Clarice Smith Center

May 6, 2012 (Sun)
5:30 pm
Angela Hewitt, piano
Shriver Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

May 6, 2012 (Sun)
7 pm
Bouquet of Song (Renaissance music)
Illuminare
Fairfax United Methodist Church

May 6, 2012 (Sun)
7:30 pm
Axelrod String Quartet
Music by Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms
Smithsonian Castle

May 9, 2012 (Wed)
6 pm
Michel van der Aa, composer (theater works)
Phillips Collection

May 10, 2012 (Thu)
6 pm
Members of International Contemporary Ensemble
Music by Michel van der Aa
Phillips Collection

May 10, 2012 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Verdi, Nabucco
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 10, 2012 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Katie Mahan, piano
Music by Debussy
Mansion at Strathmore

May 10, 2012 (Thu)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With André Watts, piano
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

May 11, 2012 (Fri)
8 pm
Philadelphia Orchestra
With Charles Dutoit (conductor) and James Ehnes (violin)
WPAS
Music Center at Strathmore

May 11, 2012 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With André Watts, piano
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

May 11, 2012 (Fri)
8 pm
Great Noise Ensemble
Atlas Performing Arts Center

May 12, 2012 (Sat)
7 pm
Massenet, Werther
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 12, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With André Watts, piano
Music Center at Strathmore

May 12, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
Chantry
Renaissance music for evening
St. Mary Mother of God

May 12, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm [?]
John Cage, Musicircus
Mobtown Modern (Baltimore, Md.)

May 12, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
Fairfax Symphony Orchestra
With Adam Golka, piano
Music by Ravel, Debussy, Elgar
GMU Center for the Arts

May 12, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
Prince George's Philharmonic
With Awadagin Pratt, piano
Clarice Smith Center

May 13, 2012 (Sun)
1 and 3 pm
NSO Family Concert
Saint-Saëns, Carnival of the Animals
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 13, 2012 (Sun)
2 pm
Verdi, Nabucco
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 13, 2012 (Sun)
3 pm
Mendelssohn Piano Trio [FREE]
Smithsonian American Art Museum

May 13, 2012 (Sun)
3 pm
Piano Society of Greater Washington [FREE]
Calvary Lutheran Church (Silver Spring, Md.)

May 13, 2012 (Sun)
3 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With André Watts, piano
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

May 13, 2012 (Sun)
4 pm
Raphael Trio
Music of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari
Phillips Collection

May 13, 2012 (Sun)
4 pm
Cathedral Choral Society
Bach, B Minor Mass
Washington National Cathedral

May 13, 2012 (Sun)
5 pm
Capitol City Symphony
With Scott Beard, piano
Music by Brahms, Gershwin
Atlas Performing Arts Center

May 13, 2012 (Sun)
6 pm
Saint-Saëns, Samson et Dalila
With Brandon Jovanovich, Michelle DeYoung, Greer Grimsley
Washington Concert Opera
Lisner Auditorium

May 14, 2012 (Mon)
7 pm
Massenet, Werther
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 14, 2012 (Mon)
8 pm
Itzhak Perlman (violin) and Rohan de Silva (piano)
WPAS
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 15, 2012 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Verdi, Nabucco
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 16, 2012 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Concertante [FREE]
National Museum of Women in the Arts

May 17, 2012 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Andreas Delfs (conductor) and Nelson Freire (piano)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 17, 2012 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Massenet, Werther
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 17, 2012 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Shanghai Quartet and Peter Serkin, piano [FREE]
Music by Bright Sheng, Mozart, Dvořák
Freer Gallery of Art

May 17, 2012 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Members of National Philharmonic and Friends
Music by Debussy
Mansion at Strathmore

May 17, 2012 (Thu)
8 pm
International Contemporary Ensemble
Atlas Performing Arts Center

May 18, 2012 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Verdi, Nabucco
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 18, 2012 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Andreas Delfs (conductor) and Nelson Freire (piano)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 19, 2012 (Sat)
7 pm
Massenet, Werther
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 19, 2012 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Chantry
Renaissance music for evening
St. Bernadette (Silver Spring, Md.)

