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Ionarts Concert Schedule: Early March

Performances in bold are considered to be particularly noteworthy. Abbreviations used here are:

Monday, February 28 Rescheduled to Wednesday, March 9 (because of snow), 8 pm
CGA: Contemporary Music Forum (recent pieces by Nicholas Maw, Richard Rodney Bennett, Margaret Brouwer, and Lee Hyla)
See review by Gail Wein (Washington Post, March 11)

Tuesday, March 1, 12:10 pm
Washington Bach Consort Noontime Cantata Series
Ich habe meine Zuversicht, BWV 183, with Neil Weston, organist
The Church of the Epiphany (13th and G Streets NW)

Wednesday, March 2, to Sunday, March 6, various times
KC: New York City Ballet
See the review by Sarah Kaufman (Washington Post, March 7)

Thursday, March 3, 7 pm; Friday, March 4, 1:30 pm; Saturday, March 5, 8 pm
KC: National Symphony Orchestra, guest conductor Osmo Vänskä with Lisa Batiashvili, violin
(On Vänskä, see Alex Ross's post at The Rest Is Noise and in The New Yorker)
See the review by Tim Page (Washington Post, March 5)

Thursday, March 3, 7:30 pm
TT: Dawn Upshaw, soprano (CANCELLED)

Thursday, March 3, 8 pm
SH: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with Arnaldo Cohen, piano (Smetana, Copland, Gershwin, Tchaikovsky)
See the review by Joe Banno (Washington Post, March 5)

Friday, March 4, 7:30 pm
TT: Isabel Bayrakdarian, soprano (VAS)
See the review by Tim Page (Washington Post, March 7)

Sunday, March 6, 3 pm
On Stage with Washington National Opera (Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program, all-Russian opera program)
Renwick Gallery, Grand Salon

Sunday, March 6, 3 pm
Chantry and the Orchestra of the 17th Century (Requiems by Biber and Schütz)
St. Luke Parish (McLean, Virginia)
See the review of the previous Chantry concert by Joan Reinthaler (Washington Post, February 28)

Sunday, March 6, 5 pm
PC: Thomas Pandolfi, piano

Sunday, March 6, 6:30 pm
NGA: Takács String Quartet (quartets by Bartók and Beethoven) (CANCELLED)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 10)

Monday, March 7, 8 pm
KC: Oslo Philharmonic (with André Previn and Denyce Graves)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 10)

Tuesday, March 8, 8 pm
LOC: Keller Quartet (Schubert, Ligeti, Debussy)
See the review by Daniel Ginsberg (Washington Post, March 10)

Thursday, March 10, 8 pm
James Litzelman, piano (music of Brahms and Franck)
Catholic University of America, Ward Recital Hall (School of Music)

Friday, March 11, 8 pm
Le Poème Harmonique (Vincent Dumestre, Director)
La Maison Française (4101 Reservoir Road NW)
See the review by Joe Banno (Washington Post, March 14)

Friday, March 11, 8 pm
CSC: Larissa Dedova and Mikhail Volchok, piano

Friday, March 11, 8 pm
SH: China Philharmonic with Yuja Wang, piano
See the review by Tom Huizenga (Washington Post, March 14)

Sunday, March 13, 3 pm
Washington Bach Consort, Bach's St. John Passion
National Presbyterian Church (4101 Nebraska Avenue NW)
See the review by Joe Banno (Washington Post, March 15)

Sunday, March 13, 3 pm
Mendelssohn String Quartet with Robert Mann, viola
National Academy of Sciences (2100 C Street NW)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, March 17)

Sunday, March 13, 5 pm
PC: Jerusalem Trio

Sunday, March 13, 5 pm (after Evensong)
Organ Recital by Daniel Roth (Saint-Sulpice, Paris) (see my post from August 15, 2003)
Washington National Cathedral

Sunday, March 13, 6:30 pm
NGA: National Gallery Chamber Players Wind Quintet

——» Go to previous concert schedule, for Late February.


REBEL at the Library of Congress

REBEL, Ensemble for Baroque MusicREBEL, the New York-based ensemble for Baroque music (named for Baroque composer Jean-Féry Rebel), performed in Coolidge Auditorium last night, as part of the Library of Congress's series of free concerts. As I mentioned Friday, REBEL joined Renée Fleming at Carnegie Hall on February 21 (see the review in the New York Times) for the Baroque portion of the program we heard here at the Kennedy Center (see Ionarts review). At the Library of Congress, they performed their "Shades of Red" all-Vivaldi program, which will be on a forthcoming CD.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) is a composer whose recent popularity (everyone is familiar with the Vivaldi sound and thinks they "know" Vivaldi) has detracted from his real musical legacy. At first we thought that he had composed a handful of neat concerti; then we learned that he wrote a lot of interesting choral and instrumental music for the Pietà orphanage; and it turned out that he had even written some successful operas. REBEL's goal is to give its audience "a more varied and nuanced image" of il prete rosso, and I did indeed leave the concert with a greater appreciation of the range of his instrumental works.

Antonio VivaldiWhat strikes you first about REBEL's approach to Vivaldi is their small number: eight players (compared to only six at Carnegie Hall), of which there are four in the continuo group. Since much of the Vivaldi repertoire is concerti, I wondered at first how this one-on-a-part ethos would affect the shaping of contrasts between soloists and ripieno. They made effective contrasts through dynamic nuancing, but I did feel that something of the essential drama of conflict between tutti and favoriti, while not entirely lost, is weakened. That being said, the performances were flashily virtuosic and therefore quite exciting and, in that sense, appropriately Baroque. REBEL played the most familiar of the concerti first, the Concerto in G (RV 443), with a solo part for flautino, and it was here that the improvisatory fantasy of stupendous recorder virtuoso Matthias Maute was best displayed. A soaring cadenza led us into the slow movement, where extravagant ornamentation dressed up any material that was repeated (which, in Vivaldi, is often). If you know the recorder only from your suppressed traumatic memories of a middle school music class, this is not that recorder, but an instrument capable of extraordinary sounds.

The program features two trio sonatas, for which, of course, not even all eight players were featured. The sonata on the first half—op. 5, no. 17, in B-flat major (RV 76)—is of the da camera variety, with a long and improvisatory preludio and two dance movements, an allemanda and a fast, triple-meter corrente. It was overshadowed by the much more impressive sonata on the second half—op. 1, no. 12, in D minor (RV 63)—which is three movements all based on the variation bass pattern known as La Follia (derived from the Renaissance pop song Les Folies d'Espagne, which apparently called out for Daniel Swenberg to join the continuo with his Michael Schreiner guitar). I have recently referred to the Baroque mania for variation sets in the music of Lully (see my review of Opera Lafayette's concert performance of Acis et Galatée). (Three of REBEL's members also perform with Violins of Lafayette.)

La Follia is a 16-measure bass/chord pattern, which is familiar from any number of Renaissance and Baroque settings (for example, in the setting by Marin Marais featured in the soundtrack of Tous les matins du monde). It is fascinating to follow this simple little tune through its permutations of tempo and meter, and Vivaldi drives his violinists especially through increasingly complex passages. First violinist Jörg-Michael Schwarz (on a 1668 Jacobus Steiner instrument) and second violinist Karen Marie Marmer (on a 1720 Antonia Maria Lavazza instrument) gave their best playing of the evening on this piece. Cellist John Moran—a Washingtonian—showed minute signs of struggle to keep up with the flashing fingers of harpsichordist Dongsok Shin, when the continuo occasionally had the running parts. (Moran's rhythmic knuckle-rapping on the body of his cello, a Peter Walmsley instrument from around 1720, was a nice touch.)

