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Scottish Ballet's Gothic 'Crucible' lands at the Kennedy Center

Scottish Ballet's production of Helen Pickett's The Crucible. Photo: Andy Ross

Helen Pickett created her choreographed adaptation of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible for the Edinburgh Festival in 2019. The troupe that premiered it, the Scottish Ballet, is finally touring it in the United States. (The work's planned premiere at the Kennedy Center, in May 2020, was canceled for obvious reasons.) After its run at the Kennedy Center, which opened on Wednesday, the production will go to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. The play's setting, the Salem Witch Trials, and the subtext of its premiere, the Red Scare led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, are both eras of American history we should not be wanting to repeat but may be doomed to do. Pickett's grim and grimy version, with its techno- and electronica-infused score by Peter Salem, seemed more timely than ever at the second performance, Thursday night, in the Eisenhower Theater.

Pickett's adaptation both telescopes the action of the play and fleshes out some of the characters by examining their motives. Act I opens with Abigail, the orphan girl whom the Proctor family has hired as a servant, dreaming of a happy family life. Elizabeth Proctor, burdened with a baby and perhaps suffering from post-partum depression, learns that her husband, John Proctor, has had an affair with the girl. Discovered dancing naked together in the forest, Abigail and a group of local girls accuse Tituba, an enslaved woman, of leading them into witchcraft. A council of churchmen, determined to root out the devil in their midst, solicit more accusations from the girls, leading to the eventual downfall of the Proctors.
Other Articles:

Kyra Laubacher, Scottish Ballet Tours Helen Pickett’s The Crucible to the U.S., Bringing Miller’s Tale to Its Home Soil (Pointe, May 15)

Elliot Lanes, Interview: Theatre Life with Peter Salem (Broadway World, May 25)

The Crucible is a mixture of theater and ballet, which deprives itself of the greatest strengths of both art forms. The accusing shrieks of the girls and even talking by some characters shatters the idea of a story told exclusively by movement, but the use of ballet like periodic arias partially undermines the potential realism of theater. The set pieces, designed by Emma Kingsbury and David Finn, float and tilt into different shapes, with occasional hanging pieces of fabric, all creating the sense of a drab industrial environment.

The most effective use of dance was in the church scenes, where unified movement became a metaphor for the group-think of religious conformity: the gray-swathed congregants moving in lockstep and imitating faithfully the movements of their pastors. The Men of God, whom the work's creators reportedly thought of "as a menacing flock of birds," leapt and spun with bravado and more than the occasional hint of Merce Cunningham's Preacher in Appalachian Spring. The duet between Kayla-Maree Tarantolo's needy Abigail and Bruno Micchiardi's conflicted John Proctor is striking for its overt sexuality, balanced by the latter's tender scenes with Bethany Kingsley-Garner's Elizabeth Proctor.

Salem's score is austere, with a bass-heavy string ensemble (two violins, one on a part, against three violas, three cellos, and two basses) providing drones and keening melodies, conducted by Daniel Parkinson. The instruments in the pit are all miked, and Salem has added reverb for atmospheric effect at times. In addition to live oboe, flute, bassoon, and trombone, two keyboards and electronic sample pads mix in other sounds. The score leaned most to the electronic side in the forest scene, with over-amplified thudding rhythm giving the nude dancing scene the air of a night club. Salem's next collaboration with Pickett is reportedly a new ballet based on Flaubert's Madame Bovary, planned for this November at the National Ballet of Canada.

The Crucible runs through May 28.


Ionarts-at-Large: Muscular Lyricism. A Stupendous Budapest Festival Orchestra Visit to Vienna

A week after Riccardo Chailly had been in town with the Filarmonica della Scala – a curiously disappointing affair, it was time to listen to Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, this time over at the Musikverein, in a triple-B program.

Bach’s Fourth Orchestral Suite, individual glitches aside, was a gorgeous rendering that reminded, how badly missed Bach is in such orchestral concerts, ever since the composer has been left to the HIP-specialists, except for the high holidays when the choral works get wheeled out. And in fact, it was the BFO’s own early-music wing that entered onto the stage of the Golden Hall, outfitted with a set of age-appropriate instruments. Stately yet driven, this set the auspicious tone.

Harpsichord went, Steinway came, and with it András Schiff for the lyrical Third Piano Concerto. From the first note, the noble power, stately restraint, and again the brimming forward momentum, stood out. Schiff’s matter-of-factly lyricism was coupled with a sweet, forceful touch and the orchestra was full of verve and color.

