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À mon chevet: 'The Isles of Greece'

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

book cover
The Isles of Greece! the isles of Greece
   Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
   Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set. [...]

The mountains look on Marathon—
   And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
   I dream'd that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians' grave,
I could not deem myself a slave. [...]

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
   Our virgins dance beneath the shade—
I see their glorious black eyes shine;
   But gazing on each glowing maid,
My own the burning tear-drop laves,
To think such breasts must suckle slaves.

Place me on Sunium's marbled steep,
   Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
   There, swan-like, let me sing and die;
A land of slaves shall ne'er be mine—
Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!

-- Lord Byron, The Isles of Greece (from Don Juan), selected stanzas
This week a colleague and I are leading a student group on a spring break tour of Greece, a place whose ancient art and architecture I have taught for many years. Seeing these sites has transformed the way I think about them, and accompanying my thoughts have been the words of another deeply affected traveler, Lord Byron. On the first day of our visit, we took the students to see the Temple of Poseidon, built on the rocky Cape Sounion, overlooking the glittering Aegean. By tradition it is the place where King Aegeas watched anxiously for the return of his son Theseus from Crete after his attempt to kill the Minotaur. Forgetting his promise to his father, Theseus thoughtlessly neglected to fly a white sail when he neared Cape Sounion, as a sign that he was still alive. Seeing a black sail, Aegeas threw himself into the sea, giving his life to the body of water that now bears his name. Lord Byron visited the place a couple times on his first trip through Greece, in 1810 and 1811, supposedly inscribing his name on a block of stone still forming part of one of the temple's square columns. This seems hard to believe, given Byron's pleading to all fellow visitors of Greece in other poems, where he deplores the stealing and defacing of Greek antiquities, but one felt a frisson of excitement seeing the name inscribed there nonetheless.


À mon chevet: 'SPQR'

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

book cover
Two things are clear and undermine a couple of misleading modern myths about Roman power and 'character'. First, the Romans were not by nature more belligerent than their neighbors and contemporaries, any more than they were naturally better at building roads and bridges. It is true that Roman culture placed an extraordinarily -- for us, uncomfortably -- high value on success in fighting. Prowess, bravery, and deadly violence in battle were repeatedly celebrated, from the successful general parading through the streets and the cheering crowds in his triumphal procession to the rank-and-file soldiers showing off their battle scars in the middle of political debates in the hope of adding weight to their arguments. In the middle of the fourth century BCE the base of the main platform for speakers in the Forum was decorated with the bronze rams of enemy warships captured from the city of Antium during the Latin War, as if to symbolize the military foundation of Roman political power. The Latin word for 'rams', rostra, became the name of the plaform and gave modern English its word 'rostrum'. [...]

Second, the Romans did not plan to conquer and control Italy. No Roman cabal in the fourth century BCE sat down with a map, plotting a land grab in the territorial way that we associate with imperialist nation-states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For a start, simple as it sounds, they had no maps. What this implies for how they, or any other 'pre-cartographic' people, conceived the world around them, or just over their horizons, is one of history's great mysteries. I have tended to write of the spread of Roman power through the peninsula of Italy, but no one knows how many -- or, realistically, how few -- Romans at this date thought of their homeland as part of a peninsula in the way we picture it. A rudimentary version of the idea is perhaps implied by references in literature of the second century BCE to the Adriatic as the Upper Sea and the Tyrrhenian as the Lower Sea, but notably this is on a different orientation from ours, east-west rather than north-south.

-- Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, pp. 162-63
Mary Beard teaches classics at Cambridge University, and she writes an entertaining blog, so it is no surprise that this book, highly recommended in many best-of-the-year lists, has been an engaging read. For anyone with an interest in some facet of ancient Rome -- the area I teach regularly is its art and architecture -- will find here a concise but detailed account of the city's history, separating fact from fiction, historical truth from received notion. Prof. Beard opens up ways of looking into that ancient world, as in this passage about how the Romans, without maps, even conceived of the Italian peninsula.


Rachel Barton Pine Recites Violin Bible

available at Amazon
Bach, Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, R. Barton Pine

(released on April 1, 2016)
Avie AV2360 | 125'33"
Violinist Rachel Barton Pine has long been an Ionarts favorite, although I have had to miss her last two local appearances, playing all of the Paganini Caprices in 2013 and on the Candlelight Concert series last year. Given her impeccable musicality, astounding technique, and beautiful tone, we were hoping she would get around to recording the six solo violin works of J. S. Bach, pieces known around here as the "Bible of music" (Gidon Kremer). Avie is about to release Barton Pine's top-notch account of the "Sei solo," as Bach put it on his manuscript copy of these pieces. I have only just started to listen to them, but her set is up there among my favorites of recent recordings, with Isabelle Faust (now available as a discounted 2-CD set) and Alina Ibragimova, although Viktoria Mullova and Rachel Podger still reign supreme in the Ionarts heart.

Barton Pine came home, in a way, in her choice of recording venue, to the sanctuary of St. Pauls United Church of Christ in Chicago, where she attended church as a child. She first performed Bach's music there, at the age of four, she explains in her booklet essay, and an image of Bach from one of the church's stained glass windows adorns the album. "You must practice Bach. It is the music of Gott!" Barton Pine recalls being told by elderly German ladies there. To accompany my delectation of the recording, Barton Pine chose Easter Sunday to be at the National Gallery of Art to give a live performance of the violin bible. So, after singing for an Easter Vigil and two Easter Day Masses, it was off to a different kind of sacred service for Ionarts.

