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Hilary Hahn Presented by WPA[S]

available at Amazon
In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores, H. Hahn, C. Smythe
(DG, 2013)

available at Amazon
Telemann, Twelve Fantasies for Solo Violin, A. Hadelich
(Naxos, 2009)
One of the strangest press releases I have ever received arrived earlier this month. "Announcing a refreshed brand," it began, for Washington Performing Arts Society, changes that consisted of the removal of the last word of its name and a new logo. It was accompanied by news about the 2014-2015 season, during which disappointing trends will continue, sad to say: more crossover, more jazz, more novice performers. In the early years of these pages, I wanted to review pretty much everything on the WPAS Classical series. Fewer concerts have made the cut for me in the last season or two, and it looks that will only be getting worse.

Happily, there are still concerts that will make the cut: Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in Monteverdi's Orfeo; pianists Evgeny Kissin, András Schiff, Paul Lewis, Stephen Hough; among younger artists, pianists Beatrice Rana and Igor Levit; and an exciting premiere will be featured in Sila: The Breath of the World, by John Luther Adams, "for multiple choirs of woodwinds, brass, percussion and voices, to be performed in a large outdoor space (location TBA)." Still, it was hard not to see the grandstanding of WPA's president and CEO, Jenny Bilfield -- featured in a fawning bit of promo-"journalism" in Strathmore's glossy program magazine (apparently written before the organization's name change) -- as emblematic of the "refreshed brand": the focus on all the wrong things.

The current season neared its end on Wednesday night, with the latest recital by violinist Hilary Hahn, presented by WPA[S] in the Music Center at Strathmore. Hahn, who hails from Baltimore, could probably move enough tickets under most circumstances, and some of her performances, like those heard recently with the Philadelphia Orchestra here and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in Munich in 2013, have been worthwhile. Sadly, not this one, which had an unfortunate combination of mediocre programming and lackluster finishing. Hahn had one particularly shining moment, a radiant but understated rendition of the sixth of Telemann's solo fantasies (E minor, TWV 40:19). It was, perhaps not coincidentally, the first piece Hahn played from memory on this concert, and it seemed to be something pondered more deeply by her than the music on the first half. Hahn's restrained vibrato gives her tone a blissfully pure quality, heard to beautiful effect in this piece, where she did not have to compete with any other sound. The first, second, and fourth movements, more contrapuntal, had all the voices sensitively defined and phrased so they could be easily unpacked by the ear, although with a cooler approach than the more viscerally intense interpretation of Augustin Hadelich, whose recording for Naxos from a few years ago is a delight. Hahn's Siciliana was graceful but with an edge that seemed to trade on associations with a folk fiddler's sort of sound, taking the chords strictly in rhythm, often little more than understated grace notes (the one movement where Hahn's interpretation beat out Hadelich's to my ears).


Briefly Noted: Marie et Marion

available at Amazon
Marie et Marion, Anonymous 4

(released on April 8, 2014)
HMU 807524 | 56'02"
Although the voices of the once-sublime quartet Anonymous 4 may not be what they were, when the group focuses on the medieval polyphony that made their name, they can still hit it out of the park. David Lang perhaps not so much, but 15th-century carols and polyphony, yes. For their new disc, the group has returned to some of its greatest repertoire, the complex motets of the Montpellier Codex (Montpellier, Bibliothèque Inter-Universitaire, Section Médecine, H196), the same repertory featured on their top-notch Love's Illusion disc, from twenty years ago. The selection made here is focused on one interesting but admittedly minor aspect of this body of music, the overlapping in a few cases of music in adoration of the Virgin Mary and fin amours texts devoted to a beloved lady -- thus the title, Marie et Marion. The scholarship is impeccable, because of the work of Susan Hellauer, one of the founding members, with each motet indicated in the booklet by its Mo number, the identifier used by scholars. The texts, in both Latin and French, are beautifully edited and translated, with pronunciation decisions all made on the basis of research in that area. As noted of the group's recent live performance of music from this source, their style of performance helps the listener unravel the medieval motet’s tangle of voices, often with three different texts and sometimes in different languages. Many of the motets are sung with one texted voice’s part alone at first, with the others layered on gradually in repetition. As Hellauer notes in her booklet essay, this has the additional scholarly benefit of underscoring the relationship of some motet parts with trouvère love songs.


