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30.11.12

Classical Music Agenda (December 2012)

December is the busiest month for most musicians, what with all the Nutcrackers, Messiahs, and Christmas concerts. I used to list all of them in our calendar, but it just did not seem worth it this year, so I have listed only the ones of some interest to me. As for what makes the cut for the Top 10 concerts we most want to hear this month, the leading contenders for the coveted Ionarts Best Christmas Concert Award are included.

KEYBOARD:
Definitely worth the trip to Charm City this month is the recital by pianist Piotr Anderszewski (pictured), at Baltimore's Shriver Hall (December 2, 5:30 pm). The program includes two of Bach's English suites and Robert Schumann's op. 17 fantasy. Tickets: $39.

The other major pianist coming to town this month is the Chinese firecracker Yuja Wang, who will play Chopin's first piano concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra (December 6 to 8). Guest conductor Hans Graf will also lead performances of Lutoslawski's Trauermusik and Tchaikovsky's third symphony ("Polish"), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets: $85 to $10.

German composer Matthias Pintscher comes to Washington this month, to be featured on the Leading European Composer series at the Phillips Collection (December 13, 6:30 pm). He will be joined by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, performing many of his chamber music works, in a concert cosponsored by the German Embassy. Tickets: $20.

Operatic Double Bill: Soporific Donizetti Redeemed by Strasnoy


In an attempt to be kind and not repeat the sins of the programmers of the operatic double bill of Donizetti and Oscar Strasnoy at Munich’s Prince Regent's Theatre, I’ll try to summarize the boring and daft Donizetti one-act farce I Pazzi per progetto (Fools by Design) into as few words as possible, instead of droning on for nearly 90 minutes, as Donizetti did.

Not even the superior singing of Sumi Hwang, a recent second prize winner at the ARD Music Competition, or the charming contributions of the elegant and light-voiced mezzo Ulrike Malotta, or the cleverly designed set (Bärbl Hohmann) could justify sitting through the torpor of hollow busyness at hand… a description equally suitable for the staging (Karsten Wiegand, lots of running around and banging on doors) and the music, some of Donizetti’s most soporific.

The evening could have been improved from bearable to most pleasurable, simply by cutting the first half and skipping to the 2010 farce (another one-act comedy) by prolific opera (and tango and whatnot) composer Oscar Strasnoy, more of whose sparkly little masterpiece anon.

Nearly torpedoing the evening, apart from Donizetti, was the fact that I had caught a Kids & Youth Performance: A grand mistake. Not because the occasionally racy content (simulated BJ included) might have been bowdlerized (it certainly wasn’t), much less because of the presence of a few dozen youngsters whose lively commentary and interaction proved a refreshing tonic of honesty in the one-third full theater otherwise stuffed with employees of the event-organizing Bavarian Radio. It was the speaker, Ben Alber, whose gratingly inane, patronizing introductions became a farce all of their own. Listing instances of absurdity, laziness, ineptitude, and pandering would go too far… suffice it to say that by the time the music director of the Munich Radio Orchestra Ulf Schirmer finally grabbed the microphone, cut the speaker down to size with a few well-placed remarks about stupid questions and not interrupting him, the audience—kids and adults alike—was in stitches.

Then, at last, came Strasnoy’s Le Bal, which positively whizzed by in a brief hour. Based on a story by Iréne Némirovsky we see a crude nouveau riche couple that neglects their teen-daughter—especially the mother, threatened by young Antoinette’s burgeoning sexuality. A floozy of an English tutor is more interested in the sloppy butler than the gal, and the piano teacher more interested in her father (Sandro Schmalzl). A grand dinner and ball is planned, to confirm and convey the couple’s social standing, the menu meticulously planned, and a fancy band ordered. As the clock tick-tocks mockingly into the guest-less silence on the night of the event, Antoinette, forbidden to participate, hides and gleefully observes the creeping disaster. No one shows, except for the voice teacher, because Antoinette didn’t mail the invitations, but destroyed them instead.

When Ulf Schirmer said of Strasnoy’s score that it was “like film music, but whackier”, he was right in the best sense: The music manages to become an integral, elucidating element of the story; adds its humor and wit, awkward silences and—as if to entertain itself during the party—some Charleston and a particularly Klezmer-flavored bit of Mahler. Despite Strasnoy’s modern vernacular, which sent a couple patrons running, I found myself distantly but permanently reminded of Poulenc—which is to say that Strasnoy’s sense for using voices and his comedic timing are impeccable. It might be a (s)light work in the brow-furled world of opera, but its success cannot be diminished by this. I don’t remember many contemporary opera as obviously successful; only L’Amour de loin, The Three Sisters, and Das Gehege, really. Incidentally, the Hamburg Opera, which premiered Le Bal, coupled the work more ambitiously, intriguingly, awfully seriously: with the hard-core one-women shows of Wolfgang Rihm Das Gehege and Schoenberg’s Erwartung.

The stage was cleverly used (Anika Söhnholz), the direction witty and to the point. Not all of the young Everding Academy singers fit organically into their characters, but they all tried with considerable success. Especially mother, daughter, and “la professeur de piano”: Dorothee Koch, Katharina Ruckgaber, Danae Kontora respectively. The Munich Radio Orchestra didn’t—couldn’t—distinguish itself much in the Donizetti, but in the quick and exuberant virtuoso romp of a score that Strasnoy presents they shone.


Pictures (below the jump) courtesy Bayerische Theaterakademie August Everding, © Hilda Lobinger

'love fail'


Marie de France writing the Lais
David Lang's Little Match Girl Passion, which won the composer the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, is a significant work that still haunts me. For the most part, Lang's other compositions have failed to move me in the same way as that one piece, but the hope for an experience like listening to Match Girl made the performance of Lang's new vocal work, love fail, on Wednesday night an easy recommendation. The work was initially described as having a libretto drawn from the lais of Marie de France, some of the most beautiful works in Old French that I have ever studied, but the lais, it turns out, are only tangentially related to the libretto of love fail. The story is, more or less, that of Tristan and Isolde, one of Marie's most memorable subjects, but Lang has tarted it up with adaptations of Gottfried von Strasbourg and other medieval authors, as well as the decidedly modern, and somewhat banal, words of American writer Lydia Davis. This mingled approach does exactly what I felt Match Girl avoided, "keeping thoughts of the eternal at arm's length" -- namely, did not do what made the earlier work great.

Ultimately the work failed to make a profound statement, in favor of a few silly jokes that belittled the mythology of the Tristan legend. If the goal was to draw the medieval legend into a contemporary perspective, it made the story into a bit of a dreary routine, while also raising interesting questions about what the day-to-day relationship of lovers like Tristan and Isolde could have been like. What did they possibly talk about? The video projection shown behind the performers reinforced the fakeness, the banality of this approach to the legend, with models posed in chincy, Hollywood-epic costumes and makeup, glancing uncomfortably at the camera rather than each other.


