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31.3.06

Bipolar Piano: Serkin vs. Serkin 

Once again we have to thank George A. Pieler for lending his big ears and sharp wit to Ionarts. This time at the WPAS-presented recital of Serkin-ex-Perahia at Strathmore.


Peter SerkinPeter Serkin, substituting for the indisposed Murray Perahia Wednesday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, is a serious, probing, intellectual pianist who can deliver the goods in sheer technique but shies away from the so-called virtuoso repertoire (Liszt, Rachmaninoff, name your own). Like his father Rudolf, like Schnabel in an earlier generation and Brendel today (all very different pianists, but each a ‘thinking person’s’ player), Serkin wants us to take him very, very seriously.

Maybe too seriously, at times. At Strathmore Serkin surely lived up to his reputation despite some quirks and a few real clunkers. The first quirk was in his program itself, with no crowd-pleasing opening and precious little relief from a certain somberness—four Renaissance-to-late-Renaissance transcriptions to start, followed by a Bach chorale and his Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. That’ the first half, mostly slow and inward music, all of it adapted to the modern sound of the Steinway grand. The second half consisted of Beethoven’s formidable, massive, colossal Hammerklavier sonata, Op. 106.

First up was a ‘realization’ or ‘re-imagining’ by Charles Wuorinen of Ave Christe immolate, a motet (disputably) attributed to Josquin Des Prez. Wuorinen’s version sounds nothing like Wuorinen but definitely sounds like the Renaissance; spare and unfolding gradually, the lines of the motet simply rendered. The sounds of Gregorian chant, new age music, bell-tolling and even George Crumb came to mind in the short span of the piece, which Serkin rendered in a stately rather dry manner.

He followed with three pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book: Bull’s Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la (slow polyphonic variations on the note-sequence but stepping up the pace for a rousing end); Dowland’s Pavana Lachrymae, (adapted by Byrd), a slow dance by definition and seeming quite slow in this performance; and Byrd’s own La Volta, which Serkin used to wake up the audience (never have I heard so many dropped programs disrupting so short a period of concert-time), launching into this rhythmically sharp dance without a pause and playing it almost with violence. His Byrd had duende, which in flamenco means something like ‘dark magic’—biting power and fine rhythmic control, heavily pedaled to heighten the effect, authentic or not.

The Bach sequence began with the brief, quiet chorale setting Wer nur den Lieben Gott lässt walten (‘if thou but suffer God to guide thee’) as included in the Anna Magdalena Notebook, lightly ornamented with no pedal. Without pause Serkin launched into the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, brilliantly and again almost violently rendered. Indeed throughout the evening he underlined stark contrasts in the music, the slow a bit more slow than usual (almost coming to a standstill at times in the Fantasy & Fugue), the fast notably faster. In the Fantasy his use of pedal achieved an almost organ-like tone at times, which in a resonant hall may have been too much of a good thing. Serkin’s tone turned hard in the louder climaxes of the piece, not so pleasant but apparently an interpretive choice, instructing us the music breaks the bounds of what the keyboard can do.

No chance for rest after intermission, as Serkin blasted the opening chords of the Hammerklavier while the audience was still filing in. As an audience-grabber it worked, and he had everyone’s attention at last. Those opening chords, which dominate the piece, are not easily forgotten though Serkin hammered them out fast and (again) rather violently, then teasing out the quiet second theme rather slowly. He nearly came to grief at the exposition repeat with some nasty notes in those hammered chords, and indeed seemed to have lost composure in the first half of the movement.

But then Serkin hit his stride, justifying his sharp contrasting of the thematic material with a tightly integrated, muscular yet clearly articulated performance of the balance of the movement. Throughout the sonata, even more so than in the Bach Chromatic Fantasy, the sheer force he applied to the keyboard seemed to break the bounds of the instrument (indeed somebody better check that Steinway out), but here it’s appropriate—that’s exactly what Beethoven was trying to do.

Serkin leaped into the brief scherzo without break, fast but not too loud, bringing a touch of diablerie that reminds one of a Shostakovich scherzo, sardonic and breathless. Given Serkin’s inward approach to his Renaissance selections I had high hopes for the slow movement, Adagio sostenuto, and largely they were realized. For comparison I had listened to 1970’s recordings of the Hammerklavier by Brendel and Serkin pêre [not exactly towering accounts; the latter especially setting the bar nice and low –Ed.jr.], neither of whom held this movement together as well as Peter Serkin did. In his late sonatas Beethoven relies on texture, contrast, and fantasy, not melody to carry the music forward, and playing steadily with fine articulation Serkin truly carried off one of the most challenging movements in the sonatas. Here I thought was the peak of the program.

But then Serkin played the bejeezus out of the fugal finale, and I realized I’d been premature. From the slow introduction to the Bachian trills, notes flying everywhere, Serkin made every moment tell—as Charles Rosen puts it, “Beethoven’s fugues are dramatically conceived: each new passage is presented as an event, and not as a logical consequence of its predecessor”. Each episode was an event in Serkin’s hands yet he pulled the whole edifice together brilliantly (again a bit violent) but not wrong for this piece. The audience appreciated the effort, and was rewarded by some calming-down music: a short, quiet Beethoven bagatelle.

A word about Strathmore: this was my first visit, and though most Ionarts readers may already know the facility, the Music Center is a beautiful hall inside, elegantly and rationally laid out with lots of wood (hence the resonance) and a pleasing balance between stark lines and curvature. One suspects it is more suited, acoustically, to a large ensemble. Less agreeable is the access to and from the seating, multi-leveled in an unexpected way and with the service parts of the facility (dining, drinking, shopping) so closely integrated as to present an obstacle course — yet challenges must be faced for fine music such as this. Indeed, one might think of facing them again for Yundi Li on April 1st.

30.3.06

DeЯ Dië dãS đAĐǻ 

Ionarts war an der Dauer bilden Experten DIE EXPERTEN, EXTRA, EXTRA! an der Dauer ddddddddd ddddddd (national, national: ist das rational national? galerie nationale d'art die vor-Nacht, Schullehrer Gegenstand Fackel Flimmer Flacker Funzel Finzel, Washington herausgestellt wird (pompidoupompida Paris und mehr ein Ende – a bitter, bitter end – gekommen, an der Dauer des Museums der kunst modern im New York sie im Juni, der wird). ). Me remiss ξαναβλέπει το αντικείμενο αυτού έχει εκτεθεί που μ' έχει θελήσει να δει. Δεν έχω πρέπει ακόμη να γράψω αρκετά την προηγούμενη νύχτα χρόνων μέσα στην παρουσίαση, αλλά έχω αποκτήσει ένα αγαθό η κύρια αρχή για την επίσημη επίσκεψή μου.rom disabling pain and stop the damage to her corneas, but it also would hold out hope of a new life for her daughter, Enatnesh, who waited vigilantly outside the operating room door at the free surgery camp here.||||Mrs. Alehegn's husband left her years ago when the disease rendered her unable to do a wife's work. At 6, Enatnesh was forced to choose between a father who could support her, or a lifetime of hard labor to help a mother who had no one else to turn to.||||"I chose my mother," said the frail, pigtailed slip of a girl, so ill fed that she looked closer to 10 than her current age, 16. "If I hadn't gone with her, she would have died. No one was there to even give her a glass of water."|||||Their tale is common among trachoma sufferers. Trachoma's blinding damage builds over decades of repeat||||

Der jlevj Punktabend waren sie muzikale prestaties op Mezzanine van de Bouw van het Oosten. Vanaf 12 Maart door vandaag, waren er dagelijkse prestaties van een uittreksel van één van de grote muzikale samenstellingen van de Dada periode, George Antheil' s lawaaisamenstelling voor de film Le Ballet van Fernand Léger's mécanique (1924). des Nachteils der Vernunft Angestellter vermutlich sich erhöhen, der innen im Gebäude des Ostens, dieser sein regelmäßige Nutzen von seinem Ende des Gegenstandes, der herausgestellt wird, Mai 14 arbeitet (Montag in Freitag, im 1 und in den 4 P.M.? Samstag und Sonntag, 1 P.M.). Wenn Sie nicht Washington innen im folgenden Monat und halbes sind, diese fehlerhafte Wahrscheinlichkeit.

Αγριο Antheil δεν πιάνει τη μουσική των μηχανών takkatakkatakkka tschingtschingtsching., rrrrrrrrrrrrt akkkkktttkkkktttktkk banagbangabangabangabanga rrrrrrrdrrrreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeewwwwwwwweeee rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrdddrerrrrrrrrrrrrreeeeeeeeeeeeeewwwwwwwwwwwwerree σύμφωνα με τον, όπως ο σεβασμός αλλά όπως η προειδο[…] και η εγκατάσταση είναι η εργασία paul D. Lehrman του πανεπιστημίου και eric Singer van Bosjes του liga των ηλεκτρονικών μουσικών αστικών ρομπότ (LEMUR). (πρέπει σε αυτήν την σύνδεση κρότοι: εσείς weet σας θέλει)

frenovlavi ' Chaos, Momente, - das Erbrechen pianosonatas ypofe'retaj xanadej'te, Antheil Stravinskyesque syncopations, Meßinstrumente verschiebt. Robert R. Reilly, meesten wird benannt den bienvenu collaborator von unterhaltsamem Ionarts, has in written a article with regard to Antheil
in the crisis this has there partial year. antheil has crini'sej the blow the note that ayto'es composed has been observed, even if this ey'foros composer filmscore in more njoclassique style was later.

