Concert Reviews | CD Reviews | DVD Reviews | Opera | Early Music | News | Film | Art | Books | Kids


Joshua Bell at Union Station

We are glad to have this report by author, classical music fan, and Friend of Ionarts Robert Pohl.

Joshua Bell in press scrum at Union Station, September 30, 2014 (photo by Robert Pohl)

Whenever a concert has been severely under-attended, all responsible try to figure out why nobody showed up and how to rectify this in future. Clearly, Joshua Bell has learned the lesson he learned on January 12, 2007. After exactly seven people – of the almost 1,100 who passed – took the time to listen to him perform in the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station, he and Gene Weingarten, who had put him up to it, decided that, the next time, they would do a little promotion of the event.

Thus, by noon on September 30, 2014, there were precious few people in Washington who did not know that Bell, in town recently for the National Symphony Orchestra's season opener, would be staging a repeat performance, this time in the main hall of Union Station. According to Bell's publicist, three thousand people stopped to watch. How many passed through the station wondering why there were so many people jammed up in the corner was not recorded.

available at Amazon
Bach, Violin Concertos, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, J. Bell
(Sony, 2014)
Bell was clearly enjoying himself. After being introduced by Weingarten, he swept onto the stage and straight into the first movement of Bach's A Minor Violin Concerto. This, obviously, requires some kind of accompaniment, and for this purpose, Bell had brought along nine members of the YoungArts program. After the first movement, Bell stopped and acknowledged the applause before introducing himself, the piece, and his orchestra. He also lamented the fact that he had failed to put out a violin case for tips this time, as well as the fact that he has a CD and HBO special coming out in the near future.

Bell then continued on with the second movement and – waving off applause – the third. The audience was enraptured, and though in quiet sections it was possible to hear the usual background hum of conversation that permeates Union Station, it was noticeably quieter than under ordinary circumstances.

When the applause died down, Bell picked up his microphone again and asked the many children who were gathered at the front whether “you aren't missing school?” He then explained that the next piece would be the last as he had a train to catch. It was the last movement of Mendelssohn's Octet. After some initial issues with balance, owing more to the amplification system than the players, the piece was given an exuberant reading that kept the whole audience enthralled.

It was a great experience, especially to the three people who had walked past Bell unheedingly on that cold January morning and now got to experience what they had missed the first time. Sadly, Bell says that he is not planning on making this any sort of routine, so if you want to see him, it will mean a trip to the Kennedy Center.

Joshua Bell and YoungArts musicians at Union Station, September 30, 2014 (photo by Robert Pohl)


Capulets and Montagues at WCO

Kate Lindsey (Romeo), Nicole Cabell (Giulietta), Antony Walker (conductor), I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Washington Concert Opera (photo by Don Lassell)
Vincenzo Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi is an ideal opera for concert performance, a work that features gorgeous singing but is not all that stage-worthy. In fact, I have heard it live only in concert form, most recently on Sunday evening at the Washington Concert Opera's season opener, presented at Lisner Auditorium. The libretto, by Felice Romani, is based not on Shakespeare's play but on the earlier Italian tales that were Shakespeare's sources. The Montecchi and Cappelletti were not families but political factions, from Verona and Cremona, respectively (as mentioned by Dante in the sixth canto of Purgatorio), and Romani's libretto aligns the two families instead with the Guelfs and Ghibellines. Tebaldo here is not Juliet's cousin but the man chosen to marry her, and Lorenzo is not a well-meaning friar but Juliet's doctor. Romeo offers a peace settlement between the two factions if Juliet's father will instead allow Romeo to wed his daughter, a truce that the proud Capellio rejects. For his cruel obstinacy he bears most of the tragic weight of the opera's conclusion.

The cast was led by mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, whom we followed through her years apprenticing at Wolf Trap Opera, Opera Theater of St. Louis, and Santa Fe Opera. All of the promise that seemed so remarkable in her then has come to fruition, and her Romeo showed an admirable increase in the strength of her low range, tested considerably by this score, with no weakening of her pretty top, lovely pianissimo tone (making for a gorgeous, anguished tomb scene, for example), or graceful agility in scales and figures. Soprano Nicole Cabell, who stepped in as a last-minute substitute for Giulietta, continued to rise in my estimation as a musician, with a warm tone that amply filled the hall. The other standout was tenor David Portillo, who also came to our ears first at Wolf Trap Opera and here made a confident, powerful Tebaldo with a beautiful messa di voce.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Lindsey, Portillo shine in Washington Concert Opera’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” (Washington Post, September 30)
Bass Jeffrey Beruan, whom we also heard in the role of Capellio at Caramoor two years ago, had a big, rumbling sound, effective if sometimes a little woolly as far as being able to discern the center of the pitch. Bass Liam Moran, featured by WCO previously and by Wolf Trap Opera, was mostly effective as Lorenzo, forming the last part of the fine quintet that ends the first act. Music director Antony Walker gave the score his usual careful attention, with only a few ensemble problems in the otherwise unremarkable overture and a harp whose strings had gone slightly flat by the time the instrument was played in the first act for Giulietta's first scene. The male chorus had a virile and well-organized sound, and the four horns made some beautiful contributions that made one regret that only two of their names were printed in the program.


Steven Lin Goes to the Opera

Although Steven Lin did not end up winning the Kapell Competition two years ago, he made quite a splash with the audience. Washington Performing Arts brought the young Taiwanese-American pianist back to the area for a Hayes Piano Series recital on Saturday afternoon, in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. It revealed a musician with often astounding technique, searching for extremes of sound: sometimes he connected with the music, especially when there was a compelling narrative for him to tell, and sometimes he did not. (As for his rambling introductions to some of the pieces, at the edge of incoherence, some musicians -- frankly, most of them -- should just let the music speak for itself.)

