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À mon chevet: 'La figlia oscura'

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

book cover
He had never really believed that I could go without the children. Instead I left them to him, and was gone for two months; I never called. It was he who hunted me down, from a distance, harassing me. When I returned, I did so only to pick up my books and notes, for good.

On that occasion, I bought dresses for Bianca and Marta, and brought them as a gift. Small and tender, they wanted help in putting them on. My husband took me aside gently, asked me to try again, began to cry, said he loved me. I said no. We quarreled, and I shut myself in the kitchen. After a while I heard a light knocking. Bianca came in, very serious, followed by her sister, timidly. Bianca took an orange from the tray of fruit, opened a drawer, handed me a knife. I didn't understand, I was running after my own desires, I couldn't wait to escape that house, forget it and forget everything. Make a snake for us, she asked then, for herself and Marta, too, and Marta smiled at me encouragingly. They sat in front of me waiting, they assumed the poses of cool and elegant little ladies, in their new dresses. All right, I said, took the orange, began to cut the peel. The children stared at me. I felt their gazes longing to tame me, but more brilliant was the brightness of the life outside them, new colors, new bodies, new intelligence, a language to possess finally as if it were my true language, and nothing, nothing that seemed to me reconcilable with that domestic space from which they stared at me in expectation. Ah, to make them invisible, to no longer hear the demands of their flesh as commands more pressing, more powerful than those which came from mine. I finished peeling the orange and I left. From that moment, for three years, I didn't see or hear them at all.

-- Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter (translation by Ann Goldstein), p. 91
Elena Ferrante published this little book in 2006, on the heels of her extraordinary The Days of Abandonment. The two books feel like companions, both narrated by women whose marriages have unraveled and who struggle with ambivalent feelings toward their own children. It takes place largely on the beach, a place of openness and possibility in Ferrante's books, which brings it closer to some important passages in the Neapolitan novels. All the narrators of Ferrante's books have this clinical self-regard, this pitiless assessment of their own shortcomings, and the style is pithy and yet abundantly rich, making the experience of reading them quite gripping, with very few stretches where the reader's mind wanders. I also have this translation to thank for introducing me to the word tohu-bohu, which Goldstein sets in italics: if someone has the Italian edition, please let me know if the word, as I suspect, was used (it's on p. 120) in some form by Ferrante. It is a Hebrew expression, used in Genesis to describe the formless chaos of the earth before creation.


In Brief: End of June 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 French premiere of the chamber version of Kaija Saariaho's La Passion de Simone, with Clément Mao-Takacs conducting the Secession Orchestra and sopranos Karen Vourc'h and Raquel Camarinha, mezzo-soprano Magali Paliès, tenor Johan Viau, and bass Florent Baffi. [France Musique]

  • Watch the production of Rossini's opera buffa La Gazzetta from the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, directed by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera. []

  • Alexandre Tharaud performs music by Couperin and Scarlatti, plus Franck's piano quintet with the Cuarteto Casals. [RTBF]

  • Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays music by Debussy, Chopin, Ligeti, and Bartok at the Aldeburgh Festival. [BBC3]

  • From the Wiener Festwochen, Philippe Jordan leads the Orchestre de l'Opéra national de Paris and baritone Thomas Hampson in a program of music by Berlioz, Wagner, and Strauss. [ORF]

  • Cellist Misha Maisky and conductor Evgeny Svetlanov join the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France for a concert of music by Paul Dukas and Ernest Bloch. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Elisso Virssaladze joins the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, under conducter Evgeny Svetlanov, with music by Debussy, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Svetlanov, and Tchaikovsky. [France Musique]

  • The Clemencic Consort, with countertenor Markus Forster and tenors Gernot Heinrich und Tore Tom Denys, perform medieval French motets from the Bamberg Codex, recorded at the Wiener Musikverein. [ORF]

  • Watch Tugan Sokhiev conduct the Orchestre National du Capitole in Mahler's third symphony in Toulouse, with the splendid Anna Larsson as soloist. []

  • The Vienna Philharmonic play a commemorative concert, in memory of World War I, with music by Haydn, Schubert, Berg, Brahms, and Ravel. [BBC3]

  • Music by Rautavaara (violin concerto, Cantus Arcticus) and Debussy, with violinist Hilary Hahn and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. [France Musique]

  • Gustavo Dudamel leads the Berlin Philharmonic in music of Tchaikovsky and Brahms at the Waldbühne. []

  • A concert recorded at Ircam in Paris, during the ManiFeste festival this month, features the world premiere of a new work by Philippe Leroux (b. 1959), Quid sit musicus?, which incorporates and extends from 14th-century pieces by Guillaume Machaut and others. [France Musique]

  • Chamber music by Schubert, Mozart, and Dvorak performed by pianist Till Fellner and the Belcea Quartet. [RTBF]

  • From Glyndebourne, a production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, directed by Jonathan Kent. [Glyndebouorne]

  • Watch cellist Stéphane Tétreault and pianist Marie-Eve Scarfone, from Canada, perform at the Flâneries Musicales d'été de Reims. []

  • François-Xavier Roth conducts music by Beethoven, Dukas, and Dutilleux, with cellist Gauthier Capuçon and the Ensemble Les Siècles. [France Musique]

  • The Baroque orchestra La Cetra and its vocal ensemble perform Handel's serenata Il Parnasso in Festa, with Carlos Federico Sepúlveda conducting soloists Carlos Mena, Maria Espada, David Hansen, and others in the Rococo theater of the Schwetzinger Schloss. [ORF]

  • Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, in Mahler's first symphony and the second violin concerto of Bartók, with Gil Shaham as soloist. [BR-Klassik]

  • Evgeny Svetlanov also leads music of Mahler and Rachmaninoff, with pianist Stanislav Neuhaus and the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and the ORTF National Orchestra. [France Musique]

  • A program of early music from Spain performed by the Huelgas Ensemble, conducted by Paul Van Nevel. [RTBF]

  • Martin Yates conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra at Dorchester Abbey last month, with violinist Rupert Marshall-Luck, in music of Parry, Bax, Rutland Boughton, and E. J. Moeran. [ORF]

  • The Graz Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Patrick Lange and with organist Gunther Rost, perform music of Strauss, Poulenc, and Saint-Saëns. [ORF]

  • More Evgeny Svetlanov, again with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, in music of Khachaturian, Dvořák, Svetlanov, and Ravel, with violonist Silvia Marcovici. [France Musique]

  • Music of Falla, Rodrigo, and Miaskovsky with guitarist Manuel Barrueco, cellist Alexander Kniazev, and the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, under Evgeny Svetlanov interprètent. [France Musique]