Selbst wenn der laute Tanz Antheil eine Tätigkeit ist, daß er stark folgt, haben sie Ackert in den Klavieren, synodey'soyn Lamoreaux in einer kurzen Linie von drei Liede Soprano Rosa genommen. Der AnschlußGedichte des Künstlers Kurt Schwitters für eine Marke
Fackel 1928Hanover, der Riegel von DeutschlandZinnoberfest geschrieben. Walther Lehnhoff und für Gieseking oui, das für es Gieseking die Musik schriftlich. Diese Liede haben reizend tragoydicej ', von gesamtem mit jtapes das Charleston Mej. Lamoreaux ' Bauholzhammern in den benachbarten Instrumenten der Perkussion verschieden sind. Styljstjka ', ayto'es ej'naj run-of-the-mill tragoy'dja Kabarett. Le courant Schwitters "conviennent les imbéciles metjs relatifs d'Onkel (Krawattenmacher), de comment la plus nouvelle technologie (matrijsTechnik im Haushalt d'Ohne), mère grande sont rond au Canada (Blame Canada!) si essentiel (Zinnoberschlager). pour Mej. Lamoreaux que vous entendez que j'étonne pousser régulièrement les frontières avec lesquelles si pensez le répertoire sien.

Eine Geschmacks- Aufnahme (I drink Coffee!) pesj'matos gefolgt. Schlemm.schlack-schluck. Gulp. Hmm Rschslurp.SmCK.SmCk.glglglgglglgg. h’ck. Schlemm.schack-schuck. IMMER IM TANGO, MEINE HERREN UND DAMEN. Schlemm.schlack-schluck.Hmm.Rschlslurp.SmCk.SmCk.glglglggllg.h’ck. And don’t get run over, biking home all tipsy!

29.3.06

French Conductor Makes English Orchestra Sound Russian 

available at Amazon
J. Sibelius, S. Khatchaturian, Violin Concertos, Khachatryan / Krivine / Sinfonia Varsovia
Overture:
The structure of orchestral concerts is hardly ever novel. Overture – Concerto – Symphony. Ever. Time. So creativity and interest are only to be found in the specific works that fill these prescribed slots. To place Britten’s Simple Symphony (op.4 – also on offer by the East Coast Chamber Orchestra on Friday, April 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Terrace Theater - an ATTEND event) at the head of the evening was a nice gift from England for the London Philharmonic to bring the audience at the Kennedy Center Monday night. Under Yan Pascal Tortelier (not Kurt Masur who had to cancel, not Osmo Vänskä, Roberto Minczuk, Neeme Järvi who all got to take a turn replacing Kurt during the US tour) the LPO played this fun-thing with for string orchestra with the requisite humor, perhaps even irreverent attitude. The orchestra’s sound was extremely well defined, delineated: no fuzzy or muddled edges – only clear lines and a dry, big and resonant body of sound. The signs of expert craftsmanship.

Sergey KhachatryanConcerto:
Not replaced was Sergey Khachatryan who performed the Kachaturian Violin Concerto – the other concert next to the Sibelius with which he has made his name. This time he was playing the Huggins Stradivari, but that didn’t automatically lend him a big sound. Sweet, stuffy nosed and occasionally docile in tone, the performance was good, and especially so in the beginning of the second movement and the third movement. Despite not forcing himself unto the listener with overwhelming sound, he played with the intensity that the majority of the patrons remained awake during the (too damn long) slow movement. Then, thanks to Tortelier (whose cue was a jumping jack) and the LPO, they were yanked out of their dreams with the glorious, noisy, cheap bombast of the that movements finish. And even those who were wide awake were – literally – jolted and pushed back into their seats at the dry (all controlled force) attack of the orchestra that opens the Allegro Vivace. With jitter-vibrato (more a tremolo, really) Khachatryan continued his amiable but just-off performance. It was clear at all points that he has mastered the work, that his technical ability is never stretched in the least… but it also never quite caught fire. The intangible that makes the difference between an excellent performance and a great performance was utterly missing, leaving the challenging and furious parts of the finale just “impressive”. Aside, a violinist should not get his show stolen by the orchestra in this work. But that was the case here – even if it was mostly the LPO’s and Tortelier’s achievement as they knew how to work the edges and contrasts of the score. Excessive applause encouraged a Bach encore, the Adagio from the g-minor Sonata. One way to ruin a perfectly fine reputation. Maybe Khachatryan aimed for an ‘introverted, melodious’ reading – but the result was a wimpy, wishy-washy Bach indecisively played towards nowhere.

Symphony:
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.5 in that great, deep, ever continuous sound of the LPO was bold, broad and greatly enjoyable. Tortelier conducted in his characteristic style, reminding more of a swim-course instructor than maestro. The results put him beyond criticism, but he looks terribly goofy and can even distract from the action with his contortions.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, London Philharmonic Orchestra (Washington Post, March 29)
Tchaikovsky - and his 5th in particular - is among the greatest background music you can hear in concert. Too bad that 'mortal' stereo equipment cannot capture the mass of a good orchestra in action, otherwise I’d turn to the 5th more often while reading the morning newspaper. True: Tchaikovsky would undoubtedly have written better symphonies had he not been Russian. The ever-dripping emotionalism of every single movement of the 5th would not have remained in more than one movement with advising friends, critics, colleagues, had only he composed it further west. As is, the sentimental juice from just one movement of this work could drown all of Beethoven’s and Brahms most tender moments combined… alas, he also squeezes so much beauty into the work. And if performed as on Monday night, such criticism was temporarily rendered meaningless anyway. To the greatest possible credit of that band: They made the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall sound good.

27.3.06

Bach Collegium Japan: Non nisi mota cano 

Bach would have been baffled and delighted to see a good handful of Japanese perform his music as well as he likely never heard in his own lifetime. Baffled that they were playing his music at all; that they didn’t look like your usual Leipzig town folk; that it sounded more or less like it did back then. Pure conjecture, of course, but while at it, we should consider that he’d probably have preferred Stokowski’s way with his music – if only for novelty’s sake, not Masaaki Suzuki’s “authentic” approach with the Bach Collegium Japan as seen and heard at the Library of Congress last Friday.

available at Amazon
J.S. Bach, Cantatas vol.30, Suzuki/BCJ
The convenient thing about Historically Informed Performance ("HIP") groups is that they travel light. None of the works on the all-Bach program (Suite no.2, Keyboard Concerto BWV 1052, Double Violin Concerto BWV 1043, Brandenburg no.5) saw more than 9 performers on stage. At the center of it all was Mr. Suzuki on a harpsichord, beautifully adorned on the inside – inscribed with the Latin phrase so popular for instruments: (Viva fui in sylvis sum dura occisa securi) DVM VIXI TACUI MORTVA DVLCE CANO; (Once alive in the woods, I was cut down by the hard ax) While alive, silent; now dead, I sing sweetly – but covered with the worst trompe l’œil faux marble on the outside… reminiscent of camouflage.

available at Amazon
J.S. Bach, Orchestral Overtures, Suzuki/BCJ
Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Bach Collegium Japan (Washington Post, March 27)
If so, Suzuki was certainly not hiding and blistered away at his usual brisk speeds. The string section – two violins, one viola, cello, bass – were all outfitted with gut strings and baroque bows and sounded plenty “authentic” alright… enough to have given Pinchas Zukerman cause for further caustic remarks regarding intonation and pitch. But any even just slightly more appreciative soul would have been amazed at their dedication and the purpose that drove their performance to an intensity that absorbed all the wrong or dropped or – yes: out of tune – notes with ease. Flutist Liliko Maeda was superb in the orchestral suite; simply refusing to run out of air and (alone among her colleagues) with a rock-steady pitch and intonation.

available at Amazon
J.S. Bach, Cantatas vol.29, Suzuki/BCJ
Violinist Natsumi Wakamatsu already showed her extraordinary sensibility in the first half of the program (markedly better than her colleagues Ryo Terakado who disappointed and Azumi Takada and Yuko Takeshima who fiddled amiably in the background), but it was the d-minor Concerto for Two Violins where she truly shone with a deep, unassuming musicality and an even, smooth, humble tone. Despite her and Ms. Maeda’s performance and Suzuki’s crazed, dashing harpsichord playing (never afraid of the occasional wrong note, bringing a sense of excitement to the table), it must be said that an ensemble of a lesser name would have gotten a notably cooler response from the audience for an identical performance: One ought to expect even more from the Bach Collegium Japan. After all, it is that group that is responsible for what is rightly considered the over-all best cantata cycle (on the BIS label). Those recordings, benefiting from studio perfection easily stand up to the aged Harnoncourt/Leonhart, the semi-authentic Rilling, the incomplete Richter, the also-almost-finished Koopman, the uneven Leusink. A side effect of this performance was, that my respect for the Gardiner cantata cycle – recorded live – has only increased: More than ever, now, the Soli Deo Gloria recordings seem a wondrous thing of unbelievable accuracy.

