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Shanghai Quartet Plays Sheng, Aldridge

Charles T. Downey, Shanghai Quartet shows dedication to new music in Freer Gallery of Art concert
Washington Post, March 1, 2014

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Beethoven, String Quartets (op. 59/2-3), Shanghai Quartet
(Delos, 2006)
On Thursday night the Shanghai Quartet returned to its old haunt at the Freer Gallery of Art, whose free concert series the quartet has graced regularly since 1995. Expectations demand that it play a mix of Eastern and Western music and that some new music be included, both of which are the quartet’s specialties. On those two counts, certainly, this concert was a success.

Bright Sheng’s fifth string quartet pushed the musicians to the edge of their abilities, from the brutal “Bartók” pizzicatos in the cello that open the piece and punctuate its sections, a tribute to the Hungarian composer whose “Miraculous Mandarin Suite” inspired the quartet’s subtitle, “The Miraculous.” Frantic pizzicatos and whirring scales did not always line up as they should here, and something about the interpretation revealed the work’s repetitive nature. [Continue reading]
Shanghai Quartet
Music by Sheng, Haydn, Aldridge, Verdi
Freer Gallery of Art

This concert was not, as billed in the program, the Washington area premiere of Bright Sheng's fifth string quartet. The Emerson Quartet, for whom it was written, played it on their Smithsonian Associates series in 2007.

Shanghai Quartet: 2006 | 2005


Hei-Kyung Hong @ Vocal Arts D.C.

Charles T. Downey, Hei-Kyung Hong offers uneven recital at Kennedy Center
Washington Post, February 28, 2014

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Korean Songs, Hei-Kyung Hong, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, Duc-Ki Kim
(EMI 2003)
Hei-Kyung Hong seemed like a fish out of water for most of her recital Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, presented by Vocal Arts D.C. The soprano, now in her 50s, has made a career as an opera singer. Her brief, somewhat dutifully performed program of art songs, in German and Korean, left room for three operatic encores, where a voice once inhibited seemed finally to burst forth.

Hong was at her best in slow songs with long melodic lines, like Schubert’s “Nacht und Träume” and “Ständchen,” which showcased her full, round tone and solid breath support. In faster, busier songs, her vibrato activated the sound with a less flattering, nervous quality, and the German diction sometimes became just slightly garbled. [Continue reading]
Hei-Kyung Hong, soprano
Vlad Iftinca, piano
Vocal Arts D.C.
Kennedy Center Concert Hall


Evgeny Kissin and the Yiddish Word

A recital by Evgeny Kissin is an unmissable event in my calendar. We have covered every one of his performances presented by Washington Performing Arts Society, generally every other year, last in 2013 and going back to 2007 and 2005. Nothing prepared me, however, for the sensation offered by his latest performance, a concert of solo piano music by Jewish composers, presented by the series Pro Musica Hebraica and the Kennedy Center in the Concert Hall on Monday night. In a noble and out-sized gesture, Kissin took public note of his recent embrace of Israeli citizenship by having this program be his first concert in the United States since that decision became official. In between performances of this mostly obscure music, Kissin made the unprecedented choice of reciting some of his favorite Yiddish poetry.

The musical part, of course, was inspired, imposing, and diverting. Kissin is the sort of player who can make lesser music sound better than it might deserve, but the four selections on this concert all seemed to stand on their own. Ernest Bloch's piano sonata (op. 40, from 1935), heard in recordings up to this point, struck my ear as a little formless and wandering. It needed a virtuoso like Kissin to bring it to life, putting all of its various colors and influences (Debussy and Prokofiev, especially) in line, especially the opening of the central slow movement, where a vista into a whole new sound world opened up, and the brutal, but not overly fast, march of the finale. Mikhail Milner's Farn opsheyd (Kleyne rapsodie), from 1930, was a little Chopinesque in style, rather chromatic, an example of a piece that is not all that engaging made to shine on a beautiful wrist.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Evgeny Kissin plays forgotten composers and declaims poetry in stunning performance (Washington Post, February 26)

---, Kissin offers Jewish composers, Yiddish poets in striking concert departure (Washington Post, February 22)

John Podhoretz, Overwhelmed and Awed at the Kennedy Center (Commentary, February 25)
The most unusual discovery was the second sonata of Alexander Veprik (1899-1958), from 1924, which was more expressionistic in style, a rumbling tempest of trills, repeated notes, downward-slashing tritones, jagged motifs, and brutal parallelisms. The slow section went a little more in the direction of Rachmaninoff, but here one was reminded most of the barbaric style of Bartók. It worked because Kissin made it into a rather dramatic, storm-tossed monologue, with great variation of touch. The Suite dansée (op. 44, 1928) of Alexander Krein (1881-1953) was lighter in tone, with more hints of early jazz and Ravel, perhaps Satie in the third movement, Stravinsky in the fifth.

As striking as the music was, though, it was the recitation of the poetry, happily with English surtitles provided, that dashed all expectations. In addition to his rigorous concert schedule, Kissin enjoys making his own art and poetry as hobbies, so I have heard. Even so, he recited with what seemed only a couple of minor hesitations, and in a way that was emotive, entertaining, and always diverting (see and hear an excerpt). The poetry, none of which I had ever read or heard before, also afforded major discoveries: the longer, more lyrical works of Haim Bialik (1873-1934), and the shorter, more bleak and dark-humored poems of Isaac Peretz (1852-1915). We had hopes of hearing one of Kissin's own poems when he walked out for a single encore, but instead he recited Die Freid fun Yiddishen Vort (The Joy of the Yiddish Word, 1961) by Yankev Glatshteyn, a fitting end to an extraordinary evening, in which that very joy was passed from heart to heart.


Mitzi Meyerson at LoC

This article is an Ionarts exclusive.

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François Couperin: Les Ombres Errantes, M. Meyerson

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Richard Jones, Sets of Lessons for the Harpsichord, M. Meyerson

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R. Jones, Chamber Airs for a Violin (and Thorough Bass), K.-M. Kentala, L. Pulakka, M. Meyerson
American harpsichordist Mitzi Meyerson is, in more ways than one, the successor of Wanda Landowska, the pioneer of the harpsichord revival. Meyerson holds a professorship of harpsichord and fortepiano at the Universität der Künste in Berlin, the first position of its kind when it was created for Landowska. As Meyerson showed at a Saturday afternoon recital at the Library of Congress, she is also the player to tame the Pleyel harpsichord-hybrid constructed to Landowska's specifications, now in the Library's collection. Around the time of Meyerson's 2012 recital, I spent some time speaking to her and watching her teach, as part of a feature I wrote for the Washington Post. Last week, as she prepared for this weekend's recital, we spoke about her assessment of the Landowska Pleyel and the program she had put together for this recital.

