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Happy Birthday, Mrs. Coolidge!

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

available at Amazon
Cyrilla Barr, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge: American Patron of Music
Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who did more for American music than perhaps any other single patron, was born on October 30. Each year, the folks at the Library of Congress's free concert series celebrate their greatest Maecenas with a concert on that date, known at the institution as Founder's Day. Mrs. Coolidge gave generously to the Music Division over the years, eventually landing her name on the revered auditorium in the Jefferson Building -- one of the finest acoustics in the city -- not to mention commissions awarded to many of the greatest composers of the 20th century, often before they were widely known. One of my mentors in graduate school, Professor Cyrilla Barr, literally wrote the book on Mrs. Coolidge, a formidable lady who knew good music when she heard it, from Guillaume Dufay to Béla Bartók.

This year's Founder's Day concert was devoted to the lesser-known end of Mrs. Coolidge's interests, early music. Three groups came together to present a long -- perhaps too long -- program of Renaissance music of many different kinds. We started in the late Renaissance with pieces by Giovanni Gabrieli and Carlo Gesualdo, in arrangements performed by the United States Navy Band Brass Ensemble. The Gabrieli pieces were most effective, written for something at least resembling the modern brass ensemble. Gabrieli knew how to write for big blocks of sound and used a broad vocabulary of echos, fanfare motifs, and spatial effects. The only thing missing was a grand space for the sound to fill: imagine the group's three choirs playing to each other from distant corners of a large cathedral or basilica. Two vocal pieces, a madrigal and a responsory for Holy Week (performed in reverse order from what was printed in the program), not surprisingly did not work quite as well.



Draftsman, painter, inventor, dreamer -- if there ever were a hero figure to all the aimless and focused doodlers of the world, it would be Leonardo da Vinci. Five hundred years after his death, in Amboise, France, the name of Leonardo, along with Michelangelo, is still among the most revered in art. Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin, now on view at the Morgan Library and Museum, brings to New York, for the first time, some of the artist's most celebrated drawings.

Included in the exhibit are Three Views of a Bearded Man (a possible Red Sox designated hitter), Head of a Young Woman, which Bernard Berenson considered “one of the finest achievements of all draftsmanship,” and the Codex on the Flight of Birds. In the last one, Leonardo studied the flight of birds -- what allows them to fly, ascend, descend, and maneuver -- compiled with the intention of building a machine to enable human flight.

I don't feel intimidated by him at all. Whenever I'm asked which artist, living or dead, I would most like to meet, Leonardo is the one, without a doubt.

In addition to the works from the Biblioteca Reale, the Morgan’s own Codex Huygens, a treatise on painting from the late sixteenth century, is closely related to Leonardo. The Morgan will make the entire Codex Huygens available online, with high-resolution images of all 128 sheets. The exhibit will remain on display until February 2, 2014.


Cappella Romana @ NGA

Charles T. Downey, Cappella Romana complements ‘Heaven and Earth’ exhibit at National Gallery of Art
Washington Post, October 29, 2013

available at Amazon
Live in Greece, Cappella Romana
A new exhibit at the National of Gallery of Art, called “Heaven and Earth,” is the museum’s first devoted to Byzantine art, all drawn from Greek collections. A concert surveying a broad range of Byzantine sacred music, performed by Cappella Romana on Sunday night, made the connection between sound and image. The selection of music, representing composers from the 15th century to the present, revealed a tradition both rooted in the past and yet still growing.

The ensemble of seven men and five women was, at its best, singing traditional Byzantine chant. The sound was robust, especially from the men; a full-throated tone that has buzz and resonance, ornamented with the cantillation-like scoops and trills typical of this music. [Continue reading]
Cappella Romana
National Gallery of Art

Philip Kennicott, National Gallery’s ‘Heaven and Earth’ showcases Byzantium’s artistic riches (Washington Post, October 25)


Ionarts-at-Large: OSESP & Alsop in Vienna

The Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo (OSESP) is the orchestral pride of the South American Continent—a splendid orchestra amid, granted, no worthwhile competition. That makes trips to Europe all the more interesting and important for finding their north (as it were) and to spreading the


Yuja Wang at Strathmore

We have heard Yuja Wang with both of the region's leading orchestras, and in recitals in smaller venues. Until Friday night, that is, when Washington Performing Arts Society presented the young Chinese virtuoso in the Music Center at Strathmore. Given her previous performances, we knew to expect fireworks but the poetry in her playing came as a pleasant surprise, a sign perhaps that this fiery, sometimes bombastic musician has reached a new level in what she can do.

