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Second Opinion: NSO's Night of Stars, Gala in January

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Hindemith, Violinkonzert / Symphonic Metamorphosis / Konzertmusik, Midori, NDR Symphony Orchestra, C. Eschenbach
(Ondine, 2013)

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Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto, J. Bell, Camerata Salzburg, R. Norrington
(Sony, 2002)
What was Christoph Eschenbach thinking, programming Mendelssohn's E minor violin concerto for the second time in less than a year? Likely he was thinking of how that work, with none less than Joshua Bell as the soloist, would help fill the house for what he had planned on the second half. That was the National Symphony Orchestra's first-ever performance of Paul Hindemith's brooding, elegiac oratorio, When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd, a work that the composer, part of the "brain drain" that fled Nazi Germany for American shores, thought of as a sort of "American Requiem." As heard last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the pairing was a success, hopefully bringing an under-appreciated choral work to many more ears.

Joshua Bell has performed this chestnut of a concerto enough times in his career that he is entitled to have some fun with it. In fact, Bell could probably attempt playing the piece with a large stalk of celery instead of his bow, with no effect on the box office. So it was good to hear this often staid performer shake things up, with a mercurial sense of tempo in the first movement, a more urgent Andante in the second, and a madcap springiness in the third. The technique was self-assured, the dangerous sugar content limited to some pure, floating sounds on the E string, and the audience never allowed to sit comfortably ensconced in its expectations for how Joshua Bell would play this most familiar concerto. His model in this somewhat unpredictable style of performance, we could surmise, is the example of the virtuosos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those violinist-composers Bell once told me that he most admired as the exemplar for his own plans, so far unrealized, to compose his own music. We had a taste of what we might expect of Bell the composer, since in these performances he is playing his own cadenzas, most notably in the daring, wide-ranging one he added to the first movement. (These cadenzas go back at least as far as Bell's recording of the Mendelssohn a decade ago.) The audience's attempts to coax an encore from Bell, with sustained ovations, ultimately did not prevail.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, NSO review: Fresh off his Grammy, Eschenbach commands a worthy night (Washington Post, January 31)

Philip Kennicott, Joshua Bell and Hindemith at the NSO (, January 31)

Gero Schliess, Eschenbach after the Grammys: 'The real winner is Hindemith' (Deutsche Welle, January 29)

Marita Berg, Enfant terrible, minstrel: Paul Hindemith 50 years after his death (Deutsche Welle, December 28)

Tim Smith, Christoph Eschenbach to lead NSO in rare performance of Hindemith requiem (Baltimore Sun, January 27)
Among all the grand choral statements of the 20th century that the city's many local choruses could program, When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd is one of the ones heard least often. (The last time for me was at Washington National Cathedral in 2009.) It is a sprawling, long-winded kind of piece that sets an enormous number of wandering lines by Walt Whitman, poetry commemorating Whitman's service as a nurse in the Civil War and chosen by Hindemith to mark the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Although Hindemith began the work in response to a specific death, he later gave it the subtitle "Requiem for Those We Love," adding a sense of mourning for all the victims of the Second World War. The quotation of a hymn, which Hindemith knew to have been derived from a Jewish melody, directs that sense of mourning more precisely to those who had died in the Holocaust. (For more background on the piece, see the excellent program note by Thomas May.)

A Hindemith anniversary (he died on December 28, 1963) has just passed without much notice, but Eschenbach's championship of the composer's music was marked with a Grammy award this year, in the category of Best Classical Compendium. (How a single disc of one composer's works counts as a "compendium" is another matter, but it is what it is.) He led an authoritative reading of Lilacs, drawing out plenty of booming sound from the orchestra and from the generally well-prepared Choral Arts Society of Washington, at their best in the implacable third movement ("March") and the large-proportioned seventh movement. This performance reunited mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and baritone Matthias Goerne, heard together two years ago with the NSO in Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Goerne, who was so on his game earlier in the week, was at his best in unaccompanied or softly orchestrated passages in the Hindemith, having to bellow a bit when the orchestra was at full bore. By contrast, DeYoung just owned the stage in her sweet Arioso movements, often beautifully shadowed by English horn solos, with a native pronunciation of English that revealed the shortcomings in Goerne's diction. From the ninth movement ("Death Carol") to the somber conclusion, especially, this was a tense and mournful experience, well worth hearing.

This concert repeats tonight and Saturday evening (January 31 and February 1, 8 pm).

At the NSO: Lilacs and Bell

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from just around the corner.

I believe the National Symphony Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach deserve full houses. Encouragingly, that’s what they got on Thursday evening. With a program of Paul Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd: A Requiem for those we love (never performed before by the NSO) and Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, I suspect on this occasion the reason for the full house was rather the popularity of Mendelssohn’s work and the star power of soloist


Ionarts-at-Large: Zelenka to fall in Love with at the Konzerthaus

Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679 – 1745) is a composer waiting to be fallen in love with—if only the half-way inclined listener gets a sufficient dose to hear of him. January 25th at the Wiener Konzerthaus provided such a chance with two Zelenka masterpieces performed as part of the ambitious annual Resonanzen Festival. Sweetening the deal to those Zelenkistas that were in attendance (with still plenty room for more, in the Grosser Saal) was the presence of

Wedding Bells on 'Swan Lake'

As previewed, the visit of the Mariinsky Ballet to the Kennedy Center Opera House, with a production of Swan Lake, seen on Tuesday night, is one of the highlights of the month. The Mariinsky production, like most productions everywhere, goes back to the St. Petersburg theater’s first staging of Swan Lake, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1895. The troupe now dances, however, an updating of the story created by Konstantin Sergeyev in 1950, which on one hand seems traditional because it remains close to Petipa in much of the choreography and the sets and costumes. On the other hand, it represents a fundamental shifting of the narrative weight, raising the profile of the villain, von Rothbart, by associating his evil power with the most famous theme in the ballet. Even more unsettling, it alters the tragic conclusion of the ballet, with Prince Siegfried battling von Rothbart, striking off one of his wings, which breaks the spell over the swan-maidens, setting them all free. Odette and Siegfried are reunited in love.

This was music to the ears of Miss Ionarts, who had been dreading two things about seeing her first Swan Lake: how scary would von Rothbart be, and how sad it would be to watch the lovers die or kill themselves. Miss Ionarts prefers a happy ending to a tragic one, but it has to be said that, from an adult point of view, this ending robs Swan Lake of a good portion of its dramatic power. This production, beautiful staged and beautifully danced, is still worth seeing and makes an excellent first Swan Lake for a younger viewer, but for those longing for the cathartic power of the story, matched so perfectly to its gorgeous score, it may be a letdown.