Meyerson told me that she spent a couple days just sizing up the Pleyel. “It was like an animal you have never encountered before,” she said with a laugh. “You don’t know whether to make eye contact. If you put out your hand, you are not sure how it will react.” The instrument’s registrations -- a 4’, 8’, and a decidedly un-harpsichord-like 16’, plus a very pretty buff stop and a nasal (“it sounds like the harpsichord has a cold”) -- are controlled by a series of pedals. “Some of them are on when you push them down and lock them to one side, but not all of them. Some of them are engaged when the pedal is up.” Landowska was known to play the instrument wearing hand-sewn velvet slippers. Meyerson realized that to control the pedals, especially mid-performance, she needed to be able to grasp the pedals with her toes. She could not do that while wearing shoes, so she decided to play barefoot. “I was hoping that Landowska’s slippers might be in the collection of the Library of Congress,” she told me, with a twinkle in her eye. “Then I could see what it was like to be in her shoes.”

Meyerson ultimately decided to use the Pleyel for two-thirds of her concert program. It was especially suited to the Bach pieces, where she could use the 16’ stop to give a sense of the tutti sound in a more orchestral texture. This put the Pleyel in the best possible light right from the start, Bach's harpsichord adaptation of a Vivaldi violin concerto (D major, BWV 972), with all sorts of different manual and registration shifts to create different combinations of sounds. The Bach piece on the second half was the BWV 998 Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro, a late work that features Bach's most thoroughly contrapuntal side -- analyzing the complexities of the fugue, Meyerson described it as "like one of those Chinese boxes with a secret drawer." The Pleyel's aptness for creating contrasts between solo and ensemble textures worked in two sets of Purcell grounds, as well, including one in E minor, added to the second half to take advantage of the sound of the buff stop, which featured the song Here the Deities Approve (a beautiful poem by Christopher Fishburn, which Meyerson recited from memory).


Lowering the Boats for 'Moby-Dick' @ WNO

Quarterdeck scene, Carl Tanner (Ahab) and cast, Moby-Dick, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman)

An asteroid some 270 meters across, observed heading into Earth's neighborhood, went missing a few days ago. Astronomers, who have enlisted all sorts of help in an attempt to locate it, have dubbed the space rock "Moby Dick," which shows that people can project all kinds of feelings and identities onto the white whale at the center of Herman Melville's novel. It is, according to one delicious statistic, the book that Americans are most likely to claim they have read, even when they haven't. The story is familiar enough, though, that audiences for Jake Heggie's recent operatic adaptation are likely to be aware of the basic plot. Anyone who has read the book, however, will know that it is probably impossible to adapt into any other medium, because it is so much more than a narrative about a whaling ship hunting down a whale. The actual confrontation with the whale is related in a small number of chapters at the very end of the book. That and a few other episodes form the entire action of the opera.

Audiences have enjoyed and will continue to enjoy Heggie's version. It is easy on the ears, due to the composer's facility and general avoidance of dissonance. The libretto, begun by Terrence McNally and completed by Gene Scheer, is mostly compact and efficient, a few longueurs aside. The production, directed by Leonard Foglia, is one of the most strikingly cinematic stagings I have ever seen, with a set evoking the deck of the Pequod (designed by Robert Brill) serving also as a screen for vivid lighting (Gavan Swift, designed by Donald Holder) and swirling projections (Elaine J. McCarthy). As much as I enjoyed the opera at first, though, it has not grown on me so much as receded in my admiration, for in terms of melodic writing, harmonic invention, or orchestration, it is not a distinguished score. Still, especially for the astounding production, it is something that all serious operaphiles should see.


In Brief: No More Winter 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 broadcast of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten from the Metropolitan Opera, starring Anne Schwanewilms, Torsten Kerl, Ildikó Komlósi, Johan Reuter, and Christine Goerke. [France Musique]

  • Watch the residency of the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, led by Valery Gergiev. [Cité de la Musique Live | Concert 2 | Concert 3]

  • The Takacs Quartet performs music by Dvorak and Janacek at the Wigmore Hall in London. [BBC3]

  • The Vienna Piano Trio plays Beethoven and Mendelssohn in a concert last month at the Wigmore Hall in London. [France Musique]

  • From the Wiener Staatsoper, a performance of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, starring Angela Gheorghiu (Adriana Lecouvreur), Elena Zhidkova (Principessa di Bouillon), Massimo Giordano (Maurizio), and conducted by Evelino Pido. [ORF]

  • From last summer's Festival de La Chaise-Dieu, the RIAS Kammerchor and Accademia Bizantina, conducted by Ottavio Dantone, with music by Charpentier, Croft, and Handel. [RTBF]

  • More concerts from this year's Présences Festival. [France Musique]

  • Jordi Savall conducts violinist Manfredo Kraemer and Le Concert des Nations in music by Michael Praetorius, William Brade, and others. [ORF]


Ionarts-at-Large: WAM. DSCH. Cold. Hot.

Pairing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Dmitri Shostakovich is not easy: DSCH works well enough with the ready orchestral brawn most modern Symphony Orchestras can summon at the drop of a hat. Or indeed cannot but muster. Mozart, in order to interest, needs something very different… something that adjectives like lightness and tip-toeiness only begin to describe.  And really good Mozart is difficult as the Dickens.

Assuming a general difficulty in this paring, at least playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.18 up front and Shostakovich afterwards makes perfect sense. Perhaps some of the airiness, the intimacy of WAM will carry over into the 15th Symphony which is especially suited among the generally massive and bombastic symphonies of Shostakovich to be receiving a chamber-like and efficient, even delicate treatment.

Not that the Mozart of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under new, optimism-spreading music director Philippe Jordan and with Wiener Konzerthaus Honorary Member Elisabeth Leonskaja was all that light to begin with. The Allegro, though long on beauty, could have been plenty more “vivace”. The Andante was elegiac, direct, and unfazed, unsentimental, confident but also a bit sticky and slow and eventually in dire need of the injection of oxygen that the robustly vigorous Finale brought… or ought to have brought. Really good Mozart is difficult as the Dickens. A local heroine, Mme. Leonskaja was coaxed into giving an encore: A tempestuous, very modest run-through of Schubert’s Scherzo from the Gasteiner Sonata (D.850). Far too long and rather puzzling for its apparent lack of inevitability.