That change came across in just about everything she played. She still showed an uncanny ability to pull apart the wildest thickets of notes with a defiant technique, revealing hidden details or unexpected lines, as in her opener, Prokofiev's miniature third sonata (A minor, op. 28). It was the tender, slightly distracted slow section at the heart of this piece that stood out, though, a ruminative inner monologue. Things were much the same with Chopin's third sonata (B minor, op. 58), in which Wang did not press the fast tempos as fast as other pianists sometimes do, making the chromatic left-hand lines at one point transparent and velvety, drawing out especially the delicacy of the second theme and closing theme of the first movement, so forlorn. The scherzo was appropriately fast but also light as a feather, with the slow movement given a sotto voce melancholy but never allowed to be mawkish. The fourth movement was also not as fast as it could be, moreover given a decidedly legato touch to the almost deliberate statements of the main theme.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, World-class pianist Yuja Wang dazzles in recital at Strathmore, but at a distance (Washington Post, October 28)

Matthew Guerrieri, Pianist Yuja Wang displays power and precision (Boston Globe, October 19)

David Wright, Yuja Wang delivers more heat than light in Boston recital debut (Boston Classical Review, October 19)

Ken Iisaka, Yuja Wang Settles for Astonishing (San Francisco Classical Voice, October 15)

Timothy Mangan, Yuja Wang swings for the fences (Orange County Register, October 15)

2012 | 2010 | 2009 | 2009 | 2008
2008 | 2005
Nikolai Kapustin's bubbly Variations for Piano (op. 41) had the same function at the start of the second half as the Prokofiev had had at the first, a jazzy overture, with the effect of an encore, just in prelude. Another Chopin set followed, with Wang holding the audience from applauding between the C minor nocturne (op. 48/1) and the third ballade (A-flat major, op. 47). Opening with Kapustin seemed to put these pieces in a different light, drawing a parallel in terms of the sense of improvisation and dance. Wang gave the nocturne a similar breezy charm in some ways, and with neither piece really -- and thankfully -- did one hear what other pianists do with this music. In particular, her rubato was not lathered on so thick that the pulse disappeared, especially in the ballade, where the sense of poetic recitation was still evident, the melody given a playful lilt, still nostalgic but without any goopy slowness. Through Wang's supreme control of touch -- indeed, it was the sense of control of sound that was foremost in this recital -- many interesting inner details came to the fore.

Wang closed the program with something more in line with her first strengths as a showman, Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petrushka, a tour de force of technical prowess. The details were all in place, the clamor of the Russian dance, the doll's mania, the lacy ballerina's music, all with fireworks a-plenty, especially in the astonishing blur of the third movement's succession of moods, with not a single missed target in the left-hand crossings. Although the audience seemed less than engaged, the ovation earned two encores, Rachmaninoff's Vocalise (op. 34/14, in the arrangement by Zoltán Kocsis, I think) and Art Tatum's high-flying arrangement of Fats Waller's Tea for Two. For those who keep track of such things, Yuja Wang can wear a tiny dress and wear it she did, although I care as much about her sartorial choices as I do about the fact that she likes Rihanna. I am much more impressed by her reading interests and thoughts on film, about which she tweets from time to time.

In Brief: Cold Snap Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio, online video, and other good things in Blogville and Beyond. (After clicking to an audio or video stream, press the "Play" button to start the broadcast.) Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Watch the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne perform several of Bach's keyboard concertos, featuring as soloists Martha Argerich and her various proteges and friends, including Nicholas Angelich, Frank Braley, David Fray, Gabriela Montero, and others. [Part 1 | Part 2]

  • Cellist Marie-Elisabeth Hecker and pianist Martin Helmchen perform all of the cello sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven, in two concerts recorded in the Auditorium du Musée du Louvre. [Part 1 | Part 2]

  • Music of Bach with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and soprano Johannette Zomer. [RTBF]

  • Watch a rare staging of Gaspare Spontini's opera La Vestale, with Jérémie Rhorer conducting Le Cercle de l'Harmonie in a new production by Eric Lacascade at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. []

  • Christopher Hogwood leads the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall in London, in a performance of Handel's Imeneo, starring Rebecca Bottone, Vittorio Prato, Lucy Crowe, David Daniels, and Stephan Loges, recorded last May. [ORF]

Ionarts-at-Large: A Girl From the West in Vienna

available at Amazon
G.Puccini, La Fanciulla del West,
Royal Opera House / Z.Mehta
C.Neblett, P.Domingo, S.Milnes

You don’t have to be twelve or have water on the brain to appreciate Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. But it helps. It’s a daft libretto coupled with sophisticated but unglamorous music that contributes to make it one of Puccini’s less popular operas. It’s a connoisseur’s piece, perhaps: for those who will marvel at the imaginative orchestration and the constant changes of direction in the score. Two, three rare moments exist where Puccini sets out for the grand romantic, Bohéme-esque gesture—only to cut it off just before the climax and continue elsewise. If you stuff the title roles with fabulous or at least famous singers—like the Vienna State Opera for their current, hopelessly sold-out run with Nina Stemme and Jonas Kaufmann—you can assure a sold-out house and having all the Puccini and Kaufmann fetishists atwitter.


