When the Gods Call... 

L.v. Beethoven, Piano Sonatas opp.54, 57, 78, 90
Additional Commentary by Charles T. Downey

I think that the author of this review (Tom Huizenga, At Pollini Recital, a Chill in the Air, October 29) in the Washington Post must have been at a different recital, where "one was awestruck by the design, but the heart of the music was missing." Maybe it's a fault, but I actually like performances that are intellectual, precise, and technically masterful, and that's why I have always idolized Maurizio Pollini since I first heard him. What he released on the stage Wednesday night (October 27—the evening after the birth of my daughter, which was an excellent coda to a miraculous day) was the closest thing to a perfect performance one may reasonably expect, not really marred but made more human by the tiny chinks in the Pollini armor that appeared in the "Appassionata."

In fact, Pollini's rigorous control of voicing, tone, dynamics, and color was what made the performance so fascinating, not just the fact that he could play extraordinarily difficult music at dazzling tempos and nearly flawlessly. That is what "heart" means for me, if it means anything at all in terms of a musical performance. Every moment was carefully considered, and the full orchestral range of Pollini's touch on the keyboard was put to use. The first of the three sonatas on the program, Beethoven's no. 24, was delicate, melodically shaded, charming, and calm, with only the short final movement showing off any technical flair.

If you program something like no. 23 ("Appassionata"), which is almost overplayed, you are obliged to say something with it that sets you apart. Pollini's basic approach, it seemed to me, was to play up the ultradramatic contrast of loud and soft to the greatest possible effect. The first theme, heavily pedaled, was the barest whisper of an outlined minor triad. I had a flashback to lessons with one of my teachers, a student of Alfredo Casella in her youth, who used to stop me every lesson after about 5 seconds of each piece with the words, "You must think about how you begin." Pollini has definitely thought about that. For the recapitulation of the first movement, Beethoven has his main F minor theme return over a pulsating dominant pedal point, which sort of telescopes the preparation of the recapitulation with the recapitulation itself. The 6/4 harmony that is created is one of the least stable sounds in the tonal vocabulary, a chord that wants to collapse into something else. The effect is meant to be unsettling, and I found Pollini's rendition of it to be tinged with menace, which was perfect. The coda was blindingly fast.

What struck me about the selection of Chopin works on the second half was that especially the third ballade and the sonata are excellent examples of the Romantic rethinking of what Beethoven did with thematic development and musical form. The two nocturnes were understated miniatures that showed off Pollini's mastery of multiple voicing in Chopin's intertwined melodic lines, unwoven like strands of gauze from a tiny spool. His rendition of the third ballade was one of the most dancelike I have ever heard, with the lilt that can make you feel weightless and thus in the mood for dancing.

The Chopin sonata is up there with the Liszt sonata as one of the two greatest examples of the Romantic rethinking of the classical sonata form. Near the end of the very fast conclusion to the first movement, in one of the most humorous and horrifying moments of my entire concert-going life, a water bottle rolled noisily down the left aisle for what seemed like ten minutes. The scherzo, also extremely rapid in tempo, was contrasted with a noticeably slower trio, which returns after the return of the scherzo (in a moment that recalls, among other things, the scherzo and trio of Beethoven's seventh symphony). For the first time, thanks to Pollini's masterfully voiced rendition of the 3rd movement funeral march, with its brass-like sections echoed by distant winds, I heard those low trills as the roll of martial tympani, which makes such good sense.

Needless to say, we greeted the chance to hear four Pollini encores, each more demanding than the last, with great enthusiasm. (Actually, we were shortchanged, since according to Keith Powers writing for the Boston Herald, at a recital with the same program in Boston, he played five encores there. Anthony Tommasini heard four after the slightly different program Pollini played in New York.) The second one he played here, Chopin's first ballade, in G minor, is perhaps more substantial than most encore fare, but it was truly enjoyable to hear Pollini play this piece that is alternately melancholy and manic. I extend my thanks to Neale Perl, President of the Washington Performing Arts Society, who introduced the recital by announcing that Pollini had scheduled only six concerts in four American cities. Thanks to WPAS for bringing him to our neck of the woods.
On his Hamburg Steinway—tuned exactly to the Kennedy Center's Orchestra Hall—Maurizio Pollini descended upon the audience to give it Beethoven (corresponding to his latest DG release) and Chopin. Maestro Pollini, who first appeared in Washington 30 years ago with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is to my generation what Artur Schnabel must have been to my grandparents, and correspondingly I waited like a teenager, giddy and nervous to see my hero appear on stage. He waited... we waited... anticipation rose... turned into mild anxiety... where was he? I was reduced to a groupie waiting for his rock star, until the door opened and soft and gentle, as he smileth, he stepped onto the stage, headed to the gorgeous grand, and started with Beethoven's Sonata No. 24, op. 78, in F# major.

His hands just purled off notes in all shapes and forms. Larger clusters of notes were churned out with such precision that every note had the same value, length, and force, making it seem like a sort of mechanical toy, falling perfectly in place and giving coherence otherwise unachievable. Involved as he was, there was some humming on his part during a few excitable moments.

The inhumanly perfect Pollini showed in the opening of Beethoven's 23rd sonata, the "Appassionata" (op. 57, in F minor) that he is still earthbound, and the rare moment of a few mistakes occurred, seemingly against all odds with a man who can play for two hours and drop four notes. For all but those three, four notes, one could have issued the performance directly as a recording, so staggering were his command and expression. The performance of op. 57—polished for sure—had me, for better or worse, in a trance-like state and did, for whichever reasons, not quite match the excitement of its successor.

After the Beethoven (either making you want to pick up playing the piano or go home and burn it, if one already plays) Chopin's Nocturnes (nos. 1 and 2) came out to play. With a (nonsequitur?) rubato of steel and his perpetuum mobile fingers, the lightness of a stalking panther, ready to pounce at any moment, Pollini sounded magnificent. While they were certainly not the most lyrical accounts (I have a big soft spot for Maria Joao Pires's and Claudio Arrau's accounts of the Nocturnes) and while his singing wasn't perfect, either, they were still rather gorgeous!

Ballade no. 3 had the heft that some players are afraid of giving to the "sickly Pole." With Pollini on (key)board, Chopin and Liszt move closer together, rather than being the imaginary opposite poles they probably never were. My innards were dancing with his perfectly balanced and weighed 15-note see-saw leaps in the work.

The now 62-year old Italian continued to mesmerize with the Chopin B-flat minor sonata (no. 2, op. 35), which was the final and perhaps the finest piece. Murmurs, undercurrents, and maybe the first time I enjoyed the work without any reservations: everything was in place. Flawless "attacca," one musical life slipping away, giving way to a newborn idea forcefully claiming reign... magically seamless shifts, and a plethora of other gawking adjectives on my part would well have described the performance. A New Orleans lilt marked the dark Marcia Funèbre and then there was an apotheosis. Pure light and delicacy with the shift of a key. Perhaps it isn't appropriate to remark upon "trills to die for" in a funeral march—but there, I did it—and the audience was spellbound.