Shostakovich to the rescue: The toy-shop-or-torture-kit opening movement had vigor and all the individual voices presented themselves with determination and dexterity. Trumpet, Clarinet, Flute(s), Trombone were all terrific, as was the massive, buckle-your-seatbelts brass section in the opening movement. It’s not easy to keep the momentum going over the next two movements, especially not with an audience that had come to the Grosser Saal after a Monday (February 17th) at work, but if the middle movements came across as meandering, the finale was terrific again, down to the minutely worked tic-toc of the clock that counts down this Symphony’s lifetime… and in a way that of Shostakovich himself.

Quatuor Ébène @ LoC

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Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, String Quartets, Quatuor Ébène
(Erato, 2013)
We have been following the Quatuor Ébène for about a decade -- as far back as 2006 (at the Corcoran), in 2008 in Gauting, Germany and the Salzburg Festival, and last at the Mozart Woche in 2012 -- as well as their recordings. In the wake of their new recording, of quartets by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, their latest U.S. tour passed through the Library of Congress (where I last heard them in 2009) on Thursday night, with a program that climaxed with one of the Mendelssohn quartets. This time around, unlike in 2010, all four members of the group were in good health, and their trademark sound -- cool, contained, beautifully pointed -- was back in form. Coolidge Auditorium is an ideal space to hear them, an acoustic where one does not have to strain to hear the quietest sounds the group made.

Early Haydn (op. 20/5, Hob. III:35, from 1772) was essentially a one-man show for first violinist Pierre Colombet, who seemed completely recovered from his health troubles in 2010. The approach was not strict or classical: with the one player largely in control, he was able to introduce many charming hesitations and stretches of the tempo. The first movement, moderately paced in the best sense, was followed by an equally gentle Menuet and a third movement played like a tender operatic love aria, with our first violinist as the sighing diva, complete with impressive ornaments and cadenza-like solos, something like the central showpiece of an extended scena. The concluding Fuga had an intellectual sheen, the playing all soft enough that each etched individual line could be clearly perceived.


À mon chevet: 'Moby-Dick'

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

book cover
With a wild whimsiness, Queequeg now used his coffin for a sea-chest; and emptying into it his canvas bag of clothes, set them in order there. Many spare hours he spent, in carving the lid with all manner of grotesque figures and drawings; and it seemed that hereby he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of his twisted tattooing on his body. And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last. And this thought it must have been which suggested to Ahab that wild exclamation of his, when one morning turning away from surveying poor Queequeg -- "Oh, devilish tantalization of the gods!"

-- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Chap. 110 ("Queequeg in His Coffin")
One more day until the opening of Washington National Opera's performance of the East Coast premiere of Jake Heggie's opera on the classic Melville novel. The narrator of the novel, like Melville, is a widely read person, and on this time through the book, the number of Dante references is standing out in my brain. Here, Queequeg's identification as a sort of book reminds me of Dante's description of the monster Geryon, which carries Dante and Virgil down into Malebolge. Captain Ahab and the Pequod, swallowed up by the sea, call to mind the doomed, prideful voyage of Odysseus and his men, as related by the shade of Ulysses in Inferno 26.


Classical Music Agenda: April 2014

Even with Easter in the middle of April, reducing the number of concerts over the space of a fortnight, the month has a broad range of concerts. Here are the Top Ten performances we most want to hear for the month.

available at Amazon
C. P. E. Bach, Magnificat / Heilig ist Gott, RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für alte Musik Berlin, H.-C. Rademann
(Harmonia Mundi, 2014)
The group that may be the best early music ensemble in the world, the Akademie für alte Musik from Berlin, will appear at the Library of Congress (April 5) in a free concert. Their program is a survey of 18th-century works for orchestra, by J. S. Bach, Handel, C. P. E. Bach, and J. C. Bach. A few days later, Vocal Arts D.C. presents a recital by countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford (April 8) at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Their program concentrates on Elizabethan ballads by Dowland, Purcell, Johnson, and Campion, as well as the local premiere of a work by Nico Muhly called Four Traditional Songs.

Before the arrival of Christoph Eschenbach, Ionarts had dreams of James Conlon taking over the National Symphony Orchestra's music directorship. Although it didn't happen, we will take any chance to hear Conlon conduct, and he will take the ensemble's podium to lead music of Zemlinksy and Brahms, plus Korngold's violin concerto with soloist Gil Shaham (April 10 to 12) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Another conductor we would have loved the NSO to snag was Osmo Vänskä, who comes later in the month (April 24 to 26) to conduct the local band, with music by Mendelssohn and Sibelius, plus a clarinet concerto by Aho with Martin Fröst as soloist.

You may recall Yekwon Sunwoo as the winner of the Kapell Competition two years ago. He has been making the rounds, playing the big concertos, and he comes to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Music director Marin Alsop returns (yet again) to Mahler's first symphony on the same program (April 24 and 27).

We will likely be back at the Library of Congress for the free recital by cellist Daniel Müller-Schott and pianist Simon Trpčeski, playing sonatas by Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin (April 24). After his debut recital here two years ago, we would not want to miss the recital by British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, presented by WPAS in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (April 29). From the local groups, take the Rameau concert by Opera Lafayette (April 30) in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

Washington plays host to two important festivals devoted to contemporary music. The Atlas Performing Arts Center offers a series of concerts (April 6 to 13) featuring music by Louis Andriessen (b. 1939), in conjunction with other local organizations, including the Great Noise Ensemble, National Gallery of Art, and Strathmore, all in honor of the Dutch composer's 75th birthday. At the same time, British composer Oliver Knussen will be in residence at the Library of Congress, leading free concerts by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (April 7 to 12). In the midst of it, composer-clarinetist Jörg Widmann will give a concert of his own music with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (April 10).

April also features visits by two ballet companies we will want to see, both with live music performed by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. The New York City Ballet will perform Jewels, the choreography by George Balanchine (April 1 and 4 to 6), plus a mixed-repertory program centered on Namouna, A Grand Divertissement, with choreography by Alexei Ratmansky and music by Lalo (April 2 and 3). That is followed by the American Ballet Theater in its own mixed repertory program centered on Fokine's Les Sylphides and Frederick Ashton's The Dream, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, with music by Mendelssohn (April 15 and 16), plus Minkus's Don Quixote (April 17 to 20), in the Petipa/Gorsky choreography.