Dip Your Ears, No. 159 (Praise for the Lobgesang)

available at Amazon
F.Mendelssohn-B., Symphony No.2, Vriend / The Netherlands SO / Consensus Vocalis
J.v.Wanroij, M.Baumans), P.Henckens
Challenge SACD

Mendelssohn Worthy A Hymn of Praise

Musicologists have considered Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony (actually his last) misshapen; a lopsided creature for its elaborate hymn of a choral finale that is bigger than the first three movements together. Perhaps I’m contrarian, but I love this harmonically most daring of his symphonies the best of the lot of five, whatever its shape. I can’t help but whistle and sing every of the catchy themes along. But it’s a tricky symphony to perform and I’m picky about performances. Astoundingly, Jan Willem de Vriend, his Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, and cast of unknown singers easily draw level with the best (Dohnanyi on Decca and Karajan on DG), passing even Frieder Bernius (Carus) in their wake, thanks to the orchestral lushness which befits this works so well and which Bernius’ Bremen Chamber Philharmonic cannot, for all its qualities, provide.

One unedited cracked horn-figure reveals the live source of the recording(s), but if anything it indicates the loving passion with which the performers dig into the work. The soloists are to fall in love with. The “Lobgesang” Symphony is a very different animal from the rest, but if this first volume of a projected cycle is any indicator at all, de Vriend’s Mendelssohn Symphonies are going to be an exciting prospect, indeed!


Classical Music Agenda: November 2013

At the top of my picks for the concerts you most want to hear in the month of November are the visits by the Järvis père et fils, who will both conduct the National Symphony Orchestra. Kristjan (October 31 to November 2) will conduct music by Enescu and Rachmaninoff, plus Barber's violin concerto with soloist Jennifer Koh. His father, Neeme, takes the helm later in the month (November 14 to 16), leading performances of Zoltán Kodály's suite from Háry János, excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, and Liszt's second piano concerto with soloist Alice Sara Ott.

It seems there is a performance of Verdi's Requiem Mass every weekend this month -- none of which we recommend. What we do welcome is the chance to hear Britten's less often heard War Requiem, not once but twice. It would be nice to hear them both, but if we had to choose, it would probably be Marin Alsop with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (November 14 to 16, at the Meyerhoff and at Strathmore), for her soloists (Tamara Wilson, Nicholas Phan, and Ryan McKinny), over the Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (November 3).

We like the Carl Nielsen set by the (Young) Danish String Quartet, the group that will perform on the free concert series at the Library of Congress (November 2, 2 pm). Sadly, no Nielsen is on the program -- Haydn, Ligeti, another Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, and Beethoven are -- but let us hope for a Nielsen encore.

Three pianists we want to hear are all coming to the area this month, starting with Boris Giltburg, who won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels this spring (watch the video of his final round), at the Phillips Collection (November 3, 4 pm) and playing Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel. That is followed by two Ionarts favorites: Nelson Freire at Shriver Hall in Baltimore (November 17), playing music by Beethoven and Chopin, and Marc-André Hamelin (November 25), presented by Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Terrace Theater, with an excellent program of music by John Field, Nikolai Medtner, and Schubert.

Although it is a shame that most new operas that get produced this days are miniatures, we want to hear what composers are doing with the form. To that end, mark the UrbanArias production of She, After, a double-bill of one-woman operas by Daniel Felsenfeld -- Nora in the Great Outdoors and Alice in the Time of the Jabberwock, both starring soprano Emily Pulley -- at Artisphere in Rosslyn (November 9 to 17) on your calendar. Pair it with the second year of Washington National Opera's American Opera Initiative -- see my thoughts on last year's installment -- with new short operas by Jennifer Bellor, Joshua Bornfield, and Michael Gilbertson (November 13) at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

Continue to mark the Wagner and Verdi anniversaries with two free lecture-performances at the Library of Congress. For the first (November 9), scholar Alan Walker will speak about Wagner and Verdi at the Piano, with pianist Valerie Tryon playing some of Liszt's piano arrangements of themes from Wagner and Verdi's operas, including some found in the Library's collection. For the second (November 23), critic Alex Ross will speak on his latest obsession, Wagner in America, with mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore performing Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder.

As for dance that we want to see, the Kennedy Center Opera House will host Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty with his New Adventures company (November 12 to 17). The British choreographer has re-imagined this 19th-century classic as a Gothic horror tale.

The full schedule will run through the sidebar.


There's a New Girl in Town

She hasn't been to New York City for some thirty years but hasn't changed a bit. Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring will reside at the Frick Museum as part of the touring exhibit Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis. Milady will be in town through January 19, 2014, before departing for her final stop in Italy.
Sometimes mistaken for a portrait, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, an oil on canvas painted about 1665, belongs to a distinctly Dutch subcategory of portraiture known as the tronie, a type of picture popularized in the 1630s by Rembrandt and other artists. Tronies represented stock characters and depicted idealized faces or exaggerated expressions, with subjects frequently sporting exotic costumes. Unlike commissioned portraits, tronies were sold on the open market. Although the girl’s features may have been inspired by a live model, we have no idea who she was, and Vermeer would not have felt her identity relevant to our enjoyment of the work.
I love how this anonymous girl goes on to become one of the most remembered faces of her time. The Girl will occupy a special place as the sole picture in the museum's Oval Room, while the Frick's three Vermeers will be on display in the adjacent West Gallery.