Dip Your Ears, No. 171 (Orchestral Eduard Franck)

available at Amazon
Eduard Franck, Roman Carnival Overture, Concert Piece for Violin & Orchestra, Fantasy for Orchestra op.16, Concert Overture for large Orchestra op.12
C.Erdinger / O.Rudner / Württemberg Phil. Reutlingen
audite 97686

Musical Sunshine

Eduard Franck (ditto his son Richard) is an ingenious chamber music composer whose output has been championed by the Audite label and Franck-veteran violinist Christiane Edinger. Now they turn their attention to Eduard’s orchestral output, including a rustic-operatic overture that is comically true to the clichés its title, Roman Carnival, promises. It’s followed by a gorgeous miniature violin concerto with a simple, memorably charming tune. Like the Orchestral Fantasy, this is music with a genial La-Z-Boy quality about it and, yes, a touch on the harmless side. But when it’s as well done as here, what’s wrong with musical sunshine and cotton candy?

Made possible by Listen Music Magazine.


Burying 'Klinghoffer'

available at Amazon
J. Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer
(directed by Penny Woolcock)
Charles T. Downey, The Klinghoffer Controversy
Musicology Now, June 27
The Metropolitan Opera and its General Manager, Peter Gelb, took a considerable risk by planning to mount John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer this coming fall. The furor generated by the work's U.S. premiere in 1991 convinced its librettist, Alice Goodman, that it was time to stop writing opera librettos. As expected, the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups have continued their objections, pressuring the Met to withdraw its production. Gelb instead offered the compromise of going ahead with the production but canceling the HD simulcast, planned for November 15, when audiences in movie theaters around the world could have seen the final performance of the run.

For many opera fans who have never had the chance to see Klinghoffer live, myself included, the decision was disappointing...
[Continue reading]

jfl, Klinghoffer Is Dead (Ionarts, May 2, 2004)


À mon chevet: 'L'amore molesto'

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

book cover
Maybe, in the end, all that mattered of these two days without respite was the transplanting of the story from one head to the other, like a healthy organ that my mother had given up to me out of affection. My father, too, barely twenty, had chased her on that stretch of road. Amalia told us that, hearing him behind her, she was frightened. He wasn't like the others, who talked about her, trying to win her over. He talked about himself: he boasted of the extraordinary things he was capable of: he said he wanted to make a portrait of her, perhaps to prove to her how beautiful she was and how talented he was. He alluded to the colors she wore. How many words vanished who could say where. My mother, who never looked at any of her pursuers in the face and while they talked made an effort not to laugh, told us that she had glanced at him sideways just once and had immediately understood. We, her daughters, did not understand. We couldn't understand why she liked him. Our father did not appear to us at all exceptional, slovenly as he was, fat, bald, unwashed, his sagging pants smeared with paint, always grumbling about the miseries of every day, about the money that he earned and that -- he yelled at us -- Amalia threw out the window. Yet it was that man without a job whom our mother had asked to come to her house if he wanted to talk to her: she wouldn't make love in secret; she had never done so. And when she uttered the words "make love" I listened open-mouthed, I liked the story of that moment so much, without its sequel, stopped before it could continue and be ruined. I preserved the sounds and images. Maybe now I had come to that underpass so that the sounds and image would coalesce again among the rocks and shadows, and again my mother, before she became my mother, was followed by the man with whom she would make love, who would cover her with his name, who would annihilate her with his alphabet.

-- Elena Ferrante, Troubling Love (translation by Ann Goldstein), pp. 108-109
While waiting for the translation of the third volume of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan trilogy, I am reading some of her other, shorter novels. L'amore molesto is Ferrante's first published book, the one whose genesis, I think, she describes toward the end of the second volume of her Neapolitan novels. Trying to finish her university thesis, a novel comes out of her, in which she writes "in the third person" about the disturbing way in which she lost her virginity. "Then I wrote a little about Naples and the neighborhood," she adds. "Then I changed names and places and situations," after which "I found that I was calmer, as if the shame had passed from me to the notebook." Ferrante, like so many novelists since the novel was invented, wrote about her own life in a different guise, but then she returned to her life, or so it seems, to write about it in a more direct way, in the first person, in the Neapolitan novels. It is in a way the same breakthrough that Karl Ove Knausgård had in writing My Struggle, which has also been on my nightstand a lot this year. As Knausgård said during a reading at the Library of Congress in 2012, "the deeper you go inside yourself, the more general it becomes, the more relevance it has."


Ionarts-at-Large: Rott World Premiere, Widmann & Martinů with the ORF RSO

There was some great programming going on, on part of the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra with Cornelius Meister, last Thursday at the Wiener Konzerthaus. One way you could tell: The place was half empty. Why bother indeed: Only a world premiere by the enigmatic proto-Mahlerian Hans Rott, the Austrian premiere of Jörg Widman’s Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff, and a rarely heard great symphony—Martinů’s Third—to cap it off. If this kind of concert can’t be communicated in such a way to draw a good crowd, there are perhaps dark times ahead for classical music, or classical music marketing… or most likely both. But let’s enjoy it while it lasts, on the willing taxpayer’s expense:

Hans Rott’s Hamlet Overture aims grandly at Shakespeare and succeeds on its own terms—something that Rott himself may not have believed, because he gave up composition after finishing the full sketch and a few pages of orchestration. We can hear for ourselves now, because the 18-year old composer’s work has had its (apparently often cryptic) instructions for instrumentation in the unfinished score turned into a performing version by Johannes Volker Schmidt, which helped it to its world premiere now, 130 years after Hans Rott’s death.

Belated World Premiere

available at Amazon
H.Rott, Symphony in E, Orchestral Suite,
P.Järvi / Frankfurt RSO

Although it’s a much simpler work than the vast Symphony that helped Rott to late and belated fame, it’s a charmer. It opens with a brass chorale over timpani—half Bruckner, half Gabrieli—before the sumptuous strings set in that took the work much closer to the romantic realm that one would expect. Still, the neo-baroque elements persist faintly, and they were especially well played by the brass before later flubs slight marred the picture towards the: this-is-the-piece-we-couldn’t-spend-much-time-in-rehearsal-on status… But all the same it was a committed and sympathetic performance, better than that of the considerably more challenging and ambitious Rott Symphony by the same forces at the 2011 Salzburg Festival in any case. As is usual—because we cannot grant Rott his own voice on grounds of our own unfamiliarity with his limited canon of works (much less mature ones), the need to compare his music to others prevails: Wagner here, Liszt there, and Herzogenberg, perhaps. Issue on CD much hoped for… especially since the ORF recorded and broadcast the performance, anyway.