À mon chevet: 'Pedro Páramo'

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

book cover
"This town is filled with echoes. It's like they were trapped behind the walls, or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk you feel like someone's behind you, stepping in your footsteps. You hear rustlings. And people laughing. Laughter that sounds used up. And voices worn away by the years. Sounds like that. But I think the day will come when those sounds fade away."

That was what Damiana Cisneros was telling me as we walked through the town.

"There was a time when night after night I could hear the sounds of a fiesta. I could hear the noise clear out at the Media Luna. I would walk into town to see what the uproar was about, and this is what I would see: just what we're seeing now. Nothing. No one. The streets as empty as they are now. Then I didn't hear anything anymore. You know, you can get worn out celebrating. That's why I wasn't surprised when it ended.

"Yes," Damiana Cisneros repeated. "This town is filled with echoes. I'm not afraid anymore. I hear the dogs howling, and I let them howl. And on windy days I see the wind blowing leaves from the trees, when anyone can see that there aren't any trees here. There must have been once. Otherwise, where do all the leaves come from? And the worst of all is when you hear people talking and the voices seem to be coming through a crack, and yet so clear you can recognize who's speaking. In fact, just now as I was coming here I happened upon a wake. I stopped to recite the Lord's Prayer. And while I was praying, one woman stepped away from the others and came toward me and said, 'Damiana! Pray for me, Damiana!'

"Her rebozo fell away from her face and I recognized my sister Sixtina. 'What are you doing here?' I asked her. Then she ran back and hid among the other women. In case you didn't know, my sister Sixtina died when I was twelve years old. She was the oldest. There were sixteen of us, so you can figure out how long she's been dead. And look at her now, still wandering through this world. So don't be afraid if you hear newer echoes, Juan Preciado."

"Was it my mother who told you I was coming?" I asked.

"No. And by the way, whatever happened to your mother?"

"She died," I replied.

"Died? What of?"

"I don't really know. Sadness, maybe. She sighed a lot."

"That's bad. Every sigh is like a drop of your life being swallowed up. Well, so she's dead."

"Yes. I thought maybe you knew."

"Why would I know? I haven't heard a thing from her in years."

"Then how did you know about me?"

Damiana did not answer.

"Are you alive, Damiana? Tell me, Damiana!"

Suddenly I was alone in those empty streets. Through the windows of roofless houses you could see the tough stems of tall weeds. And meager thatch revealing crumbling adobe.

-- Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo (trans. Margaret Sayers Peden), pp. 41-43
Word arrived over Easter of the death of the great novelist Gabriel García Márquez, so some more of his books will be going onto my nightstand soon. As it turns out, I had already started reading this novel by Juan Rulfo, who was an important influence on García Márquez, at the suggestion of some bookish folks at dinner recently. (His only other work, an equally slender collection of stories called El llano en llamas, is next in line.) After the run-on sentences and stark -- autobiographical -- realism of Knausgaard, Rulfo is a jarring contrast: staccato sentences in short paragraphs, shifts of narrator, dreams within impossibilities within a story. It should be a very fast read because it is so short, but I find myself going back over most of the story's wrinkles again and again, looking for details I missed the first and second time.


Kaufmann Takes Winter Walk

available at Amazon
Schubert, Winterreise, J. Kaufmann, H. Deutsch

(released on April 1, 2014)
Sony 8883795652 | 70'01"
Schubert's Winterreise is a baritone's song cycle, at least to my ears, just as Die schöne Müllerin will always be tenor territory. Schubert actually conceived both of these masterpieces in higher keys suited to a treble voice, but while a tenor's ethereal high range is perfectly suited to the derangement of the narrator of Die schöne Müllerin, the wandering loner of Winterreise just seems to require more of the purr and growl of a baritone, which is not to say that other voices, even a soprano, cannot succeed in it. Jonas Kaufmann has a pretty and heroic voice, yet while there are few moments in his new recording of Winterreise one might describe as unpleasant, this version of this bleak song cycle just does not add up to make dramatic sense over its entire arc. Kaufmann, who is German, has native pronunciation, but he tends to make gestures vocally -- the type of characterization used most by opera singers, and here he often modifies the sweetness of his tone toward a more baritone-ish throatiness -- rather than through diction. Relishing of text, one of the marks of great Lieder singers, is not a large part of this rendition. The pianist working with him, Helmut Deutsch, is solid, even perhaps overpowering at times, but he and Kaufmann do not always seem to see eye to eye -- indeed, they even disagreed about the cycle in their interview about it, printed in the booklet.


