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18.4.15

Ionarts-at-Large: The Takács Quartet in Vienna


The heart of chamber music of Vienna beats in the Mozart-Saal. But the offerings at the Brahms-Saal of the venerable, more famous Musikverein can be tempting, too… and if and when the Takács Quartet calls whence, the resident-ionarts unit will drop whatever he is doing and head over to hear one of our longest standing favorites. Even in an utterly conservative program such as they presented at the Musikverein on Tuesday, February 10th: Schubert, Schubert, Beethoven. And the Beethoven “Razumovsky 1” at that… not that there is anything wrong with that. But it’s not the modern Beethoven à la op.135 which might have been the

17.4.15

'The tintinnabulation that so musically wells'

Sergei Rachmaninoff is a composer whose instrumental music often seems wandering and overlong to me. Not unlike his compatriot Tchaikovsky, whose ballets and operas suit me much more than his symphonies and concertos, Rachmaninoff seemed to benefit from the restraint of a text or story. This is likely why Kolokola, a choral symphony based on Edgar Allan Poe's evocative poem The Bells, is so effective, a grand Rachmaninoff work that never oozes into Rachmaninoff's saccharine sound and does not overstay its welcome. For some reason, the National Symphony Orchestra had only performed the piece once in its entire history, back in 1977, in a concert led by the late Norman Scribner. Vassily Sinaisky made his NSO debut with a spirited rendition of the work, heard last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

The veteran Russian conductor, who resigned from the Bolshoi Theater in 2013 "to avoid conflict" with the new director, came with three fine Russian-trained soloists and a sure hand on this work less familiar outside of Russia. Norman Scribner's choir, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, engulfed the hall in sound in the opening movement ("Silver Sleigh Bells"), well prepared by Scott Tucker. Tenor Sergey Semishkur, after an uncertain and slightly off-pitch introduction, had a more heroic sound in the full parts of this movement, with its lovely parts for celesta and every metallic percussion instrument Rachmaninoff could get his hands on. The slow movement ("Mellow Wedding Bells") had oozing strings and a smoldering melody in the cellos, cushioning the ample tone of soprano Dina Kuznehtsova, wavering only when she had to float that high A toward the end of the movement.

The whole ensemble was most secure in the loud and fast third movement ("Loud Alarum Bells"), with groaning deep woodwinds and the chorus, seated in sections for security, beautifully schooled in swelled crescendi and -- more importantly -- decrescendi. A moody English horn solo introduced the funereal finale ("Mournful Iron Bells"), led by baritone Elchin Azizov with a menacing, dark sound to his imposing voice. Of course, Rachmaninoff here turned again to a quotation of the Dies irae sequence, although in a much more hidden way in this score, contributing to the work's solemn conclusion.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Debuting conductor offers experienced path through ‘The Bells’ (Washington Post, April 17)

Terry Ponick, NSO, Choral Arts Society ring in Rachmaninoff’s glorious ‘Bells’ (Communities Digital News, April 17)
The evening opened less auspiciously, with a somewhat messy, not quite fully digested performance of the overture to Borodin's Prince Igor, in the form reconstructed by Alexander Glazunov. This brought to the fore some of the more inscrutable qualities of Sinaisky's conducting style, although the musical ideas, especially the dynamic shading, were generally effective. The accelerandi and other tempo changes were not unified, and overall the piece, never before played by the NSO, needed more seasoning.

By contrast, Mozart's clarinet concerto (A major, K. 622) felt almost too familiar, too cozy and comfortable. Principal clarinetist Loren Kitt was authoritative in the solo part, equally beautiful in phrasing and tone, if perhaps a little too easygoing, certainly by contrast to the playing of Jörg Widmann, who last played the piece with the NSO in 2012. The Adagio here could have been slower, and the concluding Allegro was on the tame side, but Sinaisky and the NSO provided a warm, well-scaled envelope of sound for Kitt. It is hard not to like this piece, one of the most perfect concertos ever composed, not least because it lacks any cadenzas or any over-the-top virtuosic displays.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow.

Martin Kasík at Czech Embassy

Martin Kasík had his Washington debut in 2000, garnering a fine review for his Young Concert Artists-sponsored recital at the Kennedy Center, the same year he also played at 92nd Street Y in New York. The Czech pianist came back for a recital at the Strathmore Mansion in 2006, which I am sorry to have missed, based on the beauty of his playing on Wednesday night at the Embassy of the Czech Republic, presented by the Embassy Series. In the intervening years, Kasík has become an exceptional musician and, judging by this video, a talented teacher, even though I do not understand a word of Czech.