The applause that started long before the last note stopped reverberating was and always is highly annoying, especially since this, if any performance, should and could have stunned the audience into a momentary silence. The encore that followed, Chopin again with his 15th prelude (the "Raindrop"), was brooding and sublime, delicious and almost frightening in its mood shifts. Philistines thought it more important to get to their cars and dinner reservations than listening to Pollini's second encore, one of Chopin's ballades. They left their seats, pushing me half out of the way: I have a few unpublishable words reserved for such audience members. Meanwhile Pollini's spider-fingers evoked all kinds of beautiful things from a grand piano that must count itself lucky.

A third encore followed—stunning, especially given the fact that Pollini is not prone to be liberal with his encores. Wow! This time it was one of the Nocturnes. And then, unbelievably, he gave another encore, Etude, op. 10, no. 8 at break-neck speed. He played like a motor running, well oiled and on all 10 cylinders. One wanted to say: "Children, don't try this at home: it's a professional driver on a closed course."

With that and much more applause by a thankful audience, an evening came to a close that was as magical as any I have witnessed as far as piano recitals are concerned. It was everything that is good about Pollini, nothing of what is less. The high lasted 24 hours, easily. In fact, I am still a bit dizzy. A better way to celebrate Ionarts' newborn daughter (courtesy of Charles and Mme. Downey) could not have been imagined. Congratulations!

Stravinksy, Webern, Boulez, Prokoviev, Petrushka movements, op.27 Variations, Piano Sonata #2, Piano Sonata #7 "Stalingrad"
Maurizio Pollini's dozen or so minutes of the Petrushka movements are probably the best pianism ever caught on record—full stop.

F. Chopin, Preludes, Etudes, Polonaises
This package of three, still full-priced, Pollini Chopin CDs is a wonderful deal. His Preludes may be coldish, not unlike Argerich (who gives you pianistic flaws galore on top of it in her 'one-take' recording from the 60s) and his Polonaises may not convert Rubinstein-lovers, but both are enormously well done and plenty exciting. But turn to his Etudes and be bowled over. It's like throwing down a bowl of the finest pearls down a set of marble stairs. Cristalline but with enough emotion, not a trace of effort—perfection that can intimidate but is more likely to awe and stun. Even if you already have Ashkenazy's recording from the 50s, this is a must-have.

R. Schumann, Kreisleriana, Gesang der Frühe
Often Pollini is criticized for being too cold. This is one his (few) later recordings where he is actually burning with feeling. As far as Kreisleriana's are concerned, go no further. Do not cross STOP, do not collect...
F. Liszt, Sonata in b-minor, Nuages Gris, Unstern!, Lugubre Gondola, R.W. Venezia

Liszt with a dash of academia? Perfection pays in these works, and it's essential to hear them next to the Chopin.

Beethoven, Late Sonatas: I've waxed rhapsodic elsewhere about this recording: if you don't have it, you must not like music...

F. Schubert, R. Schumann,Wanderer-Fantasie, Fantasie op.17
Finally, this staggering coupling. Want the big picture about these works? Want to go beyond the dismal key-pushing of a Lang Lang? Musicality and skill in an unholy combination—and highly, most enthusiastically recommended!


Dip Your Ears... ( 15 ) 

R. Wagner, Tannhäuser, Barenboim
Daniel Barenboim, one of the finest Wagnerians alive, has given us one outstanding Wagner-recording after another – notably his Parsifal and Tristan! This 2001 Tannhäuser follows this line. Like the rival Sinopoli recording (DG, Paris Version, 1989), it benefits from state-of-the-art sound quality and a stupendous cast. The female leads Jeane Eaglen and Waltraut Meier might be the best on record and Peter Seifert, Rene Pape and Thomas Hampson don’t need to shy away from any competition, either. Like Wagner’s wife I prefer the Dresden version without the excessive Venusberg-mystery-music – and Barenboim’s subtle amalgamation seems to combine the best of both worlds. With his fine band in top form and the conducting sure-handed and emotionally charged, this Sängerkrieg is a clear winner – and not just among modern recordings.

[Barenboim/Staatskapelle Berlin/Eaglen, Meier, Pape, Seifert - Teldec 8573880642]


Upcoming Concerts 

Washington is not a cultural Mecca, but it ain't half bad, either - if you only make use of some of its finer offerings. A mix between the big and the small, "events" and intimate gatherings, expensive and free concerts can give you at least as much music and culture as you could possibly enjoy.

One of the most interesting programs I have ever seen will sadly coincide with tomorrows performance of Maurizio Pollini, and thus I cannot go. (When the Gods call, you heed the call... there's no 'not-seeing' Pollini.) It is held by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, by far the most daring and imaginative cultural programmers out there... the only ones not yet daunted by Washington's overwhelming cultural conervatism when it comes to music and art. Under the title "From Chance to Hyper-Determination" they will offer a short panel discussion on chance and order with professors Marcello Buiatti (Professor of Genetics, University of Florence) and Fabrizio Luccio (Professor of Computer Science at, University of Pisa) followed by a piano recital of aleatory music.

Emanuele Arciuli is a reputable interpreter of contemporary (and baroque) music and will dish out modern delicacies like the Morton Feldman Intermission VI, Karlheinz Stockhausen's Aus den Sieben Tagen, John Adams' Phrygian Gates and a piece by Alessandro Sbordoni (unknown to me) that was comissioned by the Italian Embassy in Washington and will receive its world premiere. (Unfortunately I forgot the name of it) To attend this concert (with following reception) on Wednesday, October 27th, 6:30 PM, call (202) 223 9800 - extension 1. The Italian Embassy is at 3000 Whitehaven Street N.W. - right off Massachusetts Avenue, 15 walking minutes from Dupont Circle.

The Embassy Series will feature the delightful, Anne Schein-tutored Mendelssohn Piano Trio at the Austrian Embassy (3524 International Court, N.W., 10 walking minutes from the UDC-Metro Station) this Friday, the 29th at 8:00 PM. Apart from the Schubert B-flat, they will also play a Korngold and Goldmark trio - neglected Viennese marvels in their own right. The receptions at the Austrian Embassy usually include little home- and staff-made treats... the last time I got sick, I ate so many Hildabrötchen.

Ivo Pogorelich (a fallen hero rising?) will show his always unique talent at the George Masion Univsersity this Sunday, October 31st at 4:00 PM. Beethoven’s Sonata in D Minor Op. 31/2, “Der Sturm,” the Sonata in E Minor Op. 90, and Rondo a cappriccio in G Major Op. 129; Sibelius’s tone-poem Valse Triste, Op. 44/2, and Rachmaninoff‘s Moments Musicaux are on the menue. (For more information click here.)