The outer pieces on the program were both inspired by opera, in a way, a dramatic quality that brought out Lin's strengths as a storyteller. Beethoven's E-flat major piano sonata (op. 31, no. 3) offered Lin a game of buffo contrasts and gestures, as if the sequence of movements were scenes from a comic opera by Mozart or Haydn. Voicing gradations created a sense of solo versus tutti textures, with the plethora of wrong-note appoggiaturas played like pratfalls or laughter. The raucous second movement, a surprise scherzo, sounded like a crowd scene, with a chorus calling back and forth in a confused night setting, and the third movement, a minuet doubling as slow movement, like a sweet serenade at a window or a courtly dance, with a comic interlude for a trio. Here, with the repeat of the minuet, Lin lost steam and the performance turned a little dull, a situation that only worsened in the super-fast finale, played without much nuance and far too much bang.

Other Reviews:

Simon Chin, Pianist Steven Lin sets bar high for Washington Performing Arts’ new season (Washington Post, September 29)
Liszt's Réminiscences de Don Juan was enough to prove Lin's technical bona fides, and the variations on Là ci darem la mano were daring and polished. The piece, I suspect, depicts Mozart's Don Giovanni after the opera's conclusion, taken off into hell where, according to Dante's conception, he reenacts his sins in eternity. This is why the music of the stone guest comes first; why the seducer's reminiscence of his seduction of Zerlina is accompanied by chromatic swirling music, as if depicting the foul whirlwind of the second circle of Inferno; and why it ends on the manic repetition of the Champagne Aria, Don Giovanni thumbing his nose at heaven from his punishment. Lin's mastery over the demands of Schumann's third sonata (F minor, op. 14) was no less impressive, but other than a general feeling of anxiety that pervaded the piece, it had no compelling tale to tell in Lin's hands. A new piece by David Hertzberg (b. 1990), notturno incantato, was a moderately interesting diversion, a static work of Lisztian tremolos and feathery right-hand ostinatos.

Folger Consort's Musical Heraldry

Charles T. Downey, Folger Consort presents Renaissance pieces (Washington Post, September 29, 2014)

Heraldry, the elaborate system of coats of arms that was an expression of family pride in past eras, remains as a tangible emblem of history. One possible musical counterpart, dances and songs written for and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I and her courtiers, was the focus of the Folger Consort’s first program of the season, heard on Friday night, offered in parallel to the heraldry exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Four members of the recently formed Arcadia Viols joined their colleague Robert Eisenstein to perform dance pieces for viol consort, a family of instruments at the height of its popularity in the Renaissance... [Continue reading]
Folger Consort, with Arcadia Viols
Courting Elizabeth, with tenor James Taylor
Folger Shakespeare Library


Perchance to Stream: Start of Fall Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Watch the production of Rossini's La Cenerentola, directed by Cécile Roussat at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, starring Marianna Pizzolato and conducted by Paolo Arrivabeni. []

  • From the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon, a performance of Rameau's Castor et Pollux, starring Colin Ainsworth, Florian Sempey, Emmanuelle de Negri. [ORF]

  • Listen to a performance of Handel's Israel in Egypt by the Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble and -Chor, conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock, recorded last July in Hamburg at the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival. [ORF]

  • Roberto Alagna stars in Verdi's Otello, recorded this summer at the Chorégies d'Orange. [RTBF]

  • A performance of Janáček's opera From the House of the Dead with the Arnold Schoenberg Chor and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez, recorded in 2007 in Aix-en-Provence. [France Musique]

  • Bernard Haitink conducts Beethoven's Missa Solemnis with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. [BR-Klassik]

  • Tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Julius Drake perform a recital of Schubert songs. [RTBF]

  • Andris Nelsons conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in music of Brahms, including the Alto Rhapsody with Sara Mingardo and the men of the Bavarian Radio Chorus. [Radio Clásica]

  • Riccardo Muti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in Schubert's fourth symphony and Bruckner's sixth. [Radio Clásica]

  • Watch Ed Spanjaard conduct the Cappella Amsterdam in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. [Avro Klassiek | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

  • Listen to music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, recorded by the Ensemble Correspondances and director Sébastien Daucé at the organ during the Festival d'Ambronay. [France Musique]

  • Songs of Spohr, Clara Schumann, and Mahler performed by soprano Sylvia Schwartz, clarinetist Sabine Meyer, and pianist Wolfram Rieger, recorded at the Schubertiade Schwarzenberg. [ORF]

  • Watch the season opener from the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, with music of Berlioz, Wagenaar, and Dvorak. [Avro Klassiek]

  • From the Caramoor festival, Pablo Heras-Casado conducts music of Wagner, Dvorak, and Elgar's cello concerto, with Alisa Weilerstein as soloist, recorded last month. [Radio Clásica]

  • From a concert recorded last month at the Nuits d’été de Saint-Pierre de Chartreuse, the JACK Quartet and friends perform music by Ken Thomson, Allain Gaussin, Guillaume de Machaut, and Steve Reich (Triple Quartet). [France Musique]

  • Franz Welser-Möst leads the Cleveland Orchestra in music of Brahms, and Jörg Widmann's Flute en suite (with soloist Joshua Smith) at the Royal Albert Hall. [ORF]

