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Clarice Smith Lecture

William Christenberry, September 28, 2005This is why you should always subscribe to museum's e-mail lists and check their Web sites regularly. As recommended here a couple weeks ago, I showed up Wednesday night at Lisner Auditorium, expecting to hear James Rosenquist give the first Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture in American Art, hosted by the Smithsonian American Art Museum every year. (Last year, I also caught the first one, an excellent talk given by The New Yorker's art critic, Peter Schjeldahl.) Well, James Rosenquist was indisposed and could not come to Washington, so at the last minute William Christenberry, professor at the Corcoran College of Art + Design, stepped in to speak about his art. This was a nice look into the future, since Christenberry is preparing a major retrospective of his work, which will reopen the SAAM next summer.

Christenberry has lived here in Washington since 1968, but his art is all about the place where he was born and grew up, Tuscaloosa and its surroundings, Hale County, Alabama. With slides, the artist led us through the development of his works, beginning with the Christmas present he and his sister received in 1944, a Kodak Brownie camera. He started to take pictures with it as he wandered around the countryside (which is what kids used to do before they had to wear helmets everywhere) and had them processed at the local drugstore into 3-by-5-inch prints. We saw beautiful, plain, squarely framed photographs of southern country churches, tenant houses, and other "vernacular architecture," as Christenberry put it. They were so apparently ordinary that he was afraid even to show them to the photographer Walker Evans, whom Christenberry met when he moved to New York. Far from being underwhelmed, Evans suggested that Christenberry had found, with his simple camera, a "natural extension of his eye."

William Christenberry, Green Warehouse--Newbern, Alabama, photograph, 1978William Christenberry, Green Warehouse, sculpture

What he discovered with the camera is that things he saw haunted him, and he could capture those images, but the snapshot was only the first step in the process of possession. Soon he began to return to the same sites in Hale County every year to create series of photographs. In photographs taken years apart, we saw a tiny cabin become engulfed by kudzu and a country store fall into total dilapidation. Then he began to make paintings based on the photographs (we saw a couple examples in an abstract expressionist style) and to make detailed sculptures of the buildings like miniature models. One such pair of photograph and sculpture, of a green warehouse in Newbern, Alabama, is shown here. The final step was actually to possess things that obsessed his eye. Christenberry told us about how he came to acquire a homemade cross left in a cemetery, a wooden palmist's sign (upside down), and an enormous sign depicting an ear of corn. These things now hang in his studio.

The remaining two Clarice Smith lectures will be given by Roberta Smith, art critic of the New York Times (Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Art Criticism, Art Theory and the Art Market, October 5), and art historian Wanda M. Corn (Telling Tales: Georgia O'Keeffe as Autobiographer, November 2). Both lectures will begin at 7 pm, in Lisner Auditorium.

My Hero

The Captain, Steve YzermanI hesitate even to mention this, for fear that in my enthusiasm I would somehow cause the professional hockey season to be cancelled again. (That sound in the background is me spitting over my shoulder, in the superstitious hope of avoiding a repeat of last season.) Tyler and Laura (OGIC) surely share my feeling of being on pins and needles until we see an actual team hit the actual ice somewhere. Careful readers know that film critic Todd Babcock and I grew up together in the Great State of Michigan, and we are both now devoted fans of the Detroit Red Wings. If I may share my respect for one particular player, here is an article (Competitive drive still fuels Yzerman, September 30) by Aaron Rennie on Yahoo! Sports:

Mark Messier. Ron Francis. Al MacInnis. Scott Stevens. All are future Hall of Famers who decided to hang up their skates rather than make one last run at a Stanley Cup.

Not Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman.

A shoo-in for the Hall of Fame once he retires, Yzerman is back for the grind of a 22nd NHL season. The 5-11, 185-pound center often will be banging with defensemen six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier - a difficult task to begin with, but especially so when one considers the native of Ontario is 40 years old. Yzerman has nothing left to prove on the ice. He has collected a staggering 1,721 points - 678 goals and a franchise-record 1,043 assists - in his 1,453-game career and helped lead the Red Wings to Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002. Yzerman also won a gold medal with Canada in the 2002 Olympics. Further, the last time he suited up for the Red Wings, in Game Five of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals against the Calgary Flames, he was hit in the face by the puck. He suffered a fractured orbital bone, underwent a lengthy surgery and missed Game Six as Detroit was eliminated.
You are a man of steel, Stevie Y. Thank you for giving the team another year. As for the rest of the team, the new NHL salary cap is designed to hurt teams like our dear Wings, and it has certainly made an impact on their roster. I will be sorry not to see Brett Hull and Darren McCarty in the red anymore. Even so, the names on that roster are plenty exciting, at least to me: stars like Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Chris Chelios; grind players like Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, and Tomas Holmstrom; very exciting younger players like Pavel Datsyuk and Hendrik Zetterberg. I'm not sure yet what to think about the choice of Chris Osgood returning to the Detroit goal or Mike Babcock calling the shots at the bench, but I will be happy to watch it.

Classical Month in Washington (October)

Classical Month in Washington is a monthly feature that appears on the first of the month. 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, October 1, 11 am
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: The Promise of Youth (with Kirill Gerstein, piano)
Music Center at Strathmore

Saturday, October 1, 2:30 pm
Recreating Characters in 18th-Century Opera, with Ryan Brown, Millicent Scarlett, and Tony Boutté
Opera Lafayette
Hillwood Museum and Gardens (4155 Linnean Avenue NW)
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, October 2)

Saturday, October 1, 7 pm; and Tuesday, October 4, 7:30 pm
Giuseppe Verdi, I vespri siciliani (with soprano Maria Guleghina)
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center, Opera House
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, October 1)

Saturday, October 1, 7:30 pm
Washington Musica Viva (music of George Walker, Maurice Saylor, Jacques Ibert, Libby Larsen, Thomas Kerr, Charles Ives, John Work)
BannerArts Studio (4233C Howard Avenue, Kensington, Md.)

Saturday, October 1, 8 pm (preconcert lecture at 7 pm)
Axelrod Quartet (Smithsonian Chamber Music Society)
Renwick Gallery, Grand Salon

Saturday, October 1, 8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra, with cellist Truls Mørk (Hovhaness, Elgar, Dvořák)
Kennedy Center, Concert Hall
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, September 30)

Sunday, October 2, 5 pm
Trefor Smith, piano [FREE, with admission to museum]
Phillips Collection

Sunday, October 2, 6:30 pm
National Gallery Orchestra (with guest conductor Christopher Kendall and violinist Nicolas Kendall) [FREE]
Music by Mahler, Schoenfield, and Stravinsky
National Gallery of Art
See the review by Joe Banno (Washington Post, October 4)

Sunday, October 2, 7 pm
Chanticleer, Earth Songs
George Mason University Center for the Arts (Fairfax, Va.)
See the review by Mark J. Estren (Washington Post, October 4)

Sunday, October 2, 7:30 pm (preconcert lecture at 6:30 pm)
Axelrod Quartet (Smithsonian Chamber Music Society)
Renwick Gallery, Grand Salon

Sunday, October 2, 7:30 pm
Takács Quartet with Garrick Ohlsson, piano (Mozart, Chopin, Brahms)
Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Md.)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, October 4)

Sunday, October 2, 2 pm; Thursday, October 6, 7:30 pm; and Sunday, October 9, 2 pm
Trilogy (three acts from different operas, with Mirella Freni Sylvie Valayre in Fedora, Barbara Frittoli in Otello, and Christiane Noll in The Merry Widow)
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center, Opera House
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, October 1)

