High Time to Give the Harpsichord a Plug 

(published first at ionarts)

After the first summer's thunderstorm (a rather mild precursor to what is going to come later in the season), the air, not so humid to begin with, was reasonably fresh. For actual crispness, however, one had to go to the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium, where a sparse crowd was awaiting Olivier Baumont on April 23. The slim, one-manual Bordeaux-red and gold harpsichord, looking more beautiful and elegant than a grand piano ever could, awaited him as well.

A wonderfully pleasant and friendly-looking man, Oliver Baumont bowed to preemptive applause and started with Jacques Champion, Sieur de Chambonnières (1601?–1672), Six Pieces in F major. Light and pearly music in the Allemande was followed by music with more speed and ornamentation in Courante 1 and more expression in the slower Courante 2. Playing, as harpsichordists and organists often do, with a certain professorial manner and dignity, matter-of-factly but with visible joy, Mr. Baumont lacked any of the showmanship traits, habits, and quirks of many of his star-pianist colleagues. That was itself as refreshing as the sound of the harpsichord was. The right cembalo in the right hands provides a cleansing of the musical palate, enjoyable to the point of tears. Nothing against Bach and Co. on the grand piano (Bach is bigger than the instruments on which he is performed), but one must come back to the honesty of the harpsichord every so often. I cannot recall when I last had such a deeply emotional, completely involved musical experience. There was a sort of (musically) spiritual calm that took me wholly—and wholly by surprise.

Sarabande "O beau jardin", Rondeau, and Chaconne flew by me, so enthralled was I with the music. Following Jacques Champion, Sieur de Chambonnières, the alleged founder of the French school of classical harpsichord playing and composing, came the better-known François Couperin with his eight preludes from L'Art de toucher le clavecin (1716). Couperin on the piano was recently so well served by Angela Hewitt (see the Ionarts review from December 18, 2003), albeit not yet with the Preludes, and is becoming a more and more popular French composer together with Rameau and Charpentier, all of whom emerge from behind the more famous, if less talented, Lully. These Couperin preludes (in C, d, g, F, A, b, B-flat, e) were most wonderful. The agile Mr. Baumont played them impeccably and with visible enthusiasm. The atmosphere was, for me, never less than engrossing.

Johann Christian Bach, Harold Hoeren
Handel, Suites for Keyboard, Keith Jarrett
Couperin, Keyboard Music, Vol. 1, Angela Hewitt
The sound of the harpsichord itself was splendid. Crisp and clear but neither harsh nor dry—gentle—with plenty of definition and a lovely balance, the 1990 Thos. & Barbara Wolf copy of an early 18th-century Nicholas Dumont instrument was as charming as anything I've heard from a harpsichord, and I have, courtesy of my uncle who, apart from being a harpsichordist also built concert harpsichords, heard a few. Added to this was the considerable skill of Mr. Baumont. Gustav Leonhardt, Kenneth Gilbert, Davitt Moroney, and Igor Kipnis have nothing on him. That the harpsichord spoke so vividly to me because of this connection I have to it is well possible. But this bias would only have amplified splendor, not made splendor!

Louis-Claude Daquin's Deuxième Suite in D from 1735, the next piece in this (almost) chronological progression of music, continued to move me, though it may not have been the strongest piece of the night. The successive chords in L'Hirondelle, the last piece of this suite, are a first sign of the harpsichord vernacular's horizon widening, but they appear only twice, quickly, never to appear again. Early keyboard pyrotechnics, perhaps.

Favorite pieces of Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Baumont told the audience, made up the second half of the program. Handel, J. C. Bach, and Reinagle harpsichord pieces, we were told, had a prominent place in Jefferson's library. The Handel Suite IV in d minor, HWV 437 (in the 1733 edition), was close to sublime. A richer palette of sounds than the preceding pieces (even the younger Daquin piece) added a richness where so far had been but fleetness. (Mr. Baumont's discography on Erato is, for the most part, sadly out of print. For the Handel, fortunately, there is always the sublime Keith Jarrett in his marvelous ECM account of seven Handel suites for keyboard.)

Johann Christian Bach (the "London Bach") takes us from early and high baroque to the dawn of the classical style. His influence on the young Mozart is well known and audible even in Bach's own works. More virtuoso-oriented than in the earlier pieces, Mr. Baumont continued to play admirably, even if he had his first few slips of the evening in this Sonata in D major, op. 5, no. 2. The Bach is indeed a most delightful piece of music with moments of pure glory (they remind me of a particular work, but I can't quite put my finger on which one), and I'll be damned if I won't go out looking for a recording thereof as soon as possible—perhaps Harald Hoeren's recording of the six sonatas for pianoforte or harpsichord for Cpo.

The Reinagle, after J. C. Bach, was a quaint and plain letdown. The Scot's music sounds a bit like American revolutionary pipe music transcribed for harpsichord. It is repetitive and even in its more boisterous variations it is lacking substance, originality, and even craftsmanship. The little whimsical end, however, redeems the piece, in that it seems to state what it is: not much. Endearing. The following pieces, James Hewitt's Battle Pieces ("The Battle of Trenton" in D major), dedicated to General Washington and with spoken interludes, had rightly been dug out of obscurity in the course of the resurgent interest in American music. Outside that context, however, I am afraid they are lacking too much musically. No better place (other than across the river at Mt. Vernon) than Washington, D.C., to perform these pieces so strongly bound to locale, personage, and circumstance. The programmatic comments were spoken right into the musical vignettes, some no longer than a few seconds. Since it was "Attack, Attack, Attack" and “Cannons, Cannons, Cannons," Mr. Baumont did his utmost, bent over the keyboard to pull break-neck tempi off, while the commentary and the music got more and more amusing. A worthy undertaking indeed, one where the word quaint applies without the connotations of damning with faint praise.

Rosslyn Castle (?) and Grieve of the American [sic] for the Loss of Their Comrades Killed in Engagement are somber hymns to the battle-wounded. Yankee Doodle on the harpsichord, too, is interesting, though probably not a must-hear. The last section (General Rejoicing) was a good introduction to the audience's reaction to the concert. Much too seldom heard, the harpsichord in action was responsible for one of the most delightful concerts in my six years in Washington. Indeed, one that I shall be thinking of for many years to come. Stupendous!

But not only that: Mr. Baumont had encores ready. Michelle Corette (1709–1795) with L'Etoile (?) was much appreciated after the battle stuff. Back to the French harpsichord style that had so delighted in the first half, this piece was endowed with everything one expects from it. Coaxed into playing another encore ("the last one!" he announced jokingly), Mr. Baumont purled a piece by Jacques Duphly (1715–1789) off the black keys in front of him, quite a difference from the usual Brahms lullabies or assorted flights of bumblebees. The afternoon cup of tea of concerts, rather than the steak dinner (usually overcooked, anyway). ♫


Libertarian Op-Ed Regurgitated 

This Sunday, my old op-ed on Arundhati Roy, the Nation, and her wonderous promotion of libertarianism got a second life on the America's Future Foundation's on-line journal, brainwash. How very flattering.
Go visit their website



Songs Without Words Leave Audience Speechless 

(published first at ionarts)

Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Bella Davidovich appeared in concert at the National Gallery of Art on April 18, 2004.

On the first full-fledged summer day of the year, gloriously sunny and warm, an appropriately glorious name lured flocks of listeners to the National Gallery's 2493rd free Sunday concert: Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Bella Davidovich, playing Beethoven, Grieg, Mozart, and Ravel violin sonatas. A sizable Azerbaijani contingent (sprinkled with some Georgians and probably a good many Russians) warmly welcomed their compatriot as well as fellow Baku native Bella Davidovich who plunged immediately into Beethoven's first work in the repertoire of the violin sonata, the Sonata no. 1 in D major, op. 12, no. 1 (1797).