À mon chevet: 'Moby-Dick'

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

book cover
Often, when forced from his hammock by exhausting and intolerably vivid dreams of the night, which, resuming his own intense thoughts through the day, carried them on amid a clashing of phrensies, and whirled them round and round and round in his blazing brain, till the very throbbing of his life-spot became insufferable anguish; and when, as was sometimes the case, these spiritual throes in him heaved his being up from its base, and a chasm seemed opening in him, from which forked flames and lightnings shot up, and accursed fiends beckoned him to leap down among them; when this hell in himself yawned beneath him, a wild cry would be heard through the ship; and with glaring eyes Ahab would burst from his state room, as though escaping from a bed that was on fire. Yet these, perhaps, instead of being the unsuppressable symptoms of some latent weakness, or fright at his own resolve, were but the plainest tokens of its intensity. For, at such times, crazy Ahab, the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale; this Ahab that had gone to his hammock, was not the agent that so caused him to burst from it in horror again. The latter was the eternal, living principle or soul in him; and in sleep, being for the time dissociated from the characterizing mind, which at other times employed it for its outer vehicle or agent, it spontaneously sought escape from the scorching contiguity of the frantic thing, of which, for the time, it was no longer an integral. But as the mind does not exist unless leagued with the soul, therefore it must have been that, in Ahab's case, yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own. Nay, could grimly live and burn, while the common vitality to which it was conjoined, fled horror-stricken from the unbidden and unfathered birth. Therefore, the tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes, when what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to color, and therefore a blankness in itself. God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.

-- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Chap. 44 ("The Chart")
Washington National Opera is preparing the East Coast premiere of Jake Heggie's opera on the classic Melville novel, which opens on February 22. (It was premiered by Dallas Opera in 2010 and was performed at San Francisco Opera in 2012 -- watch the video.) I will be once again leading a group of students to the Kennedy Center, and to help them (and me) prepare, we have been reading and discussing the novel. It is a book that is so rich in literary, artistic, mythological, and Biblical allusions, more of which have far more profound and personal meaning to me now than they did when I first read the book, in high school like my students.


Bach Sonatas under the Bear

Charles T. Downey, Smithsonian Chamber Music Society concert engages on multiple levels
Washington Post, February 18, 2014

available at Amazon
Bach, Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, V. Mullova, O. Dantone
(Onyx, 2007)
Listening to music can occur on many levels, from the purely aural to the emotional and intellectual. A concert performed by members of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society on Sunday night meant to engage you on all of them. The full effect includes a discussion of the music by the performers, as well as the concert, in the intimate West Wing of the Smithsonian Castle, the only concert venue in the city where one is surrounded by rockets, mounted wildlife and other curiosities.

Violinist Robert Mealy and SCMS Artistic Director Kenneth Slowik, at the harpsichord, played four of the six sonatas for violin and harpsichord by Bach (BWV 1014 and 1017 to 1019). In spontaneous and expert preconcert remarks, they spoke of the new genre that Bach was creating in these works, a distillation of Corelli’s trio sonata texture. Their performance fell in line with these comments, the fast movements percolating and largely regular of tempo so that the three strands of the polyphonic structure locked into place. [Continue reading]
Robert Mealy (violin) and Kenneth Slowik (harpsichord)
Smithsonian Chamber Music Society
Smithsonian Castle

Charles T. Downey, Quicksilver's Washington Debut (January 15, 2013)
---, Folger Consort Plays Vivaldi (January 12, 2009)


Mutter and the Band

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Dvořák, Violin Concerto (inter alia), A.-S. Mutter, Berlin Philharmonic, M. Honeck
(DG, 2013)

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S. Currier, Time Machines, A.-S. Mutter, New York Philharmonic, M. Francis
(DG, 2011)
Last week was to have featured the National Symphony Orchestra's debut performances of Bohuslav Martinů's first symphony, a Serge Koussevitsky commission from 1942. Any opportunity to hear one of this composer's six symphonies in live performance is welcome -- the last opportunity was no. 6 from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007 -- but the latest city-shuttering snowstorm on Thursday scuttled that plan. The NSO's guest soloist, Anne-Sophie Mutter, was to have played Time Machines, a new violin concerto by Sebastian Currier, only on Thursday night, replaced by Dvořák's violin concerto on Friday and Saturday. The cancellation of the Thursday night concert demanded a reshuffling of the programming, and Mutter generously agreed to play both of these concertos at both of the remaining performances (this review concerns the Saturday performance) -- an arrangement that allowed the contemporary piece to be heard, twice instead of just once for its local premiere, without angering the Friday and Saturday patrons who had paid to hear her play Dvořák. The only disappointed listeners, me and the other person who wanted to hear Martinů, will just have to wait another few years.

Mutter has been a regular with the NSO over the years, and her connection to Christoph Eschenbach has only strengthened that association. The German violinist lends the sheen of her name to many new works for violin, including concertos -- Previn, Gubaidulina, Krzysztof Penderecki, Wolfgang Rihm -- her considerable technique, sense of pitch, and formidable memory are strengths in this area. Currier describes Time Machines, a seven-movement work, as exploring "the relationship between the perception of music and time." The ribbon of time was perhaps reflected in the piece's opening theme, a running motif of buzzing notes -- heard first in the solo then echoed by the violin section, it is accompanied by accented chords both in solo and orchestral forms. The buzzing theme is recalled, in compressed form, in the third movement, a sort of chatty scherzo, begun and ended with cracks of the whip in the percussion section, and in the fourth, where motoric motifs are layered on each other. The same sense of sound marking the passage of time is featured in the second movement where, over lush sustained chords, the solo's jagged shouts ricochet across the orchestra in close-paced echoes, creating one of many beautiful effects in this work. The same themes degrade into clusters in the entropy movement (no. 5), ending in a memorable sort of cadenza where the violinist is answered by many instruments, most memorably the flexatone, and seem stretched out into chords, in a way that recalled the film scores of Hans Zimmer, in the finale. It is not a piece I expect to hear ever again in a live performance, but it was diverting and absorbing the first time around.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, A double delight from Anne-Sophie Mutter and the NSO (Washington Post, February 17)

Peter McCallum, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Mozart: still keeping things fresh (Sydney Morning Herald, February 3)

Clive Paget, Anne-Sophie Mutter: Thankful for what she's got (for now…) (Limelight Magazine, January 21)
The Dvořák violin concerto is a pretty piece, and Mutter plays it very well, but anyone who heard the work the last time the NSO played it, with Augustin Hadelich as soloist, is likely spoiled by that performance as I am. Mutter occupied the piece with her trademark sound, glossy and sexy like the form-fitting gowns she wears -- the throaty wail low on the G string, the acid edge high on the E string, impetuous in the sense of rubato and choice of tempo (a blistering one for the third movement, for example, that did away with the modifier "ma non troppo") -- and my ears were impressed by the polish more than moved. Throughout the evening, Cristian Măcelaru, currently associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and substitute conductor on more than one podium, made a solid NSO debut, showing an easy, supportive hand in both concertos. The revised program kept its opener, the suite from Janáček's delightful opera The Cunning Little Vixen, arranged by Václav Talich, also heard for the first time on an NSO concert. Măcelaru, with restraining gestures, helped keep the NSO's sound at its most evanescent in key passages, allowing charming solos -- the violin's waltz with the harp, the dreamy flute scene with paired solo violins, the mournful viola lament -- to fill the stage. Măcelaru's keen sense of the score kept the folk-like dance sections and sharp brass exclamations all firmly in line, too, for a pleasing overall effect.