The first act thus becomes the dramatic crux of the work in many ways, from the gloomy introduction, by which the tragic tone of the work is announced, to the fateful encounter of the prince and the swan-maiden on the shore of the cursed lake. Andrei Yermakov’s von Rothbart, especially in his black swan costume with silver mask in the first and last acts, was all slashing winged arms and raptor-like menace. As Odette, principal dancer Alina Somova showed plenty of the gymnast’s flexibility that has so divided critics, with one particular en pointe extension that drew audible gasps from many in the audience. That quality in her dancing was an easy way to make the role of Odile, which she also portrayed, more seductive and physical than Odette. There were some extraordinary extensions of her long legs in lifts at the opening of Act II and a series of dizzying pirouettes, but it could have been exploited more for characterization.

While her Siegfried, principal dancer Vladimir Shklyarov, did not always achieve great height in leaps or full vertical position in spins, he was an affecting match with Somova in the pas de deux at the end of Act I, making that moment the climax of this version of the ballet, with Somova soaring effortlessly in the many lifts, a fragile butterfly captured by the prince, matched to the warm violin solo of Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra concertmaster Oleg Rylatko. The corps was at its best in the swan scenes, a perfectly unified flock of graceful white birds, with pleasing contributions as the revelers in the first act and in the divertissement of national dances in the court scenes of Act II.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, Mariinsky Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’ is magical (Washington Post, January 30)

Franziska Bork Petersen, Mariinsky brings the magic (Copenhagen Post, January 26)

Alistair Macaulay, Live From St. Petersburg (With Popcorn) (New York Times, June 12, 2013)

Ann Murphy, Mariinsky Ballet's 'Swan Lake' brings the beauty but not the tragic heart to the stage in Berkeley (San Jose Mercury-News, October 11, 2012)
Among the supporting cast, Sergeyev’s addition of a dynamic role for a jester in the court scenes was a fine vehicle for the kooky moves and antic leaps of Vladislav Shumakov, who made a distinguished appearance from the corps. (The character’s joking attempts to get himself kissed by the prince’s tutor, instead of the girls the tutor is aiming for, take on a whole new layer of meaning given the current controversy over anti-gay legislation in Russia.) The only shortcoming was one of the women among the prince’s friends at the Act I party, who have a series of dances to entertain the prince, where there was a minor stumble and what generally looked like an off night.

Mariinsky conductor Alexey Repnikov led a generally polished performance from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, in spite of the many stretches to the tempo that make a live orchestra so essential to ballet. The oboe solos in the principal tragic theme, which go very high, were skillfully if not effortlessly negotiated, and the trumpet solos, especially in the Neapolitan dance, were fine. The brass, in fact, was the most solid section in the orchestra, and there are many of them (cornets, trumpets, horns, trombones, and tuba), making for some ominous clouds of sound.

This production from the Mariinsky Ballet continues through Sunday afternoon, in the Kennedy Center Opera House, but except for this evening, all performances are already sold out.


Ionarts-at-Large: Sex, Drinks, and Leotards

The Bavarian State Opera’s David Alden production of La Calisto constitutes the three shortest hours I’ve enjoyed anywhere in an opera house. The wild story about Jupiter's lust for the nymph Calisto, who is eventually turned into a bear by his jealous wife, Juno (and then into the big dipper) is such a romp and such pure entertainment, it’s like going to the movies. All the signature items of an Alden production are there: loud colors, creative costumes, polished floors, zebra-striped walls and curved laminated wood paneling—courtesy Paul Steinberg’s set and Buki Shiff's wildly diverse costumes, which range from a Tin Woodman-business suit for Mercury to a beautifully realistic Chameleon-butler to a salaciously detailed faun costume for Satirino, a creature half goat, half counter tenor Domique Visse (who has played the part in every of the now four runs of La Calisto).

Only the plastic machine gun of Giove’s was new to this revival, and pathetic, as every


The Pretty Miller-Maid and the Brook

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Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin, M. Goerne, C. Eschenbach
(Harmonia Mundi, 2009)

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Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin, M. Goerne, E. Schneider
(Decca, 2002)

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S. Youens, Schubert, Müller, and Die schöne Müllerin
Matthias Goerne is back in town this week, for concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra. As the German baritone did during his 2012 visit, he teamed up with Christophe Eschenbach, as pianist, to perform a Schubert song cycle. Then it was a rather bleak, unhinged Winterreise, and on Monday night the duo performed Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin, a cycle that they recorded for Harmonia Mundi a few years ago. Unlike that Winterreise two years ago, where Goerne sounded a little bit under the weather, he was in splendid voice last night, able to roar with the manic obsessions of the narrator, as well as croon his secret yearnings and delusions.

This cycle, about a wandering young man who takes a job at a mill along a stream somewhere, has been analyzed endlessly, by pianist Graham Johnson and scholar Susan Youens, among many others. Schubert took the poetry by Wilhelm Müller and, merely by omitting some poems, gave it a rather different spin. Most notably, Schubert's music makes the brook, which babbles to the young man and ultimately sings a lullaby to him as he drowns under its waves, into one of the major characters. From our era, with a more scientific understanding of mental illness, it is easy to imagine the narrator as a young adult who has started to manifest symptoms of schizophrenia, hearing voices, becoming paranoid and unpredictable, and gradually losing touch with reality. All through the course of these twenty songs, with an arresting narrative sense and exquisite German diction, Goerne seemed in dialogue with the sounds of the river coming forth from Eschenbach's piano. The language of music, which can suggest but not signify, is in this context a brilliant way to incarnate the "speech" that only the afflicted young man can understand. Goerne's tendency to lean under the lid of the piano even suggested the fantasy of climbing into a grave, which the narrator dreams about at one point, with the shape of the grand piano suggesting that of a coffin.

