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Classical Music Agenda: March 2012

March is an outrageously busy month for classical music here in Washington. To whittle the monthly picks down to the maximum limit of ten took considerable effort, but here it is, our top picks for the month of March. For the full calendar for March, follow the link at the bottom of the page: it will run through the sidebar, too.

The last time we had the chance to hear the Jerusalem String Quartet, it was at an ill-fated concert at the Library of Congress (we missed their last visit, to JCCGW in Rockville, in 2009). The group's performances for the Israel Defense Forces, when they are back in Israel, have been blamed for protests at this and other concerts. Please leave your politics at the door for their upcoming performance in the Barns at Wolf Trap, and just enjoy their Debussy, Beethoven, and especially Shostakovich. March 2, 8 pm. Tickets: $35.

Steven Osborne has made a series of fine recordings for Hyperion, all of them worth listening to, and the Scottish pianist returns to the area for a solo recital for the first time since 2005. In a concert at the Phillips Collection, one of the most intimate spaces for music in the city, he will play music by Beethoven, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff. March 11, 4 pm. Tickets: $20.

We always advise being in the house for the biennial visit of pianist Murray Perahia, last here in 2009. Washington Performing Arts Society will present him again in the Music Center at Strathmore, playing music by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Chopin, much the same kind of assortment he has played on his recent visits. March 18, 4 pm. Tickets: $35 to $85.

The highlights of the Kennedy Center's Music of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna Festival are mostly the concerts involving singing. Washington National Opera kicked off the festival on Saturday with an underwhelming production of Così fan tutte, but it continues next week with a performance of Schubert's icy song cycle Winterreise, performed by baritone Matthias Goerne with Christoph Eschenbach at the piano, in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. March 5, 7:30 pm. Tickets: SOLD OUT.

Among many alluring festival concerts from the National Symphony Orchestra, we most recommend hearing Matthias Goerne with the blazing mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, in a concert performance of Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle paired with the suite from The Miraculous Mandarin. March 8 and 10, Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets: $20 to $85.

Pair that with the NSO's performance of Dvořák's setting of the Stabat mater, with a fine quartet of soloists: Anne Schwanewilms, Nathalie Stutzmann, Steve Davislim, and Robert Holl. This rounds out quite a list of singers you do not want to miss this month, all thanks to the programming of Christoph Eschenbach. March 22 and 24, Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets: $20 to $85.

Our first pick in the pre-1800 division goes to a local ensemble, the Washington Bach Consort. The group's Tuesday noontime cantata series is one of the best free concert opportunities in the city. This month take in Bach's Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23, with other music played by harpsichordist Joseph Gascho, at the Church of the Epiphany downtown. March 6, 12:10 pm. Tickets: FREE. On the instrumental side, we also recommend their performance of Die Kunst der Fugue, BWV 1080, which will reportedly feature string ensemble, harpsichord, and organ in various combinations. March 25, National Presbyterian Church. Tickets: $23 to $65.

Another tip of our historically informed hat to a visiting ensemble, the always diverting L'Arpeggiata, directed by Christina Pluhar. They will bring their Tarantella program, with singer Lucilla Galeazzi, to the Library of Congress. You can reserve tickets through Ticketmaster, for the usual fees, or take your chances and show up early to wait on line for an unclaimed seat. March 19, 8 pm. Tickets: FREE.

In the category of unusual, we recommend the performance of Samuel Beckett's short play Ohio Impromptu, to be followed by the Cygnus Ensemble performing music by Dina Koston (inspired by the Beckett play) and others, at the Library of Congress. March 7, 8 pm. Tickets: FREE.

Equally unusual, the New York-based puppeteer Basil Twist, known for choreographing his performances to music, will be in the area this month, for what is being billed as the Twist Festival D.C. (continuing next month at other venues). First, he will be performing his puppet version of Stravinsky's Petrushka, at the Shakespeare Theater Company. Petrushka, of course, is about the inner lives of puppets in a Shrovetide Fair show, so to bring the story to life through puppets was a natural choice. The music includes Stravinsky's Sonata for Two Pianos, used as a sort of introduction, and the score of Petrushka, in a special arrangement for two pianos. March 16 to 25, Lansbergh Theater. Tickets: $22.50 to $50. After that, Twist will give three performances of his notorious choreography of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, in which the puppeteers mostly perform in an enormous water tank on the stage. Twist brings this unusual production to the campus of the University of Maryland in College Park, with music provided in a transcription by pianist Christopher O'Riley. March 29 to 31, Clarice Smith Center. Tickets: $45.