Not all performers can speak with such easy authority about the music they play, but during this concert Barton Pine offered many insights about each sonata and partita, without ever abusing our attention. Introducing the first sonata, she described Bach’s written-out ornamentation as a way to prevent over-embellishment, but for the record Barton Pine’s excessively ornamented version, a fragment offered as an amusing way of being over the top, would probably make for great listening. After all, it is possible that Bach wanted to make sure that the performer did ornament these pieces, so he offered one plausible way of ornamenting, perhaps to encourage performers to go even farther.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Violinist Rachel Barton Pine brings joy to Bach’s ‘Chaconne’ (Washington Post, March 29)
In general, Barton plays this music with no vibrato, at one point in the first movement of the second sonata using a strong vibrato as an ornament, which had a striking effect. She played with her Baroque bow on her modernized 1742 Guarneri del Gesú instrument, so the sound was akin to what she achieves on the recording, with impeccable intonation, including in multi-stops, so that the fugal structures in the sonatas were precise and clear. One overarching facet of her approach was to keep meters strict, without becoming mathematical or mechanical. This makes her Ciaconna, the famous piece at the end of the second partita, feel again like a dance, a sense of rhythmic organization that can get lost in other performances, propelled at essentially the same tempo in all sections, including the shift to major. Each time that the opening section returned, sort of a "refrain" in the piece, she tightened the emotional impact of the piece.

Only the start of the second partita felt slightly dull in this performance, the only time my mind wandered slightly. As Bach intended in many of his pieces like this, designed as encyclopedic compendia, the third sonata and partita are climactic. The third sonata, with its most complex fugue, based on the chorale tune Komm, Heiliger Geist, was solemn and grand, followed by a simple, spare Largo as a moment of repose. Lest we take too seriously the God-minded side of Bach, he of the motto Soli Deo Gloria, the set ends with the much lighter third partita, here deft, sometimes thrilling, but without the heaviness of having to make too profound a statement. Life, after all, is far too serious not to dance.


Lawrence Brownlee Returns to Wolf Trap

available at Amazon
Rossini, Virtuoso Arias, L. Brownlee, Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra, C. Orbelian
(Delos, 2014)
The last time that Lawrence Brownlee returned to his old stomping ground at Wolf Trap Opera, to help celebrate the company's 40th anniversary, he sang to his strengths, in Italian bel canto opera. When the American tenor appeared on Friday night, for the latest in the series of Wolf Trap alumni recitals on Friday night, the repertory was Italian, but less challenging and, frankly, less interesting art songs that paled in comparison. On the other hand, one can understand Brownlee's decision to take it easy on himself, as he is in the midst of preparations to reprise the role of Charlie Parker in Philadephia Opera's new opera Yardbird, this weekend in New York.

Anyone who has ever taken voice lessons, including yours truly, has sung at least one of the first four songs on this program, working from Schirmer's classic collection of Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias. They are sturdy, overdone pieces, hardly scintillating fare, and Brownlee did nothing to make them stand out in any particular way, reinforcing my impression that he is not really a natural recitalist. His busily intense vibrato went a little haywire on the first one, Torelli's Tu lo sai, although that may have just been nerves, since in other slow pieces, like Scarlatti's O cessate di piagarmi, the vibrato was less noticeable. As in his opera repertory, he excels in fast pieces with lots of runs, so Legrenzi's Che fiero costume was better suited to him, although Rossini's careening La Danza posed some challenges to his accompanist, company director Kim Pensinger Witman, although in all other respects, she was a sensitive musical partner, as always.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Here’s why Lawrence Brownlee is a rising opera star (Washington Post, March 29)

Peter Benecke, Stunning Brownlee Recital in Weill Capped by High C's (Classical Sonoma, March 11)
High notes, for which Brownlee is renowned, were few and far between, starting with a high A in a lovely rendition of Bellini's Malinconia, Ninfa gentile and even higher in Rossini's La lontananza. He took his time phrasing the delicately sad lines of Bellini's La Ricordanza, reworked by the composer from the soprano aria Qui la voce in I Puritani, and in Rossini's L'esule, with the beautiful refrain "ma questo suol non è la Patria mia" (but this soil is not my Fatherland). Brownlee is working on a crossover album of popular song favorites, which he tried out for the first time in the second half of this recital (not reviewed). While I would have welcomed another listening to Brownlee's Gospel arrangements instead, this set did not yet sound quite fully formed.


Perchance to Stream: Haec Dies Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Watch Peter Dijkstra conduct a performance of Bach's St. John Passion, with the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Concerto Köln, recorded at the St. Lawrence Church in Nuremberg. [ARTE]

  • Peter Dijkstra conducts Bach's St. Matthew Passion with the Bavarian Radio Chorus, the Regensburger Domspatzen, Concerto Köln, and soloists, recorded in 2013. [BR-Klassik]

  • Collegium Vocale Ghent and the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées perform Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, under Philippe Herreweghe, recorded at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. [France Musique]

  • From the Salzburg Easter Festival, Christian Thielemann conducts the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden and Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks in Beethoven's Missa solemnis. [ORF]

  • Listen to a performance of Verdi's Otello, starring José Cura (Otello), Dorothea Röschmann (Desdemona), and Carlos Álvarez (Iago), recorded at the Salzburg Easter Festival with Christian Thielemann conducting the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden. [ORF]

  • Philippe Herreweghe conducts the Collegium Vocale Gent, soloists Thomas Hobbs and others, in Bach's St. John Passion< recorded last May in Barcelona. [ORF]

  • Two Bach cantatas (BWV 127 and 182) performed by the Academy of Ancient Music directed by Pavlo Beznosiuk, recorded at Milton Court Concert Hall in London. [BBC3]