It seemed hard for Brahms’ Third to better this. But the tight, propelling way Fischer had with it, leaving no chance for rhythmic confusion in that tricky first movement, just about did that. It’s rare to hear an orchestra play with such purpose, concentration, and beauty of tone – and on this evening, all those elements were in place, in spades. But then, this almost shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore, with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Or maybe any orchestra from Budapest, for that matter.

Wiener Zeitung

Muskulöse Lyrik

Das Budapest Festival Orchestra mit einer Sternstunde.

...Brahms‘ Dritte Symphonie musste da schon zum Ereignis werden, um mithalten zu können. Wurde sie: Dominant, musikalische Rufzeichen, treibende Bässe und gezügelte Kraft. Energie wurde hier zu Masse, nicht Geschwindigkeit. Alles spielte mit gleicher, fast ungehöriger Intensität, gerne laut, aber ebenso konsequent in leiseren, lyrischen Momenten. Zu guter Letzt transformierte sich das Orchester noch zum Chor für die Zugabe von Brahms‘ "Liebe Schwalbe, kleine Schwalbe". Fünf Sternchen? Fünf Herzchen! [weiterlesen]

Photo: © Sonja Werner


Kennedy Center revives clownish "Spamalot"

Cast of Spamalot in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Monty Python nerds and opera fans, rejoice: this month the Kennedy Center has righted the backwards state of things at the arts venue on the Potomac. The city's leading presenter is mounting an opera in its Opera House and a musical in the Eisenhower Theater, the way things are supposed to be. Your choices are devastating tragedy, in a fine production of Puccini's La Bohème, or inane comedy with a hilarious revival of Eric Idle and John Du Prez's 2005 Broadway hit, Spamalot, seen on Sunday evening. Or one can have both, as it should be.

The best musicals of recent years have tested the boundaries of vulgarity and inappropriate humor: Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon, and Matilda come to mind. Likewise, the Pythons have been grandfathered into the present age with their politically incorrect wit intact. Most of the scenes we all quote from Monty Python and the Holy Grail are transformed into stage action, often in ways that are transparently low-tech, which only makes them funnier: the killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, the Black Knight ("It's only a flesh wound"), the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, the cow-catapulting French soldiers who spout absurd insults. Other jokes, like the troll's three questions ending on a stumper about the air velocity of an unladen swallow, are worked into the show in other ways. For good measure, other great Python musical numbers, including "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Monty Python's Life of Brian and the fish-slapping scene from The Flying Circus, also make an appearance.

Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, ‘Spamalot’ might be retro, but it’s still a riot (Washington Post, May 15)
Josh Rhodes directs this zany Broadway Center Stage production, which features not a weak link in its very strong ensemble cast, including many faces Broadway fans will recognize. James Monroe Iglehart makes an amusingly clueless King Arthur, who gathers together the Knights of the Round Table from the misfits he meets in his travels, assisted by the true-hearted Matthew Saldivar as his sidekick, Patsy. Alex Brightman's vain Sir Lancelot, in a 21st-century twist, learns something about himself thanks to his rescue of Rob McClure's fey Prince Herbert, the young man who only wants to sing and not marry the woman with the large tracts of land coveted by his father.
Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer camps it up as the Lady of the Lake, with a classic Liza Minnelli send-up in the Vegas as Camelot scene and an acidic parody of a Broadway prima donna in "Whatever Happened to My Part" in the second act. Michael Urie's cowardly Sir Robin gets the best number in the show, "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," which prompts King Arthur to search for that quintessential element for the success of any musical, Jews. In the list of the Chosen People projected on the screen (Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg...) is the name of a certain "Jew-ish" freshman congressman from New York. John Bell conducts members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, seated out of view on a high platform at the back of the stage. The amplification makes them sound like pre-recorded tracks at times, but they really are live.

Spamalot runs through May 21.


Ionarts-at-Large: Riccardo Chailly, Filarmonica della Scala, and Mao Fujita at the Konzertaus (@ Wiener Zeitung)

The expectations for the concert of the Filarmonica della Scala were high, what with Riccardo Chailly bringing Stravinsky's rather recently re-discovered Chant funèbre, op.5, to the Konzerthaus: the work he has given such a tantalizing premiere-recording with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. (Review on Forbes). To boot, the whole thing was embedded in a program of Russian gorgeousness: Rachmaninov's Third and Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony.