Onward from highlight to highlight: Jörg Widman’s Violin Concerto is a


Briefly Noted: Kapsberger to While Away the Hours

available at Amazon
G. G. Kapsberger (et alii), Labirinto d'Amore (arias and toccatas), A. Reinhold, T. Dunford

Alpha 195 (released on June 24, 2014) | 59'17"
A superlative program of lute songs by John Dowland, reviewed this spring in live concert, brought together countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford (also recorded for Hyperion). Today sees the release of a similar program, this time focused on the Italian lutenist-composer Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, who was born a generation after Dowland, uniting Dunford with mezzo-soprano Anna Reinhold. The meat of the program features Dunford, on an archlute, in sensitively phrased renditions of the eight toccatas from Kapsberger's first book of lute tablatures, printed in 1611. In the booklet, along with the informative essay by scholar Alessio Ruffati (and English translations in need of another editor's pass), Dunford acknowledges the guidance of lutenist Paul O'Dette, who has recorded the Kapsberger works for lute, and Hopkinson Smith. One could also mention William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, whose training program for young artists was where Dunford and Reinhold crossed paths. Where the program with Davies was focused on the rarefied, contained sound of his voice, Reinhold uses a somewhat broader edge to her tone, to give a greater scope to the dynamic contrasts of the airs. Since Kapsberger is remembered, quite justly, more as a lutenist than as a vocal composer, the program is sprinkled with vocal selections by composers who knew better what to do with a voice, including Giulio Caccini, Claudio Monteverdi, Barbara Strozzi, and Tarquinio Merula -- the last's Canzonetta spirituale sopra Alla Nanna, a rather gorgeous lament-cum-lullaby sung by the Virgin Mary to the Christ child, turning the amorous tone of the recording in a different direction. The acoustic of the recording space, the Chapelle de l’Hôpital Notre-Dame de Bon Secours in Paris, is resonant and captured in exquisite sound.


Intermittents Cancel Opening of Montpellier Danse

As mentioned last week, a showdown is brewing between the French government and les intermittents du spectacle, the union of workers in the arts, film, and television who do not always work throughout the year, which may catch this summer's music festivals in the crossfire. An article in Le Monde (Intermittents : la première de Montpellier Danse annulée au dernier moment, June 22) reports that the opening night of the Montpellier Danse festival, a performance of Empty Moves by Angelin Preljocaj, was canceled at the last minute because of demonstrations by the intermittents. This was in spite of two promising developments: a commitment to talks with the intermittents from the Ministre de la Culture, Aurélie Filippetti, as early as tomorrow and a vote by a large majority of the intermittents NOT to disrupt the opening of the festival in Montpellier. Those who remember the strike-plagued summer of 2003 will recall that Montpellier Danse was the first major festival to be canceled by the demonstrations of the intermittents. The threat appears to have been heard at the highest levels: on Saturday, the president himself, François Hollande, "took advantage of the Fête de la musique to make a surprise appearance at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris, promising he would defend 'culture always and again'." The festivals at Avignon and Aix-en-Provence, both set to open in the first week of July, are still planning to keep to their schedules as announced.


In Brief: Back from the Lake 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.

  • Paul Agnew leads members of Les Arts Florissants in a complete performance of Monteverdi's seventh book of madrigals. [Part 1 | Part 2 / ARTE]

  • Gerald Finley, Wolfgang Bankl, and Chen Reiss star in Otto Schenk's production of Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen at the Wiener Staatsoper, with Franz Welser-Möst at the podium. [ORF]

  • An evening of Italian Baroque music from soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci and the Accademia degli Astrusi, under Federico Ferri, recorded last May in the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. [RTBF]

  • Richard Egarr leads the Academy of Ancient Music in music of Bach, orchestral suites and harpsichord concertos, recorded in May at the Milton Court Concert Hall in London. [ORF]

  • From the Schwetzingen Festival last year, a recital by violinist Isabelle Faust, pianist Alexander Melnikov, and horn player Teunis der Zwart. [RTBF]

  • For the Richard Strauss anniversary, Peter Dijkstra leads the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks in a cappella works by the composer, plus a recitation by Thomas Quasthoff. [BR-Klassik]

  • Arie Van Beek conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, with Kristian Bezuidenhout at the fortepiano, in music of Haydn and Mozart. [France Musique]

  • Johannes Kalitzke leads world premieres of new pieces by Tom Johnson, Klaus Lang, and Nicolaus Richter de Vroe, with the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. [BR-Klassik]

  • From the Festival de Saint-Denis, Mendelssohn and Brahms with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and violinist Julia Fischer. [France Musique | ARTE]

  • Vladimir Jurowski leads the Vienna Symphony at the Wiener Festwochen, in music of Beethoven and Szymanowski (the violin concerto with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist). [ORF]

  • Also from the Wiener Festwochen, Mikko Franck leads the Vienna Philharmonic in music of Strauss and Shostakovich's first symphony. [ORF]

  • Pianist Stephen Hough performs music of Brahms, Debussy, Robert Schumann, and Stephen Hough, from the 10ème Saison de Piano in Lyon. [France Musique]
  • Listen to a live recording of Wagner's Tannhäuser from the Bayreuth Festival, in 1962, starring Wolfgang Windgassen, Anja Silja, and Grace Bumbry, with Wolfgang Sawallisch at the podium. [ORF]

  • Violist Herbert Kefer joins the Altenberg for music by Mozart and Dvorak, recorded in May at the Wiener Musikverein. [ORF]

  • From the Villa Médicis in Rome last February, the Quatuor Tana and Quatuor Qvixote join forces at the Controtempo Festival, with two recent octets, by Laurent Durupt and Mauro Lanza, and two quartets, by Francesca Verunelli (with electronics) and Raphaël Cendo. [France Musique]

  • Next Saturday, you can catch the livestream of Rossini's Guillaume Tell from the Bayerische Staatsoper. [Staatsoper TV]

  • At the Wiener Musikverein, the Artis Quartett plays music by Mozart, Erwin Schulhoff, Mendelssohn, and Zemlinsky. [ORF]

  • Music of Mozart from pianist Cédric Tiberghien, soprano Sophie Karthauser, conductor Nicolas Chalvin, and the Orchestre des Pays de Savoie. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Francesco Piemontesi joins the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, under conductor Roberto Forès Veses, for music by Haydn Mozart, and Beethoven. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Jean-François Zygel continues his Les Clefs de l'orchestre series, this time with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, who perform Shostakovich's ninth symphony. [France Musique]


