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ABT's 'Swan Lake' @ Kennedy Center

Swan Lake, American Ballet Theater (photo by Rosalie O'Connor)

Swan Lake is such a perennial favorite that the run of performances by American Ballet Theater at the Kennedy Center Opera House sold out before it opened. The work's popularity may make it easy to forget just how powerful it is in dramatic terms. Even in the reconfigured choreography by ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie, premiered in 2000, the combination of tragic love story and Tchaikovsky's masterful, poignant score is potent.

The focus in Swan Lake often tends to be on the character of Odette, the girl transformed into a swan by the evil sorceror von Rothbart. Principal dancer Hee Seo was extraordinary in the role at opening night on Wednesday, fragile and enigmatic in equal parts in the Act II pas de deux, to the accompaniment of the marvelous violin solo playing of concertmaster Oleg Rylatko. In Act III she was more seductive, with a naughty smile, as the Black Swan, quite striking in the infamous 32 fouetté turns. McKenzie's fourth act minimizes the centrality of Odette, but Seo again seemed like a creature from another world, only part woman.

At the center of this ballet, however, is really the role of Prince Siegfried, the only character to appear in all four acts, something that McKenzie's choreography made more apparent. Tchaikovsky's original inspiration for the character was King Ludwig II of Bavaria, another prince who would not marry as his family wanted him to do. Principal dancer Cory Stearns brought both remarkable strength and an aloof sadness to the role, a young man who seems uncomfortable in his skin, agonizing as the friends at his birthday party in Act I break off into couples.

Siegfried prefers to skulk into the darkness of the forest, where he finds this tragic creature neither fully woman nor something else. Ludwig II's homosexual inclinations, certainly known to Tchaikovsky, who struggled with the same yearning, make it easy to interpret Prince Siegfried's actions in this light. Ludwig was even found dead in a lake, having died in mysterious circumstances. In the original libretto, the story indicated by short references in Tchaikovsky's score, the lake rises up at the end and drowns both Odette and Siegfried, who fall into each other's arms. The famous B minor theme, the score's most famous motif, is associated with the flight of swans, a symbol of escape and freedom.

The ABT corps remains to these eyes one of the most disciplined and unified, and the scenes with the white swans were consistently beautiful, as the group of women responded as one to the movements of Odette in the second and fourth acts. McKenzie's most questionable decision in this choreography was to split the character of von Rothbart, with Patrick Ogle in the more character-dance role of the monster and Thomas Forster as the sorcerer's more seductive human form. Conductor Charles Barker led a flexible rendition of the score, with superlative playing by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, aside from a few horn bobbles in the opening scene.

Swan Lake runs through January 29, at the Kennedy Center Opera House, with different dancers in the lead roles.

An Imposing Orchestrated Winterreise from Günther Groissböck

Winterreising’ just with a piano accompaniment is out. Vocal travelers these days, perhaps aware of the need to stand out and offer something extra to draw audiences to a Lied recital, opt for alternatives. Günther Groissböck – on a most appropriately wintery, biting cold January night in Munich’s Prinzregententheater – certainly went all out for his Liederabend of this song-cycle of song-cycles: Franz Schubert/Wilhelm Müller’s Die Winterreise was presented in a version for chamber orchestra (not just piano trio, for example, as Daniel Behle has recently recorded; see Classical CD Of The Week: Winterreise Threesome) and, adding yet another


CD Reviews: Josquin's Dice Mass

Patrick Rucker and Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Fresh takes on Gershwin and Josquin
Washington Post, January 19

available at Amazon
Josquin Desprez, Missa Di dadi / Missa Une mousse de Biscaye, Tallis Scholars, P. Phillips

(released on October 28, 2016)
Gimell CDGIM048 | 71'13"
By all accounts, Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521) was the Beethoven of the high Renaissance. In one of his sermons, Martin Luther declared the composer “the master of the notes, which must do as he wills; the other choirmasters must do as the notes will.” The Tallis Scholars, the redoubtable English choir that specializes in Renaissance music, is recording all of the polyphonic settings of the Latin Mass Ordinary attributed to Josquin. The group released the sixth volume of the set a few weeks ago on Gimell Records, its private label, and it continues to be authoritative.

Yet neither of the two Masses on the new recording might actually be by Josquin. Elements of the composer’s style seem to abound in the “Missa Di dadi” (“Mass of the dice”), including long strands of bicinia, two-part sections of music, for various combinations of the four voices, piled up in strict imitation of one another. Voices repeat motifs obsessively in some places, and there are long chains of reiterated suspensions in almost endless cycles — in, for example, the “Crucifixus” section of the Credo.