The Trio Solisti will perform on November 2nd, at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater (given to the American people by the people of Japan - as the entire Kennedy Center seems to have been cobbled up of gifts from other countries... Italian Marble, hideous Austrian Chandeliers etc.) by the Washington Performing Arts Society. (Tickets available here.) The ladies look sexy - which is of course enough to satisfy this shallow reviewer and I desperately want to hear Pulitzer Price winner Paul Moravec's "Mood Swings". Throw in the Brahms Trio in B Major, Op. 8 and the Ravel Trio and it should be a fine night.

I love Duparc-songs - and Francois Le Roux will do a few at La Maison Française on Wednesday, November 3rd, 8:00 PM. (Call the Duparc-lover hotline at (202) 944 6091 for reservations.) If you hated it, get drunk at the wine reception that follows.

Reunited With Il Trovatore 

(published first at ionarts)

Articles in the Washington Post

Neely Tucker, Denyce Graves, After the Low Notes (Washington Post, October 24).

Tim Page, 'Ill Trovatore,' Done In By the Advil Chorus (Washington Post, October 25)
Five years ago I saw the first production of Il Trovatore in many years that the Washington (not then "National") Opera staged. It was conducted by Plácido Domingo, had a fine cast, and a staging that was conservative but evocative and avoided—as much as (conservative) stagings can—clichés.

The Trovatore this year still comes in the same Stephen Lawless production, which came across as rather more impressive and imaginative than half a decade ago. Looking at it from the third tier, rather than the orchestra seating, too, helped in most scenes to get a new, better impression. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are a bit too traditional for my taste: I believe the production would improve with a bit more of a minimalist approach to gypsy rags and soldiers' uniforms. Benoit Dugardyn's set design works, together with Mr. Lawless's grim and dark production, heavy on the symbolic side. Damocles' swords hang above pro- and antagonists, themselves crosses as are the swords sticking in the floor. In case that was too subtle, there's always a massive, 10' x 3' cross that descends from above in the third act. With the play of light, they also paint crosses of light onto the floor, shining from behind open doors in the movable walls.

The awfully popular anvil scene was mercifully transposed into sword-fight practicing, though better coordination among the participants could have made that far more impressive while the choreography in Act I made up in quality for the lack of realism in the portrayal of the characters. (Ever notice how grown men huddle with imbecilic excitement around a leading character telling a story for the umpteenth time, all while heavily nodding with their heads and affirmatively looking at each other? Yikes.)

The cast, of dubious quality on the night I saw them, included Mikhail Davidoff, who did Manrico well but had a voice that offered no real center of gravity. That Count di Luna's baritone was twice as loud, even though Wolfgang Brendel didn't put too much effort into it, wasn't helpful to his character. Brendel, despite a gorgeous and strong tone, had significant problems with intonation at times and was a bit wobbly. Nothing compared to Ferrando's mother, Azucena, sung by Denyce Graves. Even though this was a dress rehearsal, she must have been ill: otherwise, her disturbing vocal problems (higher regions garbled and wobbly like a ripped tape) are inexplicable. Towards the end I felt bad for her and wished the night just to be over so that she may get some rest. Mikhail Kazakov (Ferrando) did a fine job. "Alerta" can be more realistically alarming, though.

Heinz Fricke and his orchestra were, apart from the staging, the best offerings of the night. Even if he may not have been entirely happy with his team's efforts, their continuous development under Fricke (a much better conductor and orchestra builder than Domingo) is noticeable. Worth seeing? Yes. But not on the same level as either Andrea Chénier (Ionarts reviews) or Billy Budd (Ionarts reviews).

P.S. Concerns about Brendel's somewhat uninvolved performance that was right only with regard to the size of his voice can be put aside: he was yanked (or withdrew) from the production before opening night. His replacement, Carlos Archuleta, hasn't nearly the voice of Brendel or, for that matter, Davidoff... but perhaps he sang with more zest?


Amateur Sunday Afternoon at the Museum of American History 

Paul Anthony Romero's concert at the Carmichael Auditorium in the National Museum of American History saw this southern Californian soundtrack composer in a first half of Bach, Chopin, his own Intermezzo—Concerto for Louis XVI and Rachmaninov. Brock Summers supported him on sax during his own composition, from the Heroes of Might and Magic computer game soundtrack. I, however, did not see all that due to a scheduling mistake on my part and arrived only just in time for the second half of the program.

Romero is not only an estimably able pianist—especially considering that he is an amateur—but also a gifted communicator. Strikingly handsome with his closely shaved head and white smile, he strutted onto the stage more like an olympic swimmer, including the hollers and all from an excited audience. He introduced each piece with a little speech, completely charming the crowd with his lighthearted and approachable comments sprinkled with pop references. It may not have been an event for ‘purists’, but it was easy to see why he is a welcome guest at symphony orchestras all over California to give preconcert lectures and perform children's concerts.

In the noticeably pianistically more demanding second half, Romero played the Franz Liszt-arranged Valse Caprice, no. 6, based on Schubert's little waltz pieces and Vallée d'Oberman (from Année de Pèlerinage), a ‘proper’ Liszt piece. His final piece, arranged for his winning performance at the Van Cliburn 4th International Piano Competition for Amateurs, was the Judy Garland-cum-P. A. Romero "Meet me in St. Louis" trolley song. Dished up with panache and in a fancy version, he finished the recital on a high note.

Surely not attracting the same crowd that will see the inhumanly perfect Maurizio Pollini tomorrow at the Kennedy Center, it was a perfect afternoon of music as culture and entertainment, especially for families, courtesy of the Smithonian Ascociates. The appreciative crowd rewarded Romero with warm applause and loud bravoes.


Domestic Dispute About Strauss 

The National Symphony Orchestra featured three concerts with cellist Han-Na Chang under Leonard Slatkin. Daniel Ginsberg reviewed the Beethoven-Prokofiev-Strauss concert more or less enthusiastically in the Washington Post – though he obviously couldn’t stand Strauss’ Sinfonia Domestica which he didn’t deem worth the effort or time of a performance.
Unfortunately, it defied imagination that the conductor would put the orchestra through so much time and energy to perform Strauss's "Symphonia Domestica," Op. 53. [...] To modern listeners [...] the score of more than 40 minutes paints a picture of musical sprawl. Though filled with some pleasingly lush instrumental writing, this is one of the composer's most disjointed works.
As the NSO invested its skills in this repetitive and saccharine score, one pleaded for something else. [...]
With playing this fine, the Strauss by no means torpedoed the whole evening. Still, it seemed that the NSO's abilities would have been better spent on other music. One looks forward to performances over the next few weeks when these confident artists return to the stronger, more transparent fare in which they excel.

I may disagree in specific... but I certainly disagree on principle: Few pieces of music of the stature of Strauss’ musical autobiography No.2 (the first one being Ein Heldenleben) are worth dismissing so off-hand–and I welcome the chance to convince myself in person, live, of their relative merit. Banning them entirely from the stage–and that’s how Mr. Ginsberg’s sounded like he’d have it–isn’t a good idea because it (inadvertantly?) fosters the habit of performing only a core canon of “greatest hits”.

