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

29.2.16

'Muß es sein?': Joel Krosnick Departs

available at Amazon
Carter, String Quartets 1-5, Juilliard String Quartet
(Sony, 2014)
When Ionarts came into being in the early part of the millennium, the Juilliard String Quartet was still in residence at the Library of Congress. The group has continued in various formations, returning to play at the National Gallery in 2008, for example. This season is the last for cellist Joel Krosnick, the only current member who played with founding violinist Robert Mann. The group returned to the Library of Congress on Saturday afternoon for Krosnick to take a valedictory lap, cheered on by many listeners who remember the good old days.

Things are looking up for the Juilliard, since the new additions are encouraging. Joseph Lin, who joined at first violin in 2011, had an overall powerful primarius sound, especially pretty at the high end. Violist Roger Tapping, formerly of the beloved Takács Quartet, joined in 2013, and although he was largely invisible in the opening piece, Schubert's Quartettsatz, he came to the fore in many solo moments in the middle work, Elliott Carter's first string quartet. (Tapping joined the Juilliard after the group had recorded Carter's fifth string quartet, released in a set in 2014, with the earlier recordings of the first four.)


Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, A changed sound is heard in Juilliard Quartet’s concert at Library of Congress (Washington Post, February 28, 2016)

Zachary Woolfe, Juilliard String Quartet Shows Agility at Alice Tully Hall (New York Times, November 24, 2015)
Neither of these pieces showed the quartet's new formation in the best light, however, due to some intonation issues in the first violin in the Schubert. One does wish that the Juilliard had chosen something other than the Carter, a work hard to love in spite of Lin's long, purple-prose introduction. The listener does come across moments of beauty here and there, like the lovely muted duet for the violins in the slow movement or the "boogie-woogie" passages in the third movement, here from a composer who had actually heard boogie-woogie.

At the cello Krosnick is not up to his former standards, but he seemed most at home in Beethoven's final string quartet, op. 135. Rather than the autumnal solemnity of some late Beethoven, the piece takes many jovial turns, brought out with a flexible sense of ensemble in the first movement. The bright-eyed, rollicking Vivace was nimble in all parts, with a sense of eye-twinkling from Krosnick's seat, and the slow movement showed off Lin's warm low-string sound. To the cellist's insistent repetitions of the head motif in the finale ("Muß es sein?", or Must it be?), the quartet took comic delight in chattering (musically) the response ("Es muß sein"). The latter is a reference to a comic canon Beethoven composed in 1826, informing a patron, who wanted to have a performance of one of Beethoven's string quartets in his house, that yes, the patron must pay the required fee to have a copy of the score ("Es muss sein! Ja ja ja ja! Heraus mit dem Beutel!," or It must be! Yes yes yes yes! Out with the wallet!). An encore, the slow movement from Mozart's K. 465 ("Dissonance"), offered a final moment of farewell.

28.2.16

Ionarts Exclusive: Leah Crocetto in Recital

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.


Leah Crocetto (photo by Fay Fox)
Leah Crocetto made an excellent debut at Washington National Opera last season, in the company's first production of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites. The company brought back the American soprano, who hails from the town of Adrian, Michigan, for a recital in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Friday night. Before it began, WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello hinted that Crocetto will return to the company next season, in an opera by a composer whose name begins with a letter near the end of the alphabet. Judging by Crocetto's recent engagements, that letter is likely to be V for Verdi, but judging by this evening's successful repertoire, one could also wish it were S for Strauss.

The top of Crocetto's voice is exceptionally strong, able to level the room with the ff high A in Zueignung (op. 10/1) but also able to float angelically on the pp high G in Die Nacht (op. 10/3) with a transparent, sighing clarity. The middle range is the only undeveloped part of the tessitura, but the thrilling swell of sound in Cäcilie, supported with orchestral fullness by pianist Mark Markham, more than made up for that. Somehow Markham has not appeared in these pages before, but he has a remarkably beautiful touch at the piano: this was the first performance of Strauss's Morgen I have ever heard where one wished the singer would not come in, just to keep listening to the pianist.

Markham upstaged his singer in some of the songs of Duparc and Liszt as well, but Crocetto's silken high notes and purring legato gave an apt languor to songs like Extase and Soupir in the French set. She went for urgency more than finesse in L'invitation au voyage, a mood that carried into Liszt's Tre sonetti di Petrarca, especially the miniature opera scene of the first of these songs, Pace non trovo. This was where she finally opened up to notes higher than A, taking the optional high D-flat toward the end, while Markham had a few tiny slips in the more challenging piano part. The only opera aria on the program was a strong Ain't it a pretty night? from Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, which introduced a more contemporary and American second half.

Crocetto also performed Eternal Recurrence, a new song cycle composed for her by Gregory Peebles, formerly a singer with Chanticleer. Peebles is obviously a big fan of Crocetto's voice, judging from the whooping and hollering he made for her in the audience, and the writing put her in the best light. There were jazzy overtones and pop gestures, a nod perhaps to Crocetto's earlier work singing in cabarets and bars, but there were dissonant colors as well, and a mesmerizing overtone effect, as Crocetto's high note made the sympathetic strings of the piano resonate in echo. Crocetto has described the piece as about an artist's life and having great personal significance for her, but the texts, not credited to any source, remained mostly mysterious. She concluded with a set of torch songs, extended by two encores of the same ilk.

#morninglistening: Prokofiev Kinderspiel

Perchance to Stream: Leap Day Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Listen to the performance of Rossini's Otello starring John Osborn (Otello), Nino Machaidze (Desdemona), and Vladimir Dmitruk (Iago), with the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Wiener Symphoniker, and conductor Antonello Manacorda, recorded at the Theater an der Wien. [ORF]

  • René Jacobs conducts a performance of Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, with Concerto Vocale and starring Christoph Prégardien (Ulisse) and Bernarda Fink (Penelope). [ORF]

  • Andris Nelsons leads the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with baritone Matthias Goerne, recorded last August. [ORF]

  • Harry Christophers leads The Sixteen and Orchestra in an all-Handel program, recorded in Chichester Cathedral. [BBC3]

  • Mikko Franck conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in Dvorak's ninth symphony plus the Ravel G Major Piano Concerto, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist. [France Musique]

  • René Clemencic leads the Clemencic Consort in music by Alexander Agricola, recorded in Vienna. [ORF]

  • Pianist Lukas Geniusas plays music of Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, and Prokofiev, recorded at the Salle Gaveau in Paris. [France Musique]