Other Articles:

Nico Muhly, David Lang (interview) (BOMB Magazine, Winter 2013)

Anne Midgette, Anonymous 4 takes on David Lang’s ‘Love Fail’ at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, November 30)

---, ‘Love Fail’: A crossover star’s star-crossed lovers (Washington Post, November 24)
This is doubly regrettable since what was going on in front of the screen was so alluring. The four ladies of Anonymous 4, a vocal ensemble we have long admired, sat like modern incarnations of Marie de France in specially designed chairs and matching pupitres. Although there were some vocal scratches and strains, perhaps made more noticeable by the amplification of the voices, they gave this relatively simple, meditative, and repetitive music more than what it probably deserved. The tuning and balance were extraordinary, with each of the singers also contributing some percussive touches -- on bells, bass drum, cymbal, woodblock, and so on -- that enhanced the work's ascetic qualities. The amplification was necessary for Lang's conception of the piece, which used filters and sonic manipulation of the singing to create different textures. The most successful movement, somewhat oddly, was the opening section ("he was and she was"), a repetition of the qualities of the lovers ("he was a resourceful man, she was lovely" and so on) that cast an entrancing quality like a magical spell, punctuated by the lowest voice's telegraph-like repetition of the word "was." The promise of that opening, sadly, did not pan out.

This performance will be repeated next week (December 6 to 8) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Fortas Chamber Music series continues with a concert by the Fine Arts Quartet next month (December 11, 7:30 pm), with music by Haydn, Schubert, and Zimbalist.

29.11.12

Rubenstein Family Organ Inauguration

The National Symphony Orchestra inaugurated the new concert organ in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with a free concert on Tuesday night. Once the queue of nearly three thousand people, snaking around the Kennedy Center and awaiting free tickets to the most unique event in town, found their seats, the evening began with a delightful fast-motion video of the organ's installation. Although only 89 pipes are visible in the façade, the video helped us experience the other 4,883 pipes built by Canadian builder Casavant Frères, ranging in length from 32 feet to smaller than a pencil, that lay hidden behind the pleasing 24-karat golden hues. The video's fitting soundtrack included part of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony, to be heard later in the evening, some of which you can hear on Nina Totenburg's excellent NPR segment.

The audience chuckled when in the video the instrument's console, or cockpit with four keyboards, pedalboard, and 104 stop knobs to pull, was zipped down the sidewalk into the Hall of Nations. The wheeled console allows it to be placed front and center for solo works, off to the side for orchestral collaborations, or rolled offstage for storage. Since the console sends the wishes of the performer electronically through a giant umbilical chord to magnetically allow pressurized air access to specific pipes, it is not necessary to fix the location of the console. (Traditional tracker action instruments have a mechanical link from each key or pedal to the bottom of each pipe: while providing more tactile sensitivity to the performer, their consoles are immobile.) The 104 stop knobs, 22 tilting tabs, and 88 pistons allow the performer to create uniquely personal registrations, or combinations of sounds from the 4,972 pipes, for each musical demand.

Classical Music in CRISIS Magazine


Latest column by my colleague, mentor, and friend Robert R. Reilly in the (truly) catholic CRISIS Magazine.

Mary in the City of Angels


Los Angeles today might not be the first place that comes to mind when seeking out hymns to the Blessed Virgin Mary. However, a recent concert on Sunday, November 18, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, featuring Monteverdi’s Vespers (Vespro della Beata Vergine) of 1610, was not the first time that this city has lived up to its literal name.

I recall my discovery several years ago of one of the most beautiful versions of the Ave Maria composed since Schubert. It was written by Los Angeles composer Morton Lauridsen, with whom I’ve since become acquainted. When I asked Lauridsen, a Protestant, about this radiant a cappella motet, so suffused with love for Mary, he responded, “I don’t have to belong to the Catholic Church to be in love with Mary.”

The recent concert I attended brought this to mind for a reason...

Continued at Crisis.

28.11.12

Briefly Noted: Le Bœuf sur le Toit

available at Amazon
Le Bœuf sur le Toit: Swinging Paris, A. Tharaud (et al.)

(released on October 22, 2012)
Virgin 5099960255228 | 67'
We mentioned Alexander Tharaud’s new CD, Le Bœuf sur le Toit: Swinging Paris, when he was giving a dramatic series of concerts across France featuring its music. Incredibly, this was shortly before he came to Washington on a brief recital tour: we hope that the French Embassy will be able to feature this cabaret program here at some point in the future. I say Tharaud’s new CD, but as with his Satie disc a couple of years ago, this is really a collaborative effort. Working with a score of other musicians, the French pianist’s goal was to recreate the atmosphere of the most famous French cabaret of the années folles, the period we call the Roaring 20s in English. At 28, rue Boissy d’Anglas, near the Church of La Madeleine, entrepreneur Louis Moysès gave it the name of Darius Milhaud and Jean Cocteau’s pantomime-ballet in 1921, and until it was closed by the authorities in 1927 the club pulsed with the heartbeat of creative Paris.

This reconstruction is speculative, given that no record of any precise program at the Bœuf survives, but an authoritative program note by Martin Pénet lays out the history of the club, the musicians who performed there, and what sort of music they left behind. The selection of music is centered on the composer and arranger Jean Wiéner, the cabaret’s pianist and de facto music director, as well as his partnership, in a two-piano duo act, with Belgian pianist Clément Doucet. Both musicians specialized in arrangements that bridged the gap between popular music of the time, the American jazz that took Paris by storm, and the European classical tradition. Frank Braley joins Tharaud for four of the duo's arrangements, and the solo arrangements played by Tharaud include versions of Gershwin and other jazz tunes (including a delicious version of Cole Porter's Let's Do It with Madeleine Peyroux, the American singer based in Paris), French-inflected original jazz pieces by Wiéner (with Natalie Dessay imitating bluesy, wah-wah trumpet in one selection), and a truly odd arrangement of W. C. Handy's Saint Louis Blues for harpsichord. As Wiéner did for his cabaret performances, Tharaud mixes in some jazz-inflected classical pieces by Milhaud and Ravel, as well as some of Wiéner and Doucet's jazzy renditions of Chopin and Wagner. The result is suave, pleasurable listening from end to end -- a natural Christmas gift.

27.11.12

A Confusion of Languages: Widmann's Babylon


It was as if the circus had come to town: an elitist circus, granted, but still. The tent was pitched inside the National Theater and the ringmasters of La Fura dels Baus hard at work. The spectaculum at hand? Babylon, the new opera by Jörg Widmann.

Jörg Widmann does many things right, foremost among them the rediscovery of sensuality in contemporary opera. High hopes for a contemporary operatic success befitting the all-out effort of the Bavarian State Opera remained with me until well until after intermission, despite many intermediate blows to the solar plexus of discrimination. Weakened eventually, the last bit of hope got knocked out by a soppy, banal ending out of nowhere, when supposed moral insights were being doled out by the liberally maudlin dozen, with schmaltz worthy of a third rate musical. The alleged symbiosis of composer and his suspiciously famous librettist, TV-philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, revealed itself a mirage: The finale is a ring-a-ring-o’-roses accompanied by Sloterdijk’s tired, hokey prose, and off go the protagonists in a rickety slow-motion spaceship to planets far away… ca. 50 feet diagonally away from where they started and where they remained dangling during the postlude until the curtain call.

After more than three hours ambivalence between appreciation and rejection, my baffled mind  cried out: “You have got to be kidding!” Further up in the balconies and gallery, it wasn’t just minds that did the shouting, and Widmann go a solid round of boos even on the night of the second performance.