Dip Your Ears, No. 170 (Alexander Goehr at 80)

available at Amazon
Alexander Goehr, When Adam Fell, Pastorals, Marching to Carcassonne
P.Serkin / O.Knussen / BBC SO, London Sinfonietta

Wiry and Ingratiating

Alexander Goehr studied with Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies, which roughly, imperfectly, sets the stage for his telling pronouncements that he writes “music so people can understand why some notes follow and other’s don’t” and that he believes “that certain values are universal and unalterable.” Unusual words from a 20th century establishment modernist. Following his 80th birthday, Naxos has issued this mini-retrospective of three works spanning nearly half a century. When Adam Fell (2011) is based on the bass line of Bach’s eponymous Chorale (BWV637) without sounding like it. Gabrieli stood a distant model for the brassy, abstract Pastorals (1965), while Mozart inspired the Grand Partitaesque scoring (if nothing else) of the groovy, intermittently lyrical Marching to Carcassonne (2002). It’s very fine, smartly ingratiating yet challenging music eminently worth to listen to.


Fête de la Musique, 'Klinghoffer', George Benjamin

As mentioned in yesterday's post, Saturday is the annual Fête de la Musique. According to an article by Pauline Verduzier (La fête de la musique boycottée par des bars parisiens, June 18) in Le Figaro, about fifty bars in Paris will stay closed on Saturday, to protest the local city governments, which the bar owners feel play favorites with neighborhood associations to the detriment of their establishments. These bars will not admit customers or open their doors on Saturday, but they will greet people in the street and ask them to sign petitions.

The other thing that is threatening the festival on Saturday is the ongoing demonstrations by the intermittents du spectacle, mentioned in Tuesday's post. According to an article by Violaine Morin (La Fête de la musique en partie menacée, June 20), also in Le Figaro, the Fête de la Musique has changed from its original nature as a day to celebrate amateurs making music, becoming more focused on "megaconcerts organized by cities in large auditoriums." While no actions have yet been announced for the biggest events in Paris, such concerts in several cities, all free and open to the public, have been canceled or may yet be, because of the actions of the intermittents.

The Metropolitan Opera and Peter Gelb took a considerable risk by producing John Adams's controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer. As everyone should have expected, the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups pressured the company to cancel the production, in response to which Gelb offered the compromise of going ahead with the production and canceling the simulcast. This has churned up the polemic battles that Klinghoffer has provoked over the years, centered on the question of whether the opera is anti-Semitic in its portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict behind the cold-blooded murder of an American man in a wheelchair during the hijacking of the Achille Lauro. Robert Fink's 2005 article (Klinghoffer in Brooklyn Heights, in Cambridge Opera Journal) was a systematic assessment of the opera's critical reception. While Fink focuses especially on the portrayal of Jewish characters in Klinghoffer, putting to rest the idea that they are in some way anti-Semitic, he confronts but does not really rebut the most salient point in Richard Taruskin's trenchant analysis of Klinghoffer (Music's Dangers And The Case For Control, December 9, 2001) in the New York Times: "The Death of Klinghoffer trades in the tritest undergraduate fantasies. If the events of Sept. 11 could not jar some artists and critics out of their habit of romantically idealizing criminals, then nothing will."

Since the wild success of Written on Skin, has George Benjamin become the "Spielberg of opera"? According to an article (George Benjamin, le Spielberg du lyrique, June 19) by Eric Dahan for Libération, Benjamin is now the "most bankable of opera composers." The composer will lead a masterclass at the Manifeste Festival at Ircam in Paris next week, about which he says: "These six composers have each written a five-minute opera scene for two singers and the Ensemble Intercontemporain. For a week, we will correct technical problems posed by their scores by working with the singers and the ensemble. At the end of this workshop, a public concert at the CentQuatre in Paris will allow us to hear the results."


Fête de la Musique on Saturday

Saturday is the Fête de la Musique, the annual music festival that has spread from France all around the world. Jack Lang, the French Minister of Culture, inaugurated the tradition in Paris in 1982, supposedly taking up an idea first proposed by American musician Joel Cohen when he worked for France Musique. Several American cities now host an official celebration, including at the French Embassy in Washington, although nothing yet along the lines of what I have experienced in Paris, where the streets and churches were full of music all day and through the night.

If there is nothing happening in your neck of the woods, will open its Web site, most of which requires a subscription, to users worldwide on June 21. The free streaming begins at midnight, and you have 24 hours to get through as many of the 1,400 available videos as you can: archival footage of Maria Callas, Herbert von Karajan, Artur Rubinstein, and Vladimir Horowitz; opera productions from Paris, Covent Garden, and La Scala; and ballet from the Bolshoi, the Royal Ballet, and Paris Opera. If you find something good, tweet it to me @ionarts.


Félicien David (1810-1876)

available at Amazon
F. David, Le Souvenir, Quatuor Mosaïques
(Laborie, 2012)

available at Amazon
F. David, String Quartets 1,2,4, Quatuor Cambini-Paris
(Naive, 2012)
We have been on a bit of a Félicien David kick this year, since listening to the recording of his opera Lalla Roukh from Opera Lafayette. At the same time there have been several revivals of his music in France, making him "la révélation du moment," according to an article by Raphaël de Gubernatis (Aux Bouffes du Nord, musique romantique et révélations, June 13) in Le Nouvel Observateur. A celebrated composer -- "praised by Hector Berlioz and Théophile Gautier, honored in the time of Louis Philippe and Napoleon III, decorated, member of the Institut de France" -- David's music was almost immediately forgotten, a situation that the Centre de Musique romantique française, in Venice, is hoping to reverse. It is hosting a mini festival this week (June 14 to 19), including performances by the Trio Wanderer, the Quatuor Mosaïques, the Orchestre de violoncelles, and soloists from Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord.

The focus of the article is the connection of the composer, an orphan from the Vaucluse who was educated at the boys choir school of the Cathedral of Saint-Sauveur in Aix-en-Provence, to the Saint-Simonien movement, championed as he was by Prosper Enfantin, known as "le Père Enfantin," the group's charismatic leader. Following a trip to Egypt with Enfantin, David composed the "ode-symphonie" Le Désert (embedded below).


