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

31.8.13

Classical Music Agenda (October 2013)


Tintoretto, Tancredi Baptizes Clorinda
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
EARLY MUSIC:
Leading the picks of the ten concerts I most want to hear in October are several free performances of early music. It is the month when the Washington Bach Consort's noontime cantata series gets under way, one of the best musical offerings in the city. On the first Tuesday of most months, WBC members perform one of the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, at a free concert at the Church of the Epiphany. This month it will be Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht, BWV 186 (October 1, 12:10 pm).

On the free concert series of the National Gallery of Art is a performance of Claudio Monteverdi's Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (October 13, 6:30 pm). This concert is in the better acoustic of the East Building's auditorium and will feature the National Gallery of Art Vocal Ensemble and Chamber Players, as well as lectures by Laura Benedetti and Peter Lukehart.

Add to those a free performance of music by Renaissance composers at the Library of Congress (October 30, 7 pm) featuring the vocal ensemble Blue Heron, the wind band Piffaro, and the U.S. Navy Band Brass Choirs. When the names on the program are Gabrieli, Gesualdo, Agricola, Obrecht, Dufay, Ockeghem, Sweelinck, and Clemens non Papa, we will be there.

You cannot have everything for free, but I have already recommended the concert by Les Violons du Roy among my Top 25 picks of the season. It will feature the Canadian early music ensemble in orchestral suites by Telemann and Bach, with mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe in vocal selections by Haydn and Handel, in the Music Center at Strathmore (October 15, 8 pm).

MORE RECENT:
The Young Concert Artists honored a young string quartet I have been wanting to hear live, the Quatuor Hermès. The foursome from Lyon will open the YCA series at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (October 8, 7:30 pm), with a program of music by Debussy, Dutilleux, Schubert, and Verdi.

Also among my Top 25 picks of the season was Christoph Eschenbach's concert performance of the third act of Wagner's Parsifal (October 10 to 12). The National Symphony Orchestra is joined by tenor Nikolai Schukoff, baritone Thomas Hampson, and bass Yuri Vorobiev in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.



Organist Cameron Carpenter
If you thought the organ was a staid instrument heard only in church, Cameron Carpenter can change your mind. The often eccentric but daring organist takes the Kennedy Center Concert Hall's new instrument for a spin at a recital (October 16, 8 pm) that is sure to shake the rafters.

When Valentina Lisitsa played in Washington in 2009, I found her playing not quite fully developed, more boom than subtlety. She also impressed me as someone who was likely to mature and improve, so I look forward to her free concert at the Library of Congress (October 17, 7 pm). Her program includes Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Liszt, and a piece that can stand some forceful playing, Prokofiev's blockbuster seventh sonata. Try out the Library of Congress's new lecture format and join the artist for a post-concert discussion (note the starting time).

In any battle of the flying fingers, though, my money would still be on the tiny dynamo Yuja Wang, whom Washington Performing Arts Society will again present in concert, this time in the Music Center at Strathmore (October 25, 8 pm). She will play her own Prokofiev sonata (no. 3 -- this after her rendition of no. 6 in 2010 was a knockout), plus music by Chopin, Kapustin, and Stravinsky's scorching Three Movements from Petrushka.

It's true that I may not think much of the sound of the Kronos Quartet, but I do enjoy their often audacious choice of programming, which may annoy me just as much as it pleases me. Whatever else they play at the first concert of their ongoing residency at the Clarice Smith Center (October 24, 8 pm), it will be the first chance on the East Coast to hear the new sixth string quartet by Philip Glass.

See the complete calendar after the jump.

30.8.13

Briefly Noted: Inscape's CD Debut

available at Amazon
Sprung Rhythm, Inscape Chamber Orchestra, R. Scerbo

(released on July 30, 2013)
Sono Luminus DSL-92170 | 82'36"
Among the ensembles that play a lot of contemporary music in the Washington area, the programs offered by the Inscape Chamber Orchestra intrigue me the most. Since the group was founded, in 2004, I have reviewed their concerts only twice -- at the National Gallery of Art in 2011 and at their home base, the Church of the Redeemer in Bethesda, in 2008. (Michael also reviewed a 2007 concert at the National Gallery.) Their debut recording, on the Sono Luminus label, reminds me that I should take in more of their concerts, even if it means a trip to Bethesda. I have already recommended Inscape's season opener, in the Mansion at Strathmore (September 12), which will include a couple pieces from the CD, plus some Ravel and a world premiere by Joseph Hallman. Those who attend that concert will receive a copy of this CD with the cost of their tickets.

All of the music recorded here is for acoustic instruments -- no computers, no electronic processing -- and it is music that is long on harmonic and melodic interest and blessedly short on intellectual or mathematical gimmicks, without sounding overly neo-Romantic or derivative. The most beautiful examples are pieces by Philadelphia-based composer Joseph Hallman, beginning with Three Poems of Jessica Hornik, sentiment-laden songs written for the pretty, intonation-sure voice of soprano Abigail Lennox, who sings them here. Showing off Hallman's sure handling of instruments even more are the Imagined Landscapes, miniatures based on the nightmarish dreamscapes of H. P. Lovecraft that exploit all sorts of unexpected sounds. Two pieces by Washington-based composer Nathan Lincoln-DeCusatis also reward repeated listening: the rhythmic chaos but still cogent structure of A Collection of Sand and the dissection and deconstruction of a short passage from a Chopin ballade in Chopin Syndrome. Justin Boyer's Con Slancio is in a style that often sounds like a mix of minimalism, blues, and American folk (dangerously close to Mark O'Connor at times), a sort of hoedown for bass clarinet and string quartet.