The opera starts with a lonely lament by a Scorpion Man (delightfully otherworldly, thanks to counter tenor Kai Wessel) in front of the destroyed semi-dystopian ruinscape, accompanied by video projections of busily reconstructing Babylonians and whale-song from crumhorns. With the costumes of Chu Uroz and the lighting of Urs Schönbaum, the impression was like experiencing the title sequence of an as-yet-unmade James Bond film. A conventional chorus chimes in, musically not two corners removed from Carmina Burana, visually with a heavy dose of the original Tron. It feels like a show, pleasant and entertaining, with effective music specifically set to it. So far, so good: that’s pretty much what opera ought to be. The supertitles in cuneiform are a cute touch, if useless for understanding the text. As it turns out, though, that’s still better than having the ungainly German text imposed upon one.


The first and fiercest vocal acrobatics are required asked of Claron McFadden, “The Soul”—the ex-corporeal manifestation of the Judaism that has faded from exiled Jewish protagonist Tammu. Throughout the opera she is obliged  to perform stratospheric feats, fit for a being not of this world. McFadden mastered the ungrateful part impressively, even as her voice threatened to crack underneath the strain early on.

The high priests of superficial stage-hokum, La Fura dels Baus, have a dozen fastened and secured extras build a Tower of Babel with large blocks embossed with various letters of various alphabets, to give obviousness a chance. Later, at the grating climax, the massive tower is toppled to the surprise of no one, given the large safety net that has to be raised before the controlled and tidy disaster is performed. No orchestra musicians were harmed in the making of this opera.

In another incident a human pyramid swirls around—one side Youth and Beauty, drenched sensually in liquid gold, the other Age and Ugliness and Decay and dowsed in viscid pitch. To expect textual elucidation from such intermittently stunning pictures is like expecting a dramatic arch at a Ripley's Believe-It-or-Not show. The Jewish protagonists and priests sport rocket-pack Menorahs, Priest-King Abubu (Willard White), appears as a Michelin-Man high priest, accompanied by his tin-foil seconds.

Finally the true highlight of the opera appears: Babylonian priestess and Tammu-lover Inanna. Or, more precisely, the impossibly charming and enchanting Anna Prohaska, who embodies a rôle so dominant in aesthetic appeal that it seems the whole opera was written around and indeed for her. She descends from above: a tempting upper body in the color of pale-olive clay, statuesque except for a bedazzling brassier; attached to a torso of silver balloons. The titillating appearance makes sense; Inanna represents free love, an offer into which Tammu dips gladly as he hallucinates of the ‘Horror of the Flood’.

The unholy climax before intermission, directly responsible for the considerable amount of attrition after the interval, is a revue - a case of the Widmann-Follies, a “Babylonian Carnival” of Broadway rejects that apes the confusion of languages by throwing every hackneyed piece of music Widmann could find into a bucket and then hurling it back on stage: Bavarian Oompahpah-marches, recycled bits of earlier works of Widmann’s, Trinidadian steel drums, juvenile hit-parade drinking songs, and New Orleans Dixieland. It sounds like Varèse vomiting at the Oktoberfest while two Babylonian partiers play Tron-frisbee in the background. This fourth of seven chapters is named “By the Waters of Babylon”. Any hint of the famous Bach chorale on the same subject remains missing, although Widmann is not afraid of offering a mélange of composer references elsewhere through this opera.


For the duration of a clarinet solo intermezzo—a Widmann signature move—after intermission, faith in Babylon is briefly restored. The scenes, on their way to the all important number seven, get more concise, but Babylon doesn’t get better for it. Next up is an excursion to the Magic Flute, but with ritual human sacrifice. Jussi Myllys’ Tammu is chosen, who even sounds like a stilted Eastern European Tamino. He is sent through fire and water trials (neat stage sets) to prepare for the sacrificial ceremony, accompanied by Beethovenesque choruses. A naked mariachi-band of four trumpeters is on standby, a Rubik’s cube of letters floating above is finally utilized as a sacrificial chamber, with La Fura dels Baus’ apologies to Kubrik’s 2001 Space Odyssey and an MRI scanner. Then Widmann takes a detour via reverse Orfeo ed Euridice by way of Salome: Inanna is intent on getting Tammu out of the underworld. To that end she dances a dance of the seven accessories in front of Death, a cigar-smoking Bassa Selim in drag, sung alternately with falsetto and his natural low bass by Willard White. For all its artistic intentions, it’s no more comfortable than watching a Big Momma or Madea movie. The ears at least get a treat by sounds that could also be Uri Caine’s. Inanna strips her way to success and is allowed to take her love  back from the gates of hell as long as she does not lose sight of him. She manages, since  the task is not exactly  challenging. A good thing, because those two spaceship tickets were probably non-refundable—much like tickets to Babylon.
Just one hearing of such a new work, its ink still wet during rehearsals,  doesn’t allow to judge accurately whether Kent Nagano and his Bavarian State Orchestra succeeded fully… but it is safe to assume that he did: This is thes kind of music, the kind of project, and the kind of complexity that the calm-exuding Nagano excels at, even when he struggles with seemingly easier fare.

When Kaija Saariaho spoke on the subject of opera to aspiring composers, she said the following: Yes, with an opera you can spread your work further, for a variety of reasons, than through any other kind of composition. But never write an opera to get famous. Never do it early in your career, do it only if you absolutely have something to say, and when only that format will do. It would be presumptuous to suggest that Widmann, hardly a greenhorn, didn’t know what he was doing, but the advice from the composer of L’Amour de loin rings true, all the same

It is Babylon’s misfortune to have been burdened by too-high expectations, partly because Widmann’s music should lend itself well to the genre. Comparatively, Babylon did as well or better than many other large-scale operas recently premiered with great fanfare and to high hopes: Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland manages something else, something more intriguing but more forbidding, Tan Dun’s The First Emperor is highbrow rubbish, Nicholas Maw’s Sophie’s Choice unnecessarily tedious, Eötvös’ The Tragedy of the Devil (another Munich premiere) just plain unfortunate. Babylon does itself no favors, with a dull libretto about a highfalutin’ story, not to mention musical banality—as if the latter could offset the former. But it also contains plenty promise for a future, more unassuming success… hopefully attained by Widmann’s next project, an opera premiering at the Salzburg Festival and tailored to the splendid Christian Gerhaher.


All pictures (below the jump) courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl

Birthdays and Portraits

This past Friday was the 17th birthday of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. They grow so fast! As with everything, time has flown by. I remember delivering the building's architectural model to then-Governor Donald Schafer’s office in Annapolis, with museum founder/director Rebecca Hoffberger, to lobby his support.

AVAM has had its growing pains, and as anyone who has visited will know, it has been anything but a traditional museum. In addition to some amazing exhibits and performances, the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race and blowout crazy fun party/fund raisers, AVAM has become, in my opinion, the best exhibition space for outsider art and a fixture in the Baltimore cultural scene. Happy Birthday, AVAM!

I was reminded to see Steven Spielberg’s new movie, Lincoln, after seeing some Abraham Lincoln portraits at the National Portrait Gallery over the weekend. Mr. Lincoln did not have a house photographer documenting his every move, but we do have some striking portraits that give us a sense of the toll the office and war took on his facial features. One can trace the transition from a baby-faced Lincoln, in Leopold Grozelier’s 1860 lithograph, to Alexander Gardner’s photo portrait of 1867, where a craggy weariness takes over.



Perhaps more striking is the leap from sculptor Leonard Volk’s mask of 1860, before Lincoln’s election and the Clark Mills casting of 1865, shortly before the 16th president's death.