  • The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Hannu Lintu and mezzo-soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter, perform Sibelius's second symphony, a set of Sibelius songs, plus Sebastian Fagerlund's Stonework (2014/15), recorded last December in Helsinki. [ORF]

  • The Adelaide Chamber Singers perform Arvo Part's Passio at St. Peter's Cathedral in Adelaide, Australia. [ABC Classic]

  • Oliver Knussen leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers in music by Debussy, Stravinsky, and George Benjamin (Dream of the Song, with countertenor Iestyn Davies, recorded at the Barbican Hall. [BBC3]

  • Watch Mitsuko Uchida join Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic for Mozart's 22nd piano concerto, plus a performance of Beethoven's ninth symphony, with soloists Genia Kühmeier, Sarah Connolly, Steve Davislim, and Florian Boesch. [ARTE]

  • Watch five of Bach's concertos for two or three harpsichords, with soloists Béatrice Martin, Benjamin Alard, and Jean Rondeau, recorded at the Salle Gaveau in Paris with Les Folies Françoise under Patrick Cohën-Akenine. [ARTE]

  • René Jacobs conducts a performance of Gassmann's L´Opera seria at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. [De Munt]

  • Listen to Shostakovich's seventh symphony ("Leningrad") performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons, recorded at the Musikverein in Vienna. [ORF]

  • Pianist David Fray joins Riccardo Muti and the Orchestre National de France for Schumann's piano concerto, plus music by Bach and Strauss (Aus Italien). [ARTE (video) | France Musique (audio)]

  • Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in three of Mendelssohn's symphonies, recorded at the Philharmonie de Paris. [France Musique]

  • Stephen Cleobury conducts the BBC Singers and BBC Concert Orchestra for the Easter at King's Festival in Cambridge, with music by Palestrina, Schubert, and Haydn. [BBC3]

  • Vaclav Luks leads Collegium 1704 and soprano Roberta Invernizzi and other soloists in sacred music by Zelenka, including his Miserere and Missa Omnium Sanctorum, recorded in Vienna. [ORF]

  • Peter Oundjian conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in music by Szymanowski, James MacMillan, and Berlioz, with violinist Nicola Benedetti. [BBC3]

  • Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya plays music by Brahms, Schumann, Bach, Debussy, and Prokofiev, recorded in 2014 at the Wiener Konzerthaus. [ORF]

  • Sofi Jeannin leads the Choeur and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass, plus music by Purcell and Steve Martland. [France Musique]

  • Music by Aloÿs Fornerod, Toru Takemitsu, Daniel Schnyder, and Robert Schumann performed by Kazuki Yamada, the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, and bassonist Daniele Damiano, recorded in Lausanne, Switzerland. [France Musique]


CD Review: Saariaho and the Flute

available at Amazon
K. Saariaho, Music for Flute, C. Hoitenga, Da Camera of Houston

(released on November 13, 2015)
Ondine ode1276-2 | 71'04"
Charles T. Downey, Kaija Saariaho: Let the Wind Speak
Washington Post, March 27

Kaija Saariaho searches exhaustively for new sounds in her music. The Finnish composer has used computers and electronic sounds and processes, but she has also worked with specific performers to explore the boundaries of the sounds traditional instruments can make. Saariaho’s partner in the creation of many of her new pieces for flute, including for her outstanding flute concerto “L’aile du songe” from 2001, has been the flutist Camilla Hoitenga. Born in Michigan but based part of the year in Germany, Hoitenga met Saariaho in 1982, at the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, and they have collaborated ever since. Now, Hoitenga has released an anthology of Saariaho’s flute work.

Other composers have explored this terrain before, but Saariaho makes these experimental effects part of an overall color scheme...
[Continue reading]

#morninglistening: Baroque Oboe Concertos


#morninglistening: Fasch Joys

Ionarts-at-Large: Jansons | Mahler 5

A Mahler Symphony and the chief conductor (Mariss Jansons) at the helm, boldly announced from fancy-font-employing posters, is big ticket stuff even for the spoiled Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra crowd. It’s got all the hallmarks of an event, marked by the throngs of people parading outside the premises of the Gasteig cultural complex (where the 2400-seat Philharmonic Hall is located) with signs of “Tickets Sought”. This concert, on Friday March 11th, was the second of two before the orchestra took this program—Mahler’s Fifth—and one consisting of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, on tour.

Part of me was surprised about the hoopla, because Mariss Jansons is not exactly a natural, great Mahler conductor nor, as far as I sense (despite the Amsterdam tenure), known as such. Certainly his recordings and several concerts I have witnessed (BRSO, 2010; RCO, 2010) left me cold. That said, he’s also turned in one of the two best Mahler performances I’ve ever heard—in the symphony I thought him least likely to succeed, no less. (BRSO, 2011) The general problem is that micro-controlling and Mahler don’t work well together. Jansons rarely just lets thing go. Then again, with that most recent glorious exceptions in mind, even I felt a hint of giddiness as Jansons raised his baton to launch the Trauermarsch.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.5,
M.Stenz / Gürzenich Orch.

But before it got that far, there was this new thing the BRSO does: their “Surprise Work” which awaits the customers of every Mariss Jansons concert. Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture op.62, in this case, and not much of a surprise if one looked a few days ahead to see what the orchestra would play along to Mahler in Vienna’s Musikverein. (Where such surprise-nonsense is presumably not tolerated.) Whether this is a clever concept or just PR-department concocted nonsense I will get into in a post over on, next week. For now let’s report that the overture was well played and that Mariss Jansons got the work right when he announced it, afterwards. That’s a step up from the day before, where he pronounced having conducted one of the Leonore Overtures with Mahler’s Retuschen only to be told by his concert master that he may well have been conducting that*, but that the orchestra had been playing the Coriolan Overture all the same. Ouch. (* The concert master may have phrased it slightly more diplomatically.)