Les intermittents du spectacle

Striking is a sacred right in France, and it is rearing its head once again this summer. The confederated unions of arts workers, known as les intermittents du spectacle because they do not always work year-round, are causing the cancellation of a number of performances at summer festivals around France. Le Monde has published a map of the affected areas. The source of the trouble is an agreement from last March that affects unemployment insurance for these workers. If the government's labor minister ratifies the agreement, the unions say they will undertake large-scale work stoppages of various kinds, and the trouble may be as extensive as the last major arts strikes in 2003. Already at the Printemps des comédiens, in Montpellier, no performance has taken place since that theater festival opened on June 3, and the dance festival in Uzès has already been canceled in its entirety. Demonstrations, with actors and directors joining the intermittents in solidarity, have been held in Paris, Montpellier, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Rennes, and Strasbourg. As you can imagine with a group of extremely creative people like these workers, the demonstrations are, well, spectacles in their own right.

Des milliers d'intermittents manifestent à Paris by lemondefr

With the big festivals in Avignon and Aix-en-Provence set to open at the start of July, this could get ugly and fast. Olivier Py, the director of the Festival d'Avignon, has said publicly that if the implementation of the agreement in question is not delayed, it will almost certainly mean the cancellation of his festival. The government, for its part, says that it will proceed with the plan to enforce the agreement starting on July 1. The showdown is set.


À mon chevet: 'Storia del nuove cognome'

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

book cover
Lila looked at the panel leaning against the wall, asked them to lay it on the floor. Marcello said cautiously, with the dark timitidy that he always showed toward Lila, "What for?"

"I'll show you."

Rino interrupted: "Don't be an idiot, Lina. you know how much this thing cost? If you ruin it, you're in trouble."

The Solaras laid the image on the floor, Lila looked around, with her brow furrowed, her eyes narrowed. She was looking for something that she knew was there, that perhaps she had brought herself. In a corner she spied a roll of black paper, and she took a pair of big scissors and a box of drawing pins from a shelf. Then, with that expression of extreme concentration which enabled her to isolate herself from everything around her, she went back to the panel. Before our astonished and, in the case of some, openly hostile eyes, she cut strips of black paper, with the manual precision she had always possessed, and pinned them here and there to the photograph, asking for my help with slight gestures or quick glances.

I joined in with the devotion that I had felt ever since we were children. Those moments were thrilling, it was a pleasure to be beside her, slipping inside her intentions, to the point of anticipating her. I felt that she was seeing something that wasn't there, and that she was struggling to make us see it, too. I was suddenly happy, feeling the intensity that invested her, that flowed through her fingers as they grasped the scissors, as they pinned the black paper.

Finally, she tried to lift the canvas, as if she were alone in that space, but she couldn't. Marcello readily intervened. I intervened, we leaned it against the wall. Then we all backed up toward the door, some sneering, some grim, some appalled. The body of the bride Lila appeared cruelly shredded. Much of the head had disappeared, as had the stomach. There remained an eye, the hand on which the chin rested, the brilliant stain of the mouth, the diagonal stripe of the bust, the line of the crossed legs, the shoes.

-- Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name (translation by Ann Goldstein), p. 118-19
This is the second volume of Ferrante's Neapolitan trilogy (see my post on volume 1), and it is just as absorbing as her other books. From their shared life as girls, Lila and her friend Elena (the author) take very different paths as young adults. Lila marries a wealthy man, and the large photographic reproduction that features in this passage becomes an emblem of both her success in life and humiliation. Lila's artistic transformation of this photograph draws some notoriety to her new family's business, another sign of the brilliance of Elena's childhood friend.


In Brief: At the Lake 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 Jakub Hruša lead a performance of Dvorak's Stabat Mater at the Festival de Saint-Denis, with the Prague Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. [France Musique]

  • Jordi Savall leads a performance of C.P.E. Bach's oratorio Die Israeliten in der Wüste, with Le Concert des Nations and La Capella Reial de Catalunya; plus Maria Cristina Kiehr and other soloists. [ORF]

  • A recital by soprano Sophie Karthäuser and pianist Cédric Tiberghien with music of Schumann, Debussy, Honegger, and Poulenc. [France Musique]

  • At the Wiener Festwochen, Daniel Barenboim leads the Vienna Philharmonic in Mozart's Jupiter Symphony and, with the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien, in Max Reger's Requiem. [ORF]

  • Daniel Barenboim leads the Staatskapelle Berlin in Strauss's Ein Heldenleben and Don Quixote. [ORF]

  • Watch Daniele Gatti lead a memorial concert for Claudio Abbado, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Waltraud Meier at the Dresden Music Festival. []

  • From the Wiener Festwochen, listen to a performance of Georg Friedrich Haas's opera Bluthaus. [ORF]

  • Händel's Alexander's Feast or The Power of Music, performed by Concentus Musicus Wien, conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, with Dorothea Röschmann, Michael Schade, and Gerald Finley as soloists, recorded in 2001 in the Abbey Church of Melk. [ORF]

  • Semyon Bychkov leads the Orchestre National de France in music of Strauss and Wagner, with mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn. [France Musique]

  • Jean Deroyer leads a performance of Messiaen's Des canyons aux étoiles, with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, pianist Catherine Cournot, and others. [France Musique]

  • The Orchestre National d’Île de France and pianist Romain Descharmes perform music by Toru Takemitsu, Rachmaninov, and Shostakovich. [France Musique]

  • The Ensemble Pygmalion performs music of Mozart and Michael Haydn, with soprano Malin Christensson, mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa, tenor Julien Behr, and bass-baritone Andreas Wolf. [France Musique]

  • Michi Gaigg leads the Orfeo Baroque Orchestra in music of Gluck, Rebel, Rameau, and others at the Internationale Barocktage Stift Melk. [ORF]

  • The Tapiola Sinfonietta performs music by Nielsen, Berg, Aarre Merikanto, Jon Leifs, and Franz Berwald. [France Musique]

  • Mikko Franck leads the Estonia National Symphony Orchestra and pianist Per Tengstrand in music by Wilhelm Stenhammar, Richard Strauss, and Tchaikovsky. [ORF]

  • A sampling of electronic pieces performed last March at the Festival Présences Electronique. [France Musique]

  • Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya joins the Orchestre de La Suisse Romande and conductor Neeme Järvi for music by Dvorak, Mozart, and Bartok. [France Musique]

  • Listen to pianist Michel Dalberto perform music by Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Brahms. [France Musique]


'An American Soldier' Gets Its Premiere

An American Soldier, Washington National Opera, American Opera Initiative (photo by Scott Suchman)

The Washington National Opera's American Opera Initiative continues its mission, to present new American operas on American themes. After Approaching Ali in 2013, the program presented its second hour-long opera on Friday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Called An American Soldier, the libretto by David Henry Hwang takes up the real life, anguish, and death of a 19-year-old U.S. Army private named Danny Chen, set to music by Huang Ruo. The Chinese-American composer also chose a historical subject for Dr. Sun Yat-sen, which will have its American premiere this summer at Santa Fe Opera.