  • Janine Jansens and friends perform Mendelssohn's string octet and other works, at the Utrecht Chamber Music Festival. [Avro Klassiek]

  • Live from Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, the Halle performs music by Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, and Sibelius. [BBC3]

  • Violinist Vadim Repin joins the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and conductor Lio Kuokman for music by Svetlanov, Yusupov, and Shostakovich. [France Musique]

  • Argentine counter-tenor Franco Fagioli performs excerpts from operas by Porpora and Handel, as well as Vivaldi concertos with the Academia Montis Regalis and director Alessandro De Marchi at the Festival d'Ambronay. [France Musique]

  • From the Barbican Hall, Valery Gergiev conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in two symphonies by Prokofiev, together with Tchaikovsky's Piano concerto no. 2 with Denis Matsuev as the soloist. [BBC3]

  • If you missed the performance of Tchaikovsky's opera The Enchantress from the Theater an der Wien last week, here is another stream of it. [France Musique]

  • The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Donald Runnicles perform music by Mussorgsky, Scriabin, and Shostakovich. [BBC3]

  • Listen to a recital by pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, playing music by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Scriabin. [RTBF]

  • From the Grafenegg Festival, Kent Nagano leads the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich in Mahler's fourth symphony, Mozart's clarinet concerto, and Jörg Widmann's "Babylon"-Suite. [ORF]

  • Concerto Copenhagen performs concertos by Vivaldi, Marcello, Veracini, Albinoni, and Platti. [RTBF]

  • A harpsichord recital by Skip Sempé, with music by Rameau and Couperin, followed by the Ensemble Diabolus in Musica performing trouvère songs and traditional Breton songs. [France Musique]


'Florencia' Goes up the Amazon Again

The short run of Daniel Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas at Washington National Opera closes tomorrow. After our reviews of the first and second performances, the third performance on Wednesday night offered the chance to hear a different singer in the title role. Soprano Melody Moore made a commendable company debut as the opera singer returning to Brazil, dignified of presence and vocally lush but lighter in heft than Christine Goerke. One missed Goerke's overwhelming power -- and her surety on the role's top notes -- especially in the ensemble numbers, like the storm quintet near the end of the first act, but overall Moore's performance confirmed my suspicion that the role is better suited to a voice that can be a little more transparent and shimmery than Goerke's generally is.

It is always good to hear a relatively new work several times -- before this production, I knew this opera only in recording -- and the chance to hear it over three evenings brought out many details in my appreciation of it. Most notably, Catán managed to avoid the cliched sound of piles of unusual percussion so often found in the music of Latin composers, adding tinges of such sounds in a few places in the score, infusing rather than submerging it -- hints of steelpan, djembé, even wind machine as unexpected colors added subtly here and there. In particular, drums enter sotto voce at times -- the signature rhythm is 1 & 2 & - & 4, with the accent on the offbeat of beat 2 -- seeming to indicate the pulse of the Amazon that bubbles through the characters' minds and actions. They are some of the score's most seductive moments, which stand out because the sound of percussion is held in reserve.

This production continues through September 28, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.


Christopher Hogwood (1941-2014)

available at Amazon
Mozart, Exsultate, Jubilate

available at Amazon
Handel, Messiah

available at Amazon
Bach, Brandenburg Concertos

available at Amazon
Bach, Orchestral Suites
available at Amazon
Mozart, Coronation Mass / Vesperae Solennes de Confessore

available at Amazon
Mozart, Requiem Mass (ed. Maunder)

available at Amazon
Pergolesi, Stabat mater

available at Amazon
Pachelbel, Canon in D (inter alia)
Christopher Hogwood died on Wednesday, at the age of 73. The celebrated harpsichordist and conductor was on the cutting edge of the early music movement from the time of his work with David Munrow in the 1960s and 70s. After Munrow's tragic suicide, Hogwood's recordings with the renowned historically informed performance ensemble Academy of Ancient Music, especially those made in the 1980s, represented the state of the art in the field. I can clearly remember, in a record store in Ann Arbor, buying my first Hogwood recording, an LP of Mozart's Exsultate Jubilate and motets. It was unlike any Mozart recording I had ever heard, with this laser-voiced soprano named Emma Kirkby, and it reordered my teenage understanding of how to think about music composed before 1800.

This was in the day when one could spend hours looking through racks of records in an actual store, giving ones you wanted to buy a spin in the listening room. From that first hearing, my heart skipped a beat whenever one of those distinctive white L'Oiseau-Lyre jackets appeared in the rack, with the florid script and historical images, and I bought as many of them as I could afford. I wore out their recording of Bach's concertos for multiple harpsichords, featuring Christophe Rousset (now hard to find), long before I had ever heard a harpsichord played live. As a young choral singer taking part in over-boiled performances of choral masterpieces with a 200-voice choir and Romantically inclined orchestras, Hogwood's recordings helped cleanse my palate, questioning every assumption of mainstream musicians about these famous works. His ground-breaking Messiah; Mozart's Requiem (in the stripped-down edition by C.R.F. Maunder), Coronation Mass, Vesperae Solennes de Confessore; and even Pachelbel's misunderstood Canon in D became favorites.

Hogwood recorded many more recordings than are suggested here, but these are the ones that have stuck with me over the years. I admit that I never cared much for his interpretations of music any later than Mozart, but even after almost thirty years, his recordings of the Brandenburgs and the orchestral suites of Bach remain near the top of my list. I also admit that I find his choice of singers, other than the divine La Kirkby, to be often disappointing, although it was thanks to him that James Bowman made me believe that a countertenor could actually sound good, in their breathtaking recording of Pergolesi's Stabat mater. Embedded below, it seems like the perfect prayer to offer in memory of Christopher Hogwood.