Another great discovery for me was the only sinfonia on the program—nicknamed Al Santo Sepolcro, in B minor (RV 169)—which John Moran, in his informative program notes, speculates was composed for a special Holy Week ceremony in Vienna, involving a model of the Holy Sepulchre. Here, Vivaldi is working in the da chiesa mode, calling for strings only and no continuo in the first movement, full of dramatic dissonances and slow, sustained playing. The second movement is a sort of imitative canzona, which really shows this piece as a sort of bow to the past in many ways. I plan to use it as an example of contrapuntal writing to compare with Bach's fugues. REBEL paired it with the more familiar Concerto alla Rustica (G major, RV 151), which banned all thoughts of church from our minds.

The real focus of the program, however, is the four concerti for recorder, featuring Matthias Maute on alto recorder once, soprano recorder (flautino) twice, and a humorously small sopranino recorder for the final piece. Mr. Maute was the only performer who played from memory, and the program is mostly a showcase for his extraordinary talent. His remarkable, seemingly endless breath support is matched by dizzying fingerwork. The advantage of this sort of small ensemble is their closeness, which helped keep the group together during some very dramatic alterations of tempo (disturbingly vertiginous at times). REBEL seems to do this mostly at the end of episode sections, with the soloist dragging down the tempo almost to a creep, followed by a neck-snapping return to a crisp tempo. At times, it seemed grossly affected. The encore, introduced jokingly by Jörg-Michael Schwarz as "a little more Vivaldi," was somewhat disappointingly a second run-through of a movement played earlier.

If you want to hear REBEL yourself, their upcoming schedule takes them to New York and several other American cities in March and April, and then to Germany in May.

See the review by Tom Huizenga (Washington Post, February 28).

Vanessa Pérez at the Venezuelan Embassy

Equipped with high praise from Claudio Arrau, Vanessa Pérez came to the Venezuelan Embassy's Bolivarian Hall (at the Ambassador's Residence on Massachusetts Avenue) on February 11 to perform Ravel, Albéniz, Chopin, and a work by Arturo Sandoval. In front of the baby W.M. Knabe & Co.—producing a big enough sound for the small hall, but also source of a vast array nasty noises, almost wrecking the excellent performances—was a folding chair (a bench, as it turned out, was available, but not wanted) and therefrom the things (pardon the bad pun) unfolded promisingly.

Hunching over the keyboard as though sniffing for color in the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales by Ravel, Mlle. Pérez was called upon to conjure muscular outbreaks as well as sweet lingering, and she obliged fully. I don’t want to keep beating up on the piano, especially given the bad shape it is already in, but the twangy tone, sustained passages that turned glassy, strings gently out of tune and Vanessa Pérez's own shuffling noises (or was it a noisy pedal release?) were a shame. Alas, a new piano, I was told, is planned for the near future.

available at AmazonPresenting Vanessa Perez,

available at AmazonF.Chopin, The Complete Preludes,
Vanessa Perez

Albéniz's third book of the Iberian suite is rarely recorded and even less often heard in performance, and so it was particularly nice to see it lurking on the program. Its three parts, El Albaicín, El polo, and Lavapiés, I last heard with Marc-André Hamelin in the NGA (see my review from last January). The work may have taken the instrument to its limit, but not the pianist as Mlle. Pérez brewed up a musical storm.

It became clear, rather quickly, why the late Arrau, the elder statesman among pianists, had ascribed to her a "technique, musicality, and intelligent approach to the music [that] made a profound impression on me." If that was 15 years ago, she has since not lost any of these abilities but, if anything, gained more. Albéniz allowed her to shine through all the little obstructions of her environment and despite (or because of) her posture—half Glenn Gould, half Wicked Witch of West though, if it must be said, a very attractive witch—it left with a most favorable impression, lasting at least until I next hear these pieces performed. Her fingerwork in Lavapiés was envy-evoking fleet and never sacrificed expressiveness at the altar of note-perfect playing.

In the second half of the fascinating match-up of "Pérez vs. Knabe," the playing field was Chopin's three ballades. Played in a manner more reminiscent of Liszt than the (faulty, in my opinion) image of Chopin as the wilting, delicate flower. Ballade No. 1 was taken in storm—my preference, anyway. Ballade No. 3 was still in my head with Maurizio Pollini, who gave a ravishing account of it a few months ago at the Kennedy Center (see Ionarts review), making the first half, with its lilting, limping leaps of sixths of Mlle. Pérez's a bit tame in comparison. But if there was any timidity (and it was a rather gentle rubato used here, to delightful effect), it was all gone in one of the more helter-skelter endings that I have heard. The effect was immense, and incorrigible applause the consequence. My fears that any Chopin might pale in comparison to the outstanding Albéniz were unfounded, and if there was any criticism, it might be leveled against a slightly heavy sustaining pedal.

The announced Arturo Sandoval (Sureña) was then tossed out for a work by a Venezuelan composer (whose name, vaguely recalled, did not match with any composers I know of) and his Venezuelan dance that bubbled along joyously, dotted by tempestuous passages.


State of the Blog

We've had lots of great linkage lately, so thanks to Modern Art Notes, James Tata, oboeinsight, the Renée Fleming fan group, the Fredösphere, and everyone else. For that person undoubtedly disappointed by Ionarts after finding us through a search for octogenarian erections pictures: what can I say? Search engines are a mystery. Sorry not to offer what you wanted. I'm not really sorry, just terminally polite (give me a break: I grew up in the Midwest).

What is Ionarts? The anonymous Paris weblogger at never been home, in an interesting post about the state of blogging, hits our nail on the head:

Ionarts offers serious reviews, which I enjoy reading, but fails to be a real 'bloggy' site because its hair is rarely let down. It behaves more like a self-published webzine, which is fine.
Man Ray, MélisandeThis is true that most of the personal side of blogging has never sat comfortably with us. I have never put my blogging philosophy into words, but I have to admit that the phrase "self-published webzine" is awfully close. I suppose that if our proverbial hair were long and blond like Mélisande's, we might feel more at ease in letting it down. However, judging from what happens to the poor girl because of her hair (à droite, puis à gauche!), she might have done herself a favor by keeping her hair short or pinned up and sticking to the subject matter at hand.

My feeling about what we do here at Ionarts is that we typically approach everything from a rather personal and idiosyncratic point of view (being thrilled by Renée Fleming choosing Baroque repertoire, for example), much moreso than the typical traditional reviewer, but without descending too much or often into the hopelessly quotidian ("I ate a Twix at intermission"). I am not certain that our "nonblogginess" does not adversely affect our popularity as far as readership. Much to our chagrin, we have managed to avoid mention in most of the big newspaper articles on blogging and the arts. If readers have any reaction to this question ("Is Ionarts too serious?"), that's what the comments function is for, please. Having just acquired an excellent digital camera, I am ready to oblige with some whimsical and endearing personal accents. I will hopefully be able to post some nice photographs from my upcoming trip to Rome.


The Diva Hath Landed: Renée Fleming in Washington

In a shiny black dress, with a top that could have adorned a Papagena in mourning, the most famous active soprano in North America walked onto the stage of the sold-out Kennedy Center's Concert Hall on February 15. Renée Fleming, with Hartmut Höll at the piano, went right into The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation by Purcell. A most dramatic and forceful virgin it was, and over the oddly subdued, stiff piano accompaniment she engaged in modulation exercises and vibrato orgies that also mark her Handel album (see Ionarts review). All that, of course, with her exquisite voice, undoubtedly heard even in the last row of the second tier.

Renée Fleming is one of the few artists with the clout and fame (and ability) who can choose any program they like. Even an all-Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg program would sell out and draw wild applause, I suspect. (Berg, actually, was on the program, in what turned out to be the most satisfying part of the night for me.) Perhaps this ability to expose repertoire to an audience otherwise not likely to lend their ears to particular works played a role in her choice of Purcell for one-quarter of the recital? Charles, who was also there, would likely balk at the suggestion that a quarter program of Purcell was somewhat risqué, but then his ability to appreciate and love Purcell far exceeds mine. Still I could not help to see Expostulation especially, but also Sweeter than Roses, I Take No Pleasure in the Sun's Bright Beams, and I Attempt From Love's Sickness to Fly (chuckle-inducingly delivered) as stiff and a bit stilted. Good vehicles for her voice they may be ("historically incorrect" as can be, for good measure), but I admired and appreciated it more than I loved it.

