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For Your Consideration: 'Pianomania'

The Austrian documentary Pianomania: In Search of the Perfect Sound, from 2009, has received a very limited release this summer in the United States. (The Goethe-Institut hosted a one-time screening of the movie last year.) It has had mostly tepid reviews, generally by film critics who are not really classical music-heads, and the gross has been low, even for a documentary about something that is fairly esoteric. Directed by Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck, the film follows the nerve-wracking work of Steinway piano technician Stefan Knüpfer, as he fine-tunes his company's finest concert grand pianos for some of the best pianists in the world to play in the concert halls of Vienna. Like Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037, from 2007, it is something that anyone with a love of the piano must see.

Fortunately, for those who are not piano mavens, the film does not delve too far into the minutiae of what Knüpfer does. There are no technical explanations of the instrument's action and not too much focus on the many small tweaks and adjustments that the technician can make. What the film does trace is the interaction between Knüpfer and the pianists he works for, as well as the recording engineers and producers, sound technicians, and even piano movers -- the people behind the scenes who make great concerts and recordings happen. The main subject is the exacting search of Pierre-Laurent Aimard to find the right sounds for his rather wonderful recording of Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge. A work that is generally recognized to have been intended for the keyboard, it has gestures that suggest Bach had in mind at least references to or evocations of larger ensembles of instruments, and it is those various colors, or at least hints of them, that Aimard wants brought out in the piano he is playing. Anyone who enjoyed Aimard's recording or who loves to dissect the finest particles of sound will be captivated as Aimard goes in search of sounds, from a single piano, that evoke harpsichord, clavichord, organ, chamber music, and so on. To see Aimard's approach to the work made me appreciate the recording, and his live performance of the work, in a new light.

Other Reviews:

Washington Post | Boston Globe | San Francisco Chronicle | Seattle Times
Movie Review Intelligence

Knüpfer frets the most in his sessions with Aimard, fascinated from a scientific, technical point of view at how precisely the pianist hears every gradation of sound and feels it in the mechanism of the instrument. Knüpfer even makes a visit to hear some historical harpsichords and clavichords played by a specialist, recognizing his own deficit in that area as he tries to come up with the sound "families" that Aimard wants. This section of the movie makes so clear the difference between those small, intimate instruments and the wild beast that is the piano -- its method of producing sound so complicated, its tone so vast and ferocious, and its size so vast that it requires three strong people just to move it. All of the Steinways in the film are identified by three-digit numbers attached to them, and they are captioned by these monikers in the same way the artists are when they appear.

By contrast to Aimard, other pianists require less nuance once they have found the sound that pleases their ears: a bright tanginess for Lang Lang, an even smoothness top to bottom for Alfred Brendel (then in his final year of performing), a sense of magic for Julius Drake (shown rehearsing a Lied with tenor Ian Bostridge). Only the sensitive Austrian pianist Till Fellner, another Ionarts favorite who once referred to a local embassy's prize piano as firewood, comes close to Aimard's level of finicky meticulousness. Throughout, Knüpfer leavens the movie with his own gentle wit, even as he has to dash up and down stairs and call in favors to satisfy a pianist's demands (Aimard is not "neurotic," he insists, he is "specialized"). In one of the best moments, Knüpfer takes almost vicious delight in recounting the story of telling Aimard that the Steinway he played at a triumphant concert was to be sold, that he would never play it again. These moments of levity help brighten a film that could be overwhelmed by Knüpfer's own "specialized" obsessions, but he takes just as seriously an entirely different sort of work, as he helps keyboard clown Hyung-Ki Joo work up some new sketches for his Victor Borge-like piano comedy sketches.

In the Washington area, Pianomania is screening only at the E St. Cinema and only through this Thursday.