Not to be outdone, paintings by Frans Hals, Pieter Claesz, Rembrandt, Gerard ter Borch, Carel Fabritius, Jan Steen, Jacob van Ruisdael, Nicolaes Maes, and Adriaen Coorte will be displayed in the adjacent East Gallery. So, while everyone is ogling the girl with the pearl, you may find that Frans Hals or Jan Steen or some of the lesser-known artists may be even more to your liking. Timed ticketing will be in play during this exhibit and, surprise, an additional gift shop has been set up. The poor little Frick is about to get slammed.


Review Round-Up: 'Two Boys'

I was in New York this weekend to see Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Metropolitan Opera but could not stay for opening night of the company's new production of Nico Muhly's recent opera Two Boys on Monday night. It is a ripped-from-the-headlines kind of story, with a libretto by Craig Lucas on a 2001 story involving a teenager who used an Internet chatroom to manipulate another teenager into nearly killing him. The reviews are in, and many are as negative as the London reviews of the world premiere in 2011 (including by some very thoughtful people), or worse -- to my surprise, given how kindly disposed to Muhly most of these critics are. Possibly related -- the opera has been excluded from the Met's cinema broadcast series.


Beijing Symphony Orchestra

Charles T. Downey, Beijing Symphony plays Strathmore amid boom time for classical music in China
Washington Post, October 22, 2013

available at Amazon
Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai, Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese

available at Amazon
Ching-Chih Liu, A Critical History of New Music in China
(trans. Caroline Mason, 2010)
What explains the flourishing of classical music in recent years in China at the same time that classical music organizations are struggling in the United States? The answer might be government support, which is driving a boom of orchestras in China, as well as paying for international tours, such as China National Symphony Orchestra’s visit to Strathmore in February. The current tour of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra ended with a concert at Strathmore on Sunday night.

This ensemble was founded in 1977, in the wake of China’s Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao Zedong, and its tour of the Americas this month has included renting out Carnegie Hall and Strathmore. The playing was at a professional but not extraordinary level, with the conducting of Tan Lihua more foursquare than inspired in the concluding work, the first two suites from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The slow dances were the most successful, with some lovely flute solos in particular. The heavier pieces were mostly just loud, with some intonation issues in the woodwinds and a lack of unity in the faster string passages. [Continue reading]
Beijing Symphony Orchestra
Music by Guo Wenjing, Profokiev
Music Center at Strathmore

Corinne Ramey, Beijing Symphony Orchestra Makes Carnegie Hall Debut (Wall Street Journal: Speakeasy, October 16, 2013)

Liang Xizhi and Mo Jinwei, Beijing Symphony Orchestra stages successful debut in Mexico (China People's Daily, October 10, 2013)

Guy Dammann, Beijing Symphony Orchestra/LPO/Tan – review (The Guardian, August 2, 2012)


The Met's 'Midsummer Night's Dream'

The Metropolitan Opera did not get around to staging my favorite opera by Benjamin Britten, A Midsummer Night's Dream, until 1996. I did not get to see it then, or when it was revived in 2002. For the composer's centenary, the company returned to this colorful production, directed by Tim Albery with sets and costumes by Antony McDonald, this season. It was well worth the trek up to Manhattan for this past Saturday's matinee, only the second time we have reviewed this opera, after a charming staging at Wolf Trap in 2010. It is not really an opera for small children, although the large number of them in the audience for this performance likely had no awareness of the disturbing undercurrent of this work for Britten -- the interest of Oberon, the "King of Shadows" as Puck names him, in a changeling boy that his queen, Tytania, tries unsuccessfully to keep from him. Britten likely saw in the character his own attraction to boys, possibly never realized. The end of Act I, when Oberon leads the boy offstage, after putting Tytania out of commission, is a chilling moment.

'Ainsi font-elles toutes'

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Mozart, Così fan tutte, V. Gens, B. Fink, Concerto Köln, R. Jacobs
The idea of Opera Lafayette's new season, called The French Così, is intriguing. Seeking a French connection for the libretto of Mozart and Da Ponte's Così fan tutte -- one of the operas we have reviewed the most over the years -- the company is pairing it with Philidor's Les Femmes Vengées. To make the connection clearer, this production was sung in the French adaptation by L. V. Durdilly, from the late 19th century and with spoken dialogue instead of recitatives, heard at its first performance last night. The idea is that the Philidor opera is like a sequel to the Mozart, with the two couples grown older. To make the cast list parallel, Despina has to become Madame Riss, the wife of a famous painter, so director Nick Olcott has inserted the man she is to marry, Monsieur Riss, as a silent character in Così. Jeffrey Thompson was a busy presence in the role, taking a shine to and seducing the maid Delphine, although his continued silence in scenes with other characters speaking and singing was hard to justify dramatically, unless he was meant to be someone physically unable to speak.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Opera Lafayette’s delightful ‘Cosi’ gives tradition a whole new look (Washington Post, October 22)

Previous productions:

