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Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 1 )

Salzburg, as I arrive for my first Festival day, presents itself in a fine drizzle and layer upon layer of moist gray along the Salzach river between Mönchsberg and Kapuzinerberg, the two (of five) prominent mountains you see entering Salzburg from the north-west. For a few moments the sky interrupts the polite presentation of the wet stuff, and a cup of coffee atop the Felsenreitschule brings back that warm Festival glow and memories mixed with anticipation. International colleagues, friends, will soon arrive from the US, Canada (via Berlin), Denmark, Munich et al. and transform the sometimes lonely critic’s existence into a cultural summer camp with fraternal overtones and pocket protectors. Journalists who don’t yet know another are brought together in (and by) the Media Center, the source for tickets, free coffee and sweets (from the sponsor Nestlé), professional gossip, and charming staff. With almost frightful confirmation of cultural clichés, Anglo and non-German speaking, north-western European journalists readily mingle, the rest, however, stay fiercely separate from another, limited from fruitful discourse either by lack of the necessary language- or social skills.

Chamber Concert 1

available at Amazon
Schulhoff, String Sextet et al.,
Philharmonic String Sextet

available at Amazon
Mozart, String Quintets K 516 & 593,
H.Beyerlé, Prazak Quartet
Praga Digitals

available at Amazon
Korngold, Schoenberg, String Sextet, Verklärte Nacht,
The Raphael Ensemble

I opened my Festival time with “Kammerkonzert 1”, a chamber concert featuring the two string sextets of Erwin Schulhoff and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Mozart’s Viola Quintet in G-minor. Following the lead of Janine Jansen’s first violin, Boris Brovtsyn (v), Maxim Rysanov (va), Amihai Grosz (va), Jens Peter Maintz (vc), and Torleif Thedéen (vc) dove into Schulhoff’s Sextet op.45 with full commitment, even as it took a little while before the chugging cello rhythm forced them all into line and for the dissonance of the Allegro risoluto to make perfect sense. Once going, they milked the music—veering tightly along the line between difficult and alluring—for all its astringent beauty. Just as I felt it might merit singling out the two violinists and cellist Maintz for being first among equals, the two violas contributed superbly gorgeous shivering pianissimo cascades. Still, if any singling-out be done, it ought probably take Boris Brovtsyn as its subject: A full blooded musician, easily overlooked, and without any trace of flash, glamour, much less limelight-hogging, he does the chamber music grunt work with such passion and musicality that he is in some way the improbable and unlikely, least starry star of this ensemble of musicians-out-of-pleasure. Their unbridled passion turned out infectious: Arguably the most difficult work on the program—written between 1920 and 1924—it was received with unreserved enthusiasm.

Mozart’s G-minor Quintet started with tender spunk in the long Allegro, followed by a slightly gluey Menuetto. The Adagio, for some hard to discern reason—perhaps for being overwrought, didn’t quite take to its natural gorgeousness. But in the Adagio – Allegro the players returned to the energy of the first movement and all my nitpicking could find was the perfectly fine but ordinary pizzicato of the cello… pizzicato being a field across all stringed instruments where a lot more imagination and experimentation could do a world of good.

The wonderfully teasing long lines of eventually dissolving (dis)harmonies in the first movement of Korngold’s String Sextet op.10 offer everything from Straussian twists to Schoenbergian Verklärte Nacht atmosphere to gutsy roughness. Written at the age of 17, an age Korngold had already hit one (of several) artistic peaks, the Sextet was a great public and critical success when it was finally premiered in 1917 by the Arnold Rosé Quartet. The Adagio, the earliest among the movements, is the most daring in its play with harmony and dissonance, the Intermezzo the most Korngold-typical for its Viennese gaiety and the “Motive of the Cheerful Heart” that he loved to sneak into his compositions. The rowdy, racing finale recapitulates elements from the preceding movements and the same principled-yet-enthusiastic chamber playing that propelled the Schulhoff to such heights was on display again from Jansen & Co.

In Brief: Almost August Edition

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

  • A mosaic representing Apollo and the Muses has been found in Rome, under the Baths of Trajan near the Coliseum. Specialists say it is in good condition and can be dated to the years between 64 and 109 AD. [Le Monde]

  • For your online listening, concerts from the Festival de Forcalquier, the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon (including Henning Kraggerud's piano trio), Verdi's I Masnadieri, the Quatuor Parisii, and the Quatuor Varèse (playing Luca Antignani's Requiem per una maschera from 2004). [France Musique]

  • In online video, Modo Antiquo performing Vivaldi's Juditha triumphans and Nikolai Lugansky at La Roque d'Anthéron. [ARTE Liveweb]

  • French publisher Hachette has struck a deal with Google, allowing the American company to digitize some 50,000 books from its catalogue. [Le Monde]

  • The music of French electroacoustic composer Pierre Henry is being featured again at the Paris Quartier festival this summer, including a performance of the new work, L'Art de la fugue odyssée, described as "a vast and tasty sonic tapestry in 3D." Two themes from the Bach work are quoted throughout this long work, involving violas da gamba, saxophones in unequal temperament, Baroque organ, piano, voice, pop rhythms here and there, making up "a polyphony of recorded sounds, a true symphony of vast and true proportions." The concerts, in the church of Saint-Eustache, are a retrospective of the composer's "liturgical music," including the Voile d'Orphée (1953) and the Messe pour le temps présent (1967). [Le Monde]

  • From London this week, audio of the Mariinsky Theater Chorus in an all-Rachmaninoff program, Les Talens Lyriques with Christophe Rousset, Stephen Hough with the BBC Philharmonic, Donald Runnicles conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (including the world premiere of a new concert for orchestra by Robin Holloway), the Tallis Scholars, and Christian Tetzlaff with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. [BBC Proms]

  • Leonidas Kavakos, Yuja Wang, Kim Kashkashian, the Quatuor Ébène, Joshua Bell, Denis Matsuev, and more, in online video from the Verbier Festival. []


Ionarts-at-Large: Bach's 261st Death Anniversary

Traffic buzzes along the Ludwigsstrasse outside the St.Louis University Church, busy cars rushing by, unaware of the 261st death anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach that’s being remembered with a concert inside.

A decent-sized crowd, slightly younger than the standard symphonic audience, has gathered to listen to the Munich Bach Choir under Hansjörg Albrecht (of local fame and known beyond the region though splendid organ recordings on the Oehms label) perform music by the death-day boy, Knudt Nystedt, Arvo Pärt, Arnold Schoenberg, and an organ sonata by Enjott Schneider.

The gingerly sung, finely nuanced Kyrie (a cappella) from Bach’s Mass in B-minor became a haunting, faintly-firmly touching jumble of glorious notes in the church’s soupy acoustic, with the echo of the alto and soprano section sounding as if a second chorus were placed on the organ loft at the back of St.Louis.