Whether despite or because of his review, the concert hall at the Kennedy Center was only three quarters or two thirds full... but those who were there got a good start with the Leonore Overture #3 (op.72a) which was done with lavish feeling and in a highly evocative manner. Still, it felt too slow to be a cohesive whole in the first half of the work. Once Slatkin stepped a bit on the pedal, it worked out very nicely and the trumpet call from the wings was at least a cute idea. The gradations of tone, the changes of undercurrent, however, were excellent and betray the fact that the NSO continues to improve. That it also needs to improve is no secret–nor is the fact that Mr. Slatkin is probably one of the dozen of best conductors for specifically that job.

Maestro Slatkin’s 60 years don’t keep him from getting excited, either–as proven by little leaps on the podium that accompanied the final of Leonore 3.

S. Prokofiev, Sinfonia Concertante, Han-Na Chang, Pappano
The Sinfonia Concertante op.125, Prokofiev’s first of two pseudo cello concertos (the Concertino for Cello and Orchestra, op.132) is the other one) was, for all its limitations, rather smashing. Han-Na Chang has a very clean, almost lithe tone that’s laden with the tension and energy so often found in young female string players. She skates on the cello with passion–others (not necessarily to lesser effect) dig. Both styles can be impressive when done well, and Han-Na Chang did her work very well. (The horns could have been more in tune on a few rare occasions in this relatively plush Prokofiev work.)

The beautiful and fragile looking Han-Na Chang, whose only fault tonight may have been a tone that was ultimately not involving enough, attacked her cello in the more furious passages that belied nonsensical ideas such as attributing fragility to her. True to her style, even in those movements she was more a wild gazelle than a stampeding rhinoceros.

R. Strauss, Complete Orchestral Works, Rudolf Kempe
R. Strauss, Sinfonia Domestica, Parergon, David Zinman
The Sinfonia Domestica, played directly in front of oneself, is (pace Daniel Ginsberg) a most pleasing thing. First of all, it’s Strauss. Not yet the Strauss of the light textures that make Capriccio one of the greatest works in music–but the harmonies are all there. Of course, the work always tempts us to deduce exactly what part of the music represent what element in Strauss’ homely life... alas this curiosity, this drive to “understand” the work is–at least according to Strauss himself–counterproductive to the enjoyment of the music. In a way he, like Mahler, concocted some of the most programmatic music ever written only then to demand it be listened to as (quasi-) absolute music. If you can, the rewards are high indeed.

Gentler, more lighthearted and with a healthy dose of irony and friendly self-deprecation, the Sinfonia Domestica lacks the bombast of Ein Heldenleben, but makes up for it with charm. Rereading Mr. Ginsberg’s excerpt makes me want to denounce his Strauss-bashing as rubbish. To convince yourself of the work’s qualities try it (on headphones!) in the just about definitive version (as are all of Strauss’ orchestral works) with Rudolf Kempe on EMI. If the complete set seems a bit too much (though it’s all worth it), you can find a good budget version in David Zinmann’s Arte Nova recording. (He, too, has a–dirt-cheap–complete Strauss box set)
Or you might wait for Christian Thielemann to do it with the Munich or Vienna Philharmonic–which should not be to far off in the future (on DG).The evening was worth it, then, not despite but in part because of the Strauss. Had, however, Han-Na Chung stuck around and participated in Strauss’ “Don Quixote”, I too, would have gladly seen the Sinfonia off the program.


The Left Bank Concert Society Has Arrived 

This article appeared first in the Washington Post (Left Bank Concert Society, October 18).

If beauty is still anathema to serious modern classical music, the Inaugural Concert of the Left Bank Concert Society at the Terrace Theater was a complete failure. Founded to foster and perform living composers' works in juxtaposition with works that influenced them, it featured Luciano Berio's surprisingly sweet 1986 Naturale as its first piece. Inspired by and using (via tape) traditional Italian folksongs in local dialects with running viola commentary (Katherine Murdock), it also featured a variety of percussion instruments including the biggest, baddest marimba I have ever seen—all played by the seemingly four-armed and eight-handed Lawson White.

Those fearing Stockhausen- or Boulez-like difficult music at the reading of their fellow post-World War II composer Berio (who died just last year) need not have worried. With its folksong relations it had obvious parallels to Bartók, and while undeniably modern, it is also extraordinarily (given the genre) accessible. Anyone mistaking the Italian songs for Middle Eastern calls of a muezzin could have been forgiven.

Apparently flutists are either very grateful or very desperate for new music, given the amount of work written for solo flute. The flutists Marina Piccinini (talented and gorgeous in equal measure) played Nicholas Maw's (of Odyssey fame) 1982 Night Thoughts. In his own preconcert talk admission, he hopes that his work sounds "not good, played on any other instrument," naturally sparking my curiosity. At least in the imaginary versions for bass tuba or kettledrum I wager to say that he is right. With flute, though, it was downright pretty.

Michael Mauldin's Birds in Winter preludes for solo harp, a luscious and very enjoyable work played impeccably by Astrid Walschot-Stapp, was the last contemporary piece before Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp and the Beethoven "Harp" Quartet (op. 74) took over. The Debussy brought the soloists (save for Mr. White) all together, if to a slightly lesser effect than the sum of its parts would have suggested.

The Left Bank Quartet—consisting of the artistic directors, Evelyn Elsig (cello), David Salness (first violin), Katherine Murdock, again, and Sally McLain—performed the Beethoven string quartet amiably and clearly enjoyed their musicmaking. For someone who had just come off two hours of Gewandhaus-orchestrated Brahms, the Left Bank Concert was a wonderful cleansing of the musical palate.


Dip Your Ears... ( 14 ) 

E. Bloch, String Quartets 1-4, The Griller Quartet
I can’t honestly say that I knew that Ernest Bloch had written string quartets. Violin Concerto, Israel Symphony, the cello-evergreen Schelomo: yes. And good; all of it. But I was not prepared for this stunning discovery. In his four (of five - the fifth having been composed after this record was made) string quartets–the 2nd perhaps the primus inter pares–he gives Shostakovich a run for his money with his ravishingly rhythmic, increasingly chromatic style. Composed in 1916, 45, 52 and 53, this music has a kick to it that belies the mellow style of Schelomo and the age of these 1954 mono recordings. Anyone wondering where the famous “Decca-sound” came from might well start here. Anyone with even the faintest interest in 20th century chamber music has a duty to him/herself to explore this budget priced double CD. Dedicated to one composer, unearthing masterpieces, splendidly played, eerily good sound: this is my favorite of the Decca Original Masters series.