May 19, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
Jeremy Denk, piano
WPAS
Sixth and I Historic Synagogue

May 19, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
National Philharmonic
Debussy, Martyrdom of St. Sebastian
Music Center at Strathmore

May 19, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Andreas Delfs (conductor) and Nelson Freire (piano)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 20, 2012 (Sun)
3 pm
Washington National Opera Young Artists Recital [FREE]
Renwick Gallery

May 20, 2012 (Sun)
4 pm
Raphael Trio
Music of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari
Phillips Collection

May 20, 2012 (Sun)
4 pm
Choralis
Music by Beethoven, Chilcott
National Presbyterian Church

May 20, 2012 (Sun)
5 pm
The Essential Wagner
Washington Chorus
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 20, 2012 (Sun)
5 pm
Duruflé, Requiem Mass
City Choir of Washington
Saint Luke Catholic Church (McLean, Va.)

May 21, 2012 (Mon)
7 pm
Verdi, Nabucco
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 22, 2012 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Massenet, Werther
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 23, 2012 (Wed)
6 pm
Season Preview Concert
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 24, 2012 (Thu)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Beethoven, 9th symphony; Bruckner, Te Deum
With Peter Oundjian, conductor
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

May 25, 2012 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Massenet, Werther
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 25, 2012 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Beethoven, 9th symphony; Bruckner, Te Deum
With Peter Oundjian, conductor
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

May 26, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Beethoven, 9th symphony; Bruckner, Te Deum
With Peter Oundjian, conductor
Music Center at Strathmore

May 27, 2012 (Sun)
2 pm
Massenet, Werther
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 27, 2012 (Sun)
3 pm
National Memorial Day Choral Festival [FREE]
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 27, 2012 (Sun)
4 pm
Phillips Camerata
Piano quintets by Shostakovich, Schumann
Phillips Collection

May 27, 2012 (Sun)
8 pm
National Memorial Day Concert
National Symphony Orchestra
U.S. Capitol, West Lawn

May 29, 2012 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Delibes, Coppélia
Bolshoi Ballet
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 30, 2012 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Gidon Saks (bass-baritone) and Roger Vignoles (piano)
Vocal Arts D.C.
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

May 30, 2012 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Delibes, Coppélia
Bolshoi Ballet
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 30, 2012 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Simone Dinnerstein (piano) and Tift Merritt [FREE]
National Museum of Women in the Arts

May 31, 2012 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
Music of Beethoven, Strauss
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

May 31, 2012 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Delibes, Coppélia
Bolshoi Ballet
Kennedy Center Opera House

May 31, 2012 (Thu)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Günther Herbig (conductor) and Jonathan Biss (piano)
Music Center at Strathmore

Arabella Steinbacher with the BSO

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Violin Concerto, A. Steinbacher, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, A. Nelsons
Arabella Steinbacher has been on our radar for several years, but we have not had many chances to hear her live in the Washington area. The German violinist, another product of Ana Chumachenko's studio in Munich, made her debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week, in a tried-and-true favorite, Beethoven's violin concerto (in just the last few years, Stefan Jackiw and Julia Fischer have played it with the BSO), which we heard on Thursday night at Strathmore. Another Munich native, conductor Jun Märkl, was at the podium, and the combination had some interesting results, if not optimal ones.

The Beethoven concerto, the warhorse of warhorses, is such a beautifully crafted piece of music that it can survive performances with far fewer admirable qualities than all those that Steinbacher brought to it. At the same time, to distinguish oneself in this piece, at least to someone who has heard it performed so many times live and on disc, is a tall order. In the crucial opening theme of the solo part, Steinbacher displayed a scrumptious tone, a clear thread of sound that carried exceptionally well in the hall, but the intonation was not always as true as it could have been, a problem that persisted throughout the performance, never excruciating but off just enough to raise an eyebrow. She had a broad sense of rubato with many of the slower themes, but oddly when she hit the sections of more active figuration, her playing became more wooden and automatic, almost as if she were forgetting to make musical lines out of it. Her rendition of the first-movement cadenza was formidable technically, but again the polyphonic lines did not sing musically as much as they could have.

Märkl and the BSO musicians gave her a beautiful envelope of sound to play in, adding mutes in the slow movement to produce a diaphanous halo around Steinbacher (with the strings already in reduced numbers) and producing a captivating, soft pizzicato accompaniment toward the end. The orchestral playing was sensitive, although there were some embarrassing burps in the horns here and there. Märkl was at his best in slow, lyrical sections, where he gave the players freedom to shape the line, but he tended towards over-agitation in the fast passages, his beat becoming a little unclear, with unsettled results. Steinbacher's best moment came in a welcome encore, an astounding performance of Fritz Kreisler's Recitativo and Scherzo, distinguished by a raw power on the G string of her Stradivarius (the "Booth" violin, made by Stradivari in 1716 and loaned by the Nippon Music Foundation) and jaw-dropping off-string technique. Based on this appearance, we hope Steinbacher's next Washington appearance will be in a recital rather than with an orchestra.


Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, BSO at Strathmore: A captivating self-contained drama (Washington Post, April 28, 2012)

Tim Smith, BSO welcomes Jun Markl, Arabella Steinbacher for all-German program (Baltimore Sun, April 27, 2012)

Marie Gullard, BSO welcomes violinist Arabella Steinbacher to Strathmore (Washington Examiner, April 25, 2012)

Michael Lodico, Encounter with Stradivari: Châteauville Foundation’s 10th Anniversary (Ionarts, October 10, 2007)

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Arabella Steinbacher's Room-Filling Sound (Washington Post, October 20, 2005)

Jens F. Laurson, More Talent to Discover (Ionarts, October 10, 2005)
Märkl's hyperactive tendencies had similar effects in the other selections, Weber's overture to Euryanthe and Schumann's third symphony ("Rhenish"). In the Weber, Märkl went for too big an effect in the fast tempos, catching the violins a little off-guard at the start, for example. The lush violin divisi semi-section in the ghosts passage, however, had a radiant effect. (This opera, which tells a story out of German knightly legend not unlike that of Wagner's Lohengrin, and Weber's Oberon are on my wish list for you, Washington Concert Opera.)

The Schumann benefited in some ways from Märkl's brashness, making for a forceful, pointed first movement, with all of those duple-triple shifts handled adroitly. The second-movement scherzo had a pleasing lilt, but again an impetuous tempo made for some sloppy bits here and there and not just from the violins. The third movement was the high point, with the musicians and Märkl sounding right in synch, producing the most graceful string playing of the night, unfortunately with a few more burbles in the horns. A balanced brass opening to the fourth movement set the right sense of tension, with a contrapuntal tribute to Bach running through it, and the fifth had a jovial, Haydnesque quality, with Märkl making the most of the loud-soft contrasts. The "Rhenish" is a bittersweet work, an enthusiastic portrait of the Rhine river from the early days of Schumann's tragic tenure as music director in Düsseldorf, but it is hard to forget that it is the same body of water in which the composer attempted to end his life only four years later.

This concert repeats only once more, this evening (April 28, 8 pm), at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.

On Location: 'That's What She Said'

One of the many delights of attending an event like the Sarasota Film Festival is the shared sense of anticipation of seeing something that is completely new. In this day and age of over-exposure it is a welcome experience to go to a screening where very little is known of the film and have your mind completely free of bias. Without a Rotten Tomato meter, opening weekend box-office receipt figures, or Harvey Weinstein there to let you know in advance what to think, there is greater openness on the part of viewers.

This night we were all there to view one of the features, That’s What She Said, by writer-director Carrie Preston. Billed as “foul-mouthed” and sure to “tickle fans of the new, lewd comedies like Bridesmaids,” it follows two girlfriends, Bebe (Marcia DeBonis) and Dee Dee (Anne Heche) as they prepare the former for an important date. When Bebe, a heavy and conventionally unattractive woman, sits in her bathtub by candlelight holding a centerfold in one hand while trying to shave her pubic hair with the other, we get a clear sense what film we are in for. After a quick cut, as Dee Dee attempts to recover from a hang-over, we watch a disheveled Heche attempt an equally difficult multitasking feat, brushing her teeth while she shifts a burning cigarette from one side of her mouth to the other.

This back and forth between the lurid and the brazen continues with varying results. What keeps these scenes from serving only for shock value is the odd-couple pairing of DeBonis and Heche. Preston, an experienced actress in her own right, gives the two room to play, and it’s very clear they are having fun. While Bebe’s exterior is a shambles constantly needing tending (throughout the film she has an “irritation” in her crotch she attends to unsubtly) she is open-hearted to a fault. Dee Dee, on the other hand, is an easy beauty who is caustic and off-putting and does everything in her power to push people away.