Oh, Let Me Weep (from The Fairy Queen) was the exception for me: moving and lovely it was, even while I was wishing for a muscular harpsichord rather than wimpy Steinway accompaniment. (In some of the Purcell and the Handel, I perversely wished for an Organ accompaniment, but that may not be a mainstream taste.)

Handel was next and likely catered most to the expectations of the audience, probably half of whom was just off her recent album, which is—even if I have some reservations about it (see Ionarts review)—perfectly beautiful. Quite expectedly, she 'let fly'. And amid Höll's more animated playing (even La Fleming bobbed along with the interludes, much to the amusement of the audience) and Handel's music, she delivered radiantly. When I criticized her Handel album because you could tell that more than Handel, she loves herself, in Oh Had I Jubal's Lyre she showed as clearly as possible that it was Handel she loved. Even O Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me?, which opens the record, was better live and much less self-conscious. To Fleeting Pleasures Make Your Court (from Samson) and Calm Though My Soul (from Alexander Balus) were equally fine. Allowed to applaud, finally, after Endless Pleasure (from Semele), the audience gave decibel-strong proof that they did indeed think the first half of the concert to have been such.

available at AmazonA.Berg (+ G.Mahler), Seven Early Songs (+ Sy.4),
R.Fleming / C.Abbado / BPh

The Diva emerged after intermission in a dream of white crepe and glitter to oohs and aahs and encouraged the audience to read the text to the Berg songs. (Perhaps she should have dressed less spectacularly to make that task easier?) I trusted my German and kept looking at her, anyway, and listening especially, because these teenage Berg songs are among the best works that any composer (including Mendelssohn, Korngold, and Bridge) wrote at such an early age. Nacht, Schilflied, Die Nachtigall, Traumgekrönt, Im Zimmer, Liebesode, and Sommertage should appeal to anyone with a set of functioning ears, but at least to those who delight in Richard Strauss, Mahler, Wagner, or Duparc. Hartmut "Hesitates" Höll’s piano playing was a bit more assertive than during the Baroque works but could still have been a good bit bigger and independent for my taste. A performance so taken back almost (and ironically) called more attention to itself than should have. Fitting the angelic image on stage, Renée Fleming sounded ethereal in the Berg, beautiful but not quite as effective as Alessandra Marc's earthy, all-out approach I enjoyed at the National Gallery last October (see review).

Schumann at last—eight songs—and lounging in the nook of the grand Fleming set the vocal standard in creaminess and sweetness for, at least, this season. (I must say it though: underplaying Schumann's "accompaniments" makes no sense to me, not in any case and especially not when even La Fleming's pianissimo is unlikely to be drowned out.) With a very round voice, rather than a steely, singular edge that more piercing sopranos have, she creates a haziness that is very comforting and no small part of her wide appeal far beyond the realm of opera and recital aficionados. It may even be key to a good (successful it will be, anyway) jazz recording, which is soon to be released.

Du bist wie eine Blume, meanwhile, is not only one of Schumann's better songs, it must also have felt lucky to be sung by Renée Fleming. Her stage demeanor, too, is perfectly calibrated for effect, having the audience eat out of the palm of her hand, courtesy of just a look, a frown, gesture, a smile.

Encores were generous and started with Puccini's O mio babbino caro. It isn't exactly the type of thing that sends me into the same applause convulsions as the rest of the audience (none of whom left early or after the regular program was finished, setting what must be a Kennedy Center record), but then I have a troubled relationship with Mimi & Co., anyway. Still, her pianissimi were unquestionably spectacular. Had it not been for encores nos. 2 and 3, I would have been disappointed by the evening, but there they were: Richard Strauss's Cecilia and the last aria from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt. Fleming rightly pointed out that no concert of hers would be complete without Strauss. That's the music for which I think her voice was made: all nagging was forgotten and even the piano seemed to do its part. Stunning. Korngold, if anything, was even better, sung enthrallingly after Fleming's somewhat more endearing than poetic translation of the lyrics. This is Korngold at his best and with Fleming's mascara-dark eyes emphasizing the sadness it was made even more memorable. I was happy, Charles delirious and enchanted (Purcell lovers, I say...).

Comments by Charles:

I was indeed delirious and enchanted by this recital, not to mention thrilled by Fleming's continued attempts to draw audiences toward Baroque operatic repertory. Her rendition of Purcell may not be very Baroqueux, but her sense of drama fits the Baroque style perfectly. I forced myself not to review the concert because of an important thing that happened the following day (more about that another time). For other reviews, see Philip Kennicott, The Flaws That Refresh: A Risk-Taking Renee Fleming (Washington Post, February 17) and Bernard Holland, Conjuring Intimacy Amid Billowing Tulle (New York Times, February 23), who is reviewing the same program at Carnegie Hall, where La Fleming was joined by the Baroque group Rebel Ensemble (whom I will be hearing at the Library of Congress this evening).—CTD

"Crossroads" at Lisner Auditorium

This article was contributed by Anita Joshi.

The musical art of flamenco has its genesis in the culture of the Gitano, or nomadic gypsy, and eventually emerged as a thriving part of Spanish culture today. As an artistic meeting point of cultures, it draws from Arab, Sephardic, Indian, and African musical traditions and evolved over time into a mosaic of Eastern and Western influences. It is much more than a remnant of a nomadic people. As a society within a society, the Gitanos of Spain have maintained their art as a connection to an unwritten past and a way to share it with others.

The performance of "Crossroads," at the Lisner Auditorium on Saturday, February 12th, was an exemplary specimen of the thriving art of flamenco. As part of the Lisner's Flamenco Festival, it featured five individual artists who have made their marks in the international contemporary flamenco scene: singers Carmen Linares, Arcángel, Miguel Poveda, flamenco fusion artist Diego Carrasco, and dancer Rafaela Carrasco. The show was inspired by a record released in 2003 entitled Territorio Flamenco, in which ten Flamenco artists chose their favorite songs or authors from different eras and styles (such as the classic Hello, Dolly, the old Spanish song La bien pagá, and Roxanne by Sting) and performed them in the style of flamenco.

The artists of "Crossroads" spanned a wide stylistic spectrum. Linares, a native of Jaen, has won international acclaim with her skill and perpetual versatility in expression. Her profound abilities have afforded her a diverse repertoire of collaborations with artists worldwide. Two of the most rapidly rising young stars of contemporary flamenco, Miguel Poveda and Arcángel, have brought fresh elements to the artistic arena. Both Poveda, from Barcelona, and Arcángel, from Huelva, draw on their native roots while maintaining the freedom of artistic license to take the art to new levels. Rafaela Carrasco, a Sevillana, has also emerged as a member of the new generation of avant-garde flamenco dancers. She possesses a dynamic and rebellious style, and after completing her training in Madrid as a soloist, she established her own company. Diego Carrasco, a native of the Gypsy quarter barrio de Santiago of Cadiz, studied flamenco guitar early on and accompanied some of the biggest flamenco singers in his home town, such as Tía Anica la Periñaca, Tío Gregorio El Borrico, Fernando Terremoto, and Camarón de la Isla. Carrasco later left his career as a guitarist to take on a career in singing and music production. He has since been a trailblazer in the production of flamenco and jazz fusion styles.

Flamenco in itself is a highly expressive part of the Gitano culture, borne of a time when Spain was changing rulers from the Islamic caliphate to the Catholic monarchy. As a result of the expulsion of many Jews, Muslims, and Gitanos by the monarchy, the art became an outlet for emotion turmoil. Hence, its classic form is intense with emotion and often serves as an ode to the beauty of bittersweet endings. It speaks of the darker side of love, the universality of pain and uncertainty, of longing for answers, and the perpetual battles that make up the human experience. "Crossroads" captured this essence of flamenco but also built on the absorbent nature of the art through fusion with tango and jazz, while maintaining the rhythmic structures of the various branches, or palos, such as bulerias and alegrias.

