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Jerusalem Quartet's latest appearance, Clarice Smith

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

available at Amazon
Bartók, String Quartets 2/4/6, Jerusalem Quartet

(released on November 4, 2016)
HMC902235 | 78'51"

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Beethoven, String Quartets, op. 18, Jerusalem Quartet
(Harmonia Mundi, 2015)

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Haydn, Lark Quartet (inter alia), Jerusalem Quartet
(Harmonia Mundi, 2004)
We try never to miss any concert by the Jerusalem Quartet. The latest opportunity came on Sunday afternoon at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park. Hopefully, the group's service in the Israel Defense Force is no longer drawing angry protests for political reasons, as none has been observed at their most recent concerts. No matter what your political views, it is beyond argument that this string quartet is one of the most consistently musical ensembles playing this rarefied repertory.

This program opened with one of the Haydn quartets the group recorded over a decade ago, op. 64, no. 5, known as "L'Alouette" (The lark). Haydn is not easy, although his music may seem so on the surface, because it requires extraordinary subtlety to bring off well. Only some initial tuning discrepancies marred the first time through the exposition of the first movement, which settled into place for the rest of the piece. The first movement's tempo marking, Allegro moderato, implies exactly the jaunty but unhurried pace chosen by the Jerusalems, allowing just enough relishing of Haydn's sneaking back into the main theme at the recapitulation. The second movement had the feel of an opera aria, showcasing the solo of first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky, accompanied with gorgeously delicate variations by the accompanying instruments. The group's dance movements are generally delightful, as was the Menuetto here, weighty yet graceful, and not too fast, with comic wrong-note grace notes and a plaintive trio. Only with the finale, set at a tempo of Vivace, did the speed come out of the arsenal of weapons. Light, playful, it was a tour de force, with all instruments featured in beautiful spotlights in the fugal section.

The Prokofiev string quartets are hopefully among this group's future recording projects. Given that their Shostakovich ranks among the best version of that composer's quartet cycle, it was little surprise that a performance of Prokofiev's op. 50 was so good. Pavlovsky had just the right gleaming tone on the slashing first violin melody of the first movement's opening theme, with the other instruments coming to the fore in the slower, more passionate second theme. Tuning issues cropped up again, with unisons and octaves between instruments not always lining up, but the brutal passages were appropriately savage. After a mournful opening, the second movement's grotesque faster sections were funny and obsessive, with cellist Kyril Zlotnikov howling on his A-string solo. Violist Ori Kam had some luscious solo moments in the third movement, which buzzed with intensity until it died away.

Once during the Prokofiev and again in Beethoven's op. 59, no. 1 ("Razumovsky"), Zlotnikov's cello peg seemed to slide out of its place on the floor and bump his music stand. Resulting unease may have been partially responsible for the Beethoven feeling the least satisfying, although still beautiful. The first movement went a little too fast for all of the rapid running passages to come out distinctly enough, but Beethoven's toying around with the return of the main theme at the recapitulation, long delayed, was rendered well. The tempo marking of the second movement is confusing, because it is seemingly contradictory (Allegretto vivace sempre scherzando), but the Jerusalems took it not too fast, which seems the right call. The obsessive "drum motif" that runs through the piece is more tense that way. The climax of the quartet here was the slow movement, which was placid, clear, and expressive because it was so well coordinated. The trill in the first violin covered the transition into the finale, where the strain of a long evening frayed the edges of the first violinist's playing in a few places.

A single encore was a preview of the Jerusalem Quartet's new disc of half of Bartók's string quartets, a repertory I have been waiting for them to record. The Allegro pizzicato movement from the fourth quartet had a stunning variety of plucked sound, making it much more than just an effect piece. The force of the "Bartók pizzicati," more percussive than a normal plucked string, caused one of the cellist's strings to break, sadly not many bars before the piece ended. Once the string was replaced, and a few anecdotes told, the group repeated the entire movement.

Next up at the Clarice Smith Center, the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra plays Shostakovich's tenth symphony (November 7, 8 pm).