[The Griller String Quartet – Decca 475 6071]


Dip Your Ears... ( 13 ) 

L.v. Beethoven, The Late Piano Sonatas, Maurizio Pollini
This disc contains what is without a doubt some of the best Beethoven playing ever caught on record. Actually, it contains some of the best piano playing – period. Maurizio Pollini, sometimes brilliant to a fault, makes more out of these Sonatas than his colleagues current and past – and he brings enough emotional charge to his already technically flawless articulation. The Hammerklavier sonata op.106 is monumental, thundering, grandiose. Others, like Sviatoslav Richter, Willhelm Kempf, Rudolf Serkin or Richard Goode are more concerned with working out the melody - but at the cost of the mountainous quality. In the slow movement of op.111 he is lyrical and gentle, after having just climbed its first movement with vigor. Thomas Mann spent a whole chapter in Dr.Faustus on op.111 – if you hear them on this recording, you might wonder why not an entire book. This is a performance of five masterpieces that you must have if you like the genre – and if you don’t, you will after listening to this!

[Maurizio Pollini – DG Originals 449 740-2]

Maurizio Pollini will be playing in Washington on October 27th at the Kennedy Center. Get tickets now for this opportunity of a life time.


Orchestrated Delight from Leipzig 

(published first at ionarts)

Washingtonians—everyone living in the area knows this—are a funny breed: they care enough to pretend to care about good music, but not enough to dress well for it. They douse every performance in standing ovations but at the same time somehow manage to rush off to the parking lot before the last note has even stopped reverberating.

Mikhail PletnevThose grumbles out of the way, it was all giddy anticipation for one of the most promising Washington Performing Arts Society concerts of the year: on October 16, the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig came to town under Maestro Herbert Blomstedt, and they brought with them Mikhail Pletnev as the soloist in the Brahms D minor Piano Concerto. Though Pletnev looked glassy, spaced out, uncomfortable, and bloated (at the intermission I heard an audience member joke that he should lay off the cocaine for a while... talk about how rumors get started!), his playing was anything but. In his hands the Brahms concerto became sensuous, sexy even... agile, tender, and lyrical like a fresh and lovely country girl, shy and feisty at the same time, with an earthy intelligence.

The orchestral balance was very good for the most part, though the Gewandhaus came dangerously close to drowning Pletnev out on two or three occasions in the first movement.

The orchestral prelude of the work isn't necessarily my favorite and part of why I find the piece itself fraught with a few problems. Defying audiences' and experts' consensus of some 150 years, I will stick my neck out to say that the D minor is a beautiful, in parts even sublime, but not a great work. For that it lacks the unifying idea, the coherent line that pulls you from the first to the last movement. Instead it seems more like several gorgeous moments attached to each other. Every so often you will become aware of it, and then it recedes from the immediate consciousness again.

J. BrahmsPiano Concertos, Emil Gilels
Pletnev (not unlike Emil Gilels on his famous recording) managed to keep it together more than anyone else I've heard this work with. He took it in a manner that suggested that he sat back, had it come his way. It was crystalline and splendid. It probably even deserved the (sadly automatic) standing ovations.

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, a much later work, was next in the all-Brahms program. Blomstedt's conducting and the Gewandhaus's playing continued to be unobtrusive, subtle, plenty energetic when and where necessary, calmly flowing otherwise, with a great (but not blaring) horn section that, just as in the concerto, worked like a well-oiled machine.

Herbert BlomstedtBlomstedt's silver, light flock of forward combed hair flicked around gaily with every of his many involved movements. Looking like a gentle, if stern, schoolmaster of days past, he led the Gewandhaus to a fine, filigreed sound without having to coax or pull or beat out anything from this surprisingly young but terribly mature orchestral body with the confidence of a 261-year tradition.

The second movement, nowadays the most popular movement of any of Brahms's symphonies, was the only one that the audience in its premiere did not demand a da capo of... but even then critics and friends of Brahms had realized how sublime it truly is. It was, like the rest of the symphony, delivered in a magisterial and very satisfying way. The last chord had not reverberated, ... you know it: standing ovations and car keys. But neither that nor the—as always—dismal program could even dent a most splendid musical afternoon in Washington.


Stroke That Ego... 

The admirable and enviable Alex Ross, Music Critic for The New Yorker and blogger at "The Rest is Noise" has following kind words for me (as well the always appreciated link to Ionarts).

Not much else to offer today. It's nice to be alive. I commend to your attention some excellent posts at ionarts on Messiaen's St. Francis and the underrated Alessandra Marc in DC. And congratulations to the excellent Jens Laurson on his Post debut. We've seen political bloggers make the leap into the so-called mainstream, and now classical blöggères are doing the same.
Yay. And Steve Huff from "People Will Say We're In Love" links to this humble vanity-blog (rather than Charles T. Downey's far superior IOnArts) with the words: "Music Criticism at it's BEST - Remarkably intelligent, articulate writing about the Arts, esp. Music."

You know it's a lie when words like "BEST" are used - but say it about me and I'll take it with a kiss and a mint on the pillow. Many thanks.


American Composers Forum 

(This article was first published in the Washington Post)

The Washington DC Chapter of the American Composers Forum presented “VOICES” in their 50 seat Mead Theatre Lab – a small black box at the back of the sparse and stylish white Flashpoint Gallery across from Zaytinya. Deducting performers, publishers, composers, critics and their friends from the audience, attendance was about zero.

The Theatre lab was still decked out in election paraphernalia with flags, paper orbs and bumper stickers from an improv show of a theater group that shares the space. Speakers stood on little stools, the electronic equipment in the corner and percussion instruments were strewn across the stage.

The first piece of Robert Erickson, “High Flyer”, performed and introduced by the very able, articulate and charming flutist Carrie Rose conjured sounds that were reminiscent of Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera. It, like Erickson’s other piece for solo flute “Quoq”, belongs to the category “interesting”. The latter work, named after Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is easily as comprehensible as the book.

Stephen Lilly presented his work for voice and spliced tape “Like staring at a word...” which was performed by Stacey Mastrian, for who it was written. A comparison with Répons would be doing Pierre Boulez injustice, thought it’s not entirely unlike it. Presented as it was, it is really more ‘performance art’ and vulnerable to the accusation of being gratuitously difficult. It was the sort of thing you are very glad to have experienced without necessarily wanting to revisit it.

The improvisation session that followed with Grace Chung (Jazz vocals), John Kamman (Guitar), Anubodh (Bansuri – an Indian Flute) and Flaco Woods (Percussion) ranged from pointless to imaginative and highly entertaining. Woods, especially, stood out for his imaginative playing when the others let Jazz inspired pieces succumb to a mood of meditative Ragas.


Amazing Audible Alliteration: Borodin, Bartók, Beethoven 

(published first at ionarts)

The night before the Takács Quartet opened the Musical Evening Series at the Corcoran Gallery, the Corcoran's Chairman of the Board, Otto J. Ruesch, passed away. The Takacs Quartet consequently moved the 2nd Borodin Quartet in front of Bartok's 3rd. The jaunty and aggressive moods would surely have been appropriate in this concert dedicated to parting founder and chair of the Musical Evening Series Jane Alper.