See the full concert calendar for the month of March.

Happy 53rd Birthday, Rossini

Fifty-three is no age for a composer and so it is little wonder that Rossini - or at least his music - is alive and well. Born on February 29th, 1792, Gioachino Antonio Rossini soon discovered a penchant and talent in culinary appreciation as well as note-churning. The latter he put to use for the creation of almost 40 operas, the former to support his stately appearance.

So much has been written about Rossini, that I would not likely contribute anything new on this special Rossini-day - so instead I list below all that has been written about Rossini on Ionarts over the last few years.

Except, before I do that, I still want to rehash some reasonably well known stories about Rossini, just because they are too good to pass up on - and because they endear the composer to me, if not always his music.

There is, of course, the story that when Rossini laid on bed composing and he dropped a sheet of freshly written music, rather than making the effort to climb off the bed and pick it up, he simply wrote the music out, again. Consider this - and that tiny little Rossini's daycare consisted of a pork butchery, where he got to watch the production of sausages - and listen to his music carefully...

The most enduring story about Rossini may well be his admission to having cried only three times in his life: Once after his first opera (La cambiale di matrimonio) had a disastrous premiere. Then again when he heard Paganini play. And finally when he witnessed a truffle-stuffed turkey fall overboard in a picnic boating accident. (Sharp tongues might point out that Rossini would have known all about turkeys, but that's just not a nice thing to say on such a rare birthday.)

Rossini on ionarts:

Briefly Noted: Julia Lezhneva

CD Review, Rossini Arias
CTD, October 6th, 2011

Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 9 )

Concert Review, Stabat Mater
jfl, August 15th, 2011

8½ Turks in Italy at Wolf Trap Opera

Opera Review, Il Turco...
CTD, July 14th, 2010

'Cinderella' Not a Dream Come True

Opera Review
Sophia Vastek, September 28th, 2009

'Barber of Seville' as Cartoon, and Not with Bugs Bunny

Opera Review
CTD, September 15th, 2009

Wall of Horns (Munich Opera Festival 2008)

Concert Review, Works for Horn Octet
jfl, August 19th, 2008

Washington Concert Opera: Bianca e Falliero

Opera Review
CTD, April 15th, 2008

Opera on DVD: Il Viaggio a Reims

DVD Review
CTD, November 27th, 2007

Ionarts in Siena: Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia

Rossini's Otello, Washington Concert Opera

Sonya Harway, May 1st, 2007

Flórez's Breakthrough

Two Comedies of Errors

Il Viaggio a Reims, Kirov Opera, Kennedy Center, Washington

Siege of Baltimore

L'Assedio di Corinta, Baltimore Lyric Opera
CTD, October 16th, 2006

Frolics and Frippery: A Roll in the Hay with Rossini

Le Comte Ory, Wolftrap
Richard K. Fitzgerarld, July 22nd, 2006

Summer Opera 2006: "Barber of Seville" in St. Louis

Il Viaggio a St. Petersburg

Il Viaggio a Reims, Kirov Opera, Mariinksy Theater, St.Petersburg
Oksana Khadarina, May 30th, 2006

Let's Do Silly Things in Algeria

Tancredi: Sounds Good

Summer Opera: La Cenerentola at Wolf Trap

La Cenerentola, Wolf Trap
CTD, August 21st, 2005

Summer Opera: Barber of Seville in Santa Fe

Even Google celebrates Rossini today:


Ionarts-at-Large: BBC Symphony Orchestra

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from Barbican Hall in London.

Friday, February 24th, the BBC Symphony Orchestra presented an enticing program of early 20th-century music from northern climes at the Barbican , with Kirill Karabits conducting. This included the Sibelius Symphony No. 4, the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1, and Stravinsky's Petrushka.

