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Jenny Lin's Chinoiserie

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Read my review published today in the Style section of the Washington Post:

Charles T. Downey, Pianist Jenny Lin brings musical impressions of China to the Freer
Washington Post, April 30, 2011

available at Amazon
J. Lin, Chinoiserie
Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni thought “Greensleeves” was a Chinese folk tune. Gioacchino Rossini probably knew the polka was not danced in China but nonetheless wrote “Petite Polka Chinoise.” Compositions based on impressions both knowledgeable and fanciful of China and its music were at the heart of “Chinoiserie,” a recital Thursday at the Freer Gallery of Art by pianist Jenny Lin. The program was also partially drawn from her “Chinoiserie” CD from 2000.

Lin’s percussive touch is suited to aggressive, dissonant music, but one often longed for a more caressed melody and varied attack. Minor technical blemishes and pedestrian phrasing in Francois Couperin’s “Les Chinois” and Rossini’s “Petite Polka Chinoise” seemed to indicate that some of the earlier pieces did not engage Lin’s musical imagination. [Continue reading]
Jenny Lin, piano
Freer Gallery of Art

The goal of this program was to draw a comparison between the craze for Chinese-inspired porcelain, known in France as chinoiserie, and music supposedly inspired by Chinese culture and/or music, rightly or wrongly. Some of the pieces selected, however, had a tenuous connection to China. For example, the piece that began the concert, Couperin's Les Chinois (from the 27e Ordre, the last one published by Couperin in the fourth book of the Pièces de Clavecin), is possibly not inspired by anything actually Chinese: it has been speculated that the piece is related to a play of that name by Dufresnay, although its most recent performance in Paris had been some years earlier.

The same is true for the little 1977 piece by John Adams, China Gates, which the composer has said was "written for young pianists [specifically "for the seventeen-year-old Sarah Cahill," whom he knew in San Francisco] and utilizes the same principles [as the longer Phrygian Gates] without resorting to virtuoso technical effects." Lin made a connection between the drawing on the score's opening page, a series of square shapes, and physical gates perhaps associated with the Great Wall of China. However, in his official program notes, Adams says that the term gates was "borrowed from electronics," describing the intersection of waves, incarnated in Phrygian Gates as a "modulating square wave with one state in the Lydian mode and the other in the Phrygian mode." China Gates also opposes music in contrasting modes. The "China" part may be a reference to Cahill's father, who was an art history professor specializing in Chinese art. I am not aware if Adams has ever explained it.

The concert was programmed in association with the Freer's new reappointment of James Whistler's famous Peacock Room. Lin, who gave charming introductions to sets of pieces, said she had searched for a piece about a peacock: the closest she came was The Swan, a 1995 work by Chinese-Canadian composer Vincent Ho (b. 1975). With the large pleated sleeves of her black dress spread like wings, Lin reached over the interior of the piano, plucking, strumming, and striking strings directly with her hands. The almost constant whirr of strummed treble strings created a magical wash of toneless rushing noise that formed the backdrop of this intriguing sound-scape. Pieces like this one and others showed the other side of the coin, composers who are striving to preserve or incorporate elements of their native Chinese music in their new homes in North America.

Dip Your Ears, No. 109 (Nordic Jazz)

available at Amazon
P.Johannesson, M.Schultz et al.
Prophone 109
(available from
available at Amazon
What's New,
Lars Jansson
Prophone 109
(available from
Record reviewing is an unthankful business and difficult enough even if you know your way around the repertoire very well. Reviewing music that you merely like, but are not an expert in, is even worse… you feel lost at sea – and even if you don’t, the know-it-alls (who, frustratingly, really do tend to know better), are just around the internet-corner, ready to snap at your heels. Ironically, the sole gratifying aspect about CD reviewing is doing it as a way to make yourself listen to music that you are not familiar with, because it broadens the mind and bears many a happy surprise.

That is why I consented to have two Jazz CDs sent to me by an on-line magazine's editor, even though I am merely a jazz listener, not an expert. To judge my response, it might be helpful where I come from when it comes to jazz – and how to respond to it. My Jazz tastes are fairly universal and within that wide swath solidly ordinary. I came to Jazz via Keith Jarrett. That was quickly expanded Jacques Loussier and then to the classics (Miles, Coltrane, Gillespie, Peterson, Brubeck, Evans, Parker et al.). Eventually I added Acid Jazz. I pretended to dislike Wynton Marsalis until I had a feisty back and forth with him; now I appreciate his intense professionalism. Occasionally I get to attend a Jazz Festival – the Jazz Festival Alto Adige, most recently, where my ears where opened to the sounds of trumpeter-composer Matthias Schriefl. In Washington DC, I’ve always had a particular hankering for contemporary Scandinavian jazz at the Blues Alley and beyond. Part of my menial post-college labor included serving drinks in a seedy, rinky-dink Jazz Club in Georgetown. I don’t mind quality crooners (Diana Krall for the most part, Jamie Cullum not really), and I will listen to pretty much anything that appears on the ECM label. I would like to think that "Ascension" is John Coltrane's masterpiece, but I don't really get it.

These likes are reflected in the two CDs I picked: Going solely by name, I went for Lars Jansson’s “What’s New” and the self-titled “Johannesson & Schultz”, both on the (unknown, to me) Prophone label. Both sounded promisingly Scandinavian (they’re Swedish), and they would going to be my soundtrack for a few relaxing, fully wholesome evenings in Oslo. It’s not the most sophisticated way to chose your jazz, admittedly, but in this case I hit the bull’s eye, twice.

Peter Johannesson (drums) and Max Schultz (guitar) form a quartet with Bobo Stensson (piano) and Martin Sjöstedt (double bass). The Herbie Hancock influenced musicians composed thirteen songs for this disc (a 14th covers the Coltrane’s “Impressions”), eight of which are by Schultz, four by Johannesson, and one by Sjöstedt. The results are on the mellow side of the jazz divide, varying along and within a reasonable (meaning: never gratuitous), very organic bandwith of excitability… from the placid “Footloose” to the driven “The Force”. In “Too Simple”, Schultz’s e-guitar sound and the hummable, memorably melodic tune he finds, could be straight out of John Scofield. “Big McKee”, along similar lines, wouldn’t be out of place in a Mike Stern recording. This guitar sound doesn’t dominate every track, but it’s the most—literally—outstanding quality. Unfussy listenability, over and over and over again, is the gratifying musical result.