The dynamic of watching the brash, doped-up Dee Dee navigate various locations about New York as Bebe tries to douse the flames is the film’s main appeal. Along the way Bebe takes on what is colloquially known as a “hot mess” in the form of Clementine (Alia Shawkat, of Arrested Development). Clementine has fallen apart because of a sexual encounter gone disastrously wrong. Unfortunately, Shawkat can’t quite hold her own with the more experienced Heche and DeBonis. While each scenario builds in implausibility and debauchery, the actresses seem increasingly fatigued to try and carry it all through to the climax (apologies). The revelation is DeBonis, who has worked consistently as a supporting actress through the years but centers the film with comic grace and genteel availability. While she makes everyone around her better, she also outshines them all.

PREVIOUSLY:
Sarasota Film Festival (Shorts)

27.4.12

Dip Your Ears, No. 116 (Ginastera's Popol Vuh)


available at Amazon
A.Ginastera, Popol Vuh et al.,
S.Asbury / WDR SO et al.
Neos SACD
GINASTERA, Popol Vuh. Cantata para América Mágica • Stefan Asbury (conductor), Rayanne Dupuis (soprano), Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo, Ensemble S, Cologne Conservatory Percussion Ensemble, WDR SO • NEOS 10918 (49:46)

The little Munich CD label Neos is hard to pin down. Modernist niche fare with local performers seems its primary objective, but whenever I think I have them figured out, they’ll throw in a release that defies expectations. A Beethoven Third in an “as at the Palais Lobkowitz premiere” configuration with a local semi-professional band. Then the smashing Weinberg Viola Sonatas which was followed by a whole Weinberg series. (See ""2011 Almost List"" and "Best of 2011".) Perhaps Otto Siegl and Karl Weigl are next? Not at all modernist, they, but highly intriguing 20th-century fare.

Before me is a disc with works of Alberto Ginastera (“Ginastera” with a soft G sound, not a hard “Gh” for this Argentine of Italo-Catalan descent): Popol Vuh, the half-hour orchestrated depiction of the creation of the Mayan world that occupied Ginastera until his death in 1983, coupled with the Cantata para América Mágica from 1960. These are major contributions to the Ginastera discography, Popol Vuh done with a major orchestra, the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra (Cologne), and the cantata with the percussion ensemble of the Cologne conservatory. Neither are firsts on disc, but Leonard Slatkin’s world premiere recording of Popol Vuh with St. Louis on RCA is out of print (though available as an ArkivCD) and Henri Temianka’s Cantata never made it off vinyl.

Neos’s release is even better news for those who like—or are at least intrigued by—Alberto Ginastera and South American classical music, because the niche-market company takes painstaking care in the presentation of its CDs. Four-way folding, high-quality digipacks with heavy, textured card stock, discriminating choice of fonts, well-written extensive liner notes, and good translations. And, like most of its releases, this is an SACD production.

Both are notably live recordings; notably especially because Popol Vuh begins with extensive silence and that silence reveals a good deal of extraneous noise—if, admittedly, in very good sound. That makes the very atmospheric opening of the creation story less than ideal if you listen on headphones; otherwise it’s no real detriment, merely a quibble that should be mentioned in passing. Once the rhythmically driven buildup gets under way, the music is so spellbinding (or at least so loud) that nothing else is noticeable, anyway.

The composition, routinely compared to Stravinsky’s Rite of the Spring (Slatkin’s coupling), is best understood as a painting with sounds or a soundtrack without film. It features a very ample percussion section of more than 50 different instruments played by four musicians—plus extra timpani.

Its parts are “Everlasting Night” (hovering silence, rolling timpani, lowest woodwinds intimating a creaking hull of a ship); “The Birth of the Earth” (primitive energy takes shape with a thundering bang, pierced by crashing outbursts); “Nature Wakes” (rising woodwinds, trumpets, and chatter from the light percussion battery); “The Cry of Creation” (a screaming cacophony pounding its way to a brass chorale); “Grand Rain” (shimmering musical droplets); “Magical Indian Corn Ceremony” (chugging tribal rhythms); and “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” (blunted Messiaen minus the colors and a touch of Varèse).

There is an eighth, unfinished part to the composition, meant to depict New Man and intended for percussion only. Lacking reconstructible drafts, Popol Vuh is performed as a seven-part work, and though we can’t know how much more impressive the piece would be, it’s plenty astonishing as is.