My favorite Lincoln portrait at NPG is that of George P. A. Healy (bottom right). It’s an image lifted from his large composition The Peacemakers. There are three versions of this portrait, one once in the possession of Robert Todd Lincoln, now in the White House collection. A more relaxed introspective Lincoln I can imagine, as well as the Lincoln also known for his wit and humor.


26.11.12

Gift Ideas for Cyber Monday

Here at Ionarts Central December is Advent -- and not Christmas -- until the evening of December 24. One does need to think about presents at this time of year, however, and for that culture-loving person in your life, here are some gift ideas, a few discs and films I most enjoyed over the past year. A gentle reminder: if you buy something we recommend by clicking on the Amazon link provided, a part of the proceeds goes to support Ionarts. Happy shopping!

Pianomania: In Search of the Perfect Sound (directed by Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck)

available at Amazon
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This Austrian documentary, from 2009, received a very limited release in the United States. It has had mostly tepid reviews, generally by film critics who are not really classical music-heads, and the gross has been low, even for a documentary about something that is fairly esoteric. Directed by Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck, the film follows the nerve-wracking work of Steinway piano technician Stefan Knüpfer, as he fine-tunes his company's finest concert grand pianos for some of the best pianists in the world to play in the concert halls of Vienna. Like Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037, from 2007, it is something that anyone with a love of the piano must see.
[READ REVIEW]


Massenet, Don Quichotte (dir. Laurent Pelly), J. van Dam, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, M. Minkowski (Naïve DR 2147)

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The appeal of this DVD is in the interwoven layers of the perfect twilight moment: an opera about Don Quixote, an old man living with regret; composed with great skill by a composer at the end of a long career; sung by baritone José van Dam, who had made the title role a specialty, returning to it in a grand gesture as he retired from the stage. To celebrate van Dam's career, the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels mounted this intriguing new production of the opera, directed by Laurent Pelly. Everything the French director has touched has impressed me. It was no surprise that Pelly created something that seemed to go against the content of the libretto but ultimately ended up enhancing one's understanding of the work.
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A Separation (directed by Asghar Farhadi)

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Iran, of course, is regularly in the headlines, but how much do you know about Iran and its people? One gets a profound glimpse in the latest film by director Asghar Farhadi, again using his own screenplay. Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Tehran, the film follows the struggles of a couple, Simin and Nader, who are trying to work out the details of their divorce. The wife wants to leave Iran, but the husband will not give permission for their daughter to go with her, feeling he has to stay in Iran because he is taking care of his father, who has Alzheimer's. When his wife moves out, the stressed-out Nader hires a poor woman, Razieh, to make the long commute from her home to his to take care of his father. An altercation, caused by the many frustrating details of the families' situations, lands Nader and Razieh in the Islamic courts, where a judge tries to sort out their complaints.
[READ REVIEW]


Josquin Des Prez, Masses, Tallis Scholars (Gimell CDGIM 044)

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Josquin Des Prez (c. 1440-1521) was the equal of Leonardo or Michelangelo in composition. He composed secular and sacred music, but for any composer worth his salt, the cyclic Mass was the symphony, the magnum opus of the day, and Josquin's polyphonic settings of the Latin Mass are the summa of the art. Every possible manner of unifying the movements of the Ordinary is explored -- canon, parody of chanson and motet, cantus firmus, chant paraphrase -- but this music is enjoyable first and foremost just as music because of the beauty of his melodic writing and the variation of textures. The Tallis Scholars have undertaken a complete recorded survey of Josquin's Masses, begun in 2006 with the re-release of a 2-CD set of their older discs devoted to this composer. The new recordings in the series continue to be just as valuable as those older ones, which introduced many eager young graduate students like myself to the complexity of this music in the best way possible.
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Beethoven, Diabelli Variations, Andreas Staier (HMC 902091)

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Andreas Staier made this disc on a reconstruction of a Graf fortepiano, an instrument that still has a thunderous forte side, albeit not as strong as a modern piano, but also a beautifully nuanced soft side. Playing on historical instruments, especially when they are actually instruments the composer may have known, can help illumine our understanding of the sounds and effects the composer was after in a piece. The modern piano can just do some of the demanding things better and more easily -- the trills all sound a little clunky and wooden -- but anyone who has an interest in this piece, either player or listener, should listen to this recording. The use of the moderator (forerunner of the una corda pedal) and shift pedal (Verschiebung) in Variation 20 creates an almost otherworldly soft sound, and the bassoon stop (touches of reedy buzz adding a sung quality) in the comic Variation 22 and the janissary stop (a crash of percussion on big chords) in Variation 23 are not to be missed.
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25.11.12

Notes from Istanbul: Brahms, Dead on Arrival


At the heart of a recent press-junket to İstanbul lied the Borusan İstanbul Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a very young orchestra, sort of a bit older version of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, except 95% Turkish (a few Romanians sprinkled in; with a clear female majority) which is the result of actively appreciated circumstance. After all, the Borusan Foundation intends to further classical music in Turkey as something that is an integral part of the Turkish fabric, not superimposed from the outside—the route some high-spending orchestras in the Middle East are taking. In the 20 years since its foundation, the orchestra has become unquestionably Turkey’s best. That means little in relative terms; more in absolute—as their success on CD and with critics abroad confirms. They even impressed Markus Hinterhäuser enough that he had the orchestra play at the 2010 Salzburg Festival… admittedly in return for a healthy Borusan sponsorship of its visiting orchestras program.

It was good to have known something of the orchestra’s abilities—and to have them confirmed later that week, in rehearsal for the next concert, because their outing at the Türkiye İş Bankası (“İşbank”) İstanbul Music Festival in their İş Sanat Arts and Culture Centre was, in a word, pitiful.

The concert series is laudable and studded with the world’s foremost classical musicians, but the İş Sanat-İstanbul Hall located in the Bank’s İş Towers building, is the worst I have heard yet, although I’m assured, unfathomable though it seems, that İstanbul features even worse. It’s essentially a conference hall on the second floor of an office tower, with a ten foot ceiling and inch-thick carpet everywhere. Carpet, synonymous for comfort and luxury in the region, appears to be a universal affliction of Turkish concert halls. One simply cannot receive society in Turkey, so it seems to foreign eyes, in an uncarpeted abode. The air-conditioning hiss from above is no help. Phrases fall on the thick floor, lifeless. The strings sound flattened as if made of paper, and darkly synthetic.

It’s hard to tell in such a space what not to blame on the acoustic… a hall that is in no way adequate for the purpose of such concerts, a hall that kills more Brahms than it facilitates. The short and dirty of the evening: No Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto and Brahms First Symphony would have been better than under these conditions. To have been sitting way up front added chaos to muddle: As would be expected, the sound in the second row of that hall doesn’t come together at all, you hear individual bits and not all of them and those you hear are way off balance.

The noises emitted from the piano arrived in such erratic a state that critique or praise of the soloist—a joyously ardent, slightly overburdened Emre Şen—is impossible or at least inappropriate. The soloist’s comfort-level may have been expressed by the ponderously slow tempos that Goetzel adapted for the concerto, though. Interpretatively this was a heavy and cliché-flirting soup of high romanticism, passionately presented like Turkish desserts: dense and sweet… high fructose Rachmaninoff-syrup.