Phantasmorgastic, but with Shadows: FrOSch @ Salzburg — Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 16 )

Richard Strauss • Die Frau ohne Schatten

Richard Strauss’ intended masterpiece, Die Frau ohne Schatten, is hard to hail without acknowledging that it has weaknesses, too. Best and most tersely put by Paul Brekker after the 1919 premiere: “The opera suffers from that most dangerous of ailments: it’s boring. It drains the audience’s willpower to object, lulls him with euphony and melodies, dulls her with images and theatrical phantasmagoria. A mix made lethal by stretching it over three acts and eleven scenes.” But it’s also Christian Thielemann’s favorite Strauss work because, as he explains, “it has it all; the finely articulated structure and full-blooded build-ups, poetry and hysteria, and glorious harmonies. Elektra meets Ariadne.”

available at Amazon
R.Strauss, FrOSch,
K.Böhm / WPh / Rysanek, Hopf, Goltz, Schöffler, Höngen
Decca (stereo)

available at Amazon
R.Strauss, FrOSch,
K.Böhm / WPh / Rysanek, Hopf, Nilsson, Barry, Hesse
DG (live)

available at Amazon
R.Strauss, FrOSch,
W.Sawallisch / BRSO / Studer, Kollo, Vinzing, Schmidt, Schwarz
EMI (studio, uncut)

available at Amazon

R.Strauss, FrOSch,
W.Sawallisch / Bavarian State Orchestra / DeVol, Seiffert, Martin, Titus, Lipovsek
The Salzburg production of Die Frau ohne Schatten must be hailed, in any case, because musically (if not vocally) it was a stunning success thanks to Thielemann’s conducting; succulent and lean in turns, modern yet intransigently sumptuous. The staging by Christof Loy, in four words, was too clever by half… but at least it was clever and pretty to look at, too.

Die Frau ohne Schatten, tenderly nicknamed “Frosch” (Frog) by Strauss, is not performed very often because of the demands it makes on casting, scenery, and orchestra: It basically needs two top-notch dramatic sopranos of Wagnerian proportions, one Heldentenor, a dramatic mezzo and one Wotan-esque bass-baritone. And all—please—with a lyrical bent. It asks for over 150 instruments and almost as many musicians, and the stage direction would seem to demand on the spot floods and several instances of magic. It would be perfect for a film version of the opera, but sufficient to turn whole shocks of hair gray on directors trying to figure out how to stage the odd tale. One woman—the shadow-less empress—cannot bear children but wants to, in order to become truly human. Another would gladly give up her right (or ability) to bear children in exchange for the alleged liberty that comes with that. Their dramatically rather less relevant men are active bystanders. A Nurse, the Empress’ guardian—and creature of both worlds, the human world of the dyer Barak and his wife and the nether-realm of Emperor and Empress—is the catalyst and nefarious schemer. Strauss wanted to create an opera that was to the Magic Flute what he thought his Rosenkavalier was to Le Nozze di Figaro. The result is more of a Parsifal-themed Magic Flute… except that the works of Strauss (especially true when working with Hugo von Hofmannsthal) have an inextricably human, even bourgeois, element at their center, no matter how superficial magic is involved.

Reactionary—old fashioned, counter to our zeitgeist—might be the form of Die Frau ohne Schatten. But the expression itself, of the desire for love, marriage, and family as the nucleus of life, expressed not the least in childbearing, is not reactionary. It does not fit easily into a time dominated by narcissism and ‘self-actualization’—a time where children are deemed a burden or sacrifice, a manifestation of one’s own ego, or a territorial claim on a woman, an abdication of the fully lived life, rather than its noblest goal and fulfillment. But the desire itself is and will always remain a beautiful thing. Is that so hard to accept when staging this opera? The language of the catholic Hofmannsthal strikes 21st century ears as patronizing, no doubt, but it is merely old-fashioned yet well intentioned (like Barak himself)?