Jonathan Miller (Washington National Opera, 2012; Covent Garden, 2010)
Eric Einhorn (Wolf Trap, 2009)
Dieter Dorn (Munich, 2007)
James Robinson (Santa Fe, 2007)
Andrea Dorf (WNO Young Artists, 2007)
Joe Banno (Opera Theater of Northern Virginia, 2006)
Neither the singing nor the playing was all that extraordinary, but perhaps this seems so because the sound of Les Violons du Roy and Stephanie Blythe earlier this week is so prominent in my memory. Mezzo-soprano Blandine Staskiewicz's Dorabelle stood out for the most present and richest tone of the quartet of mixed-up lovers, often overshadowing the compact, somewhat tense Fleurdelise of Pascale Beaudin, who did not always have what it takes to ride the top of the ensembles. Tenor Antonio Figueroa (Fernand) and baritone Alex Dobson (Guillaume) had entirely too much fun in their roles, taking joy in seducing each other's beloved but ending up a little scared that they were succeeding, although occasionally so enthusiastic that they were ahead of the beat. Claire DeBono's Delphine was pert and bright, because slightly nasal, and Bernard Deletré, the veteran of many of our favorite Baroque recordings, was an august, officious Don Alphonse, sometimes just a little behind the beat.

It is such a good opera, even without the recitatives and with a few cuts taken here, that it sparkles even in circumstances that are not optimal. Olcott's staging was wry and consistent, with astute acting direction ruling the day, helping us see the little wrinkles of thoughts and nuances in this beautifully characterized work. Only the clumsy dumb show action of the staged overture seemed inapt. Sets by Misha Kachman and costumes by Kendra Rai were solidly 18th-century, to particularly hilarious effect in the disguises for the male lovers, set here as fur-bedecked Canadian trappers. Conductor Ryan Brown kept a handle on the complex score, in spite of some stickiness in the woodwind runs here and there and the occasional early entrance. To find out how or if Mozart truly dovetails with Philidor's Les Femmes Vengées, you will have to wait until its performance on January 17.


In Brief: Shutdown Over Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio, online video, and other good things in Blogville and Beyond. (After clicking to an audio or video stream, press the "Play" button to start the broadcast.) Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Listen to the opening concert of the new season from the Ensemble Intercontemporain, with Matthias Pintscher conducting, recorded at the Cité de la Musique. The program includes Jonathan Harvey's Two Interludes and a Scene for an Opera (2005), Bernd Alois Zimmermann's sonata for solo cello (featuring cellist Pierre Strauch), and Pintscher's own Bereshit. [France Musique]

  • Christoph Eschenbach conducted Mozart's Così fan tutte at the Salzburg Festival this year, starring Malin Hartelius (Fiordiligi), Marie-Claude Chappuis (Dorabella), Martina Janková (Despina), Martin Mitterrutzner (Ferrando), Luca Pisaroni (Guglielmo), and Gerald Finley (Don Alfonso). [ORF]

  • From the Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg this past August, a concert of chamber music by Schubert, Mozart, and Dvořák from pianist Till Fellner and the Belcea Quartet. [France Musique]

  • For the 100th anniversary of the Wiener Konzerthaus, Gustavo Dudamel leads the Vienna Philharmonic and Wiener Singakademie in Beethoven's ninth symphony, with soloists Julianna Di Giacomo, Katarina Karnéus, Klaus Florian Vogt, and Luca Pisaroni. The work is preceded by Aribert Reimann's Prolog, composed to introduce Beethoven's ninth symphony. [ORF]

  • Listen to sacred music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, performed by the Ensemble Correspondances at the Baroque Music Festival in the Cathedral of Saint-Maclou de Pontoise. [France Musique]


Dip Your Ears, No. 158 (Le Travail du Peintre)

available at Amazon
Mélodies on poems by Paul Éluard & Louise de Vilmorin,
H.Falk, A.Zuppardo

Poulenc to Fall in Love With

The less you listen to a repertoire, the taller classic performances stand. With me that’s true for French art-songs generally and Poulenc’s especially, where the indomitable Gérard Souzay reigns in my ears. But here comes a German baritone whom I hadn’t even heard of, and sings an hour’s worth of a Poulenc recital so well, I fall a bit more in love with it every time I hear it. Dramatic and nuanced, impeccably articulated, honey-toned, sweeping and musically partnered by Alessandro Zuppardo and his 1901 Steinway, Holger Falk achieves something quite special that impresses and touches me. Highlight among highlights might be the mini-cycle “Le travail du peintre”. Every time I just want to listen to one or two bits to check up on something, I get stuck in this sumptuous, fantabulous performance for the whole, wonderful ride! Ticket to Best of 2013 already booked!

Made possible by Listen Music Magazine.


Cameron Carpenter

Charles T. Downey, Cameron Carpenter puts Kennedy Center organ through its paces
Washington Post, October 18, 2013

available at Amazon
Cameron: Live!, C. Carpenter
The Rubenstein Family Organ, the concert instrument recently installed in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, is getting a workout this season. A series of three concerts will feature three young masters of “the king of instruments,” each representing a different aspect of organ performance. The first of these, Cameron Carpenter, opened the series Wednesday night before what is likely the largest audience for a solo organ recital seen in these parts in quite a while.