Dmitry Sitkovetsky
Mr. Sitkovetsky, with an astoundingly impeccable haircut (no small feat for classical musicians, if I may add) and extraordinary neatly trimmed beard, stood erectly and with most economic movement as he played the piece, charged with energy and brio. No cheap frills and thrills, no unnecessary gesticulation or mimicking that so many artists feel is necessary to convey emotion. In a sense not unlike Horowitz who—in stark contrast to his sound—sat in front of the piano with less motion than it takes other people to solve a crossword puzzle.

Stephen Ackert's program notes told the audience all they really needed to know about this somewhat limited but perfectly solid and wonderful work. The sonata, for one, goes to show why we speak of works of the "early Beethoven" rather than of "immature Beethoven works." The second movement of variations, in particular, is quite delectable.

The Grieg Violin Sonata no. 3 in C minor (90 years younger than Beethoven's) is, as Mr. Ackert, head of the music department at the NGA, points out, a good example of the Norwegian folk traditions with which Edvard Grieg imbued most his works composed after 1864. If there was any determination and furor in the Beethoven, it was now reactivated by the bold opening of the Norwegian's work. "Broadly dramatic" is quite right, and the fluctuations between the lyrical and the fierce, brash, and brusque are pronounced. The first movement then, is appropriately named Allegro molto ad appassionato.

The chiseled, stoic face of Mr. Sitkovetsky, his demeanor (despite the appassionato and dramatic Romanticism) fit perfectly. Nordic vigor as one would expect to come right out of a Henrik Ibsen play. Bella Davidovich, meanwhile, gave wonderful support, mastering the few technical difficulties with ease and struggling—if with anything at all—with the acoustics.

The second movement of the Grieg, harkening back to some of his lyrical pieces for piano, is really a song without words; Espressivo alla romanza is beautiful to hear, if not self-evidently coherent. At the high, single, and endlessly held violin note at the end, a cacophonous cough concerto broke out in the back that gave reason to worry. Allegro animato (speedy animals), the third movement that returned to a somewhat more brooding, meddling sound—despite the dancing and swirly notes on the exterior—subdued them quickly. An excitably foaming finale closed a wonderful first half of a most noteworthy concert to enthusiastic applause.

Edvard Grieg, violin sonatas, Sitkovetsky and Davidovich
also available:
Ravel, complete works for piano and violin, Sitkovetsky and Davidovich
Mozart's Salzburg-composed Violin Sonata, K. 377 (1781), was a musical jump back again by a good 100 years. Mr. Sitkovetsky tackled this work, somewhere between ditty and genius, with just enough engagement to produce the unlingering, dry, and technically impeccable tone so characteristic of his playing that evening. His playing has a checked energy; the kind that creates a tension that makes all the difference in perception while the tone, unrelated, could be warmer, without taking away from that quality.

Bella Davidovich
The first movement (Allegro) ends entirely abruptly, as thought Herr Mozart had just had enough of it. Thrown down like a glove. But the glove gets picked back up by the second movement, which is similar in its description and structure to Beethoven's Thema con variazioni (Andante). Compared to the preceding movement, this one was more felt and less original. Mr. Sitkovektsky's tone glided through the notes like a ship plows through calm water, undeterred and with a goal in mind. The resonance unfortunately relegated Mme. Davidovich to a less prominent role than she deserved. With too many notes swimming into each other, it simply wasn't possible to make much of the amiable accompaniment. Her elegant fingers, part of a wholly elegant appearance made it, at any rate, a pure joy to watch this veritable full-blood musician at work.

Forgettable as the Mozart may have been, the Ravel was not. The piano part in this piece is an equal partner and not mere accompaniment, and Mr. Sitkovetsky's tone was perfectly suited to the difficult acoustics and Mme. Davidovich's pedal-sparse playing left most parts audible. After three pieces of varyingly challenging ear candy, Ravel was refreshing in how he makes no concessions to the conventions of the listener.

The first movement (Allegretto) is ended on a similar note as the Grieg second movement. Rough pizzicatos await the Blues: Moderato second movement with its pleasant syncopated rhythms. If this movement smacks of his marvelous (and unfortunately only) string quartet, the third is a fiendishly difficult little thing on perpetual motion that made Mr. Sitkovetsky shine with natural brilliance. Unfazed, he fiddled them off his violin as if it were a walk on the beach. The finale of high-powered "violin scrubbing" came quick and impressively. Immediate standing ovations are genuine and not just show.

The almost predictable encore was something from the musical palate of the performers and many audience members: Tchaikovsky's Song Without Words, as arranged by Fritz Kreisler. To an enjoyably quiet crowd, that dose of Russian-composed music (if itself not all too Russian) hit the spot. But a little more, still, was to follow after more applause. This time a bit of an American flavor. Jascha Heifetz's arrangement of Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So": this "Big Muddy" of a song was suddenly endowed with a quicksilver spirit, and Mr. Sitkovetsky showed his unfailing taste in playing and repertoire choice, as well as his unfailing taste in pleasing an audience, without artistically stooping even the least bit.♫


Posessive Apostrophes 

(stolen straight from Michael Quinion, who published this on World Wide Words)

The greengrocer's speciality

It’s only a little mark, but its misuse arouses more bad temper among purists than any other punctuation. (That introduction brings to mind the irregular conjugation: “I am a careful writer; you are a purist; he is a pedant”.)

Purists and pedants alike regularly blench when they see the things even supposedly careful writers do with the apostrophe. It is regularly misused even in supposedly high-quality broadsheet newspapers in Britain; the position in the US is even worse, to judge from howlers reported in alt.usage.english. Keith Waterhouse, the veteran British writer and columnist, claims to have appointed himself Life President of the Association for the Annihilation of the Aberrant Apostrophe, and to keep a bonfire continually burning in his back garden to incinerate them.

From the number of examples I’ve spotted, he should keep warm this winter with no trouble. The biggest mistake, and one which is of some antiquity, is to include an apostrophe in a word which is a simple plural: tomato’s 30p. This is so common a misuse in displays of fruit and vegetables outside shops that it has been dignified by the name greengrocer’s apostrophe. A famous example appeared in a press release from the Department of Education in 1993: “I will produce for parent’s an annual report ...”; what a pity it was in a transcript of a speech by the Minister about the need for good standards in writing. Another common mistake is to confuse it’s and its, the former being a contraction of it is and the latter a possessive pronoun. So you see daft phrases such as “its time to go home” or “the dog has lost it’s bone”. A third is to confuse whose with who’s, the latter being an abbreviation for “who is”.

Special problems arise when you create possessives for names already ending in “s”. Is it Charles’ Wain or Charles’s Wain? The latter sounds and looks better. Is it St James’s Street or St James’ Street? Custom and rhythm go for the former. Jones’s house indicates that only one person named Jones lives there; if a family does, it should be the Joneses’ house, which sounds exactly the same but looks odd on the page. Until recently, the usual form was Jesus’ and not Jesus’s but this tradition, described in Hart’s Rules as “an acceptable liturgical archaism”, was finally broken in the New English Bible of the mid-sixties.