Christof Loy strips away the immediateness of the subject and introduces distance by going the route of opera-performance-within-opera-performance. He sets the story like someone who does not believe in the emotion that lies at the heart of Hofmannsthal’s nostalgia-laced text, except on a superficial level. He describes and circumnavigates the core without feeling or touching it. The narrative is tied to the first complete* recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten with Karl Böhm in the winter of 1955 for Decca. Set (anachronistically) in Vienna’s Sophiensaal, the space for many other very famous Decca opera productions in Vienna, it focuses on the stories of the performing singers (among them the ‘innocent’ newcomer Leonie Rysanek as the Empress and Elisabeth Höngen—a German star in the war-years (!) and a favorite of Karl Böhm as the manipulative nurse), and the analogies between their collegial relationships and the relationships of the characters in the libretto. Eventually (late in the first, early in the second Act) there occurs an overlap of interpreters and roles. The jealousies, desires, and fears of interpreter and role blend into an intractable whole. The singer of the role of Empress enters a new, strange world populated with already-famous, experienced colleagues. Stephen Gould alias Hans Hopf alias The Emperor is a nervous tenor who seeks isolation and records his difficult aria in a secluded session at night. The Dyer and Wife are married but estranged (Christel Goltz and Paul Schöffler of the unpaid, unheated 1955 recording sessions were definitely neither) and—as in the opera, so in this opera about the recording of the same opera—find together again during the ‘recording’ of Act III. In a long dream scene all the extras are replaced with identically dressed and groomed seven-year-old alter egos.

(Confusing might be that some elements of this, Loy’s production, would easily fit the story of Karl Böhm’s other, later performances and recordings in the late 70s: Birgit Nilsson as the blond ‘foreign’ singer (Empress Dyer's wife)… except no longer new or an outsider, and two protagonists—Walter Berry and Christa Ludwig—as a famous married singer-couple… except then already divorced and she singing the part of the Nurse, not the Dyer’s wife.)

A sense of general unease is conveyed terribly-terrifically, by the many supernumeraries that populate the set help create the unspoken tensions, and the gorgeously detailed set (Johannes Leiacker with Ursula Renzenbrink in charge of the costumes) is time-travel-inducing… down to the self-important 1950s secretary and groundskeeper. The specter of the Third Reich is clearly still hanging over the scene… and could he not, only a decade after 1945, with people like Böhm involved and taking place in the seedily anti-Semitic Vienna?! Anne Schwanewilms in her role as young-Rysanek/Empress moves about the set as if disconnected from the rest, observing and occasionally reacting. In line with the opera, she doesn’t really get going until act III, but then with minimal means to great effect. Her high notes were excellent, clean, penetrating, even as some of the murderous leaps fell short. But that’s peanuts in a live performance of this length and of such demands. Notable, though, that in one very small frequency band, stretching at the most a semi-tone in her lower mid-range, her vocal chords made worrisome noises, like a speaker’s busted and frayed tweeter fluttering and jittering.

Benefiting most from the fact that the performance was—on Thielemann’s insistence—uncut, is the Nurse whose role becomes the dramatic equivalent (and more) of the other four principals. Michaela Schuster, more stage-animal than a beautiful voice, jumped into the role head first and came out victorious—cajoling and oogling at her colleagues with an expressive face vaguely reminiscent of Stephen Fry’s. Dramatically it was a peak performance and any stridence appropriate given that her parts include the most modern music, reminiscent of Elektra or Salome or even Ortrud in Lohengrin.

The Emperor might be the least important of those five (even in the cut version), but he makes up lack of singing time and action with the difficulty of his parts. Stephen Gould performed admirably more than convincingly. Wolfgang Koch had more to do and did more with it; his bearish Barak plead believably for his idea of forgiveness, love, and family as something that spelled not servitude (as his wife first sees it; ditto Christof Loy) but a merging of two into one as an equitable partnership. The sacrifice of egoism yes, but not individuality. It’s mutual, tender, loving, even if the language to express it is archaic. His acting could have been better, though;

The emotions expressed by his Barak/Schöffler were not quite believable. In particular the rage and the relief felt staged, not lived. ‘Seething’ looks distinctly different than his hectic gesticulation, as do helplessly boiling over with anger and blood-rage. A lesson with Christian Gerhaher might prove the necessary treatment.

Evelyn Herlitzius, the Dyer’s wife, combined vocal prowess with dramatic skill in the best performance of the night. She gave much needed life to the frosty production, especially in the second act when musically and dramatically things really started to come together. The ears woke up, or perhaps the music, or the performers (the Vienna Philharmonic had, on this, the penultimate of seven performances, smeared a few too many delicate bits in the first act), or all three… in any case one got a more palpable sense of the acoustic awesomeness of the work and a tear or two may have moistened my cheek. Thielemann coaxed and received from an orchestra that eats out of the palm of his hand, neither afraid of underscoring the score’s modernity nor hesitant when it came to luxuriating and reveling in the sound. One felt at all times the audience’s sensitive for the achievements that are CT’s in the success of this work.