  • Watch the production of Handel's Alcina, starring Nicole Cabell, recorded at the Grand Théâtre de Genève. [ARTE]

  • Violinist Maxim Vengerov performs a recital with pianist Roustem Saitkoulov at the Barbican Hall in London. [BBC3]

  • Watch the Chamber Orchestra of Europe perform the symphonies by Mendelssohn, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. [Philharmonie de Paris | Part 2]

  • From the Salle Rameau in Lyon, pianist Benjamin Grosvenor performs music by Liszt, Ravel, and Mendelssohn. [France Musique]

  • The Ensemble Diderot performs music by Antonio Maria Montanari, and the Ensemble Sit Fast plays music by Purcell and Matthew Locke. [France Musique]

  • Watch the production of Bizet's Carmen from the Opéra de Lyon. [ARTE]

  • The BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Juanjo Mena, performs Dvorak, Smetana, and Bartok, recorded in Nottingham. [BBC3]

  • Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic perform Shostakovich's ninth symphony and Rachmaninov's second piano concerto with Nikolai Lugansky as soloist, recorded in Lucerne last September. [ORF | Part 2]

  • Markus Stenz leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven's fifth Symphony, Detlev Glanert's Frenesia, and soloist Hong Xu in Schumann's Piano Concerto, recorded at the Barbican Hall. [BBC3]

  • Roberto Alagna stars in Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore conducted by Donato Renzetti, recorded at the Opéra-Bastille de París last year. [Radio Clásica]

  • Music of Beethoven, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky performed by pianist Joseph Moog, recorded at the Auditorium du Louvre, almost the same program that he will perform at the Kennedy Center next month. [France Musique]

  • From 2014, a performance of Handel's Partenope from San Francisco Opera, starring Danielle de Niese (Partenope), Philippe Sly (Ormonte), Alek Shrader (Emilio), and David Daniels (Arsace), conducted by Julian Wachner. [Radio Clásica]

  • Pianist George Li performs music by Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Ravel, and Liszt at the Auditorium du Louvre. [France Musique]

  • Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Chicago Symphony orchestra in music by Janáček and Salonen, plus the violin concerto by Dvořák with Christian Tetzlaff as soloist, recorded at 2014. [CSO]

27.2.16

CD Review: Noseda's Casella


available at Amazon
A. Casella, Orchestral Works, Vol. 4, G. Keith, BBC Philharmonic, G. Noseda

(released on November 13, 2015)
CHAN10880 | 77'14"
Charles T. Downey, Noseda makes case for neglected Italian master
Washington Post, February 27

In 2017, Gianandrea Noseda will take over as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. One of the Italian conductor’s pet projects over the last five years is a set devoted to the little-known orchestral works of Alfredo Casella, recorded with his former band, the BBC Philharmonic. Although Casella is known better as a pianist and teacher, these four discs can change your mind about his merits as a composer.

The latest disc opens with Casella’s “Symphonic Fragments” from “Le couvent sur l’eau,” the ballet score he composed with writer Jean-Louis Vaudoyer. The work did not find favor with its intended patron, Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes, but these excerpts reveal a sparkling mastery of orchestral color... [Continue reading]
Alfredo Casella, Orchestral Works, Vol. 4
Gillian Keith, BBC Philharmonic, Gianandrea Noseda

CD Review: 'Ilimaq'


available at Amazon
John Luther Adams, Ilimaq, G. Kotche, J. L. Adams

(released on October 30, 2015)
Cantaloupe CA-21112 | 48'
Charles T. Downey, Ilimaq, John Luther Adams, Cantaloupe
Washington Post, February 27

John Luther Adams composes in, for, and about environments. His pieces draw their cues from geologic forces, often tied to them in acoustic installations: the ebb and flow of tides, the shifting of tectonic plates. Washington’s Meridian Hill Park and other sites around the city hosted a performance of one of his outdoor pieces, “Sila: The Breath of the World,” last spring, but for the most part we have to listen to recordings to experience his music in these parts.

His latest new piece available on disc is “Ilimaq,” an Iñupiat word meaning spirit journey. According to an accompanying video, the piece was originally a site-specific installation piece, going back to the 1990s in Alaska... [Continue reading]
John Luther Adams, Ilimaq
Glenn Kotche (percussion) and John Luther Adams (electronics)


Bells and Whistles from Mason Bates



Charles T. Downey, Kennedy Center’s New Music Series Is Bates’s Jukebox
Classical Voice North America, February 25

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The nation’s capital is not exactly a hotbed for contemporary music. A few series and ensembles devoted to new music have small but loyal followings, but others struggle to find an audience. The Kennedy Center regularly hosts some performances of new works, but as the venue that is arguably the city’s classical music flagship, is certainly not known for contemporary specialization.

Deborah F. Rutter, who left the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association to take the reins at the Kennedy Center in 2014, aimed to change that. Some of her initiatives so far were popular but a little silly, like building a large skateboard park in front of the building’s main entrance as part of a skateboard-themed festival last September...
[Continue reading]

KC Jukebox
Members of National Symphony Orchestra
Mason Bates, composer
Kennedy Center Theater Lab

SEE ALSO:
Anne Midgette, How one composer attempts to break the concert mold (Washington Post, February 23)

---, Composer throws the Kennedy Center a great party (Washington Post, November 10, 2015)

Simon Chin, Mason Bates’s Second ‘KC Jukebox’ Falls Short of Expectations (Chin Up, February 23)

---, Mason Bates Brings Lounge Music to the Kennedy Center (Chin Up, November 10, 2015)

26.2.16

Schiff's Last Sonatas

available at Amazon
Schubert, Piano Sonata D. 960 (inter alia), A. Schiff (fortepiano)
(ECM, 2015)

available at Amazon
Schubert, Piano Sonatas, A. Schiff (piano)
(Decca, 2011)
There is something special about music composed at the end of a composer's life, whether he or she is aware of the approach of death or not. András Schiff has attempted to explore that autumnal quality, in a journey of three concerts begun last year, devoted to the last three piano sonatas of the four great Viennese composers, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. While I was forced to miss the second of these concerts, the final installment was presented by Washington Performing Arts on Wednesday evening in the Music Center at Strathmore, and cyclonic winds and flooding could not keep me away.