Karabits took a slow, deliberate approach to the Sibelius. The deep, dark, rich strings opened with great warmth, layered in beautifully, until the chill of the brass finely cut across the velvety texture. Karabits’ leisurely pace allowed for maximum clarity without stasis. This symphony is noted for its bleakness, but this interpretation more warmed the heart than it chilled the spine. Sibelius is usually focused on the mysteries of nature; this performance was closer to the mysteries of the heart.

available at Amazon
J.Sibelius, Symphonies 4 & 5,
H.v.Karajan / BPh

I have experienced the Fourth Symphony with more drama and eeriness (though the drama was in no way stinted in the final movement), but this was a very satisfying way to hear this sometimes enigmatic, but never less than intriguing music – in which Sibelius ends two of the four movements in media res; it stops rather than ends. In his debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Karabits showed that he was very much in control and could accomplish anything he wished with the very responsive orchestra. The clarity he achieved would have been undermined by anything less than first class playing that he received.

From the meditative Sibelius, Karabits moved to the snap and crackle of the Prokofiev Concerto No.1, aided by the wildly percussive and charmingly lyrical pianism of Khatia Buniatishvili. Together, they played with verve, humor, and panache. The finale was particularly exhilarating. Buniatishvili rewarded the audience’s ovation with a stunningly well executed encore of the finale of Prokofiev’s 7th Piano Sonata.

Karabits’ talent for detail was abundantly evident again in Petrushka, which was given a viscerally exciting, rhythmically razor-sharp performance. The conductor had the BBC Symphony Orchestra turning on a pin. However, this was more than a tour de force. As Robert Craft once said, "Stravinsky is the composer of joy. His music is joyful, whether it is the Symphony of Psalms or something else." Karabits and the BBC players brilliantly captured that joy.

I did not learn until after the performance that this was Karabits’ first appearance with the BBCSO. Not his last, I reckon. RRR

Holy German Art: Katharina Wagner's Meistersinger

Lustily booed at its 2007 premiere in Bayreuth, Katharina Wagner’s production of Die Meistersinger gave instant rise to polemics and controversy. Very aptly Bayreuthean, that. Detractors find it is, at best, a great cast wasted on an absurd production. It’s not an absurd production, though. It’s just too darn clever and with many superficial distractions that torpedo the traditional expectations which, in this work more than any Wagner opera, are very much implanted in audiences.

This was Katharina’s ‘trial shot’ before taking over Bayreuth with her elder step-sister. It might have been accidentally ingenious, but more likely it was a brilliant statement, folded inside the Meistersinger-story with the finesse of an expert origamist. At the very least it’s jolly good theater, now viewable on the Opus Arte DVD of the 2008 performance.

available at Amazon
Wagner, Meistersinger, Kubelik / BRSO
(Arts Music, ’67)

available at Amazon
Wagner, Meistersinger, Sawallisch / BStOp
(EMI, ’93)

available at Amazon
Wagner, Meistersinger, Böhm / Bayreuth Festival
(Orfeo, ’68)

available at Amazon
Wagner, Meistersinger, Karajan / Dresden StKap.
(EMI, ’70)
Choosing Wagner’s ‘light comedy’—a work about “holy German art”, about tradition for its own sake, about revolting against tradition, about renovating it, and finally adapting to it—means this production is chock-full of analogies that play into the story of Katharina Wagner’s own Bayreuth ascension: A balancing act between preserving a tradition (not to say cult), and—Wagner’s last dictum—creating new things.

Die Meistersinger is by far the most difficult opera to update – because it is much more literal and concrete than Wagner’s other works. No monsters, gods, or myths that can be transformed at will to represent abstract ideas in other shapes. The story of Sachs & Co. takes place in a very identifiable Nuremberg, with very real people and every-day props. The options are limited. A dwarf-raised hero may smith his sword any which way he wants to, but a medieval cobbler must always fix a shoe with his little hammer. No?

Miss Wagner can do without hammers. A typewriter serves the purpose here—one of the many superficial changes in the production. Just like the Mastersingers themselves don’t just sing but paint and play instruments. Gesamtkunstwerk is the word. She slowly twists the story around just enough that by the third act Walther von Stolzing has turned from hero and rebel to eager conformist. Sachs, from open minded liberal to staunch conservative. And Beckmesser, most interestingly, from pedantic traditionalist to free-spirited artist.

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Pelleas et Melisande,
S.Weiger / Bayreuth Festival Orchestra,
Vogt, Hawlata, Volle et al.,
Opus Arte Blu-ray

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Pelleas et Melisande,
S.Weiger / Bayreuth Festival Orchestra,
Vogt, Hawlata, Volle et al.,
Opus Arte DVD

For an opera that criticizes overt adherence to structure and tradition over that which is publicly appreciated (rules are still important, mind you!), in a time where Wagner’s music itself is no longer that which is ‘popular’ but part of a traditional structure, this twist undoes an ironic historical knot in the plot. And that converts end up more radical than the orthodox, once ‘admitted’ into that realm they desired access to, is a point so true, it need not be new to be timely.