Lars Jansson’s sound on his disc of standards reminded me straight away of the Tord Gustavsen Trio, if with some of the Norwegian group’s distinct flavor traded in for a touch of hotel bar sentimentality… that presumably being in the nature of a disc just with standards. (As someone with a distinct distaste for most trashy hotel bar muzak, I should add that in this case it is meant in no pejorative way at all.) The trio for “What’s New” consists of Jansson on piano, his son Paul Svanberg on drums, and Thomas Fonnesbæk on bass; they work their way through “Love Man”, “The Masquerade is Over”, the crooning-laconic “Hilda Smiles”, and seven further tracks with a Be and a Bop, a spring in their step, and Keith-Jarrettish humming over the harmonies.

My concluding response to a live gig of the Tord Gustavsen Trio five years ago is just as appropriate as the final remark for these two discs: “This is [a broadly popular] kind of jazz—well behaved, stylish, and beautiful—which also means it's not for everyone: 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 [these] records your next.


Ionarts-at-Large: Berlioz and Strategically Lowered Expectations

The deal was this: Mozart’s d-minor Piano Concerto and Bruckner Seventh Symphony. Piotr Anderszewski for the Mozart, David Zinman principally for the Bruckner, and the Munich Philharmonic to do the orchestral legwork… something to truly look forward to. But David Zinman had to cancel and somehow a competent replacement that could do both, Mozart and Bruckner, was nowhere to be found. Someone like Herbert Blomstedt, for example, might not have had time (he seems more readily available for the other orchestra in town, the BRSO); someone like Stanisław Skrowaczewski probably isn’t even in the management’s rolodex. But the name Nikolaj Znaider is in there, and a violin is so easily replaced with a baton. So eventually he was asked to conduct the concert, consented and—Bruckner be damned—brought Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique with him; one of the works he apparently already knows by heart, as a conductor.

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, PCs. 17 & 20 (K.466),
P.Anderszewski / Scottish ChO
Virgin Classics
available at Amazon
H.Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique,
C.Munch / Boston SO
RCA Living Stereo SACD
Just a couple of weeks ago I had a few words with Andrew Manze—who would know—on the touchy subject of famous soloists entering the conducting business to dubious—and occasionally tremendous—credit. We mentioned musicians like Barenboim, and agreed that he’d have had a career in conducting at the highest level even without ever touching a piano. Vladimir Ashkenazy’s name came up as someone—again agreement—who might not have gotten into conducting if it hadn’t been for his status as a soloist, but who has since more than proved himself as a very fine conductor. Naturally Manze was tactful enough not to mention any names on the other end of the spectrum, but then they’re not that difficult to think of. The interesting point Manze made, the one that had me stop in my tracks for a while, was this: “Wouldn’t you want your conductors to be musicians before they take on conducting? Would you really want some kid straight out of conducting school standing in front of an orchestra?”

An excellent point, but of course the problem with conducting soloists is not that they are too much of a musician, it’s that they’re not enough conductor. There are two different skill sets involved, both feeding (ideally, that is) off musicality. Most successful conductor-conductors have played an instrument at some level (Minkowski was an oboist, Thielemann a violist etc.), there are exceptions, of course (Rattle, who did a bit of percussion, Muti, who went straight into conducting/composing), and then there are those you wish had indeed spent a little longer with their trumpet before entering full-time conducting. There is nothing that says that a famous soloist hasn’t what it takes to make a great conductor… but there is the danger that he is picked for high-profile conducting gigs because of the name made with the instrument, not the baton. Perhaps Nikolai Znaider has what it takes to become a great conductor; perhaps even approaching his level of violinism in that field. But at this stage he should be conducting the Würzburg Philharmonic or the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, not the orchestras with which he has performed as a soloist at (or near) the top of his game. And surely not the Munich Philharmonic, an orchestra that all too willingly meets modest conductors at their level.

This premonition of mediocrity isn’t just a hunch. Nikolaj Znaider has been conducting the Munich Philharmonic before; most recently in a program of Mozart and Tchaikovsky Symphonies. The Mozart was so atrocious that, in ill health anyway, I was compelled to leave at intermission. A local colleague who stayed (and, not knowing I had been there, referred to said Mozart symphony as “making you want to run away”) assured me that the Tchaikovsky was considerably better than the Mozart… but then, it would have been almost impossible not to be. So what did that mean for the Mozart Concerto KV466 tonight? Ever the seasoned pessimist, I decided to anticipate disaster; which is the concert-going analogue to the George W. Bush approach to successful speeching: Lower expectations as much as possible, then hit it out of the park just by not completely gaffing.

That was a good idea, as it turned out, and the reward was a perfectly entertaining Mozart Concerto—certainly more enjoyable than my most recent Mozart Piano Concerto experience with the Grimaud-Bergen combo. Ignoring the unintentionally interesting low brass sticking out of the ensemble in the opening movement, the deftly manhandled first movement turned out rather entertaining and its rotund attempts at explosiveness were not altogether futile. Whether the slightly heavy, belabored approach was Piotr Anderszewski’s ideal is a different matter; but he played along in his own way, without undue fussiness and a hefty grip. To all this, Znaider waved his arms about in perfect sync and harmony, doing no harm where much harm could have been done.

The Mozart-apprehension was overcome, but Berlioz-trepidation still reigned (in all fairness: partly due to Berlioz, not just Znaider) and again I had my deliberately lowered expectations exceeded. To quantify—if not actually clarify—this, let’s introduce my internal concert-rating scale from 0 to 10 (you might say that it “goes to eleven”). It is distributed in standard normal distribution, a.k.a. along a bell curve. At the mean (center) is “5 – Snooze”, above and below are “4 – Snore” and “6 – Did I get all the groceries?” That’s not mean, just realistic and doesn’t even discount that fact that I am rather spoiled with good concerts, seeing how I don’t usually attend the undoubtedly laudable efforts of the likes of Würzburg Philharmonic or Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Symphonie fantastique started out in solid Five-territory; not bad per se, but not exactly what makes you go out and attend a concert for. The first two movements only offered a generally pleasant ooompfish sound, somewhere between thick and homogenous, but in a good way. “Scène aux Champs” was a true summer pleasantry, with overtones of a meaningless Pastorale… but then the gimmicks came out, and with it the spice of the evening. The dialogue of cor anglais and oboe (peasants playing their pipes to call their cows home…) doesn’t just have the oboe off-stage, as prescribed, but coming (very effectively) from behind the audience, which in the Philharmonic Hall of the Gasteig is about 30 feet above the orchestra level. The flute and oboe recalling the musical idée fixe (standing in for the actress that Berlioz chased and would eventually marry) in that movement did the same… and the four kettle drum rolls suggesting the ensuing thunderstorm were placed left and right outside the hall.