Each half of the program paired a less substantial last sonata (Haydn and Mozart) with two incomparable masterworks of the genre, Beethoven's op. 111 and Schubert's D. 960. Schiff's sometimes fussy manipulation of touch at the keyboard was ideally suited to the two smaller works, especially the filigree details of Haydn's Hob. XVI:52, sober wit enlivening themes like the grace-note-inflected bridge theme of the first movement, which can be too cute in other hands. Velvety runs and a puckish rapidity in the finale balanced a less successful slow movement, an overly slow tempo turning the piece to the soporific side. The slow movement of Mozart's K. 576 had the opposite effect, given a more transparent simplicity, surrounded by sweet-toned outer movements, full of carefully groomed sounds.

Scholar Lewis Lockwood noted that Beethoven, around the time he was composing the op. 111 sonata, wrote in his Conversation Book, "The moral law within us, and the starry heavens above us. Kant!!!" Lockwood goes on to observe, "It is just this spirit, of the mortal, vulnerable human being striving against the odds to hold his moral being steady in order to gather strength as an artist to strive toward the heavens -- it is this conjoining that we feel at the end of Opus 111 and in a few other moments in Beethoven's last works."

While Evgeny Kissin's performance of this sonata impressed me by the strength and daring of the fugal sections of the first movement and the polish of the trills section, Schiff went for angelic delicacy, growing softer and softer toward the sonata's conclusion. Schiff has rightly described the tendency to hear the dotted variation of the second movement as something akin to "boogie-woogie" as a banality, an anachronistic equation of the score with a style of music that would not be invented for another century. If Schiff's interpretation does not sound jazzy, as it did not, it is to his credit.


Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, A venerated pianist puts sonatas on a pedestal at Strathmore (Washington Post, February 26)

Zachary Woolfe, Andras Schiff Deconstructs Sonatas (New York Times, November 1, 2015)

Mark Swed, Pianist Andras Schiff mesmerizes with last sonatas of 4 composers (Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2015)

Melinda Bargreen, Light as a feather, mighty as Beethoven — András Schiff enchants with piano sonatas (Seattle Times, October 13, 2015)
At the end of the piece, Schiff attempted to hold the audience in silence for a moment of reflection, but a listener somewhere in the hall, determined to show everyone that he knew what the end of op. 111 was, insisted on applauding. It was a rude gesture, to which Schiff responded testily, but performers sometimes go too far in trying to create these moments of profundity after the music has ended. (Christoph Eschenbach tends to to do this a lot with the National Symphony Orchestra, and it feels affected.) If a performance is that profound, the audience will hold itself silent.

There is likely a reason for Schiff's softer, darker approach to the Beethoven and to Schubert's D. 960. Two years ago, Schiff recorded this Schubert sonata and other music by Schubert on a fortepiano built by Franz Brodmann in Vienna in 1820 (a nice companion disc to Decca's re-released set of Schiff's earlier Schubert sonata cycle), as well as Beethoven's Diabelli Variations and Bagatelles on the same instrument before that. Schiff, in his program notes on the Schubert ECM disc, described the fortepiano's "tender mellowness, its melancholic cantabilità," and it is just these qualities that he brought out most from the Bösendorfer on the Strathmore stage. He took all of Schubert's gradations of piano seriously, with playing that was exceedingly delicate and a little too mannered, but with exquisite layering of voices in the slow movement. An encore, the Aria from Bach's Goldberg Variations, finished off the evening.

Daniil Trifonov joins the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (March 14) for Prokofiev's third piano concerto, presented by Washington Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

#morninglistening: Bashaikovitch Brilliance

25.2.16

Mariinsky's Old-Fashioned 'Raymonda'


Oxana Skorik and Andrei Ermakov in Raymonda, Mariinsky Ballet (photo by Valentin Baranovsky)

Alexander Glazunov's Raymonda is not a familiar score on this side of the world. Russian friends, however, speak of it in glowing tones, music synonymous with the idea of ballet, as well as the choreography that goes with it. The Mariinsky Ballet is showing its Soviet-tinged production, from 1948, for which Konstantin Sergeyev revised the original choreography by Marius Petipa, this week at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Seen on Tuesday evening, it is a museum piece, old-fashioned but nonetheless an often enchanting work, featuring what dance scholar Jennifer Homans has called "a wealth of jewel-like dances."

The libretto is a tale of crusaders, Saracens, and princesses, with a dash of Gothic ghost story, the mysterious White Lady, who is expunged in the Soviet updating. The eponymous princess is courted by a knight named Jean de Brienne, who ultimately foils the plan by a visiting Saracen to abduct Raymonda. The Muslim lord, who showers the princess and her family with slaves and other gifts to the accompaniment of Middle Eastern-tinged music later imitated by Hollywood composers, ends up slain in combat for his trouble, after which a third-act apotheosis shows the wedding of Raymonda and de Brienne.


Other Reviews:

Alastair Macaulay, Mariinsky Ballet in ‘Raymonda,’ Searching About for a Perfect Suitor (New York Times, February 24)

Sarah L. Kaufman, Mariinsky Ballet’s ‘Raymonda’ comes slowly to life (Washington Post, February 24)
Oxana Skorik had an uncertain start and did not really take one's breath away in the title role, but she had some beautiful moments, especially strong and motionless in pirouettes. Taking his cue from Tchaikovsky, Glazunov included some delightful parts for celesta and harp, especially in the first act, where most of the dramatic focus is placed, somewhat oddly. Konstantin Zverev was appropriately over the top as Abderakhman, making a suave dance with Raymonda to a slow, pretty version of his music in Act II. At one point two other men lifted up Skorik and Zverev took over from them, holding her up with impressive strength.

As Jean de Brienne, Timur Askerov was earnest and technically accomplished, while Kristina Shapran (Clémence) and Sofia Ivanova-Skoblikova (the second variation in The Dream) stood out in supporting roles. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra sounded unfamiliar with the score, but there were some lush sounds from the strings and outstanding violin solos, overseen by Mariinsky conductor Gavriel Heine. Glazunov's gorgeous interludes were accompanied, somewhat emptily, by video of clouds on a scrim.

This production continues through February 28, at the Kennedy Center Opera House.


24.2.16

#morninglistening: Lutosławski-Szymanowski Combo

Handel and Haydn Society, Still Kicking

available at Amazon
Haydn, The Creation, Handel and Haydn Society, H. Christophers
(CORO, 2015)
The Handel and Haydn Society is still around. In fact, the group celebrated its 200th anniversary last year and marked that achievement with a concert on Saturday night at the Library of Congress. In the ongoing takeover of American choral institutions by British choirmasters, Harry Christophers, founder of The Sixteen, has led the organization since 2009. The program offered here, ranging from Gregorian chant to a new piece commissioned from Gabriela Lena Frank, aimed to prove that the group, now reduced to twenty-some singers, has expanded beyond the stylistic boundaries implied by its name.