Eschenbach excels as an accompanist for someone like Goerne, always willing to follow his singer into any stray alley, accommodate every hesitation and strange tempo choice (helping make no. 6, "The Questioner," for example, into a truly odd, recitative-like experience), if not always with every detail of the more demanding songs quite in line. At the same time, Eschenbach brought out many elements in the accompaniment that were new to my ears, like the sense of bells tolling the end of the work day in no. 4 (Giving thanks to the brook) or the brook's rippling in no. 10 merging or overlapping with the idea of the beloved woman in the narrator's mind.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Goerne, Eschenbach offer searing, ravishing Schubert cycle (Washington Post, January 29)

Philip Kennicott, Matthias Goerne sings Schubert (, January 27)

Lawrence A. Johnson, Goerne and Eschenbach deliver memorable Schubert journey (Chicago Classical Review, January 20)
Schubert first published this cycle in higher keys, and it has always sounded most successful to me when sung by a tenor, but Goerne sold me on the idea of a baritone singing it, because he used the growling power of his voice to communicate the narrator's mind becoming unhinged, as he perseverated on certain delusions, again revealing new facets of the cycle, and because he used the high, sweet head voice in many other places, keeping that sense of the moony dreamer, exquisitely so in no. 18 ("Withered flowers"). The performers introduced long pauses into certain songs, silences in which part of the storytelling transpired on Goerne's face and body, and in other places ran the songs together with no break at all, creating the sense of a disordered mind juxtaposing many moods. The only misstep in this performance was the glacial tempo of the final song, the brook's lullaby, which missed the chance to hit a dramatic home run, drawing out the conclusion of the cycle until it came close to stagnating. It did not make the overall experience anything less than intense, but it seemed to have left some of the possible intensity on the table.

Matthias Goerne and Michelle DeYoung will be reunited this week, for performances of Hindemith's When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd with the National Symphony Orchestra (January 30 to February 1).


Miranda Cuckson @ Embassy of France

Charles T. Downey, American violinist Miranda Cuckson kicks off Embassy of France’s Fusion program
Washington Post, January 27, 2014

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Nono, La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura, M. Cuckson, C. Burns
The concert series at the Embassy of France has been reborn. On Friday night, the new cultural attaché, Catherine Albertini, appointed in 2012, introduced the first concert of a program called Fusion, intended to promote young French and American musicians in a spirit of international cooperation. While Quatuor Eclisses, a quartet of French guitarists, was slated to perform at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, American violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Yegor Shevtsov took the stage of the embassy’s auditorium. The series is presented under the aegis of France Musique, the French public radio station, which may broadcast these concerts in the future.

Cuckson’s program likewise highlighted the interchange of compositional ideas between France and the United States. The foundation of this 20th-century program was Claude Debussy, represented by his extremely late violin sonata, given a gauzy, subdued performance that suited Cuckson’s elegant, ribbon-like tone, which Shevtsov never overpowered from the keyboard. [Continue reading]
Miranda Cuckson (violin) and Yegor Shevtsov (piano)
Embassy of France


In Brief: Claudio Abbado 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.

  • Remember Claudio Abbado, who passed away this week, with this recording of Mahler's second symphony, performed at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1985, with Abbado leading the Orchestre des Jeunes de la Communauté Européenne. [France Musique]

  • More Abbado, with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and pianist Maurizio Pollini, in music by Mozart (Piano Concerto, KV 453) and Bruckner (Symphony No. 1), recorded in 2012 in Vienna. [ORF]

  • Watch more Mahler with Abbado, the ninth symphony, performed by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, recorded in 2010. []

  • Claudio Abbado conducts Verdi's Simon Boccanegra at La Scala, recorded in 1977, with Piero Cappuccilli (Simon Bogganegra), Mirella Freni (Amelia), Nicolai Ghiaurov (Fiesco), José Carreras (Gabriele Adorno), José van Dam (Paolo), and others. [ORF]

  • Much more Mahler conducted by Claudio Abbado. [YouTube]

  • From the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, Gustavo Dudamel leads the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Simon Bolivar Orchestra, the Choeur de Radio France, and the Maîtrise Notre-Dame de Paris in Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts. [France Musique]

  • We wrote about the restoration of Vivaldi's opera Catone in Utica. Hear a live performance by the same forces, Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco, but a slightly different cast, including Colin Balzer taking over the title role -- recorded earlier this month in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. [France Musique]

  • Fabio Biondi leads a performance of Francesco Maria Veracini's opera Adriano in Siria, with Europa Galante, starring Sonia Prina (Adriano), Ann Hallenberg (Farnaspe), Romina Basso (Sabina), Roberta Invernizzi (Emirena), and others, recorded earlier this month in Vienna. [ORF]

  • Marc Minkowski leads a performance of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, with Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble and the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg, starring Bejun Mehta (Orfeo) and Camilla Tilling (Euridice). [ORF]

  • Listen to Telemann's Tafelmusik, performed by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. [RTBF]


For Your Consideration: 'The World's End' and 'The Way, Way Back'

The most relevant awards for the best movies of the year are those from associations of impartial film critics -- Critics' Choice, San Francisco, Toronto, London. One of the unfortunate results of the way the Academy Awards are categorized and decided is that excellent films that happen to be comedies are mostly ignored. These two movies made several of the critics' lists, and they are both worth seeing.

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The World's End (directed by Edgar Wright)
The World's End is the third installment of Edgar Wright's trilogy about loveable, pub-bound losers in world-altering circumstances. After sorting out the Zombie Apocalypse (Shaun of the Dead) and a small-town neighborhood watch conspiracy (Hot Fuzz), Wright and the usual suspects find themselves in another town where all is not as it seems. (In between came Wright's strange but also funny Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, not with the British crew, but that had the same curious mix of aimless youth and wild fantasy.) This time, we follow a band of mates who return to their home town, the idyllic village of Newton Haven, to try to relive a legendary night of drinking from their youth. They are grudgingly reunited by Gary King, played by Simon Pegg, who shares the screenwriting credit with Wright, a high school notable whom time has left behind.


Avner Dorman and Martin Grubinger @ NSO

When was the last time someone composed a concerto for percussion that really caught my fancy? Not Jennifer Higdon (2005); and not Michael Daugherty (1999). Maybe when the percussion concerto becomes a more substantial piece that features a lot of percussion, like Erkki-Sven Tüür's fourth symphony (2002), which is the one I remember most fondly. Everyone seems to have written one: Kalevi Aho (2012), John Mackey (2010), Kevin Puts (2006), Steven Stucky (2003), and many others. Add to the list Frozen in Time, a percussion concerto by Israeli-born composer Avner Dorman, premiered in 2007, just a year after his first percussion concerto, Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!. The piece has been making the rounds, racking up over sixty first performances with various orchestras, most recently the National Symphony Orchestra, where it came to my ears last night.

A percussion concerto is an easy sell, which is a rare commodity in marketing new music. That stack of intriguing instruments and mallets, the balletic movement of the soloist, the power of those instruments to carry over an orchestra, to set the heart racing with their domineering pulse. Dorman's piece has considerable appeal, and it carried most of the audience -- thanks in no small part to the virtuosic performance of soloist Martin Grubinger. If it left me disappointed, it was mostly because it seemed so derivative. It surveys three continents in its three movements, alluding to rhythmic traditions of each one. The first movement, IndoAfrica, is the least transparent, but mostly set to a square pulse with a couple slower interludes. The middle movement, Eurasia -- "the heart of the piece" in the composer's words -- features an extensive vibraphone solo that veers dangerously close to any number of songs in 70s movies (by, say, Burt Bacharach), even doubled at times by wandering cocktail piano. The third movement, The Americas, apes Piazzolla and Bernstein, complete with bluesy saxophone solos, capped at one point by an almost literal quotation of the theme from Peter Gunn by Henry Mancini -- Latin music lite. (For a more sympathetic view, see Jens's review, also of Grubinger, from Munich in 2008.)