Carmen Linares gave a moving performance of the traditional letra "La Paloma" (the Dove). Arcángel's voice is nothing short of enrapturing in his tone and control, without restraint or rigidity. His rendition of the Spanish bolero La Bien Pagá was spellbinding. His comprehension of the music is apparent in his ability to maintain both structure and freedom to create space for his own style, not simply imitate the predecessors. Cuesta Abajo (Down hill), an Argentine tango passionately performed by Miguel Poveda, was yet another example of the many amalgamations of modern flamenco of the show.

Although the main element in classic flamenco has been lyrical, as opposed to physical, Rafaela Carrosco's enervating interpretation of Malaguena was a sublime incarnation of the soul of the song. Far from a purist, she drew together slivers of jazz and contemporary dance and melded them with sensuality and class. Her footwork was impeccable, which highlights her amazing skill as a younger artist. Diego Carrasco held nothing back in his Inquilino del Mundo (Tenant of the World), in which he seamlessly melded bulerias with the spunk of a poetry slam. Hello, Dolly was another example of the more upbeat facet of fusion flamenco in which the entire group united to interpret this Broadway classic in the style of flamenco. The zenith of the show was the group's ephemeral rendition of La Leyenda del Tiempo (the Legend of Time), by the demigod of flamenco, singer Camaron. This deliciously libertine jaleo takes its lyrical inspiration from the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca and layers lightning-quick handclapping, vibrant harmony, and a haunting melody with phantasmagoric keyboard solos and flamenco arpeggios, all accompanied by a bateria of percussion. The iconoclastic Camaron has been apotheosized by the flamenco world as much as Jimi Hendrix in the world of rock. Even though Camaron is a virtuoso in his own right, "Crossroads" did justice to this legend's anthem with its own electrifying interpretation.

The performance of Leyenda del Tiempo highlighted just one instance of how flamenco has come a long way in its evolution as an art form. "Crossroads" showcased both the rebellious and the traditional sides of flamenco. It also portrayed the art's embrace of the rhythms of the East and instruments of the West in an oriental and occidental collision of vibrant artistic globalization.


New Disc from Hélène Grimaud

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
Chopin, Sonata, op. 35; Berceuse, op. 57; Barcarolle, op. 60; and Rachmaninov, Sonata, op. 36, Hélène Grimaud, piano
Maurizio Pollini is an inspiration at the piano (see how we reacted at Ionarts to his recital this past fall), and nowhere is that inspiration more productive than with fellow pianists. According to an article (Hélène Grimaud rejoue Chopin, February 22) by Marie-Aude Roux for Le Monde, French pianist Hélène Grimaud decided it was time to return to recording Chopin, after more than 15 years, when she heard Pollini playing a recital in Japan: "The urgency with which he performed Chopin's second sonata," she said, "his poignant and singing playing has revived the flame in me." (He played that sonata at his recital here in Washington, too.) Here's an excerpt of what else Mme. Roux had to say (my translation):
That flame is certainly one of ardent rigor, which animates Grimaud's playing throughout the entire first movement, with an equality of touch and an admirable polyphonic clarity, no less than the veiled sunlight way she develops a drama secretly inhabited by shadow and light. We love this intensity without hardness, the elastic and profound playing of the Scherzo with strong bass notes à la Schumann. The famous Marche funèbre advances in half-colors to the ringing of inexorable bells, before the central melody of pure creaminess, before the Finale somewhere between being veiled and a rhapsody exploding like a final panic. Hélène Grimaud says that Rachmaninov's second sonata goes "marvelously well" with Chopin's. In fact, it strikes the listener like a prolongation of the Chopin finale and its development in time.
The CD will be released in the United States on March 8, but it is already available in Europe.

M. S. Smith, blogging at CultureSpace, has a review of Hélène Grimaud's concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and some thoughts on her new album.

Art Movie

This may not be news to anyone else, but I was very interested in what a recent article (Henri Matisse, the movie, February 19) by Rachel Campbell-Johnston in the London Times had to say. It was about The Artists on Film Trust, the brainchild of documentary filmmakers Hannah Rothschild and Robert McNab, with the goal of compiling a definitive collection of film footage of artists "in their studios or talking about their work."

Nobody knows who the first painter ever to be filmed was, but Renoir must have been among the earliest. A piece of 1915 footage shows him, a septuagenarian and nearing the end of his life, hunched in a bath-chair in front of a canvas. His hands are clotted with arthritis. His beard flows to his chest. And as he dabs at the canvas and then leans back to check, he smiles almost impishly as if the effect pleases him. To see footage like this is to watch art history in the making. [...] Len Tabner sets up his easel on the bow of a boat that rises and falls in the heavy sea swell. Lowry draws in the streets under the surveillance of local children. Louise Bourgeois finds first pleasure and then sadness in destruction as she smashes a plaster model. Hockney, initially frustrated by a photo processor’s error, turns disaster to his own advantage by making a letter of apology a part of his piece. [...]

On a basic level, these films provide a record of artists’ techniques. You see the balletic grace of Kandinsky’s watercolour drawings, Otto Dix feathering a smoothly modelled limb, Henry Moore carving with hammer and chisel, Gerald Scarfe hurling great buckets of paint, and Gilbert and George finding a fresh opportunity in the fact that a bluebottle that came buzzing into their studio had eaten their slide samples of blood and sperm. But they also inspire new conjectures and ideas. "By the time the film of Monet was shot, his eyesight was also shot," says McNab. "He is shown working outside on a canvas set up under a white parasol. He's wearing a white hat so that his pupils were shaded and so more dilated than if he was under direct sunlight. And his beard and suit and waistcoat are also white. And noticing this, I can't help wondering if, just as a photographer uses a white surface to bounce the light back, Monet wore these reflective white clothes to help him see better."
A little Internetting revealed that Rothschild and McNab were in Los Angeles in 2003, to show a few of their clips at the Getty Research Institute. The news now is that their collection will not have a permanent home, thanks to a partnership with the University of the Arts London (near the Tate Britain). The public will be able to watch films free of charge. A promotional DVD, which has many of the best clips, was screened at the University of the Arts London on February 22. I'm trying to see if they are going to release such a DVD commercially.

Musée d'Art Moderne Set to Reopen in Paris

In 1998, the home of the Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris in the Palais de Tokyo was condemned as unsafe for the public, and the following year, the museum was closed for renovation. Since then the museum has continued to host a series of exhibits in other locations, called Les Intrus (for example, the Annette Messager installation at the Couvent des Cordeliers, which I saw in Paris last summer). An article (Le «MAM» revient dans ses murs, February 8) by Éric Biétry-Rivierre for Le Figaro says that the plan is to open the museum by the end of 2005, with no changes whatsoever in the arrangement of exhibit space or the collection on display (my translation):

At the heart of the MAM-VP, La Fée Électricité (1937), the Raoul Dufy room composed of 250 wood panels with oil paint, will be lit from the floor as the artist wanted [the piece was cleaned of asbestos fibers in 2001]. In 2002, 800,000 € [US$1.06 million] of the 15 million € [US$19.8 million] of the total budget were devoted to the dismantling of the ceiling and back wall of this masterpiece. Other novelties: a black room of 290 square meters [3121.6 square feet] for contemporary video works, and 100 square meters [1076.4 square feet] consecrated to Christian Boltanski [see my post on his most recent show]. In the lower floors, the reserve space situated in flood zones has been condemned. The collection of 10,000 pieces, however, has been placed in warehouses in the northern neighborhoods of the capital. This is not the case for Matisse's La Danse, which will regain its exalted place after a Russian trip that brought it to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
Among the exciting news is the announcement that the reopening will be celebrated with a major Pierre Bonnard retrospective, including around 100 paintings from all around the world, unheard of in Paris since the show at the Centre Pompidou in 1976. (I'm not sure how this exhibit is or is not related to the big Bonnard show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1998.) The goal is "to show that this great colorist can be considered as the equal of his friend Matisse and Picasso."