The concert was certainly good enough not to need ‘salvaging’, per se, but a knock-out performance of the fifth Brandenburg Concerto – again with Ms. Maeda and her traverso – helped the evening to a satisfying, joyous end. Minor balance problems and continuous intonation problems aside (perhaps placing the flute center, in front of the harpsichord, would have helped?), this was less driven and more flexible than the suite and contained another reckless solo of Suzuki’s. No wonder the audience demanded an encore – which they got, in form of the Air from the D-major suite BWV 1068.

ATTEND! - Student Tickets this Month 

Go to the Kennedy Center's ATTEND! website to find out details about the $10 ticket program for students. Here is a selection of events we think are interesting among the ones that are offered.

Sequenza
Piano Trio performance with gems in the program: "Haydn's Piano Trio in E major, Hob. XV 28, Martinů's Cinq Pièces Brèves, and the world premiere of contemporary composer Paul Chihara's Ain't No Sunshine. The program finishes with Schubert's Trio in E-flat major"
Sunday, April 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Terrace Theater

Imani Winds
For what it's worth: The hippest Wind Quintet around. Works like Astor Piazzola's Libertango, and John Harbison's Quintet for Winds make going a temptation.
Monday, April 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Terrace Theater

East Coast Chamber Orchestra
Another group I know little about; another program that lures:
Britten's Simple Symphony was plenty fun with the LPO last Monday, it's always a good time for Shostakovich's Quartet No. 8 (arranged for string orchestra; presumably in the Barshai version) but especially in his centenary - and those who will have hated Higdon's "String" will love Tchaikovsky's Serenade.

Friday, April 28 at 7:30 p.m.
Terrace Theater

Helmuth Rilling & NSO
Bach's St. Matthew Passion

Attendance is mandatory! It's a Matthew Passion, it's Easter, it's Helmuth Rilling - the foremost historically INformed (as opposed to "HIP") Bach conductor of our times.
Thursday, April 13 at 7 p.m.
Friday, April 14 at 1:30 p.m.
Concert Hall

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor / Julian Rachlin, violin

Great, underrated conductor and a wonderful violinist. LvB 6th, Prokofiev 2nd VC, Stravinsky Firebird Suite.
Thursday, April 20 at 7 p.m.
Friday, April 21 at 8 p.m.
Concert Hall

Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor / Dawn Upshaw, soprano
Overrated conductor, great soprano, program of Bernstein, Britten, Dutilleux, and Dvořák... which could go either way.
Thursday, April 27 at 7 p.m.
Friday, April 28 at 8 p.m.
Concert Hall

26.3.06

Das Mississippigold: Sound Production Looks Like Zambello, Smells Like Chéreau 

Das Rheingold - as found in Iowa Public Radio Pronouncing Dictionary

available at Amazon
R. Wagner, Das Rheingold, Barenboim/Kupfer/Bayreuth
Preview (Review on Ionarts will follow soon.)
Saturday night, the Washington Opera has raised the curtain to one of its more ambitious undertakings today: The staging of its own, complete Ring Cycle. So as not to choke on the size of the 13 to 15 hour tetralogy, it will take it in bite-sized portions; one opera -sorry: Musikdrama at a time. Director is Francesca Zambello who has become a bit of a house-director for Washington and the production team is the same as that of Die Walküre two years ago at DAR Constitution Hall. The production here is, mercifully, a different one in all respects. Instead of warmed up, self-plagiarizing Euro-trash, we will get a new, modern, original (slightly harmless) interpretation, the American Ring.

There has been much speculation about how the production might look and work – a recent press conference with Zambello, Robin Leggate (the production’s Loge), Jane Ohmes (Freia) and Director of Artistic Operations, Christina Scheppelmann didn’t do much to give a better idea of how things would turn out. (But it did unearth some of the tension behind the scenes. Scheppelmann’s perfectly true point that inaudible text was a problem with lazy pronunciation of singers, not Wagner’s writing, surely did not go unnoticed… Zambello admitted that there was still wrangling as to whether to show or not show Wallhall. Zambello, by the way, favoring the latter solution, won, as it turns out.)

Yuba River Gold DredgingNow we have the first installment of an answer and we saw every thing that she had made, and, behold, it is very good. Over those 136 bars of E-flat with which the opera famously opens (always likened to the creation of the earth, the beginning of time itself – not unlike the opening of Beethoven’s 9th or, to an extent, Mahler’s 1st) we see colors and hazy images on a screen. From blue to brown/yellow to ‘light’ to ‘water’, at points reminding of cave paintings, at others 2001 Space Odyssey flights through the universe. These images – veering between hazy, frustratingly representational and the abstract – are used throughout the scene changes. Some imagery changes seem haphazard, others are a bit obvious (flying through the clouds to and from Wallhall) but the idea is fine. If only the images didn’t look like cheap computer renderings. Here, as in most places of this production, one decries the fact that the WNO is not a repertory company: The direction here so often presents great potential marred by some annoying or unnecessary detail. If Ms. Zambello had several years, not just days, to fine-tune this production (and more money to spend – which I am sure she might like and could put to good use), it would be the Washington National Opera’s pride.

I try not to refer to it as Das Rheingold too much, because neither does the direction. Not only is the scene set out West (the curtain rises to Alberich panning gold in what might be the Yuba River), all references to the Rhine have been carefully excised from the supertitles. Rhinemaidens become Rivermaidens, Rheingold becomes “pure gold” (from the German homophone Rein(es)-Gold) and so on. These Rivermaidens climb and swing about a wooden contraption for sifting gold. It’s the rough cut American version of Chéreau’s Hydroelectric dam.

Steel Beam with WorkerThe gods are New England upper class with white V-neck sweaters, tea sets, garden parties. Wotan (Robert Hale in a white suite) takes a nap in his garden chair before being awoken by Fricka (chubby but seductively cute Elizabeth Bishop). Donner (with T-bar instead of hammer) and Froh are hapless hobby architects. "Anyone for tennis?" Fasolt and Fafner have a great, inspired entrance by use of one of the most quintessentially American images. Lowered unto stage, the two giants are clad in jeans overalls, having their lunch sitting on a steel I-beam. Walking on huge, oversized shoes covered by wide trouser legs they towered, if not by a whole lot, above the other characters; the hands were Edward Scissorhands-like contraptions and a hook, in Fafner's case.

Loge, arguably the most important – certainly the most interesting – character of the first Ring opera came across as a shady advocate/lawyer with a pinch of car-salesman. Arriving on the scene, he looks like he just stepped out of his 1920’s race car (including driver gloves). You could detect the attempt to make him a seedy character, but he is shifty at the most; more cunning for a good cause and very confidently so. He doesn’t toady like the brilliant, ingenious Heinz Zednik in the Chéreau production, but he is also not quite as cynical, not quite as aloof. Same words, same music: Two completely different characters; and Loge can be done in yet many more, more different ways. A continuously fascinating character.

The mine in which the Niebelungs are put to work look like a more or less realistic coal mine (without the sense of claustrophobia), the Niebelungs are an assortment of black children (make-up helps where nature didn’t) which makes a general point about American slavery and exploitation and then raises the far more delicate subject of black slave holders. Alberich, after all, is played by Porgy-cum-Schwarz Albe Gordon Hawkins. His transformation into a snake is projected onto the wall.

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Das Rheingold, Chéreau/Boulez/Bayreuth
In the fourth, final scene Wotan carries a spear (a wimpy thing with feathers dangling from it) for the first time and the second overt ‘American West’ reference emerges: Elena Zaremba (so impressive as Fricka back then) as Estsanatlehi or something of that sort. Freia, meanwhile, has developed a case of the Stockholm syndrome and cares an awful lot about fallen Fasolt. (Then again, Fasolt truly loved her, as we can tell from the music in the second scene, where he gets the most tender line of the Ring to the words “ein Weib zu gewinnen, das wonnig und mild bei uns Armen wohne…”) Lightning is summoned by Donner (although it blinks about on screen for half a minute before the actual thunder comes out of the pit) and the Gods cross the bridge into Wallhall (not visible, off stage) which descends like an ocean-liner’s boarding stairs (E la nave va comes to mind).

Filled with good (not always perfect) acting and hopefully good singing, this is, will be, a promising start to the Washington Opera's very own ring cycle... an achievement that offers plenty criticism - but more enjoyment still. I, for one, was positively surprised. It's neither hackneyed nor radical, it's something that hasn't been done that way, even if it reminds of other productions in several moments. Within the limits of calculable risk, this is a definite winner.