That there was no applause after the first movement was disappointing in one sense, namely that the music certainly asks for it and any audience not schooled in well-meaning but misguided concert etiquette would burst into applause. But it was understandably in another sense… in that it simply hadn’t been a rousing affair at all in that all-dulling acoustic.

The idea of an encore under the circumstances scared me; the devil of Träumerei was perceptible on the walls. But Emre Şen didn’t go down the path over-travelled, he chose a spunky piece unfamiliar enough to baffle me entirely (perhaps Saygun or Ulvi Cemal Erkin?), that reminded me of another superb encore piece, Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.


available at Amazon
J.Brahms, Symphonies 1-4,
G.Wand / NDRSO
RCA

Moving all the way back to row Z for the Brahms Symphony paid some dividends. The harsh dynamic remained; much of the ungainly, flattened, and luster-lacking string sound too, but the severe imbalances were rectified. The second movement and the hectic, fluctuating, intriguing finale very discernable as having been well played, in an altogether exclamation-mark dotted performance for which Sascha Goetzel, a man visibly enjoying his grand gestures, employed mercifully quick tempos.

A week later, the orchestra prepared for the next concert, at a different, marginally better hall: Holst (Perfect Fool), Bernstein, and Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto with Victoria Mullova fiddling. The orchestra’s rehearsal space is the top floor of a BMW and Range Rover dealership, a good 15 miles and 30 minutes outside İstanbul, past the Belgrade forest and into the satellite towns illegally built and not likely to withstand the next earthquake,. As elevator doors on the third floor opened, the full musical brunt of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story Symphonic Dances” hit me and an equally curious colleague from Finnish Television in the face.

What we saw and heard, eavesdropping on one of their 4 ½ hour rehearsals, was an orchestra no longer dismal but borderline glorious. The Borusan Philharmonic is still a decent wind section away from true glories, but here they worked with relaxed enthusiasm in an acoustic that sound like the Concertgebouw compared to the İş Sanat-İstanbul Hall. Bernstein’s little firecracker-piece seemed to suit the mentality of the orchestra better than Brahms, too, and Bernstein knew, of course, when not to resist the temptation for clap and razzle-dazzle.

With such nascent quality, it’s good to know that the orchestra is set to move into a new, promising concert hall within the next year. The Borusan Philharmonic might then be heard in the decent acoustic its concerts (and the orchestra itself) deserve.

In Brief: Giving Thanks Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio, online video, and other good things in Blogville and Beyond. (After clicking to an audio or video stream, press the "Play" button to start the broadcast.)


  • Watch clarinetist Martin Fröst with the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse, under the baton of Giovanni Antonini, founder of the Il Giardino Armonico, with music by Kraus, Mozart, and Beethoven. [Medici.tv]

  • The JACK Quartet played music by Mincek, Cage, Bianchi, and Robin and at the Festival Musica in Strasbourg in September. [France Musique]

  • Have a listen to the winners of this year's Hamamatsu International Piano Competition. [Medici.tv]

  • From the Auditorium du Louvre last month, a recital by violinist Ray Chen and pianist Julien Quentin. [France Musique]

  • David Zinman conducts the Vienna Symphony in Bruckner's fourth symphony, and with Nelson Freire as soloist, in Schumann's A minor piano concerto. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Listen to the NDR Radiophilharmonie perform music by Weill and Haydn under conductor Michael Sanderling, with violinist Daniel Hope in Bruch's first violin concerto. [France Musique]

  • Michele Mariotti conducts Rossini's Matilde di Shabran at this summer's Pesaro Festival. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • The Maîtrise de Radio France performs sacred music from the 19th century in the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde. [France Musique]

  • Cornelius Meister conducts the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien in music by Dvořák and Srnka. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Pianists Pascal Rogé and Amy Rogé join the Orchestre National de France, under conductor Andrew Grams, for a program of music by Poulenc and Mozart, from the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. [France Musique]

  • Frans Brüggen conducts the Orchester des 18. Jahrhunderts in music by Bach and Rameau. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • The Ensemble Contraste joins mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes for music by Gabriel Fauré, Ernest Chausson, and Guillaume Lekeu, from the Auditorium de Dijon. [France Musique]

  • John Storgårds conducts the Helsinki Philharmonic in Nielsen's fourth symphony, plus Tchaikovsky with cellist Gautier Capuçon. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Archival recordings of the Vienna Philharmonic in music of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Music by Vierne, Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel from cellist Xavier Phillips and pianist Florent Boffard, from the Auditorium de Dijon. [France Musique]

  • From this summer's Prague Early Music Festival the ensemble Forma Antiqva in music by José de Nebra, Santiago de Murcia, Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, and Domenico Scarlatti. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • More Debussy and Ravel from the Auditorium de Dijon, with violinist David Grimal, cellist Xavier Phillips, and pianist Claire Désert. [France Musique]

  • Also, a recital at the Auditorium de Dijon by mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes and pianist Philippe Cassard. [France Musique]

  • From September's Schubertiade Schwarzenberg, the song cycle Die schöne Müllerin with tenor Mauro Peter and pianist Helmut Deutsch. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Mezzo-soprano Ida Aldrian and organist Sigrid Gartner team up for a program of music by Bach, Mozart, Brahms, and Mendelssohn. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Listen to a performance of Bellini's I puritani recorded earlier this month at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, from the forces of the Opéra de Lyon under Evelino Pido. [France Musique]

  • From 1959, Karl Böhm conducts Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera, with George London (Don Giovanni), Eleanor Steber (Donna Anna), Cesare Valletti (Don Ottavio), and Lisa Della Casa (Donna Elvira). [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

24.11.12

Briefly Noted: Drama Queens

available at Amazon
Drama Queens (Handel, Hasse, Monteverdi, et al.), J. DiDonato, Il Complesso Barocco, A. Curtis

(released on November 6, 2012)
Virgin 5099960265425 | 67'54"
We are longtime fans of mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, especially for her contributions to the series of Handel opera recordings from the historically informed performance ensemble Il Complesso Barocco and conductor Alan Curtis. Sadly, the concert tour coinciding with the release of her new album of Baroque arias did not come through Washington this time: the experience of DiDonato's charming stage presence in live performance would likely increase one's enjoyment of this new disc. Certainly, it is all music beautifully performed, both the blazing vocal pyrotechnics of DiDonato, with florid embellishments worked out to maximum effect, and the refined, perfectly scaled sound of Il Complesso Barocco, all sensitively brought together under Curtis's direction. No complaints about the choice of repertory, either, as beyond two familiar arias by Handel (from Alcina and Giulio Cesare in Egitto), one from Haydn's Armida, and Octavia's showstopping "Disprezzata regina" from Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, the selection consists of composers rarely recorded, including Giuseppe Orlandini (two arias from Berenice, recently rediscovered), Giovanni Porta, Reinhard Keiser, Johann Hasse, Antonio Cesti, and Geminiano Giacomelli. At the same time, this disc does not strike me as standing out that much from what DiDonato has done before, certainly not to the degree that the many rapturous reviews thus far have seemed to indicate. It is a voice with many delights to offer, including pinpoint accuracy in the rapid passages, a simple, warm tone that can float at pianissimo, and also powerful zing at the top when it is at full bore -- in some ways, powered by the slightly obtrusive vibrato flutter that can mar intonation in the middle range and at softer dynamics. Worth a listen, definitely, but not a must-hear.