If the message of Die Meistersinger is that tradition must yield to reform to remain ‘living tradition’, Katharina Wagner’s switching the characters around might seem like she’s messing about with the essence of the story. But it’s not like that: In the opera tradition yields—most unwillingly—to innovation, even reform. But that innovation is immediately canonized, the former rebel joins the ranks of the flame keepers, with the intermittently liberal Sachs their new leader. (A turn induced by the brawl in Act 2 which puts the ‘fear of God’ back into the man.) It’s all in the libretto—and the music. The C-major orgy of the third act is not coincidentally less innovative than the first act’s modulations. The cycle of tradition and innovation begins anew – and this time Stolzing might be Beckmesser. And once he is older and resigned to old age, he might have a Sachs-phase where he benevolently remembers his youth and its exploits.

What Katharina Wagner aims at is the all-too-quick conversion from rebel to reactionary. That does not attack the idea that tradition needs to be open to reform, but rather the danger of the original reformers becoming precisely those who try to block all future reform that is equally necessary to keep things alive. Would it be giving Katharina Wagner too much credit to suggest she knew exactly why she chose the Meistersinger as her “Meisterlied” to gain access to the temple in which the elder jealously held sway over that holy Wagnerian art?

With principles Franz Hawlata (Sachs), Klaus Florian Vogt (Stolzing—as always a controversial voice, but simply ingeniously cast in all of Wagner’s ‘outsider’ roles: Erik, Lohengrin, this one…), Michael Volle (Beckmesser) and a superb rest of a cast (the 2007 weak spot, Amanda Mace’s Eva, is replaced by Michaela Kaune), this Meistersinger is musically top notch—alongside Kubelik, Sawallisch, and [yes!] Goodall.

Photos courtesy of the Bayreuth Festival, © Elisabeth von Pölnitz-Eisfeld.

Jonah Kim @ Phillips

Style masthead

Charles T. Downey, Jonah Kim’s musical pedigree for naught in awkward Phillips Collection concert
Washington Post, February 28, 2012

available at Amazon
Cellist Jonah Kim has an impeccable musical pedigree: child prodigy, discovered by Janos Starker, studies at the Curtis Institute of Music, early success as a soloist with major orchestras. In a Sunday afternoon concert at the Phillips Collection, he showed plenty of ability to wring a tune from his instrument, but without some complementary skills in programming and interpretation, it is all for naught.

The first half of this recital was like one of those “Most Relaxing Classical Adagio” compilations: a series of musical confections usually performed as encores. Although three of David Popper’s schmaltzy miniatures and arrangements of Gabriel Faure’s song “Apres un reve” and one of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” should have been enough, the glucose level passed into dangerous territory with a vulgar version of Remo Giazotto’s infamous “Adagio,” passed off as the work of Tomaso Albinoni. Kim played it all with clean intonation and a rich, impassioned tone, high-octane because of an intense vibrato. Kim’s spontaneous introduction, the prelude from Bach’s cello suite in G, seemed to be an admission that the program was a little heavy on the sweets. [Continue reading]
Jonah Kim (cello) and Hanchien Lee (piano)
Phillips Collection

Anne Midgette, Cellist Jonah Kim at Terrace Theater (Washington Post, November 9, 2010)


Wagner on Record – The Mastersingers

available at AmazonR.Wagner, The Mastersingers,
R.Goodall / Sadler’s Wells Opera / Soloists
Stereotypes exist because they relate to some reality, even if they lack nuance, tact, and are misleading when we fail to distinguish between sweeping claims and individual instances.

Applied to musicians they can attain a life of their own, especially the negative ones coloring our perceptions before we’ve even heard the artist in question. Maurizio Pollini is a “cold” pianist, Lang Lang shallow, Pierre Boulez an ‘analytical’, fast, and emotionless conductor, Hans Knappertsbusch invariably slow, Herbert von Karajan slick and polished.