In Brief: Resurrection Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio, online video, and other good things in Blogville and Beyond. (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.

  • Bach's St. Matthew Passion with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting Concentus Musicus Wien, the Arnold Schoenberg Chor and Wiener Sängerknaben, and soloists Michael Schade, Florian Boesch, Christine Schäfer, Bernarda Fink, and others. [ORF]

  • Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic perform J. S. Bach's St. John Passion. [RTBF]

  • The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra performs C.P.E. Bach's St. John Passion. [BBC3]

  • Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson headline a performance of Strauss's Arabella, conducted by Christian Thielemann with the Staatskaepple Dresden at the Osterfestspiele Salzburg. [ORF]

  • Music by Messiaen and Richard Strauss from the Orchestre Symphonique de la Monnaie, with conductor Ludovic Morlot and pianist Bertrand Chamayou. [RTBF]

  • Listen to cellist Guy Johnston, soprano Aleksandra Zamojska, contralto Anna Radziejewska, and the BBC Concert Orchestra under conductor Stephen Cleobury in music by John Tavener (The Protecting Veil), Witold Lutoslawski (Lacrimosa), and Karol Szymanowski (Stabat mater). [France Musique]

  • The Tallis Scholars perform a concert in the Oratoire du Louvre, with Peter Phillips leading music by John Taverner, John Sheppard, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, and Arvo Pärt. [France Musique]

  • Hear a performance of Berlioz's opera Les Troyens, from La Scala in Milan. [RTBF]


Lugansky in Blistering Prokofiev 3

available at Amazon
Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 3 (and Grieg Concerto), N. Lugansky, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, K. Nagano
(Naïve, 2013)
Nikolai Lugansky is an exceptionally accomplished pianist, someone with technique to burn but who plays with consummate restraint. The combination leads some, who judge principally with their eyes, to find him cool or distant, but to those who listen, he consistently dazzles the ears. This makes him ideally suited to the major piano concertos, and he has blown me away in the Rachmaninov third concerto, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra two years ago and the Philadelphia Orchestra before that, if less so in Beethoven's fourth concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2011. The Russian pianist has just made a recording of Prokofiev's daunting third piano concerto and has been making the rounds with it, including in this week's concerts with the NSO, where I heard him play it on Friday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The program, led by the slightly unpredictable young conductor Cornelius Meister, currently chief conductor of the Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien (the resident orchestra of Österreichischer Rundfunk), also featured a lesser-known Mendelssohn overture and Mozart's Symphony No. 40 (not reviewed).

Lugansky hit all the right marks in this complicated concerto: helter-skelter runs at super-fast tempos, a tongue-in-cheek take on the first movement's goofy second theme (accompanied by castanets), impeccable hand crossings, a steely accuracy in the large-handed berserk chordal sections, but also a dreamy take on the piano's musings at the recapitulation, where the tender opening clarinet solo returns. In general there were fine contributions from the NSO musicians, a great piccolo duet with the soloist in one of the odder passages of the first movement, for example, although with a couple clams in the horn calls of the second movement. Most of the coordination problems must be laid at the feet of Meister, who showed a slightly inexperienced hand leading this kind of piece. At fast tempos the urgency he wanted to show obscured the clarity of his beat at times, and that uncertainty was heard in the lack of ensemble unity of the orchestra, not always aligned with itself or with the soloist. This was especially a shame in the fleeter passages of the second movement, where Lugansky was light as a feather but not always matched by the orchestra, and in the tense slow section toward the end, where Lugansky's playing was, a notable exception, on the prosaic side, missing some of the mystery of the passage. In the third movement, though, everything came together, with pleasingly acerbic edges, raucous woodwinds, and some truly astounding finger-work from Lugansky. The ovation was loud enough for an encore, but Lugansky declined to offer one.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, A winning program in Cornelius Meister’s debut with National Symphony Orchestra

Terry Ponick, NSO: Meister, Lugansky = one hot symphony evening at the KenCen (Communities Digital News, April 18)

Joseph Thirouin, Un Lugansky flamboyant dans le troisieme de Prokofiev (, April 16)
Many of the same problems at the podium (also heard in Meister's last local appearance, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2012) were evident in the opening work, Mendelssohn's overture Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, op. 27, an evocation of a becalmed sea, dangerous for ships relying on sails, and a successful arrival into port. The composer was inspired by an obscure late cantata of Beethoven's on the same title, bringing together two poetic fragments by Goethe. The Meeresstille section had a lovely rubato push and pull to it, with Meister giving a careful dynamic control to the score, the brass quietly underpinning the texture. When the winds were finally released in the second section, Meister pushed the tempo extremely fast, and the results were as erratic as his beat often looked. This did not preclude some fine playing, especially on the prominent contrabassoon part and in the grand brass fanfare that sounds as land is sighted.