16.4.15

Ionarts-at-Large: Trio Wanderer in Romantic Redemption



available at Amazon
J.Haydn, Complete Piano Trios,
Beaux Arts Trio
Philips/Decca





The Trio Wanderer is one of the ARD International Music Competition Prize Winner alumni that make that competition’s name in the chamber music field quite so prestigious. Their recordings (Best of 2009 here, Best of 2012 here, Messiaen) are of library-building quality, rivaled only by the Beaux Arts Trio and the Florestan Trio. In short: worth a trip to the Musikverein’s Brahms-Saal even if that isn’t my favorite chamber venue in Vienna. (Shaped like a coffin and just a little less lively.) Snark aside, it’s not that bad a place to hear Haydn, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky. Nor is it surprising to hear such an ultra-conventional program there, down to the abuse of glorious Haydn as the warm-up piece. (Complauding™*!)

And the Haydn Trio No.43 in C (the Vienna venues every only list Haydn by the incredibly useless Hoboken numbers, as if “Hob.XV/27” was particularly meaningful to everyone but a musicologist with not much of a social life) did indeed sound like a warm-up, sadly. It came and went—with a Presto Finale along the way that was nice for having tried to raise the game, but it veered... and instead of becoming lively by way of extreme speeds it just became

15.4.15

Cannes Set to Open with 'a good film' for a Change

We are a month away from the Festival de Cannes, when Joel and Ethan Coen, who apparently do everything together, will preside as the first co-presidents of the jury. Isabella Rossellini will serve as chairperson of the Un Certain Regard jury, in the year that the festival will honor her mother, actress Ingrid Bergman.

The festival also announced that a French film, La Tête haute by Emmanuelle Bercot, will open the festival. The opening film in recent years has been a more mainstream movie, generally not in competition and often something of an embarrassment, like last year's Grace of Monaco, a film starring Nicole Kidman that went directly to cable in the United States. The record before that was not much better, including Baz Luhrmann's ghastly The Great Gatsby (2013), Woody Allen's tedious Midnight in Paris (2011), Ridley Scott's forgettable Robin Hood (2010), the animated film Up (2009), Wong Kar Wai's My Blueberry Nights (2007), and the execrable Da Vinci Code (2006) -- open laughter reportedly greeted that last one during the screening. Isabelle Regnier has some interesting thoughts on the choice of opening film this year, in an article (« La Tête haute », d’Emmanuelle Bercot, ouvrira le 68e Festival de Cannes, April 14) for Le Monde (my translation):

Thierry Frémaux, the festival's director, has chosen to break the unspoken rule that reserves the gala opening for big-budget films, often American, and not necessarily brilliant in an artistic way. "This year, we wanted to start off with a good film," announced Frémaux, who congratulated himself for presenting a work that "shows a certain commitment." He added: "This is a universal film that poses questions about our society's models; a film that speaks about youth, about the relationship between justice and society, about social and educational mechanisms in place in a country like France to treat cases of juvenile delinquency."
Regnier notes that the film is surely not a political rant and that its casting -- Catherine Deneuve, Benoît Magimel, and Sara Forestier star -- guarantees the festival an acceptable level of star power. It is also the first film directed by a woman to open the festival since 1987, when A Man in Love by Diana Kurys was screened. It is almost certainly a better film than what was rumored for the opening, Mad Max: Fury Road.

14.4.15

New Flute Concerto by Kevin Puts

available at Amazon
K. Puts, Choral Works / Symphony No. 4, Conspirare / Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, M. Alsop
(Harmonia Mundi, 2013)
As noted many times in these pages, opera companies and symphony orchestras must do more to sponsor new works. It is an expensive and mostly thankless endeavor, to be sure, but necessary to keep the art alive and growing. When commissioning composers, organizations tend to give preference to shorter works, which was at the heart of recent discussion online about longer symphonic works of the last two decades, summed up in a cogent piece by Alex Ross. It was William Robin who got the ball rolling with his enthusiasm for one such rare long orchestral work, Play by Andrew Norman -- an enthusiasm I do not really share. The situation is much the same with opera companies: see my comments on the American Opera Initiative at Washington National Opera. The new flute concerto by Baltimore-based composer Kevin Puts, which does not reach the 30-minute minimum set by Robin, is a case in point, not really a substantial work even though it came into being as a clandestine double commission by Bette and Joe Hirsch. On Sunday afternoon the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave the piece its local premiere, on a concert that also included Shostakovich's Festive Overture (unbearably loud) and Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony (not reviewed).

Though he is based now in Baltimore, where he teaches at Peabody, Puts grew up in my home state of Michigan, where his father was a professor at Alma College. Puts was launched to national attention when his opera, Silent Night, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, but it is telling that this is the first time his music has come under review at Ionarts. His opera and other music I have heard generally suits me, because he does not shy away from tonal styles but is not limited to them in a reactionary way. The first movement was a promising start, if a little too sentimental in a Copland- or Bernstein-derivative way, with a tender cadenza played with a precise tone by soloist Adam Walker that brought the movement to a subdued conclusion.


Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, BSO breathes new fire into familiar classics in Sunday matinee (Washington Post, April 14)

Tim Smith, BSO offers brilliant Flute Concerto by Kevin Puts on program with Russian favorites (Baltimore Sun, April 10)

Joshua Kosman, Cabrillo Fest review: Rouse premiere a revelation (San Francisco Chronicle, August 5, 2013)
Where the piece really fell apart was in the second movement, because of some rather jarring borrowings from Mozart's K. 467 piano concerto. In an interview a few years ago, Puts admitted to an obsession with Mozart, saying, "I go through times when I ask myself, ‘How can I make my music more clear and fresh, like Mozart’s?’ It’s not that I want to plagiarize." Well, Puts may have crossed that line in this piece, where the connection with the Mozart source was announced in the opening phrases, then repeated in slightly more disguised form over and over, only to have an overt quotation appear in the piano near the end. The finale, back in the mode of Bernstein dance, was likewise simplistic and perhaps too much of a cute thing. One felt bad for the percussionist who had to sweat through an overlong passage with constant shaker rhythm, and while the orchestral musicians gave the catchy section for antiphonal hand clapping a rousing performance, it went on so long that it inevitably felt like a gimmick to pad the conclusion. This is the down side of commissioning and presenting new works: there are a lot of misses for the rare hit.

13.4.15

Gerald Perman: True Gentleman and Gentle Man

Dr. Gerald Perman (pictured), founder of the Vocal Arts Society, passed away on Saturday, victim of a fast-moving pancreatic cancer. Washington music lovers owe Gerry a significant debt for the labor of love that he put into directing what is now known as Vocal Arts D.C. Just in the years that Ionarts has existed, not to mention going back to the founding of Vocal Arts in 1990, a small audience of regulars heard excellent recitals by singers like Christine Brewer, Christian Gerhaher, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Christine Schäfer, Anne Schwanewilms, Christopher Maltman, Isabel Leonard, Magdalena Kožená, Felicity Lott, Joyce DiDonato, Lawrence Brownlee, Iestyn Davies, Luca Pisaroni, Eric Owens, Karine Deshayes, and Karen Cargill.

Gerry loved talking about singers, and he would often ask me what singers I most wanted to hear on his series. He always enjoyed hearing from me about singers he did not know, and the feeling was mutual, although he delivered on his end with actual recitals by those artists. He was one of the "early accepters" of Ionarts among concert presenters, and he personally invited me to almost all of the Vocal Arts recitals. In fact, Gerry represented an overall ideal as far as his interaction with critics: he never complained about any of my reviews over the years, even the doozies. When he agreed with my assessment, negative or otherwise, he let me know that. He was an honest man, and he appreciated honesty above all when it came to the concerts he offered, even when it involved his own disappointment. I will miss his smiling face at concerts, those of Vocal Arts and others, for when singers were involved, Gerry was always there.

12.4.15

Perchance to Stream: Tax Man 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. Because of the ongoing labor disputes at Radio France, there are still no streams available from France Musique.

  • Jonas Kaufmann stars in a double-bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, with Christian Thielemann conducting the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden at the Salzburg Easter Festival last month. [ORF]

  • Max Emanuel Cencic and Julia Lezhneva star in a performance of Handel's Alessandro, accompanied by Armonia Atenea and director George Petrou. [RTBF]

  • Harry Christophers leads The Sixteen, in a concert of music honoring Mary, Queen of Heaven, recorded last month in Melbourne. [ABC Classic]

  • Listen to a performance of Musorgsky's Khovanschina, from the Wiener Staatsoper, starring Ferruccio Furlanetto, Christopher Ventris, and Ain Anger. [Radio Clásica]

  • Watch Manfred Honeck conduct the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra in music of Dvorak (8th symphony) and Boulez (Les Notations), plus Mozart's K. 503 piano concerto with Francesco Piemontesi as soloist. [ARTE]

  • Mariss Jansons leads the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and baritone Thomas Hampson in music of Mahler, Copland, and Bartók. [ORF]

  • Soprano Mojca Erdmann and violinist Isabelle Faust join Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico at the Klara Festival, recorded last month, in music of Haydn and Mozart. [RTBF]

  • From the Barbican Hall in London, Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Nielsen's fifth symphony, music of Ravel, and Prokofiev's third piano concerto with Alexander Toradze as soloist. [BBC3]

  • Listen to a concert with the Doric String Quartet, Pavel Haas Quartet, and friends, recorded at the Musica Viva Festival in Sydney. [ABC Classic]