Thanks to Tyler for sending some of you here. Here are a few recent posts you might also find interesting:Make yourself comfortable and come back soon!


Sizing Up Strathmore

Strathmore Hall

It was Ionarts' first time at the spanking new concert hall at Strathmore (a 30-to-50-some minute Metro ride from D.C.) for Hilary Hahn with the Baltimore Symphony on February 19. Strathmore itself, which still has that "new concert-hall smell," is gorgeous with its light wood, round, inviting curves, isolated balconies along the sides, and despite a capacity of almost 2,000 (1,976, to be precise), it has a very intimate feel to it from the orchestra seating area. The seats are comfortable, and the excitement about the region's new toy still runs high. The shoebox design has a sloping ceiling that rises to some 60 feet at the back end of the hall.

From seat J1 (some 15 feet away from the stage on the left aisle), the sound was present, well defined, and the brass in Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and Joan Tower's Fanfare for the (cherish the wit!) uncommon woman No.1 had a proper forward edge. The recital from the same position, only on the right (K101) also offered appropriate sound. Accoustic problems can, according to Washington Post stringers and Tim Page, be found on the sides and behind the orchestra.

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The real problem, anyway, is that Strathmore isn't quite designed for a concert hall of 2,000. Getting in, everyone is stuck in the narrow walkway towards the entrance and the small cafeteria that fills up in no time, offering far to few seats. Concession stands are few and far between, and one such stand staffed by two bartenders isn't enough for the entire orchestra-seating audience. Which brings me to other bottlenecks. It can't go on that one elevator and one, if broad, stairway is the only way for all the orchestra-seating audience to exit the building. After the concert, a slow crowd aches up those stairs at a snail's pace... amusing from afar, annoying when stuck within.

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Another such bottleneck is at the coat check, but even if that is bypassed, there is the worst of them all still waiting at the entrance to the parking garage, where one narrow door is the seemingly only way (there is actually another, but it's not obvious to most visitors) up- or downstairs to the other parking garage levels. Also curious is the decision to have many doors at the lower level lead to a terrace (no smoking, remember!) and design them in such a way that, once out, you can't get back in. (Lest you get noticed and some kind soul opens from within.)

On the upside: It's pretty, there is free parking on the weekends, cheap parking on weekdays, it is right next to the Metro...

Other Reviews of Strathmore:

Tim Page, Philharmonic Puts the Lie to 'Hear No Evil' (Washington Post, February 14)

Tim Page, Strathmore: Off to a Sound Beginning (Washington Post, February 7)

Superb start at Strathmore (Washington Times, February 6)

Additional Comments by Charles T. Downey

On Saturday, I sang a farewell Mass for the Rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Michael Bransfield, who was installed as Bishop of Charleston-Wheeling, West Virginia, on Tuesday. This left me slightly short on time to get all the way out to Strathmore in time for the Baltimore Symphony's concert with Hilary Hahn. Fortunately, I drove like the wind and the concert began a little late, so I was able to find my seat just as the lights began to dim. Even at the quickest pace, it was forty minutes from northeast Washington, and it is more like fifty to sixty minutes of driving from Capitol Hill. I live in the city and I hate commuting (my drive to work is usually no more than 20 minutes), so I am sure that my visits to Strathmore will be limited to those concerts I just can't bear to miss.

This was my first drive out there, and I was sure that once I got off the Beltway, I would just follow helpful signs to Strathmore, but there are no such signs that I saw. This meant that I missed the first turn, had to turn around illegally, and double back, and I was nearly hit by an angry suburban commuter as I searched for the place to turn. That is the first thing Strathmore needs to do: put up more signs. There is parking, plenty of it, in the Metro garage, and on a Saturday or Sunday it appears to be free (much preferable to the price gauging $15 fee at the Kennedy Center). Even on Fridays, the parking will be limited to $4 for those with concert tickets.

Based on one hearing, with admittedly a close seat, the sound in the Concert Hall is good. There was good balance among the instrumental sections of the Baltimore Symphony, and clarity in Hilary Hahn's solo part. I will reserve further judgment until I have heard a few more concerts, perhaps from one of the balconies (which struck me as somewhat like those of the Senate in the more recent Star Wars movies).

Tristan in Geneva

When I win the Powerball, I will fly around the world watching opera. The Grand Théâtre de Genève is mounting a new production of Tristan und Isolde right now. In a review (Magistral "Tristan und Isolde" de Wagner par Olivier Py, February 15) for Le Monde, Marie-Aude Roux had the goods (my translation):

The French director Olivier Py has created a new production of Wagner's Tristan, the first in 20 years at the Geneva Opera. A daring risk for a great success: the French director, author, and actor has created a masterful version of Wagner's masterpiece, artistic and extremely musical, intelligent and very sensitive. A Tristan pulled by strings made greater by Pierre-André Weits's ingenious sets, Olivier Py's lighting, and a successful direction of acting. All of that was seen throughout the first act, with the slow passage of the lovers' "night ship," from the prow to the stern, a boat flanked by shining black sails, a labyrinth of metal stairways and railings marked with neon, going out into the inexorable. The staging is a metaphor for Wagner's unending melody, from a time of the soul suspended between life and death, from Tristan and Isolde's unsated desire resolving in the third act in the transfiguration of the Liebestod.

In the second act, the love duo goes in exaltation from room to room: a series from a black for waiting then to a white explosion of desire, a bedroom licked by flames, then to a room mute with rubble waiting for death, finally one walled up like a cave. Until the appearance of King Marke, the real husband in a long fur coat à la Visconti, somewhere between Ludwig and Death in Venice, which makes one think that he did not share Isolde's bed for reasons other than his shyness.
On the same production, I read Francis Carlin's review (Tristan und Isolde, Grand Théâtre, Geneva, February 16) for the London Financial Times:
Faced with Wagner's marathon symphonic poem with voices, it is easy to see why producers are panicked into hyperactivity. Olivier Py's new staging does just that. Wagner whittled down the characters to the bare minimum, to present an unadulterated account of doomed passion. Py, a promising, provocative talent in France but on this evidence short on maturity and focus, elects to flood the stage, literally in act three, with supernumeraries and hackneyed symbolism that feeds on Shakespeare and Arthurian legend. As the production gags on a surfeit of imagination, you find yourself filling in an imaginary multiple-choice list, ticking off the useful and crossing out the padding. So it's yes to Py's use of perspective, his genuinely exciting coups de théâtre and the brilliant slide show of rooms in the second act that symbolise the lovers' psychological states. But it's definitely no to the idiot's guide to Tristan's past where Isolde paints Tantris on to the corrugated sheeting of the ship, and the kung-fu combats in the limb-threatening puddle in Tristan's castle.
There was also a review by Christian Merlin (Voyage au coeur de l'âme wagnérienne, February 15) for Le Figaro (my translation):
With his faithful designer Pierre-André Weitz, [Olivier Py] has imagined a fascinating system, which demonstrates a great illusionist's talent. The boat of the first act, an immense destroyer of sheet metal and iron, advances imperceptibly during the whole course of the act, creating a kind of slowness that is the definition of Wagnerian time: his architecture of narrow hallways, stairways, and metallic bridges changes constantly with each look, and if you did not know that the machinists were busy off stage, you would swear that the sets are miles long. This skill would be in vain if the design were not always being used to make clear the relationships between the characters, especially by their placement in space.

The same optical illusion is in the second act. The lovers do not come together in gardens, but in a little bedroom seen in cutaway, like the mansions of medieval theater. During the 45 minutes of the love duet, which so many directors do not know what to do with, the bedroom begins to slide off to the right by itself and give way to another one, and then another, each one slightly different: Tristan and Isolde pass from one to the next, which allows us to see the rooms like stages through which they are passing. Black, white, enflamed, walled, filled with earth, the bedroom becomes the symbolic reflection of their interior state, which gives a rhythm and coherence to a scene in which it is so easy to lose one's place.