Did anyone ever say that exaggeration was not a legitimate tool of musical interpretation, or that that wasn’t in fact the key to successful Berlioz? The preceding bits had already been well above “5 - Snooze”, but with the lovably unsubtle, robust “Marche au Supplice” and the amusingly (this time intentionally) off-kilter woodwind chatter of the now distorted idée fixe from the final movement (“Songe d’une Nuit de Sabbat”), there was a definite hint of “7 – captivated!” in the air. Which, with however many quibbles one gets there, spells an above average night at the orchestra.


By (Richard) Strauss

available at Amazon
C. Brewer, Great Strauss Scenes, E. Owens, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, D. Runnicles

(released on June 27, 2010)
TELARC 31755-02 | 59'10"

available at Amazon
Strauss, Lieder, D. Damrau, Munich Philharmonic, C. Thielemann

(released on February 15, 2011)
Virgin 628664 0 8 | 71'09"
We have featured the recent Strauss CD from Christine Brewer in reviews of her recent concerts, but we should make it official and endorse it as good listening. This disc had me with its opening sounds, Elektra's shriek ("Sei verflucht!" -- up to an earth-shattering B-flat) as Chrysothemis runs back into the house, frightened by her sister's plan to kill Klytämnestra. It makes for a dramatic introduction to the scene actually recorded, with Eric Owens' Orest appearing at the doorstep but only gradually being recognized by Elektra, some of the heroine's most sensuous, tender music in an otherwise rather disturbing opera. Like that opening wail, the excerpt ends on Elektra's ecstatic realization that Orest will act on her long-desired revenge against their mother. So much of the disc's appeal is contained in that first searing vocal flight: the force and power of Brewer's voice, in all of its unaccompanied glory and later glowing effortlessly through the amassed orchestra, but also its concentrated tone and outright gorgeous beauty. As noted by Jens in his recommendation of this recording, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is not in itself a reason to listen, but the fine Strauss conductor Donald Runnicles has them in fine form in two instrumental excerpts, the Moonlight Interlude from Capriccio and the always-trashy Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome, some intonation quality and sectional unevenness aside. How long must we wait to have complete recordings of Salome, Elektra, Capriccio, and Die Frau ohne Schatten with Christine Brewer?

A more recent Strauss release, a full disc of Lieder sung by German soprano Diana Damrau, is another easy recommendation. There is not much to add to what Jens Laurson already wrote about this disc, although this is a completely different kind of voice than Brewer's dramatic soprano, the result is a delectable confection, not least because of a far superior orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, and perhaps the greatest living Strauss conductor, Christian Thielemann. As Jens also noted of a good part of the program he heard live in Munich, Damrau's is not a large voice, but the effect in recording is more balanced and clearly audible, one of those situations where a recording is preferable to the experience live. Strauss worshiped the soprano voice in all its facets and colors: Damrau represents the lighter side of the voice, the soprano of Sophie, Zerbinetta, and Aithra -- the yin to Brewer's yang, as it were -- and she sings this music so well (the winged fluttering of Cupid in Amor, op. 68/5, being perhaps the most stunning example). The selection of songs is generous and wide-ranging over the composer's lifetime, with the only complete set being the six songs of the op. 68 Brentano-Lieder.


Konrad Witz Back in Basel

The Kunstmuseum Basel has a new retrospective on Konrad Witz. The somewhat mysterious medieval artist, whose few paintings are sometimes compared to those of Leonardo decades later, was one of the beneficiaries of the ecclesiastical council called at Basel in 1431. Only about thirty works are attributed to Witz, but the exhibit situates his paintings within the context of many others from the period. Harry Bellet wrote a review (Découvrir les secrets de Konrad Witz, April 26) for Le Monde (my translation):
The work of Konrad Witz is in effect placed in relationship with other artists of his temp, connections often very pertinent, if only to understand how much this painter was an innovator. Unlike his predecessors, his architecture is solid, realistic, far from theatrical backdrops that characterize what one calls the International Gothic. He was careful to place cast shadows well, to show himself skilled in the treatment of reflections, like those of the purple robe of Melchisedech giving the bread and wine to Abraham, whose cuirasse is tinted red.

Sumptuous reds are another recent rediscovery: the paintings suffered damage over time, and a network of tiny cracks had made everything gray. The restorers of the Kunstmuseum accomplished a saving work, washing them with a special resin that returned subtlety and depth to the glazes. To compare these panels with the one conserved at the Musée des beaux-arts in Dijon, which has not benefited from the same treatment, is the proof. These works, which fill the second room of the exhibit, are part of a group, today spread around, known as the Mirror of Salvation altarpiece. The exhibit reunites twelve of the sixteen panels.
The Miraculous Draught of Fishes could not be moved safely to be included in the exhibit, but there is the set of painted playing cards known as the Ambras Court Hunting pack.


For Your Consideration: 'Jane Eyre'

Charlotte Brontë's classic novel Jane Eyre has been transformed into film too many times, going back at least to the 1943 classic with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine (not to mention a score by none other than Bernard Herrmann and a cameo for the young Elizabeth Taylor as Jane's only friend at her cruel boarding school). The most recent attempt for the big screen was by Franco Zeffirelli (with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg, somewhat improbably), and the BBC (or a similar network) seems to undertake an adaptation about once each decade, most recently an excellent mini-series by the BBC in 2006. This latest version was adapted for the screen by breakout writer Moira Buffini, who made the ingenious choice to tell the story in an order other than the chronological one found in Brontë's novel. The film begins with the novel's second plot, with Jane found on the heath by St. John Rivers and his sisters, which makes that part of the story seem much less like a cumbersome add-on, a Romantic deus ex machina that Brontë used to tie up the loose ends as Jane gets a fortune.

As directed by Cary Fukunaga, in his first major feature after Sin Nombre, which had some success at Sundance, this is a stylish film that plays heavily on the ghost-story associations of the source novel, long on Gothic gloom and happily short on mawkish sentiment. There is nothing about the film as an adaptation of an over-adapted story that demands viewing, but it is beautifully shot (cinematography by Adriano Goldman), well acted, and the novel's long, sprawling narrative is convincingly streamlined. Anyone who enjoys watching English history pictures will enjoy this one, too. We are clearly going to be seeing more of the young, Australian-born actress Mia Wasikowska, last noted as a relative newcomer and the best part of The Kids Are All Right. She also starred in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, a movie that we enjoyed very much but did not get around to reviewing. Now she has the title role in Jane Eyre, and her performance and look are quite similar to that of Ruth Wilson in the 2006 TV series: with hair framing her face too close and an emotionless pallor, one might forget how pretty Wasikowska really is. She brings the same impassive calm she had in The Kids Are All Right and Alice in Wonderland, with emotional reserves that lurk just around corners.