Carpenter is the black sheep of the organ world. Ask most organists about him and you will get a roll of the eyes and perhaps a comment about the sequins he favors on his heels, the better to see his feet flash over the pedals. [Continue reading]
Cameron Carpenter, organ
Rubenstein Family Organ Series
Kennedy Center Concert Hall


Les Violons du Roy

Charles T. Downey, Les Violons du Roy concert at Strathmore: Stellar early-music ensemble’s time to shine
Washington Post, October 17, 2013

available at Amazon
Handel and Bach Arias, S. Blythe, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, J. Nelson
Les Violons du Roy, perhaps the best early music ensemble in North America? Check. International opera star Stephanie Blythe? Check. A top-notch program of 18th-century music? Check. The Music Center at Strathmore presented what was probably one of the top 10 concerts of the year Tuesday night, and only a couple of hundred people heard it. As embarrassing as the turnout was, the cantankerous critic now gets to pull out some rarely used superlatives and gush for a change.

The Quebec-based chamber orchestra played two baroque suites with stylistic panache, near-perfect intonation and laser-precise ensemble. Telemann’s Suite in C was distinguished by its crisp “Harlequinade” and playful “Bourrée en trompette,” but the suavely somnolent “Sommeil” took the cake, the strings’ period bows creating impeccably hushed tones. [Continue reading]
Les Violons du Roy
With Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano
Music Center at Strathmore


Mariinsky Orchestra at the Ballet

available at Amazon
Stravinsky, The Firebird, Kirov Orchestra, V. Gergiev
We are all probably long over the anniversary of The Rite of Spring, an event that was seemingly observed over a year and a half. Not so for Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra, who offered up a Stravinsky extravaganza on Monday night -- with three complete ballet scores and two intermissions making up a three-hour concert on a Federal holiday. It concluded, brashly, with the obligatory centennial performance of the work that the Russian composer thought should be translated as The Consecration of Spring, but it was the first work, The Firebird, that received the most glowing performance. Washington Performing Arts Society, which presented the performance in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, chose to label this concert as the "Opening Celebration" of its 2013-2014 season, given the rather pretentious title "The City Is Our Stage."

In fact, The Firebird should probably be considered the more ground-shaking work, the first score that the 28-year-old Stravinsky composed for the Ballets Russes, the opening salvo in the Battle of Modernism. Heard here in its entirety, just as it was performed in 1910 (well, not quite sure -- the 1910 score calls for a third harp in the Firebird's music, and I cannot recall if there were two or three harps on stage), this revolutionary music simply dazzled the ears. Stravinsky wrote for a vast orchestra, one that in his later neoclassical austerity he found to be "wastefully large," and he did startling things with it. The combination of sounds that make up the flitting Firebird's music, the lunatic dance of crazy percussion for Katschei's retinue enchanted by the Firebird, the shimmering violins for the thirteen princesses, the rosy colors for the arrival of daybreak, the clanging metal and offstage brass for the Magic Carillon, the menacing swells of sound for the Monster Guardians, the plaintive viola solo for the supplications of the captured Firebird, the moody bassoon of the Lullaby -- it is all so vivid. Gergiev and his musicians drove through this magnificent score with authority and deliberate, even fastidious attention to detail. The only thing missing was a reconstruction of the original choreography, without which the piece comes only partially to life (to get an idea, watch this reconstruction on YouTube).

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Gergiev, Mariinsky bring urbane virtuosity to all-Stravinsky evening (Washington Post, October 16)

Philip Kennicott, Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra (, October 16)

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, Another ‘Spring,’ and Another Storm to Weather (New York Times, October 11)
The other two complete ballet scores on this program -- Petrushka from 1911 and Rite from 1913, both heard in their original versions -- are more dissonant and more brutal affairs. Gergiev, who never met a fast tempo or biting accent he didn't like, was like a kid in a candy shop. Every incisive rhythmic shift, every explosive attack was calculated, not just to knock you off your rocker but to cause maximum blood-letting. Both performances were ruthlessly, clinically efficient, with scalpeled precision, and by the end of the evening, it left my head rattling. The clamor of the streets in Petrushka was punctuated by dreamlike episodes, lost in a timeless aura, and both the flutist and the pianist played distinguished solos. Gergiev gets at the Russian folk manner, all weight and detached attack, of this music like few other conductors. His take on Rite was, as expected, savage and atavistic -- not a near-chaotic bacchanal like Dudamel, but something that was cold and almost sociopathic, quite fittingly. Tempos shifted on a dime and were often exaggerated but never without staying in cruel control, for an exhausting, thrilling overall effect.

The next WPAS concert is a recital by pianist Yuja Wang at Strathmore (October 25, 8 pm).

We do not cover politics here at Ionarts, but I was a little surprised that there were no protests against Gergiev's ties to Vladimir Putin and Russia's anti-homosexual law, either inside or outside the hall.