The sumptuous and lyrical Borodin (buy it from Amazon) was appropriate and delicious to boot. Long, beautiful musical threads, with a warm, life-affirming quality easily make this 1881 work one of the string quartet marvels of that time. That Borodin does not get his proper due is our fault, not his! Like too-beautiful chamber music of the Classical and Romantic periods sometimes can, the Borodin shepherded a few folk towards sweet dreams.

Not to worry though: Bartók came to the rescue. If you can as much as close your eyes during that work (especially when performed with the raw power, vivacious energy, and palpable joy as the Takács Quartet does) you should check your pulse. Perfectly coordinated, playfully lilting at times, biting on the attacks, somber one second, furious the next, threatening... this work has it all, eliciting about every sound imaginable from a violin short of using a table saw on it.

If you haven't seen second violinist Károly Schanz's hair flop madly during the spiccato passages, you just haven't seen Bartók at his best and Edward Dusinberre (first violinist) couldn't contain the fun he has with Bartók, even if he tried. Reading Bartók off the quartet's faces is an intractable part of their performance that converts even newcomers to the Hungarian composer's allegedly ‘difficult’ music. That the playing itself is just as superb as the visual image can be verified through their outstanding recordings. (Note: Listen to Bartók only on headphones with the volume up, lest you lose most of the music's excitement!)

Beethoven's quartet, op. 131—the mother of all string quartets to come—is 180 years old and still eerily modern, especially in its intense, tiered opening. It was the substantial offering of the second half of the concert. Part of their perennial Beethoven cycle (they play one in New York this year and are going to finish the last third of one in Cleveland), op. 131 runs well within their musical system and should appear early next year on Decca to continue, if not finish, their traversal of these masterpieces on record. Feeling, intonation, and expressiveness were all on par with the quality of the work itself, which is to say, completely beyond reproach.

While many classical music listeners draw the line not at but before late Beethoven (a cardinal and unforgivable sin, if you ask me), I suggest that they, too, would have enjoyed or even ‘understood’ Beethoven’s mature work as presented tonight. Admittedly though, increased coughing betrayed the fact that these works can be taxing on people's concentration, especially towards the end of a program. In fact, I think it isn't a very good idea to program Bartók before Beethoven, because the latter keeps you on the edge of your seat, anyway, while the former needs all the attention the audience can muster on their own. The excuse that the ‘difficult’ piece needs to be sandwiched so that people won't run away after the ‘popular’ item just doesn't cut it with string quartets and quasi-private, enthusiastic audiences like at the Corcoran.

András Fejér offered a pulsing and stable center of gravity with his cello while Roger Tapping had a few wistful moments amid his otherwise rather tame Beethoven playing.

The following champagne reception in honor of Mme. Alper then gave me the opportunity to shamelessly cast aside objectivity and become the groupie I really am—and nothing stopped me from embarrassing myself in my hunt for the autographs of the four gentlemen on the Beethoven-disc covers.

The Bartók may have been more appropriate, given that I find their playing in that very simply unparalleled, but before leaving I couldn't find theirs and asking them to sign the Chilingirian or Emerson copies (both very worthy versions in their own right) would have been awkward, to say the least. With the ink dry, the champagne drunk, I was off home after yet another sublime evening of great music, looking forward to the next event at the Corcoran, perhaps the "best place in Washington to hear chamber music," indeed.

Available from Amazon:

Béla Bartók: The 6 String Quartets, Takács Quartet
Beethoven, Early String Quartets (op. 18)
Beethoven, Razumovsky / Harp

Toscanini's Shadows 

(published first at ionarts)

Newspaper Review:

Gail Wein, Filarmonica's Delicious Orchestral Mix (Washington Post, October 13)
Monday's Columbus Day concert (October 11) at the Kennedy Center, organized with the help of (among others) the Italian Embassy and Italian Cultural Institute, was the first time the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini played in the United States. Conducting that troupe was their new Music Director, Lorin Maazel, in a program of popular Italian overtures, intermezzos, and then, for the second half, the Ottorino Respighi tone poems Fontane di Roma and Pini di Roma, the two more famous and popular ones of the Roman Trilogy that also includes Feste Romane. Between current and former ambassadors, cultural attachés, every Italian over 50 and under 25 in the D.C. area seems to have been present, making for a large, lively, and interesting crowd. Maazel is no stranger to these pieces: indeed, he has two of his finer recordings feature Respighi: one with the Cleveland Orchestra (1976, on Decca Legends, without Fontane) and another with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (1996, on Sony with the complete trilogy and demonstration class sound).

Before the concert, the Chairman of the Fondazione Arturo Toscanini, Antonio de Rosa, gave a slightly political speech (in Italian) with invocations of the connections between Italy and the U.S., from Columbus himself to Toscanini. Ministers and officials were duly thanked, all while the constant feedback from his and his translators' microphone drove every well-eared person half-mad.

The completely incomprehensible program notes (translated from Italian? They made Japanese instruction manuals seem like fine reading) were no great help in finding out about the Filarmonica, other than it being the principal orchestral body in the Emilia Romagna region. (For a little geography refresher, that's the northern Italian region around Bologna and Parma, stretching across almost all of Italy from west to east, located just south of Venezia with Verona, Padua, and Venice, Lombardy with Milano and Brescia, and north of Tuscany with Florence, as well as the principality of San Marino.) The orchestra resides in Parma, in the Sugar Factory cum Concert Hall Auditorium Niccolò Paganini, designed by Renzo Piano (follow link for pictures), who is also responsible for the Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome, a three-building dream in sheet metal, concrete, and wood.

Under a fastidious baton like Maazel's—just what an Italian orchestra needs—the young orchestra (barely 10 years old) seems to have a good chance at becoming Italy's least bad non-operatic orchestra. This may sound like an unnecessarily snarky comment, but it is in fact Italy's cultural sore spot, that she does not have any good symphonic orchestras amid a cultural landscape of the world's finest conductors (Abbado père et fils, Pappano, Muti, Giulini, Noseda), composers (Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, Nino Rota, Giacomo Manzoni, Bruno Maderna), early music groups (Rinaldo Alessandrini's Concerto Italiano and Fabio Bionidi's Europa Galante, to name only two) and soloists (Maurizio Pollini, Salvatore Accardo, et al.). It may not provide the entire answer to this conundrum, but I suggest watching Frederico Fellini's Orchestra Rehearsal for some (hilarious) suggestions as to why that might be.

The first half of the program was naturally popular with its luscious La Forza del Destino overture (Verdi), the moving Manon Lescaut intermezzo (Puccini), the march-like evergreen overture from Rossini's La Gazza Ladra (the name may be unfamiliar, the music you've heard many times), Verdi's robust Otello Dances, Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana Intermezzo (which had a charming Wagnerian glimmer), and the sturdy I Vespri Siciliani overture (Verdi, again). I cannot deny that I rather like my Verdi & Co. in that bon-bon format, though I'll grant every Verdi-lover due offense at those words.) The audience thanked Lorin Maazel and the orchestra for that half with enthusiastic applause, standing ovations, and bravos.