25.3.06

Orff‘n’Bach 

J. Reilly Lewis (a few years back)WPAS invited to the Kennedy Center for a program of Bach cantatas and the choral hoopla, the inextinguishable, ever delighting Carmina Burana. Think of it as “Orff‘n’Bach” was J. Reilly Lewis’ painfully funny quip from the rostrum. The program was split between hist two teams in town, the Washington Bach Consort in the first half and the Cathedral Choral Society in the second. In a football match, the Cathedral Choral Society would have won, not only they fielded ten times more players, but because they were on home turf. The fact of the matter is that the small, authentic instrument playing forces of the Washington Bach Consort get lost in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall’s already unflattering acoustic. Without being arranged properly, they sound wimpy.

Still, that didn’t keep them from performing the Choral Overture of the Christmas Cantata “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” with panache. Sounds familiar, because it’s the fourth orchestral suite’s overture with throats thrown in. This short work gave Reilly Lewis the opportunity to ‘plug’ some of the singers of his choir as soloists. Soprano Rebecca Kellerman Petretta and countertenor Roger Isaacs made the most of that opportunity with very fine, unmannered performances; tenor Ole Hass and bass Jon Bruno were a bit lost and sounded overwhelmed.

Other Reviews:

Grace Jean, When Johann Met Carl: Beautiful Music Together (Washington Post, March 23)
Because it’s the exciting Bach piece these days, the “new” soprano aria Alles mit Gott… BWV 1127 (see Ionarts review of the first recording under Gardiner) was offered as the concert’s opener. The work didn’t sound any less the whimsical, beautiful ditty it is here; Elizabeth Futral, radiant, sounded a little heavier than ideal, more earthbound – especially in the ornamentation. A clearer, more focused sound might help in that repertoire. Good to hear this little gem live for the first time – it will be better yet to hear it in a more appropriately intimate space. (Perhaps it will be performed at one of the Tuesday Noontime Cantata concerts, assuming it wasn’t when I skipped the last such performance.)

available at Amazon
J.S. Bach, Tönet Ihr Pauken..., Herreweghe/ CVG
The Wedding Cantata BWV 202 Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten offered some pitch ambiguities on Ms. Futral’s part and sounded scraggly in what is essentially a succession of soprano arias strung together with recitatives and prominent oboe participation. BWV214, the Birthday Cantata (Tönet, ihr Pauken), is familiar stuff from another of its incarnations – the Christmas Oratorio. (It also gives the title to the latest of the outstanding Philip Herreweghe Bach discs on Harmonia Mundi.) The flutes in their long exposed passage were absolutely outstanding and stole the show from Futral, despite the latter’s glamour and effulgent beauty or the fact that here she was in better form than in the previous works. Mezzo Rosemarie van der Hooft was vocally very charming in a dry, humble way; soft when low and very good. Bass-baritone Stephen Powell was outstanding, ditto the natural Trumpet player.

Elizabeth FutralCarmina Burana, oft-performed as it is, was a hoot. For one, the quantity of decibels involved goes a long way, it’s primitive appeal (I don’t mean that derisively at all) rarely fails to move. And some 170 singers can make an awful lot of noise. When you do Carmina, you might as well go over the top, be sufficiently grandiose… and in acting their parts out, tenor Robert Baker (Baron Jacobi, Pedrillo, ...) and Stephen Powell did just that. If I thought Baker was a great roasted swan (Cygnus ustus cantat), running about in a feather-fuming frenzy, Powell’s piss-drunk Cockaignean abbot was even more hilarious (Egus sum abbas) with laughter rippling throughout the concert hall. Ms. Futral as siqua sine socio: you can’t go ooze erotically charged deliciousness in that cappuccino-golden silk dress on stage and have us believe you the part of ‘girl without a lover’. In trutina was wonderfully, movingly done – Ms. Futral making up for what might have been missing in the Bach and the strings in complete harmony with her voice. With Carmina you know more or less what you’ll get and can chose whether to attend or not. Those who did got all that and a little bit more.

24.3.06

Francis Poulenc Trio at the Polish Embassy 

Francis Poulenc TrioIn the absolutely delectable Salon of the Polish embassy – replete with Corinthian pilasters and frize that quickly make you forget the unfortunately looming metal detector downstairs – the Embassy Series presented the Baltimore based Poulenc Trio consisting of oboist Vladimir Lande (see Ionarts review from a New York Bachanalia Festival), bassoonist Bryan Young and pianist Irina Lande. Wind trios are rare enough, dedicated ones rarer still – so it was no surprise to be confronted with works that were, Poulenc’s trio apart – entirely new to me and like most other attendees.

Mikhail Glinka’s Trio Pathetique in d-minor opened the evening with its unisono introduction to give way to a very un-russian, at first Germanic then more Italianate trio where melancholic sounds softly lapped ashore only to be undermined by an occasional lively sprint. Outside Russia, it is Glinka’s fate to be known for the influence on the music of others, not for his own. (His most important work is probably his opera “A Life for the Tsar” – and that is hardly ever programmed in American – or West-European – houses.) The trio may not change that any time soon, but it makes for an exquisite chambermusic-making. Certainly when played so well as did the present trio… especially oboe and bassoon, pleasing with great precision and a good, clear tone. Vladimir Lande, already benefactor of the best melodic lines in all of these works, managed one stand-out performance after another. Irina Lande’s playing, too, was near-flawless, but it was also monochromatic, a bit stilted and never went above mere accompaniment, not even in later, more virtuosic sections.

A lighter charmer was Polish-German Maurice Moszowski’s Suite in g-minor for two violins and piano (arranged accordingly) from which the Lento assai and the Allegro moderato were played. Nothing dramatic in either of those two movements, but plenty fun, both. A potpourri from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri (on the WNO’s program this season) was forced into woodwind trio shape by Parisian oboe and bassoon players Eugene Jancourt and Charles Tribert: a brilliant little thing. André Previn, German born American of Franco-Russian descent, is musically no less a melting pot than culturally. Having started out a jazz player and film music composer, it’s not surprising that he should well be able to combine the popular, jazz and classical idioms. The stimuli behind his compositions usually have long legs. Some guys buy flowers, André throws off a little composition for the lasses. A violin concerto sealed the deal recently, in 1994 it probably did the trick with a Pittsburgh Symphony bassoonist he coveted. Still, if the resulting Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano with its movements Lively, Slow, Jaunty had the desired effect on his double reed de jour, it doesn’t yield much, musically, to these ears. Maybe the long solo-piano passages could have been played in a more freewheeling, jazzy style – but even then they would unlikely have been a snug fit with the rest of the music. The ‘jazz parts’ felt contrived and never part of the whole. Composing in a jazz style is apparently very difficult – and when it is done well (not often – but for example with Nikolai Kapustin) it is murderously difficult to play.

Someone who was more successful at that idiom than Mr. Previn was Francis Poulenc… and tellingly without the later ever even trying hard. Perhaps being around the whimsical, irreverent music of his mentor and friend Eric Satie (to whom Poulenc’s trio is dedicated) was enough… the result, at any rate, as in most of Poulenc’s chamber music, is a precious work that is very much classical music while never taking itself too serious. The easygoing, natural charm of Poulenc’s music and this trio in particular is disarming. Beautiful but not denying its 1926 birthdate, it’s earnest – but winks at you throughout. I wouldn’t go as far as ascribing ‘silliness’ to it, but the trio understands a good joke as much as it likes to tell one. Outstanding fun, outstandingly played: Little wonder the group christened itself after this gem… little wonder the audience demanded an encore to which the three players obliged, despite the seductive wafts of a fabulous buffet from the adjacent room already tickling their noses. That Handel was good; the reception easily its equal. Its thoughtfulness and attention to detail reflected well on the Polish embassy, creating many a fuzzy thought about Poland, even as Polish Government and Central bank are trying everything to ham it up at the home-front.

23.3.06

Finally, Extraordinarily: Roberto Cominati 

Cominati - Garcia - MutiRoberto Cominati got around to give the recital for the WPAS Hayes Piano Series that he was supposed to give last season (where Konstantin Lifschitz substituted) – and it was well worth the wait. Born in Naples in 1969 Cominati might be pushing 40, but you’d never know from looking at the young, stylish, unmistakably – almost stereotypically – Italian man taking stage: With the jet black mane carefully combed back and a tailored suite that never once threw a wrinkle on his back he could pass as 27 if he needed to.

He would be betrayed by his playing, though. Un-self-conscious (quite in contrast to his exterior: He knows he looks good playing and he lets the audience know that he knows), mature, thought through. It doesn’t happen often that a pianist plays so well and enchants that much without necessarily “impressing”. (The soft and subtle brilliance and musicality of Alfred Brendel is one recent example where a pianists didn't need to dazzle to delight.) With Robert Cominati it was a smooth blend of grown-up, high quality playing and technical accuracy that lend the Debussy of the first half of the program a silvery, lean quality.


Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, Roberto Cominati (Washington Post, March 20)
His playing, more brook than dreamily reflecting pond, was dotted with nice and crisp little accents; occasionally a phrase-ending drawn together chorale-like. In the Suite Bergamesque he kept the notoriously overplayed Claire de Lune free from overblown romanticism, fresh. The second book of Images ( Cloches à travers les feuilles, Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fût, Poissons d'or) had its notes hung on a mobilé, weightlessly suspended . Concurrently played notes in the left and right hands nicely contrasted against each other, rather than all taking on the same shade. In L’isle joyeuse he could have offered more judicious (less) pedaling, but all-in-all it was an extraordinary, always brisk performance. But even if the tempos were fast, that was not the reason that this performance was the quickest that an entire recital-half of Debussy ever went by for me.

His Schumann offered more of the same good stuff. With a firm bite and muscle, energetic and tight, Cominati used the Terrace Theater’s Steinway like an organ, especially in the Préambule… only to switch to a finer lilt, all of which was very entertaining. Although a southerner (apart from an uncanny resemblance to Andy Garcia he even looks a good bit like another famous musician from Napoli, Ricardo Muti – including the double handed, lateral hair swipe) he sounds more like Milano or Turino, more ‘German’ – which invariably brings the greatest German pianist of our times to mind, who also happens to be an Italian.

The 15th prelude of Chopin (barring faulty memory) was a welcome encore. The rotating bass notes came in understated, threatening and gradually tightening, like a vice – only to start over again… like a cruel game in which Cominati was in full control. Nothing cruel about the performance, though: This was – having unforgivably missed the Thauraud recital last year – the best recital I have heard as part of the Hayes Series yet.

22.3.06

WNO at 50: Who for Whom, and How! 

While Ionarts was either living the lush life in Paris or busy missing the Hesperion XXI concert in Baltimore, we have to thank George A. Pieler for helping out at the Washington National Opera's 50th Anniversary Gala.

Washington National Opera - Golden Anniversary
Fifty years is a long time for an American opera company to have run continuously, and the Washington National Opera wants to celebrate. The WNO Golden Gala Sunday night provided much excellent singing, none bad, and considerable entertainment both on stage and off. More important — aside from raising $4 million for the company — the Gala crisply defined the company’s artistic stance under General Director Placido Domingo: solid, conservative, and dedicated to maintaining reliable performance standards.

As Ionarts is playing who-for-whom these days, let’s get that out of the way first. Salvatore Licitra (‘the next Pavarotti’) was indisposed and did not appear: tenor Paul Groves, already assigned two duets in the program, filled in with “Una Furtiva Lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and did a creditable, ringing and full, stentorian-tenor style job of it. Denyce Graves, scheduled to sing the Letter Song from Werther, was also indisposed; and violinist Vadim Repin, scheduled to perform two works with orchestra, performed only one (Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie, a change from the better-known Sarasate version). He played this virtuoso showpiece with ample brilliance, but his tone seemed not to project well into the hall — indeed the WNO deserves a better acoustic frame than this. As a result the performance looked brilliant, but sounded merely good. Here, as elsewhere, the Opera Orchestra turned in solid performances throughout, under both Heinz Fricke and Emmanuel Villaume.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Washington Opera, at 50 - Editorial (Washington Post, March 20)

Tim Page, Onward and Upward With the Opera - Review (Washington Post, March 20)

Kevin Chaffee, National Opera celebrates 50 years with song - Fluff-piece (Washington Times, March 24)

Tim Smith, This gala had it all: glam, opera stars and Supremes (Baltimore Sun, March 21)
Galas are talent-showcases not cohesive artistic statements, and this one was no exception. A succession of aria set-pieces and a few ensembles was launched by the Seraglio overture (that was the Opera’s first-ever production), and punctuated by a narrated slide-show highlighting the WNO’s history, with a special tribute to the late Martin Feinstein, WNO head from 1980 to 1996. This retrospective material usefully reminded us how comparatively adventurous the company was in its early years: Stravinsky, Britten, Delius, and Ginastera, highlighted in the narrative but wholly absent from the program.

Further punctuation came from theatrical set-pieces, including the Broadway-Opera crossover created by Marvin Hamlisch and Sheldon Harnick for the occasion: “The Audition,” a nearly plotless pastiche which opened the second half. The very talented Kristin Chenoweth, joined by Domingo and Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Trevor Scheunemann, put this slender, tuneful, rather catchy material across with aplomb, and provided Mr. Domingo not just with a chance to spoof himself (“it’s great to be king”) but a bit of Three Tenors material neatly spliced in. The message was “Passion” in art, the key number in “The Audition,” reminding everyone why they were there. The usual Supreme Court Justices (Breyer, Scalia, and a wide-awake Ginsburg) joined in.

The other planned set piece concluded Part One of the evening, as Samuel Ramey reprised his favorite role of Mefistofeles (Boito), accompanied by the very fine Opera Chorus in full regalia (were those party hats, or horns?) and devilish light-show (red sky and fireworks). Ramey, in fine voice albeit with a sometimes obtrusive vibrato, hammed it up in the best sense, traversing the stage while directing the chorus and spinning the inflatable globe that symbolized his control over…well, all of us. Ringling Brothers should give this number a look.

Alan Held provided the other theatrical moment, performing the “Catalog Aria” from Don Giovanni, complete with phone directory (was it the One Book?), acting out the part while providing some of the best singing of the evening.

As for the set-piece arias, to my ears there were two clear standouts. Juan Diego Florez in Part One delivered Donizetti’s “T’amo qual s’ama un angelo” from Lucrezia Borgia in superb voice, attending to every detail of dynamics and phrasing, and simply could not have been better. A good omen perhaps for his Lindoro in L’Italiana in Algeri, which WNO presents in May. In Part Two, Elizabeth Futral’s scintillating “Je veux vivre dan le rêve” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette took the palm. Anja Kampe in Verdi’s “Pace, pace”, Carlos Alvarez in “Pieto, rispetto” from Macbeth, and Paul Groves and Marc Barrard in ‘The Pearl Fishers Duet’ all pleased without setting the house afire, as did John Matz in “Che Gelida Manina.”

Placido Domingo’s personal stamp was all over the evening: not only in “The Audition” but in two zarzuela numbers — a duet with Anna Netrebko from El Gato Montes and solo “No Puede Ser” from La Taberna del Puerto by Pablo Sorozabal. He was in fine, indeed remarkable voice; no allowances needed for age, or should I say experience? Netrebko, a delectable presence and in good voice, has a unique sound, a bit throaty for my taste, and I felt she manipulated her opening of “O Mio Babbino Caro” a bit too much for such a simple direct melody.


The evening concluded with a champagne ensemble from Act II of Puccini’s La Rondine performed by the Young Artists, a satisfying conclusion and telling reminder of the yeoman work of the Domingo era in training (…) the next generation of performers.

Surprisingly little Wagner — just fanfares from Die Meistersinger that echoed in the foyer, and the ‘wedding scene’ from “The Audition” brought a call for ‘the ring’ — presented as four weighty libretti. Haw haw. If that didn’t get the point across, Mr. Scheunemann read out the first title as Das Rheingold, just in case.

Lots of Verdi, lots of Puccini, a bit of French and American (Ramey in the prayer from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah), plus zarzuela and a bit of Mozart: no Strauss, or – heaven forbid – something contemporary to ruin the mood — that’s the WNO today, a mature company not taking too many risks, in contrast to the adventurous start-up of 50 years ago. An inspirational fact from the opera’s founding — for those creative types who feel confined to writing or talking about the arts, remember that Washington Opera was founded by Day Thorpe, who was…

A music critic.

19.3.06

Takács Brief 

We won’t speculate about the reasons – but tickets for the Takács Quartet’s performance at the Corcoran Gallery on Friday, March 31st are on sale through TicketPlace.org. There is no reason(1) whatsoever you should not show up at the best chamber music venue in Washington to hear (one of) the best String Quartet(s) play what they are best at: Bartók (second String Quartet plus Mozart K. 465 and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden). Especially not when the tickets can be had for $37. That might look steep to some – but once you’ve heard the Takács in that venue, you’d even think the regular $60 a bargain.


1) Well, there is one reason not to go, namely if you are at the Vadim Repin / Nikolai Lugansky recital at Meyerhoff that night.

Who for Whom - II 

Kurt Masur will eat you, if you don't behaveIt's official: Kurt Masur is out for the LPO's Washington performance. Replacing him is not Osmo Vänskä as we had previously suggested (the wish having been the father of the rumor?) but Charles Dutoit Yan Pascal Tortelier. [Whaaat? Tortelier, not Dutoit? No offense, but that sucks. And I was just going to tout Dutoit as another improvement over solid-stolid Kapellmeister Masur.]

Anyway... it wouldn't be March-Madness for WPAS if all they had to replace was two conductors and one pianist. Let's throw the possibility of a bailing violinist out there, too. No Khachatryan? - No Problem: There is another capable (and sexier) replacement waiting in the wings. Stepping in, gracefully, would be Arabella Steinbacher. Vänskä, Tortelier, Dutoit or Masur, Khachatryan or Steinbacher - the concert (Britten, Khachaturian, Tchaikovsky) still promises to be an event that WPAS should have no problem filling decently. That only leaves them worrying about convincing patrons not to return their tickets for Perahia-cum-Peter Serkin and his program of Beethoven's Hammerklavier (daring stuff; last one to try in the region almost didn't live to tell that tale) preceded by transcribed Renaissance songs.

