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Krysty Swann Soars

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

Charles T. Downey, Krysty Swann at the Phillips Collection
Washington Post, May 31, 2011

Krysty Swann has a voice, and she knows how to use it, as she showed in an hour-long recital at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon. The Detroit-born mezzo-soprano, whose star has been rising since she was featured a few years ago in New York City Opera’s production of Richard Danielpour’s opera “Margaret Garner,” displayed an instrument of immense power, natural beauty of tone and luscious legato line.

Not surprisingly, she excelled in operatic selections with which she seemed most familiar and sang without a score. Arias from Massenet’s “Werther,” Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” (“Acerba volutta” for the Princesse de Bouillon) and Saint-Saens’s “Samson et Dalila” indicated that Swann’s strengths lie in dramatic mezzo territory. The voice makes a broad swath of sound, the vibrato not spinning out of control, with a vol­canic chest voice and equally blazing high notes, shown in one fell swoop on a two-octave run at a particularly thrilling point in “Amour! Viens aider ma faiblesse!” [Continue reading]
Krysty Swann, mezzo-soprano
With Steven Silverman (piano) and Elizabeth Field (violin)
Phillips Collection


Karen Gomyo Plays Sibelius

Saturday evening, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed works of Mahler, Sibelius, and Walton in the Music Center at Strathmore for a full house. The young virtuoso violinist Karen Gomyo joined the orchestra, which was in top form, in a remarkable performance of the Sibelius violin concerto. In a perfect match between performer and her instrument, the ex-Foulis Stradivarius with an even range exhibiting a pleasing blend of light and dark tone, Gomyo luxuriously shaped phrases, reinforced by the orchestra. Instead of wrapping closely around her violin to demand more sound, at times Gomyo would lean back and let its tone soar through the resonant acoustic. Gentle chords in perfect intonation by the horns were contrasted by the bassoons entering the soloist's path. The final movement triggered imaginary visions of a primeval Viking dance with pulsing pedal points from the orchestra over which the soloists writhes wildly.

Other Articles:

Robert Battey, Baltimore Symphony gives first-rate performance under Carlos Kalmar (Washington Post, May 29)

Tim Smith, Baltimore Symphony gives dynamic concert with Carlos Kalmar, Karen Gomyo (Baltimore Sun, May 28)

Marie Gullard, 'Once upon a time' at Strathmore for violinist Karen Gomyo and the BSO (Washington Examiner, May 26)
William Walton's thrillingly intense Symphony No. 1 was featured on the second half of the program. The orchestra's playing, while tight, also implied exciting risk; the brass had ample opportunity to splat; and the dueling timpani in the final movement's kaleidoscopic fugue were brilliant. The only weak link of the program was conductor Carlos Kalmar, whose overly broad gestures seemed to have been choreographed in front of a mirror. His seemingly limited stick technique left nuance to the orchestral musicians and their impressive concertmaster. He was more or less able to keep out of their way, except in the stifled What the Wild Flowers Tell Me of Mahler (arr. Britten), which needed massaging. It was great to hear the BSO in such fine form and to see their loyal Washington-based audience in town supporting them on a holiday weekend.

Next weekend's program from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra features the local premiere of a recent work by Osvaldo Golijov, Sidereus, Emanuel Ax in the first Brahms piano concerto, and Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (June 2 to 5).


In Brief: Memorial Day Edition

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

  • Orchestre de Paris, Paavo Järvi, Leif Ove Andsnes : Brahms, Dvorak, concert enregistré à la salle Pleyel le 25 mai 2011
    Online video of the Orchestre de Paris, with Paavo Järvi conducting Leif Ove Andsnes, music by Brahms and Dvořák -- click on the image at right to start the video. [Cité de la Musique Live]

  • From bad to worse: in perhaps the least original move possible, Washington National Opera will go from Plácido Domingo as Artistic Director to opera director Francesca Zambello as "artistic adviser." This sounds like a terrible idea in so many ways: Zambello has many of the same negatives as Domingo -- her work as a director takes her all over the world, for example -- and none of the glamor. If she does indeed push the idea of an opera company mounting musicals -- imagine asking audiences to pay $200 a ticket for half-ass Broadway -- it might finally finish the job on WNO's subscriber base. [Washington Post]