Wheeldon makes 'Cinderella' theatrical

Maria Kochetkova in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella, San Francisco Ballet (photo © Erik Tomasson)

Christopher Wheeldon is a choreographer who misses more than he hits. The works reviewed at Ionarts show he has a flair for the dramatic, favoring striking visual effects through lighting, costumes, stagecraft, and puppetry. In few cases, however, has his ballet choreography stood out as striking. His take on The Winter's Tale was the strongest in this regard, and his Alice in Wonderland particularly weak. Wheeldon's new version of Cinderella, presented by San Francisco Ballet in 2013 and using the delightful Prokofiev score, makes its local debut at the Kennedy Center Opera House this week. As seen at opening night on Wednesday, it falls on the Alice side of things.

This Cinderella is more an evening of wordless, pantomimed theater than a ballet in the true sense. It abounds in childish slapstick humor that still drew loud chortles, and the fairy tale visual storytelling will keep children wide-eyed, including one down the row from us who talked throughout the whole, three-hour evening. Anyone looking for the hallmarks of classical ballet will be disappointed. There are no memorable solo dances, no great pas de deux, and no lush use of the corps as anything but colorful backdrop. One does not expect to see a corps de ballet asked to sashay in place; countless other movements given by Wheeldon would not be out of place in a Broadway chorus scene. From a ballet point of view, this was one of the most boring evenings I have experienced in the theater.

Wheeldon and his scenarist, Craig Lucas, fill in the backstory, opening with the death of Cinderella's mother. As in The Winter's Tale he inserts a strong male friendship, between Prince Guillaume (Joseph Walsh) and his pal Benjamin (Taras Domitro), also both shown as children in the opening scenes. Benjamin initiates his own romance with the nicer of the two stepsisters (apprentice Ellen Rose Hummel, matched with the more vicious Sasha De Sola), to no great advantage for the ballet. Four Fates, male dancers who repeatedly lifted the inert Cinderella (otherwise beautiful and charming Maria Kochetova) around the stage, were a needless distraction. The stereotypes of Russians (made with Prokofiev's music), Spaniards, and Balinese in the divertissement were at the edge of appalling. The visual coups are the only achievement, with especially memorable sequences involving a growing tree and Cinderella's carriage (overseen by Basil Twist).

Worst of all, Wheeldon is not a choreographer driven by music. When he works with a new composition, he turns to a composer who does not write great music. Here, working with one of the great scores of the 20th century -- not played to perfection by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, under Martin West -- too many of his gestures seemed mostly or entirely disconnected from the musical gestures. It was the same feeling elicited by Wheeldon's This Bitter Earth, but that was with a musical trifle by comparison. Then again, most versions of Cinderella do not not quite please: Ashton (too saccharine), Ratmansky (too caustic), and others. The way to make the score work with the choreography, though, would seem to be to take one's cue from the music.

Performances continue through October 30, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.


Lintu, Hewitt return to the BSO

Hannu Lintu
Conductor Hannu Lintu
Hannu Lintu is not concerned much with subtlety. The Finnish conductor, who last appeared with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2013, tends toward out-sized, expressive gestures. In his latest program with the band from Charm City, heard on Saturday night in the Music Center at Strathmore, broad strokes most suited him, especially in a hard-lined performance of Dvořák's eighth symphony.

The high point of the evening was a performance of Cantus Arcticus by the late Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. The piece was composed in the 1970s, and it feels like it, in an Age of Aquarius kind of way. Its principal gesture, incorporating slightly manipulated recordings of birds taken by the composer in the Arctic Circle, was nothing new, going back to Respighi's Pines of Rome and to countless compositions before the advent of recording. Most bird calls are atonal, of course, and consist essentially of clusters, which Rautavaara captures in the instrumental writing for paired flutes and paired trumpets. Nothing much happens over the course of twenty minutes, but the atmospheric effect of the piece is quite pleasing.

Angela Hewitt's last concerto appearance in the area was an underwhelming Mozart concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2014. Results were better this time around in Beethoven's first concerto, heard just earlier this month from Emanuel Ax and the NSO. Hewitt dialed back the tempo of the first movement especially, creating a mellow feel, even in the extended cadenza, conceived more as gentle spirals than violent zig-zags. The second movement was expressive and the best coordinated of the three between Lintu and Hewitt, with a peppy finale to tie things up. The staid crowd did not cheer loudly enough to warrant the encore Hewitt reportedly played at other performances.