Sunday, October 2, 8 pm
Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, with Lang Lang, piano
Kennedy Center, Concert Hall
See the review by T. L. Ponick (Washington Times, October 5)

Tuesday, October 4, 12:10 pm
Washington Bach Consort, Noontime Cantata [FREE]
Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe (BWV 25)
Church of the Epiphany (13th and G Streets NW)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, October 5)

Tuesday, October 4, 8 pm, to Saturday, October 8, 8 pm
National Ballet of China
Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater
See the review by Sarah Kaufman (Washington Post, October 6)

Thursday, October 6, 7 pm; Friday, October 7, 1:30 pm; Saturday, October 8, 8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra, with violinist Nikolaj Znaider (Bruch's first violin concerto and Corigliano's first symphony)
Kennedy Center, Concert Hall
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, October 7)

Friday, October 7, 8 pm
Moscow Chamber Orchestra
The Barns at Wolf Trap (Fairfax, Va.)
See the review by Mark J. Estren (Washington Post, October 10)

Friday, October 7, 8 pm; Saturday, October 8, 5 pm and 8 pm; Sunday, October 9, 2 pm
Folger Consort (music by Josquin and Isaac)
Folger Library, Folger Elizabethan Theatre
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, October 8)

Friday, October 7, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Romantic Journey on the Orient Express (with CityDance Ensemble, music by Mozart, Wagner and Strauss)
Music Center at Strathmore
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, October 9)

Saturday, October 8, 8 pm (preconcert panel at 5 pm)
Chamber Music of Tōru Takemitsu (Masatoshi Mitsumoto, artistic director and conductor) [FREE]
Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, October 9)

Saturday, October 8, 8 pm
Fairfax Symphony Orchestra with Judith Ingolfsson, violin
George Mason University Center for the Arts (Fairfax, Va.)
See the review by Mark J. Estren (Washington Post, October 10)

Sunday, October 9, 5 pm
Adam Birnbaum, piano [FREE, with admission to museum]
Phillips Collection

Sunday, October 9, 6:30 pm
Beaux Arts Trio (music by Martinu, Beethoven, and Schubert) [FREE]
National Gallery of Art
See the reviews by Charles T. Downey and Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, October 10)

Tuesday, October 11, 7:30 pm
Gleb Ivanov, piano (Young Concert Artists Series)
Kennedy Center, Terrace Theater
See the reviews compiled by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, October 14)

Wednesday, October 12, 7:30 pm
Orion String Quartet with Peter Serkin, piano
Kennedy Center, Terrace Theater
See the review by Daniel Ginsberg (Washington Post, October 14)

Thursday, October 13, 8 pm; Friday, October 14, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Barry Douglas, piano
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)
See the review by Tim Smith (Baltimore Sun, October 15)

Thursday, October 13, 8 pm; Friday, October 14, 8 pm; Saturday, October 15, 8 pm
China National Peking Opera Company
Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater
See the review by Tim Page (Washington Post, October 15)

Thursday, October 13, 7 pm; Friday, October 14, 8 pm; Saturday, October 15, 8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra, with Pinchas Zukerman, violin and viola (Berg's violin concerto)
Kennedy Center, Concert Hall
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, October 14)

Friday, October 14, 7 pm (also October 15, 4 pm, at the National Museum of the American Indian) [FREE]
Tonana (Claudia Martínez), Mystic Songs of Ancient México (Zapotec and Maya melodies)
Cosponsored by
Programs cosponsored by National Museum of Women in the Arts
Cultural Institute of Mexico (2829 16th Street NW), for reservations call (202) 728-1675

Friday, October 14, 8 pm; Sunday, October 16, 2 pm
Verdi, La Traviata
Virginia Opera
George Mason University Center for the Arts (Fairfax, Va.)
See the review by T. L. Ponick (Washington Times, October 17)

Friday, October 14, 8 pm
Vermeer Quartet with pianist Edmund Battersby (Haydn, op. 76, no. 1; Janáček, second quartet, "Intimate Letters"; Dohnányi, Piano Quintet no. 1 in C minor, op. 1) [FREE]
Library of Congress
See the review by Tom Huizenga (Washington Post, October 17)

Friday, October 14, 8 pm; Saturday, October 15, 8 pm; Sunday, October 16, 8 pm
Manuel Barrueco, guitar
Dumbarton Oaks, Friends of Music Concerts

Friday, October 14, 8 pm; Saturday, October 15, 8 pm
Juana Zayas, piano
Cuban Interests Section (2630 16th Street NW)
Embassy Series
See the review by Lindsay Heller (Ionarts, October 15)

Friday, October 14, 8 pm
Cypress String Quartet (Shostakovich, Cotton, Bloch, Beethoven)
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

Saturday, October 15, 2 pm
Severin von Eckardstein, piano
Kennedy Center, Terrace Theater
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, October 16)

Saturday, October 15, 8 pm (plus free master class at 1 pm)
Biava String Quartet, with cellist Paul Katz
Kreeger Museum

Saturday, October 15, 8 pm
Palestrina Choir (Palestrina's Missa Ave Maria and Marian motets)
Dumbarton United Methodist Church (3133 Dumbarton Street NW)
See the review by Joe Banno (Washington Post, October 17)

Sunday, October 16, 2 pm
Ann Schein, piano (benefit concert)
Kennedy Center, Terrace Theater
See the review by Tim Page (Washington Post, October 18)

Sunday, October 16, 4 pm
Takács Quartet ("Dissonance" Quartet, Mozart viola quintet with James Dunham, and Debussy quartet)
Sponsored by the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences (Bethesda, Md.)
Concert at the Landon School's Mondzac Performing Arts Center (6101 Wilson Lane, Bethesda, Md.)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, October 17)

Sunday, October 16, 5 pm
Andrea Padova, piano [FREE, with admission to museum]
Phillips Collection

Sunday, October 16, 5 pm
Concert with Ancient Greek Instruments (including a replica of the Delphi hydraulis, excavated in 1992), with a dessert reception
Corcoran Gallery of Art (in collaboration with the Embassy of Greece)
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, October 17)

Sunday, October 16, 6:30 pm
Rita Bouboulidi, piano (music by Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert) [FREE]
National Gallery of Art
See the review by Stephen Brookes (Washington Post, October 18)

Sunday, October 16, 7 pm
Ravi Shankar (WPAS)
Music Center at Strathmore
See the review by Gail Wein (Washington Post, October 18)

Sunday, October 16, 7:30 pm
Donizetti, La Fille du Régiment
Opera Bel Cantanti
La Maison Française
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, October 18)

Monday, October 17, 8 pm
Shanghai Symphony Orchestra featuring Tan Dun: China New Wave
Kennedy Center, Concert Hall
See the review by Gail Wein (Washington Post, October 19)

Tuesday, October 18, 7 pm
Tan Dun's Map Project and China's Endangered Music [FREE]
Freer Gallery of Art, Meyer Auditorium

Tuesday, October 18, 8 pm
Württemberg Chamber Orchestra with Arabella Steinbacher, violin (Mendelssohn, Mozart, Bruckner) [FREE]
Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium
See the review by Andrew Lindemann Malone (Washington Post, October 20)

Wednesday, October 19, 8 pm
Borodin Quartet, 60th Anniversary Tour (Borodin, Beethoven) [FREE]
Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, October 21)