In the (earlier) cantata, Ginastera had gone even one or several steps further; the entire orchestra consists of percussion (including two pianos and celesta), facing a soprano who sings poems by Ginastera’s first wife, Mecerdes de Toro, based on pre-Columbian manuscripts. Both works show a brilliant side of the composer: the use of all those percussion instruments without you ever noticing it—which is to say, with a complete and utter lack of ostentation and that self-conscious employment of sounds for the sounds’ sake where the instruments call attention to themselves and their “exotic” use rather than to the music they are supposed to serve. (If Ginastera is the man that a strain of contemporary American composers—Higdon, Sierra, Ramírez, Golijov come to mind—look to when they create their works of orgiastic percussion silliness, they fail their model for that exact reason.) The result is understandably monochromatic, above which the poems come into bold relief. Stefan Asbury conducts, Canadian soprano Rayanne Dupuis sings, and all the other players turn in exquisite performances.

Birds Who Have Lost Their Way

This article was first published at The Classical Review on April 27, 2012.

available at Amazon
Los pájaros perdidos, P. Jaroussky, L'Arpeggiata, C. Pluhar

(released on March 13, 2012)
Virgin 5099907095023 | 75'33"
As long as you appreciate that what Christina Pluhar does with her pseudo-early music ensemble L’Arpeggiata is crossover, you will understand how to assess their recordings. If you are comfortable with the idea of Baroque instruments and historical music mixed with more recent music, you may like it. If you are expecting historically-informed reconstructions of old music -- or would be shocked to hear a countertenor singing modern popular music -- be warned. (That is not a joke: the disc’s final track is an oozy Bésame Mucho.)

Pluhar has written and spoken of her belief that what her group does is to make a connection with a “living Baroque” musical culture. But studying 17th-century musical scores and writings on how music was performed only takes her so far. Going further, she tries to unearth how historical repertoire (which figures almost tangentially in their newest release, Los Pajaros Perdidos, devoted to music from South America) may be illuminated through popular musical traditions, as if the secrets of how 17th-century singers ornamented a melodic line have somehow been preserved in the performances of contemporary pop songs.

Superficial similarities can be observed, of course, but the fundamental difference between the two bodies of music from past and present is measured by the divide between notated and non-notated music. Yes, the classical music tradition has unfortunately lost most of its engagement with improvisation, but while bringing classical performers into contact with musicians who work primarily through improvisation can be fruitful, rather than giving some insight into how 17th-century musicians may have improvised, it is, surely, mostly teaching them how to improvise and perform like 21st-century ones.

The historical music on this new disc, the first installment of what Pluhar is calling the South American Project, is limited to a single Fandango by Padre Soler, a composer in 18th-century Spain, plus a tiny prelude by Tarquinio Merula grafted onto a later song.

Out of 20 tracks, there are seven pieces from Venezuela, Paraguay, and Argentina labeled as traditional or folk songs. Add to that twelve 20th-century songs in the folk style by the likes of Ariel Ramírez, Ástor Piazzolla, Constantino Ramones, Norberto Ambros, Pancho Cabral, Maria Elena Walsh, and Adela Gleijer. There is not much Baroque about it.

The performances are stylish and beautiful. Jaroussky has one of the prettiest sounds, rounded in tone and rarely shrill, among countertenors singing today. The other singers, from non-classical backgrounds, are distinguished by individual tone colors: the chesty resonance of Italian folk singer Lucilla Galeazzi, the reedy nasality of unclassifiable high tenor Vincenzo Capezzuto, the somewhat mannish wail of Luciana Mancini, the breathy airiness of Raquel Andueza.

The best instrumental contributions come from cornetto player Doron Sherwin, with swinging rhythm from jazz bassist Boris Schmidt and a varied percussion section.

Pluhar has marshaled a mixed ensemble, combining her usual assortment of plucked and struck instruments (psaltery, harp, theorbo, guitar) and four musicians on traditional South American instruments such as the cuatro and charango. Of those last, she admits that they “differ little” from what we know of European instruments, but argues that her musicians have mined what they could of various playing techniques associated with them: rhythmic and harmonic patterns, improvisational ideas and so on.

But whether any useful information about (or illumination of) European Baroque music can be teased out of what Pluhar describes as the “hybridization” of Indian, Spanish, and African influences in South American popular music is anyone’s guess.