The Mahler itself was uncontroversial, very good and not special. The beginning—tight, precise, taut and loud—promised good, martial Mahler, organized and swift. The second movement was neatly shoved into the proximity of Wagner and the cellos (and eventually violas) playing over soft timpani rolls was a special, intense moment. But the movement ended with glare as colors gave way to sheer volume. The plucky pizzicato section both in the violins and cellos in the third movement paid great attention to detail, but now there was also a sense of stop-and-go… and the tempo choices didn’t feel (subjectively) quite compelling or obvious nor was the BRSO
’s playing entirely up to its usual, exacting standards of perfection. This was different in the Adagietto, which was one big breath, which was chamber-like in its texture, which had a wonderful tempo (just shy of ten minutes but with a clear arc from beginning to end), liquid and somber but never lingering. But the fifth and last movement was small-small again, for some time, before the rousing finale (something that’s built into the music and can hardly—and didn’t—fail) came. It was, well, rousing, and loud but felt a little empty. The enjoyment might have been greater, had the symphony not felt quite as safe and tame.


#morninglistening: Beethoven in Jerusalem

James Galway, Still Going

available at Amazon
James Galway, Celebrating 70: A Collection of Personal Favorites
(Sony, 2009)
Charles T. Downey, James Galway still knows how to spin out a beautiful phrase (Washington Post, March 22)
Sir James Galway’s last visit to Washington, in 2013, was billed as a legacy tour. The Irish flutist, a legend by any measure, was still at the top of his game, and he had the audience eating out of his hand. On Sunday afternoon, Galway was back, presented again by Washington Performing Arts in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, and playing a platinum Nagahara flute he helped design. But this time around, the less-than-full house and increasing shortcomings in finger agility and tuning gave the impression of an artistic arc beginning its descent.

At 76, Galway still worked marvels in many pieces, not least in the outrageous variations of Giulio Briccialdi’s “Carnival of Venice,” where the complex writing gives the impression of the flute accompanying its own melody... [Continue reading]
James Galway, flute
Washington Performing Arts
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

2013 | 2008 | 2006


Lugansky and Vänskä Devastating in Brahms

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Symphonies, Minnesota Orchestra, O. Vänskä
(BIS, 2009)
If we take this week's "trifecta of Russian piano virtuosos" in the classic, hippodromic sense of the word, it would be Denis Matsuev for Place and Daniil Trifonov for Show. The Win would go to the last to reach my ears, Nikolai Lugansky's devastating performance of the Brahms first piano concerto with Osmo Vänskä at the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra, heard on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

The first movement of this concerto can be a little overbearing, and it was so in this performance, with the timpani overwhelming much of the first section of the orchestral exposition. A dark gloom settled over the orchestra in the second theme, winding down into the trumpets and timpani as Lugansky made his first wandering, subdued entrance. He and Vänskä were always in rhythmic unity, aiming together for a slow burn of this rather massive, shambling piece. At the recapitulation, preceded by rumbling octaves in the piano, Lugansky was implacable in tone, after which the piece subsided into murky depths in that long duet of the bass side of the keyboard and horn.

The climax of the piece is the slow movement, perhaps the most beautiful one Brahms ever composed, a portrait of Clara Schumann, smoldering with emotion that is bottled up, not allowed full expression except introspectively. A characteristic moment happens early in the Adagio (see the score below), in measures 12 to 13 of the orchestral introduction, where a powerful V chord looks lined up to resolve strongly to I, only to be turned away as V7 is suspended over a D pedal tone, which then has to pass through IV in second inversion before reaching its destination. This was exactly how Lugansky and the orchestra played it, more a glowing ember than a blazing fire. Lugansky tamed the finale's challenges with steely technical power, fast but not too much so, with only some of the piano's out-of-tune treble strings to cause complaint.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Vanska makes a muted NSO return with Brahms, but shines in Beethoven (Washington Post, March 18)
At the start of Beethoven's sixth symphony, which concluded the evening, Vänskä struck an impatient tone in what should be a genial first movement. His gestures, seeming to grate against the more restrained tempo, unsettled the ensemble unity in the first movement, especially in the sections dominated by sextuplets. The second movement, by contrast, had a serene, lilting quality, in which the careful layering of sounds, some more important than others, created a rushing or burbling effect. The woodwind players were flawless in rendering the magical moment of the three bird calls -- Nachtigall, Wachtel, Kukuk (nightingale, quail, and cuckoo) -- at the movement's end. The third movement felt fast but was delightfully light and soft, except that Vänskä allowed the string sound to engulf the woodwind melody at times in the trio. Celli and timpani rumbled in alternation effectively in the storm scene, followed by a sweet, gently paced finale, where Vänskä's restraint at the start paid off at the climax of the movement.


Joshua Bell's New Role

available at Amazon
Bach, Violin Concertos (inter alia), Academy of St Martin in the Fields, J. Bell
(Sony, 2014)
When I spoke to Joshua Bell for a 2012 interview, he said he was interested in composition, historically informed performance approaches to early Baroque music, and branching out into other musical areas. At that point, he had just taken up the position of music director for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, which he has held since 2011. Based on his performance with the group, heard on Friday night in the Music Center at Strathmore, he has settled quite nicely into his new role.

Bell is the first musician to hold the title of music director with the ensemble since it was founded by Neville Marriner in 1958. He conducts from the concertmaster's seat, playing some of the time and using his bow arm and head to establish tempos and adjust the pulse or give direction. The group moved as one in a crackling, dramatic performance of Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture to open the concert, showing all the advantages of a chamber orchestra. With all players considered as equals, including their leader, the agreed-upon articulations were especially crisp and unified and the balances ideally calibrated.