The U.S. Army's investigation into the events surrounding Chen's death was reported in the New York Times and elsewhere. The case, which involved brutal and racist hazing by Chen's fellow soldiers, echoed similar cases of anti-Asian racism in the military, a disturbing trend that in the same year had also led to the suicide of an Asian-American Marine, Lance Cpl. Harry Lew. The unflinching eye of journalism revealed the facts of these cases, spread word of them, and soon enough anti-hazing legislation was being passed through Congress.

Why make these events into an opera? Huang told an interviewer that opera is "not just entertainment," adding that “It’s a way to fulfill a social duty for society — in this case, to bring more awareness about what happened to Danny and somehow to help spread the word and also to really see what we can learn from this tragedy.” That sounds pretty boring as an evening in the theater, and that is pretty much the feeling left by this new work when all was said and done. The opera fails as journalism, since you would get a more balanced understanding of the events by reading the articles in the New York Times -- where you would find out, as you do not in the opera, that according to testimony at the military trials, Chen was scheduled for a transfer away from his unit, "because he was struggling to satisfy his responsibilities as an infantryman." History has to become art, in the way that makes the opera more than just a recounting of some of the facts, in a way like what make the assassination of Gustave III into Un ballo in maschera or the Moscow Uprising of 1682 into Khovanshchina.

Other Articles:

Hansi Lo Wang, An Opera Remembers The Tragedy Of An Asian-American Soldier (NPR, June 13)
It's a shame because Ruo showed some savvy in his handling of the orchestra, creating all sorts of interesting sounds with his ensemble of thirteen instruments, by comparison to other works heard recently. The score opens with an ominous drumbeat, and the players are called on to create keening sounds, at times almost like a didgeridoo, that go with the clatter of percussion and the wordless howl of an unseen chorus. In fact, Ruo sometimes goes overboard in his use of the pit, pushing the singers to extremes at times -- an issue for the otherwise fine young tenor Andrew Stenson as Danny Chen, not so much for the robust mezzo-soprano Guang Yang as his mother. Soloman Howard sang with menacing authority as the judge at the military tribunal, which forms the backdrop for most of the opera, although it was a confusing mistake also to have him sing the role of one of the testifying soldiers. Baritone Trevor Scheunemann was vicious in the role of Sgt. Marcum, presented here as the ringleader of the hazing soldiers, and baritone Andrew McLaughlin made the best of several supporting roles.

Steven Jarvi held the performance together admirably from the podium, negotiating some complicated coordination between stage and pit. The production directed by David Paul helped tell the story effectively, with set pieces that slid in from both sides to present recollections of the past (sets by Paul Taylor). Unfortunately, composer and librettist spend too much time having the characters explain their actions and feelings, which is a confusion of how a novel tells a story and how a stage work does, and the most dramatic moment, the offstage gunshot that ends Chen's life, is deflated by the choice to have the work end instead on a lovely but out-of-place duet between mother and son. A lot of effort is spent on fueling our outrage at the racism of the hazing soldiers -- a catalog of Asian slurs, and let's throw in the N-word, for kicks -- but opera should aim for emotions beyond political outrage, which take a back seat here. It is a problem that is a regular part of the vogue, at least since Nixon in China, for "ripped from the headlines" story lines in new operas.

This performance repeats this afternoon (June 14, 2 pm) in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

Bruckner’s Boa (Second Opinion)

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

Anton Bruckner is a difficult composer and, in a way, an acquired taste. Brahms called Bruckner’s symphonies “boa-constrictors”. Bruckner wrote them with such a sense of vastness and in a time scale so extended and at times seemingly suspended, that the listener needs very large ears to take it all in. They are almost impossible to grasp on first hearing. The symphonies can seem like elephantine meanderings that make Mahler look like a model of concision. Mahler gives you more to fix your attention on in the moment, in case you miss the big picture. Bruckner—not so often. If your attention flags, you are lost. These features made Bruckner’s symphonies very controversial. To one person who informed him that his symphonies were too long, Bruckner retorted, “No sir, you are too short.” Most of us are.

See also: A Survey of Bruckner Cycles | Bruckner: The Divine and the Beautiful

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Symphony No.8,
G.Wand / BPh

On Thursday night, June 12, 2014, the National Symphony Orchestra, under Christoph Eschenbach, essayed Bruckner’s biggest boa constrictor, Symphony No.8, at the Kennedy Center. If this nearly hour-and-a-half work is not kept tightly coiled, it can unravel in a mess. This has nothing to do with speed, but with maintaining inner tension. Let it go and the work can degenerate into stop/start music. Bruckner’s famous pauses will not then be, in composer Robert Simpson’s phrase “the open spaces in the cathedral”, but dead space. I wondered if Eschenbach could keep this monster in his grip. I recall being completely taken by his performance of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony in February of 2012. (ionarts review here.) At that time I wrote, that Eschenbach “never surrendered the long line in the music to the abundant beauty”, but the following October I wrote that he did the opposite with the Bruckner Seventh. (See ionarts review.) He surrendered to


Bruckner 8 @ NSO

available at Amazon
Bruckner, Symphony No. 8, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, B. Haitink
(RCO, 2005)

available at Amazon
Bruckner, Motets, Choir of St. Bride's Church (London), R. Jones
(Naxos, 1995)
The National Symphony Orchestra is dedicating this week's concerts, the last of this season's subscription series, to the memory of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, the ensemble's one-time Principal Guest Conductor, who died earlier this week, after not being able to make it through his last appearance here a couple months ago. Bruckner's eighth symphony, the meat of the program, grasps at ideas of eternity, and the introduction, four of Bruckner's liturgical motets, served beautifully as a memorial to a beloved colleague. This was certainly the first time that Bruckner's motets have been performed on an NSO program, and it is always good to break down the instrumental-vocal divide in classical music, along which those who love singing and those who love playing know next to nothing about the other side.