Jeremy Denk's 'Goldberg Variations'

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations (with DVD "liner notes"), J. Denk
Saturday afternoon, Washington Performing Arts Society presented pianist Jeremy Denk in the intimate Kennedy Center Terrace Theater performing J.S. Bach’s archetypal Goldberg Variations. Denk gave the impression not of being a musical vessel for Bach, but of being a vessel for himself due to loud, aggressive playing, an ad hoc approach to rhetoric, and a short-term musical horizon. Bach is generally the earliest music programmed by concert pianists. This can give the performer the perspective that they are looking back into the past from the styles of Mozart and beyond, instead of forward from the music of the Renaissance and early Baroque. This perspective of “looking backward” in time was evident in Denk’s performance of the Goldberg Variations, originally written for harpsichord, which suffered from the full sound and pedaling of a concert grand piano by the first of thirty variations. Perhaps this non-contained dynamic approach might have been more palatable in a large hall.

Other disappointments included inconsistent rhetoric like random ornaments added on random repeats, varying articulation on repeats, ad hoc eliding of variations, and a lack of a common approach to musical figures. Similar musical figures, or shapes, were often articulated differently, leading to a linguistic confusion. Denk attempted to distract listeners from this confusion by moving the rhetoric from the score to his face and gestures. Twice in the program Denk turned his head to stare intensely at the audience at his favorite moments: first at a pivotal moment harmonically in the opening movement of Mozart’s Sonata No. 15 in F, which opened the program; second at a point in the Fughetta of Variation Ten in the Bach. This over-the-top gesture was effective in the exquisitely balanced Mozart, and less so in the Bach.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Pianist Jeremy Denk’s ‘Goldberg Variations’: A revealing journey into the soul (Washington Post, October 14)
The Goldberg Variations begins and ends with the the Aria that gives the bass line from which the thirty variations are constructed. Keeping in mind that the variations are structured upon the ground bass and its implied harmonic path, Denk could have served the music better by beginning with and adhering to a tempo that suited the entire piece through its varying tempo relationships in a labyrinth of time signatures. The strongest evidence of Denk’s "every variation is an island" approach is that the final Aria concluding the piece was markedly slower than the statement that opened the work. This lack of balance in tempo and restraint in dynamics defeated the structured splendor with sparkling detail the Baroque style has to offer. Denk had this satisfying stylistic balance and polished detail when playing Bach’s Toccata in D, BWV 912, at his 2010 WPAS performance at the Terrace Theater.

The next pianist featured by WPAS will be Yuja Wang, in a recital at Strathmore (October 25, 8 pm).


Cursed Production of 'La forza del destino'

La forza del destino, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman)

Francesca Zambello's record, in her first season as Artistic Director of the Washington National, just fell to 1-1. After a knockout production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Zambello herself directed a new production of one of the lesser Verdi operas, the dramatically muddled and musically episodic La forza del destino, which opened on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. It was meant to provide the second panel of a Wagner-Verdi bicentennial diptych -- Verdi's opera was premiered just three years before Wagner's, in 1862 in St. Petersburg -- and it did so, just not in a way that was at all flattering to Verdi.

Good Verdi requires singers who have both power and finesse, and most of this cast was lacking in any kind of subtlety vocally -- perhaps the opera truly is cursed. Chilean tenor Giancarlo Monsalve, who was a uniformly loud and ugly Don Alvaro, made one of the least distinguished WNO debuts in memory, leaving the impression that he was cast primarily for his looks, which seemed suited to the part of the dashing young man who tries to steal away the daughter of the Marquis of Calatrava. No less shouty and unattractive was the Don Carlo of baritone Mark Delavan, not heard at WNO since Aida in 2003, as the Marquis's son who swears revenge on Alvaro, even after he becomes his friend under an assumed identity. (The opera's plot is a mess.) Caught between them is the daughter, Leonora, the role that received the best performance among the leads. Soprano Adina Aaron's voice was large, broad at the bottom and capably transparent at the top, with only the occasional strange bend flat, with an accompanying sound of vocal strain, on some high notes to cause complaint in what was a genial, if not extraordinary, company debut. (Aaron's fall in the final scene, caused by a prop on the floor, was perhaps another proof of the opera's famous curse.) Among the supporting cast, former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Valeriano Lanchas provided some much-needed comic relief as the bumbling Fra Melitone, while mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze made a hash of the role of Preziosilla.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, WNO’s “Force of Destiny” lets down vocal standards, and Verdi (Washington Post, October 14)

Philip Kennicott, La forza del destino at the Washington National Opera (, October 13)

