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David Finckel and Wu Han at the Library of Congress

David Finckel and Wu HanPerhaps cellist David Finckel has a photographic memory, but I was nevertheless impressed when, at the Library of Congress last night, he played three substantial sonatas from memory. (Worse, three sonatas by Russian composers; worse again, three sonatas by Russian composers of the modern era; and thrice worse, one of them was a new work from 2002.) With his wife and duo partner, pianist Wu Han, the cellist of the Emerson String Quartet soared through the evening's program without a net and never looked down, although at least some of his careful glances toward his partner may have actually been directed at the score on her Steinway's stand. (Perhaps it was her outfit that caught his attention: bright red stiletto heels and a colorful red knee-length chemise, complete with red tasseled fringe and the image of Frida Kahlo, as she painted herself, on front and back.)

The duo began with Prokofiev's Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major, op. 119. This piece, composed in 1949, has had an illustrious performance history, since it was composed for a young cellist Prokofiev met at the end of his life, named Mstislav Rostropovich (who premiered it for the Soviet Composers' Union, with pianist Sviatoslov Richter). Since this is a work probably conceived for, and certainly approved by, the Soviet cultural apparatus, I should not be surprised at how tonal it is. After an elegiac first movement, the second and third movements are examples of Prokofiev's whimsical humor, but without the perverse dissonance, for the most part. Finckel displayed an easy mastery of the harmonic and pizzicato effects, and both performers played with great flair.

For me, the highlight of the concert was the Washington premiere of Lera Auerbach's Sonata No. 1 for Violoncello and Piano. The Coolidge Auditorium has been home to so many premieres of new music over the years, because of the interests of its namesake, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, one of the great American patrons of music in the last century (read this post for more information on Mrs. Coolidge). The Coolidge may have one of the most receptive audiences for new music in the country, because the Library encourages (requires, really) performers to present new music and premieres are usually greeted with enthusiasm. That being said, the audience applauded especially long and heartily for this sonata, composed by Ms. Auerbach in 2002, and I found it to be the most rewarding piece on the program (and I love Prokofiev).

Last fall, I read a lot of blog talk about why there are no Mozarts in our time. This got started, as I recall, by the appearance of a child prodigy named Jay Greenberg on the television show 60 Minutes. A. C. Douglas got the ball rolling [God (or Whatever) Protect Him, November 28, 2004] at sounds & fury:

The kid sees and hears his compositions the way Mozart did his -- in his head, complete (and in Greenberg's case, orchestrated) -- and simply copies them out when he feels ready. On lightning-brief acquaintance, this kid appears to me to be the Real Deal (I refuse to so much as even entertain the thought that it may just be wishful thinking on my part). God (or Whatever), Greenberg's gift, and his own confidence in that gift, protect him from falling into the clutches of "New Music" academics and his less gifted (or no-talent) New Music peers, or, rather, near-peers (in respect of age), who absent that protection might succeed in persuading him he's writing his music in a dead language, and ought to instead compose in a language more this-century. If Greenberg resists, perhaps this century will find in him a composer of genius the likes of which has not been seen since Mozart or Mendelssohn.
ACD's various updates, responding to other bloggers who commented on his post, cover most of the relevant commentary, so you can follow the links from his post. (I would add, however, Alex Ross's post at The Rest Is Noise and one of his columns in The New Yorker earlier in the year.) ACD's view on this matter—"simply expressing the hope that Greenberg would not abandon the language of tonality in his compositions" (his own words, taken from the Comments section), as if Mozart or Mendelssohn themselves should not have abandoned Palestrina-style counterpoint instead of writing in what was, then, a contemporary style—is not the point. The point is where are the composer prodigies? Ladies and gentlemen, look no further than Lera Auerbach.

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Lera Auerbach, 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano, Vadim Gluzman, Angela Yoffe
She was born in Chelyabinsk, near Siberia, in 1973, but she defected to the United States in 1991, when she was on a concert tour at the age of 18. Ever since, she has been performing and composing—"in the footsteps of the great pianist-composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries," as Tomás Hernández put it in his program notes (a line actually borrowed from the composer's publicity information). Not only that, but she is a published and award-winning poet. For the last five or six years, Ms. Auerbach has received prestigious awards and residencies as a composer, and her works have been performed around the world, supported by the greatest performing stars of our day (Gidon Kremer being perhaps the most influential). From what I know of her music, and certainly to judge by the performance last night of her first cello sonata, this incredible recognition is entirely merited.

The piece hangs together very well, and the four movements each have an individual character but are also of a piece. Auerbach uses all the sounds available to a 21st-century composer: 5/4 meter in an off-kilter waltz in the first movement and shifting metric changes in the third movement; ghostly effects on the cello bridge and deep murky clusters in the bottom octave of the piano; in the best eastern European tradition, a Lament second movement (see my comments on this type of movement in a previous review), which alternates more or less pure triads with crushing dissonances from Messiaen and beyond; an emphasis on the semitone interval in the theme that binds the piece together, set into motion in the cello trills of the last movement, which made Finckel's instrument sound like a hive of angry bees (this after other moments in which he is called to pretend he is playing a guitar, with strumming and plucking). Finckel and Han, to whom Auerbach dedicated the sonata and by whom it was premiered, played the piece with obvious devotion and energy. When they left the stage for intermission, they seemed exhausted.

The second half consisted of Rachmaninov's Sonata for Piano and Cello in G Minor, op. 19. I have written previously of my aversion to Rachmaninov, and the saccharine melodies of this piece had their expected effect. The audience loved it, and I mostly rolled my eyes. At least this piece is relatively early (premiered in 1901), so the style is not yet truly retrogressive, although the treacle-meter was in the red zone in the first and fourth movements. In the second movement (Allegro scherzando), I couldn't quite place what other composer Rachmaninov seemed to be channeling. If the movement is a joke (scherzo), it's a dark one. Binary meter, with ostinato triplets, a short low rumbling bass motif: it's Schubert's Erlkönig! Not a real quotation but an evocation, whether conscious or subconscious.

In the fourth movement especially, this sonata veers toward the kind of schmaltzy bathos found in the worst New Age imitations of Rachmaninov's music. Just as Adam Kirsch observed about the popularity of e. e. cummings among teenagers (an article in Harvard Magazine, brought to my attention by the Rake), there is a reason why the teenage compositions I receive from students from time to time all sound like precious Rachmaninov. Imagine my dismay when Wu Han, halting the ringing ovations, announced their encore with the words, "How can we play a Russian program without the Vocalise?" This is not to criticize the playing, which was invariably fine, but merely the expression of a personal bias. No more Rachmaninov, please.

The next concert at the Library of Congress, on May 12 at 8 pm, will feature the early music group Akademie für alte Musik, from Berlin.

See also the review by Tom Huizenga (Washington Post, May 2).



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G. Kancheli, Lament, G. Kremer, etc.
After an unacceptably unfunny, boring, and interminable speech by a violinist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Gidon Kremer relieved the audience at the Strathmore with the sounds of Lonesome—2 Great Slava from 2GKs. The subtitle is rather tiresome, with its jarring New Age touch, and is really just a dedication to Rostropovich from the work's composer, Giya Kancheli, and Gidon Kremer.

The stop-and-go pianissimo and piano start of the work, beautifully melodic and with a catchy rhythm, gave the audience ample opportunity to cough right into the most tender passages. For its beauty, Lonesome pays with lack of originality. The sudden, terraced tutti outbursts that end even more suddenly we already know from him and other conservative East European composers. I like Kancheli's work, which I know mostly from a slew of ECM releases: this is not one I’ll be quick to add 2myCollXtion.

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D. Shostakovich, Complete Concertos, G. Kremer, H. Schiff, V. Mullova, P. Jablonski, C. Ortiz
No worries, though, because Shostakovich loomed over Kancheli's horizon. The First Violin Concerto in A Minor, op. 99, is a magnificent work, and the Strathmore acoustics' (over)emphasis of the lowest registers had the double basses buzz deliciously. Even if Kremer was not quite in Carnegie form yet (a few slips, a few flat notes in the Nocturne: Moderato first movement)—where he played yesterday (Alex Ross was there and was left temporarily speechless)—he also showed why he has the reputation of being one of the most appealing violinists of our day. His tone in the first movement's sul tasto passage was lean, bleak even... and though I thought "honeyed" at one point, "hauntingly colorless" probably better describes it.