In “Immortal Bach”, Nystedt takes fragments from the gorgeous chorus (“Komm, o Tod, du Schlafes Bruder”) of Bach’s Cantata BWV 56, “Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen” and makes them come and go, completely enwrapping the ears in sound and then slipping back out again, like the wistfully limp fingers of a parting lover at the final goodbye. Short, simple, gorgeous, and with Nystedt’s usual intriguing twist (and some of the finest musical material to work with), it’s easy to see (or rather: hear) why “Immortal Bach” has become such a popular chorus piece.

Pärt’s brooding, contemplative “Seven Magnificat Antiphons” is typical post-avant-garde Pärt, dark and somber, droning on in his peculiarly enchanting way and becoming increasingly, eventually assertive from its humble depth. The Magnificat, also performed, is essentially a shorter, concise version of it, ever pleasant without demanding attention in a program of so many other goodies.

Among those was the surprising highlight and centerpiece of the evening, the Tenth Organ Sonata (“Bach”) by Enjott Schneider (dedicated to and premiered by Hansjörg Albrecht). The sonata is replicable, which is to say: emotionally and intellectually comprehensible, music—composed in a language that the intuned contemporary ear can decipher without too much trouble, and better yet: appreciate. The work is taxing, at times, due to its length, and with several moments that made me wish to call in the discriminate editor’s scissors. Several organ-typical but sonata-untypical incoherent, episodic parts (especially jarring the rumble of low notes leading nowhere, or rapid register shifts and dynamic terracing that make would-be melodic flow impossible), and awkward usage of the instrument made sure that the first movement, rather than tickling glory from the queen of instruments, made the organ sound clumsy. But there is also beauty, considerable flow and forward momentum in the second movement, with Matthew Passion references beautifully pasted in. The Third movement, by some measure the longest, plays with dynamic extremes (not always successfully) and the B.A.C.H. motif. The work would have benefited from a shorter concert or the concert from a shorter sonata, but that’s a small complaint in light of an overall impression that remains (even days after the fact) best expressed as “terrific”.

It was hard to tell whether Schoenberg’s “Friede auf Erden” op. 13 (1907) was actually highly romantic or modern or just washed together in the resonance of St.Louis in which it sounded like much of both. Dona nobis pacem from the B-minor Mass, a little timid-squeaky at first, rounded the Bach-tribute out, before the chorus let the listeners back out into the night with a fitting encore of “Immortal Bach”.

What to Hear Next Season: Library of Congress

See my preview of the 2011-2012 season at the Library of Congress:

The Library of Congress Free Classical Music Concerts Preview (Washingtonian, July 29):

Washingtonians can be spoiled by getting so much culture for free, from the museums of the Smithsonian to the startling number of free concerts one can hear each season. Some of the best concerts every year, free or otherwise, are presented by the Library of Congress on a long-standing free concert series. These concerts recommend themselves, not least for the gorgeous acoustic of the auditorium named for Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the patron who helped establish a concert series at the library in 1925. Listeners can reserve tickets in advance through Ticketmaster, for the usual processing fees, or you can show up early to wait for an unclaimed seat. The Coolidge Auditorium is on the lower floor of the Jefferson Building: enter through the door under the large staircase at the First Street, Southeast, entrance. Again, due to security checks at the door, early arrival is recommended.

Among the highlights of the upcoming season are concerts for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt: a recital of Liszt’s Les Années de Pèlerinage by Canadian pianist Louis Lortie (October 19), an evening of songs from Liszt’s time by baritone Martin Bruns and fortepianist Christoph Hammer (October 22); and a program of music by Bartók, a fellow Hungarian composer, with members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and pianist Jenő Jandó (October 25). New York’s audacious Cygnus Ensemble visits twice, first with some guest artists in a program pairing Fritz Kreisler with modern composer Harold Meltzer (February 3). This concert highlights the Fritz Kreisler Collection at the Library of Congress, including performances on Kreisler’s priceless Guarneri del Gesù violin. They will also provide live music for a fascinating performance of a new version of Samuel Beckett’s Ohio Impromptu (March 7). [Continue reading]
What Else to Hear Next Season
Washington Performing Arts Society | Opera | National Symphony Orchestra
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra | Vocal Music | Chamber Music | Early Music | Phillips Collection | Washington Ballet | Dance


Santa Fe Preview: 'The Last Savage'

available at Amazon
Menotti, The Last Savage, N. Gedda, R. Peters, T. Stratas, Metropolitan Opera, T. Schippers
(live recording, 1964)
The Santa Fe Opera has a distinguished history of presenting world and American premieres of new operas. For example, the company gave the world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti's Help, Help, The Globolinks in 1969, which was the only Menotti opera produced in Santa Fe until this season. Typical of the Santa Fe Opera spirit, the forty-year Menotti drought will be broken not with one of the better-known operas but with The Last Savage, a work that was almost universally declared a failure. Menotti labeled the work a "grand opera buffa," which gives a good idea of the mixture of philosophical and absurd in the story of a rich-girl Vassar anthropology student who goes to India to locate the "last savage" for her senior thesis. Hilarity ensues, to be sure. Menotti wrote his own libretto, in Italian, which was translated into French for its disastrous world premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1963, and then back into English (both times by someone other than Menotti) for its equally catastrophic Metropolitan Opera debut in 1964. If the libretto was not already a mess before that, it certainly was afterward.

Other Articles:

Brian Holt, Rumble in the Jungle (Out West Arts, July 28)

James M. Keller, Santa Fe Opera salvages 'Savage' (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 24)

Barry Singer, Salvaging the Savaged (Opera News, May 2011)
In spite of it all, I have to admit that I am thrilled to be seeing The Last Savage this summer. Menotti did revise the work for a couple revivals, including one for his 70th birthday celebration at the Spoleto Festival. Among the people who remember that version fondly is none other than Santa Fe Opera's general director, Charles Mackay, who worked for the Spoleto Festival at the time. As Mackay told another reporter: "I just think it's important to revisit contemporary works that were not necessarily well received." And so it is. What better time to reexamine The Last Savage than the 100th year since Menotti was born, on July 7, 1911?

The idea of encountering the un-encountered, a tribe that has not had contact with other humans, is still seductive, enough to be able to fool people. The Romantic notion of the "noble savage" comes in for more satirical treatment here by Menotti, as Kitty, the daughter of millionaire parents, is duped into believing that an Indian man, planted in her path after being paid a large sum of money to act like a savage, is the actual last savage she has been hoping to find. Along the way, modern notions of art and civilization, including contemporary forms of art and music, are ridiculed as being incomprehensible to this simple man. At the heart of the work, and in many ways of the scathing criticism of it, is Menotti's avoidance of atonal musical ideas in his score. It may be an overlarge set of ideas on which to hang a comic opera. Maybe not, though: the late critical giant Alan Rich fondly remembered himself as "the man who liked Gian Carlo Menotti's The Last Savage," a judgment seized on by some "to establish my perversion." He defended his review by saying that "its musical faults were apparent, but that the work was thoroughly enjoyable in its own simple-minded way."