Young Concert Artists: Dóra Seres Flutes Convention 

With perhaps half the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater filled on Tuesday night, 26 years old flutist Dóra Seres, the 2005 Young Concert Artist International Competition winner took the stage in a program with a highly entertaining selection of works ranging from the romantic (Carl Maria von Weber) to the contemporary (Lowell Liebermann) touching on several composers that are – outside the flute repertoire, at any rate – esoterica (Carl Reinecke, Siegfried Karg-Elert, Paul Taffanel).

Carl Reinecke’s 1885 “Undine” sonata for flute and piano was first. A virtuosic, romantic narrative on Undine’s adventure, it is appealing enough as absolute music; and good that it is, because the story does not reveal itself quite so easily upon first hearing. Accompanying her with a deft touch was Steven Beck.

Appreciated as a composer by the likes of Grieg, Reger and Busoni, Karg-Elert was probably best known as an organist – and mainly and most successfully wrote for that instrument. The unaccompanied F-sharp major flute sonata was composed only thirty years after Undine – but sounds world apart. Engaging but with lines that were all too often broken, it reminded of weak Reger. Judging from afar, I’d rather blame the composer than the soloist for the sonatas melodies did fall neatly within the limits of breath control.

Back with Mr. Beck and the addition support of Robert Martin’s cello, Ms. Seres & Co set upon the charming Weber trio which should come as a nice change to those who only know Weber’s orchestral and operatic music. Just like in the preceding pieces, Ms. Seres established her flawless technique and good tone (especially in the Reinecke!). There is no harm in wishing for a sound that has even less air in it, although this might be as unrealistic as asking for even better breath control.

If Toro Takemitsu is accused of having a unique voice, it might be undermined by what seems a universal language for modern(ist) compositions for flute. Neither silent key-pad clicking, nor overblowing, nor screaming, huffing, and talking into the flute are unique in the repertoire. Although they may have been in 1971, when Takemitsu composed Voice. It’s performance art as much as music – and although performed impeccably, Ms. Seres didn’t sell it to me; the pale, beautiful and stern woman in the pink, layered chiffon dress somehow seemed unlikely to shout mid-flute-playing on her own volition. The work itself – and many of its kind – were once important but I suggest that their half-life is not terribly long and has, by now, once or twice passed.

A different story is New Yorker Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata for Flute and Piano op.23. Written in 1987 for Paula Robinson and Jean Yves Thibaudet, it has established itself as a favorite in the repertoire because it’s not just fun for the flutist to play but also the listeners to hear. Variety and imagination in abundance, tonal but challenging, rhythmic… it’s but one example of what good modern music can be all about. That it had the octogenarian in the seat next to me blissfully tap along with it was certainly a good sign. The Walküre allusion of the first movement sadly escaped me, but the hyper charged virtuosity of the second movement (for both performers: Steven Beck had his work cut out for him and responded ferociously) was irreproachable, astonishing – yet never a hollow and gratuitous display of skill. The music seemed to merit and demand every note.

The flutist favorite, Paul Taffanel’s Freischütz Variations offered beautiful melodies and acrobatics played out by the none-too-timid players who don’t shy from its technical demands. It’s a very quaint work that lightly pleases, even if it is forgotten as soon as it runs out of notes.

17.3.06

Mixed Bag from Ax-Morlot 

Emanuel AxLudovic Morlot stepped in for Yuri Temirkanov during the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s run of concerts this week. With him came a different opening of the concert: Instead of the Armenian Suite by the Philadelphia native Richard Yardumian we were served a smart but slightly glib Manfred Overture of Schumann’s. With this orchestral warm-up based on Lord Byron poetic drama out of the way, Poland-born Canadian Emanuel Ax came on stage with the main attraction, Mozart’s “Jeunehomme” Concerto no.9, K 271 in E-flat major. Unprecedented in length and style up to that point, it marks Mozart’s ascension to true genius for musicians and Mozart biographers alike. Alfred Brendel likened it to a world wonder from which on “the Mozart player must shoulder a burden of perfection that goes beyond his powers” (“A Mozart Player Gives Himself Advice”, 1985), Alfred Einstein to Beethoven’s Eroica.

Emanuel Ax's performance was enjoyable and unmoving in equal parts. Playing to himself, he communicated little with either orchestra or audience, leaving much depth of this work unprobed – but at the same time delighted often with an inward nonchalance that concerned itself with nothing but the works at his ruminating hands. The BSO continued to show improvements in its Mozart playing, offering a sufficiently light and crisp rendition under the clear guidance of Morlot.

Nijinsky as PétrouchkaPétrouchka falls between Stravinsky’s Firebird and Le Sacre du Printemps not only by date of composition but also style. If it is mostly Firebird (and enough so to delight the audience at its 1911 premiere in Paris), you can hear Le Sacre waiting in the wings all too clearly. The audience at the latter’s premiere may have rioted, but it’s not like they had not been warned. No fear of any rioting with the tame and sparse Meyerhoff audience – not even in such an extraordinarily terse, driven and tight performance of the 1947 Pétrouchka (modified by Stravinsky to renew copyrights and secure a continued stream of revenue, toning down the demands on the size of the orchestra in the process) such as Morlot’s. Edging the orchestra on with his precise stick (what a difference to the shapeless, emotive waves of Temirkanov) and energetic cues, he got a technical ferocity out of the band but not much emotion or passion (which is where Temirkanov’s hand-flopping signals are far more effective.)

The story is as tumultuous as the score sounds. Mean and ugly little Pétrouchka covets the lithe Ballerina, but the Ballerina only flees before his advances. Could it be because “Pétrouchka is” – according to Janet E. Bedell’s liner notes – “better endowed than the others…”? Maybe the puppets are truer to life than I thought… but one wonders why the Ballerina consequently turns to the glamorous and exotic Moor. Being enamoured by the latter is obviously enough to get any misanthropic puppet’s blood boiling (especially since the Moor is an evil fool, to boot) and Pétrouchka won’t have it. But as the puppets flee the theatre, the moor decapitates Petroucka, leaving his evil spirit to haunt the disconcerted puppet master from above the theater tent. All expressed in music. Morlot betrayed potential in this performance, but sparks did not fly. Still, we’ll likely hear more of him in the near future.

P.S. Ax even writes a "blog" - only that it isn't a blog and that he probably doesn't write it himself. Well, maybe he does, it's short enough: He muses "On Applause" (a topic Alex Ross took on last year) and states the usual wishes, missing the root of the problem. We'll get to chime in on that, sooner or later; meanwhile opinions and suggestions on that topic sent to Charles or myself are welcome.

16.3.06

The Little BSO, Judd, Shoji, Prokofiev and Strauss 

James JuddThe – in this case anonymous – brass fanfares that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opens its concerts at Strathmore with, serve several purposes at once: they expose the musicians a bit more (and doing that by what they do best: play music), it’s a more effective last call for the audience to be seated than the regular gong and light-flickering, and it allows people to be a minute or two late without missing or interrupting the flow of the program. It was also the kind of entrance that James Judd – substituting at short notice for Maestro Termirkanov – enjoyed when he hopped onto the podium. (He also stepped in for Temirkanov last season at the Vadim Repin concert.)

Prokofiev’s Suite from The Love for Three Oranges opened the Prokofiev/Strauss program - and was played with willingness and thoroughness by the orchestra that suggested that they wanted to make sure not to let their ersatz-conductor down. Just like under Andrew Constantine the playing may not have been ‘crazy-special’ but solid (in the best sense) and very good sounding. The actual opera The Love for Three Oranges is performed far less than its quality would merit, but at least parts of its suite are fairly well known, especially its concluding March that will sound familiar even to those who don’t think they know it. The “little BSO” exerted plenty of drive to bring it home with jaunty steps.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Washington Post, March 13)
Sayaka Shoji, 23 years young, was the 1999 Paganini International Competition winner – the first Japanese violinist to take this prestigious award. It surprises me that I should not have heard of her before. Her impeccable, sober performance of the second of Prokofiev's violin concertos had plenty musicality, lovely light touches, lyricism but was never in danger of becoming overplayed or too sweet. Not particularly big-toned, she often played ‘close to the orchestra’; on a few occasions near the border of audibility. For having been soft, she was still plenty energetic in the finale.

Who can ever have enough of Ein Heldenleben? Even four hours after the BSO’s Till Eulenspiegel and about four weeks after the Concertgebouw’s Hero’s Life. Admittedly and expectedly, it didn’t top Jansons’ phenomenally sounding performance. It wasn’t as cohesive, the entries not as precise (double basses in the beginning being but one of the more obvious examples), the notes not all as audible and the colors less vivid. The beginning was nice and tight, the end quite exciting again – and in the middle was an increasingly tame and unexciting performance that was good but not great. Still, to have kept my attention throughout just after the “real” BSO’s performance earlier in the day it must have been and indeed was an enjoyable concert, well above average.