Other Reviews:

Grace Jean, The master as leader and player: Joshua Bell dazzles at Strathmore (Washington Post, March 20)

Charles Donelan, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Santa Barbara Independent, March 14)

Tim Sawyier, Joshua Bell leads ASMF in dynamic performances at Harris Theater (Chicago Classical Review, March 13)

Bradley Zint, English chamber orchestra produces fine night of music (Los Angeles Times, March 10)

Steven Winn, Joshua Bell Needs a Baton to Go with His Bow (San Francisco Classical Voice, March 9)

Timothy Mangan, Joshua Bell and the Academy energize classic program (Orange County Register, March 8)

---, Joshua Bell, violinist, conductor ... (Orange County Register, March 4)
Bell stood in the center of the group to take the solo part in Mozart's fourth violin concerto, an interpretation distinguished principally by the fact that Bell has composed his own cadenzas for this tour, which happens to be the first time he has played the work. In the first movement, Bell seemed a little off his game, uncharacteristically uncertain of intonation and pacing, until he got to that cadenza. He put the themes into polyphonic double-stops, with some high flautando playing and ultra-fast passage work in between, for an extremely virtuosic effect, modeled on the great violin-composers of the past. The trademark Bell sweetness of tone served the second movement exceptionally well, with another short cadenza near the end that put the movement's primary melody against a trill in double-stops, capped by another high, sighing flautando section. All earlier doubts disappeared in the third movement, set at just the right grazioso tempo, again with a little cadenza moment -- a decorated transition that Mozart called an "Eingang" (entrance) -- before each return of the main theme. Before the last return, Bell played a longer cadenza with pieces of the themes wrapped around a continuous drone on one of the strings, a pleasing reference to the use of a drone in the movement.

Mendelssohn's fourth symphony ("Italian") is perhaps the composer's best, tilted as its movements are to quickness and lightness. It is daunting to attempt without a true conductor, but the group played it with perfectly executed coordination. Clean, tight articulation made the subject in the first movement's fugal section ultra-clear, and the timpani had room to thunder in the full, loud sections, a sound that had the booming shock it was meant to have. In the second movement, the viola and bassoon melody was warm and tender, with the flute countermelody standing out when the violins took over the tune. More tempo reserve in the first three movements usually pays off in the Presto finale, which here had to be Prestissimo to make it feel faster than what had come before. To the group's credit, they pulled it off, including some of the most polished horn playing heard in a long time, in both the third and fourth movements. Prolonged ovations earned a rousing encore, the galop-like Molto vivace finale of Prokofiev's "Classical" symphony.

#morninglistening: Zimmermann Mozart Excellence

Perchance to Stream: Ramis Palmarum Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Ten years ago, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson gave what turned out to be her last performances, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's second symphony. [CSO]

  • Watch Zubin Mehta conduct a performance of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera in Munich, starring Piotr Beczala and Anja Harteros. [ARTE]

  • René Jacobs conducts a performance of Gassmann's L´Opera seria at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. [ARTE]

  • Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra perform Beethoven's Coriolan Overture and Mahler's fifth symphony, recorded at the Musikverein in Vienna. [ORF]

  • Watch three classic performances led by Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the Cité de la musique, from 1996, 1998, and 1999. [Philharmonie de Paris]

  • By way of marking the passing of British composer Peter Maxwell Davies this past Monday, my review of his chilling opera The Lighthouse, including links to a streaming video of a performance. [Ionarts]

  • Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Nicole Car, and Michael Fabiano star in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin from the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. [Radio Clásica]

  • From a concert recorded in Havana last May, Osmo Vänskä leads the Minnesota Orchestra in music by Alejandro Garcia Caturla, Bernstein, and Prokofiev. [ORF]


Aggressive '1984' at Lansburgh

1984 (photo by Ben Gibb, courtesy of Headlong)

We welcome this theater review from contributor Philip Dickerson.

The novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell is famous for its fictional dystopian world. The gripping and tragic journey of Winston Smith opens the eyes of the reader to a scenario that may not be so fictional after all. Headlong Theater Company's take on the 1949 novel, now visiting the Lansburgh Theater, is not for the faint of heart. This story, its characters, and its message are not packed into the safe pages of a book, but rather they are forced into the minds of 2016.

From the beginning this is a technically heavy production. The layered sound compositions provided by Tom Gibbons fill the theater with a computerized, artificial soundscape. As Winston Smith, played by Matthew Spencer, sits quietly, a voice recording utters the first spoken word of the play, while we also see live video projected overhead. This convention is used throughout the production and aids in bringing the surveillance of "Big Brother" to life. Spencer hardly speaks for the first fifteen minutes of the production. Rather the people in Winston’s everyday life (played by Simon Coates, Stephen Fewell, Ben Potter, Christopher Patrick Nolan, Mandi Symonds, and Koral Kent) introduce the repetitious reality that is the norm. Overbearing sounds and flashing strobe lights force momentary darkness until the cycle of repetition starts again.

Winston finds his escape in Julia (played by Hara Yannas). The two unite emotionally and bring a sense of hope to the stage. The quieter moments of the play are during “private time” between Winston and Julia. The aggressive lights and sounds retreat as their relationship takes on a familiar form. What was once disconnected now appears to be a true relationship between two people seeking strength from each other. These scenes take place behind the set in what appears to be a private bedroom. It is seen via projected video against the backdrop of the set. Multiple camera angles make the scenes movie-like. The welcomed peace and quiet are suddenly shattered when the realization hits that the movie was not a movie. It was surveillance footage and we are Big Brother.