Lintu's Sibelius has been much to my liking over the years, and the Rautavaara had many of the same qualities. His Dvořák, by contrast, felt strident and forced, especially the berserk drive of the finale. It was crack ensemble playing, held together by Lintu's fastidious and severe pacing, but it felt breathless and harried, and not in a good way. Impressive, certainly, but somehow too impatient.


Suzanne Farrell Ballet preserves more Balanchine

Elisabeth Holowchuk and Kirk Henning in Danses Concertantes, Suzanne Farrell Ballet (photo by Rosalie O'Connor)

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, we learned last month, will disband next year. The Kennedy Center's resident ballet company has never come under review before at Ionarts. As critic Sarah Kaufman put it, it is a company composed of different members for each performance, who do not work together for more than a few weeks. The first program of their fifteenth season, seen on Friday evening at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, was devoted to three choreographies by George Balanchine.

Farrell was Balanchine's "muse" at New York City Ballet in the 1960s and early 1970s, known especially known as the Dulcinea in his Don Quixote. For the last decade and a half she has led the Balanchine Preservation Initiative, attempting to use her own knowledge of the choreographer's work, among other resources, to ensure that Balanchine's work can be appreciated by future generations. This installment brings together three works that were new to me live, two of them extraordinary and well worth saving. The third one, Stars and Stripes, seems hopelessly outdated, especially in the current political climate.

Balanchine was the first to choreograph Stravinsky's Danses Concertantes, composed in 1942 for the Werner Janssen Orchestra of Los Angeles. In the composer's neoclassical style, it was one of the projects done entirely during Stravinsky's time in California. Although it was conceived as a ballet score, the music was not made for any particular choreography. Balanchine began with the central part of the score, a theme with four variations, each one given to a set of three dancers costumed in bright costumes of green, blue, violet, and red -- "like a box of crayons," as Miss Ionarts described it (costumes designed by Holly Hynes, inspired by the work of Eugene Bermann).

Associations from the commedia dell'arte (à la Pulcinella) permeate the costumes and the comic movements of the dancers, with more serious counterparts in the paired principal dancers, costumed in bright yellow. In the opening Marche, the whole company moved across the stage, shortened by a colorful backdrop, which was raised to reveal a larger space for the main action. The violet variation, here danced by Jane Morgan, the tall and graceful Leah Slavens, and Ted Seymore, was especially beautiful, as the three wove intricate patterns of interlaced arms and extended poses, the latter especially during the lush string coda that ends this section of music. Valerie Tellmann-Henning had light, skittish movements to go with the flute solo in the Pas de Deux.

Charles Gounod's first symphony (D major, 1855) was rediscovered in the 1950s and is still largely unknown, except perhaps as the basis of study for Gounod's student Georges Bizet as he prepared his own Symphony in C. Balanchine, who more famously set that Bizet work to choreography, premiered his Gounod Symphony with the New York City Ballet in 1958, and it has not been revived by a professional company since 1993. It features a large corps, twenty women alternately paired with ten men, lit in silhouette as the curtain is raised. The black and white costumes (Holly Hynes) enhance the sense of an abstract painting set in motion: tea dresses for the women, black for ten dancers and white for the other ten, with the men in white tops and black leggings. The company's corps work is not its strength, as evidenced by the lack of unity among the dancers here and elsewhere, but Natalia Magnicaballi stood out in the gold-costumed principal pair, tall but seeming weightless in the air. Balanchine gave the second movement to the soloists, with the little fugato passage played out by pairs of women.

The evening closed with Balanchine's Stars and Stripes, a display of American patriotism that borders on the grotesque in the era of "Make America Great Again." Premiered in 1958, at the end of the McCarthy era, the work has enough military salutes, baton twirling, and drill corps marching to turn my stomach. Hershy Kay's adaptation of Sousa marches is bombastic, large enough in scoring that the orchestra's percussion and brass had to be piped onto the stage from another location. (A bizarre cadenza for French horn at the end of the "Fourth Campaign" was only the tip of iceberg when it came to strange orchestration.) Conductor Nathan Fifield, who had struggled keeping the Stravinsky score together earlier, could not always coordinate the two halves of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, as the sound from the speakers and from the pit did not always line up.