Second Opinion: Florencia in the Amazon

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

Photo (detail) courtesy Washington National Opera, © Scott Suchman.

Monday evening, September 22, 2014, I heard the second performance of Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s Florencia in the Amazon, the season-opening opera of the Washington National Opera.

Exactly the kind of opera that should fill the house with people who love traditional opera

Over several years, I have been listening to the music from this Spanish-language opera on the Albany Troy recording of the Houston Grand Opera production without paying too much attention to the libretto. I fell in love with the music, which is sumptuous, radiant, Impressionistic, stirring and fully Puccini-esque. I had to laugh when I read that soprano Christine Goerke, who so ably sings the role of Florencia, said, “I describe the music as ‘Puccini had a baby, and Debussy was the nanny.’” That’s exactly it, with slight dash of Stravinsky added from his ballet music. If you find that description attractive, hie thee to the Kennedy Center for one of the remaining performances (till September 28). In fact, I had to scratch my head over the empty seats Monday night. Or not scratch—after all this opera is relatively new (1996), Catán’s name relatively unknown, and prospective audience members ever so gun-shy. But this is exactly the kind of music and opera that should fill the house with people who love traditional opera.

What opera is really about is love, death, passion, and happiness

available at Amazon
D.Catán, Florencia en el Amazonas,
P.Summers/ Houston Grand Opera / P.Schumann, M.Doss et al.

With masterful understatement, Catán (1949-2011) said, “In my work… perhaps, the greatest of my debts is having learnt that the originality of an opera need not involve the rejection of our tradition… but rather the profound assimilation of it”. I’ll say! How else could he have gotten the nerve to write such impossibly beautiful, ecstatic music? Catán believed that “what opera is really about, is those expressions which are the foundation of our humanity: love, death, passion, happiness and that kind of basic emotion. There is really very little else in life that is as powerful as that which makes two people’s destiny into one—that, and death. That’s where the great tradition lies. That is what opera is great at doing: It touches on those things and takes you through them. It’s something that has been absent from modern works for a long time and we need to get back to that.”

So much for the music; now for the libretto. Since the music is so much like Puccini, it is no surprise that the subject is love—both fulfilled and frustrated in equal measure. The plot turns around the return of Florencia, a world-famous diva, to her hometown of Manaus up the Amazon, where she is to reopen the opera house. After her absence of 20 years, she is in search of her long-lost lover, Cristóbal, a butterfly hunter, whom she left for the sake of her singing career. She is full of longing for him and regret at the emptiness of her fame. She appears incognito among the other passengers on the riverboat, the El Dorado. Two couples show the various and varying sides of love—an older married couple for whom the flame has died out, and a younger couple experiencing the thrills of first love. Both in some way think that experiencing Florencia’s performance in Manaus will resolve their problems.

The journey is the destination

Without going into further plot details, I can say that Catán pulls out all the musical stops fairly early on, but is able to sustain a marvelous sense of expectancy throughout act one, which ends in a dramatic storm scene. The vocal quintet (or was it a sextet?) near the end of the act is one of the glorious highlights.

At the beginning of the second act, the boat is stranded. One might say when the boat stops, so does the opera in the sense of action. The first several scenes are reflections on love, fear, and longing. The scenes are static, the action interior, but the music gorgeous. The boat begins to move again, and the couples find resolution, but the El Dorado cannot dock because cholera has broken out in Manaus. Since the destination is never reached, does not the opera end in frustration? One might think so, but the dramatic lesson is that the journey itself was the destination.

The opera ends in a remarkable aria in which Florencia sings to Cristóbal, whom she now knows she will never see again and who is probably no longer living. She had earlier said, “I want to sing to him and find the light again, that light freed me, it gave me wings.” As she sings, giant wings descend and she is transformed into a butterfly—out of her chrysalis of selfishness at last.

Love is beauty

The transformation of Florencia into a butterfly signified to me her willingness to be caught—in other words, submission to the butterfly catcher, who now appears to be nowhere and everywhere in the pantheistic world view that Catán and librettist Marcela Funetes-Berain portray. This, then, is her beginning, not her end. But who is the butterfly catcher? He is, it seems, love—not a transcendent love, but an imminent pantheistic love that infuses and suffuses everything and at least carries over the great divide of death. Catán wrote, “She breaks through her cocoon; her voice soars, her song acquires transparent wings. Love and beauty become indistinguishable from each other.” I think it might be more accurate to say that the teaching of the opera is: love is beauty.

On Monday evening, the beauty was certainly conveyed by the singing and the orchestral performance, conducted by Carolyn Kuan in her Washington National Opera premiere, which captured the soaring lyricism, as well as all the twittering and rippling sounds of nature. Soprano Andrea Carroll was a standout in her portrayal of Rosalba. The act two duet with her and the radiant Christine Goerke was outstanding—by itself worth the price of admission. However, there really wasn’t a weak link in the cast—a point proven by all the excellent ensemble singing.

I wondered whether the production could be as good as the music, as one’s imagination runs wild when listening unassisted by visuals. It almost was. It’s hard to use a single set and avoid tedium. However, the river boat was roughly realistic and able to turn. Projections and lighting were quite effective, though not at the genius level seen in the production of Moby Dick last season. There was no gratuitous movement. The stage direction was spot on.