PREVIOUSLY:
L'Arpeggiata at the Library of Congress (March 21)

In Her Own Words: Christina Pluhar (March 14)

26.4.12

Ionarts-at-Large: Tzimon Barto Unheard Holliday

Hundred and sixty people in the Herkulessaal in Munich are just the right amount to accentuate the 1340 empty seats. If that were a unique experience at all, one might point the finger at pianist Tzimon Barto for blame. (Not, presumably, his Munich-friendly program of Liszt-Brahms-Chopin fireworks of conventionalism.) But since this happens all the time with solo and chamber recitals in Munich – except for a few established acts that have been around for several decades – the blame lies somewhere between the concert agencies (I nearly, erroneously called them concert promoters) and the Munich audience. The city likes to fashion itself a “Musikstadt”, but is really only interested in its own orchestras and then – a few niches excepted – only with exceedingly uncurious taste. I wouldn’t have known about the recital myself, had it not been for a call from a friend who turned pages, on the day of the recital.

Up on stage, above the diverse, sparse crop of heads equally young and old, sat Tzimon Barto, stoic, and plowed through Franz Liszt’s Grandes études de Paganini (the 1851 revision of the Études d'exécution transcendante d'après Paganini), one after another, unfazed. Nicely, too, with a more balanced forte than I have come to expect from a pianist I cherish mostly for the many shades he produces at mezzo piano and below. Once the little-big bell of the third Étude had stopped ringing and the fourth 
Étude came around, Tzimon Barto might have found his evening’s grove… in any case the merry Rameau-like gleams perked the ears, as did the uncommonly beautiful Fifth Variation, so surprisingly close to Scarlatti – a composer Tzimon Barto professes not to care for much. Could have fooled me. And just after that island of nicety came the passive-aggressively wilfull final Étude, which was all the more entertaining for it. 

On Location: Sarasota Film Festival (Shorts)

We welcome some thoughts from our Hollywood correspondent, recently in Florida.

This past week I had the opportunity to attend the 14th annual Sarasota Film Festival (SFF) in Florida. The festival was centered in the beautiful downtown district of Sarasota at its Regal Hollywood 20 Cinema, with some special centerpiece screenings at the Opera House just down the street.

SFF offered quite an eclectic offering of independent cinema, documentaries and shorts along with a few celebrity guests to accompany their respective screenings. Frank Langella opened the festival with Robot and Frank, directed by Jake Schreier, while also promoting his new book, Dropped Names. Rory Kennedy was there, too, with her Audience Award-winning documentary Ethel, as well as Todd Solondz to close it out with his latest, Dark Horse, to name just a few.

Having written and directed a few shorts in recent years, I found myself drawn to a few of their many grouped screening blocks (there were 16 in all) in order to see what the medium had to offer. I will share a few of the highlights with some observations.

To me, the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders and stuff have come out, and some... just people who normally wouldn't make movies are going to be making them. And you know, suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father's camera recorder. And for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever. And it will really become an art form. That's my opinion.
Francis Ford Coppola said that during the making of Apocalypse Now in the late 70s. While Coppola foresaw the emergence of consumer film-making devices and the medium expanding outside the grips of the financiers of Hollywood, I’m sure the innovation of the Internet and its access has exploded his vision in the intervening years. Now with home editing software with digital effects kits, recording suites, and cameras embedded into every phone, there are thousands of wannabe Ohio Mozarts vying for your next click on YouTube.

Watching the array of shorts screened in succession one can’t help but notice that these very innovations can also be used as substitutes for depth or narrative. When the first few shorts began, I was immediately struck by the sophistication available to these directors on limited budgets. Like so many of our features in the cineplexes, however, soon enough one is wondering if there is more to it than a pretty picture and a clever premise. While some revealed themselves to be nothing more than an elaborate music video, pithy joke, or a trailer for a longer project, a few stood out from the crowd for their ability to provoke thought and emotion in spite of the compact medium. Here are a few notables.

Aaron Burr, Part 2 (directed by Dana O’Keefe)
In this unusual and stylish re-telling of Burr’s duel with Alexander Hamilton, history is re-imagined by Burr in a modern retrofitted narrative. Starting out with a James Bond, circa-1970s visual style, the two figures appear as secret agents, with a jaunty jazz score accompanying Burr’s contextualization of the engagement. As each minute unfolds, Burr repeats the engagement again and again while giving his biased re-assessment of the faults of history. Director O’Keefe shoots Burr back and forth through time periods as his contempt for Hamilton climaxes in a hilarious final missive. At the end of this comic, intelligent, and innovative film, I found myself amazed that only nine minutes had passed. Truly, it was my favorite of the festival.