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Contemporary percussion staple hits NSO (Washington Post, January 24)
The concerto was surrounded by much more traditional fare, played capably but without much to give me cause to sit up and take notice. Mozart's "Haffner" symphony (D major, K. 385) was light and bubbly, with the cellos and basses (strings whittled down to 10/8/6/4/3, or thereabouts) separated by a vast distance, with Grubinger's battery of percussion instruments already set up between them and conductor Christoph Eschenbach. The interpretation featured some quiet passages, allowing the woodwinds to burble in peace, subtle, not overplayed -- the Andante warm and stately, the Menuetto a little plain, with a portly trio. The very fast finale was too much to keep the fastest notes from getting a little blurry in the strings, perhaps by intention. The NSO had not played Dvořák's ninth symphony since 2007, with Emmanuel Krivine at the podium, and as expected Eschenbach put all sorts of touches on it. This did not add up to anything revelatory, in spite of an extra-nostaglic English horn solo in the second movement and some puissant brass sounds. The tuning of the all-woodwind sections did not always quite lock into place, and there were a couple of misplaced notes in the first movement, but for the most part it was well played. It is such a well-constructed piece that it almost cannot miss its mark, which is why it is so popular with audiences.

This concert repeats on Saturday night.


Takács Plays Bartók, Part 2

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Bartók, String Quartets, Takács Quartet
(2d ed., 1998)

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Bartók, String Quartets, Takács Quartet
(1st ed., 1985)

The Takács Quartet was back in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater last night for the second part of its complete Bartók cycle (see my review of Part 1). The trajectory was much the same in the even-numbered string quartets, as we heard the composer experiment with modernist techniques and incorporate folk music (or folk sensibilities, as he might have put it) to arrive at an often dissonant style that retains many traditional qualities.

Bartók composed the second quartet from 1915 to 1917, when he lived in the suburbs of Budapest, of which period scholar János Kárpáti says that "the general worries of the war-torn world made his life difficult." It overlapped with the composition of another major work of that time, The Wooden Prince, with which it shares many experimental qualities. As we have heard from the Takács before in this piece (at the Corcoran in 2008 and 2006), the contrapuntal lines were clear throughout, savoring the dissonances of the opening (E-flat in second violin against D in the viola) and hammering them later. The folk-like accelerando and decelerando of the second movement reflected the quartet's collaborations with Muzsikás, an ensemble dedicated to performing Hungarian folk music: a music of fits and starts, half-sung serenades, jokes told and repeated. This set up a stark contrast with the devastating lament of the third movement, the first violin of Edward Dusinberre keening over sighed dissonances.

The fourth quartet, composed in 1928 and 1929, came on the heels of no. 3, set in a palindromic form that became a Bartók hallmark, five movements arranged symmetrically around the central slow movement. As heard when the group performed it last, in 2012, it is a compendium of odd effects -- harmonics, rhythmic ostinati, growls. In particular, the second and fourth movements, based on unusual sounds (muted strings in the former, plucked ones in the latter), dazzled, with magical cat-meow glissandi punctuating the madcap buzzing in the second movement and an almost banjo-like consistency in the pizzicato. The night music of the central slow movement featured gorgeous solos from cello (folksy), viola (almost self-throttling), and violin (like a night bird).

Only the first quartet, heard the first night, and the sixth quartet, composed in 1939, had not been reviewed live in these pages before from the Takács. As the musicians sat down to play no. 6, a feeling of sadness descended over me, as I realized that the cycle had to come to an end. Geraldine Walther, who was once an associate principal in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, gave a plangent reading of the opening viola solo, setting the tone of tragedy that begins each movement and is left hovering in the room at the end of the work. The march of the second movement was weighty and often grotesque, with a folk music-like middle section, while the Burletta of the third movement was likewise worthy of Shostakovich, the improvised accompaniment of a silent film farce. These two concerts confirmed my belief that one will not hear any other group perform Bartók's string quartets better today than the Takács.


Takács Plays Bartók, Part 1

available at Amazon
Bartók, String Quartets, Takács Quartet
(2d ed., 1998)

available at Amazon
Bartók, String Quartets, Takács Quartet
(1st ed., 1985)
One of the most interesting things that the Fortas Chamber Concerts series, at the Kennedy Center, does is to host a complete cycle of a composer's string quartets (pace Will Robin). The last of these we reviewed was the Shostakovich set performed by the Emerson Quartet in 2007 and 2008. As a followup to the appearance of the Takács Quartet on the series in 2012, which featured a memorable performance of Béla Bartók's fourth quartet, the series has engaged the group to present a complete cycle of the Hungarian composer's string quartets. History has shown that we will endure pretty much anything to hear the Takács Quartet play, so a little snow was not about to keep me home for the first of the two concerts, heard last night in the Terrace Theater.

In one sense, the scores of the Bartók string quartets trace one composer's absorption of the musical trends of the first half of the 20th century -- something that composer George Perle, an acute analyst, noted almost fifty years ago. The Takács's division of the six quartets, all of the odd-numbered quartets the first evening and the evens the second, makes it possible to hear that trajectory twice. Beginning with the first quartet, the only one composed before World War I, they gave Bartók's exploration of more Romantic tonal harmony a heated rendition. Bartók began the piece just after his obsession with the young violinist Steffi Geyer had come to its end: scholar János Kárpáti puts the dates of composition, from sketches to publication, at 1907 to 1909. Kárpáti describes an annotation the composer made in the score of the firts violin concerto around the same time -- a date in 1907 and the word Jászberény, which Geyer has interpreted as a reference to the time that Bartók likely fell in love with her, when she and her brother invited the composer as a guest in their relatives' house in that city. The broken seventh chord that begins the first quartet's first movement is a variation of the so-called "Steffi Geyer-motif," leading Kárpáti to describe the movement as "the concentrate of the Violin Concerto." The two pieces are the closest, in Kárpáti's estimation, that Bartók came to a close imitation of the longing love-death style of harmony and melodic writing he admired in Wagner. These are the qualities that the Takács Quartet brought out so admirably, each instrument's line sounding so beautiful on its own and integrated into the whole.