Die Frau ends, like most Strauss operas, on a note of distinct ambiguity. Although superficially everything is hunky-dory, with the couples extolling humanity and praising their babies-to-be, mild uncertainty creeps in through the cracks. The scene—“a beautiful landscape” says the libretto—was set apart from the recording session theme… now set a few weeks later at a Christmas gala concert with a boys choir (those future children!) present and the Empress lives through it as if it were still all-too surreal that she has made it into the upper echelon of continental opera stars—exiting to terribly contrived slow-motion applause. Clever, again. Just a little too clever.

Pictures courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Monika Rittershaus.

* “Complete” is relative. There are as of yet only two [thanks, musicologyman!] uncut studio recordings of Die Frau ohne Schatten, which are those of Wolfgang Sawallisch on EMI, with fewer famous names than many of the bootleg recordings out there, but altogether the best and best sounding of the bunch. Since Christian Thielemann’s performance was captured by ORF and Unitel, we can expect the DVD of the production to be the second uncut Frau on record.


Heather Raffo's New Libretto

See my preview of a free reading of a new opera libretto-in-progress, this evening at Georgetown:

Reading of New Libretto by Heather Raffo Tonight at Georgetown (The Washingtonian, August 29):

New York-based playwright and actress Heather Raffo came to international attention a few years ago with her award-winning one-woman play Nine Parts of Desire. For her latest project, Raffo is writing a libretto for a new opera to be premiered at City Opera Vancouver next year. As part of Raffo’s ongoing residency at Georgetown’s Department of Performing Arts, a group of Georgetown students, faculty, and guest artists will join Raffo in a public reading of the current form of the new libretto. This reading will not include the opera’s music, which is still being completed by Vancouver-based composer Tobin Stokes.

Over the weekend, Raffo told The Washingtonian about how she came to be writing her first opera libretto. “It was a stroke of luck,” she says. “ Nine Parts was being performed in Vancouver, and the president of the board at City Opera Vancouver saw the show. She thought I might be a right fit for this libretto, and they had been looking for a writer. So my name got thrown into the mix. Around the time that my son was being born last November, I got a call that I got the job.” She did not meet the composer until the first workshop for the opera in Vancouver. As reported earlier this year, the Annenberg Foundation awarded a $250,000 commissioning grant to City Opera Vancouver, to bring the chamber opera to the stage. [Continue reading]


In Brief: Hurricane Edition

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

  • available at Amazon
    Chant Grégorien d'Aquitaine,
    Schola Hungarica

    available at Amazon
    St. Elizabeth of Hungary: Two Medieval Offices, Schola Hungarica
    The news came from Budapest this week that Prof. László Dobszay, one of the giants in the field of Gregorian chant scholarship, has died at the age of 77. He was a specialist in central European folk song, in the tradition of Bartók, and he brought that approach to a primarily oral form of music to his equally thorough and valuable research in Gregorian chant, specializing in the manuscripts and melodic tradition of Hungary and central Europe. With David Hiley, Ruth Steiner (my mentor in graduate school), and others he founded the Cantus Planus study group, a collection of international chant scholars who met regularly and opened up the field of Gregorian chant research. He taught, since the 1970s, at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music, and among his many achievements was the publication of an enormous study of central European chant known as Corpus Antiphonalium Officii Ecclesiarum Centralis Europae (CAO-ECE). With his colleagues Benjamin Rajeczky and Janka Szendrei, Dobszay founded the Schola Hungarica, a choir of adults and, most strikingly, children devoted to the performance of Hungarian and other central European forms of chant. Their many recordings remain some of the most beautiful and most convincing interpretations of Gregorian chant ever made. How they ever taught children to sing Latin chant so well never fails to amaze me. [New Liturgical Movement]