What Happens When Robert Leaves the Room (directed by Zack Godshall)
Shot in a single location, Robert takes place in an apartment where a group of actors sit about, fawning on one another as they wax pretentious about the latest horrible script one of them has an audition for soon. Robert, the outsider and bitter writer invited only because his brother is the host, makes no bones of informing this group how exactly worthless they are. Drinking his whiskey empty, Robert endures the re-enactment of the script as the actors mock the material to absurdity. Reaching the end of his patience, Robert transforms the evening into a provocative commentary on acting and art. (18 minutes)

Thief (directed by Julian Higgins)
Set in Iraq in 2003, this film follows a lonely goat-herder in a small abode in the mountains who receives an unwelcome visitor. The stranger, heavily bearded and with a rifle over his shoulder, makes himself at home and consumes what little there is to offer. Through flashbacks to his childhood, the host has a revelation on who the intruder is, though it seems the armed man has not made the same connection. A tight script and simple, evocative acting carry this thoughtful piece to its illuminating ending. (25 minutes)


We Ate the Children Last (directed by Andrew Cividino and Geoff Smart)
Starting out as an amusing commentary on the pharmaceutical industry and cosmetic surgery, Children devolves slowly into an urban nightmare about politics, racism, and the media. While this short was expansive in its scope it managed to balance its themes with a variety of techniques. Re-creating telecasts on small TVs, music video, gritty street scenes, and limited, poignant effects it covered a lot of ground in a very limited time. Changing tone from dark comedy to tragic commentary isn’t easy to do in any medium, and Cividino manages well without ever losing the viewer. (13 minutes)

While there were simply too many shorts to comment on, these were the few that stuck with me. The Audience Award (we all got a ballot at each session) went to Tick Tock Time Emporium, which can now be viewed on Vimeo. Special mention for Another Bullet Dodged, about a disaffected couple going to an abortion clinic (the most disturbing I saw, for its casual approach), and Method, which follows an actress who immerses herself a bit too far into a role.

25.4.12

A Far Cry

available at Amazon
A Far Cry: Debut (music by Golijov, Handel, Tchaikovsky)
We missed hearing the young chamber orchestra from Boston that calls itself A Far Cry last season at Dumbarton Oaks. They came back this weekend to end that venue's season, where we heard them on Monday night. It is easy to see why audiences and concert presenters would be fired up about the group, which is young, dynamic, and visibly passionate about what they do. It is not so easy to hear. These musicians have spirit, but musical details like intonation and ensemble cohesion were left wanting at times. Another danger of direction by committee -- the group has no conductor and often rotates the leadership position in each section with each piece -- is that some programming choices were laudable, in a concert that was a "greatest hits" from the past four years' worth of performances, and others were not.

The two pieces that had the most success were series of short movements that seemed to engage the imagination the most. Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber's Battalia à 10 (D major, C. 61), which opened the concert, was rollicking good fun, a programmatic work that described a battle (with stamps of the feet), the rattle of the drum (with paper covering double-bass fingerboard), a drunken party (with a cacophony of parts in different keys and time signatures all at once, preceded by a couple boozy burps -- not indicated in the score), and the crack of the cannon (percussive pizzicati). It was paired with an "arrangement" of Beethoven's "Serioso" quartet (F minor, op. 95) that really added nothing to, and may have detracted from, the original quartet version, since it just expanded the number of players on each part, aside from sometimes adding double-bass to the cello line and sometimes not. The greater numbers made the forceful unisons of the first movement stronger, but rushing in the third movement was a little out of control, diminishing the effect of the generally brash sound.


Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, A Far Cry at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown (Washington Post, April 24)
A half-baked piece by Osvaldo Golijov, Tenebrae, was another mistake. The work is a static set of progressions cribbed from Couperin's Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres ("lifted" is the word Golijov used in his program note), with little added to it but some moody oscillations that pulsate in ostinato figures and dynamic markings, a meditative mush that could be the soundtrack of a Hallmark commercial. Its pairing with Benjamin Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, op. 10, was damning. From the same palette of instruments, Britten drew forth a much broader range of colors and effects, in a score burgeoning with ideas arranged in ten short movements, each an ingenious and virtuosic work of mimicry. The models are all easy to distinguish -- a sardonic Shostakovich march, a melodic tribute to Verdi, Prokofiev-like neoclassicism, a Dvořák furiant (more than a Viennese waltz), and an Offenbach galop -- but the music is always unmistakably Britten's. Those who have followed Golijov's woes on meeting deadlines will be amused to know that Britten completed this commission "in a matter of weeks," using one of the lovely melodies composed by his teacher, Frank Bridge, as the basis of inspiration. The ninth variation, Chant, achieves essentially the same effect that Golijov is after in Tenebrae, but it does it far more effectively and in a tenth of the time.