The quality of voices heard varied, with excellent solo contributions here and there, especially from soprano Margaret Rood, heard in pieces by minor composers like James Kent (1700-1776) and Thomas Linley (1756-1778), from the Society's 1823 music publication The Old Colony Collection of Anthems. Tenor Stefan Reed gave a gorgeous rendition of William Byrd's tear-soaked lament on the death of his beloved teacher, Thomas Tallis, ending with the poignant lines, "Tallis is dead, and Music dies." A quartet, led by Rood on soprano, gave an elegant performance of the "Agnus Dei" movement from Byrd's Mass for Four Voices, skilfully layering all those aching suspensions in the "Dona nobis pacem" section.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, America’s oldest ensemble offers a taste of the new (Washington Post, February 22)

Steve Smith, Handel and Haydn holds a night of festivity and history (Boston Globe, November 24, 2015)
The results were not as felicitous in the choral performances, with a lack of unity in the male voices especially, noted right from the opening of the first piece, the plainsong hymn Veni creator spiritus. The balance of voices was uneven in Renaissance selections by William Byrd, but there was plenty of volume for the climaxes of Gabriela Lena Frank's My angel, his name is freedom. The chorus seemed the most confident on two double-chorus motets by Bach, although the fast tempos chosen by Christophers in Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied required the sacrifice of some clarity in the melismatic passages. Given the considerable intonation and ensemble woes of the string players in this performance, two pieces for strings by Purcell should have been omitted from the concert entirely.

23.2.16

Bella Hristova Thrills in 'Kreutzer'


available at Amazon
Bériot, Solo Violin Music, Vol. 1, B. Hristova
(Naxos, 2009)
Charles T. Downey, Music review: Bella Hristova
Washington Post, February 23
Violinist Bella Hristova has been making the rounds of Washington’s concert series scene in the past few years. Her latest appearance came Sunday afternoon at the Phillips Collection, where she made a debut noteworthy for its fortitude and technique. Strangely, for a musician with such immaculate tone quality, the results were not always musically memorable.

In the final work on the program, Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata, Hristova was forceful and commanding in the big-boned first theme. Pianist Gloria Chien was equally thrilling in those loud sections, willing to go along for the fast ride required by Hristova’s tempo choice in the closing Presto movement... [Continue reading]
Bella Hristova, violin
Gloria Chien, piano
Phillips Collection

PREVIOUSLY:
Joe Banno, In performance: Bella Hristova (Washington Post, April 29, 2010)

22.2.16

#morninglistening: Calvin, Hobbes, Ludwig, Angela

'Romeo and Juliet' Returns to Synetic


Irina Kavsadze (Juliet) and Zana Gankhuyag (Romeo), Synetic Theater, 2016

We welcome this theater review from contributor Philip Dickerson.

William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet cuts both ways. The themes and beautiful language have stood the test of time, but it is overdone because it is taught and produced in schools throughout the world and mounted anywhere from community theaters to the recent, short-lived 2013 Broadway run. Despite this saturation, Synetic Theater has returned to their silent version of Romeo and Juliet for a third time. This genre of silent Shakespeare has become a staple for Synetic, allowing company founders Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili to prove that even the wordiest and most complex of stories can be told through gestures and facial expressions, as long as most of the audience is familiar with the text.

The chosen theme of this particular production is “time.” The set, designed by Anastasia Simes, is made entirely of clock cogs and gears of various sizes, not to mention the ticking composition of Konstantine Lortkipanidze. After the gears start to spin and time is underway, we are introduced to the title characters, played by Zana Gankhuyag and Irina Kavsadze. They battle through the cogs and gears of time until they break through to the moment of self-discovery in adolescence. Both Gankhuyag and Kasadze perform with whimsical grace and awe, but the fight against time has just begun.

Philip Fletcher delights with his portrayal of the sexually explicit Mercutio. Fletcher’s third remount of the character is a good articulation of what has kept this production vibrant over the years. His over-the-top take on the character provides not only stolid company for Gankhuyag, but also a drastic contrast to the stern-faced Tybalt (played by Ryan Sellers). Fletcher and Sellers’s rivalry give the play the visual explosion that separates this duo from the intimacy of the young lovers.

Without words, there is not a long drawn out back and forth between the title characters in the balcony scene. Instead, with a kiss we are transported into the world of their hearts as they become weightless and move in and around each other like birds in flight. But the highlight of their romance comes later as the two characters experience their first night together after being married. The use of high-power manual flashlights along with a single bed sheet to create a scene in shadow not only provides a new effect; it also creates an erotic embrace without tainting the beauty of their innocent love. The seamlessness between Verona and the emotional rush of what the lovers are experiencing on the inside fills the void of silence and maybe delivers something that even Shakespeare’s pen could not.


Other Reviews:

Anne Donnelly, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at Synetic Theater (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, February 19)
All creativity and masterful movement aside, the true delight of the evening is topped off by Irakli Kavsadze’s portrayal of the Friar. In a production filled with visually stimulated fights and dancing we have this aged character, who seems to orchestrate the entire play. His simplistic moments and continual glances towards the audience give the sense that he knows we are watching. His most basic facial expressions impart so much that one might wonder if all the flashing lights, flips, and tumbles by the rest of the company are truly necessary.

This production runs 80 minutes with no intermission and will end on March 27.

21.2.16

Perchance to Stream: Pray for Kalamazoo Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Watch a rare performance of Gabriel Fauré's opera Pénélope, performed by the Opéra national du Rhin. [ARTE]

  • Listen to Frank-Peter Zimmermann play Magnus Lindberg's second violin concerto, with Alan Gilbert conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, plus music of Tchaikovsky and Schumann, recorded at the Philharmonie de Paris. [France Musique]

  • Watch Olivier Py's production of Bizet's Carmen, performed at the Opéra de Lyon. [ARTE]

  • Check out the Opera Platform, a streaming service showing opera productions from around the world. [The Opera Platform]

  • Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and RIAS Kammerchor in music of Mendelssohn. [Philharmonie de Paris]

  • The Quatuor Diotima performs music by Gyorgy Ligeti, Henri Dutilleux, and Arnold Schoenberg, recorded last month at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. [France Musique]

  • From the Barbican Hall in London, John Eliot Gardiner conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in Mendelssohn's complete incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, with actors from the Guildhall School. [BBC3]

  • Watch several concerts from the 7th Biennale des quatuors à cordes, including by the Cuarteto Casals, the Tetzlaff Quartet, the Modigliani Quartet, and others. [Philharmonie de Paris]