Other Reviews:

Jeffrey Gantz, At ART, ‘1984’ is retold with fresh urgency (Boston Globe, February 19, 2016)

Brigid Delaney, Orwell's nightmare vision of 1984 is always right here, right now (The Guardian, October 22, 2015)
Blinding lights and headache-inducing sound take over as the simple realistic set is literally stripped away one piece at a time by the ensemble now dressed in Hazmat suits and gas masks. What remains are the white walls of the dreaded “Room 101,” an interrogation/torture room. The most gruesome moments are hidden in darkness, the before and after are enough to make you look away. Winston, now at the end of his rope betrays himself, his morals, and even Julia. Spencer puts himself through an emotional and physical gauntlet as he displays such realistic torture and brokenness. His transformation from the first moment to the closing curtain is seamless and palpable.

While the design is aggressive and can cause unwanted physical reactions, one can understand why such a choice is needed. This play articulates the helpless lack of control and clearly those watching cannot be spared from such a reality. Like the characters in the play, you have two choices: fight and endure or give up. Hopefully many will endure, but with each performance the question remains whether or not a few seats might be empty by the time the curtain falls.

This production continues through April 10, at the Lansburgh Theater. It runs about one hour and 50 minutes, without intermission.


More Russians Play More Russians

available at Amazon
Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No. 3, D. Matsuev, Mariinsky Orchestra, V. Gergiev
(Mariinsky, 2010)
Charles T. Downey, Denis Matsuev in a fierce performance with Baltimore Symphony (Washington Post, March 18)
A trifecta of Russian piano virtuosos hit the Washington area this week. Daniil Trifonov played a wild Prokofiev concerto with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal on Monday night. On the same Thursday night that Nikolai Lugansky performed as soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra, Denis Matsuev appeared with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the Music Center at Strathmore. That program also featured the BSO’s former music director, Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov, and two Russian orchestral warhorses.

The last time Matsuev was soloist with the BSO, in 2004, he played Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto; this time he branched out by playing the composer’s Third Piano Concerto... [Continue reading]
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Yuri Temirkanov (conductor) and Denis Matsuev (piano)
Music Center at Strathmore

Tim Smith, Temirkanov produces electric results in BSO return (Baltimore Sun, March 18)

---, Yuri Temirkanov on his BSO return and, yes, still disliking the idea of female conductors (Baltimore Sun, March 18)

#morninglistening: Bach-Bekümmerniss


For Your Consideration: 'E la nave va'

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E la nave va, directed by Federico Fellini
We have an annual cinema screening at school, for which a colleague and I do a panel to introduce the film, in the style of Robert Osborne's The Essentials show on Turner Classic Movies. This year we screened Federico Fellini's E la nave va, released in 1984, which was one of the last features completed by Fellini, who died in 1993. Fellini wrote the screenplay with Tonino Guerra, who wrote L'Avventura and La Notte with Michelangelo Antonioni in 1960 and 1961. Guerra, who died in 2012, also wrote other films with Fellini, including Amarcord.

Following the death of legendary soprano Edmea Tetua in the summer of 1914, her friends and devotees take a luxury ship together to the island of Erimo, where she was born, to scatter her ashes. The cast of characters is led by a hapless journalist, played by English character actor Freddie Jones, who serves as narrator, often looking directly at the viewer and speaking to us. Tetua's vain operatic colleagues are joined by an Austrian grand duke who was a fan, and in mid-voyage the captain picks up a group of Serbian refugees fleeing the conflict with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, about to ignite World War I. An Austro-Hungarian warship later demands that the refugees be turned over, with disastrous consequences. Celebrated soprano Ildebranda Cuffari, foremost rival of the dead diva, is played with cold reserve by Barbara Jefford, who was just seen in Philomena from 2013. The sister of the Grand Duke, the blind Principessa Lherimia, is played by Pina Bausch, the ground-breaking modern dancer and choreographer, who died in 2009.

E la nave va is also a meta-history of film, beginning in the silent era and ending in the 1980s on the edge of digital cinema. When the Gloria N. leaves Naples, the film is completely silent. We hear only the whir of the camera, until sounds gradually creep in, noises like the ship's horn. Characters' lines are still displayed on cards, like a silent film, until gradually voices enter the soundtrack, too. References to early film legends, like Charlie Chaplin, are worked naturally into the story. By the end of the film, the camera drifts away from its illusions -- the whole film was shot at the Cinecitta studio outside Rome, with effects that are often charmingly false -- to show another camera on a scaffold, the hydraulic-powered ship set (all designs by the legendary Dante Ferretti), the lighting, the cloth representing the sea, even coming to rest on the lens of another camera. It is a self-aware cinematic moment reminiscent of the end of Blazing Saddles. The details of the set are meticulous, down to the paintings on the walls, based on masterpieces but copied by Fellini's friend, painter Rinaldo Geleng and his son Giuliano. It is the opposite of the world of digital effects filming, with everything handmade and shot on a stage.

Fellini said he was inspired by a painting by Hieronymus Bosch called The Ship of Fools (shown at right). The "ship" is a tiny craft, on which a nun strums a lute while a Franciscan friar and several other men sing along. They lean in to take bites of a hunk of bread suspended on a string. A man reaches up toward a plucked chicken suspended from the mast; another vomits into the water. There is no way that this crazy craft with its lunatic crew can survive. The panel is the top section of the left wing of a larger altarpiece Bosch made around 1490, cut apart from the lower section, which is in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery. The right wing of this altarpiece, Death and the Miser, is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, D.C. The Ship of Fools, then, appears to be a depiction of the sin of prodigality, which Dante saw as the twin vice of avarice, or gluttony.