Despite this special case, there is a tendency towards using just a terminating apostrophe in names ending in “s”. A particularly annoying example is that of a famous London teaching hospital; when I was very small and had been mildly naughty, my father, a true-bred Londoner, would jokingly offer me his two clenched fists, naming one “sudden death” and the other “St Thomas’s Hospital”. It’s been called that for generations, the final “s” improving the flow of the name, but the new NHS hospital trust recently put up a sign identifying it as St Thomas’ Hospital, ignoring the evidence for the extra “s” that is literally graven in stone above their heads.

Even more problems arise when you’re not sure about the origin of the name. One of the colleges of Cambridge University is, correctly, Queens’ College, because it was founded by two queens (the Oxford one had only one royal benefactor, so it is Queen’s College). And what of November 5? Is it Guy Fawkes’ Day or Guy Fawkes’s Day?
Lynne Truss's runaway success tome on punctuation.
The one certain thing is that it isn’t Guy Fawke’s Day, because his name was Fawkes, with the “s” already on. And what does one do about Lloyd’s, the famous insurance market in London? How do you make a possessive out of that? “Names are complaining that some Lloyd’s’s syndicates were badly managed”? The style guide of the Economist says firmly “try to avoid using [it] as a possessive; it poses an insoluble problem”. Amen to that.

The British newspaper the Independent on Sunday recently reported that a trend is emerging for publishers to use fewer apostrophes, the comment being provoked by the decision of Antonia Fraser to leave out the possessive apostrophe after Fawkes in her new book The Gunpowder Plot. But the evidence shows that possessive apostrophes have been dropping like flies for years. It has long been common to leave them out of placenames, though custom plays a particularly powerful role here: why else would it be Lord’s Cricket Ground but Earls Court? Advertising fashion has eroded apostrophes from the names of many firms, as with Harrods (someone stole that apostrophe many years ago, so weakening the store’s link with the late Mr Henry Harrod), and such common British High Street names as Boots, Currys, Debenhams, Barclays Bank and a host of small shops named Browns, Trumans and their like.

My impression is that fashion, the real difficulties that exist in some cases, and—particularly—the absence of firm teaching of grammar and punctuation in school, are all leading to an accelerating decline in the use of the possessive apostrophe. It hasn’t happened yet, but I can imagine a time coming when there will be too small a group of writers with the requisite knowledge and too great an assemblage of bad practice for the position to be easily salvageable.
Mr Waterhouse may just have to buy some warmer winter wear ...


Painting with the Keyboard 

(published first at ionarts)

This is a review of a concert of the Marlboro Music Festival at the Freer Gallery of Art last month, on March 4.

In conjunction with the exhibition Mr. Whistler's Galleries: Avant-Garde in Victorian London at the Freer (ended April 4), pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute presented works by Franz Schubert, Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, and Frédéric Chopin to a relatively sparse crowd in Meyer Auditorium. Since the Freer Gallery had difficulties arranging this concert with Mme. Jokubaviciute, they had not been able to get an announcement out early, surely a major reason for the less-than-capacity crowd. Before the concert performance itself, Ken Meyers, the Freer Gallery's curator, gave some very interesting introductory remarks, including slides of pictures and their relationship to the music on the program. For example, the opening notes of Schubert's Moments Musicaux, op. 94, D.780 (1823–1827) are scratched into the frame of Whistler's painting Composition in White.

Gabriel Fauré: The Complete Music for Piano, Kathryn Stott, Martin Roscoe
Franz Schubert, Sonata D. 568 and Moments Musicaux, Mitsuko Uchida
Claude Debussy, Preludes, Book I, and L'Isle Joyeuse, Maurizio Pollini
Claude Debussy, Preludes, Books I and II, Walter Gieseking
Chopin, Nocturnes, Maria João Pires
After these comments, Mme. Ieva Jokubaviciute herself came on stage, a rather charming looking, young, blond lady in a copper-colored silk dress with black lace on the outside, thus perfectly matching the stage's back curtain. No ado before she started with Schubert. Bent over the piano like an aged old lady, she came up with a finely played account that didn't quite sound as felt as her facial expressiveness might have indicated. The Moments were indeed masterfully played from memory but did not communicate as much as I imagine they could. Mme. Jokubaviciute's playing the Steinway like a 100-year-old witch on her broomstick, too, was mildly distracting. So was an occasionally occurring muffled, dragging (schleifender) sound of unknown origin. Since the piano's mechanism was still working at the last concert, I am tempted to attribute it to some sort of humming or singing along on the part of the performer. In doing so (if it is the case), she would have picked up a seeming habit of her current teacher, the wonderful and astounding Mr. Richard Goode, whom I suspect of breathing along with some of the Beethoven sonatas in his outstanding recording of the complete cycle.

Storming and passionate as the end of these pieces are, it was unfortunate that it literally ended on the wrong note, especially given the excellence that procured that moment in the first place. The applause was surprisingly mild, and the audience curiously noisy with programs, watch alarms, and falling coins. Watch alarms, I wish to point out, are the continued curse of concerts. While most people have accepted that turning one's cell phone off during a performance is a good thing, no one seems to bother or even be aware of their digital watches beeping annoyingly at every full hour—which in most concerts is twice—and slightly spread out among watches being either slow or fast. Perhaps many of the culprits would not even know how to turn this function off: alas, there is a way, and I wish they would find it and forever put an end to these obnoxious interruptions.

Fauré's wonderful Barcarolle no. 6 in E-flat major, op. 70 (1896), is neither heroic—as the most famous preceding work in the same key (Beethoven's Eroica)—nor a sprawling self-glorification in E-flat major like its contemporary piece, the (delicious) Ein Heldenleben (Hero's life) by Richard Strauss. Unfortunately it was over so quick that I could not get my finger on its character in time before it was then immediately taken over by the Nocturne.

The habit of not interrupting consecutive performances of short pieces (of one composer) with applause is an economic one, considering time efficiency, and makes sense in that regard. I could not imagine how annoying it would be if every single one of Chopin's 24 preludes were to be applauded in concert. A nightmare, indeed. It is also true that few things are more mortifying than clapping solely or too early in a classical concert. True, when ignorance of the piece seems to be the cause, it can be quite annoying, and I myself am guilty of huffing with disdain. But really, it isn't all that terrible even then. Moreover, if a piece, a movement, a prelude was absolutely outstanding, why not applaud? It was commonplace in the previous eras to reward (or punish) a successful movement or even moment immediately with audience reaction and furthermore ask for a da capo of entire movements when they had been especially thrilling. Of course, that was in a time when we were not able to go home and listen to any given piece as many times as it would please us, and many audiences reacted to a composition rather than a performance. Still, it is somewhat troubling that applause has now morphed into a curiously stifling social or musical skill, the performance of which is governed by semisecret rules put in place by a self-declared erudite elitist strand of audience. From repertoire to behavior, music halls are more and more turning into museums, a trend that I am not too sure of being a good one for classical music.

But other than going off on a tangent, there was also the exhibit of Mr. Whistler's paintings to see, very conveniently left open late so that the audience was able to stroll through this lovingly and beautifully arranged recreation of Whistler's exhibitions during the intermission. Whistler's watercolor "nocturnes," evocative miniatures that were the link between the Fauré and the Chopin that was to follow, are brilliant tiny masterpieces that send a clear message that size does not matter, at least not when it comes to art. They are very abstract, damp, moody pictures in the convenient format of 12 x 12 inches. Many of the paintings, sketches, etchings, etc., spend most of their time in the vaults, because they are rather delicate. That the exhibition showed them for over a month was unprecedented.