Friday, October 21, 7 pm
Silvana Santinelli, piano (music by Spanish-Mexican composer Rodolfo Halffter [1900-1987]) [FREE]
Cosponsored by
Programs cosponsored by National Museum of Women in the Arts
Cultural Institute of Mexico (2829 16th Street NW), for reservations call (202) 728-1675

Friday, October 21, 8 pm
Jupiter Quartet, with violist Roger Tapping (who will be playing in all of the Mozart quintets at the Corcoran this season)
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Musical Evening Series
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, October 22)

Saturday, October 22, 8 pm
Munich Symphony Orchestra with Philippe Entremont, piano
George Mason University Center for the Arts (Fairfax, Va.)
See the review by Jens F. Laurson(Ionarts, October 25)

Saturday, October 22, 8 pm
National Philharmonic with Richard Stoltzman, clarinet (Mozart, Clarinet Concerto)
Music Center at Strathmore
See the review by Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, October 24)

Saturday, October 22, 3 pm; Sunday, October 23, 6 pm; Friday, October 28, 7:30 pm; November 5 and 6, 3 pm
Humperdinck, Hansel und Gretel
Opera Bel Cantanti, in various church venues
See the review by Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, October 24)

Saturday, October 22, 8 pm
Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Mass in E-Flat
Metropolitan Chorus with 18-member Columbia Flute Choir
Mount Olivet United Methodist Church (1500 N. Glebe Road, Arlington)

Saturday, October 22, 8:15 pm; Wednesday, October 26, 7:30 pm; Friday, October 28, 8:15 pm; Sunday, October 30, 3 pm
Verdi, La Traviata
Baltimore Opera

Sunday, October 23, 3 pm [FREE]
On Stage with Washington National Opera (zarzuela and operetta excerpts)
Members of Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program, Washington National Opera
Renwick Gallery, Grand Salon

Sunday, October 23, 3 pm
Washington Musica Viva (music by Scott Wheeler, Maurice Saylor, Steve Reich, and others)
Atlas Performing Arts Center (1333 H St NE)
See the review by Andrew Lindemann Malone (Washington Post, October 25)

Sunday, October 23, 4 pm
The Choir of Westminster Abbey (James O'Donnell, Director)
Sacred music by Bach, Byrd, Elgar, Walton and others
Washington National Cathedral
See the review by Joe Banno (Washington Post, October 25)

Sunday, October 23, 5 pm
Verdehr Trio (piano, clarinet, violin) [FREE, with admission to museum]
Phillips Collection

Sunday, October 23, 6:30 pm
Takács String Quartet (music by Haydn, Borodin, and Beethoven) [FREE]
National Gallery of Art
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, October 26)

Sunday, October 23, 7 pm
Midori, violin, and Charles Abramovic, piano (WPAS)
The Music Center at Strathmore
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, October 24)

Tuesday, October 25, 12:10 pm
Palestrina Choir (Renaissance music) [FREE]
Church of the Epiphany (1317 G Street NW)

Tuesday, October 25, 7:30 pm
Camerata Nordica (WPAS)
Kennedy Center, Terrace Theater
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, October 28)

Tuesday, October 25, 8 pm
Sharon Isbin, guitar, with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra
Music Center at Strathmore

Wednesday, October 26, 7:30 pm
YL Male Voice Choir (from Helsinki, Finland)
Music by Sibelius, Rautavaara, Randall Thompson, Tormis, Yuasa, Kuula
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (Third and A Streets SE)

Wednesday, October 26, 8 pm
Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-soprano (arias from Opera Proibita CD)
Kennedy Center, Concert Hall (WPAS)
See the reviews by Charles T. Downey and Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, October 28)

Thursday, October 27, 7:30 pm
Ying Quartet (music by Tan Dun, Debussy)
Kennedy Center, Terrace Theater

Thursday, October 27, 8 pm (open dress rehearsal, $10); Friday, October 28, 8 pm; Saturday, October 29, 8 pm
Marc Blitzstein, Regina (conducted by Kate Tamarkin)
Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, Catholic University
Hartke Theatre (tickets: $10, $15)

Friday, October 28, 8 pm
Corigliano Quartet with Thomas Gallant, oboe, and Pedja Muzijevic, piano (Coolidge, Carter, Sallinen, Brahms)
Founder's Day Concert [FREE]
Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, October 30)

Friday, October 28, 8 pm
King's Singers and Sarband
George Mason University Center for the Arts (Fairfax, Va.)

Friday, October 28, 8 pm; Saturday, October 29, 8 pm; Sunday, October 30, 3 pm
Dan Hurlin, Hiroshima Maiden (Bunraku puppet show), with music by Robert Een
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park, Md.)

Saturday, October 29, 7 pm (also November 2 to 19)
George Gershwin, Porgy and Bess
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center, Opera House

Saturday, October 29, 7:30 pm
Korean Concert Society: 25th Anniversary Concert (International Sejong Soloists)
Kennedy Center, Terrace Theater

Saturday, October 29, 8 pm
Julie and David Coucheron, piano and violin (brother and sister team from Norway, they will play all three Grieg sonatas)
Residence of the Norwegian Ambassador (3401 Massachusetts Avenue NW)
Embassy Series
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, October 30)

Saturday, October 29, 8 pm
National Philharmonic (Haydn, Creation, with tenor John Aler)
Music Center at Strathmore

Saturday, October 29, 8 pm
Timpano et Choro - Music for Choir and Percussion (Dallapiccola, Davison, Bernstein)
Cantate Chamber Singers
Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church (Bethesda, Md.)

Saturday, October 29, 8 pm
The Master Chorale of Washington: Duruflé and Brubeck
Kennedy Center, Concert Hall

Saturday, October 29, 8:30 pm; Sunday, October 30, 7:30 pm
André-Michel Schub, piano (winner of Naumburg International Piano Competition, Avery Fisher Recital Award, and Van Cliburn International Piano Competition)
Gildenhorn/Speisman Center for the Arts, Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (Rockville, Md.)

Sunday, October 30, 3 pm
The Choral Arts Society of Washington: Handel's Alexander's Feast
Kennedy Center, Concert Hall
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, November 1)

Sunday, October 30, 3 pm
Sarah E. Geller, violin, and Vladimir Valjarevic, piano (music by Schumann, Szymanowksi, Franck)
An die Musik LIVE (Baltimore, Md.)
See the review by Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, November 2)

Sunday, October 30, 5 pm
Gerard Reuter and Gayle Martin Henry, oboe and piano [FREE, with admission to museum]
Phillips Collection

Sunday, October 30, 6 pm
Puccini, Il Tabarro, and Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana
Washington Concert Opera
Lisner Auditorium
See the review by Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, November 1)

Sunday, October 30, 6:30 pm
Paul Galbraith, guitar (music by Mozart, Ravel, Bach, and Ponce) [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

——» Go to Classical Month in Washington (September).


NSO Gets Lucky With Truls Mørk

Truls Mørk - click through for recordings
Truls Mørk
Massachusetts native and Washington-state resident Alan Vaness Chakmakjian, better known to us as Alan Hovhaness (1911–2000), had 131 opus numbers under his composer-belt when he took to his second symphony, “Mysterious Mountain.” Even though this relentlessly prolific composer went on to add 65 more symphonies and 303 more works altogether to his output, “Mysterious Mountain,” the work the National Symphony Orchestra opened Thursday’s concert with, remains his most famous work, by far. His popularity is no surprise, given his musical language. It is very approachable, easily enjoyable, but never panders. It is never saccharine and does not deny its 20th-century frame of reference. His influences were many… Japanese, Korean, and Indian music among them (they all came after the composition of Symphony No. 2) – but the most important was Armenia, the homeland of his ancestors. Hovhaness knows how to employ large orchestral forces to great effect (if not always maximum variety), and for all the breadth of his symphonies, he was always wise enough to be no more elaborate and lingering than necessary. “Mysterious Mountain” sounds like it should be an hour-plus symphony, but it only lasts some twenty minutes. Hovhaness sounds very English with a distinct North-West flavor. The width of Bruckner, sounds of Elgar, Holst, or Delius with a teensy-weensy bit of New Age… if that helps. It’s music that seems to suit Slatkin particularly well, and it is music that makes for a very good prelude to the Elgar Cello Concerto that followed.