  • Ride out the effects of the hurricane with some online listening: this week, the Sixteen sing Allegri and Les Talens Lyriques perform oratorios by Carissimi and Charpentier, both at the Utrecht Early Music Festival; David Fray plays Mozart's 25th piano concerto and Yefim Bronfman play's the Emperor concerto, both with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra; Adam Laloum plays a recital and soprano Julie Fuchs sings, both at the Festival de Chambord; the Ensemble Zefiro plays Baroque music at the Festival Itinéraire Baroque en Périgord Vert; Handel's Rinaldo with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from the Proms; the Zemlinsky Quartet from the Festival de Saintes. [France Musique]

  • In London David Fray plays the same Mozart concerto with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra; David Robertson leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Yo-Yo Ma playing a new cello concerto by Graham Fitkin and Christine Brewer in Beethoven's ninth symphony; Zubin Mehta with the Israel Philharmonic; the Budapest Festival Orchestra; the BBC Singers in Tavener and Gubaidulina; an organ recital by Thierry Escaich; and Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. [BBC Proms]

  • In online video, concerts from the Festival international de musique classique à Annecy all this week -- including performances by Renaud Capuçon, Valery Gergiev, the Apollon Musagète Quartet, and Denis Matsuev. []

  • Oh, yes, and someone named Irene came to visit yesterday, and she was not a pleasant guest. Winds took down a large tree in front of a neighbor's house: miraculously, it fell across the street and did not hit anything or anyone. Just as miraculously, the dead tree that has been darkening our doorstep for months lost some branches but somehow remained standing. Everyone at Ionarts Central is safe, we still have power after a harrowing night, but headquarters did sustain some heavy water damage overnight, after some bad wind gusts took off a section of our roof (and those of our two neighbors). As a result, transmissions from Washington will likely be affected this week, but you should be able to enjoy more reports from Salzburg. [Capital Weather Gang]


Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 15 )

Chamber Concert • Beethoven, Ives

I still remember my first encounter with the Zehetmair Quartet: A cold January Sunday in 2003 at the National Gallery of Art, performing moving Schumann, strong Bartók, and exceptional Cage during which I sat up like electrified. Then as now the Quartet (Thomas Zehetmair, Kuba Jakowicz, Ruth Killius, Ursula Smith) perform their repertoire from memory… one of the exceptions where even I can appreciate the act of playing without a score. Not for the circus-trick element involved, but because it signifies an internalization of—and dedication to—the material that, for a quartet, is truly extra-ordinary.

The program at the Grand Hall of the Mozarteum on Monday, August 15th, with Beethoven’s late string quartets opp.131 in c-sharp minor and 135 in F, looked good, especially as the two works were bridged by a performance of Charles Ive’s Concord Sonata played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The Ives fulfilled its promise, the Zehetmair Quartet strangely not. The opening of op.131 hesitant, made it difficult for the ears to follow the line. Dynamic differentiation was kept to a minimum until the end of the first movement and, most surprising, intonation and entries were rarely clean. There’s always the question of whether one might mistake some curious interpretive choice for a bad performance, merely because it does not accord one’s own expectations… But by the time of the third movement I felt fairly safe in ruling that out. This just about above-average performance (to the extent one hears op.131 often enough in concert to establish a meaningful ‘average’) was considerably less than I had hoped for.

available at Amazon
C.Ives, "Concord" Sonata & Songs,
P-L.Aimard et al.

What to write about the Concord Sonata, this bold and terrific work; massive and challenging as Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (and referencing it, too)? There are too many facets, ups, downs, lefts and rights in it to list them all and still be meaningful. Hearing is where it’s at. (More about the Concord Sonata on ionarts here.) Playing it is certainly a full-contact sport, involving all of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s body in the first movement—which the French pianist mastered with brawny excellence. Positively indulgent, actually. That first movement, “Emerson”, was smooth as pebbles and weighty as boulders with a Steinway stress-test thrown into the bargain. The sonata can be—and was—completely mesmerizing before bubbling away into marches and Yankee-doodling. Are the ‘serious’ bits in sent-up by the trivial or are they a send-up of the listener and his ideas of the serious? Whatever the case, one scarcely stops marveling at all the things happening before it’s over.