The attack of the second movement temporarily turned Kremer's instrument into a viola, before the aggressive high notes put an end to this. Vigorously quoting Shostakovich's initials (D-S-C-H), Kremer's bow looked like it had seen fierce battle. Amid half a dozen flying strands of horsehair, Kremer gave a good amount of ferocity to the wild Scherzo, without his relatively small tone ever losing its lithe quality. The rhythm of the entire movement was infectious. Meticulously carved notes dominated the long third movement's Passacaglia: Andante and the Presto bit of the fourth movement, Burleque, ended the work on a note of (much appreciated, judging from the applause) vigor.

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C. Debussy, La Mer, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado
Debussy's La Mer followed—all under the leadership of Yuri Termikanov, of course—and rather than shimmering with magic, it had a nervous flutter to it. It was executed capably and offered rousing moments. (What a live performance can be is shown by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra's recording under Abbado, both on their CD and DVD of the occasion.)

Ravel's La Valse is Johann Strauss, Jr., on acid, but for all the turmoil in which Ravel found himself when writing it, it's essentially good-natured and not as cynical or scathingly ironic as Mahler's often twisted use of the waltz and its forms. Well played as the BSO offered it, it was a joy to hear.

After his Carnegie Hall appearance, violinist Gidon Kremer will appear again in this area, with his group (the Kremata Baltica Soloists), on Monday, May 2, 7:30 pm. They will present a program of music by Shostakovich and Alexander Wustin) at Shriver Hall, on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Md. They will take the same program back to Carnegie Hall on Tuesday.

See the reviews of the BSO's concert at Carnegie Hall with Gidon Kremer: Anne Midgette, A Russian Main Course Served With a French Dessert (New York Times, May 2); and Tim Smith, Big night for music of Russia (Baltimore Sun, May 2).

Ionarts Concert Schedule: Weekend

We are experimenting with changing the format and schedule of the Ionarts Concert Schedule. Beginning this Monday, we will post it as a weekly feature, every Monday, as Classical Week in Washington. Today's installment includes what remains on the schedule for this weekend. If there are concerts you would like to see included on our schedule, send your suggestions by e-mail (praecentor at yahoo dot com). Happy listening!

Saturday, April 30, 2 pm
Giovanni Bellucci, piano (Liszt and Berlioz transcriptions)
Kennedy Center (Terrace Theater)
See the review by Tim Page (Washington Post, May 2) and the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, May 3)

Saturday, April 30, 10 am to 5 pm
French Opera: Sensuality, Sentiment, and Spectacle (Opera Lafayette conductor Ryan Brown, François Loup, harpsichordist Andrew Appel, choreographer Cheryl Stafford, music rhetorician Patricia Ranum)
Smithsonian Resident Associate Program, S. Dillon Ripley Center (1100 Jefferson Drive SW)

Saturday, April 30, 8 pm
Catholic University of America Chamber Singers (Leo Nestor, conductor)
Spring Concert [FREE]
St. Peter's Church on Capitol Hill (313 Second Street SE)

Saturday, April 30, 8:15 pm; Wednesday, May 4, 7:30 pm; Friday, May 6, 8:15 pm; Sunday, May 8, 3 pm
Offenbach, The Tales of Hoffmann
Baltimore Opera
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, May 2)

Sunday, May 1, 2 pm
Kennedy Center Chamber Players (Fauré, Françaix, Brahms)
Kennedy Center (Terrace Theater)
See the review by Grace Jean (Washington Post, May 3)

Sunday, May 1, 3 pm
Washington Bach Consort, The Joy of Bach! (Third Orchestral Suite, Cantata No. 51, and Ascension Oratorio)
Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall, Alexandria, Virginia

Sunday, May 1, 4 pm
Ecumenical Evensong in thanksgiving for the life and witness of Pope John Paul II and in celebration of the election and enthronement of His Holiness Benedict XVI
Choir of Men and Girls from Washington National Cathedral and Choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Gorecki, Totus tuus)
Washington National Cathedral

Sunday, May 1, 5 pm
Andre Ponochevny, piano
Phillips Collection

Sunday, May 1, 6:30 pm
Dean Shostak, glass armonica, with Kelly Kennedy, soprano
National Gallery of Art
See the review by Gail Wein (Washington Post, May 3)

Sunday, May 1, 7:30 pm
Yundi Li (winner of the Chopin Competition at age 17), piano (Mozart, Chopin, Liszt)
Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Md.), Shriver Hall
See the review by Tim Smith (Baltimore Sun, May 4)

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

It's So Cool to Be Norwegian

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The Ground,
Tord Gustavsen Trio

Last Monday, the Tord Gustavsen Trio from Norway stopped by DC on their North American Tour in support of their new ECM record, The Ground. At the well-filled Blues Alley they played the calming, generally slow, and marvelously melodious jazz that is made up mostly, if not entirely, of Tord Gustavsen's compositions, which often sound like improvisations. Slow, passionate, and filled with yearning was their opening number, At Home, which connoted the lyrical passages of Keith Jarrett's improvisations on the Köln or Vienna Concert albums, coupled with hints of Jacques Loussier's Bach transmogrifications.

The entire set was dominated by works that imperceptibly picked up speed and steam until—seemingly out of nowhere—they reached an irresistible, if mellow, drive, a melodic and rhythmic "slow burn." Almost as imperceptibly as the song's propelling parts came, they went. Ditto for Sentiment, which is from their new release. Also in best Keith Jarrett fashion, Tord Gustavsen hums, sings, and winces along with the wound and unwound phrases that he and his Trio's members cull from the music. Twins was welded onto Reach Out and Touch it, the former with a bit more energy than the others, the former with a large solo piano part by Jarle Vespestad, again not unlike Keith Jarrett, and ending with the most subtle, charming drum solo I've heard in jazz so far. Well... it could have, should have ended there, and had it not been for the continuation with a beautiful bit with an array of resolved chords, I would have considered it a missed opportunity.

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The Köln Concert,
Keith Jarrett

Curtains Aside and Still There made the Keith Jarrett affinity only more obvious. The way the Trio shifts keys or has long, searching passages followed by a series of resolutions makes the three Norwegians sound like the Keith Jarrett Trio, if the Keith Jarrett Trio actually sounded anything like Keith Jarrett. If you like Keith, then you will love the Tord Gustavsen Trio, which for all its similarities, is far too good to be considered a mere knockoff. Still, if May's Jazz Times, in their article "Quiet is the New Loud" is spot-on, stating that "Gustavsen chooses subtleness and beauty over contrast and bombast," I disagree (for by now obvious reasons) when they follow that with "and creates an utterly unique sound in the process." If there is any one thing their sound is not, it is unique. The point was proven when the intro to the third-to-last song of the second set took a several-minutes-long piano introduction that seemed lifted straight from the Köln Concert.

Meditative, ruminating, reminiscing are the qualities of the trio's sound, and the always elegant, felt, exquisitely subtle Mr. Vespestad on drums (looking like a smaller, lithe version of Bruce Willis) contributes perhaps even more to this than his colleague on bass, Harald Johnsen. Token of Tango and Graceful Touch came and went, the latter a "song of yearning," though that's good enough to describe them all. I was surprised that Tord Gustavsen was surprised that I heard Jarrett all over the place, but the humble musician, extraordinarily friendly just as his colleagues acknowledged him as a main influence, betraying a sense of flattery to be compared to Jarrett (who is far more popular in Europe than in the U.S.), rather than annoyance that I may have suggested lack of originality. I assume that if Gustavsen and Co. like Jarrett as much as I do, they would be flattered to sound like him, especially if that wasn't even what they tried to do.

This is one kind of jazz—well behaved, stylish (down to the impeccable suits the three young men wore), and beautiful—and it's not for everyone, I suspect. If your favorite record is Miles Davis, Live at the Newport, you won't be impressed. If you like intelligent and lyrical late-night jazz, make either of their records your next.

Artemis Foul?

Ionarts welcomes guest contributor Lindsay Heller, who offers this review of a concert we had planned to attend but could not.

Artemis String Quartet, image by Hertha Hurnaus

Other Articles:

Allan Kozinn, Mozart and Bartók Find a Lot to Talk About (New York Times, April 23), review of April 21 concert at Zankel Hall, New York City

Daniel Ginsberg, Artemis: Turning Up The Volume (Washington Post, April 30)
Sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS), the concert on Wednesday, April 27, given by Germany's young Artemis String Quartet, in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, is not unlike others in that it certainly had its bright moments, but with the good definitely came the bad.