The Elgar is one of the great concertos for the cello, even if it took Jacqueline du Pré to catapult it to its current fame. (Listen to her first recording with Sir John Barbirolli and you will understand…) Truls Mørk is one of the great cellists of our day, and it was a shame that he played to a shockingly empty Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Opting for expression over beauty, Truls Mørk has a tone that, while not very big, is meticulous, and he gets a very distinguished sound out of his 1723 Domenico Montagnana. This is not to say that beauty was in short supply. Both performance and work had and have more than plenty of that to offer. Indeed, it is near-impossible to listen to Mr. Mørk play the Elgar concerto and simultaneously think of a living cellist one would rather hear in it. The NSO did very well, too, but in the second and third movement I should have liked to hear them dig a little deeper.

Dvořák’s 6th symphony is a welcome departure from the more regularly performed last three of his symphonies. It’s not neglected, really (it was last played by the NSO just under five years ago), but given how satisfying a work it is by a composer as popular in this country as Dvořák, you’d think it would be more common fare, still. (I am not sure if all the NSO players feel the same way about it… perhaps some have yet to be convinced of the work’s value.) The symphony – and the first movement especially – is like a walk in the lush forests of central Europe, taking in the fresh air in deep breaths and enjoying the gusty winds. For those for whom that description is too lofty I offer the - admittedly crude - division of Dvořák’s symphonies in three bundles for orientation. “Wagner” (1-3), “Brahms” (4-6), and “Echt-Dvořák” (7-9). But the Sixth, while noticeably ‘Brahmsian’ (again: especially in the first movement) is by no means derivative (even if it were, worse things could be said of a symphony than that it has a ‘Brahmsian’ touch…); and come the Scherzo (Furiant): Presto you will find yourself in the very Slavonic world of Dvořák’s dances.

In a recent discussion of the relative merits of BSO and NSO (I insisted the latter to be superior by a fair margin, still – although perhaps less consistent) I conceded that I would not mind swapping (almost) the entire brass section with Baltimore for the NSO’s benefit. (The Dvořák 9th with the BSO last week had exactly that last bit of warmth and hue that Charles and I thought missing in an otherwise impressive NSO 'Tchaik.4' performance.) The NSO’s trumpets made that point again in the Dvořák 6th. The mentioned Scherzo and the spirited finale danced and brushed away most qualms, though, ending a nicely balanced program successfully.

I won’t pretend that there aren’t concerts that deserve to play to empty seats, but this one is distinctively not one of them. You may not have heard of Truls Mørk, but if you don’t hear him now you’ll come to regret it before long. With such music and performers, there is no reason the NSO should be playing to less than a half-capacity crowd. Tickets will be available a-plenty for anyone who walks up to the Kennedy Center either today or tomorrow at 8PM. Ionarts’ academic crowd shoud note that with the student discount it should be an inexpensive way to get lucky with impress that classical music-loving sophomore from across the hall.

I Vespri Siciliani — Struggles With Verdi

In my quest to unlock the fascination and beauty of (early and middle) Verdi, I don’t seem to be making much headway. The Washington National Opera’s I Vespri Siciliani at any rate didn’t do the trick. But if I am no closer to falling in love with that particular opera and others of its kind, at least I now understand better why this is so. The commonly held opinion that many of Verdi’s operas succeed or fail by virtue of the singing is not only true, it points right to the answer to my troubles with the genre.

The reason is that singing is precisely what these operas – and not just blatant vehicles like Nabucco – are all about. That, in turn, is not (just) because Verdi wrote so beautifully for the voice (and even that pleasure is an acquired taste), but because many of his operas simply don’t offer anything else. The drama is staid and silly, the text plenty hackneyed and boring and only in place, it seems, to give the singers something more than just vowels to discharge. Gluck’s lessons (“to confine music to its true purpose… expressing the poetry and reinforcing the dramatic situation without interrupting or obstructing the action with superfluous embellishments”) never penetrated most Italian opera. The staging, accordingly, is mere window dressing. (In this particular production, that can be taken quite literally. More about that later.)

Thus, opera lovers seem split into those for whom opera is indeed all about the singing and dramatic truth be damned and those for whom it is dramma per musica with all elements equal partners. Where story, staging, action, and even music are but an excuse for showcasing vocal chords, opera to me (Verdi lovers will stone me for this) is like an Elvis movie. (That Verdi, once freed from the need to heed convention, went on to compose works like Don Carlos, Simon Boccanegra, Falstaff, and Otello should redeem me, you would think…)

It seems that whenever writing about Verdi, I have a knack for offending, even angering, opera lovers. (To be sure, a few sympathetic voices chime in from the bleachers, too.) I’ve been called select choice names in music forums where someone posted my less than enthusiastic comments on Nabucco, and “Ignoramus” and “Cretin” are the nicer ones. If I am that for not declaring I Vespri (1855) or the earlier Attila or Luisa Miller (1849) masterworks, or if that means I can’t appreciate excellent singing, so be it. Give me Gluck, Mozart, Wagner, Janáček, Strauss, or Britten anytime.

But apart from the fact that I think I can very well appreciate excellent singing – or even excellence of any sort in operas that I am not very fond of, I think the distinction between these two fundamentally different approaches to opera needs to be acknowledged, without necessarily judging one better than the other – or denying value to either. In fact, I am working hard on getting myself to enjoy Verdi of all colors. (Philips – sensing my struggle? – dropped their reissues of obscure Verdi on my doorstep. I am sitting in front of a tower consisting of Stiffelio (1850), Attila (1846), Il Corsaro (1848), and Un Giorno di Regno (1840). Opera Rara added the St. Petersburg version of La Forza del Destino (1862) on top of it. If I don’t get it courtesy Carreras, Raimondi, Berganza, Caballé, Milnes, Cossotto and Norman, I’ll get professional help.)

Until then, however, I insist that it is the synthesis of all elements that makes great opera. No wonder that the most outstanding operas (in my book) had the libretto come first or relied on extensive collaboration between composer and an equally inspired librettist. Strauss/Hoffmansthal, Britten/Auden, Mozart/Da Ponte, Verdi/Boito, and Wagner/Wagner come to mind.

Other Reviews:

Charles T. Downey, DCist Goes to the Opera (DCist, September 18)

T. L. Ponick, Opera's Verdia golden moment (Washington Times, September 19)

Bernard Holland, Verdi Onstage and Domingo on the Podium (New York Times, September 19)

Tim Smith, National Opera's lengthy, but effective, 'Vespri' (Baltimore Sun, September 19)

Tim Page, 'Vespri Siciliani': Verdi's Very Magnum Opus (Washington Post, September 19)
As far as I Vespri Siciliani is concerned, Tim Page already pointed this out in his review, it is foremost a long opera. It does, as Plácido Domingo has mentioned, contain some very beautiful moments. There is a gorgeous duet in Act III between Franco Farina's Arrigo and Lado Ataneli's Monforte, and the overture, although not a favorite of mine, ranks among the finest of Verdi's. But even with the 30-some minute ballet excised and some arias and repeats cut, it takes a while to be done with. The story doesn't particularly propel you through the drama, either. The second act in particular seems interminable. (Again, taste differs: Joe Banno, for example, thinks of the second act as the finest of the work, while I would have no problem in cutting deeply into it.)