After the second intermission back came the Zehetmairs with op.135. The primarius was harsh in his attacks, strident at the expense of accuracy, and certainly sparse with any semblance of beauty. Hushed pianissimos were hesitant, quick and loud accents ugly. In late Beethoven, at least the latter may well be intent and the first three movements were in any case considerably better performed than op.131. The result was befuddlement on my part: Was I meant to hear it like this; meant to endure it for some higher artistic purpose I could not perceive? The encore, the second movement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet (due to the amiable desire of “we wanted to play something all-together”), suggested it was just an off-night; all the extensive preliminary tuning didn’t help to get this to sound right, either. Not that it could dim the evening’s joy the Ives Sonata had brought.

À mon chevet: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
The bell rang. Ron and Hermione led the way to History of Magic, bickering. History of Magic was the dullest subject on their schedule. Professor Binns, who taught it, was their only ghost teacher, and the most exciting thing that ever happened in his classes was his entering the room through the blackboard. Ancient and shriveled, many people said he hadn't noticed he was dead. He had simply got up to teach one day and left his body behind him in an armchair in front of the staff room fire; his routine had not varied in the slightest since.

Today was as boring as ever. Professor Binns opened his notes and began to read in a flat drone like an old vacuum cleaner until nearly everyone in the class was in a deep stupor, occasionally coming to long enough to copy down a name or date, then falling asleep again. He had been speaking for half an hour when something happened that had never happened before. Hermione put up her hand.

Professor Binns, glancing up in the middle of a deadly dull lecture on the International Warlock Convention of 1289, looked amazed.

"Miss -- er -- ?"

"Granger, Professor. I was wondering if you could tell us anything about the Chamber of Secrets," said Hermione in a clear voice. [...] Professor Binns blinked.

"My subject is History of Magic," he said in his dry, wheezy voice. "I deal with facts, Miss Granger, not myths and legends." He cleared his throat with a small noise like chalk snapping and continued, "In September of that year, a subcommittee of Sardinian sorcerers ..."

-- J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, pp. 148-49
As someone who teaches music history I could not help but take note of this portrait of the dusty, boring history lecturer: theater students dread theater history, art students dread art history, and music students dread music history, just as students of magic dread the History of Magic. The mean-spirited depiction cuts to the quick: the droning voice, reading from the same notes, so old and calcified that he did not even notice that he died, simply continuing to read from his note year to year as if nothing had happened. Plenty of stereotypes to be careful to avoid in class!


Wolf Trap Opera Turns 40

See my review of the 40th anniversary gala concert for Wolf Trap Opera in The Washingtonian:

Wolf Trap Opera Turned 40, August 26:

Each summer the Wolf Trap Opera Company stages high-quality productions of major operas for its cadre of young singers. Over the years, the best of these apprentice vocalists have gone on to important careers, which is one of the best parts of attending their performances: to see and hear great talent in the making. Wolf Trap Opera took stock of its 40-year history on Wednesday night, with a gala concert of opera’s greatest hits, pairing some of this year’s new talent with some of the best who got their start in America’s National Park for the Performing Arts. Like most events of this type, it had some memorable moments among others that were less so, and it ran too long with speeches, mostly entertaining but too many in number. (At least at an awards dinner, they serve you food and wine.) If two of the scheduled singers, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and tenor Carl Tanner, had not canceled, it would have gone on even longer than three hours.

At the top of the roster was tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who brought the house down with a gutsy rendition of “Ah, mes amis!” from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, those famous nine high Cs all on pitch and laser-focused. He also paired off with baritone Richard Paul Fink, heard earlier this summer as an impressive Wozzeck at Santa Fe Opera, in the famous duet from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, “Au fond du temple saint.” Bass-baritone Alan Held was a brooding, granite-solid Wotan leading the gods into Valhalla (from the end of Wagner’s Das Rheingold), as well as a charming Leporello in the catalogue aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, played with an iPad highlighting 1003, the number of the Don’s conquests in Spain. Held’s Scarpia in next month’s Tosca, at Washington National Opera, will certainly be worth hearing, as will -- if the planets align correctly -- the return of his Wotan in WNO’s first complete Ring cycle. [Continue reading]
Anne Midgette, At Wolf Trap Opera gala, enough star wattage to power operahouse 40 more years (Washington Post, August 26)