What to Hear (See) Next Season: Washington Ballet

See my interview with Septime Webre and a preview of the Washington Ballet's new season:

Washington Ballet to Revive “Gatsby,” Adds “ALICE (in Wonderland)” to Next Season (Washingtonian, July 27):

The last few years have not been easy for the Washington Ballet. A labor dispute with the dancers scuttled the company’s 2005 run of Nutcracker, the holiday-season cash cow of many ballet companies. According to Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman, at the heart of the dispute were “thorny questions [about] how much control [artistic director Septime] Webre should have.” Then the economic crisis hit, and the orchestra that played for the company’s productions was dismissed because of financial constraints, in 2009. The use of recorded music instead of full orchestra became more or less permanent at the beginning of last season. Last week, Septime Webre spoke to Washingtonian about the company and what its plans are for next season, his 13th as artistic director.

Reports have put the annual budget of the Washington Ballet at around $8 million but shrinking over the last couple years. Webre confirms that it is still somewhere around that figure. “Ticket sales have been doing really well,” he says, “and fundraising has stayed strong, from individuals particularly and special events. The biggest challenge, the only major challenge, I would say, has been the loss of government funding. We had been receiving support from the city of Washington, about $1 million a year. Two summers ago, that was cut to zero, in the budget balancing process, making a huge loss from which we had to recover.” The budget battle being fought right now at the federal level may imperil the company’s funding, too, as support to the arts could be cut there. [Continue reading]


Santa Fe Preview: 'Griselda'

available at Amazon
Vivaldi, Griselda, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Verónica Cangemi, Simone Kermes, Ensemble Matheus, Jean-Christophe Spinosi

available at Amazon
A. Scarlatti, Griselda, D. Röschmann, L. Zazzo, V. Cangemi, B. Fink, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, R. Jacobs
Regular readers know of my fondness for the operas of Vivaldi, especially as they have been recorded by Naïve in the excellent Vivaldi Edition. One of those operas, Griselda (OP 30419), receives a rare staging this season at Santa Fe Opera. For lots more background on the opera and its modern rediscovery, see my review of the excellent recording by Ensemble Matheus. For Vivaldi's debut at the Teatro San Samuele in Venice, the composer was assigned a libretto by Apostolo Zeno, completed in 1701, and already set by Scarlatti in 1721 (in Rome with an all-male cast, five castrati and a tenor) and Bononcini in London in 1722. Michele Grimani, the owner of the Teatro S. Samuele, engaged a young playwright named Carlo Goldoni to help Vivaldi revise the libretto in the Ascension fair season, an episode recounted quite colorfully in Goldoni's memoirs. Goldoni's anecdotes often seem too good to be true, but he has a charming way with a tale, and the portrait he paints of Vivaldi as they discuss the libretto is almost too much like one of the type characters in a Goldoni play (breviary in hand, always making the sign of the cross, repeating Latin prayers).
This ecclesiastic, who was an excellent performer on the violin and an indifferent composer, had trained and instructed in singing Miss Giraud [Girò], a young singer, born at Venice, but the daughter of a French hairdresser. She was not pretty, but graceful; her shape was elegant, her eyes and hair were beautiful, and her mouth charming; she had very little voice, but a great deal of action. She was to represent the character of Griselda.
After much futzing around to find the libretto, Vivaldi points out to Goldoni a scene between Gualtiero and Griselda. In Zeno's libretto the scene ended with a sad text for a slow aria, but Anna Girò
is not fond of languishing songs; she wishes something expressive and full of agitation, an expression of the passions by different means, by words interrupted, for example, by sighs, with action and motion; I don't know whether you understand me?" -- "Yes, sir, I understand you perfectly well; besides, I have had the honor of hearing Miss Giraud, and I know that her voice is not very powerful." -- "What, sir, do you mean to insult my student? She is good at everything, she can sing anything." -- "Yes, sir, you are right; give me the book, and allow me to proceed." -- "No, sir, I cannot part with it, I am in want of it, and am pressed for time."
Other Articles:

Heidi Waleson, The Tests of Patience (Wall Street Journal, July 19)

Eva Dameron, Opera director and East-L.A. painter talk art philosphy, work (New Mexico Daily Lobo, July 18)

James M. Keller, SFO premiere of Vivaldi's 'Griselda' misfires (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 17)

Brian Holt, Everything's Gone Green (Out West Arts, July 17)

Kyle MacMillan, Baroque opera finds a new stage in Colorado and beyond (Denver Post, July 10)
Long story short, Goldoni sits down right there in Vivaldi's study and in the space of fifteen minutes writes out a new aria text, eight lines in two parts, for a fast aria. Vivaldi calls in Girò to show her, and they agree it is perfect: Goldoni goes on to complete the other revisions that Vivaldi requires. As scholar John Walter Hill has surmised, this must be the opening scene of the opera, and Goldoni's hastily written substitute was the striking action aria Brami le mie catene e mi rinfacci?, in which loud outbursts alternate with sudden stops (see video embedded below). In a single stroke, gone is the patient, all-suffering Griselda of Boccaccio's story from the Decameron to be replaced by the fiery character incarnated by Girò. Vivaldi, working in his usual haste, recycled some of the music from his own earlier opera, Atenaide, premiered in 1728.

Taking Girò's place in the title role in Santa Fe will be contralto Meredith Arwady, whose dark, viscous voice we have admired before, while Paul Groves will take the tenor role of Gualtiero (sung originally by Gregorio Balbi). Their daughter, Costanza (created by soprano Margherita Giacomazzi) is sung by Isabel Leonard, while the role of Corrado (created by another soprano, Elisabetta Gasparini) will be sung by countertenor Yuriy Mynenko. The two castrato roles will be sung by countertenor David Daniels (Roberto, created by Gaetano Valletta) and soprano Amanda Majeski (Ottone, created by Lorenzo Saletti). Grant Gershon will conduct, and the staging reunites director Peter Sellars and artist/set designer Gronk.


Santa Fe Preview: 'Faust'

available at Amazon
C. Gounod, Autobiographical reminiscences, with family letters and notes on music

available at Amazon
Gounod, Faust, A. Gheorghiu,
R. Alagna, B. Terfel, S. Keenlyside,
S. Koch, Royal Opera House,
A. Pappano

(released on October 5, 2010)
EMI 6 31611 9 | 3h
Charles Gounod's Faust is not a particularly great or even skilful adaptation of Goethe's sprawling metaphysical play (Part 1 | Part 2), but that is a tall order for any opera. It is, however, a beautiful opera in its own way, a loose adaptation of Goethe, with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré derived from Carré's play Faust et Marguerite, full of ear-catching tunes. Gounod loved Goethe's book, recalling of his years as a Prix de Rome student in Italy that it was among his favorite regular reading. The composer wrote, in his Autobiographical Reminiscences, that when he arrived in Rome he felt the need to call upon Ingres, who was then director of the French Academy in Rome and an old friend of his father's. Ingres immediately recognized the likeness of father and son and spoke of Gounod senior's wit and talent as an artist.