The program is augmented by three bonus tracks, another piece by Justin Boyer, called Auguries, a whimsical dramatization of a story from Cicero about a man using bird divination to track down his missing pig. The superstitious bumpkin's adventures are depicted in a series of charming bassoon solos, played with buffoonish grace by Benjamin Greanya. Oddly, the extra nine minutes of music are available only on a companion Blu-Ray disc, which contains only sound (no video) and plays on neither standard CD players nor computer drives.

29.8.13

Miquel Barcelo at the Musée de Céret

There is a new exhibit of the works of Miquel Barceló, called Terra ignis, at the Musée d'art moderne de Céret, in the Pyrénées-Orientales region of France, which reveals some new directions in the artist's work. Philippe Dagen has some thoughts on this in an article (Miquel Barcelo transforme ornements de toit et urnes de jardin en œuvres d'art, August 28) for Le Monde (my translation):
The exhibit of his recent sculptures at the Musée de Céret puts him in a different light. Barceló got interested in terra cotta during his visits to the Dogon lands of Mali, some twenty years ago. He is working this medium in a style of tile and brick making from Majorca, his native island. Now that choice, which was made back then only for practical reasons, is producing singular effects. In a tile-brick style he is making, with moulds and ovens, pieces of standard construction material: cube-shaped or rectangular bricks with round or square holes, straight or elbowed tubes, carved eave or roof ornaments, and garden urns. Barceló is appropriating all of it.

While they are still soft, he deforms the bricks, which seem to twist and undulate. He embeds tubes in basins whose edges curve and sides fold. He incises, scratches, and breaks. These manipulations and assemblages give birth to works full of allusions. The original materials are instantly recognizable -- Barceló does not try to disguise them. The subjects are sometimes just as recognizable -- a head, or a guitar. In many other cases, they are so abstract that it gives one pause.

Barceló thus applies the principles of cubist assemblage and the ready-made to ceramic. He recuperates, deflects, and modifies. He draws something banal and mute to the side by a figural allusion. He takes advantage of chance occurrences in the materials and process, when clay that is too soft collapses on itself or when the heat of baking fractures or cracks it. You can imagine the number of failed experiments necessary for the creation of the fifty-some pieces on display. Barceló is also able to save a piece of debris and integrate it into a new attempt, even to the point that, like a painter, he takes advantage of the unforeseen events of color and shape.
The permanent collection of the museum in Céret has a number of works by Picasso, an artist who grew to love the place from his stays there in the summers of 1911 to 1913. Some of the Barceló pieces are on display mixed in with the works of Picasso and others. The exhibit is on view at the Musée d'art moderne de Céret through November 12. More pictures here.

28.8.13

À mon chevet: 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle'

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

book cover
"Do you know the story of the monkeys of the shitty island?" I asked Noboru Wataya.

He shook his head, with no sign of interest. "Never heard of it."

"Somewhere, far, far away, there's a shitty island. An island without a name. An island not worth giving a name. A shitty island with a shitty shape. On this shitty island grow palm trees that also have shitty shapes. And the palm trees produce coconuts that give off a shitty smell. Shitty monkeys live in the trees, and they love to eat these shitty-smelling coconuts, after which they shit the world's foulest shit. The shit falls on the ground and builds up shitty mounds, making the shitty palm trees that grown on them even shittier. It's an endless cycle."

I drank the rest of my coffee.

"As I sat here looking at you," I continued, "I suddenly remembered the story of this shitty island. What I'm trying to say is this: A certain kind of shittiness, a certain kind of stagnation, a certain kind of darkness, goes on propagating itself with its own power in its own self-contained cycle. And once it passes a certain point, no one can stop it -- even if the person himself wants to stop it."

Noboru Wataya's face wore no expression of any kind. The smile was gone, but neither was there any shadow of annoyance. All I could see was one small wrinkle between his eyebrows, and I could not recall if it was something that had been there before.

"Are you catching my drift, Mr. Wataya?" I went on. "I know exactly the sort of man you are. You say I'm like garbage or rocks. And you think you could smash me to bits anytime you felt like it. But things are not that simple. To you, with your values, I may well be nothing but garbage and rocks. But I'm not as stupid as you think I am. I know exactly what you've got under that smooth, made-for-TV mask of yours. I know your secret. Kumiko knows and I know: we both know what's under there. If I wanted to, I could tell it to the world. I could bring it out into the light. It might take time, but I could do it. I may be a nobody, but at least I'm not a sandbag. I'm a living, breathing human being. If somebody hits me, I hit back. Make sure you keep that in mind."

-- Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, pp. 202-203 (translation by Jay Rubin)
This is a rather strange book, in which Murakami weaves together some rather different, seemingly unrelated narratives: the ups and downs of the narrator's marriage, the horrors of the Japanese war in China and Manchuria (including one image that will haunt my nightmares forevermore), and mysterious occurrences that seem possible only in a world beyond reality. In particular, the enmity between the narrator and his wife's brother, Noboru Wataya, rang so true, and this passage was the most entertaining example of that.

27.8.13

Briefly Noted: More of Pappano's Rossini

available at Amazon
Rossini, Petite Messe Solennelle, M. Rebeka, S. Mingardo, F. Meli, A. Esposito, Coro e Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome, A. Pappano

(released on April 23, 2013)
EMI 4 16742 2 | 103'19"
This is the latest in the series of live recordings of the Chorus and Orchestra of Rome's Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, from EMI. The Petite Messe Solennelle is the largest composition Rossini completed after he had unexpectedly quit writing operas with Guillaume Tell thirty years earlier, and arguably the best. Its Kyrie movement, in particular, is original and affecting, something to be stacked against almost any other setting of the Latin Mass (perhaps due to his close study of the sacred works of J. S. Bach in this period), while Rossini turned to more stock operatic gestures, including aria-like pieces for soloists, in the longer movements. Rossini dutifully concludes both Gloria and Credo with double fugues for the "Cum sancto spiritu" and "Et vitam venturi saeculi" movements, which are more competent and effective than contrapuntal attempts by many other 19th-century composers. Both are regrettably capped off with what sounds like something from an opera buffa finale (in particular, the decision to top off the Creed movement with a final ecstatic "Credo!" approaches vulgarity).