  • The opening concert of the Musica Viva Festival in Sydney, with cellist Mischa Maisky and friends. [ABC Classic]

  • Maxim Vengerov joins the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France for Tchaikovsky's violin concerto, recorded last month in Vienna, with Myung-Whun Chung also conducting Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. [ORF | Part 2]

  • Baritone Bo Skovhus sings Schubert's Schwanengesang with pianist Stefan Vladar. [RTBF]

  • Simon Rattle leads the Berlin Philharmonic in music of Rameau and Kodály, plus a Mozart piano concerto with Menahem Pressler, recorded last year. [ORF | Part 2]

  • The Adelaide Chamber Singers perform Arvo Part's Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem at the magnificent St. Peter's Cathedral in Adelaide. [ABC Classic]

  • Listen to Beethoven's ninth symphony with Christian Arming conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, plus Elgar's cello concerto with Alban Gerhardt as soloist. [RTBF]

  • Music by Bach, Reger, and many others in a recital by organist Anna-Victoria Baltrusch and mezzo-soprano Sophie Rennert, recorded in Vienna. [ORF]

  • Lars Ulrik Mortensen leads the European Union Baroque Orchestra in music by Jean-Féry Rebel ("Les Elémens") and Georg Muffat, recorded last month in London. [ORF]

  • Listen again to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Bizet's Carmen, with Louis Langree conducting a cast starring Yonghoon Lee, Elina Garanca, and Ailyn Perez. [ABC Classic]

11.4.15

For Your Consideration: '3 cœurs'



How one person comes to love another is a mystery. How a character played by Belgian actor Benoît Poelvoorde (Man Bites Dog) beguiles characters played by Charlotte Gainsbourg (Melancholia) and Chiara Mastroianni is something greater than a mystery. Yet that is the conceit at the heart of Three Hearts, the new film from Paris-born director Benoît Jacquot, his first feature since Les adieux à la reine. Poelvoorde plays Marc Beaulieu, a rather plain tax official from Paris who meets Sylvie, played by Gainsbourg, on a trip to a provincial town, played in the film by the city of Valence, with gorgeous mountain panoramas. They agree to meet in Paris, in the Jardin des Tuileries, but circumstances prevent the meeting. Of course, they have not exchanged phone numbers or even names, in spite of the lesson we all should have learned from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise. When he returns to the town to look for her, he meets and falls in love with another woman, Mastroianni's Sophie, who turns out to be Sylvie's sister.

Other Reviews:

New York Times | Los Angeles Times | Washington Post
Philadelphia Inquirer | New Yorker
This is the sort of film where not much happens, and the script, co-written by Jacquot with Julien Boivent, even manages to stave off the inevitable confrontation among the three title characters. Through considerable bending of the story's plausibility, none of them is really to blame, for neither sister knows of the other's involvement and Marc does not know they are sisters until it is far too late. When Marc is married to Sophie and they have a son together, the truth finally comes out, although tragedy is delayed for as long as possible. What makes the film most alluring is the world of the sisters' family it evokes, not least through the beauty of the three actresses who star in it. Catherine Deneuve, as Sylvie and Sophie's mother, reigns over a grand and beautiful house, having passed on -- what else -- her antique business to her daughters. Deneuve, disappointingly, does not have much to say or contribute to the film, aside from presiding over countless family meals, the grande dame to her fingertips.

This film is now playing at Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema.

On Forbes: Shostakovich Unites Boston Symphony Orchestra And Deutsche Grammophon


Shostakovich Unites Boston Symphony Orchestra And Deutsche Grammophon


...The BSO started their own label, but that hasn't quite taken off yet. And now they are led by one of the most promising and coveted conductors of his generation, the third musketeer next to Dudamel and Nézet-Séguin… Andris Nelsons.

Mark Volpe, Managing Director Boston Symphony Orchestra, could not disclose the confidential financial terms of the Boston Symphony’s agreement with DG, but did mention in an e-mail “that it is a licensing agreement in which the BSO retains ownership and control of the master recordings and licenses them to DG for marketing and distribution.” He further commented...

Continue reading here, at Forbes.com

Andris Nelsons, photo (detail) courtesy Boston Symphony, © Marco-Borggreve

10.4.15

New York City Ballet, New and Newer


Pictures at an Exhibition, choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, New York City Ballet

The New York City Ballet is back at the Kennedy Center Opera House, in alternating programs this week featuring the giant of its past, George Balanchine, and its current choreographers. When you are dealing with new works of any kind, some will hit and some will miss, which was exactly the feeling experienced at the end of the selection billed as "21st-Century Choreographers" on Wednesday evening. It was a bit of a marathon, with four works adding up to almost three hours, and some of the work's tried one's patience to the extreme.