There is a lot to like—perhaps, to love—in this production of Florencia in the Amazon. Do not let it pass you by. 

This production continues through September 28, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.


Angela Hewitt Gets to the Heart of Fugue

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, The Art of Fugue, A. Hewitt
(Hyperion, 2014)
Pianist Hélène Grimaud was scheduled to open the season at Shriver Hall in Baltimore on Sunday afternoon, but when the French pianist withdrew, due to a finger injury, it was Angela Hewitt who stepped in to save the day. We wish Grimaud a speedy recovery, of course, but it was hard not to feel that this change of events was an upgrade, meaning the chance to hear Hewitt play twice this fall -- she will play a Mozart piano concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra next month -- and to hear her play J.S. Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge, apparently the only time she will play the work live in the United States this season. Fortunately, thanks to the tendency of Professor Hewitt to lecture before she plays, my late arrival did not mean missing any of the actual music.

Hewitt gave a preview of her Art of Fugue at Shriver Hall in 2012, when she played the first four contrapunctus movements. Early in that year, Hewitt underwent an emergency surgery, and she wrote that following the procedure she did not touch the piano for over a week, coming back to practicing eventually by taking her first look at the score of The Art of the Fugue. Hewitt believes in the piece, which will be the capstone of her traversal of the complete Bach keyboard works for Hyperion when her new recording is released next month. The work has a reputation for being dry and cerebral, and a less skilled performance can make it live up to that reputation. Endlessly, infinitely complex, yes, but Hewitt brought out all of its warmest, lyrical qualities.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Pianist Angela Hewitt performs Bach’s ‘The Art of Fugue’ at Shriver Hall in Baltimore (Washington Post, September 23)
In the more intricate fugues, she applied considerable rhythmic freedom and sometimes slow, but not lugubrious tempi, to allow her to examine each thread of the tapestry, using rallentandi at the edge of excess to cue the listener to the approaching entrance of the subject. I have noted for some years the affinity of Hewitt, who once trained as a dancer, for dance movements, and she brought that love of movement to the notes inégales of Contrapunctus II and the gigue-like mirror fugues of Contrapunctus XIII.

The only place that the performance bogged down a bit was in the four canons near the end, where Hewitt's careful pacing and detail-oriented touch became a little too austere in the already spare two-part texture. Hewitt says of these pieces, in her extensive program essay, that "there is beauty to be found in severity, and we should let them speak simply without trying to add too much in the way of interpretation." Goal achieved. After that, though, she gave a religious, intense reading of Contrapunctus XIV that brought the performance full circle. Hewitt believes that Contrapunctus XIV is an incomplete quadruple fugue, whereas I am more convinced that Bach's inclusion of his own name-theme indicates that he intended to leave the final piece incomplete, with the understanding that the final piece of the puzzle, the weaving in of the main subject, is hanging in the silence, a gesture to the infinite. Despite her belief, Hewitt wisely eschewed the various possible completions of the final piece, letting the score come to an abrupt end where Bach's score does. In homage, she then played Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit, the quirky chorale harmonization added to the final version of The Art of Fugue.

The next concert on this series will feature the Belcea Quartet (October 26, 5:30 pm), at Shriver Hall in Baltimore.


National Symphony Season Opening Ball Concert

available at Amazon
Bach, Violin Concertos, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, J. Bell
(Sony, 2014)
The National Symphony Orchestra opened their 84th season -- the ensemble's 44th in the Kennedy Center -- Sunday evening with violinist Joshua Bell and soprano Kelli O’Hara as guest artists. Following a performance of the National Anthem, under Music Director Christoph Eschenbach’s vivacious baton, the orchestra was hustled through Bernstein’s overture to Candide, which allowed opportunities galore for solos from the principal chairs. Much like the glitter and sparkling of sequins and jewels adorning many in the audience and onstage (the ladies of the orchestra wore ball gowns), the concert was largely without focus. In other words, musical flash was on the menu, and delivered in great quantity.

Joshua Bell joined the orchestra for Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for Violin and Orchestra, a showpiece that put the audience on the edge of their seats rather than sitting back in their chairs to absorb longer musical thoughts. Bell’s clear, sweet sound was breathtaking and contrasted nicely to the darker tone drawn out of his violin in Ravel’s Tzigane for Violin and Orchestra, which followed. Ravel demands that the violinist play quite high notes on the fatter of their strings to help create this effect. The orchestra musicians, through Ravel’s imaginative orchestration, reinforced Bell’s earthy interpretation of the gypsy “hoedown” roots of the piece. Bell’s lyrical encore from the Nigel Hess’ film score Ladies in Lavender helped smooth the transition to the Pops selections comprising the second half of the program.

NSO Pops Conductor Steven Reineke and soprano Kelli O’Hara, singing with heavy amplification, offered a number of songs. Most memorable was Bernstein's Glitter and be Gay, from Candide, which includes the material from the boisterous coda in the overture heard at the beginning of the concert. Autumn Leaves, en français, and La Vie en Rose of Edith Piaf fame were quite fun. Maestro Eschenbach retook the podium to close the concert with Ravel’s La Valse, a surreal neo-Romantic Viennese waltz full of intoxicated impulses that the orchestra relished.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Josh Bell meets Kelli O’Hara: NSO shows pops side in season-opening gala (Washington Post September 23)
Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein spoke to the audience following intermission. In addition to graciously introducing the new Kennedy Center President, Deborah Rutter, Rubenstein announced the December 4th groundbreaking of the Kennedy Center Expansion Project on the south grounds and jutting over the river. Rubenstein proudly stated that the groundbreaking will be done using the shovel used by President Lyndon Johnson at the Kennedy Center’s groundbreaking fifty years ago, and that the new facility will be dedicated on May 29, 2017, John F. Kennedy’s one-hundredth birthday. Due to a successful capital campaign, no federal funds will be used for the Expansion Project, thus making it a “gift to the federal government.”