This recording, led by the genial conductor Antonio Pappano, suffers from the same problems as the earlier recordings in the series with the same forces -- Guillaume Tell, the Verdi Requiem, and Rossini's Stabat Mater (which we reviewed live twice, by me in Siena and by Jens in Salzburg -- some mediocre instrumental sounds (in the opening phrases, for example), choral intonation issues (noticeable after unaccompanied passages, for example), and occasional lack of ensemble cohesion. This is not to mention the usual drawbacks of live recordings, like audience noises, minor blemishes in the performance, and Pappano's tendency to use audible breaths to give cues. The good part, and this is also true of most of Pappano's recordings, is that he once again works with a strong quartet of soloists, best in the middle, with fine solo contributions from mezzo-soprano Sara Mingardo and tenor Francesco Meli. Soprano Marina Rebeka sings well but does not have the sort of voice that one wants to luxuriate in during the odd soprano solo "O salutaris hostia," inserted before the Agnus Dei (in contrast to Mingardo, who owns the big solo passages in the Agnus Dei). The odd organ introduction to the Sanctus is here played nicely, but somewhat blandly, by Daniele Rossi.

26.8.13

An 'Amélie' Musical? Quelle horreur!

Jean-Pierre Jeunet hates musicals. Still he did not put a stop to the adaptation of his cult film Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain into a Broadway musical, as reported in an article ("Amélie Poulain" mangé à la sauce Broadway, August 26) in Le Point (my translation):
[The rumor] was confirmed on August 13 by Dan Messé, the American composer charged with the project, on the Facebook page of his group HEM. Interviewed on RTL on Friday, Jeunet pulled no punches about the project. "I absolutely detest musicals and I hate Broadway. I think it is the very incarnation of ridiculous old-fashioned kitsch (la ringardise)," he declared unambiguously.

Why then did he cede the rights to his movie? For philanthropy, pure and simple, he emphasizes. "I support an association called Mécénat Chirurgie cardiaque (Heart surgery support). It costs 10,000 euros to save a child. I have already contributed to helping a dozen or more children and now I tell myself that I may have the chance to save more of them. So I stifle my little problems of conscience," explains the director. That statement is followed by a coup de grâce: "I am deeply disgusted by musicals. I will not go see it, I do not want to hear it spoken of, I will not listen to whatever they create."
Dan Messé, for his part, loves the film and loves the soundtrack by Yann Tiersen, but admits in an interview with Paste magazine that he does not want to write "Parisian music." He may not even use the accordion. One hopes that Jeunet was able to get terms for a major cut of any and all profits.

25.8.13

In Brief: Last Gasp of August 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.)

  • Concerto Italiano performs Giulio Caccini's L'Euridice at the Innsbrucker Festwochen. Rinaldo Alessandrini leads a cast including Silvia Frigato, Furio Zanasi, Sara Mingardo, Monica Piccinini, and others. [ORF]

  • Performances by The Sixteen of Thomas Tallis's Spem in alium (a 40), plus music by Robert Carver and Robert Ramsey, recorded last February in Rotterdam. [AVRO Klassiek]

  • Listen to a performance of Rossini's La Donna del Lago with Joyce DiDonato (Elena) and Juan Diego Flórez (Uberto), recorded on June 15 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. [ORF]

  • From the Basilica of St. Kunibert in Cologne, for the Festival "Romanischer Sommer Köln 2013," the Tallis Scholars perform Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday, plus music by Lasso, Jacobus Gallus, Appenzeller, Hassler, and others. [ORF]

  • The London Symphony Orchestra plays the Proms, under Daniel Harding, in a concert honoring the memory of late conductor Colin Davis, with Elgar's second symphony, Britten's Les Illuminations (with Ian Bostridge as soloist), and Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra. [Part 1 | Part 2]

  • A performance of Mahler's second symphony ("Resurrection") from the Salzburg Festival earlier this month, with Mariss Jansons leading the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, plus the WDR Radio Chorus and soloists Genia Kühmeier and Gerhild Romberger. [ORF]

24.8.13

Dip Your Ears, No. 152 (A Schwarz-Schilling Concerto)

available at Amazon
R.Schwarz-Schilling, Violin Concerto, Partita, Polonaise,
K.Troussov / J.Serebrier / Staatskapelle Weimar
Naxos

Determined Quality

Reinhard Schwarz-Schilling is one of the many secondary victims of the Third Reich and subsequent shift in musical ideology—roughly along the lines of Walter Braunfels, Wolfgang Fortner, and Karl Amadeus Hartmann. The post-war environment wasn’t without opportunities—conductors Celibidache, Jochum, and Keilberth repeatedly performed Schwarz-Schilling—but for all their beauty and craft, his works wouldn’t enter the repertoire. The expansive orchestral Partita channels Bach through Schwarz-Schilling’s post-romantic vernacular; for the implacable Violin Concerto the tone darkens to a more rigorous beauty. The indefatigable José Serebrier leads a sumptuous sounding Staatskapelle Weimar; soloist Kirill Troussov persuades with determination of his and Schwarz-Schilling’s qualities.


Made possible by Listen Music Magazine.

Mezzo-Soprano Teresa Berganza's New Memoirs

available at Amazon
T. Berganza and O. Bellamy, Un monde habité par le chant
(Buchet-Chastel, 2013)
The legendary mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza is celebrating her 80th birthday by publishing her memoirs, Un monde habité par le chant, written with Olivier Bellamy. Thierry Hillériteau has an interview with her (Teresa Berganza : «Les compositeurs sont mes dieux, Mozart est mon messie !», August 23) for Le Figaro (my translation):
At 80, you feel the need to speak out about your career and your life. Have you never thought about doing it before?