Debussy called the audience back to duty, however, with the bubbly and droplike Brouillards (Fog) prelude from Book II (1913). Ably played, they brought my best response to Debussy's music out in me. Wonderfully turned inward, suddenly revealing themselves from behind a façade that can, at times, be difficult to look beyond. The rather famous Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (Sounds and smells whirl in the evening air) prelude from Book I (1904–10) sounded like a Keith Jarrett recital. (Is this particular one perhaps more famous because, after putting the standard Debussy CD in, it is the first and only piece that is listened to with the necessary amount of concentration and attention?)

In Des pas sur la neige (Footprints in the snow), the birds of Debussy's musical language started to come out. Mme. Jokubaviciute seemed most comfortable in these preludes and outdid herself. L'Isle Joyeuse (The joyous island) and La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair) were the two other Debussy selections she played. After this enormously enjoyable and arousing part of the concert, she could hardly have done any wrong. Especially not with Chopin nocturnes, which are some of the most obviously fitting pieces for the exhibition. The 1841 C minor nocturne, rather than sedating creatures of the night, would wake up every neighbor up and down the street, but music and performance of such quality could well have had none of them mind being woken up. It was this second half of the concert where Ieva Jokubaviciute really seemed to wake up and enjoy herself. Ballade no. 3 in A-flat major, op. 47, composed in the same year, was delivered with a good deal of "oomph" and then went on to sprinkle notes all over the piano, as the young pianist tickled a few out of the keyboard, hunched as she was above the key, and came back to the pulsing theme that reared its head regularly as it went. It was a great end to a concert that improved dramatically in communication after the first half and shall very much hold a special place among the many great concerts that have taken place at the Freer Gallery so far.♫


Not as Good as Gold 

(from Kevin Michael Grace, first published in Newsmagazine (National Edition)

1955 and 1981 accounts of the Goldberg Variations
Was Glenn Gould a descendant of Edvard Grieg? Rick Phillips retells the legend in the August Gramophone. The pianist's mother, Florence Greig, said so, but as the late Peter Ostwald notes in Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius, "The Greigs always were very proud of their Scottish-Presbyterian background, but they had difficulty tracing it, and the line to the composer was never as clear as Flora and her devoted son Glenn wanted it to be."

Canadians will hear the legend often this month, the 70th anniversary of Gould's birth. It is harmless enough in itself but illustrates a larger problem: the mystification that Gould indulged in and his acolytes perpetuate. For example, writes Ostwald, Gould was born not Gould but Gold, "and all of his early concert programs bear the name 'Glenn Gold,' a fact completely ignored in every book and article so far written about him." More serious is the false legend that Gould was a saintly aesthete--not only that, but "warm and fun, far from anti-social," as Stephen Posen, his executor, tells Mr. Phillips.
Das wohltemperierte Klavier, Book I

Gould wrote, "Gustav Mahler was a very nasty man blithely indifferent to "the fragility of any ego other than his own." Anyone who has read the bitter memoir of his former producer, Andrew Kazdin, or Ostwald's highly sympathetic biography, will know that in describing Mahler, Gould was describing himself. Gould discarded his friends, colleagues and minders like so many used tissues; he forced his father (a furrier who paid a fortune for his musical education) to abandon his favourite pastime, fishing, because it offended him; he preferred dogs to people and said so; he was gross, slovenly, a drug abuser of rock-star proportions and a hysterical hypochondriac to boot; and his favoured mode of social intercourse was the interminable telephone call, which resulted invariably with his respondent waking up exhausted and seedy on the couch to discover their lector still rabbiting away.

Charles Rosen, Goldberg Variations
Gould is a Sacred Monster, but he was merely a performer whose achievement is dwarfed by that of any number of giants, including Mahler. His beloved "eccentricities" serve only to perpetuate the "ever-popular tortured-artist effect." (Compare the rigorously objective performance style of Horowitz.) Gould's wilful CDs are besmirched by his groaning voice and squeaking chair, and they sound like they were recorded in a cardboard box. Who plays better Bach on the piano? Try Hewitt, Perahia, Schiff, Argerich, Kempff, Tureck or Brendel. Who to listen to in the Goldbergs? Try Charles Rosen's fine (and ridiculously inexpensive) version on Sony Classical.

Newsmagazine (National Edition); 9/23/2002, Vol. 29 Issue 18, p25, 1p, 1bw

This get's really interesting when the responses come in. Attacking Gould will rattle Gould-fanatics anywhere - but do it in Canada - as a Canadian - and it ammounts to treason. I personally like some Gould, understand those who love him and those who hate him. To loosely paraphrase from Mel Brook's movie "To Be or Not to Be": "He did to Beethoven what we (the Germans) did to Poland!"


"I never think I have hit hard, unless it rebounds," said Dr. Johnson; and considering the mail it provoked, my recent piece on Glenn Gould was a palpable hit. I was somewhat taken aback by the vehemence of the response, as I had failed to understand that criticism of the great man was akin to treason.

Treason? Fred Stubbings writes, "I find it hard to believe that a Canadian would take such a cheap shot at a fellow Canadian that has earned such a wide reputation all over the world for his genius." But Mr. Stubbings, I don’t appraise artists based on their nationality. As you admit, Gould has earned "such a wide reputation all over the world." So he doesn’t need me to lay offerings at his shrine; the Gould cult will continue to flourish quite nicely without my support. Besides, ever mindful of my Cancon duty; I did promote Angela Hewitt as an alternative. (As I would have done regardless of the colour of her passport.)

Mr. Stubbings accuses me of ignorance: "One would think that a person with so little knowledge of the subject could keep his opinions to himself." As it turns out, I know rather a lot about Gould. I own 20 of his CDs. Mostly J.S. Bach, of course, but also Bizet, the Elizabethans, Grieg, Haydn, Sibelius, Richard Strauss and Wagner. (No Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms—I’m not a masochist.) I have read the books by Jonathan Cott, Otto Friedrich, Andrew Kazdin, Peter Ostwald and Geoffrey Payzant, plus a coffee-table book with a forward by Herbert von Karajan, the title of which escapes me. I’ve read Gould’s own essays, heard his radio plays and watched his CBC shows and his documentary, Glenn Gould’s Toronto. It’s not a question of ignorance.

Betty Trueman takes the "Great wit is oft’ to madness near allied" line on Gould. She writes:

I don’t see Kevin Michael Grace or any other Gould-basher advocating the boycott of the music of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms or Schumann because they were anti-social, weird, possessing of a serious dark side or mentally ill. Glenn Gould was autistic, for heaven’s sake.

Autistic? Ostwald, the psychiatrist and musician who was Gould’s friend and medical consultant, has the best response to that: "Glenn obviously did not suffer from this disease. Had he been autistic, the remarkable success he had in a public career would have been impossible." Ostwald speculates that Gould might have suffered from Asperger disease, but he does not release him from moral considerations, for instance, "the precipitous dropping of old friends when he thought they were no longer of any use to him." Ms. Trueman also accuses me of believing a preference for animals over people a moral failing. Guilty as charged.

And no, I don’t advocate the boycott of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms or Schumann or any other artist because of his personal failings. ...
==>> Continue reading this review.

András Schiff, Golderg Variations
Angela Hewitt, French Suites
MurrayPerahia, Goldberg Variations (SACD)
Rosalyn Tureck, Partitas


Stars & Strings 

(published first at ionarts)

For dedicated lovers of chamber music, Washington, D.C., is a veritable Mecca. Many cities have impressive events of chamber music that fly slightly below the mainstream cultural radar, but I dare say that few if any have as many—and as many free—such events as does Washington, D.C. At the National Gallery of Art, the Library of Congress, various Smithsonian institutions (notably the Freer Gallery), the National Academy of Sciences, the Phillips Collection, and the Corcoran Gallery, the worlds who's who of string quartets polish door knobs. To name but a few of the worthy contributions to what is otherwise not the most culturally savvy town in the country, enthusiasts were able to enjoy the Zehetmayer, Juilliard, Talich, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Bartók, Kodály, Ysaÿe, Brodsky, Chilingirian, and Takács Quartets. On April 2, it was the Leipzig String Quartet that provided small-scale, high-strung excellence to the Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress.