The third act is dominated by water, which fills the stage. At the moment where Tristan, in his palace on steel pilings before an infinite perspective, recalls his childhood during a monologue that seems like a psychoanalytic session (before that existed), a little child, a very beautiful woman, and a knight in armor come out of the water and go back into it: the young Tristan, his mother, and his father are literally extracted from the maternal liquid before going back into it. What a beautiful idea, also, to integrate into the action the musician playing the English horn, whose playing gives Tristan the key to his existence: present on the stage like a midwife of souls, oboist Sylvain Lombard creates a triumph, in what is perhaps the most beautiful page in the score.
Didier van Moere also reviewed the production (Le Tristan ténébreux d’Olivier Py, February 10) for You can look through these pictures of the production.

A Singer to Watch: Sarah Connolly

In an article (Sarah Connolly - stardom beckons, February 6) for the London Times, Hugh Canning talks up an English mezzo soprano who has distinguished herself at English National Opera (but not yet, inexplicably, at Covent Garden), Sarah Connolly. Here's a snippet of what he has to say:

Operatically, Connolly is something of a late developer. Unusually for a female singer, she is unfazed about admitting to her age — 41 — but this may explain her maturity when she first appeared on the scene, and her survival in a notoriously difficult theatre for young singers. She began her career as a concert and choral singer. As soon as she left the Royal College of Music at the end of the 1980s, she joined the BBC Singers, an acknowledged training ground for future soloists. "It's how I earned money to pay the rent," she says "and it's a very enjoyable way of working. I was also singing with Harry Christophers (The Sixteen) and John Eliot Gardiner (Monteverdi Choir) — I am in his recording of the Verdi Requiem. I did quite a few of The Sixteen's recordings as well."

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
Sarah Connolly: Heroes and Heroines, Handel Arias, with Harry Christophers and the Symphony of Harmony and Invention
At college, she had not really set her sights on a career in opera. "It sounds banal, but I was interested in harmony and contemporary music," she says. "The BBC Singers did wonderful ensemble work, which is what interested me at the time. We did Messiaen and Ligeti. At the height of my sight-reading skills, I managed to master the alto line of some difficult Ligeti. I thought I'd busked my way through it, but my colleagues were impressed, and most of the notes were in the right place. I couldn't do it now." Connolly clearly has an innate intelligence — her distinctive warm, bright-sounding mezzo has always been at the service of musical ends, her intonation is well-nigh perfect and she cares about words. Even as a beginner, she possessed the all too rare self-knowledge that is vital for a long, successful career. "In the 1990s, my voice wasn't particularly big, and I thought it was safer to start with the baroque/classical route," she says.
He mentions that she has appeared in New York, but I have yet to hear her (mostly my fault, as far as the recordings she has released). What do you know? She also released a Handel CD in 2004, which Canning says that she "partly financed herself" (on the Coro label, with Harry Christophers).


Itzhak Perlman at Strathmore

This weekend I thought I'd get my violinist fix, and no 18 hours after seeing Hilary Hahn I was back in the Strathmore Hall to hear Itzhak Perlman in the first recital at that venue.

If I go to a concert, by the way, I do not want to hear a slew of inane speeches: Neale Perl (President of WPAS) bored me out of my mind with his list of every half-important donor and official that may or may not have been in the audience. Before him, Douglas M. Duncan, the Montgomery County Executive, tested my patience. Fortunately, the talking came to an end after what seemed like ten minutes, and Mr. Perlman walked out on stage with the help of his crutches and leg-braces. When he picks up the violin though, notions of frailty or restriction dissipate at once. I mention this, because in many ways this transformation is similar to the experience of seeing Thomas Quasthoff come on stage and then fill an entire opera house with his booming sound.

In Mozart's E minor violin sonata (KV 304), Messrs. Perlman and Rohan DeSilva performed amiably together, and especially DeSilva's confident playing was appealing as he felt no need for dynamic and volume limitations while playing next to his far more famous colleague.

The intro to Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata exposed a weakness in Perlman's playing that reinforced suspicions still lingering from the Mozart. Stability, the tightness of the vibrato and intonation were—under pressure, at least—less than we are used from the maestro. The piano playing continued to be faultless, even in the second movement's Andante con Variazioni, where the lengths can sometimes get to the accompanist. Perlman's performance was still impressive on many levels but posed the question of whether there is simply an unavoidable expiration date on violinists (or singers, for that matter), after which it becomes very difficult to make up with experience for lack of ease of technical execution and, simply, youth.

Meanwhile, coughing and cell phone discipline are not quite where they ought to be yet at Strathmore. Like on Saturday, I felt like Hans Castorp between movements… everyone hacked away at once.

The "North Bethesda Premiere" (so Perlman's remark) of Episodes for Violin and Piano by Ellen Taaffe Zwillich met with considerable enthusiasm, though Perlman's humorous telling them of how "Episode" had been tailored to his taste certainly helped. The work is more than a cut above the Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, No. 1, that was Joan Tower's contribution the night before. While the 'lyrical episode' made me wonder at a few mute musical points, the 'rhythm episode' was a little marvel and delight that effectively showcased that Perlman's fingers still are fleet.

The two vignettes of Smetana's From the Homeland showed Perlman at his best, closing the program on a good note, topped only by the four encores: Kreisler "in the style of Pugnani," among other things, which led Perlman to observe that apparently "they were all dying for some piece of good old-fashioned Pugnani" back then. In his element with the encores, Perlman had the audience laugh, applaud, chuckle and then on their feet as one, a happy ending to a concert that may have forecast the near end of his performing career.

See also Joan Reinthaler, Intimate Perlman, Cavernous Strathmore (Washington Post, February 22).

Lully's Acis et Galatée

Newspaper Review:

Tim Page, Opera Lafayette's 'Acis et Galatee': Lush and Lovely (Washington Post, February 22): note that the photo included with that article is from a previous production
As I mentioned last month, I met the Executive Director of Opera Lafayette at a concert. I was all too happy to follow through on her invitation to see their newest production yesterday, Jean-Baptiste Lully's Acis et Galatée. It was the last operatic work that Lully completed, and it was premiered on September 6, 1686, at the Château d'Anet, in the same year as Lully's greatest success, Armide, and shortly before he died. Opera Lafayette did not really mount a production of the opera at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, at the University of Maryland. This was a concert performance of Lully's pastorale héroïque, with the chorus and soloists behind music stands in two rings behind the orchestra. What did add immeasurably to this arrangement was Catherine Turocy and four other dancers from her New York Baroque Dance Company, in costumes and with a few props. Opera Lafayette and the slate of top-tier Baroque singers it brought together for this performance had attracted a nearly full house, which listened to some introductory remarks from the Clarice Smith Center's Executive Director.

The story comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, specifically from the end of Book 13. Acis (sung by experienced Baroque tenor Howard Crook) falls in love with a sea nymph, Galatea, daughter of Neptune (soprano Gaële Le Roi, in a cream gown with a scallop motif recalling her marine character), who is in turn loved by the cyclops Polyphemus (Bernard Deletré, a very resonant bass who had a lot of fun raging away as the odious giant). These three lead singers all performed admirably, although I had trouble hearing them in certain passages, probably due to their placement behind the orchestra and far away from the audience. These problems were slightly worse for the supporting singers, all of whom sang quite well nevertheless. (This is hardly Opera Lafayette's fault, since the Elsie and Marvin Dekelboum Concert Hall does not have an orchestra pit.) Ryan Brown's conducting involved his whole body in dancelike motions that did not distract, with well-chosen tempi creating striking unanimity in his players. Instrumentalists and singers all introduced very pretty ornamentation in their lines as appropriate to this music.