Their opening selection, Felix Mendelssohn's String Quartet in A Minor, op. 13, sounded (and looked) over-rehearsed. First violinist Heime Müller not only proved that he is still a bit too young for the responsibility of leading a quartet but also seemed to suffer from what some of my fellow violinists and I like to call "soloist wannabe syndrome": he consistently played too loud and often made it seem as if the other members of the ensemble only existed to accompany him. Some of the more beautiful second violin and viola lines hardly had the chance to shine through the overbearing first violinist's performance, and for music as rich (and at times as delicate) as Mendelssohn's, there needed to have been more sensitivity in the overall delivery.

Although the majority of the Mendelssohn lacked dynamic contrast and sounded unbalanced, there was one moment of glory: the Allegro di molto section of the third movement (Allegretto con moto). For the first time that evening, the quartet was incredibly impressive. One of their strengths seems to lie in immaculate bow control, therefore allowing great crispness and clarity in the delivery of the rapid sixteenth-note passages, and finally showing the audience how the parts in a quartet should interact with one another. Unfortunately, the beautiful Adagio ending of the piece was just too loud, and that ultimately prevented that feeling of intense emotional release one can achieve after becoming intimate with Mendelssohn's music.

Their performance and interpretation of Bartók's String Quartet No. 2 was by far the highlight of the evening. (I honestly think that the variable that made the biggest difference was having the violinists switch parts. Placing Natalia Prischepenko at the helm of this ensemble was a very wise artistic decision.) The entire piece was absolutely marvelous, and I finally began to see what others have seen in this group: a great sense of musicality, wonderful bow control, and superb articulation. Although young, all four members displayed great sensitivity not only for the notes, but for each other, actually working as a chamber ensemble and not against themselves. After the somewhat disappointing Mendelssohn, it pleased me to see them paying close attention to dynamics, seeing as Bartók's often hauntingly beautiful use of dissonances can only achieve their rightful power if the players actually do what the composer intended. Noteworthy Bartók is not something that can be achieved by anyone: it takes careful practice, confident performers, and most of all, a thorough understanding of the music.

All three movements were executed with brilliance, but the second movement was absolutely riveting from start to finish. It was unfortunate, however, when an elderly gentlemen felt the need to leave his third-row seat and walk up the flight of stairs to exit the Terrace Theater in between the second and third movements. What was supposed to be a few seconds' break for tuning turned into a minute-plus pause that obviously angered the ensemble, but their frustration was justified: after all the energy and tension created in a brilliant Allegro, the long pause robbed everyone of the aura the music had so far created. Instead of directly going into the final Lento movement, the haunting, dissonant, bleak, yet interestingly beautiful third movement appeared to be somewhat bland and almost boring.

Continuing on with Robert Schumann's Quartet No. 3, seeing Natalia Prischepenko on first violin basically put my heart as ease. The overall performance of the piece was quite pleasing, with the Assai agitato and Tempo risoluto being the most exciting and well played of the four movements. Although the interpretation of the opening Andante did not seem like Schumann to my ears, their interpretation evolved into something fairly wonderful that made it seem as if the strings were instead singing one of the composer's noted Lieder. The last movement, on the other hand, was a bit of a mess: prior to beginning the Lento, cellist Eckart Runge noticeably tuned his C string flat, and throughout the movement there was entirely too much viola. It appeared as if violist Volker Jacobsen and second violinist Müller were in some sort of duel again for who can play the loudest and most agitated once they reached the second a tempo section. Both Jacobsen and Müller played the train-like dotted eighth/sixteenth note rhythm incorrectly; however, the problems with counting could not hold a flame to the fact that the two men added overbearing accents on each dotted eighth note, which did not belong there in the first place. After the major increase in volume, the quartet unfortunately had a lot of trouble coming down to a reasonable dynamic, and what was supposed to be a soft and delicate ending wound up being a little too fast and like much of what came before it, just too loud.

The audience was treated to a surprise in the quartet's choice of an encore: a partial transcription by violinist Müller (who, I think, doubles as a Joshua Bell impersonator on weekends) of Mendelssohn's coveted piano work, Lieder ohne Worte. Anyone who has heard this on the piano in the hands of a true artist knows that words cannot explain the beauty Mendelssohn managed to convey through music. Much to my dismay, it seemed as if Müller merely wrote this to allow him to be seen and heard one last time before leaving the stage, and I know the smirk on his face as he nearly giggled through it was not appreciated by some of us in the audience.

Despite their shortcomings in this performance, it certainly seems as if the young blood in this quartet has a lot of talent and hopefully many years ahead to show the world just that. I think this concert displayed the dangers of over-preparation and how it can almost destroy the brilliance and power behind a program such as this. All in all, the Artemis String Quartet shows great potential for the future, and as is the case with many young artists, greater wisdom will come with experience.


Shanghai Quartet and a Taste of China

Two Wednesdays ago (April 20), the Shanghai Quartet and huqin virtuoso Wang Guowei stopped by the Freer/Sackler Gallery to present a concert of Chinese repertoire and Brahms. Second violinist Yi-Wen Jiang arranged and recomposed several Chinese songs and traditional melodies for string quartet, and the result is his piece China Song from 2002. Since he emphasized and introduced Western elements to these songs, they sound more like a 19th-century faux-chinois quartet by a hopelessly melodic French composer. The recognizable Chinese melodic progressions and the wailing tone of the Chinese fiddle are always present, but only as shapes swimming in a sea of Western classical harmony. That's hardly a criticism—I don't know Chinese music well enough and can't say how much of the original was left anyway—but actually a compliment. Maybe it was like Chinese food in America: inauthentic but palatable. Every piece had a different flavor, and they all had a certain orchestral character about them. The third song ("A Busker's Little Tune") had me think of a possible music school assignment: compose a short string quartet movement on this (the "Busker's") tune, and do it in the style of Bartók.

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L.v.Beethoven, String Quartetts opp.59 2 & 3
Shanghai Quartet

After these songs, the quartet (who recently starred in the soundtrack of Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda) had convinced Wang Guowei to play a few solo works ("since he's here already..."). Both, the variation on a song and Listening to the Pine, a folk song by a famous street musician from the 1940s, were beautifully played on the huqin, the Chinese fiddle, which looks like a Coke can on a stick with a string and a bow playing it. While the former piece was more calm and melodic, the latter used the entire dynamic range of the instrument and was rather animated.

The 1997 Fiddle Suite for Huqin and String Quartet by Chen Yi showcases three different types of huqin, the instrument the Chinese adopted from the central Asian tribes and subsequently made their own. The work is best described in Mr. Chen's own words, lifted straight from Susan Halpern's program notes:

The first movement showcases the original sweet sound of the erhu (the timbre is like the human voice). The second movement is a realization of an eleventh-century poem by Su Shi, and the original Chinese characters of the poem are reprinted above the huqin melody in the score. It imitates the exaggerated reciting voice in Chinese operatic style, while the quartet plays mysterious textures to create the atmosphere, to express the parting sorrow in the poem. The third is influenced by a Beijing opera tune (the fiddle is screamingly high), while the strings sound like a percussion group. Its image came from the dancing ink on paper in Chinese calligraphy.

Needless to say, the suite was far more "Chinese" sounding than the China Song arrangements. The last movement's end, though, was as charged and fiery a finale as could be found in a DSCH symphony. Dedicated and polished playing only added to the splendor of the first half.

Brahms is a good way to measure the quality of a string quartet (the performers, not the work), since Brahms's quartets need to be performed impeccably and with plenty of gusto in order to convince. The A-Minor Quartet No. 2, op. 51, no. 2, is no exception. The complex polyphony of the first movement demands full concentration from the opening notes on. The many strands that Brahms spins into that Allegro non troppo are dazzling. To find direction amid all these impressions is difficult and if there is a common or thematic idea in it, I fail to find it. I still enjoy it, as I do the discernable, recurring melody that may serve as an anchor for the ears. The Andante moderato is dead-serious, as though "String Quartet" and fun were two polar opposites. The shadow of Beethoven was looming too large, still... and Brahms reacted differently to it than, say, Schubert, whose generally sunny attitude in his late quartets was not even impeded by syphilis.

Even if the finale has good moments, the Shanghai Quartet's adequate performance was not enough for me to warm up to it. A little bit like those works go a long way and should I happen to have a craving, the ABQ's first recording on EMI provides everything I could wish for. The second movement of Ravel's quartet was pure contrast after the somber Brahms. Pure joy next to lyricism: excitement coupled with mellifluous melody and all packed into a couple minutes made it the perfect encore.