I stopped looking backward the day when a critic had the misfortune to call me "the mezzo of the 20th century." That day, I tell you without exaggeration, I realized I was screwed [fichue]. The weight of the responsibility was such an obsession for me that I had only one desire any more: always to work more, and to curb even the smallest ambition. It was only a few years ago that I rediscovered the joy of looking in the rear-view mirror, telling myself: "Be happy, you have had an amazing career!"

To hear you and read you, it seems like you never felt satisfied at such a level of popularity and excellence. Is that the case?

It is because of my education. My father was an accountant and adored music. We were neither rich nor poor. I was born three years before the Spanish Civil War, but we never had the feeling of lacking anything whatsoever because, for my parents, our education rested on two values: love and humility.

It must be said that you never intended to have a career as a singer...

I began with the piano because my father played it marvelously well. I owe him my first solfège lessons. He had discovered that I had a perfect ear and pushed me along this path. Then at conservatory, they found I had a voice. I had always sung as a child, with my father, but without ever taking a single lesson.

Do you remember your first singing lessons?

How could I forget? It was with Lola Rodriguez Aragon, who always remained my teacher. The first time she saw me, she said: "Go back home, lie down on the ground with the biggest books you can find on your chest, and breathe deeply until you see the pile of books rise and fall significantly." I did as instructed. My father being well read, we owned an entire collection of encyclopedias that were as heavy as the dictionaries of today. I remember seeing my mother raise her eyes to heaven, saying: "My daughter is going crazy."

Were you?

Not completely! But my first performances were marked by a certain insouciance. For my first big recital in Paris, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, I had forgotten what time the concert was, and I was sleeping peacefully in my room, at the Meurice, when the conductor of the orchestra, in a panic, called me fifteen minutes before the curtain! I had just enough time to throw on the first outfit I could find, my mother loaned me a shawl to fill out the illusion, and I arrived all sweaty, neither warmed up nor with makeup on, just in time for the concert. It was a triumph. [...]

You do not seem to have a special place in your heart for opera directors...

I do not like what they do now, these stagings that respect neither the period nor the music. For me, opera is a religion, and one must respect it as such. Would one go tell young people: "Tintoretto is too old-fashioned a painter: let's add some red here or some fluorescent yellow there to make his paintings more modern?" The first person who did that would end up in prison. We should do precisely that with certain opera directors.

If opera is a religion, who are its gods?

The composers, of course: from Monteverdi to Shostakovich. And Mozart is my Messiah. Let them call me a mystic. That is fine with me. I am not named Teresa for nothing.
The whole interview is one zinger after another ("Some of our zarzuelas are a thousand times better than a Donizetti opera!"), including some great anecdotes about Herbert von Karajan and Maria Callas. I have to get my hands on her book, which I suspect will be a great read.

23.8.13

Briefly Noted: More Faustian Bartók

available at Amazon
Bartók, Violin Concertos 1/2, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, D. Harding

(released on August 13, 2013)
HMC 902146 | 57'59"
You can throw another top-notch recording of Bartók's two violin concertos on the pile. Why would so many of the leading violinists of our time make recordings of the Bartók concertos? The answer is in the music, two pieces that feature some exquisite writing for the violin as well as head-spinning technical challenges (especially no. 2, heard live most recently from Midori and Leonidas Kavakos). Faust's rendition of the first concerto, from the first decade of the 20th century, stands out for her sheer gorgeousness of tone in the radiant soft passages. The same is true of the shimmering flautando sound in the much more raucous second concerto, from the 1930s, overall the more dissonant and barbaric of the two. No. 2's menacing middle movement, with some dazzingly inventive orchestration, sounds vaguely like haunted Britten in some ways. These qualities distinguished her recording of the Berg concerto, too.

Faust generally makes up for indulging in this kind of delicacy with a vocal garrulousness in the fast movements, often at dizzying tempi (the finale of no. 2, for example), which still feels more urgent than rushed (a quality also observed in her Schumann sonatas). The German violinist continues to rise in my estimation, after a fine Beethoven set and her solo Bartók recording. You can hear some of her thoughts on these concertos in her interview with John Clare (MP3). Among the best of other recent recordings, Faust contends with James Ehnes with Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos), packaged with the Viola Concerto, which is a nice touch; Arabella Steinbacher with Marek Janowski and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Pentatone); and Thomas Zehetmair with Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which is more sharp-edged and the best in terms of both conductor and orchestra. Zehetmair is even a hair faster in the finale of no. 2, but his legato/pianissimo playing is not nearly as heart-melting as Faust's.

22.8.13

For Your Consideration: 'Vous n'avez encore rien vu'



For Washington cinéphiles, the La Cinémathèque program, supported by La Maison Française at the Avalon Theater, offers many delights. The series features rare -- often singular -- screenings of recent French films, in the beautiful old Chevy Chase movie house that was saved and restored by community support. Last night, it was a screening of Vous n'avez encore rien vu, a film directed by Alain Resnais and released last year in France. The film had a limited release in the U.S. earlier this summer, but this was its first screening in Washington.

The legendary director of Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, now in his 90s, had made some noise about this being his last film. Word has since surfaced that another feature, Aimer, boire et chanter, featuring many of the same actors, is already in post-production. While this is not the sort of movie for a moviegoer who expects things to happen and in a logical order, it is a must-see for lovers of cinema, a grand work that sums up, in some ways, the veteran director's recent obsessions -- what is the nature of art, how do life and art intersect, what role does memory play in our experience of art -- and does so with whimsy and on a multitude of interpretative levels.