  • The Hallé Orchestra and Mark Elder perform Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead, and Shostakovich's fifteenth symphony, recorded in Manchester. [BBC3]

  • Have another listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda. [ORF]

  • From last June, Riccardo Muti leads a performance of Mason Bates’s Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, a new concerto for orchestra, plus Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. [CSO]

  • Skip Sempé leads the Capriccio Stravagante Renaissance Orchestra and Collegium Vocale Gent in music by Praetorius. [France Musique]

  • Music of Webern, Berg, and Brahms performed by Renaud Capuçon and Les Siècles, recorded at La Cité de la Musique et de la Danse de Soissons. [France Musique]

  • Music by Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and Respighi performed by violinist Renaud Capuçon and the Orchestre National de France. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Nelson Goerner performs music of Chopin, including the 24 Preludes of op. 28, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées last month. [France Musique]

Mark Morris Dance Group, Among the Shades


Whelm, Mark Morris Dance Company

When Mark Morris Dance Group passes through the area, every year or so, Ionarts is there. The group's latest appearance, on Friday night at the George Mason University Center for the Arts, was a typical mixture of joy and darkness. If there was not a stand-out work this time around, like the unforgettable Socrates in 2013, the program was varied and well-rounded.

The most memorable work was the terse and mysteriously somber Whelm, premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music last April. The action unfolds in Hell, or in some other murky, chthonic locale, with a woman in a black mourning veil interacting with three spirits, all in black and hoods (costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman). The dancers moved in sync with the snowy steps of Debussy's Des pas sur la neige (Préludes, Book 1, no. 6) at the outset, while the veiled woman seemed to fight against the other three in the more frenetic middle section, set to the same composoer's Étude pour les notes répétées, played by the company's intrepid pianist, Colin Fowler. In the final section, set to Debussy's prelude La cathédrale engloutie, the dancers seemed more like tidal forces, rolling toward the front of the stage and then ebbing backward.

Cargo, premiered at Tanglewood in 2005, began in silence, with the dancers like a tribe of apish hominids gingerly approaching a pole placed on the ground at center stage. The pole becomes a cherished talisman for the dancers, serving as spear-like weapon, unifying groups of dancers who hold on to it, and carrying the limp bodies of dancers taken as prey -- seeming to fit with the South Pacific "cargo cults" mentioned as the inspiration in Morris's program note. The music is Darius Milhaud's La Création du Monde, heard here in the composer's later reduction of the score for piano and string quartet. Although you miss the saxophone and drums in this version, the jazzy overtones are still clear, used by Milhaud to accompany the ballet on an African creation legend. Here the story is more a comic counterpart to the tribal gestures of The Rite of Spring, with the dancers costumed in white underwear (costumes by Katharine McDowell).


Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, The colorful restraint of the Mark Morris Dance Group (Washington Post, February 22)
The oldest work, Resurrection from 2002, provided some comic relief. To the polished swing of Richard Rodgers's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, played unfortunately from a recording, Morris tells a hard-boiled faux-noir story, with his energetic dancer Lauren Grant getting shot, then taking her revenge, only to end up in a broad Hollywood kiss with her murderous paramour on top of a human pyramid. Morris plays with all sorts of classic musical gestures, down to the kick line, almost a synchronized swimming routine, of the dancers in a circle. Morris's new choreography The, premiered at Tanglewood last summer and commissioned for Tanglewood's 75th anniversary, is somewhat reminiscent of L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato with its pastel costumes and happy upbeat style. Morris uses a transcription of Bach's first Brandenburg Concerto, by Max Reger for piano four-hands, so we lose all the fun of the raucous horns intruding on the courtly dance scene, and transposes the third-movement "Allegro" to the end of the piece, destroying Bach's odd form of a dance suite appended to the three-movement concerto. The perky staccato movements of the second trio movement, one of the score's delights, were a highlight.

19.2.16

Briefly Noted: 'Les Danaïdes'

available at Amazon
A. Salieri, Les Danaïdes, J. van Wanroij, P. Talbot, Les Chantres du CMBV, Les Talens Lyriques, C. Rousset

(released on August 28, 2015)
ES1019 | 108'26"
Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) had a memorable start as an opera composer. In 1783 he began to assist Gluck in completing an opera to be called Les Danaïdes, but the opera was not that far along. Salieri ended up completing the opera himself, which was first presented under Gluck's name and then revealed as Salieri's work when it achieved success. It remained in the repertory in Paris for a long time, at least until the 1820s where it had a strong influence on the young Hector Berlioz. A essay in the booklet for this new recording of the opera by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques quotes Berlioz's Memoirs, where the composer, thirty years after that night at the opera, claims Salieri's music convinced him to abandon the study of medicine.

Salieri, tutored well by Gluck, dedicated the opera to Queen Marie-Antoinette and went on to enjoy great success in Paris, producing two more operas there, Les Horaces and Tarare, the latter with a libretto by Beaumarchais, before the Revolution. A few of Salieri's operas have been recorded: Il Mondo alla Rovescia, La Locandiera, Falstaff (several), and even Les Danaïdes (more than one). This new version by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, recorded in the Arsenal of Metz in November 2013, is in the same lavishly produced series of booklet-CD sets from Palazetto Bru Zane that brought us David's Herculanum.

The story concerns the slightly nutty origin story of the kingdom of Argos, when Danaus was forced to marry his fifty daughters, the Danaids, to his brother's fifty sons. Following their father's orders, the sisters kill their cousin-husbands in their marriage beds, except for one, Hypermnestra, who spares her husband, Lynceus, and they become the first rulers of Argos. The opera, on a down and dirty libretto by Le Bland Du Roullet and Louis-Théodore de Tschudi (adapting the Italian original by Calzabigi, intended for Gluck), includes a dramatic second act set in the Temple of Nemesis, where Danaus forces his daughters to swear vengeance, a fourth act ending in the massacre of the husbands, and an over-the-top conclusion where the palace is exploded by lightning, revealing a view of Danaus and his daughters tormented by demons and the Furies in the underworld. Shabby little shocker, indeed.

Soprano Judith van Wanroij has dramatic edge in her voice as Hypermnestre, if not always the sweetness for the slow pieces. Philippe Talbot is a somewhat anodyne Lyncée, outshone by the smooth baritone of Tassis Christoyannis as Danaus. Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, prepared by Olivier Schneebelli, are strong in the various roles played by the chorus.