The singing so far was variable from night to night. There were moments where Maria Guleghina struggled with the text, but those seemed to have been overcome by the third performance. Lado Ataneli impressed me, as did Vitalij Kowaljow (Procida). The rest of the cast was solid if unspectacular. The first entry of Bethune (John Marcus Bindel) was a little disappointing but he made more of his limited role as the opera went on (and on, and on).

The story of I Vespri is so silly that it does not merit retelling. It is matched in the staging of Stage and Visual Director Paolo Miccichè. The arrangement of different oversized frames on stage and the projection of closeups of paintings onto the back of the stage seem to say: "We blew all the money on the singers - this will have to do." It was not helped by crudely thoughtless details such as the hoisting of the tricolore and les couleurs during the production. The opera is set in thirteenth-century Sicily. The first occurrence of the green-white-red flag that is now Italy's came in Lombardy in 1796. Italy as a country was only founded six years after Verdi wrote I Vespri, and only in 1897 did the Italian flag lose the 'Cross of Savoy'. The French flag is only two years older, becoming the national flag of France in 1794 (and again in 1830). Since there were no attempts to lift the story out of its Sicilian context (despite all-too-many opportunities, given the current political situation in many countries in which the U.S. has some interest), and since the "French" generally did not bother with Sicily after Charles I of Anjou was replaced by King Peter III, it made little sense to 'update' the costumes to a vaguely Napoleonic time.

This, admittedly, will be of little concern to most Verdi lovers and won't keep them from attending either of the remaining two performances on October 1st or 4th.

What Has the Symphony Done for Me Lately?

Tim Smith's recent article (Attention-getters can detract from music’s mission, September 25) in the Baltimore Sun takes up the interesting trends among symphony orchestras to get younger listeners into their halls:

Former BSO music director David Zinman has gone all out in the hipster direction at his Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, offering concerts that don't even start until 10 p.m. Afterward, the audience is treated to an array of enticements -- "Electro-Party, Dance Floor, Chill-Out Lounge, Bar" (as the ensemble's Web site describes it). The hall becomes, in essence, a new destination for late-night clubbers. Some orchestras throw in free food (this presumably attracts every age group). Several bring in visual extras -- large video screens that show close-ups of the performers or project imagery related to the music being performed. The MTV generation, it is widely assumed, expects, even demands, as much activity for the eye as the ear.
You have to read the whole article to appreciate how far these ideas have already permeated symphony culture. However, as Alex Ross has noted at The Rest Is Noise, Drew McManus at Adaptistration has a good post, with links to good journalistic essays on the topic, about how lower ticket prices are the best way to attract a broader, younger audience. Video screens and post-concert clubbing events are probably not going to help in reducing ticket prices.

Garry Marshall's Grande-Duchesse

The nexus between the worlds of opera and film fascinates me. So, I was interested in the new Los Angeles Opera production of Offenbach's La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein. It's an interesting opera, not particularly well known, although there was the worthy Laurent Pelly and Marc Minkowski production last season at the Théâtre du Châtelet, with Dame Felicity Lott. However, the L.A. opera production, which opened on September 10 with Frederica von Stade in the title role, was also intriguing because it was directed by Garry Marshall, best known for his work in television. Lots of critics took note as a result, including M. G. Lord (Film director's dictum for opera: Hit the notes and get the laughs, September 7) for the New York Times, reprinted in the International Herald Tribune:

Shortly before the first onstage rehearsal for the Los Angeles Opera's production of Jacques Offenbach's "Grand Duchess," its director handed out thick packets labeled "Revisions." The singers groaned. The opera had been good enough for 138 years. Did it really need last-minute changes? But when they opened the handouts, the performers brightened. On Page 2 were the words "JUST KIDDING." The other pages were blank. "I was totally fooled," said the mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who is singing the title role. "It was a great gag." Which, after all, is what you would expect when the director of your opera is the guy who is perhaps best known for creating "Happy Days."
The reviews, however, have not been positive. David Mermelstein's article (A 'Duchess' overstuffed with jokes and intrusions, September 15) for LA Daily News is hilariously candid:
And in case you're wondering if the humor in Marshall's reworking of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy's libretto didn't translate, fuhgedaboutit. Though the singing is still in French, the spoken parts are now in English, and staler than week-old rye bread. (By way of mild example, Marshall's script quells a courtesan with the words, "Hush, hush, sweet Charlotte," as if anyone under 60 would find that remotely funny.) Marshall's direction isn't much better than his lame script. He overstuffs almost every scene with pointless intrusions, even when the main characters are singing.
Mark Swed's review (Garry Marshall is a shtickler for humor, September 12) for the Los Angeles Times is a little kinder, calling the production "relentlessly entertaining" (with an unintentionally humorous typographical error in listing Marshall's film credits: "Petty Woman"):
In the end, "The Grand Duchess" probably tries a little too hard to entertain, entertain, entertain. Even the famed Can-Can from a different Offenbach operetta gets, not ineffectively, thrown in. We live in times that may need more than that from our arts institutions. But L.A. Opera is not as financially flush as it would like to be, and this will surely fill seats. Two things, though, I wished for Saturday. First, something more than fun, fun, fun, when the news shows us so much suffering (say a bit of Katrina fund-raising). Second, an acknowledgement from the Music Center that it has got to go out and raise a couple of million dollars for a new sound system in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The dialogue is amplified, the music is not, and that proved the worst of both worlds Saturday. The dialogue sounded as though it came out of tin cans. The singing sounded undernourished. In situations like this, both should be amplified, and well.
Reservations aside, opera has probably never been as widely visible in Los Angeles, which is just what L.A. Opera needs: reviews in The Hollywood Reporter, serious newspapers, and local rags alike. The final performance is this Saturday, October 1.


Countdown to Doctor Atomic

Albert Einstein and Robert OppenheimerAs we all knew he would, Alex Ross has written an excellent article for The New Yorker about the making of John Adams and Peter Sellars's new opera, Doctor Atomic. It includes conversations with Adams and especially with Sellars, who is not only directing the production but put together the text of the libretto after Alice Goodman withdrew. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, this lengthy piece (a feature article in "Onward and Upward with the Arts," instead of at the back with "The Critics") has not been made available online. Sellars describes this new opera with the sentence "This is 'Götterdämmerung' for our generation":

"This whole night is about the atomic bomb," Sellars said, "and I want actually to begin with the most important words--that, at the end of the day, yes, it's wrong, and everyone knows it. Yes, it's wrong. When you say 'terrible,' terrible is"--Sellars paused--"terrible. Look at it in the eye."