Other Reviews:

Zachary Woolfe, Taking On a Master and His Many Complexities (New York Times, January 22)

George Grella, Compelling and mysterious, the inner Bartók is explored by the Takács Quartet (New York Classical Review, January 19)
Already by the end of the first quartet, Bartók seems to have rejected the post-Wagnerian style and begun to experiment with harsher sounds. He entered his third quartet, composed in 1927, in the Philadelphia Musical Fund Society competition, and it won. Last heard from the Takács at the Corcoran in 2004, it shows the composer playing with every possible kind of hard-edged sound and the musicians of the Takács wrung all the energy from it that they could. Their Bartók is so pleasing, though, because they find beauty and balance even in the oddest sounds: beautifully tuned clusters, sighing pizzicato glissandi (a specialty of cellist András Fejér), clacking bow bounces and other percussive effects. Bartók showed a way forward for modern composition in his last two quartets, represented here by no. 5 (last heard from the Takács at the Corcoran in 2008, when we called for them to perform the complete quartets of Bartók here in Washington). Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who had a great ear for talent, commissioned this quartet, ensuring that its world premiere would be right here in Washington, at the Library of Congress in 1935. Post-Romantic retrogression was not the way, but neither was the total abandonment of tonality, for the latter was difficult to reconcile with the folk music that he had spent so much time studying and preserving. If pressed, I would choose the fifth quartet as my favorite of the cycle, and the Takács gets all of the gestures and sounds compressed into its five-movement arch, symmetries within symmetries: the singing of frogs and buzz of insects, the folk dance rhythms, the send-up of a Viennese serenade, here played not too beautifully, with a sense of the grotesque.

The cycle concludes tonight, in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, and tickets still remain.


For Your Consideration: 'Nebraska'

The Academy has made its nominations for the year, and it has not improved my declining willingness to care about them. It does give me an idea of what films I really need to see, of those I missed during the year, but so do the awards from various critics' associations and critics' Best of the Year roundups, which are superior because they are more impartial. The most recent film from director Alexander Payne would have been on my list in any case. His last feature, The Descendants, was one of my favorite movies in consideration last year, but it was far afield from his home territory, the American plains, where he grew up and continues to spend a lot of time shooting.

Nebraska returns to the formula of Payne's earlier films Sideways and About Schmidt, which concerned voyages of self-discovery. In both, it was an impending marriage that was the impetus for the journey, while in Nebraska the motivating life-altering event may be construed as death. Woody, an aging father of two grown sons in Montana, takes a sweepstakes "award" notification at face value, setting off to pick up his million-dollar prize in Lincoln, Nebraska, on foot if need be. His son David, who is at a crossroads in his own life, floundering in his career and just broken up with his girlfriend, decides to drive Woody to Lincoln, which seems the only way to make his dad understand that the prize is not what he thinks it is. A trip with someone who is forgetful and prone to wander off turns out not to be as easy as David thought, and his mother suggests that they stop for the weekend in Hawthorne, the Nowhereburg where Woody spent his childhood. His dad's former life is unearthed, and when people get wind of the million-dollar prize, everyone wants a piece of the action. In Hawthorne, which here represents all of those little towns in middle America that are dying, there is not much else to put one's hope on.

Other Reviews:

New York Times | Washington Post | The New Yorker | Los Angeles Times | Richard Brody
Wall Street Journal | Christian Science Monitor | Rolling Stone | David Edelstein | NPR

If the movie has a harder edge, making it not feel quite like Payne's earlier features, it is likely because the screenwriter here is not Payne, but Bob Nelson, for whom this is the first major writing credit. That makes Nelson's nomination for an Academy Award, for Writing an Original Screenplay, quite a coup. Much about the script rings true to me -- someone who grew up not in the plains but in the Midwest -- especially the monosyllabic older male characters, who carry heavy silences looped around their necks. Bruce Dern deserves the nomination he received for Best Actor in that regard, for having incarnated that laconic quality in a role that is so central, yet never losing one's attention. Other things about the script rang less true, especially in the writing for the other members of Woody's family -- both Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk, as Woody's sons, felt far less natural. June Squibb's feisty portrayal of Woody's wife got a nod for Best Supporting Actress, but while her sharp tongue reminded me of many women I grew up knowing, her frank talk on the sexual history of Hawthorne, including herself, did not.

available at Amazon
Nebraska (directed by Alexander Payne)
Payne's decision to shoot the film in wide-screen black and white left me wondering. On one hand it added a certain nobility to the dreary locations, making for some grand beauty shots of the big skies and broad vistas (earning cinematographer Phedon Papamichael a nomination, in which category he will likely lose to Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity). On the other hand, it felt like a crutch to the nostalgia the film sought to inspire, as Woody and his family revisited the sites and people of his childhood. Places become so imbued with memory, and color is part of it. This past summer, I went back to the small town in Michigan where I grew up and swam in memories in many places, like the olde-time train station, which has not changed a bit since I sat there with my parents as a child, waiting for the arrival of an aunt or cousin. The "skyscraper" building where I once visited my father's office, which seemed like the grandest building I had ever seen -- the atrium, the glass and steel, the sleek escalators -- had had a major fire and was condemned to be torn down. Those feelings came to mind as Woody and his family visit the farmstead where he grew up, now abandoned and falling to pieces. Payne, nominated for Best Director, gets at that intersection between person and time like few others.


Opera Lafayette: 'Les Femmes vengées'

It is always exciting to see a long-vanished work of music live again, especially an opera that comes back to life on the stage. This is what Opera Lafayette does, in earlier years in concert performance and lately on the stage of the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater and other venues. In many cases, the thrill of seeing the revival is where it ends, with the rediscovery of a work that one feels can then return to its well-earned obscurity, but once in a while one finds a work that deserves to rise more permanently from the dead. Les Femmes vengées, premiered in Paris in 1775, is such an opera, brought back to the stage in a production based on its original one on Friday night.

This is the matching wing of this season's infidelity diptych from Opera Lafayette, which began with a French version of Mozart's Così fan tutte last fall. As grafted on to each other in this pairing, Despina has married a painter, Monsieur Riss, and corresponding to the crossed lovers of Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto are two married couples. When the husbands begin to stray, making advances to Madame Riss, she plans a clever revenge, bringing their wives into the apartment. While the husbands watch and listen, hidden in a closet and unable to speak out for fear of betraying their own infidelity, Monsieur Riss is left alone with each of the wives and pretends to seduce them, advances that the women pretend to find tempting -- or do they pretend? The plot was drawn from Les Rémois, a rhymed conte by Jean de La Fontaine.