Drinking the New Wine

Available from

Maria Soudaïeva, Slogans, translated by Antoine Volodine (Editions de l'Olivier, 2004)
An article (343 comédiennes pour un étonnant cadavre exquis au Théâtre de la Colline, April 27) by Fabienne Darge for Le Monde describes an extraordinary event in Paris. You may be familiar with the Surrealist game known in English as the Exquisite Corpse, a name taken from a line of poetry created in such a game, Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau. (There are online Exquisite Corpse games, both in text and images, happening right now, and you can even start your own at the Exquisite Corpse Server.) On April 25, at the Théâtre national de la Colline in Paris, 343 actresses, ranging in age from 17 to 91 and led more or less by film legend Jeanne Moreau, took the stage to read, one after the other, Maria Soudaïeva's book Slogans (Editions de l'Olivier, 2004). This theatrical event (called 343...Actrices...) was directed by Bérangère Bonvoisin, and it sold out the house.
Each actress spoke three times during the two hours, in the most open spectacle seen in a long time. Jeanne Moreau read, "One day, we will have swept in front of the door!" She also fired off the next-to-last sentence: "Soon, we will sleep together!" It was Evelyne Didi, adored by her peers, who closed the performance with the words, "The bad days will end!" This new kind of "exquisite corpse" is rich in references, as well as rich in mystery. There were 343 women who signed, in April 1971, the manifesto of women who had claimed to have had abortions. Jeanne Moreau was one of the signatories, as was Marie-France Pisier.

Who is Maria Soudaïeva? She was supposedly born in Vladivostok in 1954, and she apparently met her end in February 2003. She may also be nothing but an invention of the man calling himself her translator, the writer Antoine Volodine, who is only as Russian as his pseudonym and frequent reading of Tolstoy's language. One Abraham Voriaguine—note the similarities—appears in Slogans.
As far as I can tell, this book is not available in English, but there are some excerpts, in French, available online. From that, I can report that the book is essentially a Surrealistic series of hallucinatory aphorisms (e.g., Nymphes, infantes, annulez la division entre flamme et cendre!, or "Nymphs, baby girls, cancel the division between flame and ash!"), which is perfect for the sort of serial dramatic presentation that just happened in France. André Breton would be so proud.

See also Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, 343 cris d'amazones (Libération, April 25).


That's a Wrap

This has already been a busy week for me, and it is just getting started. After making a recording in Rome in March (see posts on March 12, March 25, and March 26), the Choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception completed a second recording session for a new Christmas recording last night. This will be an extended version of the radio program we recorded for Public Radio International in December. A producer, Malcolm Bruno, has been helping us make recordings since the polychoral CD we made last year, and it was great to see him again after the Rome trip. We heard some of the tracks from the first edit of the Rome CD, and Malcolm said that he is close to the final version. It sounds great, because Santa Maria Maggiore is about as close to a perfect acoustic as you can get, an ideal sonic envelope.

What do a bunch of tired singers do after finishing up a two-day recording session? Hit the bar, of course, to quaff a little liquid comfort. We have been several times to the quirky lounge of the Hotel Helix (at 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW), and it is becoming a favorite haunt. A fun night out will hopefully carry us through this Sunday. For our normal choir Mass at the Shrine (every Sunday at noon), we will be assisting at a special Mass in honor of the election of Pope Benedict XVI, celebrated by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington. That afternoon, we will head over to Washington National Cathedral, to join our Episcopalian friends for a special solemn evensong at 4 pm, in thanksgiving for the remarkable papacy of John Paul II. It would be great to see some of you local folks at either of these events.

Le Blogging

The French newspaper Le Monde, which is one of my regular reads for their excellent cultural coverage, has gotten into the blog business. This came to my attention because one of their blogs, an excellent arts blog called Lunettes Rouges has linked to Ionarts, calling us Un blog avec beaucoup d'informations sur l'art en Europe. The author is an anonymous amateur d'art, who has also left a comment here at Ionarts, on my little post concerning the Caravaggio show in Naples (now in London). I assure you, Mr. Red Glasses, I am happy to know you are reading and referring others to Ionarts. A tous nos lecteurs français et francophones, mille fois merci!

From what I can tell, Le Monde started this blogging thing with some of its own journalists, but readers are now also able to sign up for their own blogs. Other great blogs I am discovering in the Le Monde group: Big Picture, a blog in French about the United States, written by Corine Lesnes, one of the newspaper's correspondents in New York; Copier-décoller, a group blog by the photography collective Tendance Floue; Pierre Assouline's La république des livres; Virginie Luc's modern art blog Do not fold; and Francis Drouin's pêle-mail. In fact, there are already 140 blogs in the Arts and Culture category at the time of this writing. As if I didn't already have enough to read... Au boulot!


Penelope Crawford at the National Gallery

Harpsichord by William Dowd, after a 1730s instrument by François Etienne BlanchetWe've been immersed in the sound of old keyboard instruments lately: an 18th-century Snetzler organ and harpsichords at the Library of Congress and the Corcoran. On Sunday, April 24, the parade of old instruments continued with the return of the Snetzler organ, plus a harpsichord and a fortepiano, at the National Gallery's free concert series (see the program notes, in a .PDF file). Our hosts were historical keyboard specialist Penelope Crawford, formerly the harpsichordist and fortepianist for Ars Musica Baroque Orchestra, and the museum's own Stephen Ackert. This concert is the latest in the series of concerts presented in connection with the Gilbert Stuart exhibit at the National Gallery.

Ms. Crawford only played the harpischord—a copy, built in the United States by William Dowd, of a 1730s instrument by François Etienne Blanchet—once, in Haydn's Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI:28. This 1776 sonata, as the performer's own program notes informed us, was "probably intended for the amateur market," and the most likely house instrument at the time was the harpsichord. Not surprisingly, this piece is pleasant enough and had the expected dose of Haydn's whimsical humor but is ultimately not that memorable. Most unfortunately—in what is probably an inevitable response to the acoustic peculiarities of the West Garden Court—the harpsichord was amplified by a microphone, which sounded terrible.

Fortepiano by Paul McNulty, modeled on an Anton Walter instrument from 1805Happily, this was eclipsed by Ms. Crawford's only other solo performance of the evening, Muzio Clementi's Sonata in F Minor, op. 13, no. 6, on the Paul McNulty fortepiano (modeled on an Anton Walter instrument from 1805). If your only experience of Clementi are the cutesy sonatinas that just about every piano student has had to play, this is not that Clementi. This stormy piece, composed in 1784, with its strong dynamic contrasts, must have had quite an effect on the young Beethoven, since it sounds quite like many of the pieces he would go on to compose. Ms. Crawford's performance was exceptional, with a skillful handling of the hands-crossed effects and dynamic sculpting. The latter was helped considerably by the delicacy of the instrument's piano range (the frame is all wood—no resonant metal—and the hammers are smaller and covered with leather).

Ms. Crawford and Stephen Ackert joined forces to play three pieces for four hands on the fortepiano, beginning with J. C. Bach's Sonata No. 3 in F Major, with Ms. Crawford as primo (the high part) and Mr. Ackert as secondo (the low part). Playing four-hands piano is challenging enough when you have seven octaves and a bit on the modern instrument, but the fortepiano allows only five and a half octaves, which makes things quite cozy. It is also tricky to manage the sustaining and una corde mechanisms, which are operated not by pedals but by knee levers, all of which the duo managed with grace.

The Bach was the least interesting of the four-hands pieces, and it was quickly forgotten when Mr. Ackert entered the stage in an 18th-century costume, complete with tricorn hat. He searched around for a place to hang his hat and then approached the piano with great deference, where Ms. Crawford was seated this time in the secondo position, much to the audience's amusement. The reason for this rather odd playshow? Ms. Crawford and Mr. Ackert were playing the part of the piano teacher and student, respectively, in Haydn's Il maestro e lo scolare, in which the secondo teacher introduces each phrase, the primo student answers, and then they play together. The Andante melody thus introduced in the first movement is then treated to a series of variations of increasing difficulty. This was a charming performance, although perhaps could have cut it short by a variation or two.

Stephen Ackert at the Snetzler Organ, 1761Mr. Ackert played two pieces on the Snetzler organ, which I described in my review of the Gilbert Stuart concert on April 10 (Anglophiles Converge on National Gallery, April 11). The image here shows him in action, with an assistant operating the billows by the side foot pedal. The first piece was the Lesson by Signor Pescatore, by an anonymous composer, which seemed an odd choice for the organ since it is found in a collection called The Harpsichord or Spinet Miscellany. The second was a Flute Voluntary by Benjamin Carr, a short and sweet trifle that showed off this extraordinary instrument's light flute registration.