For Fellini the Ship of Fools was a metaphor for the creation of art, specifically about making a film. During the filming, Fellini put it this way: "I've decided to renounce the idea that I'm omnipotent when I'm directing. The more I'm convinced that I'm piloting the ship, the more the ship goes wherever it wants to. After the first few weeks, I'm not directing the movie anymore; the movie is directing me. It's nothing new. It happened to Geppetto, too. He was still there, working on his precious puppet, and then Pinocchio starts kicking him." Film is blissfully artificial, although it gives the impression of documentary reality. When the hearse arrives with the ashes of La Tetua, two men start to carry them toward the ship. The cameraman then arrives to film the scene, so they dutifully walk backwards to the hearse and start again, this time for the camera. At one point the ship dining room's maitre-d' asks the journalist to move to another location while he gives his narration to the camera, because he is blocking the path of the waiters in the dining room. As two ladies look at the setting sun, they remark that it looks painted -- which, of course, it is.

Music is at the heart of the film, with many sections of famous pieces, juxtaposed and arranged in different ways by Gianfranco Plenizio. The first music we hear, not long after sound enters the picture, is the Agnus Dei from Rossini's Petite messe solennelle, played in a piano arrangement by Plenizio. At more than one point, the maestro character suddenly begins conducting, and the whole cast becomes an opera chorus, taking up choral scenes from Verdi's La forza del destino and other works. There are waltzes by Johann Strauss for the Grand Duke of Herzog; a Schubert Moment Musical is played on tuned glasses in the kitchen scene; Debussy's Clair de Lune, from the Suite Bergamasque, plays a major part, and there is also his prelude Des pas sur la neige; Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker is heard for the sped-up kitchen scene and the slowed-down dining room scene, which has the look and feel of a ballet. Several parts of Rossini's William Tell are included, and in the ash-scattering scene we hear a recording of La Tetua singing O Patria mia from Aida.


#morninglistening: Out of Print Bach Organ Goodness

-> A Survey of Bach Organ Cycles

Forbes Classical CD of the Week

Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal

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Honegger / Ibert, L'Aiglon, A.-C. Gillet, M. Barrard, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, K. Nagano
(Decca, 2016)
The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal embarked on a North American tour with a concert on Monday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, presented by Washington Performing Arts. American-born conductor Kent Nagano, most familiar in these pages for his tenure in Munich and for his recordings, has led this Canadian ensemble since 2006 and just had his contract extended until 2020. In general, the group sounded best in its string sections, which were capable of diaphanous transparency and rhythmic incisiveness, with unrestrained, occasionally overbearing brass and woodwinds that had striking individuality, which is not to say ugliness. It was not a sound or a performance that earned extravagant praise, at least to these ears, although its reading of the final work on the concert, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, was full of unexpected surprises, which is not exactly easy to accomplish with such a familiar piece of music.

In the Stravinsky, those raucous woodwinds filled the score with wild colors, pushing their sound to the edge of what could still be called beautiful, right from the opening bassoon solo, where a tenuto clinging to the top notes of the melody filled the moment with sweet nostalgia. Nagano took his time with parts of the score, like the famous "Augurs of Spring," that too many other conductors drive past in an obsession with speed that does not necessarily take into account the movement of dancers. In many places, Nagano's shepherding of balances brought out parts of this dense score that had gone unnoticed in previous performances. The soft parts never bored, seemingly guided by an awareness of the story and what the dancers were depicting, allowing plenty of time for the old sage to be lowered to the ground to kiss the earth, for example. When the score was at its most manic, though, as in the manic Dance of the Earth and the Sacrificial Dance that conclude both parts of the ballet, Nagano and his musicians created a thrilling frenzy.

Other Reviews:

Lawrence A. Johnson, Montreal Symphony makes a triumphant return to Chicago (Chicago Classical Review, March 19)

Anthony Tommasini, Montreal Symphony Orchestra Performs With Panache (New York Times, March 17)

Anne Midgette, Brilliant pianist leads orchestra’s return (Washington Post, March 15)

David Rohde, Montreal Symphony Orchestra with Washington Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, March 15)
Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov always makes unexpected choices when he sits down at the keyboard. No surprise, then, that his rendition of the solo part of Prokofiev's punishing third piano concerto, last heard from Nikolai Lugansky, was strong on devilish virtuosity. He thundered and shrieked his way through the thickets of notes, delighting in the odd duets with the piccolo and castanets, although Nagano allowed the orchestra to cover the soloist too much in sound. Far too much work had gone into Trifonov's part for long sections of it not to be heard. Trifonov's sometimes odd approach made the slow movement enigmatic, at times baffling, followed by a ferocious finale, which Trifonov pushed faster and faster, to dazzling effect. He returned to one of his favorite encores, Rachmaninoff's inspired arrangement of a Bach gavotte, which he also played at his 2013 recital.

The only part of the concert that disappointed was a lackluster performance of Debussy's Jeux, a piece where one definitely missed the velvet touch of Charles Dutoit at the helm. The often overlooked twin of Rite of Spring, which was premiered by the Ballets Russes in the same year, it is a revolutionary piece that can be difficult to bring off the page, because it is so subtle in its subversion of traditional harmony. This was a performance that seemed neither rarefied nor singular, during which not much seemed to happen and so many distinctive colors passed by unnoticed. By the end, no matter what happens, the corpse of tonality lies dead on the floor, felled by countless artistically placed cuts.