Other Reviews:

Roger Ebert | A. O. Scott | Washington Post | Los Angeles Times | Wall Street Journal
David Denby | TIME | Slate | Salon | Village Voice | Movie Review Intelligence

Fukunaga seems to take Brontë at her word as far as the irritability and general undesirability of the character of Mr. Rochester, who employs Jane as a governess for a French girl who is his ward. Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds) plays him with scruffy beard, sharp tongue, and general peevishness, so much so that one does wonder at times just what Jane sees in him. Of course, the dour would-be missionary St. John Rivers, played here with parsimonious expression by Jamie Bell (Billy Elliott), proposes to Jane more as a business matter than one of love, so her choices are limited. It was wise to concentrate most of the servants at Thornfield Hall into the person of the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, played with matronly authority by Judi Dench. All of the production team deserves credit for a plush and authentic look to everything in this movie, from the costumes to the locations (all actually in Derbyshire) and interiors. It does bring to mind a certain absence in my movie-going life for a historical-film partnership like that of Merchant-Ivory, since the death of Ismail Merchant certainly but really going back to The Remains of the Day (1993) and, maybe, Surviving Picasso (1996) to find a film I really liked. Is there a career to be had in being the next Merchant-Ivory franchise? I don't know, but I know that I would watch more films like this one.


Further Ashore

Over on, regular guest critic Robert R. Reilly has published his essay of our recent trip to London:

Earlier this month, I stopped in London for three evenings of concerts, accompanied by meetings with five composers. I had the good company of a brilliant young German music critic, who joined me from his Munich home.

Ignatius Press has agreed to bring out an expanded and revised edition of my book, Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music (initially published by Morley Press in 2002), and [jfl] has generously consented to collaborate on it. We have already conspired on a list of composers whom we wish to add, including Walter Braunfels, Paul Juon, Robert Simpson, Rued Langgaard, Joly Braga Santos, Ahmed Saygun, Othmar Schoeck, and Joseph Jongen. If you have not heard of these composers . . . well, that is the point of writing about them.

There are also living composers whom we will include, such as British composer David Matthews, in whose music I am currently immersing myself. One reason for being in London was to meet him. We also had the good fortune to visit with Stephen Hough, the noted pianist, who is now devoting more time to composition; Robin Walker; and Lionel Sainsbury. I also introduced myself briefly to Ian Wilson after the première of his lovely string quartet piece Her Charms Invited.

First off was the Stephen Hough/Steven Isserlis recital at that temple to chamber music, Wigmore Hall...
[continue at:]

Nothing but 'Dance'

By turning to the abstract, artists were liberated from having to depict something, at least according to the traditional narrative means used by painters and sculptors of the past. Abstract dance choreography would follow the same course: freed from its historic role -- to tell a story in gesture -- choreography could produce nothing more than a visual delight in movement and shape, paired with music concerned not with character or narrative but only rhythmic patterns. This was the goal of Dance, the ground-breaking collaboration of dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs and composer Philip Glass in 1979, experienced on Friday night at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park, part of the company's national tour. The original project followed Childs's partnership with Philip Glass and Robert Wilson on that grand experimental failure Einstein on the Beach, the sort of work that will be mentioned as a watershed event in every history of opera but that has no performing life of its own. A few years later, Childs and Glass produced a work for her dance company, five numbers with music by Glass that they called Dance 1-5.

available at Amazon
P. Glass, Dance Nos. 1-5
Abstract geometric artist Sol LeWitt made film versions of the first production, which included only three of the five sections. To mark the work's 30th anniversary, at the Bard Festival in 2009, Childs created a new version of Dance, with live dancers performing in sync with those recorded in LeWitt's film, projected on a transparent scrim in front of the stage. At some times one sees only the projected dancers, at others only the live ones, with manipulations of the film frame making possible various juxtapositions of the two -- side by side or one behind or above the other. The choreography is geometrical, avoiding any touching between dancers the way Mondrian avoided non-primary colors and curving lines. The dancers moved across an abstract, Mondrian-like grid, coming close to another but without overlapping. In the first part, pairs of dancers cross left and right, women in front and men in back, in tandem or in contrapuntal imitation, like dux and comes.

Other Articles:

Sarah Kaufman, Just ‘Dance’: Work by Lucinda Childs captures the essence of the art form (Washington Post, April 23)

---, Lucinda Childs’s ‘Dance,’ back in motion at the University of Maryland (Washington Post, April 15)

Andrew Freedman, Dancing with themselves (University of Maryland Diamondback, April 19)

Euan Kerr, Controversial dance returns 30 years after first run (Minnesota Public Radio, April 7)

Caroline Palmer, 'Dance' from 1979: This ain't no disco (Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 8)

---, 'Dance' moves toward acceptance (Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 1)

Roslyn Sulcas, Simple Movements, Complex Patterns (New York Times, October 7, 2009)
As the music's bubbling arpeggiated patterns are recombined, this basic idea of crossing pairs becomes more complex and repetitions are layered over one another. Larger groups cross together, but the closest we come to some kind of personal union is toward the end, as the male dancer crosses toward the front to move next to his partner. The mathematical abstraction is reinforced by the vocal lines in Glass's score, set with the only text being the corresponding solfege syllables, another connection to Einstein on the Beach.

The triple meter of the outer sections is squared by a shift to 4/4 in the second. With a basic vocabulary of twirling, strides, and arm swings, a single dancer moves around the stage in a diamond pattern and along a central axis from back to front. The tall, lithe Caitlin Scranton mirrors the image of Lucinda Childs herself, featured in the film in the second part of Dance. The more austere music, played in the recording by Glass and Michael Riesman with a more rock-style bass, and the rather spartan choreography are wearying after a while, reinforcing the idea that the streamlining of Dance from five to three movements gave it a much-needed concision and tighter structure. The third section returns to the flying, almost weightless choreography of the first, with the music giving buoyant metric shifts by playing with the cross-relationships of 3/4 and 6/8.

This new version of Dance continues on its tour to San Francisco (April 28 to 30), Los Angeles (May 6 and 7), and Santa Barbara (May 10).


In Brief: Death, I Will Be Your Death Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.