The concert ended with a delightful performance of Beethoven's March in D Major, op. 45, no. 3, which is also for four hands, with Ms. Crawford returning to the primo position. The op. 45 set of three marches was published in Vienna in 1804, with a dedication to Princess Maria Esterházy. This third march evokes the humor of Haydn, with many funny percussive rhythmic effects in a call and response format between secondo and primo, which Ms. Crawford performed superciliously. It was an interesting program of rare pieces, on unusual instruments that make wonderful sounds, and I for one was sad that the sparse audience's applause was not sufficient to merit an encore.

Next Sunday's free concert at the National Gallery will feature Dean Shostak, a specialist on a crazy instrument that Benjamin Franklin invented, the glass armonica. He will be joined by soprano Kelly Kennedy. The program includes two pieces that Mozart wrote for this instrument, an Adagio and an unfinished Fantasia, as well as pieces for it by Saint-Saëns, Johann Schulz, and Ann Ford.


Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre

Other Reviews:

Joanna Shaw-Eagle, The glitter and the gutter (Washington Times, March 25)

Thomas Singer, Poster boy for celebrity circus (Washington Times, March 25)

Robert Siegel, Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre (NPR, March 31)

Eugene Robinson, Art vs. the Church Lady (Washington Post, April 12)

Tyler Green, At the NGA, Toulouse-Lautrec & Montmartre (Modern Art Notes, April 12)

Lauren Gaskill, Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit fun, syphilis-tinged (Georgetown Voice, April 14)

Michael Kilian, Nation's capital sports a French accent (Chicago Tribune, April 22)

Michael O'Sullivan, The Spirit of 'Montmartre' (Washington Post, April 22)
On Saturday, I went with the family to see the latest blockbuster show at the National Gallery of Art, Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre (open until June 12). I mentioned this show last month, in my review of a concert by the Orchestre de Chambre Français, the first in a series of free concerts in honor of the exhibit. Thanks to the sponsorship of Time Warner, the NGA has produced a Web feature for this exhibit, which is not terrible but is stingy on images.

The exhibit begins with what is likely the biggest draw for many visitors, Toulouse-Lautrec's advertising posters, which don't really interest me, I have to say. I agree with Blake Gopnik who, in his preview of this exhibit back in February, said that Toulouse-Lautrec gets "more regular outings than his modest achievements as an artist might warrant." For the most part, the posters in the show look like... old posters. They have faded quite a bit, and that makes perfect sense since they were created as transitory objects. There's not much depth to them.

Most of the rooms in this show have a theme, meant to bind together the works by Toulouse-Lautrec with the large number of other artists' works. The first such theme is the café drinker, which includes the show's only Manet (Plum Brandy, from around 1877, already in the NGA collection, so big deal) and some Van Goghs. By far the best Van Gogh is the loving Glass of Absinthe and Carafe (1884, from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam), which seems to be the very same glass of absinthe on the table in front of Van Gogh in Toulouse-Lautrec's portrait of him (1887). There are many more artworks featuring la fée verte, the best of which is probably Degas's L'Absinthe (1876).

A discovery for me were paintings by Ramón Casas, including the portrait of enigmatic composer Erik Satie and an abstracted view of Sacré-Cœur, Montmartre, from around 1890. A little Internet searching produced a couple more of his Montmartre paintings, such as Entrance to the Moulin de la Galette (1891), Plein Air (1891), and Madeleine (1892). I also enjoyed the photographs in the exhibit, which show the dance halls and performers which (and who) are so familiar to us from paintings of the late 19th century but take on a much more real existence when seen in photographs.

If you already like Toulouse-Lautrec, you will enjoy this exhibit. Some of the most famous works are here, such as At the Moulin-Rouge (1892–1895), which is framed by two of Toulouse-Lautrec's studies for the painting. There is an original of the famous poster for the Chat Noir, actually not by Toulouse-Lautrec but be Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen. It is hung quite high on the wall, where I saw several visitors straining their necks to see it, but I was glad that right at eye level is a series of silhouette images from Henri Rivière's famous théâtre d'ombres (which is being recreated in Paris, as I wrote in a recent post).

I agree with Tyler Green that the best room in the show is the one dedicated to the American experimental dancer Loïe Fuller, who was as I said in a post last year (Watercolor of Loïe Fuller, June 7, 2004) the inspiration for Debussy's prelude Voiles. Not only is there a series of Toulouse-Lautrec's lithographs, in individually applied colors, to reflect the innovative lighting that Fuller used in her show, which made her veils shimmer in different colors. There is a screen above those lithographs that plays a 2-minute loop of a film of Fuller actually dancing, the only time I have ever seen her on film. This alone makes this exhibit a must-see.

Loïe FullerWhere I differ with Tyler is in the scandalous part of the show, a large room dedicated to the maisons closes, with many paintings of prostitutes unlacing their corsets, sitting on couches, with the weary look of human merchandise, meeting their clients. I found this room really creepy and was reminded of Proust's narration of his narrator's deflowering in just such a brothel, in À la recherche du temps perdu, which took place right around the time when these paintings were made. These works may not be all that disturbing by comparison to more recent examples of shock art, but I still found them to be an arresting documentation of this facet of late-19th-century life.

Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre will be at the National Gallery of Art until June 12. You lucky folks in Chicago will be able to see it at the Art Institute of Chicago, from July 16 to October 10.

The Call of the Cantata

Ionarts would like to encourage every NYC-based, contemporary music-loving reader to consider the following "call-to-notes" by the young (well, in classical music, just having a pulse would qualify as young) American composer Benjamin C. S. Boyle. His—very much tonal—music (read the Ionarts review from the last concert I was at), from hearing and reading it so far, ranges from the capable to the astoundingly gorgeous. I dare say that if it's worth a trip to New York for me, it's worth a trip down 67th Street for you, Mr. Ross & Co. (Rumors have it that Sieglinde will be there.) Here's your personal invitation:

Dear Friends,

I would like to cordially invite you to a very special musical event. At 8pm on May 18th, I will have the pleasure of presenting my new Cantata, "To One in Paradise," at Merkin Hall in New York. The Bachanalia Festival Orchestra, joined by four vocal soloists and conducted by Vladimir Lande, will premiere this new work alongside works of Bach, Ravel, and others as part of the final concert of their season entitled "Lamentation and Liberation." The poetry of Edgar Allen Poe conjures a wondrous and beautiful, if frightening, image of liberation from suffering and is set to music with this very idea in mind. For a more detailed overview of the piece, please see this.
Tickets can be purchased here.


Start Your Pedals! (Part 2)

Image courtesy of Kinetic Baltimore, BumpoAs part of my ongoing eyewitness, Ionarts-exclusive account of the run up to AVAM's Kinetic Sculpture Race next Saturday, April 30, here in Baltimore, here is an update on the contestants. (picture credits to Tom Jones's Kinetic Baltimore.)

