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Ionarts-at-Large: Bach's St. John Passion with Ton Koopman

available at Amazon
Bach, St.John Passion,
Koopman / ABO / Schlick, de Mey, Kooy, Türk, Mertens et al. - Erato

available at Amazon
Bach, St.John Passion,
Herreweghe II (1725) / CVG / Rubens, Scholl, Padmore, Noack, Volle et al.
Harmonia Mundi

available at Amazon
Bach, St.John Passion,
van Veldhoven / ABO / Türk, de Groot, Daniels, Stam, et al. - Channel Classics
(newly re-issued at mid-price)

Bach’s St. John Passion with a star-studded lineup of soprano Johennette Zomer, countertenor Andreas Scholl, tenor Mark Padmore, and bass Klaus Mertens, conducted by Ton Koopman, was bound to be—and indeed was—an enjoyable affair. A little over two years ago the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra performed the B-minor Mass with him, now they tackled the ‘smaller’ Passion.

The woodwind voices of the massive opening (from the usually performed 1724/49 version) stood out above a muted sea of irresistible basso continuo and strings that surged only to sweep the chorus to its entry. Stoic Joachim Held’s lute and gambist Frederike Heumann were more visual than an acoustic nod to historical performance practice. Only during the arias and the long bass arioso “Betrachte, meine Seele”—joined by a duo of viole d’amore—did they come to the fore. The reduced modern instrument forces of the orchestra crafted a fine mix of delicate restraint and liveliness—if more of the former than the latter.

Andreas Scholl’s first of two arias, “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden”, was effortful beauty—if one puts it kindly. With ungainly strain in the high notes, this far below what we know he is capable of from his two (three, if you count a dutch version) commercial recordings (Corboz and Herreweghe II in the 1725 version). “Es ist vollbracht”, the second time the alto ‘soloist’ is called upon, was much improved. Johannette Zomer, that energetic Bach siren, was her uniquely enchanting best. Strident, her voice is, even piercing perhaps—but never harsh. Klaus Mertens remains the unflinching, sonorous gentleman bass who never resorts to rumbling as some colleagues his age do.

Mark Padmore stood out even amid the impressive quartet (a quintet, if we count the pleasantly resonant Mathias Hausmann who acquitted himself impressively of his Pilatus-duties). Padmore was agile and expressive, extraordinarily strong-voiced, and delivered his part with baritonal comfort. Even as some of this security deteriorated toward the end, he still finished at a level most evangelists don’t ever reach. The BR Chorus, the jewel at the heart of this concert, is uniquely suited for such large-but-detailed choral performances… and the joy of singing Bach in some of their faces was of prayer-like beauty.

In Brief: Caveat Lector Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • A major exhibit on a favorite painter, Caravaggio, opened recently at the Scuderie del Quirinale, in Rome. Yes, it's another anniversary to celebrate -- Caravaggio died on July 18, 1610, 400 years ago this year. The exhibit is not large -- 24 of the 64 large canvases generally attributed to him -- but it is an impressive collection of masterpieces, including one that has never been allowed to travel -- the Entombment of Christ, sent across the city by the Vatican. [Le Figaro]

  • Every few years scientists make grand pronouncements about music or art, unfortunately sometimes in ways that show an embarrassing lack of knowledge of those things. A few years ago, some were on the bandwagon that tonality appeals to human ears because it is based on natural laws of sound, a pseudo-scientific dodge of countless historical problems (an issue one thinks would have been solved after Kenneth Levy shattered the theory). Now there is a book by Philip Ball supposedly using neurological findings to show that the human brain instinctively likes tonal music because it is based on "structure and patterns." This must explain, goes this half-baked theory, why audiences do not like Schoenberg. Of course, as anyone knows who has actually studied the music itself, Schoenberg's 12-tone music is obsessively based on patterns and rigorous structure. According to this reasoning, Schoenberg should be the sort of music our brains like the most. [The Telegraph]

  • Turkish pianist Fazil Say refused to be part of the programming of the offical Year of Turkey in France, which concludes next month. In a letter he blamed the Turkish government, in particular the AKP or Justice and Development Party, for having "censored his work." This goes back to 2007 and Say's Requiem Mass for Metin Altiok (1941-1993), which the Turkish culture minister did not allow to be performed with the projection of images relating to the poet's assassination. Since Say's critical response to the incident was published, he has received death threats and one of his concerts in Munich was reportedly canceled because of the danger of some kind of retaliation. [Le Monde]