17.2.16

Briefly Noted: Johann Rosenmüller

available at Amazon
J. Rosenmüller, Marienvesper, Knabenchor Hannover, Johann Rosenmüller Ensemble, Barockorchester L'Arco, J. Breiding

(released on January 8, 2016)
Rondeau ROP7019-20 | 115'09"

available at Amazon
J. Rosenmüller, Vespro della Beata Vergine, Cantus Cölln, Concerto Palatino, K. Junghänel
(Harmonia Mundi, 2008)
The late Renaissance and early Baroque form of the sacred concerto came to Germany by way of Heinrich Schütz, who studied in Venice in 1609 to 1612 with Giovanni Gabrieli, then organist at the Basilica of San Marco. That was during the undistinguished tenure of Giulio Cesare Martinengo as Maestro di Cappella, who was succeeded by Claudio Monteverdi. Less known is the work of Johann Rosenmüller (1617-1684), who in his 30s was in line to become Thomaskantor in Leipzig. Accused of sodomy in 1655, along with some of the Leipzig choirboys implicated with him, he fled to Venice, where he had stayed a decade earlier as a student, apparently on the recommendation of Schütz.

Rosenmüller was employed as a trombone player at San Marco as early as 1658, remaining there for two decades during the time that Giovanni Rovetta, Francesco Cavalli, and Natale Monferrato were Maestri di Cappella. Rosenmüller composed quite a lot of Latin sacred music during these years in La Serenissima, even for use at the Ospedale della Pietà, where Vivaldi would later serve. It is also possible that some of his Latin compositions for the Catholic liturgy were composed for Duke Johann Friedrich von Braunschweig-Lüneburg, who sponsored a Catholic chapel in Hanover. Rosenmüller returned to Germany in the service of the Catholic-leaning Duke Anton-Ulrich of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, and Rosenmüller spent his final years in the Duke's court at Wolfenbüttel, where he is buried in the St. Johanneskirche.

Jörg Breiding leads a consistent and strong performance by members of the Knabenchor Hannover and Johann Rosenmüller Ensemble, accompanied by the equally beautiful Barockorchester L'Arco. The men of the schola give fluid renditions of the Gregorian chant antiphons and other short responses that form this Vespers service, while some soloists from the vocal ensembles are stronger than others. The longer settings of the psalms and Magnificat canticle are cut from the same cloth as Monteverdi's much more brilliant Vespro della beata vergine, no masterpiece by comparison to it but still quite beautiful.

Dance rhythms abound, and treble solo voices are often intertwined in close pairings. As expected in the Baroque period, Rosenmüller creates some effective text painting effects, as in the setting of Laudate pueri, with fast runs rising upward to lift up the poor man ("Suscitans a terra inopem") and a forlorn sinking solo melody for the poor man in the dung heap ("et de stercore erigens pauperem"). The overall good sound was captured in the Kirche des Stephansstifts in Hanover.

This disc presents one possible reconstruction using these long psalm settings, likely intended for the occasional Marian Vespers services known in Venice and elsewhere, often lasting a few hours because of the complexity of the music and great number of musicians. Another hypothetical Vespers service was put together in the recording by the always excellent Cantus Cölln, which stretches out the Vespers with ancillary pieces, while using some of the same psalm settings as found on the Hannover disc.


15.2.16

Roomful of Teeth


available at Amazon
Roomful of Teeth, Roomful of Teeth
(New Amsterdam, 2012)
Charles T. Downey, Music by composer Caroline Shaw at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue (Washington Post, February 9)
American composer Caroline Shaw may be familiar more for collaborating with Kanye West than for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Washington Performing Arts provided the chance to listen to two of her pieces on Saturday night, in a concert by members of the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), presented at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. Closing the balcony seating gave the impression of a fuller audience on the floor level, with more young faces making up for the desertion of the presenter’s normal audience.

“Partita for 8 Voices,” which won the Pulitzer in 2013, received its official Washington premiere, although Roomful of Teeth already had performed it at a private concert at Dumbarton Oaks in 2014. It is, to use Shaw’s words, “a simple piece,” ... [Continue reading]
Roomful of Teeth and ACME
Caroline Shaw, composer
Washington Performing Arts
Sixth and I Historic Synagogue

PREVIOUSLY:
Anne Midgette, Roomful of Teeth, a cappella (Washington Post, March 19, 2013)

14.2.16

Perchance to Stream: Cold Snap Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • A performance of the Requiem Mass by Sigismund Neukomm, dedicated to the memory of Louis XVI, with the Choeur de Chambre de Namur and La Grande Écurie et La Chambre du Roy led by Jean-Claude Malgoire, recorded last month at La Chapelle Royale de Versailles. [France Musique]

  • Watch the production of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel from Brussels, billed as the Chicago-based company Manual Cinema combining film projections, shadow puppetry, and live acting in an immersive family experience. [De Munt]

  • Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, in the two-piano version, performed by Adam Laloum et David Kadouch, recorded in Nantes. [France Musique]

  • The Trio Wanderer performs music for piano trio by Schubert, recorded in Nantes. [France Musique]

  • Watch the closing concert of La Folle Journée de Nantes. [ARTE]

  • Gottfried Goltz leads the Freiburger Barockorchester, with mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez and harpsichordist Christine Schornsheim, in music by C.P.E. Bach, Homilius, Gluck, and Jommelli, recorded in Freiburg in 2014. [ORF}

  • Watch Jordi Savall lead Hesperion XXI in a concert called Le Voyage d'Ibn Battuta. [Philharmonie de Paris]

  • As a preview of Steven Osborne's recital at the Phillips Collection later this month, he plays the same program of music by Schubert, Debussy, and Rachmaninov at St John's Smith Square, London. [BBC3]

  • The Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Clark Rundell, performs works by Steve Martland, Steve Reich, and Louis Andriessen at the Barbican Hall in London. [BBC3]

  • Music of Mendelssohn (Wie der Hirsch schreit among other pieces) performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Pablo Heras-Casado, with the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Dorothea Röschmann, and other soloists, recorded last month at the Salzburg Mozartwoche. [ORF | Part 2]

  • As part of their series 'Marin, Madness and Music', Marin Alsop conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in music of Brahms and Schumann, with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. [BBC3}

  • Music by Ivan Fedele, Sebastian Rivas, and Gianvincenzo Cresta at the Présences Festival with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and conductor Pascal Rophé. [France Musique]

  • An hommage to Louis XIV at the Gstaad Menuhin Festival by the Basel Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Stefano Barneschi, with Baroque opera pieces by Cavalli, Handel, Lully, Porpora, Ariosti, Rossi, and others. [France Musique]