The program featured Mendelssohn (String Quartet in F minor, op. 80), Charles Ives (String Quartet no. 1, "From the Salvation Army") for the "never play last piece," and the perennial crowd-pleaser, one of the most beautiful pieces of chamber music in the repertoire, the Brahms Clarinet Quintet in B minor, op. 115. The quartet took to the Mendelssohn and elicited a rather strange, raspy, buzzing sound—surprisingly hollow, eerie almost—especially from the cello. The four Germans were finely animated and ever so gently amusing to look at, with violist Ivo Bauer being the exception to the former and cause for the latter. Stiff as this petite man played on his instrument, he looked as though he had swallowed a broomstick. In Matthias Moosdorf's hands, the cello shrunk considerably in size, overshadowed by a huge frame as his is.

Accounting for the difference in acoustics from the different venue and my different position relative to the players, I still wanted to think that I could detect a difference of tone and character in all instruments from the fine versions the Bartók Quartet spoiled our ears with on March 21 at the National Gallery of Art (see the Ionarts review on March 24). The Mendelssohn itself was amiably played, animated, and technically flawless. The wonderfully driving second movement (Allegro assai) that is an absolute highlight of string quartet writing, too, was superb—with lower marks only for the oddly flat, perhaps shallow sound that I could well have imagined a bit richer and more buttery, without taking away from the necessary agility in this four-movement lament composed by Mendelssohn in response to the death of his beloved sister. (The complete Mendelssohn String Quartets with the admirable Ysaÿe String Quartet in the budget-priced Universal/Decca Trio series is my highly serviceable copy that brings me much joy, when the memories of this concert wear thin, though the Leipzig String Quartet has also recorded his entire work.)

In the Adagio, the tone of the instruments, including the cello, seemed to matter less, if at all. Either the instruments warmed up, or more likely, my ears did, or perhaps the musicians themselves.

==>> Continue reading this review.


we'd like to feel you're acceptable, respectable, presentable, a vegetable! 

(noticed on KellyJaneTorrance.com)

"Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein...

Like I said before, your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. Enjoy the ride."

—Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

I am usually not much for posting rambling little thoughts (there are too many people, far better than I, who do that) - but this one might as well be mine. -- Turns out, however, that many people don't quite agree with what either Mr. Bourdain, Ms. Torrance, or I think. Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D. for one, is a reasonable man who thinks otherwise. His blog on animal ethics deals with the subject. For a great, if - in my humble opinion: flawed - philosophical essay on the immorality of eating meat (beyond Peter Singer et al.) look here.


The Washington (National) Opera 

(published first at ionarts)

The Washington Opera has recently announced that it will now be known as the Washington National Opera (see the company's press release from February 25). In light of that decision, I dug out the following reviews of two of the company's productions from earlier this season.
Holy Leaden Joke, Batman!
The Opening Night of the Washington Opera 2003/04 Season

On September 6, 2003, the Washington Opera opened the season with a production of Die Fledermaus (The bat), Johann Strauss, Jr.'s lighthearted operetta that is a perennial favorite for New Year's in Austria and Germany. With its wit and memorable waltz music, it is, along with Der Zigeunerbaron (The gypsy king), the only of his operettas that has stood the test of time. The Washington Opera production, however, did not necessarily affirm this view.

This work, which has to rely as much on its wit in the spoken dialogue as it does on the music, can be an utter success amid amiable silliness, or rather a flop. Saturday's efforts came closer to the latter than the former, despite wonderful singing by the principals, June Anderson as a radiating Rosalinde; Wolfgang Brendel as a charming, if overacting Eisenstein; Peter Edelmann as a Dr. Falke in the tradition of the great Walter Berry; the Washington Opera's Jesús Garcia as the funny, over-the-top tenor Alfred; John Del Carlo as prison director Frank; and Hoo-Ryoung Hwang, whose singing clearly outshone her acting as chambermaid Adele. (Mistakenly, Maki Mori was claimed to have sung that role on the Washington Opera Web site and the review in the Washington Post.)

The highlight however, was a series of mostly well-chosen and well-performed guest appearances within the operetta's staged banquet. Plácido Domingo performed Spanish favorites of his, including a tango that hardly suited his no-longer lithe body and Franz Lehar's "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" (Yours is my entire heart) from the opera The Land of Smiles—which is somewhat of a tradition to present within this work. There was also some wonderful ballet dancing by American Ballet Theatre principals Gillian Murphy and Ethan Steiffel of Center Stage fame (a corny but well-danced Hollywood flick about ballet), superb singing by young Argentinian soprano Virginia Tola who sung an excerpt from Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette during the dress rehearsal on Thursday and was glorious in her performance of a zarzuela and a following duet with Maestro Domingo himself. The presence of several ambassadors and the Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, and Stephen Breyer added a little extra glitz to the occasion.

If only the evening had ended there, the audience may well have been left with utterly positive impressions. Alas, the third act was to follow, and other than Garcia's charming self-mocking acting, it had little to nothing to offer that could possibly have ameliorated the comical travesty that was Jason Graae as the permanently drunken jailor Frosch (frog). Potentially one of the funniest roles in the world of opera—not requiring any singing—one can get away with much slapstick and old jokes, so long as a caustic wit strikes through. Not so with Jason Graae. His material was of the worst kind: his character mutated to "Frosch, the fairy jailor clown." In a string of tasteless jokes, one more leaden than the other, he tried to elicit laughter that could not have been rooted in much else than kindness on the part of the audience. Though the worst of the bad jokes had fortunately been cut between the dress rehearsal and the premiere (including a sticky, criminally flat intern joke that Thursday's sparse crowd reacted to with disturbed oohs) it was still an embarrassing and hackneyed performance that certainly had not only the German/Austrian contingent of the audience, used to Viennese productions, cringing. One must hope that Austria's first lady, present and presented in the audience, did not understand English well enough to realize how truly bad—Mylanta jokes and all—it was. It left a bad taste in one's mouth that all the fake champagne on stage could not wash down.

Considering that much of the improvement from dress rehearsal to premiere was due to the extraordinary performances of the guest stars—few if any of whom will appear in consequent performances—it remains a very unrecommendable evening out. I suggest instead—and for a fraction of the cost—a good recording of Die Fledermaus (Karajan's 1960 mono version, live at the Wiener Staatsoper, on RCA would be nice) to be played in the background and a good bottle of (real) champagne for a nice and far more enjoyable evening at home. ♫
Die Fledermaus (recorded by Karajan live, in 1960)

Available at Amazon

The Collusion of Incompetence: Wagner in Washington
Die Walküre at the Washington Opera (November 8, 2003)

If a major opera house's schlock is hailed as the pinnacle of operatic achievement in the local newspaper, it is almost bound to be the unbeatable combination of the Washington Opera and its congenial partner in crime, the Washington Post. Since the Washington Post could legitimately be considered the nation's second-best newspaper, some people make the erroneous deduction that this is at the same time a statement about its absolute quality. The Post's journalism—in style always, in substance often—has a way of proving that wrong. If you ask me, especially when it comes to covering art.