Bruckner's training as a choirboy and organist, after the death of his father, shaped him as a person and a musician, and listening only to the symphonies, as glorious as they are, gives an incomplete picture of the composer. Bruckner composed motets for liturgical use, almost continuously, between 1835 (Pange lingua) and 1892 (Vexilla regis), as noted by scholar John Williamson: "In the motets written during these fifty-seven years we are presented with a fascinating microcosm of Bruckner's development as a musician, from the first tentative steps to the confident strides of a fully mature composer." In them we see Bruckner drawing from Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, and the chromatic harmony he was absorbing from Wagner and other composers. The University of Maryland Chamber Singers, arranged in the chorister seats above the stage, and thus far away from Christoph Eschenbach, gave nuanced and generally fine performances of the four best-known examples of these motets, with well-phrased Latin, equal balances, broad dynamic range, and clean intonation, with the exception of loud textures, where the sopranos were not always in line (although the women were angelic in Ave Maria). Choral conducting is a different animal, and it may have been better to let the group's director, Edward Maclary, conduct this part of the concert, since Eschenbach seemed at times unclear about what he was doing, as in the Alleluia section of Virga Jesse. He tried to cut the choir off a measure early at the end of the "mortem autem crucis" section of Christus factus est, before the final resolution, and the choir wisely just ignored him.

Since taking the helm of the NSO, Christoph Eschenbach has been leading an informal cycle of the Bruckner symphonies, and this performance of the eighth symphony, the only one since the orchestra's first in 1983, is added to those of no. 7, no. 9, and no. 6. It features the largest orchestra Bruckner ever called for, although oddly here there was only one harp instead of the three harps in the score, meaning that the single player had to have a microphone on her instrument and still often was not heard. Eschenbach worked from the Novak edition of the 1890 revision of the score, considered to be more scholarly than the Haas edition, in which the editor put back in some of the sections of music excised by Bruckner. The NSO musicians gave an appropriately vast sound at full bore, with a regal brass section, including the four Wagner tubas, with Eschenbach helping to sculpt some massive crescendi. While the first movement's tempo seemed just about right, with only a slightly unclear beat making the sixteenth-note pickups a little uncertain, Eschenbach's tempo for the scherzo seemed a hair too fast, with an air that was more mischievous than simple-minded. Whatever faith you may put in the programmatic descriptions Bruckner gave for this symphony, the composer's association of the figure of "Der deutsche Michel" with the scherzo says something about what he wanted.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Eschenbach, NSO offer mammoth but gentle Bruckner in season’s final program (Washington Post, June 13)
The cellos were gorgeous in the third movement, the emotional high point of the symphony, at a luxuriant but not overdone tempo, and the finale opened with an exultant awakening of vast sound, if with occasional ragged ensemble that seemed to show some fatigue on the part of the musicians. Clocking in at about 85 minutes, with timings quite similar to those recorded by Bernard Haitink in his recent recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Eschenbach gave the work a sense of urgency, while allowing the slow movement to expand and breathe as it needed. One of the changes that Bruckner made in the 1890 revision was to alter the coda of the first movement, so that some of its harmonic resolution would be saved for the end of the finale, where finally, the home key is established after 80 minutes of music. Michael Steinberg called this symphony, "among other things, a great study in long-range harmonic evasion," meaning that in the last section of the work, when the overall trajectory, a struggle that ends in triumphant C major, is achieved, should be a revelation and it was.

This concert also marked the departure of seven long-serving NSO musicians, who were given warm ovations. The concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night.


Classical Music Agenda: July/August 2014

July and August are meager months for classical music in Washington, but here are a few options for those who are not traveling elsewhere this summer.

The two productions at the Castleton Festival are Mozart's Don Giovanni (July 5, 12, 18) and Puccini's Madama Butterfly (July 6, 11, 20). Lorin Maazel has canceled most of his conducting dates for the foreseeable future, so no way to be sure that he will conduct the Puccini or not.

Wolf Trap Opera concludes its season with a rather alluring double-bill: Milhaud's Le pauvre matelot and Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tirésias (August 8, 10, 16), both mounted for the first time by the company.

Washington-born pianist Sarah Daneshpour returns to the area for a free recital at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (July 13). The program will include Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, Schumann’s Variations on the Name of ABEGG, and Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.

The young musicians of the NSO Summer Music Institute Orchestra will give two free concerts in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (July 13 and 27). The second of these performances will include a concerto with the winner of the Institute's concerto competition.

The NSO has a few performances at Wolf Trap over the summer. We might take in the screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey with live music (July 19) and the concert with cellist Yo-Yo Ma (August 2), playing Dvořák's cello concerto (August 2, already sold out).

We will probably add a few performances from the Capital Fringe Festival (July 10 to 27), once the schedule is announced.

See the complete calendar after the jump.


For Your Consideration: 'Camille Redouble'

The awards for feature films at this year's Festival de Cannes included Winter Sleep by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceyland (Palme d'Or), the young Italian director Alice Rorhwacher's Le Meraviglie (Grand Prix), Bennett Miller (Best Director) for Foxcatcher, Andrey Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin (Best Screenplay) for Leviathan (an adaptation of the Book of Job), Julianne Moore (Best Actress) in David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars, Timothy Spall (Best Actor) in Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, and Jury Prizes to Xavier Dolan's Mommy and Jean-Luc Godard's Adieu au language. Other films that received critical notice were Timbuktu, by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, the only African feature in the competition; Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent on the life of the fashion designer; Argentine director Damian Szifron's comedy Relatos Salvajes; Deux jours, une nuit by the Dardenne brothers and starring Marion Cotillard; Naomi Kawase's Still the Water; The Tribe by Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, entirely in sign language and not subtitled; and Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, directed by Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan, which brings together short bits of footage shot by “1,001 Syrians,” documenting the civil war in Syria on mobile phone and Internet video, along with some actual film from the siege of Homs.

Last night, as part of its excellent French Cinémathèque series, the French Embassy screened a film that made waves at the 2012 Festival de Cannes, Camille redouble by French director Noémie Lvovsky. It is a tribute remake of Francis Ford Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married, in which a woman going through a rancorous divorce is magically transported back to her senior year of high school. Lvovsky's film, of course, is transposed to France and the time travel is to that magical year of 1985, which is evoked expertly in costumes, decor, and music. When Lvovsky's Camille wakes up in a hospital after a wild New Year's Eve party in her 40s, it is New Year's Day when she is about to turn 16: to go home, she has to put on an ensemble right out of Desperately Seeking Susan. The idea, of course, is for Camille to have a chance to reconsider the wrong turns she took in her life, by which she ended up on the brink of divorce, alcoholic, and a barely working actress -- the opening scene, in which she has a bit part in a slasher film, is one of the film's funniest.

available at Amazon
Camille Redouble, directed by Noémie Lvovsky
Camille also discovers that many of the things that happened in the past are good and also just inevitable. She can change some things about herself, in how she treats other people, and the chance to confront again some of the bad situations of her past, to listen again to the advice she was given, and mostly ignored, is precious. Lvosky prefers to work with an ensemble, both of screenwriters and actors, and the collaboration makes this project stronger than it would have been. Yolande Moreau (Séraphine) and Michel Vuillermoz (Vous n'avez encore rien vu) give poignant and hilarious performances as Camille's bemused parents, and Camille's interactions, with an adult's experiences, with her former teachers are particularly delightful -- Mathieu Amalric as an arrogant literature teacher (see the embedded scene above), Micha Lescot as the absurdly intense director of a student production of Goldoni's Gl'innamorati, Denis Podalydès as the brilliant physics teacher who tries to understand Camille's claims about time travel.