During his time in Rome, Gounod added that "My favorite amusement was reading Goethe's Faust, in French of course, as I knew no German" (p. 59). He also wrote about a two-week stay on the island of Capri, where he escaped the heat by sleeping or swimming in the day and then sitting up at night to listen to the sounds of the island.
Now and again a solitary night-bird uttered its mournful note, and made me think of those weird precipices whose horror Weber has rendered with such marvelous power in that immortal incantation scene in Der Freischutz. It was during one of those nocturnal rambles that the first idea for the "Walpurgis Night" in Goethe's Faust struck me. I never parted with the score; I carried it around about with me everywhere, and jotted down in stray notes any idea which I thought might be useful whenever I made an attempt to use the subject for an opera. This I did not attempt until seventeen years afterwards (p. 82).
After a less than successful premiere in 1859, the revival of Faust in 1862 put the opera into the standard repertory for over a century. The Metropolitan Opera chose it as its first opera, in 1883, and it remains often performed there: the popularity of Faust in New York is one of the topoi in Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence, especially in the opening pages. (Angela Gheorghiu just dropped out of the new production at the Met this fall.) This summer, the Santa Fe Opera chose the opera for the opening production of its 55th season. In preparation for press week in Santa Fe, always the highlight of the summer, I have been watching a recent DVD of Faust, from a controversial production at the Royal Opera House recorded back in 2004.

The danger of a starry cast, like this one surely was, is disappointment at being short of perfection, and this DVD is an example of what can go wrong when everything seems to be right. The singing is generally excellent, with both Gheorghiu and Alagna in excellent voice and dramatically convincing in the lead roles (like most opera singers, better from afar than in too many filmed close-ups, where broad gestures and mugging seem exaggerated). Bryn Terfel less so as Méphistophéles, only because of some questionable French and a lack of boom in the lower register. Simon Keenlyside is a dashing Valentin, and Sophie Koch a believable and vocally lovely Siébel. Even when you get down to the role of Wagner, you are in good hands with Matthew Rose. The problem with big-name singers is that sometimes they can control the pacing a little too much, and the tug of war between conductor Antonio Pappano, who tends to push many of the numbers to the fast side, and the singers is disconcerting at times.

Then there is the staging, which was done by David McVicar, although as far as I can tell, his name is listed nowhere on the case or in the booklet. In fact, the DVD is highlights the names of the singers and a few mostly benign pictures of them, which might lead one to think this is a fairly run-of-the-mill production, which it most emphatically is not. Only the closeup of Terfel, licking blood from his hand, gives any hint of the harsher aspects of the staging. Now it is true that, to a 21st-century spectator, Marguerite becoming pregnant by a man who is not her husband is just not that shocking. McVicar seemed to respond to that issue by taking every opportunity to heighten the diabolic, Black Mass-sort of imagery and emphasize the cruelty of Faust's abandonment of Marguerite.

This is especially true of the Act V ballet, included more or less complete, where a ballet blanc corps of female dancers and their white tie-clad male paramours abuse a dancer version of the pregnant Marguerite and the reanimated corpse of Valentin, ultimately "burying" her baby in a small, black coffin. (This was years before Black Swan, remember.) Anyone with a sensitivity to the treatment of Christian images or the excesses of modern opera directors is fairly warned. Then again, if you always wanted to know what it would be like in an alternate universe where Bryn Terfel was a drag queen instead of an opera singer, you have to see this (video embedded below). In the ballet scene, he appears in a revealing black gown, arm-length gloves, and tiara.

Other Articles:

Heidi Waleson, The Tests of Patience (Wall Street Journal, July 19)

Brian Holt, The French Revolution (Out West Arts, July 16)

James M. Keller, Santa Fe Opera charms with first 'Faust' (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 2)

Anne Constable, Santa Fe Opera kicks off 2011 season with first 'Faust' (Santa Fe New Mexican, June 16)
Gounod added the compulsory ballet to the fifth act only for the 1869 premiere at the Opéra de Paris, so the decision to cut it, as often happens in modern productions, is easily justified. The staging now on view at Santa Fe Opera, directed by Stephen Lawless, does not cut the Walpurgisnacht either, using by one report "a huge cast that includes singers, acrobats, roller skaters, freak-show freaks, ballet dancers to play the seven most beautiful women characters in opera, and even a stilt-walker played by the opera's technical director, Eric Moore." This is the company's debut with the opera, and according to Santa Fe Opera's general director, Charles Mackay, "It has given every department the opportunity to pull out all the stops."

When performed complete, Faust is a big opera, so it makes sense to make it grand, and the insanity of the Walpurgisnacht, when witches gather for a Black Mass on the Brocken, is enough excuse for just about any excess of staging. Then again, how much is too much? To return to Gounod's own words, he wrote of Faust that it was "the greatest theatrical success I have ever had. Do I mean that it is the best thing I have written? That I cannot tell" (p. 158). Trying to explain what he had sought to do with the opera, he wrote, "Dramatic art is a branch of the art of portraiture. Its function is to delineate character, as that of the painter is to present feature and attitude." From that point of view, McVicar's version of the ballet may say a lot, just not necessarily about the characters of Faust.


What to Hear (See) Next Season: Dance

See my preview of the 2011-2012 dance and ballet season in Washington:

Washington Area 2011-12 Dance Preview (Washingtonian, July 25):

Lovers of dance -- ballet, contemporary, and just about everything else -- can take delight that Washington is a regular stop for tours by the best international dance companies. Tickets are mostly not on sale yet, of course, nor has the casting always been announced, but you can mark the dates on your calendar, and most presenters’ Web sites will send you an e-mail reminder when the tickets go on sale. Here are the performances you will not want to miss in the upcoming season.

Dance Companies
At the top of the list are some of the world’s leading contemporary dance troupes, beginning with the Martha Graham Dance Company, appearing at George Mason University Center for the Arts (October 21). Their program will feature one of the classic choreographies by Martha Graham, Appalachian Spring, accompanied by the iconic American score she commissioned from Aaron Copland.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, since the death in 2009 of its legendary founder, has been in the process of closing up shop, and their last visit to the Washington area will take place at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater (December 2 and 3). Hopefully the sound levels will be tolerable for listeners this time around, unlike their last visit at Wolf Trap.