Next season, the Friends of Music series at Dumbarton Oaks will feature performances by pianist Alessio Bax, violinist Ray Chen, the a cappella group Cantus, the Assad Brothers (guitarists), and the Wind Soloists of New York.

24.4.12

Daedalus Surveys Lerdahl

Style masthead

Charles T. Downey, Daedalus Quartet performs Lerdahl cycle at the Phillips Collection
Washington Post, April 24, 2012

available at Amazon
F. Lerdahl, String Quartets,
Daedalus Quartet

(released on November 1, 2011)
[Excerpt]

available at Amazon
F. Lerdahl, Tonal Pitch Space
Always a bridesmaid, never the bride — Fred Lerdahl has had three compositions chosen as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in music, but he has never won. In 2010, the nod went to the American composer’s third string quartet, rounding out a string quartet cycle that received its world premiere, as a complete set, at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon. The group that played it, the Daedalus Quartet, released a recording of the cycle last fall, on the Bridge Records label.

Well, half of its members did, that is. Since making that recording, this rising quartet has taken on a new second violinist and cellist. Lerdahl’s complicated style, mathematical in form and extremely virtuosic in its demands, is not something one would expect new members to pick up quickly. Indeed, second violinist Matilda Kaul, who has a background in historically informed performance ensembles, sounded a little tentative. The ensemble did not seem quite as tight, in spite of some bravura individual playing. [Continue reading]
Fred Lerdahl, String Quartets
No. 1 (1978, rev. 2008) | No. 2 (1982, rev. 2008) | No. 3 (2008, rev. 2010)
Daedalus Quartet
Phillips Collection

SEE ALSO:
- Fred Lerdahl, 2011 lecture at Rice University
- Review of New York premiere of No. 3
- The Daedalus Quartet Gets Architectural with Fred Lerdahl (WQXR, January 28)
- Phillip Scott, Music and Theory: An Interview with Fred Lerdahl (Fanfare, October 23, 2011)

PREVIOUSLY (Daedalus Quartet):
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23.4.12

For Your Consideration: 'Surviving Progress'

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R. Wright, A Short History of Progress
Surviving Progress, a new documentary by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, is a bit of a downer ultimately. Although it opens with a whimsical touch, it too quickly devolves into the standard sort of preachy, end-of-the-world mode. "Increasing complexity" is part of human progress as we change as a species, the film claims, but we must not delude ourselves into thinking that all progress, or all change, is necessarily good. The film draws upon the ideas published in Canadian author Ronald Wright's book A Short History of Progress, and a rather charming opening sequence shows the reactions of a series of people to the question "What is progress?" There are bemused looks, sighs, and one excellent "um..." The viewer is likely experiencing the same emotion: we know that we are supposed to want and expect progress, but exactly what it means for us may be hard to define.

In extensive comments in the film, Wright outlines his idea of "progress traps," situations in which human advances lead to "too much progress." For example, prehistoric humans reach a level of hunting mastery at which they essentially wipe out the animals that used to sustain them. Extending this idea to the entire arc of human history, Wright concludes that "we have to confront the possibility that the entire experiment of civilization is, in itself, a progress trap." This thesis revisits ideas in his essay from 2000, provocatively titled Civilization is a Pyramid Scheme, underscoring the confluence of several world-wide trends. First is the problem of population growth: what will happen if all of China's population reaches the standard of living of Americans? Related are, in Wright's thinking, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the powerful interests of large corporations leading to the destruction of ecosystems, and the wrong-headed refusal of banks to cancel debts.


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Yes, you have heard all of this before. Wright marshals a lot of historical background, trying to trace why previous civilizations failed and what in our current situation might be analogous to those causes. Further evidence, or at least the impression of it, is provided by scientist Jane Goodall, physicist Stephen Hawking, writer Margaret Atwood, economist Michael Hudson, environmentalist David Suzuki, genetics pioneer Craig Venter, and energy expert Vaclav Smil. All of their contributions are charming and engaging, as are the many beautiful shots of glowing, pulsating cities and exotic landscapes (cinematography by Mario Janelle) and mini-profiles of everyday people from around the world. In the end, though, there is little concrete to focus on, and one may or not be convinced by the thesis that civilization itself is the source of our problems.

In the Washington area, this film is screening exclusively at Landmark's E Street Cinema, through Thursday only.