This program repeats today, in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.


CD Review: Rediscovered Couperin Cantata

Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Two rediscoveries of Brahms and Couperin
Washington Post, October 21

available at Amazon
F. Couperin, Ariane consolée par Bacchus (inter alia), S. Degout, Les Talens Lyriques, C. Rousset

(released on November 11, 2016)
Aparte AP130 | 107'03"
The musicologist, harpsichordist and conductor Christophe Rousset has published a new book on the composer François Couperin (Actes Sud/Classica), and during his research, he made a singular discovery. In a manuscript collection of mostly anonymous French cantatas was an unknown cantata devoted to the story of Ariadne rescued by Dionysus on the island of Naxos. Many would not have given it a second look, but Rousset immediately thought of an unresolved mystery of Couperin’s oeuvre, a lost Ariadne cantata.

The manuscript in question had belonged to the Count of Toulouse, the son of Louis XIV and his mistress, Madame de Montespan, and the count’s music teacher was none other than Couperin. Rousset made the connection and substantiated the find, identifying elements of the composer’s musical signature in the work. He then assembled an all-star team to record it, including Christophe Coin on viola da gamba and baritone Stéphane Degout. Laura Mónica Pustilnik plays the lute, and Rousset himself leads from the harpsichord. As Rousset admits in his booklet essay, this cantata is far from a masterpiece, but the performance makes a strong argument for hearing it.

Also interesting are the two “apothéoses” by Couperin that Rousset includes on the disk: instrumental tributes to two deceased composers he admired: Lully and Corelli. Although the cantata was recorded in the church of Saint-Pierre in Paris, in sound that’s not exactly ravishing; these two pieces sound better as captured in the acoustic of the Les Dominicains de Haute-Alsace, a friary converted into a concert space. The “Plaintes” by Lully’s jealous contemporaries, here given to two delicate flutes, is one of many high points.
Rousset does not address one small problem, that the cantata he has found is titled Ariane consolée par Bacchus. In both the catalogue of Couperin's publisher, Etienne Roger, and the Parnasse Français by the chronicler Évrard Titon du Tillet, the missing cantata is called Ariane abandonnée par Thésée.

Charles T. Downey, Christophe Rousset in concert (Ionarts, April 12, 2013)


Lawrence Brownlee, classical voice

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Donizetti & Bellini: Allegro io son, L. Brownlee, Kaunas City Symphony, Kaunas State Choir, C. Orbelian
The Kennedy Center is skewing toward more popular forms of entertainment. It has turned out to be the hallmark of the tenure of the organization's new president, Deborah Rutter. In a formula familiar from many concert presenters, Renée Fleming has been called in to offer some star advice, for a set of concerts unimaginatively called "Renée Fleming VOICES." (Capital letters make it different!) The new series kicked off with its sole classical performance, by tenor Lawrence Brownlee. The rest of the season features jazz, musical theater, and cabaret.

It always takes my ears a few moments to adjust to the active vibrato in Brownlee's voice. Not unpleasant in any way, it is a prominent flutter, tightly coiled, but after some time passes my ear adjusts to it and can still perceive the center of the pitch. True to form Brownlee's strongest work came in arias from bel canto operas. Brownlee hit the first big high notes of the evening in "Seul sur la terre," from Donizetti's Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal. That vibrato, among other advantages, gives a high-energy buzz to Brownlee's notes off the top of the staff, which do not sound floated, in the sense that there is intensity and effort in them. This was more apparent in the even higher notes in "Terra amica," from Rossini's Zelmira, which was truly thrilling as Brownlee showed off the virtuosity of his runs and top notes. A close second was the closing set of spirituals, in classic arrangements by H. T. Burleigh.