This concert will be repeated this evening (April 19, 8 pm) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Anton Webern, Langsamer Satz, and the Belcea Quartet

…Krzysztof Chorzelski, the violist of the Belcea Quartet bemoans at the Dinner after their performance in the Mozart Saal that he missed the Camerata Salzburg with Philippe Herreweghe performing Beethoven and Chopin the night they were giving their first of their two Purcell-Haydn-Britten recitals. “If I had known, I would have gone to that concert instead” he laughs. “It’s so frustrating to play String Quartet all the time and miss concerts like that.” If he had arrived a day earlier, taken a little more time, we suggest, he could have caught the first performance without playing hookey from his own gig. “I think that’s what we’re planning to do in the future, actually”, he responds in earnest. And follows up eagerly: “Is there something we shouldn’t miss on the night we arrive next time?”

We excitedly tell Chorzelski about the Freiburger Barockorchester and their titillating all-Schumann Concerto nights with Alexander Melnikov, Isabelle Faust, and Jean-Guihen Queyras and his eyes light up. “Nice. What a fantastic lineup. What a fantastic thing to play all the concertos. Is it on the 24th, or 25th?” It takes a while until we realize that we’re talking April, while the Belcea Quartet next date with Piotr Anderszewski (Webern, Beethoven, Shostakovich) is already this month. The concert they will miss instead is the first of the two San Francisco Symphony performances. Chorzelski knows about it already: “Ah, the one with Julia Fischer playing Prokofiev.” That’s quality stuff, but the hidden gem of interest could well be the Charles Ives “Concord Sonata”, orchestrated. (Well, one movement at least.) “Oh my God! That’s amazing. I heard the Concord Sonata once live, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard…” With or without the…” “With the flute, yes! Wow, it’s a fantastic idea.”

The idea was to talk about Anton Webern’s Langsamer Satz, but now we’re solidly side-tracked on Ives. I confess to never quite having …

Continue here, at the Konzerthaus Magazin.


Classical Music Agenda: May 2014

Winter may finally be over, so it is safe to plan your springtime concert schedule. Here are the ten performances most worth hearing in the month of May.

available at Amazon
Mendelssohn, Ein Sommernachtstraum, La Chapelle Royale, Collegium Vocale Gent, Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, P. Herreweghe
(Harmonia Mundi, 2012)
Two programs from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra make the cut, beginning with Marin Alsop leading a performance of Shostakovich's twelfth symphony, paired with Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto featuring pianist Yefim Bronfman as soloist (May 2 to 4). The second is a performance of Mendelssohn's complete incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, with parts of the play performed by actors (May 29 to June 1)

Orchestral music merges with dance in interesting ways, first in a performance of Copland's Appalachian Spring from the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, with the musicians themselves choreographed by Liz Lerman (May 4), at the Clarice Smith Center. In a related vein, the last of the NEW MOVES: Symphony + Dance mini-festival from the National Symphony Orchestra looks interesting, with conductor Thomas Wilkins and violinist Leila Josefowicz in music of Copland, John Adams, Michael Daugherty, and George Walker (May 16 and 17).

A trip to Charm City is in order for the free recital by Yevgeny Sudbin at Hodson Hall Auditorium in Baltimore (May 3). He will play sonatas by Scarlatti and Scriabin, plus preludes by Shostakovich and Rachmaninov. Washington Performing Arts [Society] presents one of their best events of the year, pianist Martin Helmchen in a recital of music by Bach, Schubert, and Schumann (May 10) at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

The Fortas Chamber Music series hosts pianist Marc-André Hamelin and the Pacifica String Quartet in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (May 20). They will perform piano quintets by Dvořák and Leo Ornstein, with Hamelin also playing his 2011 Variations on a Theme of Paganini.