Of course Pollini can be coolly technical on some recordings. But he’s just as likely involving and dazzling in concert. Boulez conducts Wagner slower than Sawallisch or Kraus, and some of his Mahler recordings are among the most charged and fervent. Even Karajan occasionally allowed for grit and Lang Lang has delivered concerts and recordings that go well beyond the notes and sheer facility.

available at Amazon
Wagner, Meistersinger, Kubelik / BRSO / T.Stewart, S.Konya, G.Janowitz, B.Fassbaender et al.
(Arts Music, ’67)

available at Amazon
Wagner, Meistersinger, Sawallisch / Bavarian State Orchestra /B.Weikl, B.Heppner, C.Studer, C.Kallisch et al.
(EMI, ’93)

available at Amazon
Wagner, Meistersinger, Böhm/ Bayreuth Festival / T.Adam, W.Kmentt, G.Jones, J.Martin et al. (Orfeo, ’68)

available at Amazon
Wagner, Meistersinger, Karajan / Dresden StKap. / T.Adam, R.Kollo,
H.Donath, R.Hesse et al. (EMI, ’70)
The stereotype about Sir Reginald Goodall, the very English conductor of German repertoire, is that he is very, very slow. Judging only from his recordings, this is not just a stereotype, it’s the plain truth. His Mastersingers performance, thanks to the Sir Peter Moores Foundation now for the first time available on CD, starts with an in-cred-i-bly slow overture. From there, these Mastersingers (just minutes shy of five hours!) proceed slowly generally, sometimes to wonderful effect, sometimes without the slothfulness being bothersome, and sometimes making matters garrulous. But there are also surprisingly lively moments in between – or are they perhaps just moments of normal tempos that seem lively amid the rest?

There are plenty stage noises in this live recording from 1968, but not too intrusive to disturb. A little disturbing is the applause after the quintet (because the curtain went down) – which is then belatedly hissed down. What makes this set interesting to Wagnerians even outside English-speaking countries are the fine voices so well caught, even if the sound quality isn’t great (a touch muffled, for one). Goodall had an eye and ear for promising young British singers – and he championed them through his entire career. The cast he assembled for the Mastersingers is one of young, yet old-fashioned sounding singers. If you compare to another live recording from the same year, Karl Böhm’s Bayreuth with Waldemar Kmentt (Orfeo), Theo Adam, and Gwyneth Jones (on average a few years older than their British colleagues), you will find the latter present a much more modern style of Wagner-singing.

But old-fashioned doesn’t mean ‘bad’ at all, and Norman Bailey (Sachs), Derek Hammond-Stroud (Beckmesser), Alberto Remedios (Stolzing), Margaret Curphey (Eva), and Gregory Dempsey (David) make for a terrific ensemble of strong, carefully enunciating voices superior to many in more famous recordings. It culminates in the very nice and nicely recorded nightwatchman of Stafford Dean. He’s got a terrific voice and sings most melodiously.

“Die Meistersinger” in English works—as does the Ring—surprisingly well. (Since I’ve heard and liked the Ring, I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me.) It’s easier to understand—even for native German speakers—than most recordings in German are. Not only does English lend itself curiously well to Wagner, the pronunciation and diction of each cast member is impeccable. The translation (Frederick Jameson, revised by Norman Feasey and Gordon Kember) is terrific and has only two, three moments that compare poorly with the original to these ears.

The stage-action during the Volksfest is a hoot, a boisterous and raucous affair, realistic to the point of challenging the music. It’s excellently done: from the midst of noisy carousing arises the choir – and the exclamations of “Silentium!” really make dramatic sense. It’s a choir very charmingly engaged with all they’ve got, including early entries and all.

Goodall, Mastersingers, Act III, Entrance of the Mastersingers (excerpt), CHAN 3148 4-06

Listening to meaningful opera in the original language is hugely overrated—authenticity is worth little when it comes at the cost of incomprehension. In opera houses and on DVDs, the solution of super- or MET-titles offers a working compromise. But on CD it’s nicer to comprehend something while listening, rather than arduously trying to follow the action by reading a multi-language libretto in minuscule print. This is not supposed to be an argument to replace all your recordings of non-Italian operas (better off not understanding the text of “Il Turco”, I say) with versions done in your vernacular (not likely available, anyway), but it’s to suggest that this recording being in English need not be seen as a detriment when it can be a bonus. In any case the singing is so fine and the interpretation has so many neat moments that I rank it with a good handful of the most desirable (see list on the right) available versions.