The program opened with Symphonic Dances, by the company's current ballet master-in-chief, Peter Martins. Actually premiered in 1994, the work is set to Rachmaninoff's superb score of that name, op. 45, the composer's final work and a notable exception to my general aversion to Rachmaninoff's instrumental music. The Martins choreography is visually pleasing, but little about it stood out as remarkable over the course of forty minutes: without a story, the elegant vocabulary wears thin too quickly. In the solo female role, Teresa Reichlen, who hails from Fairfax County, was a wispy and altogether lovely presence, all long legs and lightness. The general appeal of the choreography was not helped by the mediocrity of the orchestral performance, here given by the company's own orchestra under interim music director Andrews Sill. The orchestra has been through a bit of a rocky period in the last few years, which the new tenure of conductor Andrew Litton, a Washington favorite with the National Symphony Orchestra, will hopefully help to stabilize, starting next season.

The undisputed high point of the evening was the delightful new choreography to Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, created last year by Alexei Ratmansky. The setting of an art museum is suggested by projections (designed by Wendell K. Harrington), based on Wassily Kandinsky's Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles, dating from 1913, abstract shapes in bright colors that are reflected in movement by the dancers' costumes (designed by Adeline Andre). Although the music runs almost as long as the Rachmaninoff, played capably here in Musorgsky's original piano version by Cameron Grant, Ratmansky's choreography is so varied, brimming with originality, that it never tired. Sterling Hyltin was raised by the strong Tyler Angle in soaring leaps in "The Old Castle" movement, and in a striking reversal, women playfully incarnated the heavy-footed oxen in "Bydlo" and men the antic birds in the "Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks." The "Catacomb" movement, for the entire cast, was bathed in shadows of red light.


Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, New York City Ballet’s life-affirming new works boost the spirit (Washington Post, April 10)

---, New York City Ballet sparkles and blurs in opening program (Washington Post, April 9)

Alastair Macaulay, With Each Star Turn, a Feeling of a Collective Force Begins to Brew (New York Times, January 21)

---, The Art Gallery as Spinning Montage (New York Times, October 3, 2014)

---, Celebrating Old Times With New: A Premiere (New York Times, May 9, 2014)

New York City Ballet on Ionarts:
2014 | 2013
Tiler Peck and Craig Hall made a beautiful pairing in Christopher Wheeldon's somewhat limited, repetitive This Bitter Earth, although it would have been just as visually pretty if it had been performed in silence, so little did it seem to have to do with the music, a recording from the soundtrack for Shutter Island. Both music and choreography felt endless in their over-repetition in Everywhere We Go, Justin Peck's abstract ballet to a suite of music by Sufjan Stevens (orchestrated by Michael P. Atkinson). Both choreographer and composer relied heavily on the copy-paste method, with some whole sections of the choreography simply repeated toward the end, not to mention a number of dancers who slipped and fell, for whatever reason.

The company's second program, seen on Thursday night but not for review, was worthwhile just to have a look at Balanchine's choreography for Agon, which was crucial in my making sense of Schoenberg's twelve-tone score for this work. Maria Kowroski was brilliant, almost superhuman, in the outrageous contortions of the Pas de Deux in the ballet's second part. Balanchine's vivacious choreography to Bizet's Symphony in C, last seen from American Ballet Theater in 2013, was also outstanding, especially the elegant extensions of Sara Mearns in the slow movement's pas de deux.

These programs are repeated through April 12, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

For Your Consideration: 'Kill Me Three Times' and 'White God'


Kill Me Three Times
Australian director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog, Boxing Day) makes the heavy-handed tributes to Quentin Tarantino painfully obvious in his new feature, Kill Me Three Times. The plot is cut into sections and told in chronological overlap, out of order, so that we learn each part of a double-crossing double-cross crime caper one by one. The credits, score, and wise-cracking leading hit man of Simon Pegg all point to the sort of film Stenders is trying to make, or rather recycle. Novice screenwriter James McFarland does not give Pegg much to work with in the role of black-suited, Coronado-driving hit man Charlie Wolfe, which is a waste. None of the characters or their interweaving relationships provide much depth or interest either, but it is difficult in these cases to know whether to blame the script or a team of less experienced actors, including Alice Braga (niece of Sônia Braga) and Luke Hemsworth (older brother of Chris Hemsworth) -- I kept confusing the latter with Sullivan Stapleton, who plays a different character, for a good part of the film. Definitely a movie to skip.