David Alden's La Calisto at the Bavarian State Opera: A Dreamboat Production

Picture courtesy Bavarian State opera, © Wilfried Hösl

The Bavarian State Opera’s David Alden production of La Calisto are the three shortest hours I’ve enjoyed anywhere in an opera house. The wild story about Jupiter's lust for the nymph Calisto, who is eventually turned into a bear by his jealous wife, Juno (and then into the big dipper) is such a romp and such pure entertainment, it’s like going to the movies. All the signature items of an Alden production are there: loud colors, creative costumes, polished floors, zebra-striped walls and curved laminated wood paneling—courtesy Paul Steinberg’s set and Buki Shiff's wildly diverse costumes, which range from a Tin Woodman-business suit for Mercury to a beautifully realistic Chameleon-butler to a salaciously detailed faun costume for Satirino, a creature half goat, half countertenor Dominique Visse (who has played the part in every of the now four runs of La Calisto).

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Francesco Cavalli, La Calisto

Only the plastic machine gun of Giove’s was new to this revival and pathetic as every fake machine gun on stage must invariably be. That prop has never worked and won’t likely ever will. That’s annoying, as are the fake smoking of fake cigarettes and drinking from empty plastic glasses. I might expect such cheap cardinal sins of staging from more provincial houses, but not the Bavarian State Opera. Pet peeves of mine though those are, what can they matter when compared to the saucy joviality of the work, and the beguiling music of Pietro Francesco Caletti-Bruni (1602-1676), better known as Francesco Cavalli.

The best of Alden’s productions are acts of light genius, ever straddling the fence between high camp and cleverness, and always coming down on the right side. That’s certainly true for this one, and his deft touches show everywhere. One example: When Giove (Luca Tittoto, dashing between bravado, bluster, and meekness) impersonates Diana (to get Calisto, the chaste follower of Diana into the sack) Anna Bonitatibus’s sings from the darkened pit in front of the stage while Tittoto acts and lip-syncs with aplomb on stage, flimsily disguised as Diana. There is one exception: Giove sings his part in falsetto when conversing with Karina Gauvin’s Giunone when he clings to his disguise even though his act is obviously up.

Nikolay Borchev’s Mercurio—Giove’s Leporello of sorts—started a little congested but came through in stalwart manner. Anna Bonitatibus, as Diana (on and off stage) championed a fruity mezzo with vibrato and volume to fit a performance that played everything up. For comedic effect, she would channel an Erika-Köth-memorial-vibrato that challenged the goat bleating of Dominique Visse, but as Diana she went back to a plainer gorgeousness. In the love-quest sideshow, maybe-not-so-chaste-Diana-after-all falls hard for her tall dark stranger Endimione who convinced vocally and visually with rare boyish-yet-manly countertenor charm and sonority.

Sally Matthew created the role of Calisto for Alden and so threw herself into her part, that it seemed impossible to repeat the success with subsequent casts. I was proven wrong by a fine second cast some years ago, and again on January 15th, when Danielle de Niese and her colleagues on stage showed that this production will make any good singing actor shine. De Niese is a brilliant young operatic plaything who wiggles and struggles like Penelope (Pepe le Pew’s love interest in the Warner Brothers cartoons) while making big innocent eyes that would put Bugs Bunny to shame. It’s a different kind of act than Matthew’s: more visceral, with a warm, pretty, and slightly forgettable voice, but she certainly filled Calisto’s leotard with aplomb.

Ivor Bolton, the linchpin of Munich's Baroque revivals, uses a specially created edition of the score by Álvaro Torrente which applies much appreciated and very prudent cuts. The band, which performed entirely on period instruments for the first time when this La Calisto was first shown in 2005, was in fine fettle and just a little kick and jolt shy of a perfect night. Let’s hope the set gets a good shine and another few revivals.

January 2014

Cast list:

Ionarts-at-Large: A Buchbinder & Gatti Burleske

The lure of Hindemith, lo and behold, nearly filled out the 2500 seat Philharmonic Hall of the Gasteig on January 9, where Daniele Gatti conducted the vagabond Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (lobbying hard and busily for a deserved concert hall of their own) in the Konzertmusik op.50, sandwiching Richard Strauss’ Piano Concerto and the Mathis der Maler Symphony. Finally a Wagnerian chocolate on the

Chamber Symphonies in Fairfax

Charles T. Downey, Concert review: Fairfax Symphony Orchestra balances the sweet and astringent
Washington Post, January 20, 2014

available at Amazon
Britten, Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings (inter alia), I. Bostridge, Berlin Philharmonic, S. Rattle
The Washington area has so many regional orchestras that the enterprising ensembles among them would do well to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Christopher Zimmerman, the music director of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, has been doing just that with his alluring choice of repertoire. The group’s latest concert, on Saturday night at George Mason University, brought together four pieces that I have not heard from a local orchestra in at least a decade.

A mirrorlike arrangement of the pieces embedded two more serious works between lighter ones, by Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten, both of which recycle and preserve music written early in each composer’s career. Elgar’s “Serenade in E Minor” was a mellow experience, the outer movements gently rolling and the middle slow movement tender, the juicy dissonances drawn out sweetly. Britten’s “Simple Symphony” was just as pleasing, each movement like a bite-size petit four, here tart and there chocolate-smooth. [Continue reading]
Fairfax Symphony Orchestra
Music by Elgar, Britten, Shostakovich
George Mason University, Harris Theater


In Brief: Polar Vortex 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.

  • James Conlon conducts Verdi's I due Foscari at the Theater an der Wien, with a cast starring Placido Domingo (Francesco Foscari), Arturo Chacón-Cruz (Jacopo Foscari), and Davinia Rodriguez (Lucrezia Contarini). [ORF]

  • The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, with soprano Johannette Zomer, perform cantatas and other music by Johann Sebastian Bach. [ORF]

  • Listen to the world premiere of Isis and Osiris by Jacques Lenot, recorded on January 13 at Ircam. [France Musique]

  • John Taverner's Western Wynde Mass, with Andrew Carwood leading the BBC Singers at St Paul's Knightsbridge. [BBC3]

  • Watch members of Les Arts Florissants, led by Paul Agnew, perform the sixth book of Claudio Monteverdi's madrigals. [Cité de la Musique Live]

  • From a concert recorded last summer at the Stadtkirche in Ruhland, chamber music performed by the Vienna Piano Trio and friends. [RTBF]

  • The world premiere of the new viola concerto by James MacMillan, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting soloist Lawrence Power and the London Philharmonic. [BBC3]


Dip Your Ears, No. 169 (Artemis Tango)

available at Amazon
The Piazzolla Project
Artemis Quartet

Concierto para quinteto

You might have thought that the train for Piazzolla recordings by classical musicians had left quite a while ago. However the Artemis Quartet went tangoing their way into the tasteful crossover limelight with this 2009 disc on Virgin Classics [now Erato]: “The Piazzolla Project”. The name reminds me of something pompous the Emerson Quartet might do, but the content is of such quality that the transcriptions for Piano Quintet, Piano Trio, and String Quartet are good listening any time, unfazed by the coming and going of tango fads. It had to be done then, too, because before long the Quatuor Èbéne, then fresh on Virgin Classics [now Erato], would be going to record similar crossover material with which they already regaled audiences.