Miller's School for Lovers

Joel Prieto (Ferrando), Elizabeth Futral (Fiordiligi), Renata Pokupić
(Dorabella), and Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Guglielmo) in Così fan tutte,
Washington National Opera, 2011 (photo by Scott Suchman)
Così fan tutte, Mozart’s final collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte, is something of a sphinx, an opera that asks questions and makes you wait for answers, whether they come or not. It is also an opera that is often enjoyed without truly being understood, to which audiences are willing to respond with laughter when its underlying message should make us squirm with discomfort. Washington National Opera's new production, directed by Jonathan Miller and retrofitted to snobby Washington from his latest updating of the opera at Covent Garden, does not provide any real illumination of the work’s meaning, preferring to gloss over the work itself by tinkering with the libretto. It was not a good sign that the biggest laughs from the opening night crowd, on Saturday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, were prompted by jokes about Manassas and Baltimore, obviously not even in the libretto but inserted into it through the supertitle machine.

The cast was led by the Don Alfonso of William Shimell, smooth as glass in a welcome and long-overdue company debut, a sort of senior partner to the besuited lawyers of Guglielmo and Ferrando. He was seconded by the stout-voiced Despina of Christine Brandes, as a somewhat butch, latte-fetching executive assistant. Of the two men of the lead couples, Teddy Tahu Rhodes had the upper hand vocally, a baritone of rough-hewn power, although he could have been singing in Albanian for all I knew from his diction. As Ferrando, tenor Joel Prieto, in a disappointing company debut, mostly held his own in the ensemble numbers, with a sometimes disturbing lack of agility on the runs, but tended to sag flat on his own, making his solo moments, especially the luscious aria “Un'aura amorosa,” less than pleasing. There was a similar disparity between the women, with the chesty Fiordiligi of Elizabeth Futral outweighing the wispy Dorabella of Renata Pokupić. The two roles are now generally cast with a soprano and mezzo-soprano, although even more than Susanna and the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, the two sisters often exchange musical lines, an "implicit demonstration of their interchangeability," as scholar Bruce Alan Brown once put it.

available at Amazon
B. A. Brown, Così fan tutte (Cambridge Opera Handbooks)
The first Fiordiligi was Da Ponte's mistress, Adriana Ferrarese, a fact leading him to make the sisters from Ferrara, although the action is set in Naples. Jonathan Miller, who also designed the sets and costumes (the latter here updated by Timm Burrow), sets the story instead in Washington, with the men as lawyers or lobbyists and the women as fashion designers or Real Housewives in Training, taking potshots at the suburbs. The single set is a nondescript eggshell-on-ivory affair, with a heavy-handed mirror prop near the door, in which all the characters repeatedly make sure to check their reflections. To complete the ruse of their departure, the men are called up with their reserve unit, appearing in U.S. Army fatigues to take their leave. Inexplicably, they return as tattooed biker dudes instead of as Albanian soldiers: the Austrian Emperor's war against the Turks in eastern Europe was the backdrop for Da Ponte's libretto. Having the men come back as Afghan war lords or something might have made sense; having the supertitles have them say things like "Most righteous of babes, we salute you" was another example of going for the cheapest of laughs.

One of the oddest moments in the opera is, in the words of Bruce Alan Brown, "the extravagant Mesmerian charade in the first finale," when the disguised men are cured of the poison they have supposedly taken by the magnetic cure of Franz Anton Mesmer. The German-born, Vienna-based quack supposedly financed the young Mozart's opera Bastien und Bastienne, although there is no reason to think that Wolfgang or Leopold ever actually believed in the magnetic cure. Mesmerism was officially debunked in 1784, by a commission that included Benjamin Franklin, which found that the apparent cures were due mostly to the suggestibility of Mesmer's female patients. Brown noted that Jonathan Miller, in an earlier production, "has staged the scene quite seriously," where other directors often eliminate or replace the magnetic cure with some more believable ploy. This time, somewhat disappointingly, Miller used a machine that looked like a heart defibrillator, when any number of recent healing "miracles" could have served as well. It is true that the libretto is odd: it was long rumored that Mozart's contemporary Salieri had tried and failed to set it as an opera. This suspicion was not proved until John Rice discovered an autograph score, in Salieri's hand, of that composer's music for two of the numbers, after which he simply stopped.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Washington National Opera’s ‘Cosi fan tutte’ (Washington Post, February 27)