  • Whoa -- with hat tip to Cronaca, Mexican researchers used a radar device to locate a previously unknown tunnel under the archeological site of Teotihuacan. Stay tuned -- it could lead to some major finds. [Vancouver Sun]

  • One of my favorite little historical sites in Paris, the Tour Jean-sans-Peur, has a new exhibit focused on images of beds and people in beds in medieval art. See this Web feature for some pictures. [Le Monde]

  • I reviewed a curious recital by Paul Appleby for Vocal Arts D.C. earlier this month. He also appeared this weekend on Prairie Home Companion, also singing Paul Simon. Noted without comment. [Wolf Trap Opera]

  • Kyle Gann: "I have often written about the 1989 review in which John Rockwell called my music 'naively pictorial', and the fact that I liked it so much that I’ve ever since adopted 'naive pictorialism' as my stylistic moniker." [PostClassic]

  • In case you missed it, the National Jukebox is exactly the sort of digital project that research institutions should be making available. I love it. [Library of Congress National Jukebox]

  • The wind has been switching directions in the Catholic Church as far as what happens musically during the Mass: witness the gorgeous polyphony and chant that was performed for recent papal visits Great Britain and other places. Now conductor Riccardo Muti comes down firmly for restoring the Catholic Church's musical heritage, saying that folk music lite and guitars at Mass show "a lack of respect for people's intelligence." [The View from Here]

  • The daughter of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Colette Destouche, died recently: she had finished part of her memoirs, including some remembrances of her father. Here are some excerpts (in English). [Le Figaro]

  • Art criticism on the streets of Rome, as locals decry a fairly ugly statue of Pope John Paul II. [New York Times]

  • This sounds like good summer beach reading: Donna Leon's new book, Handel's Bestiary. [Parterre Box]

  • Martin Bresnick vs. Luigi Nono. [The Rest Is Noise]

  • For your online listening, Natalie Dessay, Simon Keenlyside, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, and Laurent Naouri singing Pelléas et Mélisande with the Orchestre de Paris; Handel arias sung by Sandrine Piau, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Philippe Jaroussky, and Topi Lehtipuu, with Le Concert d’Astrée and Emmanuelle Haïm; French songs sung by Véronique Gens; Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées with Gidon Kremer; and Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov playing Beethoven violin sonatas. [France Musique]

Mahler Festival Leipzig: Harding - Mahler Chamber Orchestra - Fourth Symphony

There are many reasons why a Mahler performance might not touch one in concert; Mahler-fatigue being among the more realistic after such heavy exposure in so little time as the Mahler Festival Leipzig offered. I was at or near that point, last Wednesday… and that despite skipping three performances; sadly missing the opening and closing concert of the Gewandhaus under Chailly—M2, M8—and the Vienna Philharmonic in M9. [You can watch these performances for a few days on MDR’s dedicated website.] Either that, or something was off with Daniel Harding and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Blumine, the movement Mahler soon chucked out of the First Symphony, Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs with soprano Mojca Erdmann, and especially the Fourth Symphony.

In my venture to hear Mahler from all sides, I had sat in different spots in the Gewandhaus for every concert, and this time I opted to sit behind the orchestra; right on the corner between the chorus stands under the organ and the lobster claws that reach around the left and right side of the orchestra.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.4, 5 Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn,
D.Harding / D.Röschmann / MCO

(R.Chailly's favorite)

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.4,
Haitink / C.Schäfer / RCO

The all around excellent acoustic of the Gewandhaus held up here, too…with Blumine—in a succession of lovely moments strung together—coming through as nicely shimmering, with silver violins, great detail, and no section unduly muffled or exaggerated. But once voices come into play, matters are different. Mojca Erdmann could not be heard, or to the extent she could be heard, it was cavernous reverb that gave one only the vaguest idea of what earnest Mlle. Erdmann was singing about. The little that came through, despite the ever-keen attention that Daniel Harding lavished on her, sounded like pouty-mouthed naïveté, pseudo-innocent, and shockingly banal. Clearly an unfair judgment to make on such distorted evidence, which is why I opted for a prime, elevated orchestra seat in the second half, so that I may hear more of her, and hear that better.