It’s all there: Estaciones Porteñas, Piazzolla’s homage to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. La Muere del Angel and the rest of the Angel Suite, which everyone has played, from Emanuel Ax (“Los Tangueros” with Pablo Ziegler), to Gidon Kremer, to the 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic. Fuga y Misterio (from “Maria di Buenos Aires”), that has been brought to us by the likes of LAGQ and Imani Winds. None of that gets old, because it’s fabulous music.

The Concierto para quinteto, the one rarely recorded work, is the most charming of them all. And while the Artemis Quartet and wonderful pianist Jacques Ammon interpret and play Piazzolla in a way that remains solidly in the classical concert realm, their passion and virtuosity brings them close to the free-wheeling, almost improvisatory spirit that lies at the core of the music.

Among the classical-Piazzolla discs I most cherish are Barenboim’s “Mi Buenos Aires Querido” and Josep Pons’ orchestral disc on Harmonia Mundi. The Artemis Quartet, led by their long time Piazzolla adoring and performing cellist Eckart Runge, has a good shot at joining them.


NSO: Mark Elder, Stephen Hough

Charles T. Downey, NSO review: Mark Elder, Stephen Hough offer a spirited performance of Lizst concerto
Washington Post, January 14, 2014

available at Amazon
Elgar, In the South (inter alia), Hallé, M. Elder
One hallmark of Christoph Eschenbach’s tenure at the National Symphony Orchestra has been innovative programming. Many concerts have balanced familiar favorites with music never before played by the ensemble, or not played in a long time. The trend continues this week under guest conductor Mark Elder, who on Thursday night led a spirited performance of Liszt’s first piano concerto, sandwiched between nostalgic renditions of tone poems by Edward Elgar and Richard Strauss.

Pianist Stephen Hough provided the fireworks in the Liszt, a slightly naughty thriller packed into 20 exciting minutes. If it seems as though Hough was just in the area, he was — playing Liszt’s second concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last year and Rachmaninoff’s first with the NSO the year before that. Hough again showed solid technique, with a whiff of the demonic in the more challenging sections and a theatrical touch that served the piece well. [Continue reading]
National Symphony Orchestra
With Mark Elder (conductor) and Stephen Hough (piano)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

Elder (2008)

Hough: BSO (2013), NSO (2012)

Liszt's first concerto: BSO and Yuja Wang (2005)

Don Quixote, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (2012)


À mon chevet: 'Die Blechtrommel'

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

book cover
It wasn't till mid-December that the accusations of the lacquered, red-flamed conscience round my neck began to lose their persuasive power: the lacquer showed hairline cracks and started to peel. The tin began to yield, grow thin, and split before turning transparent. As always when something is suffering and struggling toward its end, the eyewitness wishes to shorten its sufferings, to end things more rapidly. Oskar speeded up during the final weeks of Advent, worked so hard the neighbors and Matzerath held their heads in their hands, was determined to settle his accounts by Christmas Eve; for on Christmas Eve I hoped to receive a new, guiltless drum.

I made it. On the eve of the twenty-fourth of December I rid my body and my soul of a crumpled, flapping, rusty something, reminiscent of a wrecked car, and with that I hoped the defense of the Polish Post Office had also been crushed once and for all. Never has any human being -- if you are prepared to accept me as one -- experienced a more disappointing Christmas than Oskar, who found beneath the Christmas tree a whole range of presents set out for him save one -- a tin drum.

There was a set of building blocks I never even opened. A rocking swan, meant as a very special present, was supposed to turn me into Lohengrin. Just to annoy me, no doubt, they had the nerve to place three or four picture books on the gift table. The only items that appeared useful were a pair of gloves, some laced boots, and a red sweater Gretchen Scheffler had knitted. Dismayed, Oskar let his gaze glide from the building blocks to the swan, stared at the picture-book teddy bears meant to be cute, holding all sorts of musical instruments in their paws. One of these adorable, mendacious beasts even held a drum, looked as if he knew how to drum, as if he were about to launch into a drum solo, as if he were drumming away; and I had a swan but no drum, probably more than a thousand building blocks but not a single drum, had mittens for all those bitter-cold winter nights but nothing round, smooth, ice-cold, lacquered, and tinny in my mittened fists to carry into the winter night so the frost could finally hear something truly white.

Oskar thought to himself: Matzerath has hidden the drum. Or Gretchen Scheffler, who's come with her baker husband to polish off the Christmas goose, is sitting on it. They want to share my pleasure in the swan, the building blocks, and the picture books before they pull out the real treasure. I gave in, leafed like a fool through the picture books, mounted the swan, and rocked back and forth in utter disgust for at least half an hour. Then in spite of the overheated apartment I let them try the sweater on me, slipped into the boots with Gretchen Scheffler's help -- meanwhile the Greffs had arrived too, since the goose would serve six -- and after wolfing down the goose, stuffed with dried fruit, masterfully prepared by Matzerath, during dessert -- plums and pears -- desperately clutching a picture book Greff had added to my other four, after soup, goose, red cabbage, boiled potatoes, plums and pears, breathed on by a hot tile stove, we all sang -- and Oskar sang too -- a Christmas carol and another verse, Rejoice, and Ochristmastreeochristmastreehowlovelyarethy-ringbellsgotingalingaling-everyyearatchristmas and felt it was about time -- they were already ringing the bells outside -- I wanted my drum -- the drunken brass band that Meyn the musician had once belonged to blew so loud the icicles at the window ledge... but I wanted, and they weren't giving, weren't bringing out, Oscar "Yes!" the others "No!" -- and then I screamed, I hadn't screamed in a long time, I filed my voice to a sharp, glass-cutting instrument once more, after its long rest, and didn't slay vases, or beer glasses, or light bulbs, sliced open no showcase window, blinded no spectacles -- instead my vocal resentment was directed at all those resplendent glass balls, bells, silvery shining bubbles, and treetop baubles spreading good cheer on the Ochristmastree: ringadinging and tinalingalinging, the Christmas tree ornaments were shattered to dust. Quite superfluously, several dustpans' worth of pine needles detached themselves at the same time. But the candles went on burning, silent and holy, and Oskar still didn't get his drum.