23.11.12

À mon chevet: Lennox Berkeley

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
The difficulty of assessing the value of contemporary works of art is well known. We can always seem to be either too close or too far away to see them in their true perspective. If we can understand or perhaps even speak their language, we are too close, too grateful for their expression of what we ourselves would express, while if we can only feel at home with the idiom of earlier periods, we fail to grasp their meaning. This is one of the reasons why such diverse and even contradictory opinions prevail on the subject of modern art. In music this divergence of opinion is perhaps not quite so apparent as in the other arts because people find themselves more easily out of their depth in discussing it, and are more prepared to leave the matter in the hands of experts. And yet, the desire for music and for a music that can adequately speak the language of today, is felt by many people at the present time.

[...]

Britten is in a sense an extremely traditional composer. The novelty of his music does not consist in any new discovery of musical language or form. He relies on the freshness and individuality of his musical thought rather than on deliberate innovation. True originality in an artist does not consist in his being peculiar, but in his being peculiar to himself. There is no new system here, but a personal and new use of an established one. It is sometimes said that certain composers, even some of the great ones, are a law unto themselves, outside the main stream of music. This can certainly be said of Stravinsky and to some extent of Debussy. Britten, on the other hand, belongs very much to the main stream.

-- Lennox Berkeley, essay on Benjamin Britten's first string quartet (The Listener, May 27, 1943), republished in Lennox Berkeley and Friends: Writings, Letters, and Interviews, ed. Peter Dickinson (Boydell Press, 2012)
Peter Dickinson has dedicated this new book, which includes transcripts of his interviews with musicians who knew Lennox Berkeley, to conductor Richard Hickox, who has made a series of excellent recordings of Berkeley's music. I am most familiar with Berkeley's liturgical music, from performing it, but after reading Dickinson's book, I am keen to hear more of his symphonic and chamber music. His son, Michael Berkeley, is also active as a composer.

22.11.12

Notes from Istanbul: With the Ears of an Ass


During my stay in İstanbul, I had the opportunity to see an opera in the charming little, 600 seat Süreyya Opereti opera house in the Kadıköy district, a quick commuter-ferry ride from the European side of the town. The house has a story of itself; built in the 1920s, it was never actually used for opera before becoming a movie theater in the 30s. Only in 2007, after extensive redevelopment, was it returned to its intended purpose and is now home to İstanbul’s State Opera and Ballet… at least as long the Atatürk Cultural Center with the city’s main opera house is being renovated.

Opera in İstanbul has a good deal of history, largely because the interests of the region’s primary jump-starter of (Occidental) Classical Music, Giuseppe Donizetti Pasha—Imperial Ottoman Instructor General of Music at the court of Sultan Mahmud II, ran in that direction. In his twenty-eight years in the city, until his death in 1856, the famous composer’s elder brother shaped the musical scene in then—Constantinople well beyond military music (where Turkey’s modern orchestral tradition started). The opera scene’s emphasis on Italian fare reflects that to this day.

On this occasion it wasn’t Donizetti jr. or early Verdi, but a homegrown, Turkish opera by Ferit Tüzün (1929-1977). I wouldn’t have pretended familiarity even with the name Tüzün, except that I did actually attend (and forget) a performance of his (exquisite) Capriccio à la turque a couple years ago. A cursory glance at his biography in Evin İlyasoğlu’s handy “71 Turkish Composers” proved promising: Munich educated, Tüzün studied with Fritz Lehmann and received moral support from Karl Amadeus Hartmann, and Carl Orff. My local chaperon, the founder and publisher of Andante (the country’s foremost, possibly only, classical müsik magazine) and seemingly infinitely knowledgeable about Istanbul’s fledgling classical music scene, also chimed in that Tüzün was a composer of very agreeable music.

Midas’ Ears (Midas'ýn Kulaklari), a satirical opera in two acts, is decidedly not such one. It’s a silly little thing; an operatic soufflé in the tradition of Italian musical farces (Donizetti et al.), with plenty dialogue (at least half the duration), easy to follow even without any grasp of Turkish or subtitles, and not a little ham-handed: “Gilbert & Sullivan go to Turkey”, except not very funny and musically not as compelling. While the veteran ears of my similarly dismayed accomplice heard simplistic Stravinsky, I heard lesser Rosza, and even then more in aspiration than achievement. There was a repeated oboe melody the chaps from Midsomer Murders might have inadvertently lifted, and a big, orchestral and choral climax: Let’s do a silly little dance and hop away to third rate Orff.

The eager production was droll; amiable at best. The lackluster dance numbers, the naturalistic costumes, the small stage (hardly anyone’s fault), the bad wigs: there were definite touches of a revue number as it might be described in Wodehouse, replete with scarlet tights and a frightful false beards. Charming, in a naïve sort of way.




The story, for completeness sake: Midas, evidently before his precious haptic affliction, is asked to judge a music contest between Apollo and Pan. Apollo goes first and every bystander pretends delight with the fair sounds. Only a barber admits to hear nothing. Frustrated with the others’ pretense he tricks a buddy into finally admitting as much: a case of The Emperor has no Notes. It’s not clear whether Midas really hears the music, perceptible only to sensitive and refined ears. When Pan plays, everyone can hear alright, but no one likes it. A clever, self-deprecating twist of Tüzün’s, who wrote a dodecaphonic virtuoso piece for Pan’s appearance. Midas gives the prize to Pan, anyway.

The synopsis suggests he does this just to mess with cocksure Apollo. My willful interpretation is that even a wild and queer music is better than merely imagined sounds. (In the underlying myth King Tmolus judged, awarded Apollo, and Midas, a follower of Pan, merely dissented too vigorously.) In any case, Apollo is not amused and gives Midas a set of donkey’s ears. In choppy small scenes, one after another, Midas goes through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—only to have, just as he comes to terms with his new look, the ears taken away again, suggesting another course of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Fortunately the opera ends before that happens.

The singers were decent, which was enough given how little they had to sing. Among them, Sedat Öztoprak’s Midas still had the most to do. He isn’t a vocal wonder and somewhat past his prime, but a sonorous Verdi baritone can be detected beneath the veneer. Apollo’s voice (courtesy Zefer Erdaş) was that of a well worn bass with a still-pleasant timbre in the lower tessitura. The Barber’s is a speaking comedic rôle, performed by the retired tenor and audience-favorite Süha Yildiz who hammed it up like a 70s Bollywood actor. Tülay Uyar stole the Queen of the Night’s costume from a previous production of the Magic Flute and sang her short bit as Moon Goddess nicely. The quip that she not quit her day job would be apt, not malevolent in this case: she doubles as the company’s PR manager.

The opera’s moral suggests to “turn uniqueness (adversity) to strength” and that being “different is but a matter of fashion”. Tüzün’s opera fails on both counts: the opera can’t overcome the inherent weaknesses of the hokey form of the farce. And while he manages to sound different from any composer, eschewing most avant-garde trends, he fails to sound unique, much less fashionable. Tüzün is better served performing other works—like the Capriccio à la turque.