White God
Fehér isten (White God), directed and co-written by Kornél Mundruczó of Hungary, won the Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Although it was entered by Hungary for the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards, it was not nominated, but it deserves to be seen by a wider audience. The basic concept is familiar from any number of movies about kids and the unbreakable bond they have with their dogs. Strong-willed Lili (played with fierce independence by newcomer Zsófia Psotta) is dropped off by her mom for an extended stay with her estranged father. In tow is her adorable mutt, Hagen, who causes her and her dad no end of trouble. To avoid a tax assessed on "street dogs," that is, dogs not of a pure, recognized Hungarian breed, Lili's father tries to convince her to let him take the dog to the shelter. After an unsuccessful attempt to run away and keep the dog on her own, Lili is forced by her father to abandon Hagen on the street.


Other Reviews:

New York Times | Los Angeles Times | Washington Post | David Edelstein
The New Yorker | Variety | Chicago Sun-Times | Wall Street Journal
That turn of events is painful enough, but Hagen's journey back to Lili takes several turns for the worse, as he is chased by animal control authorities, lives on the streets, and eventually ends up being viciously "trained" as a fighting dog, sequences that are not recommended for the faint of heart. Finally captured by animal control and slated for euthanization, Hagen manages to escape with about 200 of his closest friends from the shelter, a pack of half-breed curs that runs through the city hellbent on revenge. (These amazing scenes were filmed with a real throng of canine extras.) At this point, the literal-minded viewer will be rather befuddled, as the dogs seem capable of an almost human level of self-awareness and decision-making. Quite suddenly, Hagen and his four-footed friends become allegory.

The fictitious law that discriminates against "half-breed" dogs like Hagen provides a clue to what is going on here, an allusion to the present Hungarian government, in which conservative prime minister Viktor Orbán has gotten into bed with the Jobbik party's "Movement for a Better Hungary." The latter group, Hungarian nationalists known for xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric, is growing in popularity, currently holding the third most seats in the Hungarian parliament. Hungarian pianist András Schiff has refused to return to Hungary because of the government, allegedly because he has received threats to have his hands cut off if he does, in retribution for speaking out against it. Mundruczó represents this struggle for the soul of Hungary in music, namely in Liszt's second Hungarian Rhapsody, a piece that represents "Hungarianness" perhaps more than any other, not to mention its ubiquity in cartoons. Lili plays trumpet in a youth orchestra, portrayed in the film by the Tóth Aladár Ifjúsági Zenekar, an ensemble from a music school in Budapest, and she is rehearsing for a piano-and-orchestra version of the piece. The famous opening phrase, played by Lili on her trumpet, becomes a signature theme for both her and Hagen.

Both of these films open today, at the E Street Cinema.

9.4.15

Philadelphia Orchestra Breathes as One

We welcome this review from first-time contributor Michael De Sapio.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin (pictured), appeared at the Kennedy Center Tuesday night in a program of surefire romantic favorites -- Edvard Grieg's A minor piano concerto and Sergei Rachmaninoff's second symphony -- presented by Washington Performing Arts. The soloist in the Grieg was pianist Jan Lisiecki, who plays with a maturity and decisiveness that belie his mere twenty years. Lisiecki got the concerto off to an electrifying start with a thundering volley of octaves, yet his performance as a whole was notable for its intelligence and reflection. Grieg treats piano and orchestra as partners in this well-proportioned concerto, the piano more often than not emerging naturally out of the orchestral sound-picture; appropriately, Lisiecki played the role of a partner rather than a prima donna. He and the orchestra created moments of still, contemplative beauty in the second movement and the slow section of the finale. After a well-deserved standing ovation, Lisiecki offered an encore of a Chopin prelude (op. 28/15, the “Raindrop”).

Right from the opening bars of the Grieg, one had a palpable sense of ease and trust between the Philadelphians and their dynamic young conductor, who has been leading the orchestra since 2012 (including helping to lead it out of its financial troubles). Nézet-Séguin didn't so much conduct the music as coax it effortlessly out of the orchestra; the music-making had an organic flow. The expressive intention was so unanimous across the orchestra that regular eye contact with Nézet-Séguin was hardly necessary; conductor and orchestra simply breathed as one. Everything flowed naturally from the famed “Philadelphia sound,” a rich fullness of blend crowned by plush strings.


Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Philly beguiles with symphonic power (Washington Post, April 9)

---, Yannick, unique: Philadelphia Orchestra hopes it’s found its savior (Washington Post, April 2)

Philadelphia Orchestra on Ionarts:
2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009
December 2007 | June 2007 | 2005 | 2004
In fact the ensemble's performance was so impeccable that by the time the Rachmaninoff rolled around I realized there was no point picking it apart, so instead I focused on the work itself. A conductor once told me that Rachmaninoff thought of himself as a contrapuntal composer. Accustomed as we are to thinking of him as the composer of gushing tunes and luscious harmonies, this comes as a surprise. It made sense, though, when you listened to the introductory Largo of the symphony, with its winding string lines intertwining in an orchestral frieze of almost Bach-like intensity.