Tim Smith, Washington National Opera gives musical, theatrical jolt to 'Cosi fan tutte' (Baltimore Sun, February 27)

Simon Chin, Così fan tutte at the Washington National Opera (Maryland Theater Guide, February 27)
If not much about the original libretto remained and if the cast was varied, the orchestral score was in good hands with music director Philippe Auguin, who showed an uncanny knack for finding just the right tempo and for bringing out subtle colors from the strings, as in the undulating waves of Soave il vento. Leading with confidence and immaculately placed cues, Auguin guided the Opera House Orchestra through a capable performance, featuring solid woodwinds (sparkling in the many runs of the overture) and slightly shaky horns and trumpets. The largely unnecessary chorus sounded in good form but wandered on and off in an unexplained role, looking like little time had been spent giving them business to do. A mellow, quite lovely fortepiano, played with verve and wit by Michael Baitzer, was a nice touch for the recitatives, not least when it provided the ring to Don Alfonso's smartphone. As Miller sees the ending of this enigmatic opera, the lovers go back to neither pairing, before or after the disguise: when the ruse is revealed, all six people leave the stage in different directions, more alone than ever.

This production continues through March 15, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.


Baltimore Symphony off the Cuff

Friday evening, Music Director Marin Alsop brought the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to the Music Center at Strathmore for an "Off the Cuff" performance of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. The intermission-less program began at 8:15 pm, with a thirty-minute introduction by Alsop and excerpts interspersed by the orchestra, followed by the fifth symphony in its entirety. Loosely based on Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, Alsop, a protegee of Bernstein, cleverly used the "Off the Cuff" format to humanize Prokofiev and characterize his musical voice.

Alsop, as professor, story teller, and conductor, spoke about the looming monumentality of fifth symphonies, following Beethoven, given the sixteen-year span between Prokofiev's fourth and fifth, just enough about Sonata Allegro Form, and most interestingly about transformation. She then had the orchestra play contrasting examples and pointed out changes of harmony, meter, and register to show how Prokofiev can take an idea and run. Further excerpts helped map the symphony and its instrumentation, ending with the following practical advice: "You don't necessarily have to understand it, but you'll feel the organic quality of these movements." By this time, the thus far patient orchestra was ready to lunge into the work, and the audience ready to experience it.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Alsop leads BSO in high-voltage works by Prokofiev, MacMillan (Baltimore Sun, February 24)
Conducting from memory with tall vertical gestures instead of the tense hunch seen in previous years, Alsop led vigorously, yet with a loose enough grip to let the musicians create their ideal level of expression. In addition to stories, facts, and motifs, the audience was primed to create images when listening to this dramatic work that encompasses much tragedy, humor, and victory. One could picture Prokofiev conducting the premiere in Moscow on January 13th, 1945, when victorious news was spreading that the Red Army was crossing into Nazi Germany, or playful images cued by frolicking sounds that might possibly have been derived from the composer's first opera, premiered at the age of eight, during the blissful childhood that he was perpetually pained to seek in adulthood. The magical transformation from tragic heavy material to gorgeous textures in the upper registers in the third-movement Adagio was sublimely handled by Alsop, who wanted to express to her primed audience that this was truly "Prokofiev's voice." The cello section's gentle, fluttering trills in their highest ranges were most memorable.

The brass in the first movement had a bright sound that moved linearly; however, the BSO's irascible narrow-sounding splatting by the low brass (perhaps it is just one bad apple) resurfaced in the final movement, diminishing the impact of the work's concluding victory. The upper strings were so eager to please that Alsop often gave them the universal "talk to the hand/chill out" gesture in a forgiving way so that the winds could take the lead.

Next weekend, the BSO will perform a live score by Richard Einhorn to accompany a screening of the classic silent film Voices of Light (March 2 to 4). The next "Off the Cuff" concert will be the first weekend in May (May 4), showcasing Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 ("Leningrad").