Love in the Time of Cholera

Christine Goerke and cast, Florencia en el Amazonas, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman)

An opera company's choice of a season opener may make a statement, but it may not mean what one thinks it means. Washington National Opera, now firmly under the artistic aegis of Francesca Zambello, chose to open its season with Florencia en el Amazonas, premiered in 1996 by Mexican composer Daniel Catán (1949-2011). On one hand, the choice shows a commitment to contemporary opera, especially in a season that also includes Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, from 1956; on the other hand, both works could be described as half-concessions to a conservative audience, since neither composer's style goes much beyond what one finds in the work of Debussy. Whatever the significance of the choice, Florencia is an audience-pleasing work, one of the most successful new operas of the last thirty years, creating a sense of enormous promise on which Catán seemed unable to capitalize, producing only one other major work opera, Il Postino, before he died. [The composer's son asked that I correct the impression that his father was not working in those intervening years, when he produced many other works besides the one opera. -- Ed.] Last performed in the Washington area by Maryland Opera Studio in 2010, this Florencia received a decent production and a mostly fine cast that put it in the best possible light.

available at Amazon
D. Catán, Florencia en el Amazonas, P. Schumann, M. Doss, Houston Grand Opera, P. Summers
(Albany Records, 2002)
Florencia was the first Spanish-language opera commissioned by major American opera houses, and the wandering, mysterious libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain owes its style and tone -- distantly, through a filter -- to the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez. The plot is self-referential in a way, because the title character is an opera singer, Florencia Grimaldi, taking a trip on a riverboat up the Amazon, to reopen the opera house in Manaus. She left Brazil and the love of her life, a butterfly hunter named Cristóbal, to follow her career, but memories are stirred in her and in the others who make the voyage with her. Goerke inhabited the role of Florencia with dramatic poise, although vocally it did not quite fit her like a glove: the voice filled the room with beauty, but there were moments that the tone went slightly acidic, something not quite right in the placement or support. Part of this may be due to the Strauss-like demands of the vocal writing, at which Goerke has excelled with the NSO and with Washington National Opera, but Debussy-wispy orchestration -- enough swirling woodwind arpeggios to stun a small cat -- that does not always support the singer.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, ‘Florencia in the Amazon’ with Goerke: An ephemeral dream in first WNO outing (Washington Post, September 22)

---, Christine Goerke: WNO’s ‘Florencia’ star talks about singing (Washington Post, September 12)

Philip Kennicott, Florencia en el Amazonas at the WNO (, September 21)

Roland Flamini, D.C. opera raises curtain with work inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Washington Times, September 22)
Sadly, Norman Garrett was a disappointment in the other lead role, that of Riolobo: he may have cut quite a figure in his loincloth and wings, but vocally he was not up to the weight of the character, both shipmate and all-seeing river shaman. Andrea Carroll made a smart debut as Rosalba, the journalist who hopes to interview Florencia, matching Goerke step for step in their Act II duet but overwhelming her love interest, tenor Patrick O'Halloran, a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist who was given too much to chew as Arcadio. David Pittsinger was a stalwart Captain, and mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera and baritone Michael Todd Simpson bickered spitefully as the married couple whose love is reignited by Florencia's example. Francesca Zambello's production hews closely to the libretto, for once, the only addition being a group of five dancers -- part piranha, part Brazilian savage, part brightly plumed birds -- that regularly filled the space around Robert Israel's rather plain rotating river boat set. Carolyn Kuan, who also made her Santa Fe Opera debut this summer, did competent work at the podium, but balances and ensemble cohesion could have been better. The timing of the final tableau, involving an immense set of butterfly wings that descended too early, causing preemptive applause, should be better on subsequent evenings.

This production continues through September 28, in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Melody Moore replaces Christine Goerke on September 24.


Perchance to Stream: Season Opener Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Listen to a concert from the Regensburg Early Music Festival, recorded last June, with Hervé Niquet conducting Le Concert Spirituel in music of Purcell. [RTBF]

  • Olivier Baumont, Frédéric Desenclos, and Martin Gester perform organ music by French composers of the 17th and 18th centuries, recorded in the church of Saint-Michel en Thiérache as part of the Festival de Musique Ancienne et Baroque de Saint-Michel en Thiérache, on the historic organ made by Jean Boizard in 1714. [France Musique]

  • From the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, a performance of Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette starring mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa, tenor Paolo Fanale, and bass Alex Esposito with the Orchestre National de France under Daniele Gatti. [France Musique]

  • Listen to a performance of Tchaikovsky's The Enchantress from the Theater an der Wien. [ORF]

  • The Missa Scala Aretina, psalms, motets, and villancicos by Catalan composer Francesc Valls performed by La Grande Chapelle under Albert Recasens from the Festival de Musique Ancienne et Baroque de Saint-Michel en Thiérache. [France Musique]

  • Collegium Vocale 1704, under Václav Luks, performs sacred music by Fux, Tuma, and Zelenka, recorded last month at the Utrecht Early Music Festival. [ORF]

  • Marc-André Hamelin plays a recital featuring his own music, plus that of Medtner and Schubert. [RTBF]