-- Günter Grass, The Tin Drum, pp. 242-243 (translation by Breon Mitchell)
This book, usually cited as the most important German novel published since World War II, does not need my recommendation, but it has it anyway. It has an unusual history of readership, since it became widely known in an English translation, by Ralph Manheim, that straightened out some of its literary oddities. This new translation, commissioned in honor of the 50th anniversary of the novel's publication, is of interest even to those who have already read the book because it restores some of those oddities. (The text concludes with a fascinating note from the translator, Breon Mitchell, about the aims of translation.) One of the major themes of the book is the specter of the Black Cook, first introduced as the character in a folk song sung by children, Ist die schwarze Köchin da?, which becomes a frightening symbol of Death. The song is, one presumes, familiar enough to German readers, but for those unfamiliar with the song, and the children's game that goes with it, see the video embedded below.


For Your Consideration: 'Saving Mr. Banks'

B. J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the Sherman Brothers, in Saving Mr. Banks

Mary Poppins is one of my favorite movies, both when I was a child and now to share with my kids. Miss Ionarts, in particular, adores it. It may come as a surprise for children to learn that the woman who created the character of Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers, refused Disney the rights to Mary Poppins for years. Eventually, it was the whiff of green, the Mouse's deep pockets, that changed Travers's mind. Little surprise, there -- when Salvador Dalí worked for Disney, on an unrealized project called Destino, André Breton excommunicated Dalí from the circle of the surrealist elect, rearranging the letters in Dalí's name to make the anagram Avida Dollars (hungry for dollars). The recent film Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of the financial transaction between Disney and Travers in a benign and rather charming way. Not coincidentally, it was bankrolled by Disney.

The movie's charm is largely due to the stiflingly proper, stiff-lipped performance of Emma Thompson as the Disney-hating author. She frowns at the sun and palm trees of California, stares down her smiling driver (an open-faced Paul Giamatti), spars cleverly with Walt Disney himself (a sure-footed but ultimately rather plain, even sanitized performance by Tom Hanks). Insisting that she have the last word on the screenplay adaptation, most of which is already developed and not to her liking, Thomson's Travers drives the studio's screenwriter (an exasperated Bradley Whitford) and musicians crazy with her nitpicking disapproval. The reimagining of how the movie's iconic songs came into being offers some of the best scenes, with composer-lyricist team Richard and Robert Sherman (played endearingly by Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak) -- who also wrote the songs for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (another Ionarts favorite), The Jungle Book, and The Aristocats -- working things out at the piano.

Other Reviews:

New York Times | Washington Post | The New Yorker | David Edelstein
Wall Street Journal | Christian Science Monitor | Rolling Stone | TIME

What Disney gradually unravels is that Travers sees the characters in her books as family because they were inspired by her own childhood, caught between an alcoholic father (played with desperate likeability by Colin Farrell) and an overwhelmed mother (Ruth Wilson) in rural Australia. It is not a great film -- a nomination for Best Picture from the Academy would be a sign of Disney's clout and no more -- but it is the best yet from director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), who has some credits as a screenwriter, too, including Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The screenplay, by the relatively inexperienced Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, tells the story well, with few slow spots, although ultimately the Nutrasweet content may be overwhelming for some viewers. The film's visit to Disneyland, part of Walt's attempt to seduce Travers out of her integrity, is nothing short of masturbatory.


David Greilsammer Pairs Scarlatti and Cage

available at Amazon
Mozart, Early Piano Concertos (K. 175, 238, 246), D. Greilsammer, Suedama Ensemble
We have taken note of David Greilsammer before, on a disc of the early Mozart concerti with the Suedama Ensemble. The Jerusalem-born pianist made his Washington recital debut on Saturday afternoon, presented by Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The concept behind the concert was intriguing, a program that alternates between sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti on modern piano and others by John Cage on prepared piano. This makes sense, since both composers wrote sonatas that are compact, animated by rhythm, freely colored with folk music tinges, and virtuosic. Greilsammer mistakenly added largely unneeded, more extravagant musings in a short program note ("Scarlatti and Cage conceived these pieces to be the messengers of a yet unknown world, [...] like an Unidentified Flying Object, passing in the sky") and in a tediously long spoken introduction to this hour-long concert.

Greilsammer then set about bending the two composers' pieces toward one another. To the Scarlatti sonatas he applied all sorts of dynamic twisting, using the soft pedal to achieve ghostly effects, taking unusual tempo choices, and slathering on rubato. The modern piano, of course, has all sorts of expressive possibilities that were not part of what Scarlatti was trying to do, since his sonatas were to be played mostly on the harpsichord. K. 213 was almost without sound so softly was it played, at a slow tempo, some of the notes almost not sounding at all. K. 141, by contrast, was taken extremely fast, so much that some of the notes were sort of half-articulated by Greilsammer's fingers, especially the guitar-like repeated-note motifs, making the hand crossings, such a signature for Scarlatti, difficult to make understood aurally. K. 87, on the other hand, felt flattened out, with the echo effects sort of mechanically nullified, the better to go with its Cage companion. The sustaining pedal obscured most of the details of K. 381, and K. 175 had a chaotic lack of regular pulse at times, making for a badly affected result.

Other Reviews:

Simon Chin, David Greilsammer: Lots of adventurousness, and some missteps, in Terrace Theater recital (Washington Post, January 13)
To make the alternation of composers seamless, Greilsammer sat between the prepared and regular pianos, which faced each other, keyboard to keyboard. Pivoting on a stool and dropping the music for each piece on the floor -- a distracting gesture that could be easily remedied through memorization of the music -- he sometimes leapt from Scarlatti to Cage, or vice versa, with almost no break. Cage's preparation of the piano limits the performer's ability to control the sound, so Greilsammer could do less in these pieces to bring them closer to Scarlatti, but he gave them as much expressive shape as he could. These are some of my favorite pieces by Cage, a composer whose later music mostly vexes me, and Greilsammer played them well, and the programming often aligned key centers and even motifs between the two composers' pieces. The least apt of the pairings was Cage's no. 11 and Scarlatti's K. 531, both so slow that most of the excitement was missed, especially the latter, which lost of all of its sparkling trumpet fanfare-like qualities. Overall this was a concept that worked better on paper than in practice.

The next concert from WPAS will feature cellist Alisa Weilerstein (January 19, 7:30 pm), at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.