The Washington Opera in turn is an often struggling (but on a higher level than many opera houses in this country) and commercialized mid-size troupe, capable of very decent opera but not often fulfilling the expectations it has of itself. To simplify, the singing is usually good or even outstanding, the guest stars impressive, but the rest of the company lags all too much behind. The orchestra has much improved under Heinz Fricke, but it has still far, far to go. And it is too small by half or more. The supporting cast is between OK and god-awful. The choir does its job and never more; the dancers are nothing short of painful to watch. But worst of all (though the dancers really are terrible) is the staging at the Washington Opera, which would fail to spark excitement in my grandmother. Put the qualities of these two much revered D.C. institutions together, and you get the Post's review of Die Walküre at the DAR Constitution Hall.

In his article ("A Breathtaking Ride With 'Die Walkure': Placido Domingo Leads a Divine Cast to Wagnerian Heights," on November 7, 2003), Tim page reviewed this "sensational production," words that claim title and caption next to a picture of Plácido Domingo. Gushing with giddy excitement, Page goes all the way out in the first sentence:
The Washington Opera's new production of Wagner's Die Walkure which received its first performance at DAR Constitution Hall between monsoons Wednesday night, may be the best thing this company has ever done.
I am torn between agreeing (it would say legions about the Washington Opera but nothing about the quality of Die Walküre) and wishing that it could not possibly be true. Foremost I ask myself: Where was Tim Page? Presumably at the premiere, and perhaps the universe adapted different laws for that performance. Perhaps Mr. Page was asked by the company to be kind? (It would not be the first time that the Post has willingly performed as the mainstay for a lackluster production of the opera house.) Most likely we just disagree on what "sensational opera" means and entails, and if in fact this one was as good as it gets in town (without being a sour assessment of the limits in Washington), he may not have had truly outstanding opera to compare it to for a while. (I also wonder why the Post does not spell the opera as it should be, but that's the least important detail.) If this sounds like Die Walküre was a total disaster, I need to clarify: it wasn't the performance per se that was borderline appalling, it was the combination of the trite, well-done, but never exciting, lukewarm opera combined with ridiculous hyperbole in the paper that got me rattled.

Die Walküre was fine. The orchestra played as decently as one can expect it to do. Thin, lacking in force, form, cohesion, and phrasing, but never outright bad or off. The singing (adjusted for the singers saving their best for the premiere) ranged from notable to delightful. The acoustics were, as usual at the DAR hall, a nightmare. The staging was subpar and the costumes a crashing bore to anyone who knows anything about Wagner performances of the last 40 years or so.

But one by one: the Post has first honors go to (surprise!) Plácido Domingo. I'd like to say that Mr. Domingo is a boon to D.C.—he has attracted major talent to the Washington Opera, has made a few slightly daring productions possible (El Cid comes to mind), has a most professional, friendly, and truly humble (for a man of his stature, no small achievement!) demeanor. He is an artist who continues to work on several aspects of his art, still. Like his pronunciation. This, however, does not mean that Domingo continues "to surpass [himself], again and again, as [he] grows older." By stature, fame, and achievement I do think that Domingo may well be the greatest active tenor in opera, but "the mixture of passion and intelligence [...] which he employs [...]" is decidedly not "unrivaled in the opera world today."

But what got a loud "What?" out of me upon first reading the review was this: "Placido Domingo is not only a great singer but a great actor as well [...]" Huh? Plácido Domingo's "acting"—if one can call it that—is painful to watch. It is extraordinarily bad. If he does not sing, it exhausts itself in empty gestures, slow-motion miming. Theatrical plunk and open-ended, purposeless limb extension is all there is. Surely, he's not alone in that in the opera world, but to call him a great actor is almost insultingly off the mark. (For a truly great actor/singer, albeit in a different repertoire, see Bryn Terfel live some time!) Domingo's singing, on a happier note, is still remarkable, if on its way out. The strain that Tim Page heard was audible at the dress rehearsal already. The role of Siegmund is about as far as Domingo's voice can make it on stage. His pronunciation has improved over the years (judging from recordings) but is barely adequate and would hardly garner much approval from a German-speaking audience.

He performed with Anja Kampe, as Sieglinde, who gave her company debut and a good one at that. I bemoaned her diction though, and the German native she is, it was a shame that I had the utmost trouble understanding her words. Her singing was warm for the most part. It was a well-delivered, solid performance, though probably not "the next Glenn Gould" when it comes to "North-American-debut-made-in-Washington-fame" for Beltway residents to be proud of.

On Alan Held, Mr. Page and I can happily agree. Page's writing that his "acting and singing are lithe and plausible" I can only second. In fact, over the course of four hours, I appreciated and liked Mr. Held more and more. In the end I was convinced to have seen and heard a wonderful bass and a good and very potent(ial) Wotan. A singer with subtlety as part of his repertoire, with great pronunciation and diction (I could understand virtually every word he phrased), Alan Held left me with my most favorable impression of that night.

Next to Held was his wife, or rather, Wotan's wife, Fricka. Fricka is to the Gods in Der Ring what Yoko Ono was to the Beatles. She seems irrational and bitter, vengeful even, but is actually the calm focus point of the world of the gods: the last instance of morality, without which the world order of the gods would only have crumbled earlier. The singer behind this figure was Elena Zaremba. I had never imagined her as a Fricka but have liked her very much ever since seeing her as Carmen in Munich. (She was also the saving grace as a vocally enticing Ulrica in an otherwise rather dreadful 2002 Washington Opera Un Ballo in Maschera.) Her Fricka was downright outstanding. She held back across the board at the dress rehearsal, but part of the impression she left is also her singing Wagner, rather than yelling it. Not exactly sotto voce, but not too far away from it either, she never forces her voice to be bigger than it actually is. Her performance gave the production a value on a psychological level that came despite, rather than because, of the direction.

Linda Watson—uninjured still at that point—was pale. She didn't really sing at the rehearsal, so I reserve my judgment on her vocal ability. But acting, pronunciation, and surefootedness could all be improved upon, it seemed. Kurt Rydl as Hunding neither impressed nor disappointed me. He was well regarded with applause from the sparse crowd though.

The Valkyries were simply dreadful. Vulgar, pointless, affectedly juvenile in pathetic outfits (more of that later), and vocally a mixed bag, I shall refrain from inflicting pain by naming them. Aside, I need reserve my poison for Francesca Zambello, Peter J. Davison, and Anita Yavich, the three culprits guilty of direction, sets, and costumes, respectively. In his description in the Post ("Matrix-Night at the local S&M bar—you've seen it all if you've ever been to the opera in Germany"), Mr. Page is dead on. The conclusion, however, is different from mine. First, not only was the staging miles (rather, decades) away from being even slightly novel, it was an old idea badly rehashed. If you've wondered how three or four stereotypes (about Wagner, Valkyries, Wagner stagings, etc.) superimposed onto each other might look, you would have had your chance to get the satisfactory answer courtesy of Brünnhilde, Waltraute, Gerhilde, Helmwige, Schwertleite, Ortlinde, Siegrune, Grimgerde, and Rossweisse.

But in order to balance the bit of insight in one part of the Post out, Dan Via, "special to The Washington Post," gets his say about it also. "[Anita] Yavich's costumes draw inspiration from modern manifestations of these impulses: industrial structures such as oil derricks, bridges, and scaffolding." Ah-hum. Mme. Yavich is quoted: "I thought it would be a great metaphor for how we try to control everything, but at the same time, nature is completely uncontrollable. . . . If you say yes to a Valkyrie, that means you will die and follow them," Yavich explains. "What do these women have to look like to make these guys want to go? I think they have to look very attractive but, at the same time, look very strong." Admirable thoughts. Just one small detail would be the fact that if the Valkyries pick you up, you are already dead.