Another violinist, Christian Tetzlaff, plays another new concerto, this one by Jörg Widmann, in the next program from the National Symphony Orchestra (February 27 to March 1).

Contemporary Valentine from the JACK Quartet and Ursula Oppens

Charles T. Downey, JACK Quartet offers lively interpretations of new music at Library of Congress series
Washington Post, February 17, 2014

available at Amazon
Feldman, Spring of Chosroes, P. Zukofsky, U. Oppens
(CP2, 1991)
An important mission of the concert series at the Library of Congress is to commission and present new works of contemporary music. Both aspects of that role were showcased Friday night, as the JACK Quartet, leading specialists in new music, performed a program of music mostly from the last half-century, including two pieces commissioned by the Library of Congress.

The oldest music in the concert was composed by Morton Feldman, beginning with “Spring of Chosroes,” commissioned by the Library’s McKim Fund in 1977. Pianist Ursula Oppens premiered the work with its dedicatee, violinist Paul Zukofsky, and she performed it here with Ari Streisfeld, one of the JACK violinists. Like Feldman’s “Structures” for string quartet, from 1951, this is understated, heavily repetitive music, but it diverts rather than bores because Feldman introduces unexpected, minute variations into those repetitions. [Continue reading]
JACK Quartet and Ursula Oppens, piano
Feldman, Spring of Chosroes / Structures
Ferneyhough, Exordium: Elliotti Carteri in honorem centenarii
Carter, Piano Quintet
Adès, Piano Quintet
Julian Anderson, String Quartet No. 1 ("Light Music," U.S. premiere)
Library of Congress

Charles T. Downey, JACK Quartet @ NGA (June 4, 2012)
Michael Lodico, Library of Congress Begins Carter Tribute (May 31, 2008)
---, Brentano's Late Style (May 3, 2008)


In Brief: More Snow 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.

  • From the Présences Festival, music by Jörg Widmann, Fabien Lévy, Oliver Schneller, and Hans Werner Henze at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, performed by clarinetist Jörg Widmann, violist Sabine Toutain, and the Orchestre National de France, all conducted by Ilan Volkov. [France Musique]

  • George Petrou leads a performance of Giovanni Simone Mayr's opera Ginevra di Scozia, with the Munich Radio Orchestra, starring Myrtò Papanasiu (Ginevra), Peter Schöne (Re di Scozia), Anna Bonitatibus (Ariodante), Mario Zeffiri (Polinesso), and others, recorded last summer in Ingolstadt. [ORF]

  • Listen to Bellini's La Sonnambula, starring Patrizia Ciofi and Juan Diego Flórez, with Daniel Oren conducting at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. [RTBF]

  • Emmanuelle Haïm leads her ensemble, Le Concert d'Astrée, in a Monteverdi gala, with Rolando Villazon, Magdalena Kozena, and Topi Lehtipuu, recorded at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. [France Musique | Video]

  • Listen to a recital by soprano Soile Isokoski at the Wigmore Hall, with music by Schubert, Kuula, Brahms, Bernstein, and Strauss. [BBC3]

  • From the Mozartwoche in Salzburg, Louis Langrée leads the Camerata Salzburg in music of Mozart and Gluck, with soprano Malin Hartelius, mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa, and tenor Andrew Staples. [ORF]

  • Ivor Bolton leads the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg at the Mozartwoche in Salzburg, with two symphonies by Clementi, plus Gluck and Mozart arias with soprano Christiane Karg. [ORF]

  • Alan Gilbert conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in music by Lutoslawski (Symphony No. 4), Janacek (violin concerto by Janacek, with Thomas Zehetmair), and Bartok. [RTBF]

  • Hannu Lintu leads the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with pianist Alice Sara Ott, in music by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Sibelius, recorded last month in Vienna. [ORF]

  • Andris Nelsons leads the Berlin Philharmonic in Mozart, Wagner, and Shostakovich's sixth symphony, recorded last March. [RTBF]

  • From last October in Geneva, pianist Daniil Trifonov joins the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and conduct Kazuki Yamada for music by Liszt, Scriabin, Ravel, Korngold, and Strauss. [France Musique]

  • A concert by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, recorded last month at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, with pianist Rafal Blechacz and conductor Trevor Pinnock, in music by Beethoven and Chopin. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the gala concert for the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Philharmonie, recorded last October, with pianist Mitsuko Uchida and the Berlin Philharmonic. [RTBF]

  • The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, with pianist Emanuel Ax and conductor Mariss Jansons, plays music by Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, recorded last September in Bucharest. [France Musique]

  • The Ensemble Unicorn, led by recorder player Michael Posch, perform music by medieval composer Oswald von Wolkenstein, at the Wiener Konzerthaus, recorded last month. [ORF]

  • Flutist Janne Thomsen and friends perform music by Beethoven, Zemlinksy, Busoni, Berg, and Korngold, recorded last September at the Fürstensaal Classix Kammermusik Festival. [ORF]

  • From the Sixième biennale de Quatuors à cordes, the Arditti Quartet and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, under the baton of Pascal Rophé, perform new music by Philippe Manoury and Pascal Dusapin. [France Musique]

  • Music by Tchaikovsky with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons and with cellist Daniel Müller-Schott as soloist. [ORF]

  • In a concert recorded last October, pianist Jonathan Gilad, violonist Viviane Hagner, cellist Daniel Muller-Schott, and the Orchestre de la Suisse Italienne perform music by Beethoven and Richard Strauss, in the Church of Saint-Francis in Locarno. [France Musique]

  • A recording of Dvořák's opera The Jacobin, recorded in 1977 by the Brno State Philharmonic and conduct Jiri Pinkas, starring Karel Prusa (Vilèm), Vaclav Zitek (Bohus), René Tucek (Adolf), and others. [ORF]

Ionarts-at-Large: Michael Schade, Trumpeteering Song

A review of a Liederabend with Michael Schade (and Russel Braun, on that occasion) was the first time I saw my name beneath a headline in the Washington Post. I was aghast at how offensively lame a headline could be; so banal, it must have taken raw talent to so suck the life out any nine words in a row: “From Schade and Braun, A Rich Mix of Song”. I recoil at the thought of it to this day. I didn’t, however, remember much of the review; only a vaguely unenthused feeling.