I first heard Fontane di Roma, the second half's first piece, and its siblings a good many years ago on a radio broadcast and wasn't particularly enchanted. A dozen years and several recordings later, I am still not quite convinced. I wish I could say that now, after Maestro Maazel's live performance I know why it is so immensely popular and so prolifically recorded... but I can't. It was certainly the best time I've ever had with these works: to hear Maazel coax the band into delivering its best sound of the evening, fat, deeply roaring brass and luminous string textures, lively woodwinds... But in part it still eludes me, and certain sections sound (dare I say it?!) like high-class Disney film music to me. Perhaps that is just a sign that it is indeed a very effective tone poem?

Pini di Roma (those pines take on the grandeur that I might more readily assign to German oaks) is more impressive, still, but it, too, has its long parts of which I cannot makes much sense. I find it—no doubt due to some deficiency of my own—episodic and like a soundtrack to an unshown movie. The superimposed, unsubtle bird chirping over the speaker system probably didn't help much to ameliorate this impression, either. The roaring and simply awesome finale (cheap and loud effects? Maybe... so what?!), however, made one forget all of it. No wonder I've never created that sense of awe at home: were I to play it at the appropriate volume, I would get an eviction notice within half a dozen bars, or so! Needless to say, it brought everyone to their feet at the conclusion.

The encore, announced by Maestro Maazel, was the overture to Verdi's Luisa Miller. A very quaint way to end an enjoyably popular concert by such a good, aspiring Italian orchestra.


Soprano leaves Marc at National Gallery 

My first review for the Washington Post of Alessandra Marc's Sunday concert can be read if you follow this link. Mind you that the last sentence has been made nonsense off: It isn't the case that if Alessandra Marc had used her voice to greater effect that she could have sung Julie Andrews off a cliff (not a good thing, in my mind) - it is because she used her voice to great effect (but not with great taste) that she could have done that. Or, in other words: She was too damn loud in belching these songs out. And she killed that Puccini.

Unfortunately she has - to my knowledge - not recorded the Berg... but there are good versions out there I urge you to listen to.

A.Berg / G.MahlerSeven Early Songs / Sy.#4B.Bonney, R.Chailly, Concertgebouw
A.Berg / E.W.Korngold / R.StraussSeven Early -and other- Songs, A.S.von Otter, B.Forsberg
A.Berg / R.Strauss / R.WagnerSeven Early Songs, Four Last Songs, Wesendonck Lieder, J.Eaglen, D.Runnicles, LSO


Opera at Sea 

(published first at ionarts)

Other Reviews of Billy Budd:

Additional Commentary by Charles T. Downey:

This past Monday night (September 27), I had the sensation of watching something familiar, almost as if I knew that things would end badly. I am not speaking of what most of Washington was doing that night, watching the local football team (although they use the name of Washington, they actually play in Landover, Md.), whose name is an unmentionable racial slur, lose to the Dallas Cowboys. There were also some people watching another tragic story, Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd, from the Washington National Opera. (I watched the end of the game when I got home, of course.) This much-praised production, by director Francesca Zambello, has been keenly anticipated, and it did not fail to deliver on its promise. Along with the other opera in this first part of its new season, Andrea Chénier (see reviews on September 9 and September 24), I agree that Billy Budd confirms that the Washington National Opera has turned a corner.

Collaborating with librettists E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, Britten adapted the libretto for this opera from a difficult book, not particularly opera-ready, Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Foretopman. Incredibly, the story works very well as an opera. There are two themes that stand out as a possible basis for a production of this opera. Given that the creators of the opera (Britten, Forster, and also Peter Pears, who created the role of Vere) were homosexual, the fact that the central love triangle of the opera (Vere-Claggart-Billy) happens to be all male is important. How much of Claggart's hatred springs from a deeply closeted love of Billy or jealousy of Billy for Vere's affection? It is a question that a production could try to answer.

Ms. Zambello's production does not deal with these questions. In fact, I agree with Jens that in some ways the production tries to soften the dramatic opposition that is inherent in Britten's score, which is played out literally in the juxtaposition of major and minor triads associated with Billy and Claggart, respectively. Good vs. evil is in the musical fabric, as it is in so many of Britten's operas (Peter Grimes, Turn of the Screw, and Death in Venice, for example). Ms. Zambello does underscore the other major theme, that of redemption, with Billy as Christ. At one point in Act I, Vere, Claggart, and Billy (redeemed, condemned, redeemer) all stand on the tilted stage, in a straight line, during one of the interludes. Billy, "king of the birds, king of the world," also climbs the foretop, shaped rather explicitly as a cross, and hangs from it, like the crucified Jesus, in shining white light. As Jens points out, he is also displayed in his "crucifixion," hanged from the yardarm, from the moment it happens through the end of Vere's concluding epilogue. (You can see some photographs of the original version of this production at Francesca Zambello's Web site.)

I am perhaps unusual among opera critics in that I like what choruses do in operas. It doesn't bother me that their involvement may not always be "realistic," because opera is all about the suspension of disbelief. The male voices of the WNO chorus were in top form, and I think that they did the blocking they were asked to do without too much trouble. One of the moments when the striking floor of the set is raised up on hydraulic columns, to create a two-tiered set resembling a ship's prow, is the aborted battle scene of Act II ("This is our moment"). The combination of visual grandeur, powerful male singing, and booming orchestra (heavy on percussion and brass in this scene) bowled me over. It sets up perfectly the sense of despair as the chance for action and victory fades away with the mist.

Richard Hickox did an excellent job with the orchestra. To circumvent the monotony that is reasonable to expect from 150 minutes of all male voices, Britten used his large orchestra in continually inventive ways: the drum roll that heralds Billy's fatal flaw, his stammer; the bluesy saxophone lines; the discordant warbling of the piccolo in Billy's tragic dawn song, before the hanging. All of that rich color shone forth under Mr. Hickox's skilled leadership. Dwayne Croft (Billy Budd) sang valiantly through a bad cold, which was announced before curtain, to appreciate applause from the audience. I felt quite sorry for him as he hung from the yardarm for all that time, immobile. For me, the main quality of his performance was to bring out the dopey incomprehension of the character. It is not just that he is an innocent, happy to be pressed back into naval service because he is happy wherever he happens to be, but that he is, forgive me, somewhat stupid. Mr. Croft's face gave us a very clear understanding of how Billy is often such a fool, as his friend Dansker tells him.