The composer drew the tenor part of the Mass from “N’aray je jamais mieulx” (“Will I never have better”), a rondeau by Robert Morton. A pair of the titular dice appear in the score at the beginning of each movement, indicating the ratio by which the tenors must alter the rhythms of their part in some of the movements for a performance to make sense. (The Tallis Scholars have published the edition by Timothy Symons that was used for the recording, although the performance deviates from it in some minor matters.)

The second piece, “Missa Une mousse de Biscaye,” also is based on a secular tune: a folk song about a conversation between a French man and a Basque girl (“mousse” derives from the Spanish word “moza,” meaning girl). A curious piece, it might be an early Mass by Josquin, composed before he had reached his mature style, or it might not be by Josquin at all. Both pieces receive detailed, balanced performances on this disc, with intonation and blend, within each section and across the choir, up to the Tallis Scholars’ incomparable standards.
Part 3 | Part 2 | Part 1


For the Inauguration: Trump Portrait

This evening Gianandrea Noseda conducts the National Symphony Orchestra in an all-American program. Naturally, one of the works on the program is Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait. In light of the event of the following day, we wonder if Noseda and his musicians could be convinced to switch the narration used in the performance. It might sound something like this:

Trump Portrait (with apologies to Abraham Lincoln and Aaron Copland)
Narration by Charles T. Downey, musical assistance from the London Symphony Orchestra

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Latest on Forbes: Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie Opens. A Soundcheck of its Recital Hall and G.F.Haas' "Release" reviewed.

Hamburger Elbphilharmonie, view coming into the Harbor Photo courtesy Elbphilharmonie, © Thies Rätzke (2016)
Hamburger Elbphilharmonie, view coming into the Harbor
Photo courtesy Elbphilharmonie, © Thies Rätzke (2016)

Review: Hamburg Elbphilharmonie Opening And G.F.Haas World Premiere

This review over on Forbes focuses on the easily neglected, smaller "Recital Hall" and the Haas premiere that took place therein. A review of the 'main event' and Great Hall will be forthcoming.

...At about the same time, the same wandering sensation struck my seat neighbor, a dignified elder(ly) lady. She realized, coincidentally with me, that the electronic sounds raining down on us were in fact created by string players that huddled, in small groups, on the outer walking path above the wooden shell. Darkness-shrouded, blending in with the black ceiling. This discovery prompted a whispered remark and question to her husband, while being absorbed by the going-ons.

“Shut your trap now, if you will!”, snarled the person sitting in front of us at her, in a tone distinctively south of civil and audible to every other audience member.

The lady had just gotten upbraided by the composer himself...

...Also well played was the even more obvious physical reference to a particular historical model in creating here, with Release, a reverse Farewell Symphony. Instead of Joseph Haydn (Haas-compatriot and patron saint of chamber music) having his desk-by-desk disappearing musicians symbolize their desire to go home, Haas here writes a music that is calling for a new beginning with musicians joining and wanting to come to work and to get started already. A very charming touch.



Dip Your Ears, No. 216 (A Scarlatti-Haydn Romance)

available at Amazon

J.Haydn, D.Scarlatti
Chiaro e scuro (Keyboard Sonatas)
Olivier Cavé

I love this disc of Haydn and Scarlatti, partly because it spells out—literally (in Elaine Sisman’s perfect liner notes) and musically (through the pairing of the music)—what I have long, intuitively felt, namely that these two composers share a common genial, sunny disposition. Sisman sees a common rhythmic inventiveness and a sense of joy of creation. The booklet’s essay, almost itself worth the price of admission, explores the fascinating, actual proximity of these two composers through their interactions in Vienna. To the musicologically inclined, it reads like the latest Arthur Conan Doyle story: “The Mysterious Case of the Spanish Hoboken Numbers.”

Olivier Cavé’s playing coaxes immediately arresting joy out of already joyful works (this, at the risk of overlooking Scarlatti’s dark and somber side) and indeed, by the time Cavé hits the Haydn Partita’s Allegro, Haydn begins to sound like Scarlatti and Scarlatti begins to sound like Haydn as the music starts swimming before my ears. The inclusion of the Haydn Divertimento is most appreciated; the Allegro moderato of the F major sonata No38 is a thin slice of heaven. In terms of placing music into context and blurring the perceived borders, this is second only to Marino Formenti’s “Kurtag’s Ghosts” or “Liszt-Inspections” I am thoroughly enchanted… which is the reason, of course, this landed on my Best Classical Recordings of 2015 list. 


At TCR: Favorite Recordings of 2016

Charles T. Downey, Top Ten Recordings of 2016
The Classical Review, December 31, 2016