"Terrible"? "Wrong"? As a New Yorker who thinks regularly about the possibility of a stray nuclear bomb wiping out not only my life but everything I love, I didn't doubt him for a moment. But I wondered whether the director was politically stacking the deck. He was, however, merely setting up one pole of the debate.
When I read about the article on Alex's blog, The Rest Is Noise, before the magazine arrived in my mailbox, I found this excellent post about Alex's trip to Los Alamos, the Trinity test site, and San Francisco, where the opera will receive its premiere this Saturday, complete with great photographs from Alex's digital camera. Sadly, that post has disappeared this evening, although I imagine that it will reappear after being altered for whatever reason. You may want to supplement Alex's work with a few other articles. Matthew Gurewitsch had an article (Setting the nuclear myth to music, September 27) for the New York Times and republished by the International Herald Tribune:
"To me, the Los Alamos story and the bomb in particular is the ultimate American myth," Adams said. "It constellates so many of the defining themes of our American consciousness: industry and invention leading to a 'triumph' of science over nature; the presumption of military dominance on behalf of what we perceive as the 'right' values; the newfound power to bring about annihilation of life; and the moral and ethical conundrums that the possession of such an instrument of destruction force upon us."
I also recommend the interview (Doctor Atomic to Premier in San Francisco, September 1) that John Adams gave to Mark Wilson for Physics Today earlier this month, the audience of which makes the interview rather interesting and different. There have been so many major cast changes in this production that I have lost count (actually, it's three, I think). Still, we are sad not to be in San Francisco this weekend.

See also Mark Swed's article (Peter Sellars: Explosively original, September 11) for the Los Angeles Times.

What to Do with the Volkspalast in Berlin

Here at Ionarts, we covered this story back in the summer of 2004 (Pompidou Center in Berlin, August 25, 2004). A group of German artists want to transform the Volkspalast, the seat of the Communist government in (formerly East) Berlin, into a "second Centre Pompidou." It's a fairly recent building (constructed in 1976) on the Spree River, which was the symbol of old East Germany. The federal government of the reunited Germany, in 2002, had decided to tear down the building, to reconstruct the Hohenzollern Palace (destroyed by the East German government in 1950). The group of artists, led by film directors Volker Schlöndorff and Frank Castorf, took over the building, in an attempt to stop the government's plans to demolish it. They have been hosting a series of exhibitions in this retro-hip space. I had not given the story much thought since then, but then I read an article (Berlin's Indoor Mountain of Art and Protest, August 25) by Geeta Dayal for the New York Times, about the latest of those exhibits, a piece called Der Berg (The Mountain):

Days before the end of a mammoth protest exhibition, government officials on Wednesday unveiled the results of a feasibility study to raze the crumbling old East German parliament building and make way for a replica of a Prussian castle that would house a five-star hotel and big museum collection. The exterior of the old East German parliament building on Unter den Linden that is to be demolished to make way for a re-creation of a palace. The German culture minister, Christina Weiss, said the government hoped to start construction by 2007 on the new building, which the study says could cost $650 million to $950 million.

In recent months, proponents have sought to cast the proposed castle, an imitation of one that once stood on the site on the famed Unter den Linden, as an architectural and cultural counterpart to the Louvre in Paris. "Here is one of the world's most famous historic ensembles in the center of Berlin, with the university and the opera house and the cathedral," Wilhelm von Boddien, head of the group lobbying to rebuild the old castle, said in an interview on Monday. "The Palace of the Republic is disturbing the ensemble," he said of the old building, a boxy orange-hued 1972 structure that stands out amid the gray and grandiose neo-Classical architecture lining the boulevard. But a very vocal group begs to differ. Arguing that the building should be preserved as a reminder of postwar history, about 160 artists and architects from around the world banded together this month to create a mountain inside the Palace of the Republic.
We like to give some background to stories in the Times when we can.

A Beautiful Day in the Chelsea Hood

doorIt could not have been a more beautiful day in Chelsea this past Saturday. Doors were thrown open (Bortolami Dayan Gallery, shown at right), windows too, and the air was off. Much nicer than August: I like it this way best.

Starting up on 28th, one of my favorite spaces is for rent. I’ve been waiting for some time, but JG Contemporary is not going to exhibit here any longer. Such a great little storefront space, it reminded me of a simpler time in SoHo. Claire Oliver's new, to me, space on 26th has some interesting paintings by Peter Drake.

Lots of photo exhibits, Lennon Weinberg has the ghostly apparitions of Laura Larson, Mitch Epstein at Sikkema Jenkins, and an extensive Diane Arbus show at Robert Miller, and some scary pole dancers at Pace: they could hurt someone. Nancy Margolis is showing Justin Novak’s clay figurines of the Abu Ghraib tortures, complete with looney Lindy and her dog leash. Back to earth with Susan Belton’s Coffee Collection at George Billis, a deal at $950.00 each.

pearlsteinPhilip Pearlstein is showing at Betty Cuningham. He's painting more of the figure in an environment, as opposed to an in-your-face composition, juxtaposed with somewhat bizarre props. I like his frames and the canvas tape around the edge of the canvas. A fairly new gallery and beautiful light-filled space at 530 W. 25th, Larissa Goldston, is showing two large wall drawing/collages of Brad Brown, with many small framed works. Some beautiful combinations of paper textures and color.

phelpsThree to see are Roy Lichtenstein’s three-dimensional paintings at Gagosian. They’re great. It’s a treat to see so many of them together. The gallery was filled for Saturday star watching. I think there’s some money passing through this place, too, a little. Second is Danica Phelps at Zach Feuer. Set aside some time, as her work takes some immersion. The walls are full of diaries, which can get tedious, but the drawings are very engaging (got a little Hirschfeld looping in them): it’s well worth the plunge. Third, Jack Shainman has an incredible installation/soundscape with drawing machines, by Jean-Pierre Gauthier. A room full of winding tubes, wires, and electronics making what appear to be random drawings; but are they? The artist of the future: it's a lot of fun to experience.


Dear readers, it has come to our attention that Haloscan, which has provided the comments service you have been using here, does not keep comments available for more than a few months. Much to our chagrin, some great comments threads on this blog have disappeared into the ether. So we are going to switch over to the Blogger comments system, which we hated when it first became available, but which seems much better now. This will mean a somewhat painful transition at first, and eventually all the comments on the old Haloscan pages will be lost (which they would have been, anyway). So, we are going to keep both systems for a week or two, while those old threads are still alive. However, beginning today, please start using the "New Comments" link to post your comments on new posts. Many thanks for your patience, and keep the great comments coming. We enjoy reading your thoughts.


Dip Your Ears, No. 47 (Bach Family Matters)

available at Amazon
Bach Family et al., Lamento, MAK, R.Goebel, M.Kožená

Lamento, Magdalena Kožená’s latest album on Archiv is really the third installment of Musica Antiqua Köln’s “Bachiana” series where they, under the leadership of Reinhard Goebel, explore seldom-heard music of Bach family members interspersed with J. S. Bach’s work and occasionally other contemporaries. But having Gramophone Artist of the Year winner (2004) Magdalena Kožená on hand proved too irresistible a marketing opportunity even to the hard-nosed lads at Archiv – so they went with her as the main draw. If that means that more people will be exposed to Johann Christoph (1642-1703) and Johann Christoph Friedrich (1732-1795) Bach’s work, all the better.

Between “Ach, dass ich Wasser’s g’nug hätte” by the former and “Die Amerikanerin” by the latter, you’ll hear Francesco Bartolomeo Conti’s “Languet anima mea,” a cantata for soprano, two oboes, strings, and basso continuo; J. S. Bach’s contralto cantata “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust,” BWV 170; his contralto aria “Bekennen will ich seinen Namen,” BWV 200; and C. P. E. Bach’s soprano cantata Selma. The works are arranged chronologically (or at least in chronological order of the composers), and you can hear the development from the first Bach’s early Baroque style to the last Bach’s hints of the galant style. All works are charming, none are overwhelming, and the execution is up to the expected high standards. For followers of MAK or Kožená’s, it will be of special interest.