That I wouldn’t hear much more revealed the petite size of her voice… but at least her perfectly honed, bell-like tone now came through. The clear, even naïve element worked much better in the angelic “Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden” than the other, earthier or ironic Wunderhorn songs… but it was still brought down by a uniform blandness that seemed over-pronounced and micromanaged… in other words: too consciously done well: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The technical aplomb of the orchestra, which each section in itself offering something impressive (the horns a little less, the trumpets a little more, the winds a little shrill), its transparency, and fine solos (from the first violinist in particular), were too heterogeneous to ever quite come together. Moments of true individual wit amused… but a less generous instinct within me thought them rather self-conscious. The third movement, gorgeous music gorgeously played, lacked the tension to make it even more compelling, and as a colleague aptly quipped afterwards, the whole show, though first-rate, felt a little like a Ländler as performed by the Aristocats… very, very dainty and well-bred. A little more grit and grime would have suited Harding’s Mahler well… but then a little more grit and grime would suit almost anything Harding does well.


Mahler Festival Leipzig: Zinman - Tonhalle Zurich - Sixth Symphony

The Tonhalle Orchestra has improved its reputation—and by all accounts its quality—by leaps and bounds in the years that David Zinman has held the reins. His Beethoven Cycle on the super budget label Arte Nova (now RCA’s ‘market entry’ imprint) was among the first to use the scores revised by Norman Del Mar, a modern orchestra, and Beethoven’s own metronome markings. It hit the right tone, came at the right time, and at the right price—sold over a million (!) copies, and put the Tonhalle back on the international orchestral map after having dropped off for a few years.

Zinman, also keenly remembered in Rochester (“my first love”) and in Baltimore (where he excelled at building repertoire and an audience), went on to have similar success with his Schumann, and this year he finished a complete Mahler Cycle for RCA on SACDs. The latter has helped them establish a reputation as a Mahler orchestra and it was the Tonhalle Orchestra—along with Bamberg (recording an SACD Mahler Cycle for Tudor with Jonathan Nott)—that the Mahler Festival organizers thought off first to invite in place of the Berlin Philharmonic which had been too hesitant for too long to make proper plans with.

Even if the Tonhalle’s rather well-behaved and sometimes diffident Mahler cycle didn’t necessarily suggest it, the performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony was one that left no one missing another orchestra or conductor.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.6,
J.Barbirolli / Philharmonia

(R.Chailly's favorite)

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.6,
Zinman / TO-Zurich

Against expectations—not unlike the Mahler Sixth heard with Mariss Jansons recently—the Tonhalle Orchestra dug into the work with broad and sated sound, determined, but not hysterical; energetic, enthusiastic, but also no-nonsense. It was almost as if Zinman’s early American influences—Bernstein and Mitropoulos—had re-asserted themselves a little over those of Haitink, who was among the conductors that made Zinman change his approach to conducting Mahler.”

Very notably (and cliché-fulfilling), the Zurich orchestra has divine cowbells! Gentle and musical and much more golden and round in tone than the tin-cup alley noise that all the other orchestra’s emit that I’ve heard in the Sixth and Seventh Symphony. One imagined the percussionists having gently taken them off their bovine owners just before going on tour, with the promise to return them in tip top shape. This was one among many touches that gave the performance, while still not heavy on interpretation, a local inflection that went well beyond instrumental color and orchestral virtuosity.

Zinman chose to go with the Andante as the first of the inner movements and turned a sinewy, professionally longing movement, followed by a lively Scherzo… so lively, in fact, that it rendered the opening of the fourth movement ineffective. But Zinman’s finale, played with lots of zest, recovered quickly. The mix of refinement and fervor (with the second violins an especially enthused bunch) made this truly an edge-of-a-comfortable-seat performance. Despite edge and bite, Zinman seemed to soar through the movement, propelled by an irresistible groove, undeterred by the (two) hammer-blows, and gorgeous oboe and violin solos along the way. The last note was plucked like the very thread of life was snipped in half. It was a morbidly pert end to one of the most satisfying performances of the Mahler Festival.