As with many of Lully's operas, the libretto of Acis et Galatée, by Jean Galbert de Campistron and not Lully's longtime collaborator Quinault, is somewhat pedestrian. Lully mostly avoids the Italian operatic tendency to feature singers with flashy arias, and this opera is no exception. The characters have sections of their texts set in Lully's signature arioso with a few aria-like pieces here and there. An exception is in the third act, after Polyphemus crushes his rival, Acis, with a huge rock. Galatea rises up from the sea, where she was hiding, and sings a long sort of scena, which showed off Ms. Le Roi's voice in a range of tempos and styles. You have to be careful of the Greco-Roman gods: in response to Galatea's plea that Acis be brought back to life from his unjust murder, the gods revive him, only to transform him into a river. This was one of the nicer effects provided by the dancers, who could have appeared more than they did (Lully's music seemed somewhat lifeless without more visual spectacle): they appeared as a stream of river divinities, in blue and aqua costumes, around a dancer as the metamorphosed Acis, for the final divertissement.

Lully was famous for his composition of extended passacailles, pieces based on the ostinato repetition of repeating bass line, usually on a four-bar, stepwise descending bass line, the minor mode tetrachord from do to sol. (The effect of this sort of piece, or of the related genre of the chaconne, as I said in a review of a concert I heard in Manchester last summer, is "a hypnotic suspension of the normal rules of harmony, allowing Baroque composers to introduce daring progressions.") The passacaille that concludes this opera is a doozie, lasting for most of the final scene, and involving two bass patterns in alternation, one descending and one ascending. The dancers provided beautiful motions during the orchestral interludes between the singing of soloists and chorus, all adding to the seemingly endless sequence of variation that Lully spins out minute after minute. Typical of the artificiality that led Lully to begin all of his operas with a sycophantic prologue, addressed to Louis XIV (or in this case to his son, the Grand Dauphin, who was honored at the Anet celebrations where this opera was premiered), the opera concludes by drawing attention to the presence of the audience in its story, with its final lines: "Sous ses lois l'Amour veut qu'on jouisse / D'un bonheur qui jamais ne finisse: / Tendres cœurs, venez tous / en jouir avec nous" (Under its laws Love wants us to enjoy an unending happiness: tender hearts, come all to enjoy it with us).

A note to Washington National Opera: it might be time to starting thinking about staging a Baroque opera. I have written here about how both the Opéra de Lyon (Poppea) and Opéra de Paris (Hercules) have teamed up with Les Arts Florissants to stage Baroque operas, and Concerto Vocale has been on the stage in Paris, and countertenors have even been at the Met (Rodelinda). WNO could do worse than partnering with Opera Lafayette to do a full staging of a Baroque opera at Lisner for their 2007 season. Opera did not begin with Mozart, people.

For its final performance of the season, Opera Lafayette will present Antonio Sacchini's Oedipe à Colone (1786), again at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, on Saturday, May 14, at 8 pm.


Du Bellay on Rome

In preparation for my trip to Rome, to make a recording in Santa Maria Maggiore with the Choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, I have been watching movies about Rome and reading from Henry James's Rome writing. I also dusted off my copy of Joachim Du Bellay's collection of poetry about Rome, Les Antiquités de Rome, published in 1558, after he had lived in Rome from 1553 to 1557. Du Bellay, member of the Pléiade with Ronsard and author of the Défense et Illustration de la Langue Françoise, was dead within two years. Rereading the poems, I still liked Sonnet 29 very much. Here is Du Bellay's text, with the English adaptation (The Ruines of Rome) by Edmund Spenser, which is a nice blend of translation and poetry:

Tout ce qu'Egypte en pointe façonna,
Tout ce que Grèce à la corinthienne,
A l'ionique, attique ou dorienne,
Pour l'ornement des temples maçonna :

Tout ce que l'art de Lysippe donna,
La main d'Apelle ou la main phidienne,
Soulait orner cette ville ancienne,
Dont la grandeur le ciel même étonna :

Tout ce qu'Athène eut onques de sagesse,
Tout ce qu'Asie eut onques de richesse,
Tout ce qu'Afrique eut onques de nouveau,

S'est vu ici. O merveille profonde !
Rome vivant fut l'ornement du monde,
Et morte elle est du monde le tombeau.
All that which Aegypt whilome did deuise,
All that which Greece their temples to embraue,
After th' Ionicke, Atticke, Doricke guise,
Or Corinth skil'd in curious workes to graue;

All that Lysippus practike arte could forme,
Apelles wit, or Phidias his skill,
Was wont this auncient Citie to adorne,
And the the heauen it selfe with her wide wonders fill;

All that which Athens euer brought forth wise,
All that which Afrike euer brought forth strange,
All that which Asie euer had of prise,

Was here to see. O meruelous great change:
Rome liuing, was the worlds sole ornament,
And dead, is now the worlds sole moniment.

Lord Byron's remarks on Rome in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage are also worth reading again.

Hilary Hahn at Strathmore

It was Ionarts' first time at the spanking new concert hall at Strathmore (a 30-to-50-some minute Metro-ride from D.C.), and it offered Hilary Hahn with the Baltimore Symphony under Marin Alsop. From seat J1 (some 15 feet away from the stage on the left aisle), the sound was present, well defined, and the brass in Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and Joan Tower's Fanfare for the (cherish the wit!) Uncommon Woman, No. 1, had a proper forward edge. These works that opened the evening need no comment, especially since Tim Page said everything there is to be said about Joan Tower's work in his review on Saturday.

The Prokofiev does deserve mention, however. The pianissimo start was so delicate that some in the audience hadn't even noticed that Marin Alsop was already under way. Hilary Hahn, a graceful, rather lithe thing in a beautiful green skirt (all too often, the female musician's choice in clothing is woefully over the top or downright painful... simple elegance, as here, is rare enough to warrant mention) went right with the delicate opening and played with the lightness of a squirrel in ballet class.

She seems so completely involved with her playing that her every motion becomes part of the music, not part of a show (à la Salerno-Sonnenberg). Left-hand pizzicato amid furious runs in the 2nd movement? No problem. Like a musical spider did her left hand ensure near perfection while her right hand turned the notes into beautiful music. Her modern French instrument, a bit more nasal than old Italians but with a clarity—almost glassiness—that I cherished in the Prokofiev only accentuated her clean style and ability.

A cell phone rang—fortunately?—exactly between the 2nd and 3rd movements. Perhaps I will be deemed unduly cruel, but I think that for a year, across all orchestra homes in the world, performances should stop upon a cell phone ringing and not resume until the culprit has stood up to acknowledge the shame. Hilary Hahn, who does not look the 25 years she is, had a mature grasp of the Moderato that (I feel like paraphrasing Tim Page again) ought to have convinced every audience member of the beauty of the work, if not Prokofiev’s music altogether.

Brahms's Symphony No. 3, as announced by the associate principle horn's preconcert speech (too long by nine-tenths), is indeed a difficult work to bring off successfully. I found that phrases in the opening got lost because of some odd accentuations. Unlike the Prokofiev, where the orchestra was either marvelous or Hilary Hahn too good for me to notice weakness behind her, the Brahms exposed rather limp and blasé playing. Bowings among violins were just approximately in sync and the first violinist's engaged moves (antics?) became more a distraction than anything else. Successive movements had moments of real beauty—like the clarinets in the opening of the Andante—but were brought home more safely than with inspiration. The finale (Allegro) had admirable drive and energy. With all the bravos hurled at Marin Alsop, she felt compelled to delight the audience with a Hungarian Dance as an encore.

For a brilliant Prokofiev violin concerto in a beautiful and good-sounding hall, the trip to Strathmore was eminently worth it, even if Montgomery County's "no smoking… not even outside!" policy left me fuming.