21.11.12

WNO's Bite-Sized New Operas


(L to R) Yuri Gorodetzki, Julia Mintzer, Soloman Howard, María Eugenia Antúnez, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman)
One of the many benefits of Washington National Opera's merger with the Kennedy Center is that the company can now use the Terrace Theater and other venues for different kinds of productions, ones not likely to fill the Opera House. This summer, WNO created the American Opera Initiative, a project to foster young composers and librettists in the creation of new American operas. This is something, it is often repeated ad nauseam in certain quarters, that the word "National" inserted into the company's name, and the limited government support that comes with it, obliges WNO to do. Obligation or not, it is an admirable and welcome development, reviving the concept behind the company's presentation of Scott Wheeler's Democracy back in 2005 -- a smaller venue, young singers, a workshop creative process, and even conductor Anne Manson. The result was three 20-minute operas by young, but by no means unaccomplished composers and librettists, presented in a semi-staged concert format with a chamber ensemble of violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet (and bass clarinet), bassoon (and saxophone), and a pile of percussion instruments.

As I have said many times, although there are some who do not like to hear me say it, most new works of music throughout history have been failures -- in the long term, that is. So, there is really no reason to expect new operas to be golden successes, especially considering that far fewer new operas ever see the light of day in our era than in previous ones. I am always glad to hear new works of music, because the vitality of the art depends on it, but I generally expect to hear such new pieces only once before they fade into oblivion. In a way, the format imposed by the American Opera Initiative dooms these works to failure. A 20-minute opera is unlikely ever to be produced anywhere else, except by small companies that specialize in pocket opera and reach a relatively limited audience. Even so, limits reveal strengths and weaknesses: a composer and librettist who can hold your attention in a short work may have a better chance of creating a durable longer work.

What great operas of the past should composers and librettists take as models for this sort of challenge? What characteristics do short operas that have stood the test of time have in common? Some of my favorites are Poulenc’s La voix humaine (40 minutes), Ravel’s L’heure espagnole (50 minutes) and L’enfant et les sortilèges (45 minutes), Schoenberg's Erwartung (30 minutes), Barber's A Hand of Bridge (10 minutes), Menotti's The Telephone (5 minutes) -- there are many more, but not all created equal. Most of these focus mostly or exclusively on one character, and in such a short time there is not much hope of developing more than that.


Other Reviews:

Philip Kennicott, Grads of WNO’s American Opera Initiative present original works at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, November 21)
The best effort of the night -- Charon, with music by Scott Perkins and libretto by Nat Cassidy -- followed that example. The story was centered on the mythological character of Charon, ferrying an endless stream of condemned souls across the Styx and frankly getting a little tired of it. Perkins created a meaty title role for remarkable bass Soloman Howard, fresh off a main stage appearance as the Commendatore in WNO's Don Giovanni and frankly sounding in much better voice here. With its echoes of Sartre's Huis clos ("L'enfer, c'est les autres"), juxtaposition of grim humor and hellscape, and the most evocative use of the limited instrumentation by a long shot, it was a work not without shortcomings but which I would gladly hear again and take the chance to study the score.

The works on either side were, by comparison, instantly forgettable. Part of the Act, with music by Liam Wade and libretto by John Grimmett, was a skimpy bagatelle of a story, about an infidelity and the attempt to cover it up in a vaudeville club dressing room in the 1920s. It had some flashy vocal writing for soprano Shantelle Przybylo (Ginger, the striptease artist), a fateful quotation of the opening motif of Beethoven's fifth symphony, and a lot of derivative jazz and operetta styling. A Game of Hearts, with music by Douglas Pew and libretto by Dara Weinberg, tried to make something profound out of a meeting of hearts in a retirement community, but it ended up feeling like the libretto needing trimming -- quite a feat for a 20-minute work -- right around the time it reached its climactic duet. The musical style was again rather unimaginative, mostly Broadway but with operatic high notes and complicated harmonies in the trio, but with none of the memorable tunes of the great Broadway composers. Both of these operas seemed to bear too much of the imprint of composer Jake Heggie and librettist Mark Campbell, who served the three composers as mentors. At the podium, Manson made sure each work received an optimal reading, with some other standout vocal contributions from mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer and soprano María Eugenia Antúnez.

WNO's America Opera Initiative continues this summer, with the staging of a new one-hour opera, The Tao of Muhammad Ali (A Ghost Story), by D. J. Sparr (June 8 and 9), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

20.11.12

Notes from Istanbul: Saariaho World Premiere


The Borusan Culture & Arts Foundation, the artistic and charitable offshoot of the Borusan Holding Company has a “Music House” on İstanbul’s İstiklal Avenue, the downtown pedestrian zone in the Pera district, custom built to show off its modern art collection, but also the home to contemporary classical music. Artists and ensembles are invited to fill the six storey building with roof top terrace with sounds, and works are commissioned to make them unique sounds. The latest such work was penned by Kaija Saariaho: Frises for violin and electronics, inspired by Odilon Redon’s painted friezes

Richard Schmoucler, violinist in the Orchestre de Paris, first came in touch with Saariaho’s music during the Paris performances of L’Amour de loin. That led to a greater immersion in her sound world and finally, through the Borusan commission, to Frises, which Schmoucler specifically envisioned as part of a program including Bach’s Chaconne and Ysaÿe’s Second Sonata. On Friday, November 2nd, he finally got to play it, with Mme. Saariaho at the mixing board pushing buttons and sliding sliders with fierce concentration.


available at Amazon
K.Saariaho, Orchestral Works,
various
Ondine

After a long, mono-tonous [sic], quiet first movement, Frises develops and blooms into something quite beautiful, with long glassy marimba-like harmonies, echoes and halos. Schmoucler is asked to engage in self-recording himself at set intervals, then re-playing with himself, after his recorded alter ego's sound has been sent back with more or less manipulation along the way. The third of four movements, Pavage, is the most engaged, frantically chasing little echo-y runs up and down the instrument, and dotted with violent pizzicatos. It thrashes onward and forward until it finally runs out of steam and disemboguing into the Frise grise, which concludes this aural immersion with something akin to whale-song. If Saariaho’s works are often monochrome and austere; this is a joyously lively and colorful, thoroughly engaging treat.

The earlier works—Ysaÿe’s Sonata and the whole Second Partita of Bach, were a nice setup, very decently performed. In the Ysaÿe I wasn’t keen on the pauses or the terraced dynamics that make so much of the work’s Prelude. It wasn’t the cleanest performance, either, but then the Sonata (which Schmoucler finished with an uncommonly excellent Les furies) is a tough cookie to open the concert with. Even more so in a concert consisting entirely of difficult, unforgiving works that keep the performer out on a limb at all times. Schmoucler’s instrument shone in the Bach with a character-rich, dark, viola-like tone and resonance, even if the inherent necessity to play the work at hand, which Schmoucler had spoken about passionately just the night before, sadly eluded me. Until the Saariaho piece, at least.


See also Johannes Baumann's interview with Kaija Saariaho (video & transcript)

19.11.12

Classical Month in Washington (December)

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

December 1, 2012 (Sat)
2 pm
Lukáš Vondrácek, piano
WPAS
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

December 1, 2012 (Sat)
5 pm
21st Century Consort
Music by Brehm, Ives, Rush, Stravinsky
Smithsonian American Art Museum

December 1, 2012 (Sat)
5 pm
Washington Bach Consort
Music by Bach for Advent, Christmas
National Presbyterian Church

December 1, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Jonathan Biss, piano
Kennedy Center Concert House

December 1, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Mario Venzago (conductor) and Sol Gabetta (cello)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

December 2, 2012 (Sun)
2 pm
Strauss, Die Fledermaus
Virginia Opera
GMU Center for the Arts

December 2, 2012 (Sun)
3 pm
Piano Society of Greater Washington [FREE]
Montgomery College Performing Arts Center (Silver Spring, Md.)