  • Bumpo (pictured at right). A champion for the Coney Island elephant, Topsy, piloted by Gavin Heck.
  • Team Fifi. A broken neck and spine from moving during Mondo Exotica. Is scheduled for surgery, and will try to participate in the race.
  • Frog. It may become a shoe, à la Old Woman in the Shoe, with lots of children.
  • Duck. May go into retirement if steering is not fixed by race day.
  • TEAM BELT STREET PILOTS ASSOCIATION. "We will be a great malevolent fearsome and beautiful creature of fantasy that will spread its giant wings and breathe brimstone on the city streets."
  • TEAM 5534-021605-043005 AKA PLATYPUS. Pilot: David Hess.
  • TEAM BEDLAM. Piloted by Maggie and friends.
  • TEAM Leaping Beaver (ACE). Jimbo Hanson will try again for his third consecutive ACE award.
  • Baltimore Lab School DART FROG (BUSH LEAGUE). "Our sculpture is about half-way to completion! I am working on it with primarily 10 Jr. High Students. However, students from grade 2-9 have contributed to the paper mache process. Ten 11-13 year olds will be official pilots along with myself and a few other staff members. Our team name is The Ribbit and our sculpture is a 12 X 9 blue, spotted, poison-dart frog from the Amazon Rainforest who will be wearing a special, secret hat. We began working on the frog in the beginning of February. Pilot: Laura Parkhurst and Baltimore Lab Students.
  • Cake on A Lake (ACE). Pilot: Jeff Colburn.Fifi
  • TEAM THE WEASEL (ACE). "I am an art teacher at Eldersburg Elementary School. My students have successfully built and tested a nine-foot boat. They are now in the process of turning it into a giant tiger on wheels. My students would very much like to be among the youngest builders to enter the race (our school custodian will pilot the vehicle). Our sculpture has been proudly built 100% by the
    students. I am also a wheelchair-bound teacher so any accessibility information would also be appreciated." Pilot: Denise K. Ovelgone.
  • TEAM Westward Ho Well. "The Baltimore Make Believers 2005 Sculpture, The Westward Ho!, is coming along well. We feel horrible for doing the train thing again, but we were too in love with that train to scrap it."
  • Team The Turtles, Towson University. Pilots: Matt Petr, Rudy Halim, and Tyler Gogoll. Essentially it is 8' wide and 10' long.
  • Three entries from The Jemicy School, which addresses the needs of students with dyslexia and language-based learning differences:
    • Team BIG BABY is a 10-foot-tall tricycle. It was designed and will be piloted by Phil Hoesch, 11th grade, and has some interesting "engineering." The front wheel doubles as a paddle wheel and has no hub but instead tracks along its rim. It has rear-wheel steering. Phil was heavily involved in the design and build of last year's "Valking Viscar Boot."
    • Team GERBIL CHARIOT is a 16-foot-long gerbil pulling a chariot. Pilots: Darek Davidson (12th grader), John Peiper (10th grader), Chris Atkins (12th grader), and Cliff Gambrill (11th grader).Frog
    • Team VIKING & MOOSE is a Viking riding a large Moose about 16 feet long. Pilots: Jason Bernstein (11th grader), Drew Holechek (10th grader), and Alex Barrash (11th grader) are developing this theme. The team on race day will
      include teacher Brandon Emmons as well.
  • TEAM CRUSH DUDE (a break-off team from Artex). It's a turtle.
  • TEAM MISO (ACE). Pilot: Tom Faulks. "Our inspiration in the creation of the Miso Dragon has been three-fold, details which will now be divulged to the hungry, waiting masses. The vehicle will have approximate dimensions of 9'H x 6'W x 16' L. Two pilots will guide Miso through an intricate and super-secret combination of parts harvested from cannibalized corpses of abandoned souls and vehicles. You will know Miso by the line of frightened children running after him,
    asking for blessings from the gods of science. And in case the children haven't been enlisted yet, look for many colors, white fur, three wheels, and an air mattress."
  • TEAM IT CAIN'T (ACE). Pilot: Richard Price.
  • TEAM FISH TANK. Pilot: Cindy Rollo.
  • TEAM THE GALLOPING COW RIDES AGAIN. Pilot: John Shellenberger.
OK, so by reading this fragmentation of a race list you'll see that some pilots have a lot to say, and now you also know this ain't Daytona. By this time next week I hope to have plenty of pictures to post.

Slow Food for the Ears: Bruckner's 5th with Thielemann

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Symphony No.5,
C.Thielemann / MPhil

Slow food for the ears: that could or should be the motto for Bruckner enjoyment. In times where everyone seems to cater (rather than discourage) shorter and shorter attention spans, an 80-some-minute Bruckner symphony seems more anachronistic than ever. Fortunately the Prussian conductor Christian Thielemann is not prone to pander to popular culture where he does not see it to be an improvement, and he takes his time with Bruckner. His recording of the 5th Symphony is taken from the live performance of his "inaugural" concert with the Munich Philharmonic last summer and was one of the the musical and social highlights of the cultural year in southern Germany.

Having taken over from James Levine, Thielemann is expected to carry on the tradition of the orchestra with such Romantic heavyweights as Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner, and, of course, Anton Bruckner. The choice of the 5th symphony—no matter what he claims in the interesting liner notes—must have been deliberate. The orchestra premiered the work's original version, Furtwängler chose it as his first work with the orchestra, and the great Bruckner conductor Sergeiu Celibidache, who headed the Munich Philharmonic for 17 years until his death in 1996, inaugurated its new hall, the "Gasteig" in 1985 with Bruckner's 5th.

The Deutsche Grammophon engineers achieved a feat in putting the performance onto one disc (cutting applause and shortening breaks between movements), which is now the longest playing compact disc in their catalogue at 82:34. This is the third longest Bruckner 5th in my collection, topped only by two versions of Celibidache, who takes a whopping 88 and 84 minutes with the same orchestra.

With the history of the players involved and the perfect match of the lush Munich sound with Thielemann's strengths, this was the disc I had most looked forward to receiving, especially after the rave reviews of the concert. But of course anything this highly anticipated has a difficult time to live up to those expectations, and this is no different in that it did not shoot straight to the top of my list.

Some critics and conductors have lamented the fact that Bruckner, Wagner and Mahler have been slowed down continuously over the years, in an ill-conceived attempt to instill extra reverie into those works. There is much to be said about that attitude (especially in Wagner!), but ultimately it still depends on the performance whether an approach works or not. But slowness isn't Thielemann's problem. His approach works and works very well. His problem is that I expected the world from the recording, and he only delivers upper Austria and Bavaria. His problem is: Celibidache.

available at Amazon A.Bruckner, Symphony No.5,
Celibidache / MPhil

UK | DE | FR
I variously love or revere Günter Wand's recordings of the 5th, Giuseppe Sinopoli's Dresden account is a wonder, every recording with Jochum has undeniable qualities. Still, no one approaches the drive (even at those slow speeds—compare his 24:14 Adagio to the 15:49 that Wand needs), the sound and the sheen that the eccentric Rumanian elicits from his players. But if the overall impression does not warrant top recommendation, Thielemann still has moments of unrivalled beauty. The reintroduction of the principal theme in the first movement at 10:50 is painfully beautiful, slowly builds towards another one of those mini-climaxes, which are all lined up like pearls on a string, and his string instruments shimmer behind the note-by-note climb of the woodwinds. At 12:12 there is a mighty, majestic free rolling thunder that gets picked up by the brass in playing that belies the one-performance live recording. One important element in a recording of the 5th is the audibility of the opening plucked bass line. In the concert hall, you can see, feel, and sense them, even if they are difficult to hear. There is no such help on a recording, and engineers should therefore raise the level in the beginning. Fortunately, they are audible (if still on the quiet side) on the Thielemann recording, and only the EMI engineers of Celibidache's recording make it even "easier" to hear them.

The second movement's broad melodic element is brought out nicely between 3:04 and 5:15, for once not interrupted by Bruckner with some brass fanfare. It's heaven and whipped cream with the pulsing horns behind the soaring strings, all propelled by the meticulous rhythmical sense of Thielemann, who never lets "slow" become plodding. This disc is surely one of the finest 5ths out there, and since neither Celibidache's nor Wand's discs are easily available in the U.S., only Sinopoli on DG is a serious rival. Conveniently, they are at different ends of the interpretive spectrum and therefore very complimentary. I happen to believe that you can't have too many Bruckner 5ths (I have ten, so far and have heard many others), and this is one of the four best recordings I have ever heard. If it were between adding a second or third Bruckner 5th to your collection over a new discovery, though, I'd strongly encourage the latter.

Note: Celi's Bruckner set on EMI has finally been re-issued. See "Best Recordings of 2011"


David Cates at the Library of Congress

David Cates, harpsichordistHaving laid my hands on more than one harpsichord, I can attest to the special technical approach needed to play them, naturally quite different from the piano and organ, which are themselves different from one another, too. Pressing the keys causes little plectra to pluck the strings, so the instrument's action is often more difficult to control than a piano's. Consequently, I am always impressed by people who play the harpsichord well, because it requires restraint and accuracy. One of the top American harpsichordists, David Cates, played a concert at the Library of Congress on Friday night, April 22, and showed how it is done. Cates calmly entered and left the stage in an unassuming way, usually clasping his hands behind his back. Dressed casually in a shirt and jacket with no tie, his hands were a study in economy of movement, playing in an efficient and sometimes understated way. There were inevitably a few slips, which are generally more exposed to the ear on the harpsichord than on the piano, where there is a sustaining pedal to gloss over the occasional missed note. These did not distract from what was a masterful performance.

The Coolidge Auditorium was sparsely populated, which happily allowed me to waltz in a few minutes before curtain and be assigned an unused seat (which I upgraded to the front row in the second half, where I was about 6 feet from the harpischord). The concert did attract a large number of harpsichord players and enthusiasts, including one man next to me in the second half who followed along in his Kalmus miniature score when he was not drifting off to sleep. The program was organized in honor of a local benefactress of the arts, Mae Wechsler Jurow (1907–2004), who was interested in harpsichord performance and gave money to other arts interests, too.