Archiv B0004689-02

Composer and Other News

Sofia GubaidulinaIn case you missed them, here are a few articles on composers you might enjoy. First, there was an interview-profile of Hamburg-based Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (It pays to be poor, August 12) by Gerard McBurney for The Guardian:

Some years ago, a London critic, Dominic Gill, made an interesting comparison between Gubaidulina's work and the principles of the great Polish theatre director, Jerzy Grotowski, Gubaidulina's near-contemporary and another child of the post-communist bloc. Grotowski wrote a famous book, a Bible of theatrical practice, entitled Towards a Poor Theatre; borrowing from this specific sense, Gill proposed that Gubaidulina writes "Poor Music". What Gill most probably had in mind was the striking "poverty" of the surface of Gubaidulina's music, the way she generates enormous energy and concentration using the frailest wisps of sound, breath-like sighs and moans, scraps of Russian Orthodox chant, gigantic but extremely simple unisons, shudders and tremblings like the merest moments of tension from a film score, the simplest common chords.
Gwyneth Lewis wrote an article (The cruel sea, August 15) for The Guardian about how she came to write the libretto for the new opera with Welsh National Opera, The Most Beautiful Man from the Sea, to music composed by Richard Chew and Orlando Gough:
Given that the main character in the story is a corpse, the change of genre from novel to libretto presented one major dilemma - should the dead man on the beach sing or not? Characters can only live vocally in an oratorio, so I decided to be bold and make the drowned man sing. In fact, once he'd started to talk, I couldn't shut him up; he wanted to take part in a vigorous dialogue with the villagers who found him. Eventually, I decided that the villagers would only be able to hear the man from the sea when they had stopped communicating with each other completely. The children still have some imagination (and they are the first to hear the beautiful man sing) but the men and women are locked in apathetic resignation. As each of the groups reaches a crisis, they hear the drowned man, whom the villagers name Esteban. He becomes a blank canvas on to which they can project their fears and, eventually, their new hopes. The men are the last to embrace the ultimate image of disaster he embodies, but, once they face the reality of death, they give Esteban a joyful funeral, in which he's carried through the village streets like a local saint. I wrote this final scene shortly after we had returned to the boat in Ceuta, only to witness the feast day of the local saint. Two brass bands accompanied the effigy around the city and this is, musically, how I imagined Esteban's cortege.
Judith Mackrell gets the story from composer John Tavener (Pump it up John, September 8), in The Guardian, about how his heart condition inspired Random Dance Company's latest show:
These two worlds would never have collided but for one shared fascination: the symbolism and physiology of the human heart. For Tavener, the obsession grew out of his own medical history. He has Marfan syndrome, a complicated heart condition, and it was while undergoing investigative surgery that he encountered the work of heart-imaging specialist Philip Kilner. Tavener was entranced by the scans Kilner showed him: "The pumping of the heart's chambers and the movement of the blood around the arteries - it looked beautiful to me, like a dance." The images made him think about an old score, Laila, that he had begun writing a few years ago, but abandoned as unworkable. It was a dramatic choral work, based on a Sufi love poem. Its storyline was passionate - "the Romeo and Juliet of the Arabian world", Tavener calls it - but he had been unable to visualise how its erotic, romantic and mystical passions could be represented on stage. "Opera seems to me dead; people having tedious conversations with each other," he says. "And it would have been particularly embarrassing seeing singers trying to act Laila."
Last year, the Tavener news was about how he had a falling out with his Orthodox spiritual adviser. He is now writing music based on something other than Orthodox Christian liturgical texts.

Washington Bach Consort at Strathmore

This review appeared originally on DCist (Washington Bach Consort Opens Season, September 24).

Washington Bach Consort, Strathmore, September 23, 2005
One of Washington's musical treasures is the Washington Bach Consort, a group of singers and instrumentalists directed by J. Reilly Lewis. The group began, in 1977, with local musicians who were devoted to the performance of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. After three European concert tours, beginning in the 1980s, and countless critically praised concerts culminating in a landmark appearance at the Library of Congress last April, the WBC has become an institution, recognized far beyond the boundries of the District of Columbia. Over that long history, who knows how many times J. Reilly Lewis has conducted the work that is, in our opinion, the summa of Bach's choral compositions, the Mass in B Minor, BWV 232. Enough times, to be sure, that when leading his group last night at Strathmore, he conducted without the aid of a score. However, there was nothing routine about this performance, because Lewis and his musicians try to make something new each time they perform a work by Bach, even this most familiar work.

The Consort enjoys the attention of a devoted audience, sometimes bordering on the overzealous side of Bachophilia (a necessary quality behind the desire to subscribe to an entire season of mostly Bach's music), and they were out in force for this appearance at Strathmore. While most of the seats were filled, with a few empty places in the expensive front section, it struck me, even in Row F, that the rarefied WBC sound is perhaps better served by a more resonant church or a smaller hall (the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress was ideal, as it is for most chamber groups) than the more cavernous hall at Strathmore. We heard everything, but the acoustic seemed to swallow some of the edges. It's the start of a new season, which means that there were some new faces in the chorus, and one striking absence. Although the group's Web site still lists Gisèle Becker as Assistant Conductor, she was missing from the soprano section and her name was not mentioned in the program. I don't want to jump to conclusions, but for a few years now she has been directing her own group, the Cantate Chamber Singers, and this could be the final parting of the ways between Reilly and Gigi. If so, an era has ended.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Bach Consort's Perfect Setting (Washington Post, September 26)
The 25 minutes of the Kyrie (in three large sections, with an embarrassingly long pause after the first one for late seating) flew by very quickly. The Christe movement featured the first sounds of nicely matched twin sopranos (the vocal soloists are also divided into five parts), Suzie LeBlanc on the first part and Rosa Lamoreaux (whom I have heard recently with Hesperus and ArcoVoce) on the second. There were a few minor intonation problems in the orchestra, which appeared to be ironed out by the time we got to the Gloria. That is, except for the oboes, modeled on historical instruments which are difficult to control, where less pleasant sounds, especially in the lower range, were more common (with a very noticeable slip in the second oboe occurring in the middle of the Et in Spiritum Sanctum movement).

Soloists, Washington Bach Consort, September 23, 2005The vocal soloists were all very effective, with Belgian countertenor Patrick Van Goethem being an especially rewarding discovery for us. Tenor Alan Bennett was exceptional, especially in those moments were Bach calls for a light, flexible sound in a rather high range, as in the fiendishly difficult Benedictus movement, which was beautiful. Bass Sanford Sylvan had a good sound, unfortunately combined with an exaggerated, mannered sense of diction and a tendency to slide up and especially down intervals of a fifth or larger. The bass's arias in the Mass are the least interesting, in our opinion, and the strangest orchestration. This is especilly true of the Quoniam tu solus sanctus movement, with a natural horn player performing the corno di caccia part in the score. R. J. Kelley did a fine job of getting the best sound he could out of this rather disagreeable instrument. (Commentators on my review of a WBC concert in Fall 2004, which also featured natural horns, gave me flack for claiming that these instruments are played with the bell upward. It turns out that I had indeed remembered correctly: this horn is not played with the fist in the bell but overtones appear to be manipulated with a small finger-button.)