  • Alex Ross has a lovely tribute to mark the sad news that composer Peter Lieberson has died. [The Rest Is Noise]

  • It's time for the Cannes Film Festival: here are the films selected this year. [Le Nouvel Observateur]

  • Andrew Patner notes that Lyric Opera of Chicago has hired Anthony Freud, formerly of Houston Grand Opera, as its new general director. [The View from Here]

  • It's time for your Easter heart attack. [Boing Boing]

  • Another one bites the dust: the New Mexico Symphony folds. [Denver Post]

  • William Christie's groundbreaking production of Lully's Atys made HIP history, performed with Les Arts Florissants in honor of three-hundredth anniversary of the composer's death, celebrated by the Opéra de Paris in 1987. The production was revived this month at the Opéra-Comique, thanks almost half of the costs being paid by an American sponsor, Ronald Stanton. [Le Figaro]

  • For your online listening, a recital by violinist Janine Jansen (Stravinsky, Bartók, Brahms), Handel's Teseo, Camilla Tilling with the Orchestre National de Lyon, a Liszt recital by Bertrand Chamayou, and Bach's St. Matthew Passion from Berlin. [France Musique]

  • From the Cité de la musique, videos of a concert of Liszt and Nono by Accentus, the Beethoven symphony cycle by La Chambre Philharmonique and Emmanuel Krivine. [Cité de la musique Live]


Ionarts-at-Large: Bergen's String Magnificence

Hvoslev, Mozart, Shostakovich: Hélène Grimaud (piano) Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Eivind Gullberg Jensen (conductor) Grieg Hall, Oslo, 14.04.2010

Kjetil Hvoslev: Ein Traumspiel
W.A. Mozart: Piano Concerto Nos. 23
D. Shostakovich: Symphony No.6

A nightmare of cost overruns, stalled construction (a decade from the foundation until the opening in 1978, and 80 years of variously serious planning that preceded it), depressing architecture, and shoddy workmanship: You might think that Bergen’s Grieg Hall is a culture-architecture debacle in every way.

(Neat photo of Grieghallen lifted from Alberto Abouganem Stephens' very impressive Flickr stream.)

But even if raindrops pitter-patter into your white wine during intermission (with an average of 235 [!] days of rain in Bergen, that’s likely enough): once you make your way back along the raw concrete pillars to the amphitheater-style auditorium at the bottom of which, circus-arena style, sits the Bergen Philharmonic on a rough wooden floor, all is forgotten. Even close up front to the far left, in seats that would be modest if not outright horrible in many other halls, the amount of detail from all sections, but at the same time the level of homogeneity in the sound, was astonishing. And, more importantly, the sound of the Bergen Philharmonic adds significantly to this experience.

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, Piano Concerto 23...
R.Goode / Orpheus
available at Amazon
D.Shostakovich, Sys.1 & 6,
K.Sanderling / Berlin SO
Berlin Classics

Conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen programmed “Ein Traumspiel” (based on August Strindberg’s “A Dream Play”) atop the bill, a 16 minute overture by Kjetil Hvoslef. Gullberg Jensen commissioned it as a Norwegian calling card for his first performance with the North German Radio Philharmonic Hannover in 2009. In a way Gullberg Jensen now brought the work back home because Kjetil Hvoslef is from Bergen, where he was born to Harald Sæverud, as per Robert R. Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty, “one of Norway’s finest composers and perhaps its most original”. The Traumspiel, played in the presence of the composer, was an enchanting warm-up, full of tonal dissonance, fleeting references to other works (well enough hidden to escape immediate detection), full of flittering, nervous energy with gawks and cackles from various wind leading into a faux-romantic waltz. Shrill thrills interrupt an ensuing harmony that marches, seemingly unfazed, all the way to its end.

The Mozart that followed with Hélène Grimaud was broad, without a particularly audible affinity for Mozart, but with leaden feet or wooden touch – but instead a deft way around the notes that let the appealing concert’s nature through without adding to it. Grimaud, neither as dashing as she was in Ravel in London (February) or as woefully out of touch as in her Beethoven in Munich (March), sounding slight muffled, fit right with the above. The standing ovations struck me in response to her reputation more than her delivery.

No matter, the best was yet to come: I’ve always found Shostakovich’s lopsided Sixth Symphony one of his harder nuts to crack, along with the 8th and 14th, for example. But in concert, under Gullberg Jensen’s hands and performed with real force and fervor, and in terrific sound from all sections (only the brass had a few experimental moments), this suddenly made sense: The Wagnerian lyricism of the long opening theme, the slowness, the many lacunae… the occasional searing bite… and all with the tremendous – indeed superlatively sonorous – string sound of the Bergen Philharmonic. Shostakovich does not bestow his usual drive (slow, but always ratcheting things up, unnoticeably) upon this movement, the ears are pulled along a much thinner, more tenuous string. Eventually the trills come out, like factory whistles calling to work… but the general temperament is still a lurch. The cor anglais, meanwhile, wails like in the finale of Tristan and Isolde. The Allegro is jocular but with sharp knifes and the concluding Presto explosive, loud, which got the woodwinds excited and brought the quality of the strings out again – by some measure the best I’ve heard in Norway, so far.


For Your Consideration: 'Copie conforme'

The new film by Iranian-born director Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy (Copie conforme), begins with an intellectual conceit. An English writer, James Miller, is on a book tour in Tuscany, and his new book is about how copies of art works have their own worth, perhaps just as much as the originals themselves. Why do we place so much importance on the singularity of the original object, especially when most people cannot even tell the difference between it and a copy? Marcel Duchamp made several versions of some of his famous Dada pieces, insisting that the object was not the art but rather the idea behind it. The Ise shrine in Japan is torn down and rebuilt every twenty years, according to Shinto ritual, so that it is ever new -- and, in fact, never "the original." In a recent example, the new Statue of Liberty stamp from the United States Postal Service features an image not of Frédéric Bartholdi's actual statue but of the copy of the sculpture made for the New York-New York Casino in Las Vegas.

It is a rather heavy concept on which to hang a script, but that is what Kiarostami, who also wrote the screenplay, does. At the book reading, we see a mother, unnamed, and her son, Julien, who go off to have lunch but leave information for a meeting afterward. The language of the conversation shifts, only one of many things in the film that are not necessarily as they seem. As the mother, Juliette Binoche (who won Best Actress prize at Cannes last year) switches easily between French, English, and Italian; her son, the German-born Adrian Moore, speaks impeccable French; and British baritone William Shimell speaks English and (we learn later) French. Miller meets the woman at her antiques shop, and they set off in her car for the hill town of Lucignano and its Museo Civico, on a voyage that consists of little more than the two of them driving, walking, and talking in squares and cafés. What exactly is going on between the two of them, and how reality can shift from one thing to the next, is for the viewer to determine. Are we looking at a copy or the original?