Samir Guesmi is at times disturbingly Nicholas Cage-like as Éric, Camille's marivaudage-spouting high-school sweetheart and costar in the Goldoni play, while Judith Chemla, India Hair, and Julia Faure make up the rest of the zany quartet of Camille's high-school friends. Jean-Pierre Léaud, seen most recently in Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre, has a cameo as the quirky watchmaker who seems to set Camille's journey in motion. This may not a great film, but it is an enjoyable comedy that never lags, and for anyone who went to high school in the 1980s, like your moderator, it offers many laughs on that account.

The next screening in the French Cinémathèque series will be Abus de Faiblesse (June 18), starring Isabelle Huppert, in its other venue, the Avalon Theater in Chevy Chase.


NGA Vocal Ensemble

available at Amazon
Debussy, Music for the Prix de Rome (Le Gladiateur, La damoiselle élue, L'enfant prodigue), Flemish Radio Choir, Brussels Phil., H. Niquet
(Glossa, 2009)
Charles T. Downey, National Gallery of Art Vocal Ensemble provides some pleasant surprises in concert
Washington Post, June 10, 2014
Composers and painters have influenced one another in many eras, and in France at the end of the 19th century, the ties were strong. In a concert Sunday evening, the National Gallery of Art Vocal Ensemble explored the atmosphere of that period, offering music that complemented the museum’s exhibit of works by Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt.

The selection featured many unexpected choices, and the performance was generally good, despite a few... [Continue reading]
NGA Vocal Ensemble
Music in honor of Degas/Cassatt
National Gallery of Art


Balanchine Wins the Fairy Game

Fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Pennsylvania Ballet, choreography by
George Balanchine © George Balanchine Trust (photo by Alexander Iziliaev)

In the past year's glut of A Midsummer Night's Dream, it turns out, the best was saved for last, with Pennsylvania Ballet's revival of George Balanchine's choreography on the Shakespeare play, seen on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House. (The company is also celebrating its 50th anniversary in Washington, along with the Boston Ballet.) It was the first new full-length ballet that Balanchine created here in the United States, premiered in 1964 by the New York City Ballet, and it bears the hallmarks of incipient greatness, in the uncanny way that Balanchine could tell a story through dancing, and not merely through pantomime. Balanchine reportedly loved the play, having played a fairy in a production back in St. Petersburg, and the pure delight he creates in the fairy scenes, danced here by a firmly schooled pack of child dancers, knocked me over. Benjamin Britten, in his operatic adaptation, gets some of the same qualities through his use of the children's chorus, but Balanchine goes for none of the undercurrent of disturbing menace that Britten wanted, leaving only innocent fun.

available at Amazon
Mendelssohn, Ein Sommernachtstraum, La Chapelle Royale, Collegium Vocale Gent, Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, P. Herreweghe
(Harmonia Mundi, 2012)
All of the lead roles in this production were strong, starting with the graceful Titania of Lillian di Piazza, a rising soloist with the company. Balanchine gave her a delightful partnering with Bottom as an ass, danced oafishly by Daniel Cooper, where the mismatch between the two is hilarious, he awkward and she blissfully ignorant. The Oberon of Jermel Johnson was imperious and appropriately vain, served by the flying, goat-like Puck of Alexander Peters. The production helpfully color-codes the four lovers, a simple but ingenious visual aid that even Puck eventually learns to use. The lovers have their comical moments but they are also a tender bunch, with the lovely principal dancer Amy Aldridge standing out among them. The choreography uses danced cues to show their happiness and unhappiness: rigid bodies while carried, reluctant lifts, or melting into one another. Two fine principals, Lauren Fadeley and Zachary Hench, were reserved for the elegant pairing of lovers in the divertissement of the second act, where Balanchine spends too much time on dances of courtiers and wedding festivities.

To do that, Balanchine puts most of Mendelssohn's incidental music in the first act, including a partial staging of the gossamer-light overture. Like all great choreographers, Balanchine understood music profoundly, and he had note-perfect instincts in translating Mendelssohn's gestures into music, beginning with the enigmatic four chords that open the overture and that Mendelssohn incorporated in his later incidental music. The wonder created by those chords is rooted in the relationship between the middle two chords, a retrogression from V to iv, both a nod to the duality of E major and E minor that runs throughout the overture, but also an unexpected harmonic movement that is in some sense "wrong" by the rules of tonality. In Balanchine's choreography, those chords become a sort of call, as the child-fairies, at some points joined by Puck, raise their hands to their mouths and call out in music. By the second or third time it happened, the combination of sound and gesture made my spine tingle, and I doubt I will ever hear the Mendelssohn piece again without thinking of that image.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, At the Kennedy Center Opera House, music steals the show from the Pennsylvania Ballet (Washington Post, June 9)
Having just played the overture and incidental music last April, the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra sounded in good form, given a clean beat and nice cuing guidance by Pennsylvania Ballet music director Beatrice Jona Affron. The horn solo of the Nocturne was lost in a liminal haze, quite beautifully, and a women's chorus from the Choral Arts Society of Washington, along with Erin Crowley and Carolyn Wise as soloists, were positioned in the pit, a significant improvement over the last performance, where the singers were amplified from another location. (One of the soloists entered early at one point in the final vocal number, but Affron put things aright after a few measures of chaos.) Balanchine kept the wedding music and the final number for the second act, and to make an evening-length ballet, he added several other movements by Mendelssohn, including overtures (from Athalie, Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde, Das Märchen von der schönen Melusine, and Die erste Walpurgisnacht) and the ninth string symphony (C minor). Because Mendelssohn composed it all, it feels cut from the same cloth, and the music adds its own delight, for these are scores that are rarely, if ever, performed any more.

In the end, though, it came back to those fairies, from small to smaller, in their varied and colorful costumes, often recalling the shapes and patterns of insects (scenery and costumes designed by Martin Pakledinaz), as they moved in swarms through the darkened forest in Act I, where most of the story is told. Here a scrim of sparsely inked leaves, recalling Japanese painted screens, revealed the scene, giving the sense of passing into a storybook world, which is the way it is supposed to be.