  • Violinist Christian Tetzlaff plays Bach's second solo partita, recorded in 2015 at St. Luke's, London, followed by Hannu Lintu leading the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Kalevi Aho's Symphony No. 16 for 60 strings, four percussionists, and mezzo-soprano (Virpi Räisänen), recorded last September in Helsinki. [ORF]

  • Listen to a recital by soprano Krassimira Stoyanova and pianist Ludmil Angelov, with music by Bellini, Verdi, Mussorgsky, and others, recorded last month at the Vienna Musikverein. [ORF]

  • Pianist Dezsö Ranki joins Daniele Gatti and the Orchestre National de France in music by Beethoven and Bartok. [France Musique]

  • Zefira Valova conducts flutist Maurice Steger and Il Pomo d'Oro in concertos by Vivaldi and a symphony by Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello. [France Musique]

  • Vassily Sinaisky conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Mussorgsky's Pictures from an Exhibition, plus Shostakovich's first violin concerto with soloist Boris Brovtsyn, recorded in Abedeen. [BBC3]

  • Listen to James Ehnes play Britten's violin concerto with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. [ABC Classic]

  • From the Gstaad Menuhin Festival, a recital by pianist Stefano Bollani and cellist Sol Gabetta, with music by Vivaldi and Piazzola. [France Musique]

  • From last March, a performance of Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, starring Anne Sofie von Otter, Willard White, and Christine Rice. [ORF]

  • Cellist Sol Gabetta plays a concert with Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the Gstaad Menuhin Festival, with music by Beethoven, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Chopin, and Rachmaninov. [France Musique]

  • From the Salzburg Mozartwoche last week, violinist Renaud Capuçon and pianist Kit Armstrong play music of Mozart. [ORF]

  • From a 2014 concert, Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Schubert's ninth symphony, plus Schumann's piano concerto with Mitsuko Uchida as soloist, and Schubert's third symphony, recorded in 2012, as a bonus. [CSO]

  • Yutaka Sado conducts the Tonkünstler Orchester Niederösterreich in symphonies by Haydn ("Le Midi") and Bruckner (no. 4), recorded at the Vienna Musikverein. [ORF]

  • Laurent Petitgirard leads the Orchestre Colonne in music by Patrick Burgan, Strauss, and Walton. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the recording of Richard Wagner's Das Liebesverbot, starring Michael Nagy (Friedrich), Charles Reid (Claudio), Peter Bronder (Luzio), and Christine Libor (Isabella), recorded in Frankfurt. [ORF]

#morninglistening: Bach on Sandpaper with Feldman Looking On

13.2.16

Classical Music Agenda (April 2016)

By comparison to the previous three months, April feels a little light on major concert events. Here are our Top 10 picks for the month, which are all performances you will want to hear and see.

HISTORY:
In the lifetime of the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium, which has seen so many excellent performances, none looms larger than the premiere of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring with Martha Graham's ground-breaking choreography. The Martha Graham Dance Company returns for the 90th anniversary of the Library's concert series, with three free performances including Appalachian Spring and some new works (April 1 and 2).

Opera Lafayette takes a look at operas performed during the French Revolution, with scenes from Martini's Sapho (a modern premiere), Cherubini's Médée, and Sacchini's Œdipe à Colone (April 29), presented at Lisner Auditorium on the campus of George Washington University.

Washington National Opera presents its first-ever complete Ring Cycle starting at the end of the month, with the first performance of Wagner's Das Rheingold (April 30). The hot ticket should be for the third of the three cycles, featuring Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde.

VISITORS:
Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir has been at the top of many critics' favorite lists in the last couple years. She will appear on the Leading International Composers Series at the Phillips Collection (April 14).


The Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge, performs mostly British music in the ongoing British choir festival at Washington National Cathedral (April 3).

The Venice Baroque Orchestra, last heard in Washington in 2011, will perform two concerts at Dumbarton Oaks (April 10 and 11). Andrea Marcon will lead a program of concertos by Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli, George Frideric Handel, and Pietro Locatelli.

Ionarts readers are used to our European correspondent's reports on the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The ensemble, under the baton of Mariss Jansons, will play at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (April 12), presented by Washington Performing Arts. The program combines Mahler's fifth symphony and Korngold's violin concerto, the latter with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist.

More Mahler is on the menu later that week when the San Francisco Symphony performs Das Lied von der Erde with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and tenor Simon O'Neill (April 16), also presented by Washington Performing Arts in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Michael Tilson Thomas also conducts Schubert's eighth symphony.


available at Amazon
Beethoven, Cello Sonatas, Yo-Yo Ma, E. Ax
(Sony, 1990)
CHAMBER MUSIC:
Who does not remember the set of Beethoven's cello sonatas with Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax? These two artists, now more seasoned, are reunited to perform four of the sonatas, again presented by Washington Performing Arts in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (April 13). It should be a night to remember.

You know that when the Takács Quartet comes to town, Ionarts is there. The next opportunity is on the Fortas Chamber Music Concerts series (April 20), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, and they will play music by Dvořák, Webern, and Beethoven.

If I were not going to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, I would want to hear the Esterházy Trio, presented by the Embassy Series at the Hungarian Embassy (April 12). This is a trio playing viola, cello, and baryton, the oddball string instrument favored by Prince Esterhazy, and they will play music by Haydn, Tomasini, and Abel.

The rest of the calendar will scroll through the Ionarts sidebar.

11.2.16

Latest on Forbes: NSO, Eschenbach & Lang Lang hit Vienna


Washington's National Symphony And Lang Lang In Vienna


...BA-Dam!! Christopher Rouse rips the score of his 1986 8- or 9-minute symphonic overture open with a loud, butts-from-seats-jolting chord before plinking and plonging away, harp-supported, and moving on with great gaiety in the woodwind section. The tuba engages in sounds that would make juveniles giggle; the neglected strings are allowed a word in, edgewise, here and there. Eventually the music works up an appetite and goes through more notes than the Cookie Monster through Oreos. Me want demisemiquaver!...

The full article on Forbes.com.

9.2.16

La Piau Goes to Washington


available at Amazon
Après un rêve, S. Piau, S. Manoff
(Naïve, 2011)
Charles T. Downey, French soprano Sandrine Piau makes stunning D.C. debut
Washington Post, February 9
Sandrine Piau made her long overdue Washington debut on Sunday afternoon, and the Phillips Collection, celebrating its 75th anniversary season, got the glory. The French soprano’s excellent program of 19th-century songs, superbly accompanied by pianist Susan Manoff, was the latest sign of the ascendancy of the Phillips concert series, which has become one of the strongest in the city.