December 2, 2012 (Sun)
4 pm
Hermitage Trio
Phillips Collection

December 2, 2012 (Sun)
5:30 pm
Piotr Anderszewski, piano
Shriver Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

December 2, 2012 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Reformation Lutheran Church Choir [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

December 2, 2012 (Sun)
7 pm
Cantus
Dumbarton Oaks

December 2, 2012 (Sun)
7:30 pm
Bella Hristova, violin
JCCGW (Rockville, Md.)

December 3, 2012 (Mon)
7:30 pm
Yo-Yo Ma, cello
WPAS
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

December 3, 2012 (Mon)
8 pm
Cantus
Dumbarton Oaks

December 4, 2012 (Tue)
12:10 pm
Noontime Cantata: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 62 [FREE]
Washington Bach Consort
Church of the Epiphany

December 4, 2012 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra
WPAS
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

December 5, 2012 (Wed)
10 and 11:30 am
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
The Nutcracker (children's concert)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

December 5, 2012 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Nutcracker
Ballet West
Kennedy Center Opera House

December 5, 2012 (Wed)
8 pm
New Music at University of Maryland [FREE]
Clarice Smith Center

December 6, 2012 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Yuja Wang, piano
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

December 6, 2012 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Nutcracker
Ballet West
Kennedy Center Opera House

December 6, 2012 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Amernet String Quartet
Pro Musica Hebraica
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

December 6, 2012 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Christmas in Luxembourg
Embassy Series
Embassy of Luxembourg

December 6, 2012 (Thu)
8 pm
University of Maryland Wind Orchestra
Clarice Smith Center

December 7, 2012 (Fri)
10 and 11:30 am
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
The Nutcracker (children's concert)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

December 7, 2012 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Nutcracker
Ballet West
Kennedy Center Opera House

December 7, 2012 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Handel, Messiah
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

December 7, 2012 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Yuja Wang, piano
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

December 7, 2012 (Fri)
8 pm
Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols
University of Maryland School of Music
Clarice Smith Center

December 8, 2012 (Sat)
11 am
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

December 8, 2012 (Sat)
1:30 and 7:30 pm
Nutcracker
Ballet West
Kennedy Center Opera House

December 8, 2012 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Vienna Boys Choir
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

December 8, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
A Palestrina Christmas
Chantry
St. Mary, Mother of God

December 8, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra
Clarice Smith Center

December 8, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
Fairfax Symphony Orchestra
GMU Center for the Arts

December 8, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Yuja Wang, piano
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

December 9, 2012 (Sun)
1:30 and 7:30 pm
Nutcracker
Ballet West
Kennedy Center Opera House

December 9, 2012 (Sun)
3 and 7 pm
MCYO
With Nurit Bar-Josef and Jonathan Carney, violins
Music Center at Strathmore

December 9, 2012 (Sun)
3 pm
Festive Baroque
University of Maryland Chamber Singers
Clarice Smith Center

December 9, 2012 (Sun)
3 pm
Eclipse Chamber Orchestra
Music by Vivaldi, Bach
George Washington Masonic Temple (Alexandria, Va.)

December 9, 2012 (Sun)
4 pm
Jennifer Frautschi (violin) and John Blacklow (piano)
Phillips Collection

December 9, 2012 (Sun)
6 pm
What Makes It Great?
With Rob Kapilow, lecturer
Music by Dvořák
National Museum of Natural History

December 9, 2012 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Great Noise Ensemble [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

December 9, 2012 (Sun)
7 pm
Curtis On Tour
Jason Vieaux (guitar) and Roberto Diaz (viola)
Candlelight Concert Society
Smith Theatre, Howard Community College (Columbia, Md.)

December 9, 2012 (Sun)
7:30 pm
Kennedy Center Chamber Players
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

December 11, 2012 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Fine Arts Quartet
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

December 12, 2012 (Wed)
12:10 pm
Joseph Smith, piano [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

December 12, 2012 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Vinson Cole, tenor
Vocal Arts D.C.
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

December 13, 2012 (Thu)
6:30 pm
Matthias Pintscher, composer
Phillips Collection

December 14, 2012 (Fri)
8 pm
Folger Consort
Florence: Christmas Music of the Trecento
Folger Shakespeare Library

December 14, 2012 (Fri)
8 pm
Vienna Boys Choir: Christmas in Vienna
GMU Center for the Arts

December 15, 2012 (Sat)
2 pm
The Paganini Project
Peter Sheppard-Skærved, violin [FREE]
Library of Congress

December 15, 2012 (Sat)
5 pm
21st Century Consort
The Passion of Scrooge or A Christmas Carol
Music by Britten, Jon Deak
Smithsonian American Art Museum

December 15, 2012 (Sat)
5 and 8 pm
Folger Consort
Florence: Christmas Music of the Trecento
Folger Shakespeare Library

December 15, 2012 (Sat)
7 pm
U.S. Army Chorus
Châteauville Foundation (Castleton Farms, Va.)

December 15, 2012 (Sat)
8 pm
A Palestrina Christmas
Chantry
St. Bernadette's

December 16, 2012 (Sun)
2 and 5 pm
Folger Consort
Florence: Christmas Music of the Trecento
Folger Shakespeare Library

December 16, 2012 (Sun)
4 pm
Shai Wosner, piano
Phillips Collection

December 16, 2012 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Empire Brass with Elisabeth von Trapp, soprano [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

December 16, 2012 (Sun)
7:30 pm
Axelrod String Quartet
Music by Haydn, Barber, Mendelssohn
National Museum of American History

December 18, 2012 (Tue)
8 pm
Miró Quartet and Ricardo Morales, clarinet [FREE]
Library of Congress

December 19, 2012 (Wed)
12:10 pm
Kenneth Slowik, fortepiano [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

December 19, 2012 (Wed)
7:30 pm
18th Street Singers: Christmas Concert
Mansion at Strathmore

December 19, 2012 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Folger Consort
Florence: Christmas Music of the Trecento
Folger Shakespeare Library

December 20, 2012 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Folger Consort
Florence: Christmas Music of the Trecento
Folger Shakespeare Library

December 21, 2012 (Fri)
2 and 7:30 pm
The Nutcracker
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Lyric Opera House (Baltimore, Md.)

December 21, 2012 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

December 21, 2012 (Fri)
8 pm
Folger Consort
Florence: Christmas Music of the Trecento
Folger Shakespeare Library

December 22, 2012 (Sat)
2 and 7:30 pm
Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

December 22, 2012 (Sat)
2 and 7:30 pm
The Nutcracker
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Lyric Opera House (Baltimore, Md.)

December 22, 2012 (Sat)
2 and 5 pm
Folger Consort
Florence: Christmas Music of the Trecento
Folger Shakespeare Library

December 23, 2012 (Sun)
2 pm
Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

December 23, 2012 (Sun)
2 pm
Folger Consort
Florence: Christmas Music of the Trecento
Folger Shakespeare Library

December 23, 2012 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Jennifer Lane (soprano) and Kenneth Slowik (fortepiano) [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

December 30, 2012 (Sun)
3 pm
Strauss Symphony
New Year's Concert
Embassy of Austria

December 30, 2012 (Sun)
6:30 pm
National Gallery of Art Vocal Ensemble [FREE]
National Gallery of Art