Picture (Detail) courtesy Deutsche Grammophon, © Kasskara

Added Commentary by Charles T. Downey:

I, too, leapt at the chance to hear Hilary Hahn at Strathmore Saturday night. I have been waiting for the opportunity to listen to the violinist who had Terry Teachout positively enraptured last December. The rest of the concert was pleasant enough but nothing deserving much mention. The pairing of Copland's fanfare with Tower's only served to point out the deficiencies of the latter piece. Copland made something iconic, while Tower has made something sadly derivative.

The final piece on the program, the Brahms Third, is a piece that probably does nothing to alleviate harpist Helen Radice's recently expressed doubts about that composer's often difficult music at her blog, twang twang twang. It has a stunning third movement (Poco allegretto), which is one of my favorites, but as a complete work it may be the least satisfying of the four symphonies. (Since Helen has called the German Requiem the "fourth most tedious piece in the world"—a work whose beauty obsessed me as an undergraduate that I listened to it daily for about a year—I doubt that my recommendation of the first piano concerto as an antidote to Brahmsophobia will be of any help to Helen. Fortunately, we don't all have to like the same music. Helen's Brahms backlash cannot have been any worse than what greeted me after expressing my indifference to certain long half-hours in the operas of Wagner.)

The problem with the Brahms in this particular performance was a lack of rhythmic unity, stemming in the first movement from what, to me, looked like nearly unreadable gestures from the conductor, Marin Alsop. She did a good job of providing nice dynamic contrasts and carefully brought out delicate inner voicings, but the pacing seemed ossified at times. There was a similar problem with ensemble in my beloved third movement, where the wind players were clearly having trouble at times following Ms. Alsop's occasionally erratic direction. She is an acrobatic conductor, full of energy and clearly talented, but I wonder just what her extravagant gestures communicate to her players, especially when her movements take her hands below stand level.

Never mind, since it was the Prokofiev that we really came to hear. Hilary Hahn (whose Web site is a wonderful place to poke around), we were reminded by the opening comments, is a Baltimore girl, and she had some of her earliest musical experiences with the Baltimore Symphony. Let me assure you that her hometown was glad to welcome her back. In her black chemise and apple-green silk skirt, she would have had a supportive audience no matter how she had played. Make no mistake, however, she played this concerto to within an inch of its proverbial life. It is a happy, almost airy, piece, unusual for Prokofiev, and it seems to be related to the feeling of a composer on his way out of Russia, sinking into chaos as it was in 1917, on his way to Europe by way of Siberia. Ms. Hahn gave us a shimmering opening over the buzzing sounds of the orchestral introduction, leading into a virtuoso display of good tone all over her instrument's strings (strong and husky on the G string and pure and soaring on the E string), hypnotic accuracy on double stops and silky fantasy in the harmonics, shrieking glissando effects and rasping mute sounds.

As for the idiot's cell phone ringing between the 2nd and 3rd movements, which Jens mentions, I prefer the reaction of that conductor in Copenhagen, who stopped a piece when he heard a cell phone ringing, waited for it to stop, and then began again from the beginning. The third movement (Moderato) began like the wheezing of an old clock, over which Ms. Hahn's violin soared on a folk-like melody. This gave me the chance to appreciate her vibrato, which is pronounced enough to give the line life but not so much that it obscures the sense of true pitch. There really was no technical flaw in her performance, aside from the occasional tiny imperfection (shockingly rare with Ms. Hahn) there to reassure you that you are listening to a live performance. Not only is Hilary Hahn a true virtuoso, she is a consummate musician, aware when her part is an accompaniment to the orchestra (and not vice-versa) and, in a rare moment when Prokofiev does not call on her in this concerto, directing appreciatively with her chin the music she hears from her colleagues. The greatest tribute was from concertmaster Jonathan Carney, who stood up at the end of the concerto, clearly moved, to shake hands effusively with Ms. Hahn. I am sad that I did not know, as critic Daniel Ginsberg (there for the Washington Post) told us at the intermission, that more applause might have convinced Ms. Hahn to play an encore before intermission. That would have been worthwhile.


Get Your Mud On!

What has 878 artists in 160 exhibitions at 122 venues? In Baltimore it's called Tour de Clay. Billed as "the largest visual arts program ever held in the country" (does size really matter?), the event was launched last night at the Baltimore Clayworks galleries and newly renovated and expanded studios.

Clayworks began way back in 1980, started by 9 artists (mud lovers, as am I). The original building was a beautiful decommissioned public library, in the Mount Washington area of Baltimore City, that was granted to the artists on the strength of their proposal for the property. Time has flown by and Clayworks has become a great success. I can remember firing my first attempts in clay in the big gas-fired kiln, and many other artists have been nurtured by this studio.

The 122 venues that are part of this exhibit are spread around the city, in schools, museums, and office buildings, with a variety of lectures and educational components. The annual ACC (American Craft Council) winter market starts this week also and will play a hand in the festivities. From what I've seen so far, the exhibits cover a wide range from traditional and functional to conceptual (image shown, "Gathering", Richard Cleaver) and with some very beautiful glazing. Here's mud in your eye! (Sorry.)

Matthias Goerne in Schumann Songs

available at Amazon
Robert Schumann, Lieder, Matthias Goerne, Eric Schneider

Matthias Goerne is undoubtedly one of the foremost baritones of his generation, and thanks to the support of his current record label, Decca, he enjoys a visibility (or audibility, if you wish) like few other Lieder-singers.

His recent Winterreise with Alfred Brendel on the same label (he had already done the Winterreise once with Graham Johnson for the Hyperion complete Schubert Song series) was a tremendous success, and while it did not replace long-cherished favorites of mine (Hans Hotter with Gerald Moore, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Jörg Demus, Peter Pears with Benjamin Britten—the latter for the piano playing), it offered dramatic insights and plenty of musicality to cherish. His Schöne Müllerin with regular accompanist Eric Schneider at the piano that came before is even more successful.

Little wonder that expectations should be high for his disc of Schumann songs. The recording is difficult to assess: the first few listenings were rather a disappointment, a mixed bag at the least, mostly because of the songs themselves. The arrangement's logic and order escapes me, and not all songs are equally strong. Schumann may be popularly underestimated for his output after 1849, but at least his songs are far less obviously beautiful and more difficult to absorb. But even some of the works that came out of the productive year of 1840 fall short of his most beautiful.

The dramatic ballades that Goerne chooses—Belsazar, Die beiden Granadiere, and Die Löwenbraut—offer their greatness only very reluctantly. Indeed, Die Löwenbraut may just not have any. For a lover of Schumann, clearly, these reservations are of little concern; what matters is that Goerne endows all but a few songs with the best his voice has to offer: a dramatic and well-rounded, voluminous voice of natural pronunciation and with excellent diction. But he can also 'do' mild and tender, though perhaps with less authority. Die Lotusblume (op. 25, no. 7) sounds terrifically urging and romantic, but it's also one of the stronger op. 25 songs he chose for the recording. Dichters Genesung seems derivative (or foreboding, rather) of both Die beiden Granadiere and Belsazar, both of which are impressive and impressively performed (though neither are favorites of mine). The five songs from op. 90 included here, too, take repeated listening to warm up to. Nachtlied (op. 96, no. 1) is potentially gorgeous, but so slow that it's difficult to concentrate and experience as one, elongated whole. Widmung (op. 25, no. 1) is one of Robert Schumann's finest melodies and lacks nothing in urgency with Goerne behind it, but I could see how a sunnier, lightflooded, and delighted (slightly slower) version might give me even more pleasure. Werner Güra (whose latest Lieder recital on Harmonia Mundi charmed me utterly) comes to mind.

The final song (very cute) is Zum Schluss (op. 25, no. 26). It closes on a conciliatory note a disc that demands repeated and concentrated hearing to appreciate. As such, it is not a good introduction to the Lied, or even Schumann songs. (Güra, again, would be an optimal choice for that.) Nor, for that matter, is it a good introduction to Goerne, even when he sings admirably. If you like Goerne and Schumann already, though—and are willing to give the disc a few spins, preferably with headphones—it should grow on the willing ears and delight.