Finally, the Mark Morris Dance Group will come to the Kennedy Center Opera House (January 26 to 28), to perform Morris’s staging of Handel’s beautiful oratorio L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (their most recent stop here was in 2010). The music will be performed live, which is key to Morris’s union of music and dance, with the choral part provided by the Washington Bach Consort, plus sopranos Christine Brandes and Lisa Saffer, tenor John McVeigh, and baritone Tom Meglioranza as soloists. [Continue reading]
What Else to Hear Next Season
Washington Performing Arts Society | Opera | National Symphony Orchestra
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra | Vocal Music | Chamber Music | Early Music | Phillips Collection


In Brief: In Paradisum Deducant Te Angeli

Anyone who attended Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in the 1990s, or watched Mass from there on TV, knows the face and voice of the Shrine in those years, cantor Virginia Brubaker. It is with great sadness that I pass along to anyone who watched and heard her sing the news that Mrs. Brubaker passed away on Saturday morning. Anyone who knew Ginny would expect that she fought her illness, cancer, with every ounce of very considerable fierceness in her. Many of her singing colleagues, from over so many years, are planning to come together again to sing at her memorial service. As one singer put it, "after the choir is seated there will be no room for the congregation." Ginny can be seen in the video, starting at about 4:05, singing the responsorial psalm Here am I, Lord: I come to do your will. Our hearts and prayers are with her husband, Jerry. [YouTube]

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • For your online listening this week, the London Symphony Orchestra with Valery Gergiev and Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, James MacMillan's new concerto, George Onslow's nonet, Théodore Dubois's Le Paradis perdu (1878), and much more from the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon, Nelson Freire and Martha Argerich from Lugano. [France Musique]

  • Also, more from the BBC Philharmonic and, coming up this week, the Elias Quartet (coming to the Library of Congress next season), the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra bids farewell to retiring principal conductor Roger Norrington with Mahler's ninth symphony, Vladimir Jurowski leading a program of Kodály, Bartók, and Liszt, Emmanuel Pahud with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Oliver Knussen (returning to the NSO this November) leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Honegger, Bridge, Berg, Castiglioni, and Debussy. [BBC Proms]

  • More online video of concerts from the Verbier Festival, including Martha Argerich and friends, Bryn Terfel, Angela Hewitt, Stephen Hough, Martin Helmchen, Evgeny Kissin, Yuja Wang, and Arabella Steinbacher. []

  • Don't watch the Verbier videos, though, if you do not want to be associated with the "sensationalism" of the classical music star system attacked by Gidon Kremer. [Jessica Duchen]

  • Also, God forbid that Kremer's decision to withdraw from the Verbier Festival be associated with "any ambitions or desire to look at everything as a snob, as many critics do! – With their prejudice, so to say- 'from above'." [Slipped Disc]

  • More online video: the final round of the Operalia competition. []

  • Painter Lucian Freud is dead at 88. [The Guardian]

  • We admit that the heat kept Ionarts from reviewing Friday night's Sweeney Todd at the outdoor Filene Center at Wolf Trap. How do the singers and staff there cope with this epic heat? [New York Times]

  • It is sad to see Borders close, if not really surprising. [Slate]

  • This does not look good: the Pittsburgh Symphony has gone $3 million into debt in the last two years, but its endowment has recovered somewhat. [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review]


Music@Menlo: Maps and Legends

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Read my latest CD review published in the Sunday Arts section of the Washington Post:

Charles T. Downey, Music@Menlo’s ‘Maps and Legends’
Washington Post, July 24, 2011

available at Amazon
Maps and Legends, Music@Menlo
LIVE, 2010. $100.

[Buy direct]
Music@Menlo, David Finckel and Wu Han’s summer chamber music festival near San Francisco, is generally organized around a theme that guides the programming choices each year. Last year’s theme was “Maps and Legends” — music that, according to the program notes, “explored a wide compass of times, places, and universal phenomena.” Since 2003, Grammy Award-winning sound engineer Da-Hong Seetoo, who produces the recordings of the Emerson String Quartet (of which Finckel is a member), has recorded all of the festival’s concerts in high-quality 24-bit sound. Finckel and Wu Han, the husband-wife musician team who run the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, have started releasing those recordings on Music@Menlo’s in-house label. As heard in this recently released eight-CD set of live recordings from the 2010 festival, the results are very good.

The opening-night concert, featured on the first disc, paired Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” with George Crumb’s 1974 “Music for a Summer Evening” (the third part of his massive piano opus “Makrokosmos”). The performances highlight the musical energy for which this festival is becoming known, combining veteran performers and teachers with their younger, hungrier counterparts. Ani Kavafian, a noted violinist and CMS regular, has the most adventurous solo outing, on Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto, which gives evidence of her familiarity with current trends in historically informed performance practice (formerly known as the period-instruments movement). More evidence was present in harpsichordist Inon Barnatan’s improvisation in the slow movement of the “Autumn” concerto, while violin soloist Philip Setzer hovered over the score in sometimes harmonically disconnected ways. In the dazzling, odd Crumb piece, Wu Han and Gilbert Kalish (one of the work’s original dedicatees), on amplified and prepared pianos, joined two multi-tasking percussionists to create a completely different impression of the buzzing insects and heat-exhausted night reverie of summer. [Continue reading]


Christ's Suffering Continues

Fabienne Dorge has a report on a rather unusual new theater piece by Romeo Castelluci, Sul concetto di volto nel figlio di Dio, playing at the Avignon Festival this month. The action on the stage takes place in front of -- and eventually behind and even within -- a detail of the face of Christ from Antonello da Messina's painting Salvator Mundi, painted in the 15th century (shown at right). Here are a few excerpts from Dorge's review (Castellucci arrête le Christ à Avignon, July 22) for Le Monde (my translation):
This face watches us from the back of the stage, where a large-format reproduction was installed. Beneath this impenetrable gaze, the action that unfolds is of an unbelievable triviality. The set, surprisingly realistic for Castellucci, showed an immaculate apartment, where one saw two men, an old man and his son. The father is suffering from diarrhea and incapable of containing himself. Three times, his son, in the moments before he has to leave for work, has to change him and clean everything, done first with love and patience, then with discouragement and anger.

Romeo Castellucci directed this long scene with a realism that made many spectators uncomfortable and caused some to leave. There is nothing anodyne in this, in the theater of Castellucci, who always overturns one's expectations as a spectator, to see a naked old man have his butt wiped, be put in a diaper, and cry like a child because of his loss of control. The Italian artist spares us nothing, not even the odor of shit.

The spectacle then enters a completely different dimension. As Castellucci himself wrote in the program notes, "we pass from scatology to eschatology." The face of Christ disappears in shadow before reappearing. One, two, then a dozen children arrive -- there are children in almost all the performances at this year's Avignon Festival. From their book-bags [cartables, those briefcase-backpacks that identify the schoolkid in France] they pull out little toys that look like grenades and bombard the painting as best they can, without being able to affect its surface. Antonello da Messina's face of Christ remains impenetrable, unattainable.
Far from being blasphemous, at least in intention, Castellucci has a theological explanation of the meaning of the work.


What to Hear Next Season: Phillips Collection

See my preview of the 2011-2012 concert season at the Phillips Collection:

Phillips Collection Concert Series Preview (Washingtonian, July 20):

Some of the places where one can hear concerts in Washington were built for that purpose in private homes. Like the gorgeously appointed music room constructed by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss at Dumbarton Oaks, is the wood-paneled music room built by Duncan Phillips in his home on 21st Street, Northwest. It is now the location of a long-running series of concerts at the Phillips Collection, going strong since 1941 -- the longest uninterrupted concert series of its kind in the nation’s capital. From October to May, the museum hosts a concert on most Sundays, with some holiday weekends excluded, beginning at 4 PM. These concerts used to be free, but one still had to pay the price of admission to the museum to go. The system now in place, with a $20 ticket with entrance to the collection included, still makes these concerts an affordable option for Sunday afternoon listening, pleasantly combined with an early arrival to see some art. Because of the small size of the music room, listeners are advised to stake out a seat early.