For the occasion, Cates selected a series of works all by one composer, J. S. Bach. He began with one of the most varied and interesting performances of the evening, the Suite in E Minor, BWV 996, an early work dated around 1708. According to Cates's program notes, "it may have been the only piece ever expressly composed for the Lautenwerk (lute harpsichord)," and it was the only time in the recital that Cates used the harpsichord's lute stop, in the Courante of this suite, which produced a fragile lute-like sound that was charming. (Lutenists also play this suite, from the tablature.) In a remarkably clean style of playing, he was careful of each note, sustained as well as struck, and repeated most sections of the binary dances, with embellishments in keeping with Baroque practice. The jovial Bourrée had a dancelike rhythmic vitality, with hands split on the two manuals, because it is essentially a two-voice movement.

Cates played this recital on a harpsichord inscribed with the words "Wolf, Washington, 1990," presumably built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf, who are instrument makers here in Washington, a business that they started after leaving their jobs as curators of the instrument collection at the Smithsonian. The instrument is painted in a sort of rust red color, with gold trim, and although it is not visually ornate, it produced a clear and delicate sound. Although the concert began about ten minutes late, there was still a seating of latecomers after the first suite, for which Cates paused considerately, shielding his eyes from the stage lights to make sure that everyone found a seat. Two other pieces followed, the Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro in E-flat Major, BWV 998 (1740, also played by lutenists)—see the analysis of the unusual fugue by David R. Walker—and the Adagio in D Minor, BWV 964, which is a transcription/arrangement of the first movement of the A minor sonata for solo violin, BWV 1003.

The meat of the program was a most welcome virtuoso reading of the third English Suite in G minor, BWV 808, a piece that I love to play. As a specialist in Baroque keyboard music and Bach, in particular, Cates recognizes how Bach mastered all the forms and genres that he could get his hands on, by making transcriptions of French and Italian works. The prelude of the third English Suite is a concerto, complete with a Vivaldian ritornello that alternates with solo passages (as discussed by Gregory Butler), which he took at a very exciting, brisk tempo and rendered as orchestrally as possible on this instrument. Cates combines an intelligent understanding of form with excellent technique, giving us lively dances in the Courante, a détaché Gavotte, and a smooth folk dance Gavotte that Bach subtitled "La Musette."

The Sarabande of this suite has a repeat of both sections, with Bach's embellishments written out, which gives player and listener alike a rare look into the best ornamentation practice of Bach's Weimar period. Not surprisingly, these embellishment were far more difficult and interesting than anything else Cates invented himself, made all the more so in the incredibly chromatic harmonic maze of the B section. It is a good reminder of just how ornate Baroque embellishment probably was, in the best performances. In the Gigue, Bach used the sort of chiasmus device that is often found in his binary dances, by which he inverts the basic motive of the A section as the motive for the B section. This makes the triadic figure of this Gigue, at Cates's breakneck tempo, hard as hell, but Cates gave an excellent rendition.

The final work, reserved as the only piece for the second half, was the Partita No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828, a piece that shows Bach at the height of the mastery of the keyboard suite genre. Here the style brisé, the broken chord idiom that keyboard composers brought into the suite from the lute, the instrument that had dominated the genre in earlier centuries, and extravagant Baroque phrases alternate with Bach's evocation of the more and more important style galant (in the Aria and stately Menuet, both somewhat foreign to the suite). Far from being the retrogressive and parochial pedant, as his contemporaries and later critics have sometimes characterized him, Bach was an encyclopedic master of most current styles, and although he may not have traveled widely, we know that he got his hands onto all the scores he could find. In response to the audience's warm and richly deserved applause, Cates played an encore from the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the prelude in F major. It was another rewarding evening at the Library of Congress.

Also see the review by Tom Huizenga, whom I met after this concert, Cates's Harpsichord Fills the Bill (Washington Post, April 25).

All That Jazz (Tord Gustavsen @ Blues Alley)

Not usually in the jazz business, Ionarts does lend its ears to non-classical music (non-notational, as other, hipper, writers might like to say) on occasion. I love ECM, I love Scandinavian Jazz ("get hot by staying cool"), and the Tord Gustavsen Trio, which represents Norwegian Jazz on my hometown label, has a gig at Blues Alley here in Washington on Monday, from 8:00 PM on. Bring your favorite wool sweater and get crazy.

Link to the Tord Gustavsen Trio's Web Site

François Pinault to Go to Venice?

Newspaper Articles:

Richard Heuzé, François Pinault, sa tentation de Venise (Le Figaro, April 16)

Vincent Noce, Ile Séguin: le projet Pinault prend l'eau (Libération, April 18)

Jon Henley, Art museum falls foul of red tape (The Guardian, April 19)

Emmanuel de Roux, Boulogne craint que la Fondation Pinault ne préfère Venise à l'île Seguin (Le Monde, April 20)

Emmanuel de Roux, L'aboutissement d'un dialogue de sourds (Le Monde, April 20)
The news all over the French dailies this week has been the rumors (now apparently confirmed) that French billionaire François Pinault will change his plans to build a new museum to house his collection of modern art (New Private Collector Museum, June 20, 2004). Instead of renovating an abandoned Renault factory on the Île Seguin, outside Paris, it appears that he will try to buy and occupy the recently vacated Palazzo Grassi, on the Grand Canal in Venice. The palace was built in the 18th century, and the Agnelli family made it into an exhibition space, sponsored by Fiat, in 1984. A proposed sale has fallen through, and through a series of contacts involving Jean-Jacques Aillagon, Pinault's company may acquire it. Well, they would in effect lease the property for a period of 99 years, after which the museum would revert to the ownership of the city of Venice. The details of the occupancy are complicated, but there is little doubt that Boulogne-Billancourt, where Pinault planned to build a new museum, is about to lose out in a big way (as reported in The Guardian):
One of France's richest men is on the brink of ditching plans to build a spectacular contemporary art museum outside Paris because he is fed up with the red tape and inertia of the local authorities. "It's unbelievable," one of Mr Pinault's aides, who asked not to be named, said yesterday. "You offer these guys an exceptional art collection, you put up £150m for a museum to rival the Guggenheim in Bilbao or the Saatchi in London, and no one does a thing about it."
The Venice space would be much smaller than what was being planned for the Île Seguin, but Pinault could launch his first show by next year. Is Peggy Guggenheim going to have some company in Venice?


Ouch, That Hurts

We've been getting a lot of traffic lately from people looking for information about the latest legal decision concerning Pierrot the Clown Fish. As I wrote here over a year ago [Disney (Allegedly) Making Money off Other People's Ideas?, December 21, 2003], a French comic book author named Franck Le Calvez brought a lawsuit against Disney and Pixar, alleging that Disney plagiarized the characters and storyline for their hit movie Finding Nemo from his comic book about a clown fish named Pierrot. A few months after that (A Clown Fish Is a Clown Fish Is a Clown Fish, March 14, 2004), a French judge ruled that there was no suspicious similarity between Nemo and Pierrot.

Well, the story doesn't end there. It was widely reported this week that not only was Le Calvez not going to receive a settlement, but also that Disney won a fraud settlement against their accuser. The best version of the story (Frenchman loses Nemo copy claim, April 20) was from BBC News:

A French court ruled on Wednesday that Nemo had existed before Pierrot and that Le Calvez even knew of the Disney character when he created his. He was ordered to pay 61,000 euros ($80,000, £42,000) damages and costs. Le Calvez had already lost one case last March. A court ruled then that the two fish were similar - both have big smiles and sport three stripes down the side - but found that their similarities were not enough to confuse people.
What I don't understand is how, if the two characters are not really similar, Disney can win such a decision. You can see pictures of them side by side here, but I guess a cartoon character that is a clown fish is pretty much going to look like a clown fish. Fortunately, the court was there to protect poor, defenseless Disney against Franck Le Calvez.