Other Reviews:

Roger Ebert | New York Times | Washington Post | Los Angeles Times
Slate | Village Voice | Movie Review Intelligence

La Binoche only seems to get more radiant as the years pass, and here she sets the camera ablaze with beauty and fierceness. She has always been an intelligent actress, having turned down well-paid roles in Jurassic Park and Mission: Impossible (dogs, both) while having turned in superb performances in films directed by Godard, Téchiné, Philip Kaufman, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Louis Malle, and Anthony Minghella. She makes this character a technicolor mix of nervous agitation and feminine wiles. Kiarostami often casts actors who are not actors, and he is vindicated by the choice of Shimell, who is suave and smug. Most beautiful of all is the Tuscan landscape, warm light, and town architecture, captured with loving detail by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi -- most brilliantly in long rolling shots reflected in the windshield of the car over the dialogue. This is a big-think kind of movie, a slow-paced and expansive Daedalic puzzle, but anyone who enjoyed ambulatory philosophy films like Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, to name only a recent pair, will enjoy it.


For Your Consideration: 'Of Gods and Men'

We took note of Xavier Beauvois's film Des hommes et des dieux when it was released in France last fall. The film, a retelling of the story of the assassination of a group of monks in Algeria in 1996, won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Catholic diocese around France sponsored screenings of the film, followed by discussions of the film to promote Catholic-Muslim dialogue. The monastery featured in the film, Notre-Dame de l'Atlas, was established by the Trappists near the village of Lodi, itself founded by French colonists in the agricultural region of Tibhirine. It was only a priory in the late 20th century, and its prior, Frère Christian de Chergé, led a faith exchange between Christians and Muslims. Played with solemn intellect by Lambert Wilson, he guides the monks in his care as the civil war between Islamic fundamentalists and the government worsens, making the threat to the safety of the monastery more and more imminent.

For events that took place in the 1990s, the look of the film is more timeless, seeming set farther back in the past than it actually is. Part of that impression is due to the effect of monastic time, which comes across in the stillness and silence of this movie, perhaps less effectively than the real thing in another recent film about monks, Die große Stille. The monks in this film have their weaknesses and fears and squabbles, but the love of the community is felt in a very real way. They do not all agree at first that they should remain in the face of danger from the civil war, after a harrowing late-night encounter with the militants. In accordance with monastic tradition, at chapter meeting the monks follow the advice of the senior brother, Frère Amédée (the spritely Jacques Herlin), to think and pray over it longer. They reach agreement after they all come to an understanding that they were called to this greater love in this place and to help these people. They put themselves on this particular road back to God, so why deviate from it now?

Other Reviews:

Roger Ebert | Anthony Lane | A. O. Scott | Washington Post | Wall Street Journal
Los Angeles Times | Salon | Village Voice | Movie Review Intelligence

The performances are all stately but honest, missing some of the earthly humor of monks that balances out their spiritual elevation. Veteran actor Michael Lonsdale returns to the monastic habit, after his memorable turn as the Benedictine abbot in The Name of the Rose, as Frère Luc, a doctor who runs a clinic for the local villagers. (Although not portrayed that way in the movie, Frère Luc was actually older than Frère Amédée.) At dinner in the refectory after the community has come to a decision to stay, Frère Luc puts on a recording of the climactic scene of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake (the meaning of self-sacrifice for a beloved other is clear) and offers the monks some well-deserved wine. The only false note in the film was the music, which is mostly Taizé-style French chant and simple polyphony: this music is pleasing in its own and quite appropriate for a 20th-century French monastic community, but it lacks the solidity and tradition of Gregorian chant, featured so beautifully in Die große Stille. This facet of the movie, combined with a perhaps overly angelic view of the martyrdom (the monks who were taken hostage were decapitated), weakens the film slightly, but it is still well worth watching.


Serrano and His Bodily Fluids

As was widely reported, Andres Serrano's controversial (and somewhat pedestrian) photograph Piss Christ was attacked and destroyed with a hammer during an exhibit in the southern French city of Avignon. The date of the incident -- Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week -- was not coincidental. According to an article by Anthony Hernandez (Qui sont ces catholiques intégristes mobilisés contre le "Piss Christ" ?, April 19) in Le Monde, the attack is related to protests against the exhibit that were mobilized over the weekend by a Catholic institute called Civitas. Many suspect that the attackers of the photograph came from among this group and its associated organizations.

On its Web site, Civitas says that its goal is a "political and social reconquest seeking to re-Christianize France." The group's general secretary, Alain Escada, told Le Monde that they want to "restore a Catholic France, to orient political decisions and laws in keeping with a Catholic vision." Political scientist Jean-Yves Camus believes that Civitas and groups like it are furthermore connected to far-right Catholic followers of Marcel Lefebvre, a traditionalist bishop whose Society of St. Pius X has long opposed the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council. After a long period under excommunication for the unauthorized ordination of bishops, the group was returned to communion with penalty was lifted by the Holy See in 2009.

In an interview with Le Monde, the director of the Collection Lambert in Avignon, Eric Mézil (Piss Christ : "Nous recevons des menaces de mort", April 19), said that the gallery has been inundated with complaint messages, by phone and e-mail, some containing death threats. Much of the rancor takes on anti-Muslim and antisemitic overtones. In spite of the possible danger, the gallery reopened to the public yesterday, intending to show Piss Christ in its now damaged form. When Piss Christ was exhibited in Avignon in 2007, there was no public protest. It is possible that the rehabilitation of the Society of St. Pius X has emboldened this sort of action; Mézil also points to politicians on the right encouraging Christian extremism -- Claude Guéant recently invoked the example of the crusades, and Nicolas Sarkozy, while on a visit to Le Puy-en-Velay, made a call to "take up the Christian heritage of France."


Two Jons at Dumbarton Oaks

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Read my review published today in the Style section of the Washington Post:

available at Amazon
Brahms Clarinet Sonatas


available at Amazon
Novacek / D'Rivera / Gershwin
Charles T. Downey, Clarinetist Jon Manasse and pianist Jon Nakamatsu at Dumbarton Oaks
Washington Post, April 19, 2011
The clarinet is a chameleon among instruments, finding a habitat in classical music, jazz, the marching band and klezmer. The intersection between the first two of those was the subject of a recital by clarinetist Jon Manasse and pianist Jon Nakamatsu on Sunday night at Dumbarton Oaks. The program included one of the Brahms clarinet sonatas from the duo’s debut recording and selections of jazz-influenced American pieces from their latest disc.