15.3.06

Who for Whom? 

David Robertson stepped in for the indisposed James Levine last Saturday. It was but one of the replacements that haunt this month: WPAS and the Baltimore Symphony have a few more to offer: sadly, Murray Perahia will not be able to play his recital at Strathmore on March 29th. He is being replaced by Peter Serkin – a player who has a certain following in the area, but there is no point in pretending not to be disappointed. The only replacement of similar stature in name and style might have been Daniel Barenboim… alas, we’ve enjoyed Peter Serkin in the past (when he replaced Radu Lupu) and will likely again. (Although if he continues to substitute for pianists I really want to hear, I'll associate disappointment with him, no matter how well he plays.)

Ludovic MorlotAlthough not confirmed yet, it looks like Kurt Masur will not recover in time to lead the London Philharmonic in their concert at the Kennedy Center (with Sergey Khachatryan). He would be replaced by Osmo Vänskä. If so, I’ll regret not yet having seen Kurt Masur live but look forward to Vänskä, whose inclusion makes the program only more exciting. It should not hurt ticket sales, either – last time Vänskä was in town, he seems to have completely dazzled the audience with out-of-this-world Sibelius; I still hear raves every time the name comes up.

Not to be outdone, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra offers cancellations of their own. Yuri Temirkanov cancelled all concerts this month. It brings his physical position into balance with his spiritual absence from Baltimore – but whereas I quipped last week that we won’t need him until Mahler 2nd in June, I am now worried that he might not even make it then. Stepping in for him this Thursday (in a concert with Emanuel Ax at Meyerhoff) will be the 32-year-old Ludovic Morlot, BSO assistant to James Levine. (It all comes together!) He has recently replaced Christoph von Dohnanyi with the New York Philharmonic, eliciting high praise from the New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini (also a review The Classical Source.) Something to look forward to, apparently.

The BSO’s all-Mozart concert the following week (March 23rd to 26th) will be led by concertmaster Jonathan Carney.

12.3.06

Will the Real BSO Please Stand Up? 

David RobertsonWhen James Levine fell on his arm at the end of the March 1st Beethoven/Schoenberg performance in Boston and consequently had to cancel his appearances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra during its U.S. tour – including its Washington stop on a warm, gorgeous Saturday – Marek Janowski (New York, March 6th) and David Robertson stepped in to ensure the show went on. Currently at the helm of the St. Louis Symphony, David Robertson (Orli Shaham’s husband) is hailed as one of the great new American conductors. The performance at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall showed why. There might have been a couple hundred people who did not show up for the lack of Levine (a shame for the lack of their exposure to Lieberson’s and Carter’s work), but those who did surely had no regrets, nor reason for any complaints about the conducting.

Related Articles & Reviews:

Frank Pesci, Jr., Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs (Ionarts, November 28, 2005)

Philip Kennicott's preview: James Levine, Heard but Not Seen (Washington Post, March 11, 2006)

Ronald Blum, Met Conductor to Miss Rest of Season (Associated Press, March 12, 2006)

Tim Page, The Boston Symphony, Landing On Its Feet (Washington Post, March 13, 2006)
The program started with a taut, light-footed Till Eulenspiegel – Richard Strauss’s op. 28 – in which the BSO and Robertson demonstrated wonderful sound and astounding precision. Even when it got loud, it never got heavy. There was a sprightly, gentle feel to many passages. A more searing, more bombastic, more powerful account would have been possible, but by no means necessary.

Photo by Lorraine Hunt LiebersonFollowing the Strauss were Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs for mezzo-soprano and Orchestra, a commission by the BSO for its 125th anniversary. Much has been written about those five lovely, poetic, enchanting songs as well as the performing mezzo, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, including her recent bout with illness. There is little to add now. Mrs. Hunt Lieberson, sure enough, is one of the very outstanding mezzos in times that are generally blessed with great mezzo-sopranos; she has impeccable musical taste, intelligence, is incapable of gratuitous phrasing or showing off – and she has a stage presence that beams with dignity.

Peter Lieberson’s songs are not only set to the Chilean poet’s love songs, they also feel and sound of true love. They shall be in the repertoire – and not just of co-commissioners BSO and LAPhil – for a long time to come. They are of a John Williams-like accessibility, but cast in a sophisticated (yet never obscure) language. Earnest, tonal beauties that also rang of Ravel (the piano concerto’s slow movement called itself to mind a few times) and a bit of John Adams’s El Niño, the five songs had depth and were, for all the mentioned analogies, quite unlike anything I’ve heard. More difficult to describe than enjoy, for sure – and utterly touching. Just like Frank Pesci in his review, I found the only weak spot to be the superficial maracas ra-cha-cha-ing in the song that should have been the dramatic center. It’s time that these instruments be taken away from composers… I’ve not yet heard them put to good use; to bad, plenty!

Lorraine Hunt LiebersonCarter, the grand old man of American music, is still going strong – and his Three Illusions which was also premiered and commissioned by the BSO is just one of three major pieces he’s recently sent into the light of day. The first illusion, Mocomicón, is inspired by a Don Quixote episode and entertained with its almost blues-y, rakish rhythms and a stern string veneer. Lecherous Jupiter’s excursion with Juventas (she ended up the Fountain of Youth) were the content of the second illusion, which had slightly slower juices flowing. Once uncorked by an initial pop, the eerie sounds of More’s Utopia were allowed to enter the concert hall – certainly more eerie than filled with that (after all utopian) bliss.

A big, bold, and rousing (though never lush) Beethoven Seventh capped off the afternoon. Robertson, whose primary concerns seem to be structure, detail, and clarity, had the crowd applauding already after the first movement. “Don’t worry – Beethoven wouldn’t have minded at all” he commented and gave the audience the opportunity to applaud between further movements without fear of seeming ignorant – alas they didn’t take him up on it. And that, despite a second movement that really would have deserved spontaneous, informed applause. Rarely have I heard secondary or tertiary voices so clearly; the voices of the first cellos and violas came out nicely where they submerge all too often (bars 27-50), the corresponding line in the second violins thereafter a little less so. The last movement shot out of the gates, champagne for the ears and generally an adrenaline rush. It’s a darn good symphony by a composer who didn’t write bad symphonies – and a performance such as the BSO’s and Robertson’s only reminds again of its greatness.

For upcoming performances of great artists substituting for other cancelling great artists check out WPAS's or the BSO's schedules... or keep tuned to ionarts.

11.3.06

Musicians From Marlboro II - 2006 

Carl Nielsen’s Woodwind Quintet, Schubert’s Shepherd on a Rock and three assorted songs, Elliot Carter’s Eight Etudes and a Fantasy, Beethoven’s Quintet in E-flat Major: a chamber music event’s program can’t look a lot better on paper than that. A bit of flair from the rare beauty, a little dose of sugar, a modern digestif from the master, and the rarely heard work of a mainstream composer, in that order, were presented by seven musicians from Marlboro at the Freer Gallery (the first of the three Marlboro Concerts took place in November, and the third, featuring Mozart, Schoenberg, and Schumann, will take place on May 9th).

(Speech!.)

available at Amazon
Nielsen, Hindemith, Barber, Works for Woodwind Quintet, Musicians from Marlboro (1991)
Nielsen’s quintet is in part so (relatively) well known, because it is one of the best in a genre that has really few good examples. Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik, Barber’s Summer Music, Six Bagatelles of Ligeti are among the few really outstanding examples. Add a few more modern examples (Schuller, Babbitt, Harbison), a ton of Reicha (which gets old after a while), transcriptions and works that need to be fortified (namely Beethoven and Schubert), and pickings become fairly slim after that. That is not to diminish the quality of Nielsen’s op. 43 (1922), which is a joyous ride in a slow machine. Woodwind players will tell you that it is excellently written for their instruments, but beyond mere craftsmanship it has also moments of great beauty or novelty. A proto-Stravinskian touch here, there the beautiful Bach-like hymn upon which the variations of the finale (Tema con variazioni) are based. A bassoon opens the work, the other instruments flutter to its aid. The second movement (Menuett) is a counterpoint-sodden story on a melody that shows beauty in principle, although I tend to find it the most tiring of the movements. The slow Praeludium: Adagio is a short run up to the finale. The five musicians (Rudy Vrbsky, oboe; Alexander Fiterstein, clarinet; Shinyee Na, bassoon; Paul S. LaFollette III, horn; Valérie Tessa Chermiset, flute) showed the work from its best side.