The performances at the Phillips Collection have tended to vary widely, with some big-name musicians and with others unknown, both promising and not so much. In past seasons, there have been concerts I have decided to miss, others I would not have missed for any reason, and some very rewarding surprises. On the current season, in the category of not to be missed, mark your calendar for the season opener (October 2), when minimalist composer Philip Glass will give a piano recital followed by a dinner, with the proceeds going to support the Phillips concert series and FreshFarm Markets. Also top-notch are a recital by soprano Haeran Hong, who won the Queen Elisabeth Voice Competition this year (November 6); a recital by British countertenor Iestyn Davies (December 4); a recital by pianist Steven Osborne, who has produced some great recordings on the Hyperion label (March 11); and a concert by the Daedalus String Quartet (April 22). [Continue reading]


Belshazzar Sees the Writing on the Wall

available at Amazon
Handel, Belshazzar, K. Tarver,
R. Joshua, B. Mehta, RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für
Alte Musik, R. Jacobs

(released on June 14, 2011)
HMD 9909028.29 | 2h46
Handel's Messiah, because it is performed so very often, has come to represent in many listeners' minds what a Handelian oratorio is all about. In fact, it is rather unusual and does not really give a good idea of the composer's conception of the oratorio at all. Messiah does not follow a narrative in the conventional sense, there are no characters, and it has not so much a libretto as a collection of Biblical verses -- none of which has prevented people from trying to make it into a stage work. Worse, while we can still possibly enjoy a really fine performance of Messiah once in a while, its popularity contributes to the relative rarity of performances of the composer's other, generally even better, oratorios: Saul, Theodora, Solomon, Athalia, La Resurrezione, Esther, L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, Judas Maccabaeus, and Jephtha, to name just a few.

Add to that list Belshazzar, a gorgeous piece of music set to a dramatic retelling of the fall of Babylon from the Book of Daniel (Charles Jennens wrote the libretto). It is a relatively late work, premiered in 1745, at the height of Handel's compositional powers and before his health had begun to decline. This performance was filmed at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in July 2008, a co-production with the Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin, the Innsbruckner Festwochen der Alten Musik, and the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse, where it was just performed this past May. René Jacobs led a crisp instrumental performance from Berlin's Akademie für Alte Musik, one of the best historically informed performance ensembles in the world right now, top-notch all around. The vocal cast frankly has its ups and downs. Rosemary Joshua has good moments as Nitocris, the mother of Belshazzar, but the top of her voice is a little jagged and not quite sure; Bejun Mehta is a wild-faced Cyrus, his technique pushed to the edge of surety in the florid passages; Kenneth Tarver a bold, if not particularly pretty-voiced Belshazzar; the discovery of the performance is mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammerström, with a gorgeous, silk-smooth voice and a convincingly male but otherworldly appearance as the prophet Daniel.

Seeing the singers does little to help the impression of their work, especially as the staging by Christof Nel is minimalistic enough that one wonders why he even bothered. The choral scenes (the Persian armies, the Babylonian revelers -- chorus members become some of the small parts by doing things like putting on eye glasses) and certainly the mysterious hand writing the fateful message on the wall of Belshazzar's palace are more spectacular in one's imagination (or Rembrandt's) than how they are shown here. That being said, there is no one CD recording that stands out as the one to buy either, and this 2-DVD set is comparably priced to all of them, on 3 CDs. Jacobs, or another of the world's top HIP conductors, should have this remarkable work on their "To Do" list, with a stronger cast and excellent sound. Handel's music goes well with Jennens's verse, so pleasing and snappy: "Behold the monstrous human beast / Wallowing in excessive feast! / No more his Maker's image found: / But, self-degraded to a swine, / He fixes grov'ling on the ground / His portion of the breath Divine." This comes from Gobrias's condemnation of the Babylonian celebration, the moment when the Persians decide to attack to gain the best advantage. It could have come from Dante's descriptions of gluttony.


Breaking Bread with the Lords

See my little piece on the Suspicious Cheese Lords for Washingtonian:

A Night With the Suspicious Cheese Lords (Washingtonian, July 18):

available at Amazon
Vivat Rex: Sacred Choral
Music of Jean Mouton
Suspicious Cheese Lords
Around 7 PM on a typical Wednesday night, a group of men begins to arrive one by one at the door of a big old house in Columbia Heights. They gather around the table as their host lays out dinner, and the conversation is the sort that one expects among a dozen or so friends. They have come from typical Washington jobs as lawyers and doctors, working in IT firms and non-profits: at least one is between jobs. Jokes and friendly barbs are traded back and forth, and introductions are made as new friends join them, including this week a reporter from Washingtonian.

At 8:30, however, something surprising happens, as the real reason for this gathering becomes clear and the men stand up, clear the table, pass around sheet music, and begin to sing a motet by Jacobus Gallus, a composer active in the Holy Roman Empire in the late 16th century, and other music rarely heard since it was composed in the Renaissance. These are the Suspicious Cheese Lords, an all-male choir that is devoted to the rediscovery of unknown Renaissance polyphony, a vast body of complex music written in generally four or more independent parts overlaid in contrapuntal imitation. If you follow early music in Washington, you have probably already heard of them or at least recognize their rather odd name. [Continue reading]


Weill and Ravel at the Castleton Festival

Photo by Nicholas Vaughan
Friday evening, situated in the picturesque mountains west of Washington, D.C., the Castleton Festival offered an impressive double bill of Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins and Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges in their newly renovated Festival Tent. The Castleton Residency, began in 2006, is now a full-fledged festival with 220 young artists from over twenty countries spending two months together refining their skills on Lorin Maazel and Dietlinde Turban-Maazel's 550-acre farm. This musical menagerie produces performances of the utmost quality and with unhesitating fluency. This focus is undoubtedly cultivated by the lack of frustrating urban distractions and ample practice time awarded to (or inflicted on) the musicians on Castleton Farms, where nearby neighbors blithely brag that there is not a single stoplight in all of Rappahannock County, Va.

The backdrop of Kurt Weill's ballet chanté The Seven Deadly Sins was a giant map of the United States, with lights following the route of Anna I (soprano Kate Mangiameli) and Anna II (dancer Toni Melaas) as they criss-crossed the country experiencing sloth, pride, anger, gluttony, lust, greed, and envy for seven years, all while attempting to earn money to send home to their greedy family to build a house. Castleton Resident Stage Director William Kerley created diverting, simultaneous settings onstage between the Annas on the road and the family in Louisiana, with fat suits and fake tattoos that reinforced the particular sin of the moment. Mother, robustly sung by bass-baritone Tyler Simpson, was particularly memorable in her giant pink night gown and hair curlers. This also compensated for the somewhat less than imaginative, yet concise compositional style of Weill. One wished Mangiameli had as many splendid musical opportunities to shine as Melaas did dancing, as they both worked to create the single persona of Anna. The male quartet comprising the family back home were equally strong as soloists, particularly tenor Tyler Nelson as Father, and as a barbershop quartet singing "gluttons never go to heaven." Presenting this entertaining work over a new Britten production or revival was a smart choice programmatically, even if some in the audience were annoyed and disinclined to clap heartily. Levi Hammer conducted assuredly.