Get your C. P. E. Bach fix with a program of his symphonic and vocal music performed by the Washington Bach Consort at National Presbyterian Church (May 4). As in most months, there will also be two free cantatas by his famous father: Noontime Cantata: Halt im Gedächtnis Jesum Christ, BWV 67, with the Washington Bach Consort (May 6) at the Church of the Epiphany, and Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes, BWV 40, on the Bach Cantata Series at the Clarice Smith Center (May 8).

Lastly, Vocal Arts D.C. presents the outstanding tenor Lawrence Brownlee and pianist Kevin Murphy at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium (May 13). The program features songs by Marx, Ginastera, Verdi, Poulenc, and Ben Moore, as well as arrangements of spirituals.

The Bolshoi Ballet returns to the Kennedy Center Opera House in May, with their production of Adolphe Adam's Giselle, with choreography by Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, and Marius Petipa and staging by Yuri Grigorovich.
Headlining the casting will be Svetlana Zakharova (Giselle) and American dancer David Hallberg (Albrecht).


Anton Webern: Langsamer Satz

The Belcea Quartett plays Anton Webern's «Langsamer Satz» in the Mozart-Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus, Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

For those interested, you can read more about «Langsamer Satz» in the interview with the Belcea Quartet's Violist Krzysztof Chorzelski on the online Magazine of the Wiener Konzerthaus here:

'Les Sylphides' and Ashton from ABT

Les Sylphides, American Ballet Theater (photo by Rosalie O'Connor)

American Ballet Theater is back at the Kennedy Center Opera House this week, only one year after its last visit. Before its main offering, Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky's choreography of Minkus's Don Quixote (April 17 to 20), the company is dancing a far more interesting triple-bill, seen on Tuesday night. It paired two classics of different kinds, Michel Fokine's Les Sylphides and Frederick Ashton's The Dream, with a brand-new work choreographed by ABT principal dancer Marcelo Gomes called Aftereffect. Of course, Don Quixote is fine and all, but I was really hoping to see the company's new choreography of The Tempest by Alexei Ratmansky.

Les Sylphides is a plot-less ballet blanc that Fokine created first in St. Petersburg, where it was known as Chopiniana -- in which form it was danced here by the Mariinsky Ballet in 2012. It is mostly about the corps de ballet, and thus it featured the outstanding discipline of the ABT's women, who moved with impeccable unity and precision through every graceful move and arboreal formation, down to the smallest arch of the back or port de bras, much of it en pointe. Relatively new principal dancer Hee Seo stood out among the soloists for her delicate solo in the Prelude (Chopin's Prelude in A major, op. 28/7). Stella Abrera, although lovely in the first Mazurka, was inhibited somewhat in the pas de deux by being paired with the less accomplished Joseph Gorak as the Poet, the only male dancer in the ballet. Fokine originally used an orchestration of these Chopin piano pieces by Glazunov, but ABT has reconstituted the orchestration by Benjamin Britten, which it commissioned in 1941 and was long thought lost. While perhaps not a masterful orchestration, it has lots of effects involving the harp, which added to the dreamy nature of the choreography.

available at Amazon
Mendelssohn, Ein Sommernachtstraum, La Chapelle Royale, Collegium Vocale Gent, Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, P. Herreweghe
(Harmonia Mundi, 2012)
In Aftereffect, Gomes created a sort of masculine counterpart to the willowy Les Sylphides. Opening with a burst of male energy, the choreography has eight male dancers, costumed in blue leggings and bare-chested, run across the stage. One dancer remains, convulsed by movements that are as much about agitation and restlessness as the first ballet was about stillness and floating. In an effect that recalls multiple-exposure series of photographs like those of Eadweard Muybridge, the lead dancer is eventually shadowed by a second, an augmentation that continues to include the entire group. It was intensely physical, at times whimsical, and even a little silly, in a good way, but it could have been danced in silence since it did not really match up to the music Gomes selected, the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, in the roughest performance of the night from the string players of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Halzack, American Ballet Theatre puts on enchanting ‘Dream,’ but ‘Sylphides’ is lacking (Washington Post, April 17)
The most substantial work of the evening was The Dream, an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), by Frederick Ashton, whose sentimental Les Patineurs charmed me last summer. Premiered in 1964, The Dream streamlines the play, drawing on only the central stories of the fairies and the four lovers. Ashton used Mendelssohn's charming incidental music, commissioned by King Frederick William IV of Prussia, when Mendelssohn was music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Mendelssohn included and adapted his own brilliant overture for the work, composed by itself in 1826, when the composer was only 17. Ashton's choreography puts the pairing of Oberon and Titania at the center, danced here by the elegant couple of Julie Kent and especially Marcelo Gomes, who was a menacing King of Shadows, making for a gorgeous pas de deux. Herman Cornejo made a capricious, satyr-like Puck, in his acrobatic leaps and pointed legs, and Alexei Agoudine an oafish, faux-delicate Bottom, who often tiptoes around when he is delighted. Ashton makes the four lovers into broadly comic, mostly pantomime roles, providing plenty of laughs. Mendelssohn composed several charming vocal numbers in this music, for soprano, mezzo-soprano, and women's chorus, sung here in English by Melissa Mino, Jennfier Cherest, and the Arlington Children's Chorus. The singing was diminished just slightly by being piped in by speaker from another room, and there was one early entrance from the choir in the final number, which was righted by conductor Ormsby Wilkins.