21.8.13

Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 16 )
Salzburg contemporary • Klangforum Wien 2, Heinz Holliger

Salzburg contemporary • Klangforum Wien 2: Heinz Holliger


Japanese Rain, Confused Owls, Nocturnal Guitar Lessons



All pictures courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli. Details - click image to see entire photo.


Heinz Holliger is wonderful: A charming advocate of contemporary music—his own but especially that of others’. Still an outstanding oboist. The finest Haydn conductor I’ve heard in concert. And of course someone who has taken the comb-over to Olympic levels… often going with “Squirrel-that-came-home-to-die”, or another successful creation that he sported on this occasion of the Klangforum Wien performing contemporary Japanese composers: the “Pigeon-that-flew-into-a-ceiling-fan”, a lighter, fluffier creation particularly suited to hot Salzburg summers.

Not that hot, actually, because after a heat wave that had everyone lob ice cubes into their white wines with fatalistic resolve, cool air had moved into Salzburg—with the consequence that

20.8.13

Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 15 )
Shakespeare/Mendelssohn • Ein Sommernachtstraum

Shakespeare/Mendelssohn • Ein Sommernachtstraum


Inspiration for Wagner


All pictures above and below courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Ruth Walz. Details - click image to see entire photo.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps—probably—Shakespeare’s funniest comedy and raunchiest play, but apparently young Felix Mendelssohn-B. only got the bowdlerized version to read, or in any case one prepared ad usum Delphini… because there’s very little showing of the raucous humor in his music to the play, and even less of the naughtiness. It is, however, terribly terribly beautiful music, and sitting on a loft-like platform far above the stage, the Mozarteum Orchestra under Ivor Bolton played the whole incidental music (with the bits for—splendidly performing—women’s chorus) amiably.



The relative prominence of the music was the reason I attended my first-ever theater performance* at the Salzburg Festival. The relative prominence of the music was also the reason why Henry Mason’s direction (set and costumes by Jan Meier) got away unscathed, despite amounting to little more than bawdy, superficial hokum. And yet the music, floating down from above, seemed rather like an afterthought… pleasant, fleeting, and forgettable. Mason’s heavy-handed way with the Midsummer Night’s Dream was and shall be less forgettable: a traditional hamming-up, with lots of fairies in drag (always good for the predictable, if cheap laugh), several un-dragged fairies, and actors that were not so much made to act but

Briefly Noted: Heras-Casado in HIP Schubert

available at Amazon
Schubert, Symphonies 3/4, Freiburger Barockorchester, P. Heras-Casado

(released on September 10, 2013)
HMC 902154 | 54'33"
The historically informed performance (HIP) movement is officially mainstream, as I have noted before, a sub-discipline that most conservatory students now are at least exposed to, an alternative career path or option to add to the list, along with specialized contemporary music ensembles, for example. Certainly this has been true of voice students before, increasingly so of instrumental majors, and now there is at least one example of a major conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado, profiled in an adoring New York Times article this time last year. He is a known quantity in New York, due to his conducting position with the Orchestra of St. Luke's and appearances with the outstanding Freiburger Barockorchester at the Mostly Mozart festival.

With the latter ensemble Heras-Casado has recorded two of the lesser-known Schubert symphonies, in performances that put these two slender, even lightweight works in the best possible light. Neither of these symphonies, composed in 1815 and 1816 when Schubert had just turned 18, is what one might call a masterpiece: the menuetto third movements are in Schubert's almost-empty salon style, dances that escaped from suites somewhere and burrowed their way into a symphony. The fast section of the first movement of no. 3, with its swelling crescendo and frenetic rhythms, would not be out of place in a Rossini opera overture. The similarity between the two composers is not by chance: they were near contemporaries, born within five years of one another, and in this period both were mass-producing music at an alarming rate -- Schubert in symphonies, Singspiels, string quartets, piano sonatas, and songs; Rossini in Italian operas -- when Beethoven still had a decade to live but, for part of that time, was not producing any music. Not that these are not accomplished works, far beyond what one would expect from a precocious teenager. The Freiburger Barockorchester, playing on historical instruments and in small numbers (8-7-5-4-3 in the strings), squeezes out the maximum crunchy detail, with the brass and percussion booming in tutti sections (in the first movement of no. 4, for example) and the winds adding often unusual colors. This is especially true in the hisses and squeals of the two flutes, some of the high notes strikingly piccolo-like in timbre (easier to reach on the modern flute but challenging on earlier instruments).

19.8.13

A Helping Hand for Hans Gál!

Support the Hans Gál-indiegogo project here Happy news: Goal achieved!!!

Conductor Kenneth Woods and his Orchestra of the Swan are busily raising money (via indigogo) for the last installment of their splendid, admirable, gorgeous-sounding Hans Gál Symphony project. Hans Gál is a composer dear to ionarts, he's been mentioned in the past and bound to get more attention still, in the future. His is music “you didn't know you love”—and you won’t, unless more recordings of his music are made. (On that note, a new—better—recording of the string quartets wouldn’t hurt, either.) In a last-ditch effort to push towards their campaign goal of £8,500, and argue for the worthiness of his pet-project, Ken Woods brings out the big guns. Or technically, the fuzzy, furry, adorable ones:


Passing this message on without having done anything concrete about the project myself would be hypocrisy, just as re-posting something on Facebook does not actually

Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 14 )
El Sistema • Ntl. Children’s Symphony Orchestra & Simon Rattle

El Sistema • Ntl. Children’s Symphony Orchestra & Simon Rattle


Pint-sized Mahler


All pictures courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli. Details - click image to see entire photo.