Mao Fujita, second-place winner at the last Tchaikovsky Competition, was the soloist – and he, too, has left a very fine recent memory on record, with his young, neatly considered cycle of Mozart Sonatas. His performance, replete with some curious rythmic accentuations, was met by roaring applause and localized Bravos – and perhaps for the sheer athleticism of that work and not being sidetracked during a minute-long rogue hearing-aid vaguely going along with the music, auto-tune-like, they deserved it. But the orchestra sounded muffled, with strange balances and instruments popping out of the mix unexpectedly. The short, tart little trumpet accents that blurted like an 1970s Fiat honking in brief anger, were a solitary delight amid a strange, massive, energized listlessness. Chailly seemed to do all the right things but the sound wanted to tell another story.

That was the problem with the Chant funèbre, too, where there was little left of that Wagner-goes-Tchaikovsky-reaches-Dukas magic, that his recording suggests. The strings seemed wooden, the cellos were scarcely audible, and while the double basses did their best, even they couldn’t push the greater apparatus into gear. The Prokofiev Seventh (with the coda-finale) – too nice a symphony to be taken seriously – was a little better in most regards, including balance, but still a brooding lump of sound. The Glockenspiel whinged and a lusty tuba brought smiles to faces. The two “3-Orange” encores, loud and fun, began to show some vigor – but still didn’t suggest that one had just heard a great orchestra on even a decent day.

Wiener Zeitung

Robuste Romantik

Die Filarmonica della Scala gastierte im Konzerthaus..

Nach der Wiederauffindung des "Chant funèbre" war es Riccardo Chailly, der das atmosphärisch funkelnde Strawinsky-Frühwerk beeindruckend ersteingespielt hat. Zusammen mit der Filarmonica della Scala im Wiener Konzerthaus brachte er nun mittels eines kraftvoll warmen, jedoch nicht sonderlich differenzierten Klangteppichs immerhin etwas von dieser von Wagner zu Tschaikowski bis Paul Dukas reichenden Magie über die Bühne... [weiterlesen]

© apaweb/apa/afp/dpa/Soeren Stache


Karajan's Brahms. A Discographic Clarification (#HvK115)

► An Index of ionarts Discographies

Herbert von Karajan conducted - and recorded - Brahms a lot! And, by and large, always well. So it is only reasonable that newcomers would still wish to explore it. But which of his recordings? The 60s cycle? Or the one from the 70s, after all? Or even the one from the 80s? How many recordings did he make? And which ones are hiding behind which labels? This post, an addendum to my series of discographies, was inspired by the #HvK115 Project on Twitter, where TheSymphonist and I challenged ourselves to come up with 115* great Karajan recordings on the occasion of his 115th birthday, seeing that HvK is still often snubbed by the self-proclaimed cognoscenti. Turns out, the challenge was to keep it down to 115! Anyway, with regards to the Brahms (the 60s DG recordings were included in the #HvK115 list, although many others could have rightly been, too), this little post is meant to help you identify which release contains which cycle (or parts thereof). The performances, to the excent they can be sensibly lumped together, are listed in chronological order. Individual releases from the various cycles are included, too, so you know which ones you might already have and which performances are hiding behind which cover, if you're in the market for some Karajan-Brahms.

For orientation: Karajan has recorded the Brahms Symphonies as a cycle four times, all with the Berlin Philharmonic and for DG (or the DG-affiliated Unitel). Once in 1963/64, in the Jesus Christus Kirche, then live on video in 1973, in new recordings from the Philharmonie in 1978, and finally in digital recordings from the Philharmonie between 1986 and 88 (which is more or less identical with the Sony/Telemondia visual releases). Additionally, he recorded Brahms in the studio in London (Kingsway Hall) for EMI with the Philharmonia Orchestra (Sys. 1, 2 & 4) and in Vienna: A one-off from the Musikverein with Brahms' 2nd from 1949 and then two fabled recordings - Symphonies 1 and 3 - with Culshaw for Decca from the Sophiensaal. The rest consists of radio broadcasts throughout the years, most notoriously perhaps the 1943 (!) Brahms 1st with the Concertgebouw, which must have just loved to play under Karajan.