Manasse, former principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, has an impeccably smooth tone on the instrument, highlighted to mellow effect in the warm, restrained opening of the Second Brahms Sonata. Nakamatsu, who won the gold medal at the Van Cliburn Competition in 1997, matched and supported Manasse in polished tone, helping to create a sense of surging but contained passion in this autumnal work. Throughout the evening, neither player forced his instrument, aware of the intimate scale of the museum’s Music Room and focusing only on beauty of sound. [Continue reading]
Jon Manasse (clarinet) and Jon Nakamatsu (piano)
Friends of Music series
Dumbarton Oaks

Peter Brook near the End

(L to R) Yoshi Oïda, Hayley Carmichael, and Bruce Myers in Fragments, directed by Peter Brook and Marie Hélène Estienne, 2011
Two homeless men torment one another; an elderly woman moves from her window to a rocking chair, waiting for death; three old women gossip about one another; lonely people confront the pain of existence. Somehow English theater director Peter Brook made these five brief vignettes by Samuel Beckett into an evening that was not profoundly depressing, in his production of Fragments, which played at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater over the weekend. Not likely to want to miss Brook's first performances at the Kennedy Center since 1973, I was in the house on Saturday evening.

When Brook turned 85 last year, he stepped down from the leadership of his ground-breaking troupe in Paris, based at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. Within a short time of Brook's retirement, the French government made substantial cuts to the theater's government subventions, slashing public subsidy by almost half. Brook embarked on this American tour last month, with performances in a few cities of The Grand Inquisitor (a staged reading of the chapter of that title in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov) and Fragments, a collection of short pieces by Samuel Beckett. Brook presented only the second half of the double-bill here in Washington -- the work had its 2007 premiere in England and its American premiere in Chicago in 2008. One might regret The Grand Inquisitor, but there were reports of trouble with it in Boston; I would have actually rather seen Brook's farewell production, an adaptation of The Magic Flute that he recently took to London.

Other Articles:

Sophie Gilbert, “Fragments” at the Kennedy Center (Washingtonian, April 15)

Barbara Mackay, Kennedy Center offers gems by Beckett (Washington Examiner, April 14)

Charles McNulty, An Evening of Peter Brook at the Broad Stage (Los Angeles Times, April 8)

Lavanya Ramanathan, Peter Brook's Fragments (interview) (Washington Post, April 7)

Laura Collins-Hughes, Actor’s memory lapses blamed on exhaustion, jet lag (Boston Globe, March 31)

---, Peter Brook on the right to be bored (Boston Globe, March 24)

Susan Saccoccia, Beckett's humor, darkness shines through in 'Fragments' (Bay State Banner, March 30)

Don Aucoin, Moving moments of Beckett at Paramount (Boston Globe, March 25)
Brook has worked on Beckett's plays many times over the course of his career, and in his Director's Note about the production, Brook insists that the labels so often associated with Beckett's work -- "despairing, negative, pessimistic" -- are false. Beckett "peers into the filthy abyss of existence," he adds, but "his humor saves him and us from falling in." Brook's choice of these fragments certainly goes along with this thesis, monologues and small ensemble scenes that range from whimsical to bleak, and the characters react to their predicaments with humor and sometimes brave resolution. The two men in the cast, Yoshi Oïda (whose English was a little difficult to understand) and Bruce Myers (who did seem to stumble with his lines here and there), open the evening as a blind homeless man and a one-legged man in a wheelchair in Rough for Theater I. Despite their misery they reach out to one another and needle one another's weaknesses: at one point one asks the other if when he is sad he thinks about ending it all. "Not sad enough," is the defiant response.

In the other duo scene, Act without Words II, the same pair mime a Chaplinesque silent scene about the pointlessness of life. Two sad sacks go to sleep (in tent-like sacks), are awakened by a pointed stick that falls from above, get dressed, and start the cycle all over again. One does so complaining about everything but careful to pray to a force above, while the other is uncomplaining and blissfully unaware. Both suffer the same misfortunes, and the message seems to be that faith is inconsequential until the end, when the man who has prayed has a moment of blissful communion with something beyond himself.

Hayley Carmichael was a little cool and uninvolved, perhaps intentionally clinical, in the two monologues: Rockaby, about the old woman readying herself for death, and the very brief poem Neither, where the question of something beyond this life is again uncomfortably confronted. Both here and in Act without Words II, the glowing light designed by Philippe Vialatte. The closing Come and Go, featuring all three actors as a trio of old women sitting on a bench, is a lighthearted look at petty venality, and the trio all seemed most at ease here, the men playing in drag with just enough camp. A success made all the more unusual in that the production did not sell out, nor did it get reviewed in the Washington Post.


Chaplin's Gold Rush

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Read my review published today in the Style section of the Washington Post:

Charles T. Downey, BSO scores with Chaplin’s ‘Gold Rush’
Washington Post, April 18, 2011

Charlie Chaplin’s films are classics, not least for their entertaining musical scores, some of which Chaplin composed with professional help. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra celebrated the filmmaker’s birthday, which fell on Saturday, by presenting a Chaplin film accompanied by a live performance of the score. After a grand success with “City Lights” in 2008, conductor Marin Alsop returned to the format with “The Gold Rush,” heard Friday night at Strathmore.

Chaplin showed an affectionate knowledge of classical music by weaving in memorable melodies. “O du mein holder Abendstern,” from Wagner’s “Tannhauser,” becomes the leitmotif of hunger and suffering as played by wah-wah trombone; Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” illustrates swirling snow; the waltz from Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” accompanies the dance of Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Georgia, a saloon girl, as he ties his pants with a dog’s leash while it is still attached to the dog. [Continue reading]
Chaplin, The Gold Rush
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Music Center at Strathmore



In Brief: Palm Sunday Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.

  • Here we go again -- as rumored for a couple days, the Board of the Philadelphia Orchestra has voted to take that organization into bankruptcy. As Peter Dobrin has reported, the musicians did their best to convince their audience and the board itself that it was a bad idea. [Philadelphia Inquirer]

  • If this is making you think of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which nearly labor-disputed itself into non-existence, you are not the only one. Speaking of which, Alex Ross called for Mark Stryker to get consideration for a Pulitzer because of his coverage of the strike for the Detroit Free Press. Seconded!