Eighteen (!) double basses, about the size of a cello on PEDs, were bound to make up with quantity for what they lacked in volume. As did the gusto with which the pint-sized bass-steersboys and steersgirls of the National Children’s Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela dug into their instruments for their concert of Gershwin, Ginastera, and Mahler on August 10th. Tuning took a little longer with the orchestra of six to 13-year olds, as instrumental group after group took their cue from the clarinet, making a cacophonous racket in the process, at the end of which one benevolently assumed, rather than heard, that the results would be

Classical Music Agenda: September 2013

September is just around the corner, and that means the return of the Classical Music Agenda. For those who are new around here, this is a regular post in which I pick the ten performances I think are the highlights of the month here in Washington. The rest of the calendar will scroll through the sidebar as the month goes by.


Conductor Philippe Auguin
OPERA:
Washington National Opera's production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde was one of my Top Picks for the Season in Washington. This staging, borrowed from Opera Australia, will have just five performances (September 15 to 27) in the Kennedy Center Opera House (see Thomas May's fine program notes on the opera). It is true that the voice of American soprano Deborah Voigt has sadly lost some of its luster in the last few years, and her Tristan will be Ian Storey, who canceled out of Götterdämmerung and Ariadne auf Naxos a few years ago and was not great in WNO's 2008 Der Fliegende Holländer. I hope for great things in this production because of the chance that music director Philippe Auguin and his orchestra will work the same magic heard in the 2009 Götterdämmerung. Another important player in that performance, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, will sing Brangäne.

The other opera we plan to hear is Washington Concert Opera's performance of Verdi's I Masnadieri (September 22, 6 pm) at GWU's Lisner Auditorium. Verdi himself conducted the premiere of this opera, in 1847 in London (with none other than Jenny Lind starring as Amalia), one of the composer's less appreciated early operas to round out the Verdi bicentenary. It will feature another chance to hear soprano Lisette Oropesa as Amalia, who would have costarred with René Barbera until he canceled, to be replaced by tenor Russell Thomas. The story, based on Schiller's Die Räuber, concerns two brothers, the older of whom is driven away from the woman he loves to a life of crime with a band of robbers. The libretto by Andrea Maffei, most scholars agree, is not one of the best that Verdi chose.

CONTEMPORARY:
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will present the world American premiere of the new saxophone concerto by John Adams (September 20 and 22 in Baltimore, September 21 at Strathmore). Saxophonist Tim McAllister (pictured) will do the honors as soloist, and Marin Alsop will also conduct Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (with the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters Chorus). Other than the Adams, it is bland programming indeed, which has been my main complaint about the BSO season for the last few years.


Get your fill of the area's main contemporary music ensembles, beginning with the VERGE Ensemble in a free concert at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (September 8). All I can say about the program so far is that "pianist Laurie Hudicek, flutist David Whiteside, violinist Lina Bahn, and cellist Tobias Werner [will] trace the lyrical and folk underpinnings of American classical music." Inscape Chamber Orchestra opens its season with a concert in the Mansion at Strathmore (September 12), playing music by Ravel, Justin Boyer, Nathan Lincoln-DeCusatis, and Joseph Hallman (a piece called, irresistibly, imagined landscapes : six Lovecraftian elsewheres). Finally, the Great Noise Ensemble kicks off the New Music Series at the Atlas Performing Arts Center (September 21) for its second season in residence there. The program will consist entirely of newly commissioned pieces inspired by the Beatles album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by composers Matt Marks, Joshua Bornfield, Daniel Felsenfeld, and many more.

EARLY:
Washington's early music offerings are just as varied as its new music ones, and this month you can catch the first concert of the season for the Washington Bach Consort (September 22), a program of mostly Italian music featuring soprano Jennifer Ellis Kampani at National Presbyterian Church. If you wanted to hear Vivaldi's famous Gloria again, this is your concert, but fortunately it will also feature less commonly heard pieces by Bach, Pergolesi, and Francesco Bartolomeo Conti.

For something a little earlier, there is an interesting program called Map of the World: Music from 13th- and 15th-Century Spain from the Folger Consort (September 27 to 29), in the beautiful theater of the Folger Shakespeare Library. The selection of music includes the Cantigas d'amigo by Martim Codax, and a mass by Juan Cornago. The quartet of singers is headlined by tenor Aaron Sheehan, an Ionarts favorite, and soprano Emily Noël, who is another fine singer we first discovered thanks to Timothy Nelson and his Ignoti Dei company.

HOLLYWOOD:
The National Symphony Orchestra Season Opening Ball Concert (September 29) is always a big production, generally more noteworthy for its red-carpet qualities than the music. Christoph Eschenbach, about to embark on his fourth season at the helm of the NSO, has made an effort in recent years to give some more weight to this event, but this year is once again mostly about glitz. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is trotted out for the saccharine Rococo-Variations by Tchaikovsky, paired with the same composer's Romeo and Juliet. On the second half, a Pops-worthy Carmen Suite No. 2, and then just the last movement of Saint-Saëns's Organ-Symphony. For the latter, a piece that is only minimally about the organ part at all, the NSO turns to Cameron Carpenter as soloist, hopefully with white shoes and rhinestone cape. This is probably not an evening for anyone who cares about music and does not also happen to have a lot of money to donate to the NSO.



Fellowship of the Ring, Wolf Trap (photo by Priska Ketterer Luzern)
The soundtracks from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, composed by Howard Shore, are not great music, but like the best soundtracks this music increases the cinematic impact of the scenes it accompanies without drawing attention to itself. The Filene Center at Wolf Trap has now hosted an entire cycle of the three movies, screened with a live performance of the music cued to the film. From our experiences of The Two Towers (2009) and The Return of the King (2010), I can say that anyone who enjoyed these movies will get a thrill out of these performances. This year, Wolf Trap begins the trilogy anew this year with two performances of Fellowship of the Ring (September 6 and 7), again featuring the City Choir of Washington.

See the complete September calendar after the jump.

18.8.13

In Brief: Books, Dirty Looks 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.) Now you know what to do with that last week of summer vacation.