Was Rachmaninoff really a nostalgic Romantic who completely rejected modern sounds? That he was a lush Romantic there is no doubt; if you want gushing melodies, the third-movement Adagio offered a veritable waterfall. Yet the symphony also had moments with a starkness, brusqueness, and rhythmic energy which seemed modern in spirit. It seems only a small step from Rachmaninoff's sinister second-movement scherzo to the scherzos of Shostakovich. Washington audiences are very generous with their standing ovations, but the thunderous one that greeted the last note of the Rachmaninoff was well merited. No matter how well-worn these pieces, they are always welcome with playing of this caliber.

8.4.15

Karen Cargill Extraordinary


available at Amazon
Alma and Gustav Mahler, Lieder, K. Cargill, S. Lepper
(Linn, 2014)
Charles T. Downey, A noteworthy D.C. debut by Karen Cargill
Washington Post, April 9
If you’ve never heard the name Karen Cargill, let this review be your notification.

The Scottish mezzo-soprano had a grand and long-overdue Washington debut recital Tuesday evening, presented in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater by Vocal Arts D.C. The program of brooding Romantic music by Gustav and Alma Mahler, Richard Wagner and Edvard Grieg hit her commanding and disciplined voice in its sweet spot.

Asked in an interview last year why she’s singing so much Mahler, Cargill responded, “Well, it’s where my voice is at.” This was true on her recording of Gustav’s five “Rückert Lieder” and Alma’s “Fünf Lieder”... [Continue reading]
Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano
Simon Lepper, piano
Vocal Arts D.C.
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

Ionarts-at-Large: A Korean-Zukerman Evening of Weirdness at the Musikverein


It was a strange, strange concert when the Korean Chamber Orchestra (formerly known as the Seoul Baroque Ensemble) took the stage at Vienna’s Musikverein on March 1st for their hyperbolically titled “50th Anniversary World Tour” – a world consisting of Vienna ("Is there anything else that matters?", a true Viennese might incredulously ask), London, Berlin, Moscow and Seoul.


available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, Violin Concertos 3-5,
A.Manze / The English Concert
Harmonia Mundi




available at Amazon
F.Schubert, Symphony No.5,
T.Dausgaard / Swedish CO
BIS SACD

From the get-go of the Mendelssohn Symphony for Strings No.10, performed under the patronizing glares of Pinchas Zukerman (conductor and soloist of the World Tour, although participating only on two stops), there was a weird atmosphere about the place, even as the performance turned out fairly normal: light, detailed, reasonably accurate, bloodless and totally matter of fact. The event got a further push towards the Twilight Zone when Pinchas Zukerman’s wife, nominal cellist Amanda Forsyth, gallivanted onto the stage in a dress that took its cue from an exploded candy factory. Husband and wife (perish the thought of nepotism: Zukerman would never appear with her at his side if he didn’t think she was absolutely one of the world’s best cellists… he’s said so himself, in a pleasant chat we once had on the topic) then gave a rendition of the Vivaldi Concerto for Violin and Cello RV547 that was filled to the brim with passive aggressive energy.

Zukerman—whether you like his bygone-era-style or not—touches the violin and presto: a big, sumptuous tone emerges that forces or elicits or demands envy! All casual assuredness, he made a sound like a thick stream of chocolate, never actually flat but often sounding though he might almost be. Forsythe, despite her heavy rubato, sounded leaner and lighter and very well rehearsed. Together their cello vs. the violin act absorbed all the artistic oxygen  and somewhere behind them hints of Vivaldi and the Korean Chamber Orchestra could be heard.

Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto, doubly featuring Mr. Zukerman, was dashed off with the air of the experienced—not to say: jaded—veteran. It’s his kind of thing. Certainly his 2013 Salzburg Festival performance of K.216 was rather good, in its own pinkish way. He’s anachronistically marvelous when he’s on. And although Zukerman looked as though he could barely be bothered on this occasion, goodness he was on, once again: Anodyne and awesome, rich in tone, impoverished spiritually, lovely if loveless, and a few sloppy moments that only increased the air of nonchalant grandeur. Thoughts arose in me if, in a strange way, it might not be a burden to be able to play the violin as easily as well as Zukerman. A hypothetical question without an answer. For everyone who loves the cream of his tone, his indulgence in the caressing (others might say: interminable) slow movement will have brought particular joy. The KCO provided impeccable support, entirely with him and not overly distracted of Zukerman’s occasional attempts at conducting them with moody swings of his bow. A look of polite boredom all around the orchestra.

Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile for Cello and Strings brought back the Zukerman-Forsythe double act of awkwardness; her playing, him conducting. Death-rays shot from her eyes as the aging concert-master and music director of the KCO Kim Min struggled just a little bit in his solo/duet passage. Pleased with the applause between the two movements (the empty Musikverein was especially packed with tourists that day; the Viennese would never applaud between movements nor allow others to get beyond two consecutive claps at the ‘wrong’ note), Forsythe rose and bowed. Then she bowed some more, with her perpetually petulant air… but admittedly in style, artful tone and with a nice flow throughout the Tchaikovsky.

Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, with European reinforcements for the brass and winds, briskly hurdled towards the end of the program. Well, at least the first movement hurdled, with a lightness that befit the sunny air of this marvelous symphony… the subsequent movement rather had overtones of barbiturates. After Zukerman had taken his last bows, the orchestra proceeded with encores, led by Kim Min. While they were not the most satisfying fare, musically, the spirit of the orchestra was as if wholesale rejuvenated. All smiles and spunk, they added late fun and further question-marks. 

À mon chevet: 'Never Mind'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
After hanging Patrick from his ears and watching him escape from the library, David shrugged, sat down at the piano, and started to improvise a fugue. His rheumatic hands protested at every key he touched. A glass of pastis, like a trapped cloud, stood on top of the piano. His body ached all day long and the pain woke him at night every time he shifted position. Nightmares often woke him as well and made him whimper and scream so loudly that his insomnia overflowed into neighbouring bedrooms. His lungs, also, were shot away and when his asthma flared up he wheezed and rattled, his face swollen by the cortisone he used to appease his constricted chest. Gasping, he would pause at the top of the stairs, unable to speak, his eyes roaming over the ground, as if he were searching for the air he desperately needed.

At the age of fifteen his musical talent had attracted the interest of the great piano teacher Shapiro, who took on only one pupil at a time. Unfortunately, within a week, David had contracted rheumatic fever and spent the next six months in bed with hands too stiff and clumsy to practice on the piano. The illness wiped out his chance of becoming a serious pianist and, although pregnant with musical ideas, from then on he claimed to be bored by composition and those 'hordes of little tadpoles' one had to use to record music on paper. Instead, he had hordes of admirers who pleaded with him to play after dinner. They always clamored for the tune they had heard last time, which he could not remember, until they heard the one he played now, which he soon forgot. His compulsion to amuse others and the arrogance with which he displayed his talent combined to disperse the musical ideas he had once guarded so closely and secretly.

Even while he drank in the flattery he knew that underneath this flamboyant frittering away of his talent he had never overcome his reliance on pastiche, his fear of mediocrity, and the rankling suspicion that the first attack of fever was somehow self-induced. This insight was useless to him; to know the causes of his failure did not diminish the failure, but it did make his self-hatred a little more convoluted and a little more lucid than it would have been in a state of plain ignorance.

As the fugue developed, David attacked its main theme with frustrated repetitions, burying the initial melody under a mudslide of rumbling bass notes, and spoiling its progress with violent bursts of dissonance. At the piano he could sometimes abandon the ironic tactics which saturated his speech, and visitors whom he had bullied and teased to the point of exasperation found themselves moved by the piercing sadness of the music in the library. On the other hand, he could turn the piano on them like a machine gun and concentrate a hostility into his music that made them long for the more conventional unkindness of his conversation. Even then, his playing would haunt the people who most wanted to resist his influence.

David stopped playing abruptly and closed the lid over the keyboard. He took a gulp of pastis and started to massage his left palm with his right thumb. This massage made the pain a little worse, but gave him the same psychological pleasure as tearing at scabs, probing abscesses and mouth ulcers with his tongue, and fingering bruises.

-- Edward St. Aubyn, Never Mind, pp. 59-61
New Yorker critic James Wood put me on to the Patrick Melrose novels of Edward St. Aubyn. I am still reading, but they are every bit as caustic and horrifying as Wood described them, a portrait of the vicious underbelly of the moneyed and landed class idealized in Downton Abbey, for example. "Perhaps because [St. Aubyn] is much more of an aristocratic insider than Wilde or Waugh (the first St. Aubyn baronetcy was created in 1671), he retains no arriviste enamoredness of the upper classes he is supposedly satirizing," Wood puts it. "On the contrary, his fiction reads like a shriek of filial hatred; most of the posh English who people his novels are virulently repellent." Patrick Melrose's life, that is, is based at least in part on Edward St. Aubyn's, including the abusive and odious portrait of his father in David Melrose, who delights in tormenting his son and everyone else around him -- making his wife, who seems to relish the abuse, eat food off the ground like an animal. Naturally, as shown in the passage excerpted here, David is a failed classical musician.