Christopher Park, in Lang Lang's Footsteps

Charles T. Downey, A lot of speed but little subtlety at pianist Christopher Park’s D.C. debut
Washington Post, March 15

Do music competitions reward musicians for the wrong things? This was one reaction to the Washington debut of pianist Christopher Park on Sunday afternoon at the Phillips Collection. Since winning the Leonard Bernstein Award at the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival in 2014, Park has appeared with orchestras in Germany and elsewhere. One of his mentors has been Christoph Eschenbach, outgoing music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, who was in the audience.

With Stravinsky’s “Three Movements From Petrushka,” Park certainly showed that his playing can be both supremely fast and supremely loud... [Continue reading]
Christopher Park, piano
Phillips Collection

Ionarts-at-Large: Widmann's new Viola Concerto

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra beckoned last week with an interesting fare of the new and the rare: Jörg Widmann’s Viola Concerto (the German premiere, after it received performances from the co-commissioning Orchestre de Paris conducted by Paavo Järvi in late 2015 at the Philharmonie de Paris) and Elgar’s Second Symphony.

The latter is a rarity in central Europe, where Elgar is treated with a certain amount of skepticism if not outright condescension. So much that I was surprised to find that the BRSO had actually performed Elgar’s Second quite recently… in 2008 under another Brit on missionary Elgar-tour: Sir Colin Davis (coupled with a Mozart Violin concerto; ionarts review here.) Then again, to think of eight years as “quite recent” shows something about the state of Elgar across the channel. I dare say that his status did not improve after this performance. Granted, the brisk first movement (I loved how the very opening of it was shaped)—bordering wild, for Elgar’s standards—had the orchestra right in lock-step with Harding. The second movement had a jolly let’s-have-fun-performance quality. “Don’t think too much about it”, he seemed to suggest and just dig in and be carried away. (Only that the carrying-away didn’t arrive very notably.) But there loomed buts.

available at Amazon
E.Elgar, Symphony No.2,

available at Amazon
J.Widmann, Violin Concerto,

Too loud, thick in texture (arguably Elgar’s fault, in part, and also noted after Davis’ performance), and incoherently argued, the symphony still ended an episodic mash of sound with nice moments, hardly connected to—much less held together by—the rest of the music. And with little by way of noble English demeanor, a stereotype which Elgar’s music rather befits. It would be easy to blame the orchestra for not getting an inflection or style with which it is not familiar. But not so the BRSO, even with plenty substitute players as eager a group of quick learners (with technique to match) as three is on the orchestral scene.

And so I was reminded that Daniel Harding, that youngish conductor who seems to tick all the right boxes, has all the right connections, and a pedigree to match (Abbado- and Rattle-disciple) has been the only conductor that I have ever heard a bad concert with the otherwise unflappable BRSO*. Something always seems to not quite gel when I hear Harding. Anyway, dwelling on unlucky Elgar is needless when a highlight can still be reported, namely said Widmann Concerto. The work startles the uninitiated, beginning with the unusual setup: sparse strings, sitting in a semi-circle with plenty of room and several lonely music stands between them. Then the soloist enters from off stage as the concerto is already under way, (ab)using the instrument as a tam-tam. The soloist—Antoine Tamestit—half dances his way to the music stand nearest him and from there begins to make his way in concentric circles around the orchestra until he finds, for the finale, the conventional soloist’s position next to the conductor.

This he does by way of acting and interacting with musicians en route. For example an angry tuba that barks at him loud enough to make him jump. Tamestit answers with a vigorous pizzicato (I didn’t look which finger he used), the kind of which he had already delivered in the first five minutes with such vigor that I was afraid his hands might start bleeding. Perhaps Widmann had speculated with a guitar concerto for a while before settling on a viola concerto when the initial commission fell through. Amid sparse strings, pizzicato orgies, shivering glissandi, and further experiments in sound—some pointillist others with a metallic ring to it—a voice emerges that one might half expect in something influenced by Messiaen. It’s ten minutes into the concerto and Tamestit hasn’t had a bow in his hand yet. When he first does, it is still only the bow’s button which he taps on strings. It’s certainly a work that makes Widmann’s powerhouse Violin Concerto look ultra-conventional.

If this all sounds rather naff, well, it might easily have been. But for the poise and style and earnest beauty with which Antoine Tamestit performed the concerto, it came across as interesting, indeed captivating instead. I certainly was alert for every second of it—and easily so—which is more than I can say about most concertos. And not just I, by all appearances:

The audience, partly due to self-selection, partly because it is one of the keener, more interested symphonic audiences, listened to the stereophonic going-ons in silence which I am tempted to describe as “rapt”. Admirably few coughing salvos disrupted the shape-shifting, character-switching, landscape-altering concert. There, Omar Khayyam suddenly popped up, courtesy of the winds! Repetitive motions of buzzing sound create a surprisingly catchy rhythmic urgency of near-Bartók-String-Quartet proportions. A Scream… and the orchestra sounds like it is falling down a massive stairwell. One more massive glissando and Tamestit finally in ‘finale-position.’ Here he doesn’t take off and deliver a relentless, powerful final run to the finish, as I imagined, a final-stretch tour de force of violistic [sic] rampage. Instead there reigns quiet and a newborn tenderness, sweet and with shades of innocence.

* It was Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge arranged for orchestra followed by a Bruckner Mass; I must have elected not to review it then. But I’ve also heard Harding in excellent Bartók later that same year with the same orchestra. Otherwise memory serves up more ho-hum experiences than ecstasy, though. Then again, one of the very few musicians I adore happens to think very highly of Harding and so I assume the fault is entirely mine and try to suspend judgement… even if I am more and more tending toward the conclusion that for all the qualities so obviously there, something is missing with Harding (as of yet). Perhaps another decade of daily grind with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra will fix everything, if anything needs fixing.