  • Listen to an all-Schumann recital by baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber, including Dichterliebe, recorded at the Salzburg Festival. [ORF]

  • The Tallis Scholars, led by Peter Phillips, perform with Renaissance polyphony by Gesualdo and John Taverner (mainly the Missa Gloria tibi trinitas). [BBC Proms]

  • Watch the production of Verdi's Don Carlo at the Salzburg Festival, conducted by Antonio Pappano and starring Jonas Kaufmann, Matti Salminen, and Anja Harteros, in a staging by Peter Stein. [Medici.tv]

  • A rare performance of Antonio Caldara's oratorio Maddalena ai piedi di Christo by the Collegium Marianum Prag and directed by Jana Semerádová, recorded last May at the Internationalen Barocktage Stift Melk 2013. [ORF]

  • Listen to Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco at the Salzburg Festival, with Anna Netrebko, Francesco Meli, Placido Domingo, and the Munich Radio Orchestra. [ORF]

17.8.13

Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 13 )
Liederabend • Christian Gerhaher & Gerold Huber

Liederabend • Christian Gerhaher & Gerold Huber


The Art of Darkness


Picture courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli. Detail - click image to see entire photo.


Chances of a recital with Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber being special are higher than for just about any other recital or concert. “Just about 100%” Jay Nordlinger suggested before heading up the stairs of the Mozarteum to hear the Salzburg Festival’s Gerhaher/Huber recital (the exact same program and encores as in Munich, a few weeks before) on August 8th. That’s perhaps an even more optimistic number than I might have suggested, but within the limits of rhetoric exaggeration he’s right on. There’s simply a very special quality to Christian Gerhaher’s singing—especially when partnered by the equally inspired pianist Gerold Huber—that makes failure to impress a very remote possibility. Indeed, I’ve not yet heard him live and was disappointed… including this occasion—so maybe Nordlinger wasn’t exaggerating, after all.

All-Schumann was the program, with Dichterliebe at the center and a selection of the darkest stuff—“Gruftmusik”—that Gerhaher could find in Schumann’s output surrounding it: all in accordance with his unofficial

Dip Your Ears, No. 151 (A Trio of Austrian Trios)

available at Amazon
K.Goldmark, H.Gál, A.Zemlinsky, Piano Trios,
T.A.Irnberger, E.Sinaiski, A.K.Cernitori
Gramola SACD


Tempting Trios

We’re at the beginning of a greatly desirable Hans Gál renaissance, and so it was that composer’s piano trio that drew me to this recording from Vienna’s enterprising Gramola label. Bending and twisting with summery delight, the Trio makes no bones about Schubert and Bahms as its musical idols: radical in 1949! Zemlinksy’s Opus Three (with Violin instead of Clarinet) is of darkly Brahmsian beauty, but the real bonbon is Karl Goldmark’s contribution, an ear-worm in-waiting. It’s a Trio that sounds upon third time hearing as if you’ve known it all your life—or should have. The performances are searing.


Made possible by Listen Music Magazine.

16.8.13

Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 12 )
El Sistema • White Hands Choir

El Sistema • White Hands Choir


The Calligraphy of Song


Pictures above and below courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli. Detail - click image to see entire photo.


Had I not been cajoled and convinced that I absolutely had to see the El Sistema Coro de Manos Blancosthe White Hands Choir, I would have missed it, and if I hadn’t missed it on the program, I might have dismissed it. A double choir of deaf and handicapped children may be a good story for daytime TV, and a splendid example of the core of the work that El Sistema does (which is far more important than cranking out a few good musicians and enthusiastic orchestras), but it’s not a musically compelling proposition, and it’s not something this cynical cad feels inclined to. Some sort of Venezuelan Jazz hands and John Rutter have, on paper, very limited appeal.

I’m so glad I went. The sight of the White Hands Choir’s members strutting and clambering up on the stage of the Mozarteum’s Great Hall for their first of two concerts on August 8th, from tiny little deaf kids in the white-gloved section to the teen- and tween- majority of both choirs, and a select few elder ones largely in the handicapped choir, was so damn heartening, the cynicism had no chance to last more than 30 seconds. Even John Rutter’s Ave Maria, the opening bit, became touching in this form. Still tripe, but touching tripe*.

To see the enthusiasm, the eagerness, the skill and ability, the pride and devotion of these two groups, the handicapped one of which sings and the hearing impaired one of which acts out the songs simultaneously, in a kind of stylized sign-language-like choreography, has transformative qualities that go well beyond the considerable quality of the actual musical output, very high though it is.

The visual spectacle of the white-gloved interpretative section, especially, has entrancing qualities. Although not actually translations of the songs’ text—or even words, they communicate in an easily perceptible language. And seeing some fifty kids do this all at once, in unison, makes one appreciate how each of them have different levels of flair and panache and expressiveness. Just as there are different accents and pronunciations and inflections and levels of eloquence among those who use their voice to communicate, these artists have different accents and physical intonations. One of the young ladies up front had such mesmerizing articulation, that it was hard to look anywhere else: communicating with everything body part from her pollical distal phalanges (the tips of her thumbs, to save you the wiki-trip) to the sway of an arm, the bend of a knee, the cocking of her head, a glint of her eyes, it was almost as if she conducted the music, and not the two directors Naybeth García (for the choreographing section) and Luis Chinchilla (for the singers) up front. A professional dancer couldn’t have displayed a more refined extension of limbs, or motions more thoroughly ‘moved-through’ and fully extended.