  • On a not unrelated note, Algeria is not really celebrating the anniversary this year of the death of Albert Camus. A text given the title "Alert to Anticolonial Consciences" was sent to editors, university professors, and journalists to denounce the Camus anniversary, seen as an attempt "to rehabilitate the discussion of French Algeria." Seven Algerian cities were to have hosted Camus celebrations, but requests for funding made to the Algerian cultural ministry have not received any response. French cultural institutions in Algeria, one diplomat admits, are keeping a low profile and "staying underground." [Le Monde]

  • A new Giant Pacific octopus has arrived at the National Zoo: an "octopus cam" has been promised. [DCist]

  • To Alex Ross's Top 10 List of Glissandos, in honor of Xenakis Week, I would add the detumescent trombone slide at the end of the rape of Aksinya in Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. No luck finding a clip of that scene. [Unquiet Thoughts]


Ionarts-at-Large: Haitink in Bruckner, Ozawa not in Bruckner

With all due respect to Maestro Mariss Jansons (interview on WETA) who I much admire, it is a very good idea for the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra to have guest conductors take on the Anton Bruckner duties.

The nervously micromanaging, detail-oriented Jansons has so far delivered Brucknerlive and on record—of awkwardly hollow excellence that does nothing to my Bruckner-love. Christian Thielemann, the Bruckner-reveler across town, is a wholly different story… and so is Bernard Haitink. Superficially he is a conductor similar to Jansons (understatement, subtle musicality, unhurried introspection rather than flashy extroversion), but his Bruckner feels (more than ‘sounds’) completely different: Jansons’ uncomfortable, an exercise in theory; Haitink’s totally natural and organic. That’s not to say Jansons’ Bruckner should be ignored (his Seventh on BR Klassik is good), only that it helps to lower one’s expectations. No need to lower one’s expectations for Haitink’s Bruckner. In February he took the baton and led the BRSO in the Fifth Symphony, the great Fifth.

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Sy.7,
M.Jansons / BRSO
BR Klassik

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Sy.5 + Lecture,
B.Zander / Philharmonia

Perhaps Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is overshadowed in ‘greatness’ by the Eighth, in popularity by the Fourth, in catchiness by the Seventh, portentousness by the unfinished Ninth… heck, it is even overshadowed in underratedness—by the Sixth. But surely it isn’t as neglected as Benjamin Zander suggests in the commentary of his recent recording on Telarc. Only because he hadn’t performed, nor apparently much thought about, the work, doesn’t mean the rest of the conducting- and listening-world has ignored it, too. ArkivMusic lists 63 available copies—about 50 different versions—as currently available. Not the sign of particular neglect. (Zander’s recording, by the way, is a veryfine, refreshingly straightforward account—even if his fearfully excited, 80 minute commentary teeters dangerously close to a clichéd embarrassment.)

Haitink’s direction is unfussy: small gestures and his soft-yet-intense eyes steer the orchestra safely and precisely. Players of the Concertgebouw and BRSO speak admiringly of how little he needs to say in rehearsal, because his motions make intuitive sense to the musicians. Together with the BRSO’s clarity and detail the performance made for a Bruckner that simply felt right. Without highlights or pointed local flavor or exclamation marks, this was moving Bruckner-calm and impressive Bruckner-excitement—and none of the nervous, jerky push-pull of one aborted climax that denotes bad, ill-steered Bruckner. Altogether a lovely night and a performance that reminded me why the Fifth is my favorite Bruckner Symphony.

BRSO-Bruckner was supposed to continue the following week, when Seiji Ozawa was scheduled to conduct the Third (the “Wagner” Symphony). But unfortunately Maestro Ozawa was diagnosed with esophageal cancer (Tim Smith reported, among others) and has canceled half a season’s worth of engagements to make sure he’ll be fully recovered and fit upon his projected return later this year. Also scheduled was the Frank MartinConcerto for Seven Winds, Percussion & Strings” and because seven soloists—even if they are members of the orchestra—can’t easily be re-scheduled (or disappointed), a conductor had to be found whose schedule allowed him to fill in, and whose repertoire included the Martin. Compromises had to be made, which unfortunately didn’t just mean that Bruckner had to be dropped, replaced with a Mozart Symphony and “Pictures at an Exhibition”.