  • From the Festival d'Ambronay, La Cappella Mediterranea under Leonardo Garcia Alarcon perform music by Domenico Scarlatti, Sigismondo d'India, and Carlo Gesualdo. [France Musique]

  • Watch Myung-Whun Chung conduct the season opener of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, joined by soloist Evgeny Kissin. [Cité de la Musique Live]

  • A concert by the Vienna Piano Trio, with music by Mendelssohn and Beethoven. [RTBF]

  • Concerts by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, playing symphonies by Beethoven and Wilhelm Stenhammer under Herbert Blomstedt, and the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, with Andrew Manze conducting Lars-Erik Larsson's four sketches on Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. [ORF]

  • The last night of the Proms, preceded by the August 18 recital of songs performed by soprano Anne Schwanewilms and pianist Malcolm Martineau from Cadogan Hall. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin and soprano Isa Katharina Gericke perform music by C.P.E. Bach. [RTBF]

  • From the Schubertiade Schwarzenberg, a recital of songs by Schubert and Strauss performed by soprano Adrianne Pieczonka and pianist Brian Zeger. [ORF]

  • Watch Tugan Sokhiev and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse perform Dvořák's ninth symphony, plus Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto with Behzod Abduraimov as soloist. []

  • Violinist Frank-Peter Zimmermann joins the Cleveland Orchestra for Shostakovich's first violin concerto, plus Dvořák's sixth symphony conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. [RTBF]

  • From the Internationale Haydntage, the Acies Quartett performs music by Mozart, Haydn, and Schubert. [ORF]

  • Ton Koopman leads the Cleveland Orchestra in music by Mozart, Fischer, Rebel, and Haydn. [RTBF]

  • Juanjo Mena leads the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and pianist Stephen Hough in music by Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Mahler. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the Royal Northern Sinfonia perform music of Beethoven and Brahms at Sage Gateshead. [BBC3]

  • Watch the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg under conductor Emmanuel Krivine in music of Stravinsky, Ravel, and Dvořák, with pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as soloist. [Arte]

  • Violinist Andrey Baranov joins the Orchestre national de Belgique, under conductor Andrey Boreyko, for Bruch's first violin concerto, plus a performance of Bruno Mantovani's symphonic poem Schlemihil. [RTBF]

  • Emanuel Ax plays the Brahms first piano concert with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, recorded last month at the Grafenegg Festival. [ORF]

  • The ensemble C Barré performs a program of four world premieres inspired by mechanical sound, composed by Alexandros Markeas, Jean-Christophe Marti, and Frédéric Pattar, recorded at the Festival de Chaillol. [France Musique]

  • Matthias Jung conducts the Batzdorfer Hofkapelle and the Sächsisches Vocalensemble in Homilius's Der Messias, recorded last June at the Dresden Musik Festival. [ORF]

  • A recital by pianist Michel Dalberto with music by Bach, Liszt, and Ravel, recorded at the Festival de musique sacrée de La Chaise-Dieu. [France Musique]

  • From the Schubertiade Schwarzenberg, a performance of Schubert's song cycle Die schöne Müllerin by tenor Benjamin Bruns and pianist Gerold Huber, recorded last month. [ORF]

  • Leonard Slatkin leads the Orchestre National de Lyon in its season opener, in music of Berlioz, Chabrier, Canteloube, and soprano Sylvia McNair in songs of Gershwin. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Javier Perianes and the Orchestre Symphonique de la Principauté des Asturies, under conductor Rossen Milanov, perform music by Marcos Fernandez, Manuel de Falla, Shostakovich, and Gerynimo Giminez. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the fine recording of Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie starring Véronique Gens (Aricie), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Hippolyte), and Bernarda Fink (Phèdre), with Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble and Marc Minkowski. [ORF]


BSO Opens the Season at Strathmore

This is a weekend of season openers, the first of which was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which kicked off its subscription series in the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday night. Some listeners, who thought that Hilary Hahn playing Beethoven's violin concerto was the highlight of the program, were possibly disappointed that the soloist's recovery from a hand injury, taking longer than expected, forced her to cancel her engagement with the BSO. Veteran violinist Pinchas Zukerman must be thanked for stepping in on short notice to allow the concert to go on, but the Beethoven could have been omitted altogether, for the draw of this program was Mahler's fourth symphony, which thanks to soprano Tamara Wilson was as celestial as one could hope.

Marin Alsop last conducted this symphony with the BSO in 2009, when her soloist was the feather-light Susanna Phillips. By contrast, Wilson had all of the oomph and power she needed for the bigger moments of the symphony's finale, with the ability to float the final line of each strophe with precision, clarity, and translucent tone ("Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu!"). If heaven is not the way it is portrayed in this gorgeous music -- deer and rabbits run down the streets hoping to serve up their own flesh to the elect, the angels bake the bread, and fish swim up to be eaten on fast days -- it should be. Mahler once described the fourth symphony as a series of children's dreams, and Alsop and her musicians captured this guileless quality beautifully in each movement, the first movement more happy-go-lucky than driven or bubbly, the exposed flutes like Mahler whistling along on one of his Alpine walks, reveling in mawkish sentiment in places. Jonathan Carney produced a bold, mustache-twirling tone in the scordatura solos from Freund Hain in the second movement, amid a scherzo of Mendelssohnian lightness. The slow movement was perhaps just a notch too fast for its tempo marking of "Peaceful," not allowing one to wallow in the lush sound of the cellos, for example, but the massive swell of sound that begins the transition into the heavenly vision of the Des knaben Wunderhorn poem set in the fourth movement was given all of its shock and power.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, BSO opens 99th season in great form with Beethoven, Mahler (Baltimore Sun, September 20)