Susan Dormady Eisenberg, As Wolf Trap Opera Marks 40th Year, 14 Star Alumni to Return for Benefit Concert (Huffington Post, August 16)

Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 12 )

Camerata 1 • Mahler Scenes 8

Picking my program for Salzburg, the first of the Camerata Salzburg concerts with Kent Nagano and Maria João Pires was one of the two, three most immediate choices. With Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Fourth Symphony and Mozart’s last Piano Concerto (K.595 in B-flat) as the main ingredients, it virtually selected itself. When the—presumably sole—opportunity presented itself to attend the Riccardo Muti / Peter Stein Macbeth the same day, I faced a dilemma. Attend the show that was the hottest ticket of the summer, or go with where my heart was, musically? Even before I knew that I would get to attend an earlier performance of Macbeth after all (review here), I opted for Nagano-Hartmann-Pires-Mozart. If I figured after attending Macbeth that it was the right choice; I knew after the Camerata Salzburg concert that there isn’t any Macbeth I wouldn’t have missed this concert for, and gladly.

It started with Ives’ Unanswered Question, a work impossible not to be moving. The space of the Mozarteum’s Grand Concert Hall had the solemn strings sit on stage, not outside, and the four answering woodwinds segregated to the back. The questioning trumpet went around the outside of the hall, from door to door, until it didn’t get an answer to its seventh question.

Elephant Graveyard of String Quartets

available at Amazon
K.A.Hartmann, Symphony No.4, Cto.Funebre et al.,
Poppen / Munich CO / I.Faust, Petersen Q4t et al.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Fourth Symphony for String Orchestra sounds like the place where string quartets go to die. Its opening is instantly reminiscent of the opening of the Mahler 10th Symphony, but without the immediate bleeding-heart eruption that Mahler places after the reoccurring string laments. Instead the climax builds slowly, the textures are sparse and haunting, like an overwhelming, oversized string quartet for orchestra. The language is that of the post-romantic tonality that saw itself squeezed out of the Western classical repertoire—courtesy of the post war embrace of the avant-garde and complexity. The angular aspect of Hartmann’s music comes out in the second movement, rhythmically compelling like a Bartók quartet. Dark and narrative, like a walk through the scary forests of German fairy tales.

Ruined to fame by Bernstein & Visconti

Mahler’s Adagietto was performed as a prelude to the Mozart Concerto, with Pires already sitting at the piano which gives a visual clue to how piano-like the rising harp figures are. Ruined to fame by Visconti and Bernstein, the Adagietto has become clad forever in the garb of mourning, associated with the solemn steps along the hearse. It was played like that—lingeringly, funereal—too, but ‘my Gawd’: how gorgeous that can be, at least or especially outside the context of the whole symphony. That’s not what the Adagietto is really about, but it worked well enough in this case, and taking it virtually attacca from the movement’s key of F into the B-flat (subdominant) of K.595, was a gimmick—yes, but one that worked very well, indeed.

Subject to the Swansong Industry

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, PCs nos. 20 & 27,
M-J.Pires / A.Jordan / Lausanne CO

It also gave the wistful air of hindsight to the Piano Concerto—Mozart’s last, as if it were the softly singing announcement of the composer’s leave-taking. Pires hits just the right (pardon) note between matter-of-factly playing (I love[d] Alicia de Larrocha for that) and unbleeding sentimentality: Classical restraint and a romantic-sensitive touch—to employ these wonderful, useful clichés—in tasteful, unmannered union. Her dynamic range roughly starts at mezzo-piano and ends at mezzo-forte, but her even, round tone is so sublime that it can make even constant mf sound sexy. It perfectly capped a concert that left one back into the busy post-performances streets of Salzburg with a feeling of gratification and elation. Ideal, in short.


Amateur Musicians Still Going Strong

See my preview of the September 11 concert by the World Doctors Orchestra for The Washingtonian:

The World Doctors Orchestra September 11th Concert, August 25):

The phenomenon of amateurs making music is not limited to the piano. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra had a huge success last year with its Rusty Musicians program, giving amateur orchestral musicians a chance to play with the professionals. The latest group of BSO amateurs will take the stage at Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, side by side with BSO players and under the baton of Marin Alsop, on September 20. The concert is free, if you want to dream about making it into the next class of Rusty Musicians. The YouTube Symphony Orchestra brought together orchestral players from around the world for a concert at Carnegie Hall in 2009 and another one at the Sydney Opera House last March. The latter performance was reportedly the most-watched live concert event on the Internet.