Lorin Maazel led a big orchestra and cast in Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells), a work as much seeped in fantasy as the Weill was starkly in over-the-top reality. Due to an onstage fall during rehearsal, the ill-behaved Child taunted by his animate objects, was sung in the pit by Cecelia Hall as planned, yet mimed by Norra Graham Smith on stage. Set in the Child's bedroom on a big wooden platform with colorful wallpaper, and later in a garden, over twenty soloists were able to have their moment onstage. From a clock (Alex DeSocio), a dragonfly (Elizabeth Reiter), caterwauling coital cats (Ricardo Rivera and Jessica Klein), and a children's chorus skillfully spouting word problems and arithmetic, it was fun for all. After much creativity in costuming (Nicholas Vaughan) and orchestration, Ravel's score builds most beautifully in the garden scene where the Child mends the wound of a squirrel he injured. The angry animals and objects soon soften and mend the Child's wound after injuring him, leading him home to his mother (mezzo Margaret Gawrysiak).

Other Reviews:

Terry Ponick, Castleton Festival's classy Weill and Ravel (Washington Times, July 11)
The main shortcoming of the Festival Tent is its lack of hard surfaces from which the sound can reverberate, such as the beautiful wood in the smaller Theatre House on the property. Friday night, singers often sounded distant and easily overpowered by the orchestra, although this was less a problem Saturday night at La Boheme. The impact of versatile soprano Sungji Kim's role as Fire, in which she remarks "I warm the good, but burn the bad," was greatly diminished due to the Tent's less than ideal acoustics. In any case, any weak vocal aspects of the evening, due to the room or not, were made up for by the crack orchestra and innovative stage direction, set, and spare-no-expense costume design. In the end, the full ovation was saved for Maestro Maazel.

This performance will be repeated on Saturday (July 23, 2pm).


In Brief: Oceanside Edition

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

  • Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille and one of the possible presidential candidates for the Socialist Party in France, says that she would advocate increasing the budget of the Ministry of Culture by 30% to 50%. The funds, she specified, would go to supporting part-time arts workers, building more venues for performance, and creating 300,000 arts jobs. Not that Aubry is a serious contender for the nomination, but I love that saying something like this does not just automatically torpedo her political career. [Libération]

  • Favorite tweet of the week was from the press conference about the 2011-2012 season, such as it is, from New York City Opera: "Astoundingly enough, first press question asked at #NYCO1112 was whether Telemann would be played on modern or Baroque instruments." Although this may strike some people like rearranging the deck chairs on the proverbial Titanic, I would actually be interested in the answer. [@nprclassical]

  • The Telemann opera programmed by the NYCO, it turns out, is Orpheus, a gorgeous piece of music, which we reviewed a few years ago at Wolf Trap Opera. [Ionarts]

  • Add this to my already burgeoning list of summer music destinations: the Château de Chambord has inaugurated a summer musical festival, the Festival de Chambord, this month (July 15 to 29). Pianist Vanessa Wagner has directed the first edition, including concerts by Les ­Siècles, Brigitte Engerer, Bertrand ­Chamayou, Olivier Cavé, Adam Latoum, the Trio Wanderer, and Doulce Mémoire. [Le Figaro]

  • A rare revival of Fromental Halévy's La Magicienne at the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon. [Le Monde]

  • For your online listening this week, listen to some of the performances from the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon, including the Pražák Quartet, soprano Simone Kermes, and Halévy's La Magicienne, plus Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall from the Abbaye de Saint Michel en Thiérache, a recital by pianist Yulianna Avdeeva, and a Haydn Mass from Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus Wien from the Pfarrkirche of Stainz as part of the Styriarte Festival. [France Musique]

  • From the Verbier Festival this week, pianists Angela Hewitt, Stephen Hough, Martin Helmchen, and Evgeny Kissin, Charles Dutoit conducting music by Lera Auerbach, and Angelika Kirchschlager singing Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. []

  • Make your rounds of more summer festivals online: Handel's Acis and Galatea and Natalie Dessay in La Traviata from the Aix-en-Provence Festival, and Così fan tutte from the Opéra de Lyon. [ARTE Liveweb]

  • And don't forget the Proms, which opened with a performance of Janáček's unforgettable Glagolitic Mass. Also, Antonio Pappano conducting Guillaume Tell, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani playing the Goldberg Variations, and much more. The broadcasts can be streamed for only seven days after each performance. [BBC Proms]


Savall Speaks

available at Amazon
Istanbul, Hespèrion XXI, J. Savall
Bertrand Dermoncourt published an interview (Jordi Savall ou les liens du son, July 15) with viola da gamba player Jordi Savall in L'Express. Here are a few snippets (my translation):
You are a "classical" musician, a Westerner, but you love to play with artists from other cultures. Is it truly possible?

Today more than ever, musicians have the responsibility to remember that connections existed and endure between civilizations. And ultimately it is quite natural for me to play a Sephardic cantiga with a Moroccan or Turkish oud player, because these artists have preserved more or less intact the practices of the Middle Ages.

What do you learn from contact with these musicians?

To be with them is to learn something every day: they improvise more spontaneously than we and do naturally what we seek to obtain through work. In such cases our musical culture is an embarrassment!

If music maintains bridges between East and West, does the daily news not tend to destroy them?

To keep a relationship, you must know how to give of yourself, to accept the other. To establish a tie with the unknown implies letting oneself be taken in by the other, to accept a certain fragility, to abandon one's privileged position. For centuries the Western world was convinced it held the one and only truth, to have evolved into the most brilliant civilization. Tolerance, with the condescension that it implies, was the strongest sign of openness and generosity. However, conflicts remain and we felt them during our projects reuniting musicians from different backgrounds, from countries that politics divided. Tension was palpable in the first rehearsals. Then we were surprised by Israelis and Palestinians having fun singing the same songs together during breaks. Nothing and no one made them do it. It was the power of music: it can bring peace because it forces you to converse and respect one another.


À mon chevet: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

book cover
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
Harry turned over his trading card and read:

Currently Headmaster of Hogwarts

Considered by many the greatest wizard of modern times, Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, for the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon's blood, and his work on alchemy with his partner, Nicolas Flamel. Professor Dumbledore enjoys chamber music and tenpin bowling.

Harry turned the card back over and saw, to his astonishment, that Dumbledore's face had disappeared.

"He's gone!"

"Well, you can't expect him to hang around all day," said Ron.