The whole Valkyrie ordeal, where the shortcomings of the production were most obvious, was utterly unenjoyable. To present the ultraconservative Washington audience as modern that which was dusty in the 80s—and then badly done on top of it—was a coup that somehow failed to excite me. And just why did the scenery look so familiar? Ah, yes, of course: it was the Fidelio staging regurgitated in black! Responsible then: Zambello, Davison, and Yavich. (It needs to be said that it worked much better in Fidelio, which was a reasonably fine production.) Every element in Fidelio had its copied part in Die Walküre, just a bit darker and more crooked. The industrial stagedrop, the flat extension of the stage with cut-outs—be it Florestan's cell or Brünhilde's fiery resting place—it was entirely devoid of new ideas.

It would have been just another performance at the Washington Opera, and not a particularly good one, had not Fricka, alias Elena, and Wotan, alias Alan, held it together. Both added something to already rather good singing and rescued otherwise sordid acting. The Post concludes, "Get a ticket immediately" (?!). Is this perhaps necessary encouragement so that the Washington audience would not pass on the last performance at the inept DAR Constitution Hall and instead hold out for the return to the Kennedy center? I'd say: save up for a trip to Munich, Berlin, or (if you have eight years' worth of patience) Bayreuth to see how it's really done. Don't expect much from future Wagner performances in this town. Immediate Karl Böhm antidote recommended. ♫


Scale This! Pollini Plays Chopin 

(published first at ionarts)

Maurizio Pollini, Chopin Études, op. 10 and op. 25 (1972)
Maurizio Pollini, Chopin Boxed Set with Études, Polonaises, and Preludes
More than 30 years after this recording was made, I finally discovered Maurizio Pollini's version of the Chopin Études, op. 10 and op. 25 (Deutsche Gramophone, 1972) for myself. Wow! Music intended to improve specific technical skills for players who seemingly don't need it, Chopin's two collections of twelve etudes each go farther beyond a mere practice manual than any etudes up until that point (notably those of Beethoven's pupil Czerny, who also gets a nod from Debussy in his Twelve Études). They are, not the least in Pollini's hands, works that stand on their own.

When the Études, op. 10, came out, they were rightly considered Chopin's first masterpiece and manifested Chopin as one of the true "Große Kleinmeister" (great masters of little things), a phrase that led the immortal Horowitz (speaking about Domenico Scarlatti, I think) to the remark that that was at any rate preferable than a "Kleiner Großmeister."

With the close, dry, and almost sharp DG sound—perhaps not as true to the piano sound as others, like the masterful Ashkenazy recording—furthering the pristine, crystalline sound of Pollini's playing, the result is a blazing entry in the two first Allegro etudes in C major and A minor. Breakneck-speed scales sweep you off your feet and the almost eerie surefingeredness of Pollini makes for incredible music. This is, by all means, an account of the Études that shows technical brilliance, diamondlike in perfection but also edging towards the cool (though never uninvolved) and less emotional end of the interpretive spectrum. Again, Ashkenazy is the best example for the more felt, sensitive way of playing these pieces.

No velvet with Pollini, though. This is Chopin for lovers of Nietzschean scales, mountaintops with cold air. Pollini affords the listener no rest, but with his playing, I would think that few people, even if they ultimately prefer their Chopin a bit cushier, would want to rest at any point. As always, the most enjoyment can be drawn from the recording when listening at high volume (turn it down a little if you just listened to the Ashkenazy, or else you might have to chat with your local police officer, courtesy of your neighbor) through headphones or completely undisturbed, perhaps in the dark, at night—in bed or a comfortable chair, eyes closed. There is, in this work and interpretation, little danger of falling asleep.

Etudes, like op. 25, no. 5, in E minor, are vivace, indeed. Spirited but not quite sprightly, Pollini steps over alleged difficulties with ease and make nonsense of the friendly polemics that Ludwig Rellstab poured out over the Études when they came out: "Those with crooked fingers will have them bent straight by these Études, but whoever has straight ones must stay away from them." The lento etudes, of which there are just two and a half, might be considered to suffer from Pollini's approach, but they too are endowed with an inflection that is at the very least interesting and furthermore refreshing in their steely touch. It never sounds as though a lack of willingness or even ability may be the cause for their presentation, but rather choice. A choice that may not be for everyone, but of the many accounts of the Études, this is one that deserves to be in every library. As I happily found out, it's never too late for that. ƒƒ


Cubism & Music: Sound Murals at the National Gallery 

(published first at ionarts)

This is a review of the 2492nd concert at the National Gallery of Art, by the Cuarteto de Cuerdas de Bellas Artes, on April 4.

Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya (at the National Gallery of Art until July 25)
Commentary by Charles T. Downey

The only real deficiency in the art experiences available in the nation's capital is the absence of a major collection of antiquities and some areas of non-Western art, with the notable exceptions of the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian Art, the Museum of African Art, the new National Museum of the American Indian, and the Pre-Columbian collection at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library. The latter museum has joined with several of the best collections of Mesoamerican art around the world to lend works for this remarkable new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. I am not allowed to reproduce any images of the works shown in the exhibit, but you can see small images of many of them in this press list. (This exhibit and that dedicated to Diego Rivera are part of the festival ¡Viva Mexico!: Washington, D.C. Celebrates, which includes the concert reviewed here by Jens Laurson.)

What is immediately striking when you examine the excellent examples of Mayan figurines, carved panels, throne backs, and other sculpture in this exhibit, all dating from the most advanced period of the ancient Maya civilization from 600 to 800 AD, is how these artists created works of much greater delicacy and realism than the best surviving examples from Europe in the same period. The most famous of these sculptures is shown in the exhibit's first room: the Portrait Head of Pakal, ruler of the city-state of Palenque (in present-day Mexico), a stunningly beautiful representation of Pakal as the youthful maize god, with a headdress of corn leaves (from the Museo Nacional de Antropología—INAH, in Mexico City). The exhibit is worth attending for this piece alone, in my opinion. Related sculptures are also quite beautiful, including the Maize God (from Temple 22 at Copan), the gorgeous jade mask in the likeness of the maize god from Calakmul (an object usually placed over the face of a king's corpse for the afterlife), and the striking Head of an Old Man from Toniná.

Art, more than anything else, gives us a glimpse of cultures and people from the past. In this exhibit, you can see examples of the polished stone mosaic mirrors used by Maya rulers; a painted cylinder vessel showing a Maya ruler admiring himself in such a mirror, seemingly held by a dwarf; and a sculpted dwarf holding up such a mirror. You can see depictions of the Maya ballgame, which was a recreation of the game that the maize god fought with the gods of death each harvest season. When he lost, he was decapitated or harvested, and so the stakes of the earthly ballgame were often life or death. There are two figurines showing ballplayers (one and two, both from Jaina Island), showing men with the typical protective around the midsection and in a characteristic one-kneed pose, as well as a ballcourt marker (from Chiapas) that shows a ballplayer in that pose, apparently providing the best leverage to move the large ball of heavy rubber (the use of the hands was forbidden).