(Survey begins after the break, if you didn't land on this page directly)


MacMillan "Romeo and Juliet" returns to the Kennedy Center at last

Herman Cornejo in Romeo and Juliet, American Ballet Theater. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

Some fine versions of Sergei Prokofiev's beloved ballet Romeo and Juliet have appeared in Washington over the years: the Mariinsky Ballet in 2007, with Leonid Lavrovsky's Soviet-era choreography (also on DVD), and Julie Kent's revival of John Cranko's choreography for Washington Ballet in 2018, among others. Until this week's visit by American Ballet Theater, however, that company's classic staging by Kenneth MacMillan had eluded me. Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev premiered it for the Royal Ballet, and then American Ballet Theater took it up for the first time in 1985, here at the Kennedy Center. This handsome production is back after a twenty-year absence, and the Kennedy Center Opera House, for a short time spared from the onslaught of Broadway musicals that have infested it, was filled to the brim to see it Friday night.

Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jaffe
Any time that American Ballet Theater comes to Washington, they are worth seeing, especially since Miss Ionarts and I missed their most recent production, last year's Don Quixote. Even more so since this is their first visit under the company's new artistic director, former prima ballerina Susan Jaffe. The much-missed critic Sarah Kaufman first advocated for ABT to appoint Misty Copeland to that position but then admitted that Jaffe could be the one to bring the company into the 21st century. It is a homecoming for Jaffe, who hails from Bethesda and has recalled that her first performance at the Kennedy Center was "when I was a child for the New York City Ballet as a big bug in A Midsummer Night’s Dream."

As it turns out, dancing Juliet at the second performance of ABT's Romeo and Juliet at the Kennedy Center in 1985 was one Susan Jaffe, paired with none other than Kevin McKenzie, her predecessor as ABT artistic director. Critic Alan M. Kriegsman noted of Jaffe's performance "a wonderful spectral quality in the duet she reluctantly dances with Paris in the last act," which seemed to resonate in that scene this time around as well.

ABT is fielding different principal dancers for each performance this week, a tribute to the depth of their bench. Last night's Romeo, the veteran Argentinian dancer Herman Cornejo, brought vast experience and emotion to the character. MacMillan demands remarkable strength from the dancer in this role, and Cornejo provided it through many lifts, sword fights, and athletic moves, seeming to flag just slightly only once during a long overhead lift in the first act. The evening's Juliet, Georgia-born Cassandra Trenary, has made noteworthy supporting appearances since joining the company in 2011. Her appointment to principal dancer came in 2020, and she made her debut in this ballet's title role last summer. She ravished the eyes, bursting with teenage energy and leggy awkwardness, floating en pointe as she backed away from unwelcome encounters with the tall, handsome Paris of Andrii Ishchuk. Her athletic strength allowed her to remain fixed in place in her many elegant lifts, as if we were seeing her as she saw herself flying in her dreams.

The muscular Mercutio of rising dancer Tyler Maloney led the supporting cast, abetted in his stylish combats with Joo Won Ahn's haughty Tybalt by the equally comic Benvolio of Luis Ribagorda. MacMillan went for the full Renaissance treatment in this ballet, with the dancers' bodies often weighed down with tapestry-like costumes and the action unfolding before candelabrae and lanterns on the dark-hued set (all designed by Nicholas Georgiadis). The crowd scenes filled the stage, both the heavy-handed court dances of the Capulet ball and the jealousy-laced street scenes, in which the sassy three harlots of Luciana Paris, Erica Lall, and Hannah Marshall sizzled.

Principal conductor Charles Barker, who often took the podium for Washington Ballet in the late, lamented Julie Kent era, presided over a fine rendition of Prokofiev's electric score. If there were a few intonation lapses in the string sections, fine solo work came from the dueling mandolin players, Neil Gladd and David Evans, and tenor saxophonist Dana Booher, guest spots that add remarkable color to the orchestration. The violent slashes of the Dance of the Knights and the biting fortissimo crush of the loudest moments, like the death of Tybalt at the end of Act II, were thrilling.

Romeo and Juliet runs through February 19.


Briefly Noted: Lars Vogt swan song (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Schubert, Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2, Christian Tetzlaff, Tanja Tetzlaff, Lars Vogt

(released on February 3, 2023)
Ondine ODE1394-2D | 136'45"
I was lucky to have heard the late German pianist Lars Vogt at his one local appearance in recent years, an extraordinary Beethoven first piano concerto with Markus Stenz and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2016. We have noted a number of his fine recordings over the life of this site, most recently an odd but satisfying one of rarely heard Romantic melodramas, made with his daughter Isabelle. As recounted in a beautiful article by David Allen for the New York Times, Vogt delayed checking into a hospital in 2021 for further analysis of the cancer that would eventually take his life last September, in order to travel to Bremen to make the first part of this double-album of Schubert's chamber music with Christian Tetzlaff and his sister Tanja Tetzlaff.