"Nicolas Flamel," [Hermione] whispered dramatically, " is the only known maker of the Sorcerer's Stone!"

This didn't have quite the effect she'd expected.

"The what?" said Harry and Ron.

"Oh, honestly, don't you two read? Look -- read that, there." She pushed the book toward them, and Harry and Ron read:

The ancient study of alchemy is concerned with making the Sorcerer's Stone, a legendary substance with astonishing powers. The stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal. There have been many reports of the Sorcerer's Stone over the centuries, but the only Stone currently in existence belongs to Mr. Nicolas Flamel, the noted alchemist and opera lover. Mr. Flamel, who celebrated his six hundred and sixty-fifth birthday last year, enjoys a quiet life in Devon with his wife, Perenelle (six hundred and fifty-eight).

-- J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, pp. 102-103 / 219-20 (emphases mine)
I held off from reading any of the Harry Potter books when they came out, planning instead to read them to our kids when they got older. I started the first book with Master Ionarts some time ago, but he quickly grew frustrated with how slowly we were progressing and proceeded to devour the books on his own instead. Now that he has read them a few times and generally become obsessed with all things Harry Potter, he is tolerating me reading them to him. A hint: do not re-read a book with a 9-year-old boy if you have hang-ups about not wanting to know how everything -- literally, everything -- turns out in the end.

As for the excerpts quoted here, it probably goes without saying that the two best, smartest wizards in the books are devotees of classical music and opera. No word yet on whether Voldemort is obsessed with the music of Bach, as most psychopathic murderers inevitably are.


Fringe Festival: 7 Sopranos

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Read my review published in the Going Out Guide of the Washington Post:

Charles T. Downey, Divas Just Want to Have Fun!
Washington Post, July 14, 2011

How many sopranos does it take to screw in a light bulb? As the old joke goes — and there were so many to choose from — it takes two: one to screw in the light bulb and the other to say she could have done it better.

On Tuesday night, it took 7 Sopranos, a local collective of high-voiced women in matching red gowns, to perform a perky, not-too-annoying faux recital called “Divas Just Want to Have Fun!” on the stage in the basement of the Mount Vernon United Methodist Church. Surprisingly, for a concept intended to play on the stereotype of sopranos as spotlight-craving showboats, there were few vocal pyrotechnics and even fewer soaring high notes. Indeed, it was a program that did not show off powerful solo voices as much as put an ensemble spin on some of the most famous chestnuts of the soprano repertory. [Continue reading]
Bethany Ziegler, Seven Sopranos Come to Capital Fringe Festival (Georgetown Patch, July 13)


What to Hear Next Season: Early Music

See my preview of early music concerts on the 2011-2012 season in Washington:

Early Music to Hear in the 2011-12 Season (Washingtonian, July 13):

available at Amazon
La Tarantella: Antidotum Tarantulae, L'Arpeggiata,
C. Pluhar
Most of the groups mentioned in my review of the Washington Early Music Festival have not made announcements about their plans for concerts in the 2011-12 season, but it is not too soon to put some early music events on your calendar. You do not want to miss some of the best historically informed performance ensembles coming to the Washington area in the upcoming season.

The free concert series at the Library of Congress generally includes at least a few early music events. This year you will want to hear the daredevil viola da gambla player Paolo Pandolfo, returning to the venue after an extraordinary concert there last year (January 28), the Tarantella program of Christina Pluhar’s ensemble L’Arpeggiata, known for mixing the highbrow and the popular (March 19), and Concerto Köln with cellist Jan Freiheit (April 26). We will have a complete preview of the Library of Congress series shortly: You can reserve seats to these free concerts through Ticketmaster, for the usual processing fees, or take a chance and show up early to wait on line for an unclaimed seat. [Continue reading]
What Else to Hear Next Season
Washington Performing Arts Society | Opera | National Symphony Orchestra
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra | Vocal Music | Chamber Music


Second Viennoiserie

available at Amazon
Berg / Webern / Schoenberg, Quatuor Diotima, S. Piau, M.-N. Lemieux

(released on February 22, 2011)
Naïve V 5240 | 64'23"
The Quatuor Diotima has captivated my ears enough times, both in concert and on disc, that the names of two favorite singers, Sandrine Piau and Marie-Nicole Lemieux, were only the icing on the pastry of this recent release. The program brings together three pieces for string quartet and solo voice, by the big three composers of the Second Viennese School. This is a combination that was somewhat in vogue in the 20th century, as composers looked for ways to revive the string quartet genre after it had run out of steam in the previous century. The other examples that come to mind, like Ginastera's third quartet or Vaughan Williams' On Wenlock Edge, are really song cycles with string quartet accompaniment. The Diotima proceeds from Schoenberg's second quartet, with its third and fourth movements with Piau, radiant and enigmatic, to two oddities. Webern's six bagatelles, op. 9, each no more than a delightfully unexpected sonic bite, are presented with the lagniappe of a seventh bagatelle, never published, with a truly odd little poem sung in the velvety contralto of Lemieux, a compressed expression of grief for the composer's dead mother. For good measure, they include Berg's gorgeous Lyric Suite, in the recently restored version with a vocal part added to the Largo Desolato movement: the hidden words that reveal the amorous program of the work are a poem by Baudelaire, a blasphemous paraphrase of Psalm 129, with the lover crying out to his beloved when he is unable to sleep. That the final work is recorded complete lifts this disc over a similar disc released by the Petersen Quartett a couple years ago, with Christine Schäfer on the soprano part, as good as it apparently was.


Early Music in Washington

See my review of the gala concert of the Washington Early Music Festival:

Review: Washington Early Music Festival (Washingtonian, July 11):

available at Amazon
Soror mea, Sponsa mea: Canticum Canticorum nei Conventi,
Cappella Artemisia
The body of music known as “classical music,” judging by the fairly narrow offerings of traditional classical music ensembles at least, began with Mozart. Fortunately Washington has a surprising number of performing groups specializing in early music, a nebulous term that is usually applied to music composed before the 18th century and played on historical instruments or otherwise informed by scholarship, in an attempt to revive the sounds of previous centuries. Since 2004, the Washington Early Music Festival has offered a forum for these ensembles to present concerts on a common theme. After the first couple of seasons presenting the festival every summer, the event is now presented in even-numbered years only, in alternation with the Boston Early Music Festival. In odd-numbered years, the festival presents a single gala concert, which happened on Saturday, at St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill.

The three-hour event featured nine ensembles in perhaps too much music, all of it loosely centered on the theme of passions, some celestial and some more human. The most beautiful musical discovery was a motet, Ave suavis dilectio, by Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704), a woman who had a prolific career as a composer while a nun in an Ursuline convent. Soprano Rosa Lamoreaux sang with limpid tone, never pushed to more abrasive sound by the clean playing of ArcoVoce, and trading phrases of the Latin poem, on the delights of the Catholic sacraments, with ecstatic outbursts from the paired violins. [Continue reading]
Stephen Brookes, Washington Early Music Festival fundraising gala (Washington Post, July 11)