Early historians of the Maya believed that they were a peaceful culture of sages and mathematicians, but more recently discovered art and other archeological evidence has contradicted that image. While the Maya were not as bloodthirsty as the Aztecs, who carried out a stunning number of human sacrifices, the art on exhibit here shows the bellicose side of the Maya city-states, as in the figurines of warriors (one and two, from Jaina Island); the terrifying blood-centered rituals and religious vision, as in the remarkable matched set of three carved panels, reunited in this exhibit, showing a Maya queen (Lady Xok) perforating her tongue with a barbed rope in a bloodletting ceremony (first panel), burning the paper that has caught the blood to conjure a vision of a terrifying serpent spirit (panel two), and wearing her court regalia (panel three); and their almost fetishistic way of torturing prisoners in their ritualized reenactments of battle victories, as in the recreation of the tomb paintings at Bonampak, made for the Bonampak Documentation Project at Yale, and the figurines of bound prisoners, which have a disturbing sadomasochistic side to them.
The Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera: Memory, Politics, Place (until July 25)

The other example of Mexican art on exhibit at the National Gallery is a small set of paintings by Diego Rivera. Most readers are probably familiar with Rivera's later work, especially the great murals involving socialist and Mexican folk symbolism. The most famous examples are Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South (usually called Pan-American Unity) at the City College of San Francisco; the mural he began but was not allowed to finish, Man at the Crossroads, for the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center in New York; the murals for the New Workers School in New York, including Mussolini and Modern Industry; and something that I remember seeing first as a boy growing up in Michigan, the mural called Detroit Industry, or Man and Machine, 27 panels in a garden court at the Detroit Institute of Arts; but there are many others.

What came as a surprise to me were Rivera's early experiments with Cubism, during the time he was studying art in the cities of Europe, thanks to a stipend from the Mexican government that he received after graduating from the national school of fine arts. The impetus for this exhibit of about 20 of those early paintings was the National Gallery's acquisition of one of them, No. 9, Nature morte espagnole (No. 9, Spanish still life, from 1915), bequeathed by Katharine Graham, former owner of the Washington Post.
The ambassador didn't show up. Since the new Mexican Ambassador, Carlos de Icaza, has been in town only three weeks, it could well be that he had problems finding the way in time. Daylight saving time saw His Excellency's empty chair in a bright West Garden Court at a concert presented in honor of the exhibitions Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya and The Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera: Memory, Politics, Place (at the National Gallery until July 25). More than a concert "in honor," it was a "part of" the exhibition. What the ambassador missed was a presentation of three 20th-century string quartets—repertoire off the beaten path—plus the always reasonably delightful Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mozart, "Haydn" String Quartets, by the Salomon String Quartet
Speaking of the latter, his String Quartet in D minor, K. 421 (1783), was fluid and lucid, especially from first violinist Balbi Cotter. He and his colleagues—Viktoria Horti (violin), Matthew Schubring (viola), and Adolfo Ramos (cello)—moved Mozart along without pondering or attempting to make a musical statement beyond the sound itself. This also means that this second of Mozart's six "Haydn String Quartets," considered the most tragic of the half-dozen, didn't really come across as very tragic in the first movement (Allegro moderato). The somber second movement (Andante), too, might have been sad, but not tragic in the hands of the Mexican guest performers. Their light and airy tone suited Mozart quite well, even if it was quite different from the full, lush sound that many American string quartets prefer to elicit from Mozart or Haydn.

The whole affair, despite slight uncleanliness here and there, was so popular with the audience that they could not help clapping after each of those movements. That incident, which in Vienna, Austria, for example, would be punishable by death through piercingly cold, disdainful, and snobby looks alone, was—if anything—indicative of the different and fresh make-up of the crowd at the National Gallery that night, which, in turn, was—all clapper-happiness aside—a wonderful thing.

While the connection of the Mozart to the theme of the evening (if there was supposed to be one) continued to elude me, the first of the three 20th-century composers who followed had his moment. Manuel Enríquez (1926–1994) with his String Quartet no. 1 and especially a first movement titled Enérgico just had to be welcomed. And right into it they went. A wake-me-up introduction courtesy of this neoclassical one-time student of William Primrose, whom Stephen Ackert and the cellist of the night, Mr. Schubring (looking like the quintessential 70s intellectual musician), related to the Diego Rivera exhibition in the wonderfully informative program notes. Either, we are told, are "important mediations on self-identity and nationalism."

From his string quartet, however, I would not have guessed Manuel Enríquez to be a committed or distinctly neoclassical composer. His work—in the traditional, classical style of the sonata form—is so in structure, but not overtly so in its music. Two shifting musical plains in the opening gave the impression of extreme resonance and sound-blurring, which I, given the acoustics of the West Garden Court, erroneously attributed to the venue for a moment. Mme. Horti got to show her plentiful skill in this piece, in which all four members seemed significantly more comfortable than in the Mozart.

Two squeaky-shoed and heavy-footed audience members demonstrated their passion for 20th-century classical music by stomping out in the break after the first movement. The Cuarteto de Bellas Artes politely waited out this interruption and continued with the wispy second movement, Tranquilo. Whether the soft pizzicatos made it to the audience all the way in the back is doubtful. If not, the third movement (Festivo) surely did. The Cuarteto played with gusto and for a moment, I thought someone was tapping along with the fast dotted rhythms. I would have taken that as a positive sign of enthusiasm among what seemed a bit apathetic crowd, but I had erred anyway. So I focused on enjoying pizzicato runs among all four instruments instead. A rousing last burst led to notable applause.

With two 20th-century pieces still lurking in the second half of the concert, it was not entirely surprising that a good part of the crowd left. The rest, possibly including the arriving Mr. de Icaza (though I may have confused him with the Mexican Cultural Attaché, Aurelio Asiain, who has all too similar hair, lack thereof, and beard), were left with the very pleasing, waving El cenote sagrado (The Sacred Pool, 1984) by contemporary autodidact composer Hilario Sánchez de Carpio. This one-movement work, the notes told us, was his response to a visit to Chinucultic in Chiapas and thus represents the link to the second part of the exhibition, the East Building's Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, also running until July 25. Though El cenote sagrado is quite different from the 27-year-older Enríquez piece, both works seemed to employ a musical vernacular familiar to me, without reminding me of any other particular composer's work. At times I thought to hear piano-like reflections from behind me, fitting the music perfectly and fittingly eerie.

The last composer of the night was Miklós Rósza, a native Hungarian who moved to Hollywood via Germany and France. His 1950 String Quartet, op. 22, was on the menu and tasted a little bit like Bartók, without the paprika. Structurally more interesting than the two younger pieces, it does not impress with uniqueness so much as the master-craftsmanship of modern classical music, from a time in which musical styles could hardly have differed more all at once.

Between Hans Pfitzner (Richard Strauss had just died) and Olivier Messiaen (just back from a Nazi POW camp), Igor Stravinsky (happily in America, composing), Aaron Copland, Arnold Schoenberg, Elliot Carter and Michael Tippet's first string quartets, or the sugary post-Romanticism of Ernst von Dohnányi's second piano concerto, Miklós Rósza may not have had the room or time to shine brightly. Knowing nothing about the composer's body of work, I can only say so much: his op. 22 string quartet very much deserves to be heard, especially in as lovely and dedicated a performance as given by the Cuarteto de Cuerdas de Bellas Artes.

A few exotica thrown into the second movement (probably the "Hungarian flavor" of the Scherzo in modo ungarese) and a Lento that is too long for its own good cumulate in the Allegro Feroce, which has notes of Shostakovich, even if it isn't as ferocious as either the name promises or the Russian composer would have had it. The program notes, read afterwards, go some way in explaining why Rósza and his work are unknown to me: he had been, after composing the film scores for epics like Ben-Hur, El Cid, and Quo Vadis, ignored as a serious composer. This delightful concert should have convinced the audience that we have ignored Mr. Rósza unjustly and at our own peril. ♫

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