Simon Chin, A reshuffled Baltimore Symphony Orchestra can’t quite fill the void after headliner’s exit (Washington Post, September 20)
It is the 200th anniversary of the words to the Star-Spangled Banner, as well as the season opener, and the BSO chose to open with one of its odder arrangements of the American national anthem, by Christopher Theofanidis, which is a little too odd to be effective for this kind of event. As for the Beethoven, it is difficult to make much of a mark with this piece, which is so overplayed, and Zukerman played it in a decidedly old-school way, with big tone, bruising vibrato, and Romantic phrasing, even playing along with the orchestra in the introduction and some of the interludes. The second movement did not seem to come together in terms of the pacing, perhaps the result of a disagreement between soloist and conductor, but the third, although a bit on the conservative side in tempo, was gutsy and full-voiced.

This concert repeats on Sunday afternoon, at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.


For Your Consideration: 'A Master Builder'

Wallace Shawn (Master Builder Solness) and Lisa Joyce (Hilde) in A Master Builder

Jonathan Demme seems to be the new Louis Malle, in the sense that he has directed the latest collaboration of Wallace Shawn and André Gregory. The costars of My Dinner with André and Vanya on 42nd Street, both directed by Malle, are reunited in A Master Builder, Demme's new film adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's play Bygmester Solness (Master Builder Solness). The screenplay credit goes to Shawn, although the film is based on a stage production of the play created by Gregory, and the changes to the structure of the play are significant. Demme, who has not made a good feature movie since Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia in the 1990s, has directed an earnest and sometimes surprising version of this play, with a twist that transforms the plot from one about an old man ruined by a seductive woman to one about an old man who is saved by one (watch out for spoilers after the jump).

Shawn plays Halvard Solness, a highly regarded architect whose life is coming apart, as a mostly vile and petty egotist, blinded to anyone's concerns but his own. Everything in his life has gone wrong, ever since a fire burned down his wife's family home, in a way killing their three-week-old twin sons. At the same time, the tragedy boosted his career, for which Solness feels he is being punished: "I am being ground down into the dirt," he says at one point, "overpowered by guilt." He is cruel to his ailing colleague, Brovik (played with painful sincerity by Gregory), and his son who aspires to be an architect, keeping the son and his fiancée, with whom he is carrying on a not-so-secret affair, under his thumb. Into this situation comes a young woman, Hilde, who is a stand-in for the older Ibsen's infatuations with young women late in his life. She confronts Solness with his past, when he designed a building in her village and, at a celebration for the opening, treated her, then only a young girl, in a way that we might now describe as molestation.


Ask the Académie Française

No one would likely argue that the French do not love their language. The Académie Française, appointed as guardians over the French language, opened a Web site in 2001, called Dire, ne pas dire, where anyone who can surf the Internet can pose a grammar or vocabulary question. The Web site was so successful that the Académie Française chose two hundred-some of the best questions and published them, along with the official responses, in a book of the same title published by Editions Philippe Rey, as reported in an article ("Dire, ne pas dire" : quand l'Académie française répond aux internautes, September 18) in Le point (my tranlsation):
The book also contains, for example, the origin of the expressions "C'est du gâteau" and "C'est pas de la tarte." In effect, rather than being a policeman of the language, the Académie française, founded by Richelieu in 1635, reminds us that it is also attentive to the need for the language's enrichment and for the struggle against the impoverishment of vocabulary.
The most recent entry on the Web site as of this writing (Cela ressort de mes attributions, September 9) sorts out a puzzler, the two verbs ressortir and ressortir, which are identical in the infinitive but are conjugated differently because they come from different etymological sources. One means to leave a place shortly after having entered it, which is conjugated irregularly like sortir, and the other means to spring from, which is conjugated regularly as an -ir verb. The former verb takes the preposition "de," while the latter takes the preposition "à." Other recent entries concern the distinction of luxuriant from luxurieux, the archaic word mésaise (as used in the works of Chrétien de Troyes), and of course the proscription of English words (le short list, spoiler) when there are perfectly good French words to use instead. E-mail questions and official responses run in the right column of the site, under the words "Courrier des internautes." Great -- yet another way for me to waste valuable time on my obsessions.


Paris's Delamain Bookstore Safe for Now

One of the delights of living in Paris was its booksellers, from the bouquinistes in their stalls along the Seine to the librairies in more fixed stores, especially those in the university quarter. One of the oldest and most famous of Paris's bookstores, the Librairie Delamain, is located in the Hôtel du Louvre, across the street from the Comédie Française. The rents of the neighborhood, the 1er arrondissement, are on the rise, and the owner of the store's building, a Qatari holding company, was threatening to evict tenants who could not pay the higher rents. Even in France, where the book is still idolized, bookstores are losing money to their online counterparts -- would there soon be a day where the Delamain was not selling books on the Rue Saint-Honoré?

Good news is found in an article (Librairie Delamain: des nouvelles rassurantes, September 17) by Pierre Adrian in Le Figaro. Vincent Monadé, president of the Centre national du livre (CNL), got involved and recently announced that the Qatari owners had agreed to take into account "the specific activity of its tenant, as well as the length of time it has occupied the location" when it considers the matter of rent. The CNL considers the Delamain a «librairie de référence», and the store already receives subventions to help pay its rent. Leading cultural luminaries came out in answer to the call to convince the Qatari company to reconsider its decision, and it has apparently worked.