Robin Leggate, I agree with Jens, had the right presence for Captain Vere, the idealistic, over-educated noble ideal of "Starry Vere" whose sense of decorum prevents him from stopping Billy's execution. He was vocally powerful when he needed to be and smooth and light at other times. The three lead officers under him (Bruce Baumer as Ratcliffe, Peter Volpe as Mr. Flint, and especially John Hancock as Mr. Redburn) were all excellent. The only performance I would mention that Jens omitted was the Washington premiere of American tenor John McVeigh, as the sailing novice flogged and threatened by Claggart, so that he agrees to try to pin mutiny charges on Billy. He sang and acted very well, for a role that is the combination of servile yesmanship and frightened adolescence. He received a nice round of bravos at the curtain call for his efforts.
The last time Tim Page called a Washington (National) Opera production an unmitigated success, a milestone, a jewel etc., I started to believe in parallel universes we might inhabit. Then it was the Walküre, a, as I thought, decent performance at best (see my review published on April 14). This time it is Billy Budd and while the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and I are—pardon the pun—still not on the same page, I now know what he is writing about.

To see Billy Budd—a modern opera still, despite being in service for over half a century—come on the heels of the superbly staged and directed Andrea Chénier (see Ionarts reviews on September 24 and September 9) was a delight. Where is the timid ultraconservatism that usually drives me nuts about the WNO? Perhaps with the combination of those two operas the WNO has turned a new page as said critic suggests.

If Benjamin Britten's work—all men, as it takes place on board of the HMS Indomitable—is well done, it can be a chilling delight, an opera that works exceptionally well, almost despite itself. The characters, apart from lacking the vocal range given the absence of women (a few squeaky trebles don't count), are black or white, and to the rare extent that they are gray, even that gray is sharply delineated. Britten does not go for subtlety or realism here, as far as the drama is concerned. It's a fable on good and evil with a heavy homoerotic subtext that wasn't in the original Melville novel. In fact, in its operatic version, Billy Budd reminds me unfailingly of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's last film, Querelle. Take it as that, sing it well, stage it impressively and voilà: the revised 2-act version should work. The WNO gets 2 ½ out of 3, and it works very well.

Francesca Zambella, who so incensed me with her blatant self-plagiarization in Die Walküre (Fidelio regurgitated in black), did a magnificent job, if heavy on the symbolism at times. Costumes could have been a tad less traditional for the officers, but no matter what you put on 50-some built, sweaty sailor boys, it's bound to look pretty good.

The singing was at a very high level. Sam Ramey, as the relatively evil Master-at-Arms John Claggart, has a bigger name than voice by now, but he is still impressive by all means. Besides, his experience on stage (he's probably played every incarnation of the Devil that exists in opera) paid off handsomely, handsomely indeed! His poofy hair, however, made him look silly and was distracting. At the Met [see production photo—CTD] he had it all pulled back and looked deliciously evil!

Robin Leggate's Captain Vere was all he needed to be, torn and sturdy, betraying—more in tone than in voice—a certain frailty. He was a wonderful embodiment of the character, though in his prologue I would have wished for a more reflected, inward-turned presentation of an old man, once more powerful, once more vigorous, experienced now, and his light not quite yet dimmed. The way Robin Leggate sang it, it came across more as a justification to the audience. A minor quibble, though.

Peter Volpe as Mr. Flint, one of the neutral characters, was a delight. He seemed menacing and arrogant, as mean-spirited as John Claggart ought to have been, only to show the audience that the looks and the first impression of his character had us misjudge him when he never capitalizes on evil. I assume this was not the director's intention, but it worked for me as a cute little subplot. Mr. Redburn, played and sung by John Hancock, had a towering presence both vocally and physically. The 6'8" latecomer to opera always seemed as though he could sing the rest of the cast overboard if only he wanted to. Instead of doing that, however, he held back nicely, especially in the delightful terzett in Capt. Vere's cabin. Steven Cole, as the little creepy Squeak, sent mixed signals through his character, but no one sings "Yes Sir, Yes Sir, Yes Sir" quite like him.

This leaves Dwayne Croft among the characters that deserve special mention. Singing was good and well done, save for very occasional problems in holding long lines. But with his character stands and falls the opera, and here was where a fault could be found with this Billy Budd, though not a fatal one—pace the other qualities of the production. Croft's Billy was physically dominant, in and of itself not a problem. But Billy Budd is "all good," a gentle, fine and delicate naïf, goodness and beauty personified in such an unobtrusive way as not to cause envy or anger among common men. It is this goodness, this "can't-do-no-wrong" that is the uncomfortable mirror to John Claggart, who cannot but be reminded of his own jaded, cynical, bad self. Billy, therefore, must be undone.

Unfortunately, Croft's Billy was a cocksure, swaggering "do-gooder" who elicited a response not of awe or goodness but of creepy suspicion. Had I been Mr. Redburn I, too, would have told Claggart to keep an eye on that fellow, for that Billy made you wonder... there seemed something odd about him. The line between open, honest goodness and "what's he hiding?" is thin and difficult to nail when you have to sing your guts out at the same time, but it could have been and must be done. The explanation that I toyed with, namely that the direction aimed at diffusing the evil-good border a bit to have us better understand why Billy Budd is pursued by John Claggart, does not make sense as Claggard would have to have been less menacing and one-dimensionally evil than he was. Besides, the whole opera doesn't really take to such a concept. (At least that's what I feel until shown otherwise.) That major-minor objection apart, the whole thing was still captivating. It's an opera that demands being in the mood for. If you are... and well rested and alert, it is a very fine experience indeed. If not, it can get a bit long, even if the drama picks up in the second act when tension and speed increase significantly.

Mme. Zambella's sparse, evocative, gorgeous set helped quite a bit. A massive, raised rectangle over the corner was the deck, with trap doors being the only way onto and off it. The front triangle-shaped half of the deck can be raised or lowered with hydraulics, making for a staggeringly impressive battle scene (just what was that pathetic blue rag hanging on the mast? A sail? Sorry looking and limp, it needed omitting!) as well as an intimate cabin below deck.

Richard Hickox was a godsend to the orchestra and got a performance from his band that was very fine playing. To see this brilliant champion of English music at work was a delight, and the eerier parts of the orchestration (was that a glass harmonica I heard?) came through with color and plastic as though you could touch. With such playing, who cares if it wasn't 100% clean?! The chorus's acting was mediocre, which is better than the usual "dismal" (a curse of all opera houses, not just the WNO): movements were sometimes incoherent or otherwise ruined by stage hawks and overacting. One way to help out as a director would be to actually make them do things. For example, have them pull a rope rather than act out pulling it. The mechanics involved may seem a bit excessive for that bit of realism, but I think it might just be worth it.

The epilogue was downright brilliant. Picking up where the prologue left us, Capt. Vere is again a much older man, reflecting on how Billy Budd's forgiveness (he was hanged after more or less accidentally killing Claggart, who had wrongly accused him of mutiny) had saved him. Meanwhile we can still see Billy's body through the semitransparent curtain behind Vere... dangling, suspended 10 feet above the stage with a spot light on him. Perhaps a bit much on the Christ/Resurrection theme, but chilling. A stunning if qualified success then. And a must see if you "don't like the French!"

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