Mahler Festival Leipzig: Gilbert - NY Phil - Fifth Symphony / Kindertotenlieder

In Leipzig’s assembly of great Mahler-orchestras, Mahler’s own—the New York Philharmonic—cannot be missing, just as the Concertgebouw and Vienna are also present at the International Mahler Festival. The New York Philharmonic’s appearance in the Fifth Symphony and the Kindertotenlieder with Thomas Hampson was hopelessly sold out (along with Vienna / M9 and the three performances of Leipzig M8, and—eventually—London M1), and not unlike the night before, my expectations were low… the memories of too many listless New York Philharmonic performances on snooze-control (especially, but not exclusively under Lorin Maazel) sat too deep. And while I had not yet heard them under their new Kapellmeister, in-house choice (in a manner of speaking) Alan Gilbert struck me as surprising more than inspiring.

Before the concert started I was briefly baffled by the half page used just to list the New York Philharmonic’s associations and sponsors. While it might be the good right of sponsors to be sure their name comes up every time the orchestra lifts a bow or stick, even if this means printing cumbersome mouth-fulls like “Principal Percussion – The Constance R. Hoguet Friends of the Philharmonic Chair”, it’s a little over the top that Steinway needs to be listed as the “Official Piano” of the New York Philharmonic (which makes me wonder what the surreptitiously-used piano of the New York Philharmonic is, or why it’s listed in a concert that didn’t, at any point, require a piano). Just as silly is the non-descript yet desperate reminder that the Fifth Symphony of Mahler is “available in a performance of the New York Philharmonic”. Is that so?! Clearly the work of PR departments run amok, forgetting the principle that less is usually more and that yelling the loudest does not always make the most coherent argument. Except, of course, if that were to hint at the style of music-making of the New York Philharmonic; in that case the strategy hints of genius.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.5,
V.Neumann / Leipzig Gewandhaus
Brilliant or Berlin Classics

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Kindertotenlieder,
L.Bernstein / T.Hampson / WPh

Kindertotenlieder: I know and believe Thomas Hampson (WETA interview here) that he wants to open doors with his singing; that he thinks more deeply about Mahler than most every other performer… that he’s in it with his heart, not only with his beautiful voice. (And what a voice he has!) But unfortunately I can’t yet follow him into those interpretations beyond the terrific surface they offer. The orchestra held back nicely during the five very different songs, and accompanied very well… even where it could or should have played the more dominant musical role. Loud, and immensely beautiful, and obviously styled to fit (or express) the content of the oft-misunderstood part of Mahler’s œvre as Hampson’s interpretation was, I was left with the feeling of inexplicable indifference, except for the last moments of the concluding “In diesem Wetter” where a brief intoxicating moment between Hampson and orchestra conjured up moments very reminiscent of (or foreshadowing) Das Lied von der Erde.

Left strangely lukewarm and with lowered expectations, the Fifth Symphony turned out a splendid surprise. From the spot-on trumpet opening to tender timpani rolls to some very deft, soft orchestral touches, this turned into a highly concerto for orchestra; a virtuoso showpiece that showed off the orchestra and individual instruments. The third movement displayed the character of individual instruments more clearly; transitions (such as from trumpets to violins) were honed to perfection. The lulling, mildly indulgent Adagietto sucked some power out of the performance, but most of it was regained in the glorious finale. The brass section sounded wonderfully reedy (no blare & glare) throughout. The first violins—though all over the place individually—were an ultimately homogenous bunch and—this the true surprise—at attention, instead of bored. I hesitate to blame this all on Alan Gilbert, but something has clearly happened with the New York Philharmonic… and presumably, hopefully beyond the ‘playing-abroad’ effect.

With the playing this good and flamboyantly impressive (with a good deal of superficial Technicolor to enhance contrasts), it nearly went unnoticed that there was a total absence of interpretation. That, and the wholly unnecessary Bernstein-encore (Pas de deux – Lonely Town from “On the Town” – ‘because the first time Gilbert ever heard the Fifth was with Bernstein’), were the only marked quibbles of an impressive, not exceptional, evening.