Ionarts Concert Schedule: Late April

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

Friday, April 15, 7:30 pm
2005 President's Concerts (Waging Peace: Music in Time of War)
Part II: Lessons (CUA Symphony Orchestra: Music of Gorecki, Bernstein, Schoenberg, Penderecki)

Edward J. Pryzbyla Center, Catholic University of America

Friday, April 15, 7:30 pm; Sunday, April 17, 3 pm; Thursday, April 21, 7:30 pm; Saturday, April 23, 7:30 pm
CSC: Handel, Giulio Cesare (Maryland Opera Studio), in alternation with Puccini's La Bohème
See the review of La Bohème by Joseph McLellan (Washington Post, April 18) and of Giulio Cesare by Joseph McLellan (Washington Post, April 22)

Friday, April 15, 7:30 pm; Saturday, April 16, 4 pm (special Generation O performance); Sunday, April 17, 1:30 pm
KC: Final performances of Mozart's Magic Flute (Washington National Opera)
See the review of the April 16 performance by Tim Page (Washington Post, April 18)

Friday, April 15, 8 pm
LOC: Washington Bach Consort (Bach's Cantata BWV 10, Meine Seel’ erhebt den Herren; Barber's Agnus Dei, works by Amy Beach and Elinor Remick Warren)
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, April 17)

Friday, April 15, 8 pm
CGA: Peabody Trio (four trios by Beethoven)
This is part of a complete series of the Beethoven trios (concluded on April 29 and May 13)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, April 19)

Friday, April 15, 8 pm
Mendelssohn Piano Trio (Tchaikovsky and Ravel)
La Maison Française (4101 Reservoir Road NW)

Friday, April 15, 8 pm (through April 17, various times)
KC: Washington Ballet: Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet
See the review by Jean Battey-Lewis (Washington Times, April 16)

Saturday, April 16, 5 pm (with Master Class preceding at 4 pm)
21st-Century Consort: Expanding Universe (Robert Gibson, Four Haiku; Igor Stravinsky, Three Japanese Lyrics; Toru Takamitsu, Between Tides; Kenji Bunch, Paraphraseology; Joseph Schwantner, Sparrows)
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Saturday, April 16, 7 pm
Singers from the Arena di Verona Opera Company, from Italy (first public appearance in Washington) [FREE]
National Museum of Women in the Arts (202-783-7370 or

Saturday, April 16, 7:30 pm
2005 President's Concert (Waging Peace: Music in Time of War)
Part III: Dialogues (Chamber music of Shostakovich, Ullmann, Rorem, and world premiere of "Korean War Memorial," a collective composition by 19 regional composers)
Edward J. Pryzbyla Center, Catholic University of America
See the review by Daniel Ginsberg (Washington Post, April 18)

Saturday, April 16, 8 pm
Bach's B Minor Mass (Échos ensemble)
Falls Church Presbyterian Church (225 East Broad Street), Falls Church, Va.

Sunday, April 17, 4 pm
Suspicious Cheese Lords: Cheese and a Little Mustard (music by Senfl and Billings)
Old Presbyterian Meeting House (321 South Fairfax Street, Alexandria, Va.)

Sunday, April 17, 5 pm
PC: Wolfram Koessel and Jeremy Denks [free with admission to museum]

Sunday, April 17, 6:30 pm
NGA: National Gallery Orchestra (Haydn, Boyce, and others) [FREE]

Sunday, April 17, 7:30 pm
2005 President's Concert (Waging Peace: Music in Time of War)
Part IV: "...and then Silent Bugles" (Benjamin Britten, War Requiem)

Edward J. Pryzbyla Center, Catholic University of America

Sunday, April 17, 8 pm; Monday, April 18, 8 pm
Borodin Quartet (all-Beethoven program)
Dumbarton Oaks Friends of Music Series (by subscription only)

Monday, April 18, 8 pm
CGA: Contemporary Music Forum (new works by Steve Antosca, Frederick Weck, Robert Gibson, and Judith Shatin)
See the review by Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, April 20)

Wednesday, April 20, 7:30 pm
SH (Mansion): Rayanne Gonzales (prizewinner in 2004 Washington International Voice Competition) with Patrick O'Donnell, piano (de Falla, Hahn, Mozart)

Wednesday, April 20, 7:30 pm
FS: Shanghai Quartet, with Xu Ke, chinese fiddle (music by Chen Yi, Yi-Wen Jiang, and Brahms) [FREE]
See the review by rae (shesbitter, April 24) and the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, April 28)

Wednesday, April 20, 8 pm
CUA School of Music Film Series: Silent film shorts with live music (featuring members of Cantate Chamber Singers, Prof. Andrew Simpson, and Maurice Saylor) [FREE]
Edward J. Pryzbyla Center, Catholic University
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, April 22)

Thursday, April 21, 7 pm; Friday, April 22, 8 pm; Sunday, April 24, 7 pm
KC: National Symphony Orchestra (Mahler's 9th Symphony)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, April 22)

Friday, April 22, 8 pm
LOC: David Cates, harpsichord (all-Bach program) [FREE]
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, April 23)

Friday, April 22; Sunday, April 24
Gounod, Faust (Virginia Opera, conducted by Peter Mark)
George Mason University Center for the Arts (Fairfax, Va.)
See the review by Grace Jean (Washington Post, April 26)

Saturday, April 23, 8 pm
SH: National Philharmonic with Santiago Rodriguez, piano (Brahms, First Piano Concerto and First Symphony)
See the review by Grace Jean (Washington Post, April 25)

Saturday, April 23, 8 pm; Sunday, April 24, 4 pm
Palestrina Choir: William Byrd Festival (5- and 6-voice motets from Cantiones Sacrae of 1575, 1589, and 1591)
April 23: Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament (Western Avenue and Quesada Street NW)
April 24: St. Rita's Catholic Church (3815 Russell Road, Alexandria, Va.)

Saturday, April 23, 8 pm
I Solisti Della Scala Trio
Embassy of Italy (3000 Whitehaven Street NW)
See the review by Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, April 25)

Sunday, April 24, 5 pm
PC: Andrew Garland, baritone [free with admission to museum]

Sunday, April 24, 6:30 pm
NGA: Penelope Crawford, fortepiano, and Stephen Ackert, organ (J. C. Bach, Haydn, Boyce, and Mozart) [FREE]
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, April 27)

Wednesday, April 27, 7:30 pm
TT: Artemis Quartet (Mendelssohn, Bartók, and Schumann) (WPAS)
See the review by Lindsay Heller (Ionarts, April 29)

Wednesday, April 27, 8 pm
LOC: L'Ensemble Baroque de Limoges (Leclair, Marais, Rameau, Telemann, Bach)

Wednesday, April 27, 8 pm
SH: Baltimore Symphony's Pre-Carnegie Hall Tour, with Gidon Kremer, violin (Kancheli, Shostakovich first violin concerto, Debussy, Ravel)
On Gidon Kremer, read Alex Ross here and, earlier, here on The Rest Is Noise
See the review by Grace Jean (Washington Post, April 29) and the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, April 30)

Thursday, April 28, 8 pm
TT: Soile Isokoski, soprano, and Marita Viitasalo, piano (VAS)
See the review (Washington Post, April 30)

Thursday, April 28, 7 pm; Friday, April 29, 1:30 pm; Saturday, April 30, 8 pm
KC: National Symphony Orchestra (John Williams conducting his own compositions, with Gil Shaham, violin)
See the review by Daniel Ginsberg (Washington Post, April 29)

Friday, April 29, 8 pm
LOC: David Finckel, cello, and Wu Han, piano (Prokofiev, Auerbach, Rachmaninov) [FREE]
See the review (Ionarts, May 1)

Friday, April 29, 8 pm
Nathan Gunn, baritone, and Kim Pensinger Witman, piano (Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin)
The Barns at Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)
See the review by Daniel Ginsberg (Washington Post, May 2)

Friday, April 29, 8 pm
CGA: Peabody Trio (second concert in complete Beethoven trio cycle, which will be concluded on May 13)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, May 5)

Friday, April 29, 8 pm
Amsterdam Piano Trio
La Maison Française (4101 Reservoir Road NW)
See the review by Joan Reinthaler (Washington Post, May 2)

Saturday, April 30, 2 pm
TT: Giovanni Bellucci, piano (Liszt and Berlioz transcriptions)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, May 3)

Saturday, April 30, 10 am to 5 pm
French Opera: Sensuality, Sentiment, and Spectacle (Opera Lafayette conductor Ryan Brown, François Loup, harpsichordist Andrew Appel, choreographer Cheryl Stafford, music rhetorician Patricia Ranum)
Smithsonian Resident Associate Program, S. Dillon Ripley Center (1100 Jefferson Drive SW)

Saturday, April 30, 8 pm
Catholic University of America Chamber Singers (Leo Nestor, conductor)
Spring Concert [FREE]
St. Peter's Church on Capitol Hill (313 Second Street SE)

——» Go to previous concert schedule, for Early April.