A few crooning numbers for small ensemble, maracas, and cuatro stirred the already moved audience further into ecstatic salvos of applause, and when the white gloves got to doo-wop and bee-bop along, it sounded a bit like a gaggle of musically aspiring (and inspiring) hens. Cute, with self-aware cheek and pluck. Amid the South American sections, there was also Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, which must have been a particular moving moment for the young chorus members, most of which have never been far away from Venezuela, never mind in Europe. And there they were, singing Mozart in the city of Mozart, in the splendor of the Mozarteum, at the most important music festival there is (pace Proms): unlikely heroes, cheered frenetically by an audience—among them an enthusiastic Plácido Domingo and a proud José Antonio Abreu—that had surrendered themselves entirely to the performance. Increasingly applause was mingled with the hand-wiggling which is the primary way for deaf people to give and receive applause… starting and spreading around groups of audience members in the know.

A nice and short concert this was planned to be, without intermission less than an hour. But there was still applause, mingled with encores, some ninety minutes after the show had gotten under way. At this point, there was scarcely a dry eye on stage as the chorus members wept, overwhelmed by joy and momentousness… and the audience members that weren’t busy wildly waving and clapping until the last of the White Hand Choir’s kids had gotten off stage were dabbing at their faces with the nearest handkerchief in reach.


(*Nothing like the rather uncoordinated rehearsal footage and more like this, Athos Palma’s Gloria, filmed rather illegally at one of the two Salzburg concerts and also put up on YouTube.)

For Your Consideration: 'I Give It a Year'


Most romantic comedies are simply reiterations of the same overtired plot device, cinematized pulp not worth serious consideration. A select few examples -- When Harry Met Sally, Roman Holiday, Four Weddings and a Funeral, There's Something about Mary, Breakfast at Tiffany's, to name a few -- rise above the genre, mostly by being so well written that they are irresistible. I Give It a Year, the new romantic comedy by Dan Mazer (his first feature as a director), aspires to be among that list, even making its aspirations clear by a number of rather transparent homages to successful romantic comedies. There are some good laughs to be had along the way, and it would be a not unenjoyable movie for date night, but that is all it achieves.

15.8.13

À mon chevet: 'My Name Is Red'

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

book cover
Nasir the Limner was making a mess of a plate he intended to repair from a version of the Quintet of Nizami dating back to the era of Tamerlane's sons; the picture depicted Hüsrev looking at a naked Shirin as she bathed.

A ninety-two-year-old former master who was half blind and had nothing to say besides claiming that sixty years ago he kissed Master Bizhad's hand in Tabriz and that the great master of legend was blind and drunk at the time, showed us with trembling hands the ornamentation on the pen box he would present as a holiday gift to Our Sultan when it was completed three months hence.

Shortly a silence enveloped the whole workshop where close to eighty painters, students, and apprentices worked in the small cells which constituted the lower floor. This was a postbeating silence, the likes of which I'd experienced many times; a silence which would be broken at times by a nerve-wracking chuckle or a witticism, at times by a few sobs or the suppressed moan of the beaten boy before his crying fit would remind the master miniaturists of the beatings they themselves received as apprentices. But the half-blind ninety-two-year-old master caused me to sense something deeper for a moment, here, far from all the battles and turmoil: the feeling that everything was coming to an end. Immediately before the end of the world, there would also be such silence.

Painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight.

-- Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red, p. 59 (translation by Erdağ Göknar)
I cannot speak highly enough of this book, a highly decorated novel that won its author several prizes including, partially, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. It is many things all rolled into one astounding work: a murder mystery, a multi-narrator experiment in meta-fiction, a deep view into the history of Ottoman Istanbul, and a visual feast in words of the heritage of Islamic manuscript decoration in its overlapping with Persian storytelling. It is also just a great read.

14.8.13

Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 11 )
Soloist Recital • Till Fellner

Soloist Recital • Till Fellner


Baroque Brawn and Classical Timidity


Picture courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli. Detail - click image to see entire photo.


If you favor pianism over star-power, the replacement of Evgeny Kissin (ill) with Till Fellner on short notice for the soloist recital on August 7th in the Grosses Festspielhaus should not have spelled disappointment. If you love Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, you might even have smiled inwardly: The program of some Well Tempered Clavier Preludes & Fugues, Mozart’s F major Piano Sonata K.533/494, and Haydn’s B minor Sonata Hob.XVI:32 (No.47, if you prefer the Landon numbering) for the first half didn’t compare badly to Kissin’s intended performances of Beethoven’s op.111, Schubert Impromptus, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and Haydn XVI:52 (No.62). Certainly Fellner’s ending the first half with Haydn—the positioning of Haydn on concert program being a pet peeve of mine—brought a happy glint to my eyes.

Odd, and perhaps mildly disappointing then, that Fellner played the Haydn sonata so darn seriously, which allowed very little of the wit in Haydn—even wit in B minor—to show throw. Only in the Allegretto finale did he hit at that side of Haydn which, being a student of Haydn-humor master Alfred Brendel, he must be acutely aware of. The preceding clockwork-Mozart meanwhile, severe in the slow movement, and just short of ponderous, did remind of Brendel, but the blandish kind of Brendel often encountered on CD that makes those who aren’t fans wonder what is so special about Brendel in the first place. So grave and play-less and far away from

13.8.13

Rodríguez Explains the Tango



Charles T. Downey, In Smithsonian’s Steinway Series, Carlos César Rodríguez piano concert has pedagogical flair (Washington Post, August 13, 2013)

available at Amazon
Carlos Gardel: King of Tango, Vol. 1
In the middle of his recital at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Sunday afternoon, Carlos César Rodríguez did something intriguing. The Venezuelan-born local pianist teaches at the Levine School of Music, and this performance, presented in the museum’s Steinway Series of free concerts, had a flair perhaps more pedagogical than virtuosic.

What Rodríguez did was illustrate what a tango is by explaining its basic rhythms and then playing — and singing — “Caminito,” a tango composed by Juan de Dios Filiberto to words by Argentine poet Gabino Coria Peñaloza. [Continue reading]
Carlos César Rodríguez, piano
Steinway Series
Smithsonian American Art Museum