The resulting set is a remarkable testament to Vogt's sensitivity as a chamber musician. At their sessions (the second was after Vogt had started chemotherapy) the group recorded all of Schubert's piano trios, except for the Sonatensatz, D. 28, a work of juvenilia, as he composed it when he was just 15 years old. This performance of Piano Trio No. 2 is distinguished by its restoration of a section later cut from the Finale by Schubert, among many musical qualities, especially in the dark-hued slow movement. (There is an odd sound I can't identify at the 10:52 mark in the finale of Piano Trio No. 2.)

In addition to the two numbered trios is the Notturno, a single slow movement possibly composed for and then removed from the first piano trio, with which it has a related home key. It is this piece that stands out on the first disc, especially the graceful, unhurried performance of the hushed main theme. The more heroic contrasting sections sound defiant and determined, but it is that hovering, bliss-filled lead subject that haunts the ears. Schubert composed all three of these works for piano trio in 1827 and 1828, not long before his death, adding an element of wistfulness. What I heard first in the performance was confirmed in the emotional recollections of the Tetzlaffs, included in the booklet:
(Tanja) When Lars listened to this recording, he wrote in our trio chat: “Now I immerse myself in the miracle, too. Feels a little bit like everything, at least in my life, has developed toward this Trio in E flat major.” What again and again was heard from him was this ‘Now we’ve done it, recorded these trios; now I could go too.’ And I find that in the recording one notices that deep inside he already knew that in all likelihood he wasn’t going to be able to live very much longer.

(Christian) The recording was made shortly before the diagnosis. But after every session he lay on the sofa and had horrible stomach pains. And he knew that something catastrophic had happened. When he mentioned this piece, then what went along with it was that it very clearly deals with departure and death, very differently than the B flat major trio.
Vogt also recorded Schubert pieces with each Tetzlaff individually: the Rondo brillant in B minor with violinist Christian and the "Arpeggione" sonata in A minor with cellist Tanja, from 1826 and 1824, respectively. The Tetzalffs had intended to make a concert tour with Vogt this year, which included one of the Schubert trios. The tour will go ahead, with Kiveli Dörken, a beloved students of Vogt's, taking his place. The tour's local stop will be at Shriver Hall in Baltimore on March 26.


Briefly Noted: Andsnes champions Dvořák

available at Amazon
Dvořák, Poetic Tone Pictures, Leif Ove Andsnes

(released on October 28, 2022)
Sony 886449916887 | 56'10"
The last local appearance by Leif Ove Andsnes had been in 2017, a striking duet recital with Marc-André Hamelin. Happily for those like me starved for his stylish playing, Washington Performing Arts brought him back to the Kennedy Center for a stupendous solo concert last month. (Although unreviewed in Washington, the program was the same as his Chicago recital, reviewed by my colleague Lawrence Johnson.) Here in Washington, Andsnes ran the first half all together with no applause: he did not need to ask the audience not to applaud, but the unfamiliarity of the music and his command of attention kept the house quiet. For me the highlight of the evening was an astounding reading of Beethoven's Op. 110, full of technical wizardry and a witty approach to the quotation of silly folk songs and the self-mocking of the concluding fugue, a gesture recalled by Verdi in the finale to his opera Falstaff.

Andsnes's touring program closed with this forgotten set of character pieces by Dvořák, which the Norwegian pianist recorded in 2021. Op. 85, which runs to almost an hour, was a bit much to hear in a single sitting, but as usual Andsnes made a strong case for its revival. Dvořák wrote this collection over the course of several weeks on summer vacation in 1889, three years before he came to the United States. Andsnes came to know the pieces when he studied with a Czech teacher, as well as through a recording by Radoslav Kvapil. The pause in his concertizing during the Covid-19 lockdowns gave Andsnes the chance to study the set in detail, leading to this recording and the live performances on tour. Andsnes hits an ideal balance between the maudlin sentimentality of the simpler, slower pieces ("Twilight Way" and "In the Old Castle," among others) and the fierce virtuosity also required. Highlights include the fun starts and stops of "Toying" and especially the tipsy, spinning runs of "Bacchanalia," which Andsnes has likened to "a Scarlatti sonata gone mad." Folk touches come into play delightfully in "Peasant Ballad" and "Furiant."