In Brief: Leap Day Edition

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

  • For Leap Day this week, there will be online video of a performance of Camille Saint-Saëns's Le Carnaval des animaux by the group Solistes des Siècles. [Cité de la musique Live]

  • Renee Fleming stars in a production of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, from the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, conducted by Christian Thielemann, available in an online video. []

  • Vladimir Jurowski leads the London Philharmonic in a program of Szymanowski, Zemlinsky, Mozart, and the Brahms violin concerto, with Joshua Bell as soloist. [France Musique]

  • Online video of Tugan Sokhiev leading the Orchestre National du Capitole, with violinist Renaud Capuçon as soloist, in music of Dutilleux and Tchaikovsky. []

  • From Barcelona, one of my favorite young string quartets, the Cuarteto Casals, plays music by Boccherini, Beethoven, Shostakovich, and a world premiere by Miquel Roger. [France Musique]

  • From the Salzburg Mozartwoche, Ivor Bolton leads the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg in music of Mozart and Webern. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Listen to a recital by pianist Yevgeny Sudbin, from Bremen, with music by Scarlatti, Liszt, Chopin, and Ravel. [France Musique]

  • From the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic in Ravel's Shéhérazade, with Anna Caterina Antonacci, and Daphnis et Chloé, with the Wiener Singakademie. [France Musique]

  • Gisèle Vienne has brought her choreographies of marionnettes to the Nouveau Festival at the Centre Pompidou, for an installation her puppets called Teenage Hallucination. Made in collaboration with American writer Dennis Cooper, Vienne's pieces can be very disturbing. [Le Monde]

  • Rolf Lislevand performs Baroque music on theorbo, guitar, and related instruments, at the Théâtre des Abbesses in Paris. [France Musique]

  • One last installment from the 5e Biennale de quatuors à cordes in Paris: the Arcanto Quartet in music of Bach, Beethoven, and Schubert, after Mozart's G minor piano quartet, K. 478, from Christian Zacharias (piano), Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Tabea Zimmermann (viola), and Tilmann Wick (cello). [France Musique]

  • Natalie Dessay has released a new disc (Virgin Classics) of mélodies by Debussy, including some youthful works that have never been recorded before, with pianist Philippe Cassard. It probably never would have happened until Dessay undertook to learn the role of Mélisande, causing her to enter the Debussy sound world. As she put it, "I don't think any other ocmposer has written a score so sublime, each note, each second. Perhaps I would have learned this role only in order to hear that orchestra so close to me." [Le Monde]

  • From the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Jean-François Zygel speaks about and plays Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under conductor Kirill Karabits. [France Musique]

  • From the Présences Festival, the pairing of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, in a new orchestration by Oscar Strasnoy, and Strasnoy's new chamber opera El regreso.
    [France Musique]

  • Hear the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France perform Pascal Dusapin's Uncut, Solo pour orchestre N° 7, from 2009, along with music by Debussy and Bartók, from the Auditorium de Lyon. [France Musique]

  • A recital by pianist Vladislav Kozhukhin, from the Auditorium du Louvre, with music by Haydn, Franck, Liszt, and others. [France Musique]

  • Les Victoires de la Musique classique 2012, from the Palais des Congrès in Paris, with the Orchestre National d'Ile de France. [France Musique]

  • The Quatuor Girard, formed by four siblings from Avignon, performs music by Haydn, Schubert, and Schumann. [France Musique]

Dip Your Ears, No. 113 (Mieczysław Weinberg)

available at AmazonM.Weinberg, Symphony No.17,
V.Fedoseyev / VSO

Weinberg Edition No.2:

Mieczysław Weinberg, Symphony No.17, "Allegro Moderato" (excerpt), Fedoseyev et al., NEOS

Symphony No.17 was premiered under Vladimir Fedoseyev—but like most of his Mieczysław Weinberg recordings (14, 17, 18, 19), the Olympia imprint of that occasion is almost impossible to come by. Thanks to the 2010 Bregenz Festival documents, we now have new live recordings of him in the Requiem (see "Dip Your Ears, No. 112"), the Sixth and this 17th Symphony.

In turns tartly lyrical and spine-chillingly brutal, the greatly varied 50+ minute long 17th, “Memory”, alludes to an Anna Akhmatova poem. Large scale eruptions, easily as mighty as those in finales of Shostakovich, sit side-by-side with delicate elements, like that episode for winds and piano in the second movement, or the tinkling celesta in the fourth. Since Chandos hasn’t gotten to No.17 yet, and Naxos’ Weinberg cycle probably won’t start for a while, this is the only reasonably available 17th – which makes it important beyond the terrific performance of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

All the NEOS Weinberg releases are on SACD. Either expensive or unavailable on ArkivMusic and, they are most easily and inexpensively gotten via