Cornelius Meister, the 30 year old GMD from Heidelberg, was available but despite the promising name, he conducted more like an apprentice. He managed to be fairly close in sync with the orchestra while ostentatiously waving about during the Mozart Symphony No.29 in A major (KV201), but it wasn’t clear whether that was entirely pro forma or if it had any actual effect on the routinely lovely performance. The tempo—this touch of Meister was evident—was a very brisk one, and the first violins adhered to it. The rest caught up later.

available at Amazon
Wolfadeus Mozart, Sys.#29, 31, 32, 35, 36,
C.Mackerras / Scottish CO

The symphony itself is worth a few words, since it is Mozart’s first exclamation mark in that genre. It was still composed for the Salzburg court, and the limited orchestration of strings with two oboes and horns reflects that. But the content was bolder, bigger—and Mozart thought the work fit to be played in one of his Vienna academy concerts some nine years after the 1774 composition date. The first and last, among four equally weighted, movements are linked by the distinctive downward octave leaps—nearly as bold as he’d later make them in the Cosí fan tutte overture. Just before this concert I received the latest Mozart offering from Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on the audiophile Linn label: Too high a bar for the Meister-led BRSO to pass that day. Mackerras’ combination of light touch and making his chamber-sized forces exude a bold, even fat sound—rounded off with the innate musicality of one of the foremost Mozartean conductors of our time: the symphony and indeed the whole 2-CD set that also includes Symphonies nos. 31 (“Paris”), 32, 35 (“Haffner”), and 36 (“Linz”) is a charming and subtle triumph.

That’s not to say that the BRSO’s performance was all bad. One touch stood out in particular: In the Andante the strings—especially the first violins, which were more on top of things than their colleagues—achieved a wonderfully glassy, almost synthetic yet light and glowing string sound. The result of using wooden dampers, I was told.

Frank Martin’s concerto—literally and metaphorically at the center of this concert (and exactly as old as the orchestra)—was the reason I attended, and it was the clear highlight. Meister was busy keeping the beat, the orchestra was together, and the soloists, all culled from the superbly skilled first chairs of the orchestra did their instruments—flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, timpani, percussion—proud. How to better showcase you orchestra’s talent than with a work like this: From the fabulous flutist Henrik Wiese (Pahud has nothing on this guy) to the Bloomington-native horn doyen Eric Terwilliger and the ridiculously young and talented Ramón Ortega Quero (in 2008, at the age of 20 and shortly after his sweep at the 2007 ARD Music Competition, he became the BRSO’s principal
oboist), all participated flawlessly in Martin’s perfectly natural interweaving of the soloist voices.

The only nag is that the work isn’t great Martin. In rather obviously not being so, it shows how very skilled a composer Martin was, as the real quality of composers shows best in their ‘less-than-great’ works. The treatment of the instruments, the professional progression from movement to movement all speaks to his craft. But inspiration came to Martin specifically when composing with a religious subtext in mind. Polyptique enjoys that obvious inspiration while this concerto is rather like music without expression, a concerto-grosso against treacly over-emoting.

The concluding Pictures was civilized boredom; a perfunctory performance of varying tempos that didn’t convince at either extremes, and devoid of the necessary expressive nuance. With every passing minute I more and more appreciated the piano version. Bruckner was missed, as was Ozawa. Get better, maestro—we can’t do without you, yet.


À mon chevet: Regarding the Pain of Others

book cover
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
If we admit as authentic only photographs that result from the photographer's having been nearby, shutter open, at just the right moment, few victory photographs will qualify. Take the action of planting a flag on a height as a battle is winding down. The famous photograph of the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945, turns out to be a "reconstruction" by an Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal, of the morning flag-raising ceremony that followed the capture of Mount Suribachi, done later in the day and with a larger flag. The story behind an equally iconic victory photograph, taken on May 2, 1945, by the Soviet war photographer Yevgeny Khaldei, of Russian soldiers hoisting the Red flag atop the Reichstag as Berlin continues to burn, is that the exploit was staged for the camera.

The case of a much-reproduced upbeat photograph taken in London in 1940, during the Blitz, is more complicated, since the photographer, and therefore the circumstances of the picture-taking, are unknown. The picture shows, through a missing wall of the utterly ruined, roofless library of Holland House, three gentlemen standing in the rubble at some distance from one another before two walls of miraculously intact bookshelves. One gazes at the books; one hooks his finger on the spine of a book he is about to pull from the shelf; one, book in hand, is reading -- the elegantly composed tableau has to have been directed. It is pleasing to imagine that the picture is not the invention from scratch of a photographer on the prowl in Kensington after an air raid who, discovering the library of the great Jacobean mansion sheared open to view, had brought in three men to play the imperturbable browsers, but, rather, that the three gents were observed indulging their bookish appetites in the destroyed mansion and the photographer did little more than space them differently to make a more incisive picture. Either way, the photograph retains its period charm and authenticity as a celebration of a now vanished ideal of national fortitude and sangfroid. With time, many staged photographs turn back into historical evidence, albeit of an impure kind -- like most historical evidence.

-- Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, pp. 56-57
This passage comes at the end of the third chapter, at the conclusion of Sontag's dissection of the process of photographing wars and their victims. With history painting, the viewer assumes by the nature of the medium that the painter has composed an edited, even idealized version of history, but the photograph comes with the assumption that what is shown is as close to the truth as possible ("the clinical eye of the camera"). As Sontag shows, the truth is often quite different, as photographers, even those working in war zones, often do just as much composition and manipulation of their images. She traces this back to Roger Fenton, whose pictures of the Crimean War usually lead him to be regarded as the first war photographer, and to the Civil War photographs attributed to Mathew Brady (many of them were actually taken by his assistants, Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan). Both were not always allowed to take photographs of anything at all, and both were known to have composed the scenes of their photographs, going even so far in some cases as moving the bodies of the dead.

I have made far too many marks of passages in this pithy book to quote at Ionarts: I will not post them all, but you can expect a few more. This was Sontag at the top of her game. (Take a look at these thoughts on Susan Sontag's film criticism, too.)

Whitney 2010!

2010, Whitney BiennialThe Whitney Museum of American Art's national survey of American art began in 1935 as a way to take the pulse of contemporary art at the time, and again this year my work was not selected! I know, I'm shocked too. For this, the 75th year, curators Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari have selected 55 artists on the basis of studio visits made around the country. A sign of modest times maybe: it's down from 81 in 2008 and 100 in 2006.

The art press was out in force this past Tuesday for the press preview, and there were more blogging/tweeting heads than ever before. It's a wave: I’m getting most of my art world updates on Facebook and Twitter. A full in-depth blog post is valuable still, but Facebook spreads and constant Twitter updates have become essential reads.

This year each artist was allowed one work or series, which also gives this biennial a smaller feel, not so hectic and scattered as in past years. I like that. Something else I like, the curators have dedicated floors by genera: for instance most of the video installation is on the third floor, which gives each artist a spacious cube of their own. It's a much more fluid viewing experience: admittedly not usually having the patience to linger with videos, this year I did.

Kate Gilmore manically destroys a closet of sheet-rock, smashing and tearing her way to the top, exposing the viewer to the beauty beneath the claustrophobia. I would be wary of renting an apartment to her. Ari Marcopolous's Detroit proves how great music begins: jammin' in the bedroom, of course. Josephine Meckseper plays a dour sound track to her Mall of America video: the shots are rich and slick, but it's kind of like Vegas -- what happens at the mall stays at the mall. It's not that big of a deal anymore, and the MoA will eventually implode of its own accord.

The guard had to show me how to enter the Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher collaboration in a box, titled Better Dimension. Lucky for me: the loop of deep kaleidoscopic reds projected in the dark space is fabulous. I think the guard in Marianne Vitale's room, listening to her video Patron loop over and over will need a very strong drink after each shift -- jus' sayin'.

Stepping off the elevator on each floor visitors are greeted by one grand piece. On 3, Pae White's curling smoke, which press photos led me to believe would be a video, is actually soft woven cotton. Everyone wants to touch it. Piotr Uklanski's large weaving of hemp, macrame, jute, and pigment on the 4th is impressive. It reminded me of El Anatsui's work, up now at Jack Shainman, and James Casebere's blown-up photo of a toy - like suburban houses set you up for a wary playfulness on the 2nd floor.

War is never far from our psyche these days. I was first introduced to Nina Berman's work through her striking wedding photo of former Marine Sargent Ty Ziegel at Jen Bekman Gallery. Ziegel was severely disfigured by a roadside bomb while serving in Iraq. Berman is exhibiting a series of 17 photos following Ty and his fiancée Renee as they plan their wedding -- wrenching, but full of love and beauty.

Photo-journalist Stephanie Sinclair on the other hand slams us with her series Self-Immolation in Afghanistan: A Cry For Help. Raw images of women's bodies scarred and burned, it's unexpected and very emotional. As my co-blogger Brent Burket mentioned, it's a relief to have Lesley Vances's wonderful paintings in the next room to ease us back from the edge. Or for that matter Maureen Gallace's simple, lush landscapes: her work always reminds me of Lois Dodd's, who by the way may also have been a good choice for this spot.

On whole this is a very good Biennial. For every artist included my mind wanders to dozens of other artists who could have been: in some cases, as with the room full of Charles Ray's floral watercolors, one thinks why at all?

Then the Bruce High Quality Foundation crashes the party by driving in a 60s-era white ambulance and schools us with their We Like America and America Likes Us video of our recent past projected on the windshield.

Like the one you're with. The Biennial is up through May 30th: for more images go to my Flickr site.