Not quite as convincing were the three Schubert songs that followed. Beautiful songs, for sure, and delivered with a beautiful voice, but that alone didn’t make for a good Lied performance. The pronunciation was both very good and awkward: the effort very audible and as a result highly unnatural, a relation to the text never really established. Speaking of unnatural: soprano Hyunah Yu might also do well to tone down the Erika Köth-like wobbly power-vibrato and sing songs (at least songs) more naturally, less affected, while adjusting the general impression of a tubular “O” in her singing by moving it closer to an open “A.” Ditto for the Shepherd on the Rock, where she presented two emotions: ‘transported bliss’ and ‘theatrical sad’ – all with the recital stock poses, including the classic hand-on-the-heart and left-hand extended shyly into nowhere just above the shoulder. It all looked like she would make an excellent Adele in an American production of Die Fledermaus; for songs I’d like to see a few more years of maturity. With the raw materials being in place, though, she’ll undoubtedly get to delight future audiences once interpretation becomes more sophisticated. Mr. Fiterstein on the clarinet did a marvelous job next to her; Gilbert Kalish, who had played with great support in the songs, was only a bit less genial in the Shepherd.

While I passed on the Beethoven due to fatigue, the Carter I would not have missed. And good thing I didn’t – this 1950 woodwind quartet (no horn), a compositional study, was intriguing and at many points surprisingly charming. Whether the single, if internally varied, chord that made for the second etude, the slow fifth etude, or the interpolated music of the eighth (Presto)… every bit had something to say and all were worth listening to. Even in relatively simple works like that, the difference in quality in modern or abstract music is surprisingly easy to discern – and to the extent I’m not overly influenced by the name “Carter” alone, I find him consistently a winner in a field of music that has plenty to offer that is often no more than a calculated mess of sound.

8.3.06

Prelude to an Apfelstrudel 

available at Amazon
F. Schubert, Impromptu D935, 3 Klavierstücke, Sonata D850 in D, Matthias Soucek
Continuing their 2006 Mozart celebration at the Austrian Embassy, the Embassy Series invited Austrian pianist Matthias Soucek to D.C. for two recitals last Friday and Saturday. Friday the young artist, already well known in Austria, offered Mozart’s Sonata K570, the “Ah, vous dirai-je Maman” Variations, Liszt, Ravel, and Schubert’s 3 Klavierstücke. Saturday he presented Sonatas K283 in G major and K333 in B-flat major in the first half of the program.

He wasn’t done any favors being described as “Poet and Dreamer on the Piano” in the liner notes [from his own bio, actually!], which conjures rather horrid concepts of over-romanticized, new-ageish indulgence of the most vapid kind. Fortunately that label couldn’t have been further from the truth in the Mozart. Clear and in one breath, with a dry and nicely accentuated left hand Mr. Soucek had an unmannered fluency and svelte shading. It was a no-nonsense approach that left these Mozart sonatas enjoyable enough and easily digestible. Wonderful the melted chords in the K333 Andante cantabile. With perhaps a touch more emotion than Alicia de Larrocha, he exerted effortless control over the music’s inner workings, keeping every note in place and every movement ‘together’… comparable to the (greatly underrated, somewhat more indulgent) Fou Ts'ong, for example. Having had masterclasses with Paul Badura-Skoda surely didn’t hurt his Mozart, either.

From Mozart it went to Chopin after intermission. Here, too, Soucek was not too dreamy. There will be those who prefer their Chopin more deliberate and those who prefer theirs more refined; I quite like moving Chopin closer towards Liszt – and a swift but unhurried performance with a high level of proficiency was a fine thing to hear.

If you have never heard of Alfred Grünfeld (1852-1924), then… well, that’s quite alright. Think of him as the labor between the music of Johann Strauss, Jr., and the interpretation thereof on the piano. On one end you put in the music of Die Fledermaus, and out the other end comes a delectable little charmer by the name of Soriée de Vienne. Very droll, indeed; great encore material methinks.

Onto Schubert’s Impromptu D935 no. 2 in B-flat major: almost as Austrian but of course musically on quite another level. Alas, gone was the crispness that had kept the Mozart fresh, away the bold element of the Chopin. Schubert’s music can take any degree of Romanticism and still delight, but this was not so much Romantic but flabby with Schubert sounding more like the kind of Chopin interpretation I don’t like even when it is Chopin – much less Schubert. Twenty fingers were employed with precision and a way which there wasn’t anything specifically wrong – but the aloof, nocturnal exercise left one completely untouched.

In Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsodie was a lot more to be had – Soucek charged in headlong and emerged unscathed; keeping everyone energized to tackle the Austrian Embassy’s Apfelstrudel, which, whenever served, is the secret superstar of the evening.

7.3.06

Maestra Talks a Little: Ionarts Interview with Marin Alsop 

Marin AlsopWhen the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented its 2006/2007 season a few weeks back, Ionarts had the chance to briefly speak to Maestra Alsop and ask her a few questions – an opportunity we naturally jumped at with delight. Marin Alsop, at a very vital half-century young, immediately comes across as uncomplicated, down-to-earth, and practical: a first – well: second – sign that she isn’t your usual (or at least stereotypical) conductor. And indeed, not fitting neatly into stereotypes has been a hallmark of her career. We asked about her experience with discrimination (positive or negative or none at all) in a workplace that is among the last patriarchal strongholds.

Alsop says that she has experienced “probably all of them… in some way”… but among musicians she never felt that being a woman made a difference one way or the other, and she has never felt any kind of prejudice. Nor did she find that administrations of orchestras treated her differently for being a woman – either as a novelty draw or as unacceptable for being a woman. If anything, for her it was battling societal preconceptions. “You know there is an archetypal image of what a maestro is – and it’s not an American woman from New York… it’s a foreign gentleman with an ascot. It’s a different kind of image.” To get there, her extraordinary drive in anything she did or does (academics, music) has helped her… but, as she relates with a smirk that is somewhere between coy and bored with the question, she doesn’t think that is related to gender, either… it’s just her. She grants that the novelty factor of a woman on the rostrum may have been an advantage in getting more publicity here and there – “certainly twenty years ago, [when] it was even more novel, [more than now].”

When we gush about her interpretations of contemporary, musically conservative or modern-Romantic Anglo composers from Adams to Zwilich, Glass to Torke, she assures us that there needn’t be fear that she will neglect this element in her programming, for fear of being pigeon-holed.

“Oh no… I don’t think so. I’m a champion for many contemporary composers including John Adams, Christopher Rouse, but also Britsh composers; James MacMillan, Thomas Adès – and other contemporary composers: Saariaho…. All these people whose music just speaks to me.”

Marin Alsop - Photo by Simon Fowler
Also on Ionarts:

BSO 2006-2007 Highlights (February 17, 2006)

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Announces Its 2006/2007 Season (February 16, 2006)

BSO Watch 2006 (February 15, 2006)

A Taste of the Future: Marin Alsop with the BSO (January 13, 2006)

Alsop and the BSO III (July 26, 2005)

Alsop After All... (July 19, 2005)

Marin Alsop in Baltimore... or Not? (July 18, 2005)

Hilary Hahn at Strathmore [with the BSO] (February 21, 2005)
Good to know that her statement to the San Francisco Chronicle (August 5th, 2004) does not mean that we might be deprived of these composers (in the interview, Alsop told Joshua Kosman that she is “trying to get away from the American Stigma”). While on that topic, we suggest an orchestral performance of L’Amour de Loin, which receives a chuckle of appreciative disbelief that says ‘I’m with you – but don’t count on it’. Meanwhile we are also assured that her career which, “in Europe[,] is decidedly different from [her] career in America,” being known there mostly for Brahms and Mahler and other standard repertoire, might be seen differently, more balanced, in the future. Already she performs “standard repertoire in her American performances with the top ten orchestras of this country.”

“I generally try to put something contemporary, whether it is American or European… but the bulk of what I do is the standard repertoire. In New York I just conducted Brahms-1; that was the main work, the same, I think, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philly… But I always try to put something interesting on the program along with that.” It fits well with that sentiment that a Dvořák cycle with the BSO is planned for Naxos.

Well, talking about Brahms, there was a last question the answer to which we had been looking forward much. Not an easy question – but how Maestra instinctively found one of the few good answers to it was impressive: “As a great conductor: can you, must you be able to identify your own weaknesses – or is this business one such that you can’t be a great conductor if you think you have any weaknesses?”

“Well, I think that as a great leader one has to recognize one’s weaknesses to a certain extent. I mean, great leaders surround themselves with people that have strengths that they don’t have. And I think it’s important whenever one is in a position of authority one has an responsibility to always try to improve one’s skill set.

I am always working on it – I am not sure I’d ever admit what my weaknesses are to you [Darn it – we were too transparent, once again!] – or to anyone else… maybe that’s the key, you know: It’s knowing one’s weaknesses and not discussing them publicly. But just trying to improve them constantly.”

Perhaps pleased by her answer, perhaps amused by a question that had a little zest to offer, she sees us off with a charming smile, mock-complaining to the BSO’s Vice President of Public Relation Laura Johnson that “He’s asking me hard questions.”

Nothing so hard as to even begin to dent Marin Alsop’s public persona reinforced by her no-nonsense personality, disarming dry humor, and experience. But at least we’ll have some time to come up with new ones until October!

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