The 30 choral singers were arranged in a single-row horseshoe behind the chamber orchestra, by section. When Bach divides his chorus into five parts, this divides the large soprano section in half, to cover the two soprano parts, resulting in a slightly weakened sound in those movements. Probably as a result, the highest notes sung in the work, high A's and even a few high B's, were not all that could be hoped. The B minor Mass is a work of idealism, not intended to be performed in an actual liturgy. In that sense, Bach experiments with vocal textures, among other things, by bringing together pieces, many of them composed in previous eras of his career, for 5-part chorus (two soprano parts, the choral arrangement preferred in the Catholic city of Dresden, where Bach was interested in working later in life), 6-part chorus (two soprano and two alto parts), various combinations of solo voices, and even 8-part cori spezzati (divided chorus), as well as traditional 4-part chorus. Without a lot of shuffling of singers between movements, there is no ideal way to arrange the singers to accommodate all of those textures.

Like many of the late Bach works, the Mass is a compendium of compositional styles, a sort of encyclopedia of 18th-century church music. In the opening statement of the Kyrie, Bach paraphrases Martin Luther's Kyrie melody from the Deutsche Messe. Later, he also sets Gregorian chant Credo melodies in cantus firmus style in the Symbolum Nicenum movement. (If only Bach had been able to go to Dresden late in his life: Catholic church music would have never been the same.) He includes choral movements in strict stile antico counterpoint, looking backward to the Renaissance, and more modern pieces for soloists, representing newer trends. One of the best reasons to listen to Bach's Mass is the chance to hear the choral movement Et incarnatus est, one of the last pieces composed for this composite work. This little jewel in the heart of the Mass was exquisite in this performance, breathtaking in its simplicity.

For another performance by the full Bach Consort, you will have to wait until December 4 (Sunday, 3 p.m.), for their Christmas concert at their normal venue, National Presbyterian Church. Members of the Washington Bach Consort also give monthly free concerts, on Tuesdays at lunchtime (beginning at 12:10 p.m.), in the Church of the Epiphany (13th and G Sts. NW, near Metro Center). This fall, they will present three of these noontime cantata concerts, on October 4 (Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe, BWV 25), November 1 (Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, BWV 174), and December 6 (Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist, BWV 45).

UPDATE (from comments):
A singer with the Bach Consort has just written to confirm that Gigi Becker has indeed "retired as co-director of the Bach Consort, mainly to focus on her teaching, performing, and own group, Cantate." I was not jumping to conclusions.


Hans Werner Henze's L'Upupa

available at Amazon
Hans Werner Henze, L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe, Matthias Goerne, Laura Aikin, Salzburg Festival, 2003 (released on DVD in March 2005)
After a long career in operatic theaters, German composer Hans Werner Henze reportedly created his final opera, in the summer of 2003, for the Salzburg Festival: L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe (Upupa, or the triumph of filial love). This summer, that opera was produced at the Opéra de Lyon from June 24 to July 2. Last March, a DVD of the original Salzburg production was released, which arrived last week from Netflix in the Ionarts mail box. After spending some time watching it, I can say with great confidence that I want to go to the Salzburg Festival one of these years, because it's a beautiful production. Also, Matthias Goerne has a wonderful voice, as Jens has written in his assessments of his recordings (Schumann songs and Beethoven/Schubert).

Also on Ionarts:

Summer Opera: Henze's L'Upupa (July 22, 2005)

From Goerne to His Distant Beloved (July 18, 2005)

Matthias Goerne in Schumann Songs (February 20, 2005)

Philip Glass World Premiere and Matthias Goerne (January 21, 2005)
The libretto, written by the composer himself, is a strange story synthesized from Arabic tales and other sources. The huppoe, the mysterious golden bird of the title, is the source of all the trouble. (The hoopoe's place in mythology is well established. King Solomon discovered the existence of the Queen of Sheba through the hoopoe and communicated with her by tying messages to its wing.) When the bird suddenly stops visiting Al Radshi, the Grand Vizier of Manda, his obsession with the bird leads him to send his three sons on a voyage of initiation. The worthiest of them, Al Kasim (Matthias Goerne), meets his demon, the spirit who will guide, transport, and protect him. Although he complains a lot, the Demon (played by tenor John Mark Ainsley, although Henze designed the role for English tenor Ian Bostridge) sticks by Al Kasim through each successive test.

The score is intricate and gorgeous, calling for a large ensemble heavy on winds and tinkling sounds, including two harps, two pianos, celesta, five percussionists on bells and Chinese instruments. The orchestration is mostly quite delicate, however, focusing more on transparent color than on thickness of sound. Henze also uses taped sounds of beating wings and bird calls, which evoke the mythological bird much better than the mechanized one in a cage used in this production.

Henze may be out of the opera business, but he continues to compose, having recently premiered a new work for orchestra, Cinq messages pour la Reine de Saba, commissioned by Radio France. That piece recycles some unused fragments for L'Upupa. Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra will premiere another new orchestral work, Sebastian im Traum (based on the poem of the same name by Georg Trakl), this December.


Dip Your Ears, No. 46 (Haffner & Linz)

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, Symphonies nos. 35 "Haffner" & 36 "Linz",
J. Bélohlávek / Prague Philharmonia
Harmonia Mundi

Genius, as Fast as Possible

“I shall work as fast as possible, and – as far as haste permits – I shall write well” were Mozart’s words to his Herr Papa when he accepted the commission for a serenade that was to celebrate Siegmund Haffner’s elevation into the nobility. The opening double octave upward leap might seduce to attach symbolic meaning to the work – but the six movement serenade had a different opening before ‘WAM’ reworked it into the symphony that we know now as no. 35 – the “Haffner.” (He did so mainly through cuts in the score and additions in the orchestration.)

I rather hear the Così fan tutte overture in it (single octave downward leaps) – but that’s fairly superficial, too. Clear enough, though, is the fact that Mozart wrote very well and haste be damned. With works like that, it’s no wonder that the perception that Mozart’s music just flowed from his pen onto paper in instant perfection manifested itself. It’s true enough in this case and that of the following symphony, no. 36 “Linz” – also on this recording with the Prague Philharmonic under Jiří Bélohlávek – which Mozart composed in four days when he needed a symphony for a concert in Linz but had forgotten to pack any into his suitcase. But Mozart had to labor hard on plenty of occasions, even if that never did keep critics (me on occasion among them) from labeling him “master of (pretty) perfection,” which is shorthand for “how dare anyone compare him to Beethoven”. Listen to any of his six mature great symphonies, and you’d never want to interrupt it midway for any of Beethoven’s, though – no matter how much higher you’d place LvB in a (perfectly meaningless) ‘top-ten’ list of composers.

The Haffner is Mozart at his Mozartian best, if not quite yet the symphony in which he would show the way to the ‘modern’ symphony that led from the “Linz” to the “Jupiter” to Beethoven and eventually the Romantic symphonies. The Finale-Presto is a whirlwind with the Praguers (Pragueians?), much in accordance with Mozart’s dictum that the finale be played “as fast as possible.” At under four minutes Mozart injects a little microuniverse of classical music into a moment the length of which it takes a Bruckner symphony just to take a breath. The Adagio opening of the “Linz,” before it falls into a more traditional Allegro spiritoso, is a bolder move in the development of the form than we can now discern. Fortunately Guido Fischer’s excellent liner notes help out – and allow hacks like me to shamelessly appropriate so that we may seem particularly erudite.

The music, we could have known without any of the above, is a delight. But the interpretation makes it a particular one. Zest and feisty playing make the fast movements especially exciting. The young orchestra – just over ten years ‘old’ – excels and plays significantly better that what Ionarts has heard from the Prague Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center recently. If the timings on this disc seem glacial compared to Böhm's still competitive 1960s recordings, it’s because Bélohlávek takes every repeat while Böhm doesn’t bother.