A set of Strauss songs was more successful than seemed likely given Brownlee's strengths. The German diction was not always clear but especially in subtle songs like "Breit' über mein Haupt" he brought the same silky clarity and gentle phrasing that make his bel canto singing so pretty. With "Morgen" and "Die Nacht" pianist Justina Lee, for much of the evening merely a competent accompanist, was integral to the beauty of the performance. Finally with "Cäcilie," both artists cranked up the excitement for the song's dramatic climax, which was thrilling. An opening set of Liszt songs, some of which were heard more beautifully from Angela Meade in August, impressed less. With all due respect to i nostri amici italiani, if I never hear a set of these Italian art songs again for a decade, that would be fine by me. All was forgiven, however, by the choice of encore, a plangent rendition of Donizetti's Una furtiva lagrima.

The best news of the evening is that the Kennedy Center has fixed the buzzing sound that plagued concerts in the Family Theater earlier in the fall. The sound, something like a vibrating light fixture, was absent on Tuesday evening, although there was still just a whisper of unwelcome noise, perhaps from the ventilation system.

Lawrence Brownlee stars in Washington National Opera's upcoming production of Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment (November 12 to 20, but in only five of the eight performances), in the Kennedy Center Opera House.


Interview for South Florida Classical Review

Charles T. Downey Patrick Quigley looks to the past and future as Seraphic Fire opens 15th season
South Florida Classical Review, October 12

Seraphic Fire will bring the second program of its new season, Jewels from Paris: The Fauré and Duruflé Requiems, to the Washington area next month: on the concert series of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Georgetown (November 13, 5 pm). The two Requiem Masses will be performed in versions for organ, accompanied by organist Nathan Laube.


NSO Program 1: Shakespeare at the Symphony

Conductor Edward Gardner (photo by Benjamin Ealovega)
The National Symphony Orchestra had its season opening gala last weekend. The season really began with a program led by British conductor Edward Gardner, heard at the second performance on Friday night. The concept, Shakespeare at the Symphony, was a perfect excuse to bring together two excellent pieces never before presented by the NSO, Edward Elgar's Falstaff and the suite from William Walton's film score for Laurence Olivier's Henry V.

As Gardner announced before Falstaff he thinks audiences need help following the dramatic action in Elgar's delightful Shakespearean tone poem. To that end, we were invited to follow the story through descriptions on a supertitle screen, and it did enhance the music's effect. Gardner is climbing the ladder of principal guest positions, having served in that capacity with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and now the Bergen Philharmonic. He was able to bring the music to life with decisive ideas and a clear, contained set of gestures. He put the second violin section back with the first violins, moving the violas to the outer right edge of the orchestra. This allowed them to be heard much more clearly, a good idea since both Elgar and Walton gave them important melodies. The sotto voce sound of the string in the robbery scene (as well as of the violas and cellos in the scene in Shallow's orchard) and the hilarious bassoon solos were high points. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef had a wistful, nostalgic sound as Falstaff dreamed of himself as a slender youth.

Other Reviews:

Seth Arenstein, NSO opens season with Shakespeare in words and music (Washington Classical Review, September 30)

Anne Midgette, NSO starts season with a new face in Shakespeare (Washington Post, September 29)
Elgar's score ends with the death of Falstaff, and the return of Prince Hal's melody indicates that his last thought is of his young friend who has spurned him. Walton's suite begins almost with the mournful passacaglia for Falstaff's death. Top-notch solo playing from English horn and flute stood out, as did more exquisite all-string sound. Before the final movement of the suite, actor Matthew Rauch gave a stirring recitation of Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech. It led quite naturally to the "Agincourt Song" that concludes the suite, into which Walton incorporated the "Agincourt Carol," an English folk song from the 15th century.

Actors William Vaughan and Audrey Bertaux were less memorable in the balcony scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, staged with him moving among the orchestra musicians and her in the chorister seating above. This led just as aptly into the final selection, Tchaikovsky's fantasy-overture on Romeo and Juliet, which received a performance that really made me like it. It is true that in this piece, Tchaikovsky does not give in to his usual tendency to go on too long, but still Gardner accomplished the near-impossible by making me enthusiastic about a Tchaikovsky symphonic work. The battle scene was well marshaled — all fast, crisp, and aligned — and Gardner never let the potentially soupy bits wallow or drag in the least.

This concert repeats this evening at 8 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.