Rereading the missive after a Liederabend of just Michael Schade at the Wiener Konzerthaus’ beautifully suited Mozartsaal, I noticed that there was one line, amid much tortured writing, that I could lift without modifying for this review, a decade later: “His instrument is strong, very focused and clean, and almost piercing, and with it he conducts precision operations in music. What I missed was a bit more [of an] inviting, open quality.”

I don’t miss it anymore, because I know not to expect it with Schade. That expectation management works very well towards making a Schade recital more enjoyable. His voice sounds ever like a trumpet and displays finer shades only rarely, and only when he steps off the pedal. Liking it or not is a subjective thing, because it’s an objectively excellent trumpet and it was certainly in fine fettle this Thursday night at the Konzerthaus. It was wasted, granted, on Mozart’s “Die ihr des unermesslichen Weltalls Schöpfer ehrt”. The rightly forgotten work is an agnosticism-spirited Freemason mini-cantata that hints of Beethoven here, of Mozart there, even of proto-Schubert… yet the best thing that can be said about it is that it’s an aria of Sarastrian wisdom paired with the lyricism of a Tamino (so Schade). Schade is not a natural Tamino, however, the text not all that clever, real drama missing completely, and if Mozart spent more than five minutes on the piano part, he was taking it easy that day. Poor pianist/accompanist Justus Zeyen. More fun was the follow-up Mozart Lied “Die Zufriedenheit”… followed in turn by Beethoven’s “Der Wachtelschlag” (more trumpeteering) and two of Beethoven’s finest Song-moments: “Ich liebe dich” (with a creative and effective ritardando before the last stanza, and a fine pianissimo) and the ‘everything-is-happening-at-once’ “Neue Liebe, neues Leben” which was vivaciously performed.

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, F.Schubert, Lieder,
F.Wunderlich / H.Giesen
DG Originals

Haydn songs followed, which retain much charm because of Haydn’s intimate acquaintance with Scottish songs (which he had transcribed by the hundreds). But unfortunately that doesn’t make Anne Hunter’s dreadful poems any better… set by Haydn as a gracious gesture to his host’s wife but not, one hopes, because he saw any literary merit in them. Tellingly, the funnest of the Haydn songs, by far, was the anonymously composed Sailor’s Song. Now Schade didn’t bring a particularly sailor-like demeanor to his rendition, but it wasn’t without dramatic and entertaining qualities as he belted the thing with vigor and whim.

The music of Joseph Marx, “Third Viennese School” as I like to call the largely forgotten 20th century late-romantic strain of music, is not the deepest among this group, but it certainly contains the most sugar and cream and a wistful ‘memories-of-a-Vienna-past’ kind of pathos (a Vienna that never likely existed outside people’s imagination) that makes them gorgeous and endearing. Schade may have approximated the text all night long, but not Haydn nor these Marx songs cared. Justus Zeyen finally really got to show his qualities in “Sommerlied”, “Maienblüten”, and especially the “Nocturne”. Richard Strauss is a natural pairing for Marx, but the tendency for equating emotion: pain, longing, love et al. with sheer loudness wasn’t my cup of tea… especially not in “Befreit”. The singing protagonist remembers his departed wife and all I thought was: “Don’t yell at her, man. She’s dead, not deaf.”

It was left to the often thorny Hugo Wolf to enchant again; “Der Gärtner”, “Verborgenheit”, and “Bei einer Trauung” are three of the most pleasing Wolf-works, with a grateful beauty-to-gnarly ratio. And the last is genuinely hilarious: riotously written by Eduard Mörike, enhanced by Wolf, and splendidly played up by Schade. Only the Wolf-evergreen “Abschied” isn’t half as funny as it desperately tries to be… or at least it’s over-played and has become tired. Still, it didn’t fail to amuse the completely sold out Mozartsaal.

For the encores, I found another half sentence in that Post review to aptly describe the Mozart (“Komm, liebe Zither” K 367b) and Richard Strauss (“Morgen” and “Zueignung”) that followed: “…and suddenly Schade showed subtleties and pianos and his tone seemed perfectly suited [to the music].” More of that!


Conservatory Project Starts Tomorrow

I neglected to mention the Kennedy Center's Conservatory Project in the February concert roundup, because the dates had not yet been announced. Once a year, the Kennedy Center turns over its Millennium Stage series of free concerts to students from the nation's leading conservatories and university schools of music. Even better, the venue is shifted from the Millennium Stage, inhospitable spaces in the center's public hallways, to the Terrace Theater (with one event in the Concert Hall). This year, the conservatories on the schedule will be split between two weeks, the first starting tomorrow and the second starting on April 22. All performances begin at 6 pm, and all are free and open to the public.
  • February 16, Curtis Institute of Music
    Lutosławski’s Subito and Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death

  • February 17, University of Michigan School of Music, Theater, and Dance
    Music of George and Ira Gershwin

  • February 18, Juilliard School
    Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 1 and Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1

  • February 19, Organ Showcase in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall
    Students from twelve participating schools perform music by Widor, Schumann, Buxtehude, Smetana, Shostakovich, Demessieux, Litaize, Albright, Dupre, Ellington, Bach, Cochereau, and others on the Rubenstein Family Organ

  • February 20, Cleveland Institute of Music
    Music by Laursen, Hong, Strauss, Chopin, Amosov

  • February 21, Shepherd School of Music at Rice University
    Music by Beethoven, Scodanibbio, Rabbath, Rameau, Ligeti

  • February 22, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music
    Program not announced

  • February 23, Yale School of Music
    Program not announced

  • February 24, Peabody Institute at the Johns Hopkins University
    Music by Viñao, Gounod, Owens, Verdi, Bonds, Ligeti, Ravel
The Kennedy Center throws in a lagniappe to end the week, with a performance of the Apollo Orchestra, made up of young professional musicians, which will take place in the Terrace Theater (February 25, 6 pm). Their program includes John Adams’s Short Ride on a Fast Machine, Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (with soprano Alison Buchanan), Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and Gershwin’s Cuban Overture.