Manoff and Piau recorded many of these songs on their 2011 CD, “Après un rêve.” The qualities that set Piau’s voice apart on disc were, if anything, more pronounced live... [Continue reading]
Sandrine Piau (soprano) and Susan Manoff (piano)
Phillips Collection

PREVIOUSLY:
Charles T. Downey, Briefly Noted: Sandrine Piau (Ionarts, November 1, 2011)

8.2.16

Mel Brooks on ‘Blazing Saddles’


The movies of Mel Brooks have long been a guilty pleasure of mine, none more than Blazing Saddles. One must be careful, however, when quoting or even referring to the film, because politically correct sensitivities have eroded some people’s sense of humor. In Blazing Saddles, Brooks has his characters say the things that are better left unsaid, making fun of racists, homophobes, sexists, and other small-minded people by blasting open the dam that holds back vile talk and sentiments. No trigger warnings here: you are going to hear what people really think.

Brooks is still going strong at almost 90, as he showed when he appeared at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Saturday night, in a Q&A session after a screening of Blazing Saddles. Truth be told, there were relatively few questions in this part of the event, mostly just Brooks sharing memories of how the film came to be made, in a rather delightful, slightly manic monologue.

Even people who know Blazing Saddles well may be surprised to learn that Brooks had wanted Richard Pryor to play the role of Sheriff Bart. The insurance company balked, because of Pryor’s problems with addiction, but the film is still partly Pryor’s work, through the writing he contributed to the screenplay. “All of the uses of the N-word,” Brooks said at one point, “were approved by Richard.” This sounds like retroactive butt-covering on Brooks’s part, but Richard Pryor, who died in 2005, could not be reached for comment. More surprising is that Brooks approached John Wayne for the film, possibly to take the role of the Waco Kid, which Gene Wilder eventually played. Brooks said that Wayne read the script and liked it, but declined because he had “too many white Christian fans.”

For such an outrageous film, was there anything that Brooks thought was too much? He claimed he had cut only part of one scene, the scene where Madeline Kahn’s Lili von Shtupp beds Sheriff Bart. In the darkness, she says, “Is it twue what they say about you people, how you are built?” After a pause, she exclaims, “It is twue! It is twue!” Brooks said that he cut the next part of the scene, where Kahn was making noises that sounded like she was performing fellatio. Bart then said, “I hate to disappoint you, Ma'am, but you’re sucking on my arm.” A friend quipped that if Brooks were making the film now, the blowjob scene would stay and all the racist and homophobic jokes would be cut. Different times.

Brooks said it was hard to get clean takes throughout the shoot because people lost it so much on set. When the actor David Huddleston said the line, “We don’t want the Irish" (in the scene embedded above), they had to do twenty takes because everyone was laughing so much. Eventually he bought everyone on the crew white handkerchiefs and told them to stifle their laughs so they would stop burning through so much footage. Incredibly, Harvey Korman never lost it during the shoot of Blazing Saddles, according to Brooks. The only time he after spoiled a take by breaking character was in History of the World, Part I, when he told Brooks’s king, “Your Majesty, you look like the piss boy.” Brooks said that he improvised the king’s now-famous response (“And you look like a bucket of shit!”), and Korman lost it.


Puppet-Driven 'Equus' at Constellation Theater


Ross Destiche (Alan Strang) and Ryan Tumulty (Horse), in Equus, Constellation Theater (photo by DJ Corey Photography)

We welcome this theater review from Ionarts contributor Philip Dickerson.

“The Naked Play,” “The Horses Play,” “The Harry Potter is in love with a horse Play”: These are just some of the descriptive nicknames given to Peter Shaffer’s Equus. Constellation Theater has revived this dark tale, bringing new life to a play that is plagued with stigmas and practical hurdles. In her program note, director Amber McGinnis Jackson speaks of the play as having “big ideas.” Despite the beautiful exploration McGinnis Jackson takes us on, the biggest obstacles presented by the play may not lie in the theme or ideas, but in requiring six horses moving about on stage and two brave actors being nude on stage for several minutes.

This play also has an infamous history tied to its 2009 West End/Broadway revival when Daniel Radcliffe, best known for playing the title role in the Harry Potter franchise, took on the role of Alan Strang, which required the young celebrity to bare all in front of thousands, night after night. Radcliffe’s stardom made the production more about seeing Harry Potter naked, and the story fell by the wayside. Now we find Constellation Theater doing what they do best, bringing local artists together to tackle productions that others may avoid. Thanks to careful crafting by McGinnis Jackson and the bravery of actors Ross Destiche and Emily Kester, the required nudity is handled with grace and the story remains the focal point.


Other Reviews:

Jane Horwitz, Constellation Theater revives ‘Equus’ to great effect (Washington Post, January 19)

Mark Lieberman, Horse Whisperer: Constellation Theater Interrogates the Mind with Equus (DCist, January 21)

Rebecca Ritzel, Actors head out of the theater and into the stable to prepare for ‘Equus’ (Washington Post, January 12)
At the onset, we are guided through this emotional quagmire by Martin Dysart (played exceptionally by Michael Kramer), an emotionally stale psychiatrist working day to day, until an extraordinary case is placed at his feet. A young boy named Alan Strang (Destiche) has blinded six horses for an unknown reason. Other psychiatrists have failed to get through his hardened shell, and Dysart is seemingly the boy’s last chance. Intrigued by the extremity of the case Dysart begins treating Alan. The production takes a while to find its pacing during the back and forth of the counseling sessions between Dysart and Alan and the flashbacks involving Alan’s parents (Laureen E. Smith and Michael Tolaydo), the stable master (Colin Smith), Alan’s love interest Jill Mason (Kester), and of course the Horses (Tori Bertocci, Gwen Gastorf, Ashley Ivey, Ryan Alan Jones, Ryan Tumulty and Emily Whitworth). When Alan begins to trust Dysart and play his mental “games and tricks,” the horse-like gallop sets in and the tension builds.

Beyond the intimacy displayed between Kramer, Destiche, and Kester, the horses make this production more real. The puppet head-pieces give visual satisfaction, but under the movement direction of Mark Jasser, the puppeteers provide authentic movement, mannerisms, and breath. Such authenticity is reminiscent of the West End/Broadway hit War Horse, which in many ways revolutionized puppetry. While Constellation’s horse puppets are much simpler in design, the actors bringing them to life create their reality with just as much precision.

Equus runs roughly two and a half hours with a ten-minute intermission. It closes on February 14.