Tim Smith, Washington National Opera offers new take on Verdi's 'Forza' (Baltimore Sun, October 14)
Zambello, not surprisingly, chose to update the action to our era, sadly without adding any new understanding to the story. This allowed her to indulge her fetish for machine-guns and explosions in the war scenes, as in her rather silly Aida at Glimmerglass just last year. The aim of this sort of modernizing gesture is to restore that "ripped from the headlines" sort of urgency to the story, but in this case it just made the ridiculous plot even more ridiculous, as laughter rippling through the house made plain. Unfortunately, WNO did not use the recently published critical edition of Verdi's first version of the opera (ed. Philip Gossett), but the 1869 revision with a few changes. This included moving the opera's famous overture to a point after the opening scene, where it was cheapened by serving as the backdrop for an absurd dumb show. The inn scene was set in some sort of sidewalk sex bar surrounded by shipping containers, with Preziosilla the young gypsy as a rabble-rousing go-go girl, and the Franciscan monastery became a non-specific, possibly Islamic community of some kind, albeit one singing about Mary, the mother of our savior, and "il Santo Spirto." You can leave lines out of the translated supertitles, but we still hear them sung.

The most memorable musical scenes, other than those featuring Adina Aaron's better solos, featured the puissant male chorus, although the frantically gestured conducting of Xian Chang sometimes undermined their scenes. The orchestra still sounded quite good, but the coordination between stage and pit was not always sure. She is a talented conductor, but I have heard of her more as an orchestral conductor, and her WNO debut was not auspicious. The sets, designed by Peter J. Davison, were large and handsome: the red-walled dining room of the Calatrava mansion, the neon-bright sex club, the graffiti-covered inner-city mission. It would probably work better for an opera that is taking place in the late 20th century.

This production continues through October 26, with a partial cast change (October 18 and 22).


In Brief: Second Flood Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio, online video, and other good things in Blogville and Beyond. (After clicking to an audio or video stream, press the "Play" button to start the broadcast.) Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • A performance of Haydn's oratorio The Seasons, featuring the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra from Budapest, recorded in the parish church of Fertoszentmiklos, just a few kilometers away from Esterhaza where Haydn worked from 1766 to 1790. [Australian Radio]

  • Paul van Nevel leads the Ensemble Huelgas in Renaissance works based on the chanson Malheur me bat by Josquin, Agricola, and Obrecht, a concert recorded in the Eglise Saint-Sulpice de Favière. [France Musique]

  • Listen to Herbert Blomstedt conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in Bruckner's fifth symphony. [ORF]

  • Mariss Jansons leads a performance of Verdi's Requiem Mass with the Munich Philharmonic. [BR-Klassik]

  • Watch Marin Alsop conduct the São Paulo State Symphony in Clarice Assad's Terra Brasilis, a fantasy on the Brazilian national anthem, Chopin's second piano concerto (with Nelson Freire as soloist), and Mahler's first symphony. [Cité de la Musique Live]


Good Friday Magic: 'Parsifal' Round Two

The poor sales of the National Symphony Orchestra's concert performance of the third act of Wagner's Parsifal were worse than I thought. Even with the special offer of half-price orchestra tickets, the Kennedy Center Concert Hall had a shocking number of empty spaces at the second performance on Friday night. Indeed, the papering of the house was at an unheard-of extent: as I walked into the Kennedy Center on Friday evening, I overheard a Kennedy Center official offering free tickets to that evening's NSO performance to tourists visiting the building. Neither Wagner nor Parsifal was mentioned, and I did not eavesdrop long enough to see if the offer was accepted. There is no guarantee that someone walking into the Kennedy Center this evening would receive a similar offer for tonight's final performance, but there are likely some readers out there who would happily accept a free ticket.

After being seated on the left aisle for the Thursday performance, I had the chance to compare the sound on the right aisle, again at about halfway back into the house. The acoustics in the Concert Hall are notoriously variable, and from the right side, the singers seemed more present -- especially those, like Yuri Vorobiev as Gurnemanz, who stood on the right side of the podium. While Nikolai Schukoff's Parsifal, who stood on the left side, sounded about the same, it was also odd to note that the four tuned gongs in the procession scene sounded much more clearly when I was seated on the left side, perhaps because the gongs' stand was on the right side of the orchestra, facing towards the left side of the house. Whatever the reason, on Friday night the gongs were so faint as to be almost non-existent far too often.

Dip Your Ears, No. 157 (René Jacobs in New Pergolesi)

available at Amazon
Seven Last Words of Christ
R.Jacobs, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
S.Karthäuser, C.Dumaux, J.Behr, K.Wolff
Harmonia Mundi

Delicate, Vivid Last Words

There’s a story of discovery and research to this work, which was first found in 1930, championed by Hermann Scherchen, but not attributed with any certainty to the youthfully deceased Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, published just recently, and recorded only now. A cycle of seven small cantatas, quite unlike any other Seven Last Words (Schütz, Haydn, Franck, MacMillan…), Septem verba a Christo is an extraordinary work, lovingly championed by René Jacobs. The recitatives are alive and almost counter-intuitively nimble, typical for AkAMus’ brand of early music excitement. The arias—around bass/Jesus Konstantin Wolff—are splendidly done. The description that crops up again and again is “delicate”. There is a sophisticated delicacy to every aspect of this performance, as if the music—for all its vibrant outbursts—was made of the finest Belgian bobbin lace.

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