St. Petersburg Philharmonic Beats the Snow

available at Amazon
Prokofiev, Violin Concertos 1/2, S. Shoji, St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Y. Temirkanov
I was very sad to see Yuri Temirkanov leave the podium of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (his views on women aside), but his regular visits with his main band, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, are always a treat. Washington Performing Arts Society brought them here last in 2011 and 2007, and this year's concert, scheduled for Wednesday night in the Music Center at Strathmore (the first stop on a North American tour), was almost scuttled by the latest snowstorm. Not one to be cowed by a little of the white stuff, I fought the salt trucks on the beltway to make it there, with the understanding that the program would be shortened. A Rossini overture, from The Barber of Seville, was omitted -- no big loss -- and the other two planned works, a Prokofiev concerto and a Rachmaninoff symphony, were performed without an intermission.

Hearing these musicians in Russian music, their specialty, was certainly worth the risks of winter travel. The orchestra's sound in the lush parts of Prokofiev's second violin concerto -- and they are many -- was the high point of the first half, overshadowing the clean, impeccably tuned, but somewhat unpredictable solo playing of soloist Sayaka Shoji. I last heard her back in 2007, and much about this performance was as I remembered her playing then: often immaculate, a generally beautiful tone, but with a slightly frantic edge especially in her rhythmic sense, which kept Temirkanov and the orchestra always guessing. In the second movement, where the orchestra gave her an exquisite music box-like introduction of pizzicato strings and staccato winds, the nervous quality of her vibrato hand set the intonation on edge from time to time, a concern that the demanding multiple-stops of the third movement made even more evident. The rhythmic challenges of the finale, with all those metrical shifts, never quite aligned either.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Temirkanov, St. Petersburg Philharmonic show sonic opu­lence at Strathmore

Tim Smith, Yuri Temirkanov and St. Petersburg Philharmonic in soaring concert at Strathmore (Baltimore Sun, February 14)
There were no such worries in the group's performance of Rachmaninoff's second symphony, which Temirkanov knew exactly how to pace, and his musicians were with him every step of the way. The first movement had a brooding opening, which gave way to a fast section steeped in a peculiarly Russian melancholy, yearning but never allowed to wallow, with a sense of rubato that was flexible, not soupy. The piece has a not at all unpleasant film score sort of feel, a series of little vignettes lined up one after the other, with the windswept passages of the development most effective, going a little helter-skelter in the fast parts of the second movement. The heart-melting third movement, one of those Rachmaninoff themes that fill so many "Classical Music for Lovers" compilations, had a quality more intense than saccharine, which is just what sounds best to my ear. Knowing how to bring an audience to its feet, Temirkanov and the orchestra goosed the tempo of the finale to a very fast pace, with the raucous piccolo shrilly shouting above it all. The effect was achieved, and two encores prepared for the tour were given in return, movements from Schubert's Moments Musicaux, D. 780, and Stravinsky's Pulcinella.

Two more visiting orchestras are on the WPAS schedule next month, the Los Angeles Philharmonic (March 18) and the Israel Philharmonic (March 30), both in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.


Briefly Noted: Christie's 'Belshazzar'

available at Amazon
Handel, Belshazzar, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie

(released on November 12, 2013)
AF001 | 157'05"
Joining the Academy of Ancient Music in the trend towards private recording labels, Les Arts Florissants has released this new 3-CD set of Handel's oratorio Belshazzar as the first under its personal label. William Christie's choice of the inaugural work for the series is shrewd: as noted of this rare live performance, it is one of Handel's great overlooked works. In a review of a staged version at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, with René Jacobs and Berlin's Akademie für Alte Musik, I noted the lack of a front-runner for favorite recording of this excellent work, a need that William Christie's first recording of it fills. After some complaints I have had about the English pronunciation of some of Christie's favorite singers, he has gone with all English speakers in this recording, with beautiful results. Rosemary Joshua reprises the role of Nitocris from that Aix-en-Provence performance, with some of the same concerns but an overall pleasing sound. Tenor Allan Clayton is a noble Belshazzar, with a full but not over-strident sound, matched by Caitlin Hulcup, dignified of tone as Cyrus, while Jonathan Lemalu is robust but slightly unpolished as Gobrias. Countertenor Iestyn Davies is an exceptionally pretty Daniel, making the inclusion of the prophet's Lament not thus, which Handel had cut from the score, one of the high points of this performance. The recitatives are pleasingly accompanied by a mixture of harpsichord and organ (Béatrice Martin), cello (David Simpson), and theorbo (Brian Feehan), a choice that makes them light, airy, and varied, not just something to be waited through until the aria.


Ionarts-at-Large: Cerha, Lush Romantic at Work

Friedrich Cerha—who looks like something the Grimm brothers might have invented and placed in the deep woods to ask riddles of passing maidens in distress—is bound to be reduced to his association with Alban Berg by way of completing Berg’s opera Lulu. That’s not a bad association to have, but if you are a composer very much in your own right, it might be nice to leave the shadow of mighty Berg every so often. If that hasn’t quite worked by the time you hit 88, you might go the other way.

P.G. Wodehouse, accused of writing about ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names’ in his last novels, answered the criticism in the preface to one of his “Blandings Castle” novels thus: “With my superior intelligence I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make [the critics] feel, I rather fancy”. Perhaps Cerha did something along the same lines when


À mon chevet: 'I giorni dell'abbandono'

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

book cover
I spent several evenings looking at family photographs. I searched for signs of my autonomy in the body I had had before meeting my future husband. I compared images of me as a girl with those of later years. I wanted to find out how much my gaze had changed since the time when I began seeing him, I wanted to see if over the years it had ended up resembling his. The seed of his flesh had entered mine, had deformed me, spread me, weighted me, I had been pregnant twice. The formulas were: I had carried in my womb his children; I had given him children. Even if I tried to tell myself that I had given him nothing, that the children were mostly mine, that they had remained within the radius of my body, subject to my care, still I couldn't avoid thinking what aspects of his nature inevitably lay hidden in them. Mario would explode suddenly from inside their bones, now, over the days, over the years, in ways that were more and more visible. How much of him would I be forced to love forever, without even realizing it, simply by virtue of the fact that I loved them? What a complex foamy mixture a couple is. Even if the relationship shatters and ends, it continues to act in secret pathways, it doesn't die, it doesn't want to die.

I took a pair of scissors and, for a whole long silent evening, cut out eyes, ears, legs, noses, hands of mine, of the children, of Mario. I pasted them onto a piece of drawing paper. The result was a single body of monstrous futurist indecipherability, which I immediately threw in the garbage.

-- Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment, pp. 163-64 (translation by Ann Goldstein)
Critic James Wood got me onto Elena Ferrante, the Italian writer who headlined his Best Books of 2013. The name is a pseudonym, and the books are written by someone who does not make public appearances. I started with this 2005 novel, the one Wood singled out as "formidable," and indeed it is. The style is intense and compact, with no unnecessary layer of fat, as the narrator, in a bold and questing voice, searches for every meaning that unfolds in a series of hallucinatory days following upon the dissolution of her marriage. I am looking forward to reading her other novels.


Classical Music Agenda: March 2014

Half of my top ten concert picks for next month will feature orchestral performances, from both local bands and one visiting one. The rest of the month's agenda follows after the jump.

It's vocal music from the National Symphony Orchestra, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss. First, Renée Fleming, Sarah Connolly, and Franz Hawlata star in a single concert performance of Der Rosenkavalier (March 8). That is followed by a selection of orchestral works (Don Juan and Salome's Dance) and scenes from Elektra and Salome with soprano Iréne Theorin and bass-baritone John Relyea (March 20 to 22). In between will be mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor in Falla's El amor brujo, with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos also conducting pianist Daniil Trifonov in Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (March 13 to 15).

In the middle of the month, Washington Performing Arts Society presents the Los Angeles Philharmonic (March 18) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Music director Gustavo Dudamel will lead performances of John Corigliano's first symphony and Tchaikovsky's fifth. Add to it the program that John Storgårds will conduct with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (March 21 to 23), including Vaughan Williams's Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Sibelius's first symphony, plus Baiba Skride as soloist in the Mendelssohn violin concerto.


In Brief: Olympics 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 world premiere of Charles Wuorinen's opera Brokeback Mountain, from the Teatro Real de Madrid. []

  • The Vienna Philharmonic and violinist Christian Tetzlaff perform music by Sibelius and Bruckner, conducted by Riccardo Chailly, in a concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. [France Musique]

  • Watch the new production of Beethoven's Fidelio at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie (Liège, Belgium), directed for stage by Mario Martone and conducted by Paolo Arrivabeni, starring Jennifer Wilson (Leonore), Zoran Todorovich (Florestan), and Franz Hawlata (Rocco). []

  • Harpsichordist Céline Frisch performs music by Ligeti and Byrd, in a concert recorded last month at the Théâtre des Abbesses in Paris. [France Musique]

  • A recital by pianist Martin Helmchen, playing music by Bach, Webern, Schubert, and Brahms, recorded in November 2012 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. [RTBF]

  • Riccardo Muti conducts the Stockholm Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in music by Verdi, Respighi, and Martucci. [RTBF]

  • Listen to the broadcast of Dvořák's Rusalka from the Metropolitan Opera, starring Renée Fleming and John Relyea. [RTBF]

  • From the Gran Teatro del Liceu in Barcelona, a performance of Massenet's Cendrillon starring Joyce DiDonato, Ewa Podlés, Alice Coote, and Annick Massis. [RTBF]


For Your Consideration: '12 Years a Slave'

If the Ionarts poll for Best Movie of the Year (vote before the Academy Awards, at the top of the sidebar) is to be believed, the Best Picture award is going to come down to Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. The latter should have an edge because it has double appeal to the Academy as a historical drama that also touches on an important politico-social issue. It is also just a better film, if we set aside Gravity's cinematographic wizardry, in which categories Gravity will likely win big. 12 Years is based on the life of an actual person, Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., where slavery was legal, and sold into captivity on the false claim that he was an escaped slave. Northup spent twelve years as a slave on various plantations in Louisiana, before he was able to get word to his family and friends of his whereabouts. Northup was one of the few people kidnapped into slavery this way who actually managed to escape.

The story is not unknown, having been adapted for television in the 1980s, but it has been made into a frank and incisive screenplay by screenwriter John Ridley. To do so involved sifting through some historical background: the book on which the movie is based was written mostly by a white lawyer, David Wilson, who interviewed Solomon Northup about his time as a slave. Director Steve McQueen, the British video artist who directed two unflinching feature films in Hunger and Shame, does not shy away from the repulsive realities of slavery. At the same time, he does not go over the edge, as Quentin Tarantino did in Django Unchained, into the realm of fetishized violence, which pushed that film, after about its midpoint, from hard-nosed tragedy into parody. McQueen and his cast manage to make all of those complicit in the ownership of human beings seem repugnant, those who treat their slaves in a more kindly way, for their vile hypocrisy, and those who are brutal, for their appalling sadism.

Other Reviews:

New York Times | Washington Post | The New Yorker | The Atlantic | L.A. Times
Wall Street Journal | David Edelstein | Christian Science Monitor | NPR | TIME

available at Amazon
12 Years a Slave (directed by Steve McQueen)
Michael Fassbender, whose work with McQueen in both Hunger and Shame has been incendiary, is terrifying as the vicious plantation owner Edwin Epps, not because he seems inhuman, although he is, but because he makes the viewer sympathize with him, a person whose violence and cruelty should be beyond compassion (again, unlike Leonard DiCaprio in Django). As Patsey, the young woman who is both the best cotton picker on the plantation and, perversely, the object of Epps's sexual predation, Lupita Nyong'o has a breakout performance, equal parts frailty and unbounded endurance. Both Fassbender and Nyong'o were nominated for Best Supporting awards by the Academy, and both are the best performances in their category. The same cannot be said of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who struck me as an actor who had the extraordinary good fortune to walk into the role of a lifetime, rather than one who compelled me to watch what he was doing, so the award for Best Actor seems more likely for Bruce Dern (Nebraska) or Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club). The Best Picture tide could carry along McQueen, who was nominated as Best Director.

McQueen's strength as a filmmaker up to this point, besides his artist's eye for color and composition, was his independence as a Hollywood outsider. The low point of 12 Years was the sanctimonious cameo of Brad Pitt, who also gets a credit as producer, as the Canadian carpenter who agrees to carry word of Solomon's plight to his family, at considerable personal risk. The character is based on the actual person who saved Northup, but the words he speaks and the conversation he has with Solomon, in Pitt's faux-profound tone (actor, meet soapbox), just rang false. Likewise, the screenwriter's refusal to pare down his cast of characters felt at least partly like the opportunity to include lots of cameo roles. Highlights include the genteel slave owner of Benedict Cumberbatch (is there anything he was not in last year?), Paul Giamatti as the slave dealer who sells Solomon, Liza Bennett and Sarah Paulson as plantation mistresses. By casting its net wide, the film has a vast scope, of time and experiences, but at the same time it can feel diffuse. Its likely win as Best Picture will have more to do with the political issues upon which it touches (about which few would argue).