Another group of amateur orchestral musicians, the World Doctors Orchestra, brings together physicians from around the world who are all avid classical musicians. A variable roster of musicians gathers in a city to perform a concert, with the proceeds going to benefit a charitable cause. After previous concerts in Berlin, Cleveland, Yerevan, and Taipei, the ensemble will converge on the Washington area this fall, to perform a concert on September 11, in the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda. The WDO claims that its mission is “to raise awareness that healthcare is a basic human right and a precondition for human development and productivity.” In keeping with that goal, the September 11 concert will raise funds for Whitman-Walker Health and “is also a remembrance of 9/11 and a plea for peaceful solutions to world problems.” [Continue reading]

Rott'n'Roll: Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 14 )

Guest Orchestra • ORF RSO Vienna

With Berg on the program (ditto Webern or Schoenberg), ticket sales recede noticeably, predictably. In Salzburg just as anywhere else. When the composer/work that is coupled with Berg (in this case the Violin Concerto) is so completely unknown to audiences as Hans Rott’s Symphony in E, then it is almost surprising to find the Felsenreitschule (1400 seats) at about 95% capacity with only a few lacunae among the seats and “Looking for [cheap] Ticket” signs before its doors, roughly in balance with the “[expensive] Ticket to sell” signs. Reason to stay away for some, reason to attend for others; for me the combination of Rott and Berg spelled out a great concert! Unfortunately it didn’t guarantee a great performance.

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HRott, Sy. no.1,
S.Weigle / Munich RSO
Arte Nova

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A.Berg, Violin Concerto,
A.Steinbacher / A.Nelsons / WDR SO

The ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by its young (1980-born) Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Cornelius Meister (also Music Director of the Heidelberg Philharmonic and Opera), performed Berg’s Violin Concerto with Patricia Kopatchinskaja first. He started out with a warm and romantic, confident opening – Kopatchinskaja with a rough, darkly hollow tone in tow. Joyously swaying and bopping along the rhythms, she never descended to pianissimo and or gave that silvery-ethereal tone to the concerto that it is often endowed with. Whether it was that or not, something was missing from the performance; after the notably earthy, terrific start it petered out and offered two movements of well-intentioned tedium.

Hans Rott’s Symphony comes with a great story about which I have written before (for WETA’s now defunct column, and in an upcoming issue of LISTEN Magazine). It’s a grand work, not a great one. It’s flawed, but comprises an absolutely loveable smorgasbord of ideas, and most of them beautifully welded together. If romantic music is up your ally, and a hint of naïve pomposity doesn’t scare you, Hans Rott’s symphony is one you must hear. There are lots of Wagnerian bits, there’s some Schumann, here we go Bruckner, and whoa, Brahms! No wonder the already famous composer wasn’t amused when Rott showed him the audacious work: Rather than being flattered to find himself musically united in a work with these other composers, Brahms probably perceived the final movement of Rott’s symphony—with its more than explicit reference to the finale of his First—as making fun of him.

The ambitious but short (8 minutes, “Alla breve”) first movement, announced with an exposed trumpet solo, received (rightly) spontaneous applause which was of course quickly quelled by the Vigilant Applause Police. It nearly brought tears to my eyes when I imagined how Hans Rott, who—distraught, impoverished, confused—committed suicide at age 26, might have responded to such expression of public approval for his work. The ORF RSO, which recorded the Symphony on the cpo label under Dennis Russell Davis a decade ago, added a terrifically moving Adagio, even as the strings where still clumsy under Meister’s ambiguous, erratically waving direction. The triangle, popping up in some 600 (out of 1500) bars, was only partly reigned in, which added an occasional element of stuck doorbell. The expansive Scherzo and “Very slow – Lively” finale didn’t appear well rehearsed, but no sloppiness could steal the thunder of Hans Rott entirely, helping the composer, if not the performers, to a considerable success. Certainly not a great performance, but still almost a great concert.