  • Speaking of which, when the DSO finally made it back into the Orchestra Hall, that "acoustic miracle on Woodward," a full audience gave them an ovation to remember. “ 'Now we know how it feels to be at a Lady Gaga concert', Slatkin told the adoring crowd once order was restored." Now, DSO patrons, keep buying tickets regularly, even if Slatkin programs the Turangalîla-Symphonie. [Detroit Free Press]

  • Google celebrated Charlie Chaplin's birthday -- on April 16 -- with a tribute video. Review coming tomorrow about the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's screening of The Gold Rush with a restored version of the film's score. [Tubefilter]

  • So I am reading Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan with a group of students, and we recently discussed how, in the section of the book on language, Hobbes referenced the story of the Tower of Babel, where after the flood God confused the one early language of humans into a multitude of them. There is evidence now that all languages may have descended from one ancestral mother language that came from Africa with the earliest humans. Like all theories, this one will be tested and already has some detractors, like those who feel it is dangerous to speculate on the development of language in the complete absence of any actual record. [Wall Street Journal]

  • With hat tip to Cronaca, just who invented the idea that somewhere back in prehistory, human societies were matriarchal and worshiped "the Goddess"? Cynthia Eller, a women's studies professor at Montclair State University, has the goods on the legend and how it came to be. She blames the credulity of academics, including many in her own discipline, and further posits that no one is served by a distortion of the truth. [Chronicle of Higher Education]

  • As tweeted earlier this week -- Eric Whitacre speaks truth: "I priced myself into a place where [my music] was perceived as more valuable than it was." [Capital New York]


Gergiev, Mahler, Quintets: France Musique

What could be better on a rainy Saturday than listening to some music on the radio? Now that the Met broadcast of Berg's Wozzeck is over, here is something else for your listening pleasure. Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra performed two all-Mahler concerts late last month (symphonies 7, 9, 10), in the Salle Pleyel in Paris. You can listen to the concert online, thanks to the folks at France Musique: once you are at their site, click on the headphone icon to start the streaming audio. Act quickly, because it will only be available for a couple more days.

For further listening, Yuja Wang and musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic play quintets by Schubert and Brahms and Dvořák and Mozart, too, also at the Salle Pleyel.


St. Petersburg Philharmonic

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Shostakovich, Cello Concerto No. 1 / Symphony No. 1, M. Rostropovich, Philadelphia Orchestra, E. Ormandy
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein completed her undergraduate degree at Columbia in Russian History, and her Russian specialization has continued this month. She is playing Shostakovich's first cello concerto on tour right now with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, the orchestra that premiered the work in 1959, when its dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich, played it in Leningrad. The group came to Strathmore on Tuesday night, with conductor Yuri Temirkanov, whose tenure with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra we enjoyed for many years, leading his longtime "other band" in Rimsky-Korsakov's dynamic Russian Easter Overture and a heavy-handed Brahms fourth symphony.

Other Articles:

Joe Banno, Temirkanov’s appearance at Strathmore reminds Washington of what it’s missing (Washington Post, April 14)

Tim Smith, Temirkanov leads St. Petersburg Philharmonic in high-powered concert at Strathmore (Baltimore Sun, April 13)

---, Temirkanov: Sounding upbeat (Baltimore Sun, April 9)

Matthew Guerrieri, St. Petersburg Philharmonic brings precision to Symphony Hall (Boston Globe, April 11)

Keith Powers, Alisa in wonderland (Boston Herald, April 9)

Andy Thomason, St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra stuns with epic evening (Daily Tar Heel, April 6)

Susan Isaacs Nisbett, St. Petersburg Philharmonic shines at Hill Auditorium with Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov (, April 3)

Lawrence A. Johnson, St. Petersburg Philharmonic shows brawny strength and refinement (The Classical Review, April 1)

Alan G. Artner, St. Petersburg Orchestra easily scales the peaks (Chicago Tribune, April 1)

Sue Gilmore, Cellist Alisa Weilerstein teams with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in S.F. (Contra Costa Times, March 24)

Mark Swed, St. Petersburg Philharmonic begins U.S. tour with Alisa Weilerstein (Los Angeles Times, March 23)

Tom Jacobs, Alisa Weilerstein with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (Santa Barbara Independent, March 21)

Donna Perlmutter, Cello virtuoso Alisa Weilerstein is always at the head of her class (Los Angeles Times, March 20)
The best playing was on the Rimsky-Korsakov, something in the overture slot of the classic orchestral program (overture, concerto, symphony) that was not actually a waste of ten minutes. Temirkanov, with his trademarked hands-off conducting style, allowed the Easter liturgical themes to unfold and breathe naturally. The violin section was not always together with itself (splendid violin solos by concertmaster Lev Klychkov, though), but overall the orchestra played with remarkable ensemble unity, especially in the many shifts of meter and syncopation. While the overture popped and sparkled under this rather amped-up kind of playing, in the Brahms one missed some greater exploration of the soft side of the dynamic spectrum, beyond some melting, sweet horn playing in the second movement. The third and fourth movements of the Brahms, especially, had tinges of the "Russian triumphal" sound that not only seemed a little out of place but kept the ensemble from quite locking into place. The piece is itself on the weighty side, both formally and texturally. One thinks of Edouard Hanslick's private review, sent to Brahms after hearing this symphony performed in a two-piano version: "All through I felt I was being beaten by two terribly clever men." Thank goodness that Tchaikovsky was not programmed, or our hearing would have been damaged.

Weilerstein is a remarkably charismatic player, approaching the music with smoldering energy and intellectual commitment: that is at least what is communicated by her enigmatic staring into space and often-flopped hair, but it comes across even when one keeps one's eyes closed and focuses only on the sound. Her tone has a resonant buzz but does not really have a large, searing intensity in the style of someone like, say, Rostropovich, for whom Shostakovich composed his first cello concerto. At times one missed a certain vicious quality in Weilerstein's sound, although sometimes her attempts to reach a gutsy sound compromised the accuracy, but this performance had considerable appeal. In particular, Shostakovich's mastery of orchestration by this point in his career is evident in many odd colors, like the strange opening in the low winds, a sort of hurdy-gurdy wheezing, and at the end of the second movement the graveyard-pale mixture of cello harmonics (impressively clean playing from Weilerstein) and celesta and hushed strings. The horn solos, prominently featured throughout the concerto, were burnished and clear. Weilerstein played the extended Cadenza movement in a tense and somber way, pushing the fast passages to the edge of wild chaos. The orchestra showed more of its delicate side in an encore of the Nimrod movement of Elgar's Enigma Variations.

The next visiting orchestra to be presented by WPAS will be the Philadelphia Orchestra (May 20, 8 pm) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, featuring Gil Shaham in Walton's violin concerto, with Charles Dutoit at the helm also in pieces by Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky. Given the very disturbing news that the Philadelphia Orchestra may soon file for bankruptcy, a plan that has been loudly protested by the players, you will want to support the musicians when they come to Washington.