American Ballet Theater's production of Don Quixote opens tonight and continues through Sunday afternoon.


Second Opinion: Playing with Mermaids: Conlon and the NSO

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

The only disappointing thing about the evening of Thursday, April 10, 2014 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was that it was not full. When the National Symphony Orchestra chooses such interesting repertory as it did for this concert under conductor James Conlon, the musical idealist imagines the place full to the rafters.

The Profound Existentialism of Charles Ives: Kent Nagano in Conversation

…Americans hear Ives differently. Maybe. Actually, that’s not true. Maybe now in the 21st century we can begin to hear Ives differently than we did before because… [the Pianist unnerves us] …but what Ives wrote was in many ways so visionary such that today the techniques he introduced are just simply a part of our normal sound-fabric that we interact with constantly. For us as Americans, or at least I, as an American, when I hear Ives I hear the United States of America. And I hear Canada. I hear all of North America. I think probably I also hear the ties of North America to Europe, because his formation, his training was directly tied to the European tradition. And he was a contemporary of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, the Second Viennese School. And you can hear that somehow, that time of going over the century… from the 19th to the 20th century. But you can also hear tremendous optimism, a sense of joy, you hear the strength and power of nature and the inconsequence of mankind, you hear profound existentialism…

Continue here, at the Konzerthaus Magazin.


Conlon and 'The Mermaid'

available at Amazon
A. Zemlinsky, Die Seejungfrau, Gürzenich Orchester Köln, J. Conlon
(EMI, 1997)
James Conlon's stint with the National Symphony Orchestra last week was one of my Top Ten concert picks for the month. There were other assignments in the way for the first two performances, but as noted on Saturday, there was no way I was going to miss the chance to hear Conlon conduct Alexander Zemlinsky's tone poem Die Seejungfrau, at the last performance on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The program was inverted from the usual order of a symphony concert, with the major Zemlinsky work performed first, followed by the concerto and the short piece that would usually be a concert-opener. At the outset, Conlon took microphone in hand and gave a savant and convincing introduction to Die Seejungfrau, speculating that Zemlinsky saw himself in the mermaid and the beautiful and inaccessible Alma Schindler, with whom he was in love, as the unapproachable prince. Alma Schindler -- later Mahler, Gropius, finally Werfel -- provided the common thread of the program, too, as she was the dedicatee of Korngold's violin concerto on the second half, composed when both Korngold and Alma lived in Los Angeles in the 1940s.

Die Seejungfrau is in three movements, which are not identified with elements of the story but correspond roughly as follows: the little mermaid's life in the sea and first encounter with the prince; the spell that transforms her into a human and her attempt to get the prince to marry her; and her ultimate embrace of death, because she will not accept the Mer-Witch's offer to kill the prince and be returned herself to the sea. The first movement evokes the deep rolling of the sea, with static motifs, including deep harp notes, layered on top of groaning bass instruments, leading to huge tidal swells of sound. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef was mercurial and passionate in the violin solos of the little mermaid, numerous enough to make the work almost a sort of violin concerto. Conlon gave the work a decisive pacing, which added gritty excitement to the faster passages. A rollicking horn theme signifies the prince and his men, and a passage of music in the second movement, excised from the score after the work's premiere, has been put back into the score, recovered from the holograph score in the Library of Congress, heard for the first time in the United States in these performances.

As Conlon noted, the second movement has a number of waltzes in it, and the solo violin gets swept up in one of them. If you only know this story from the sanitized Disney movie version, Andersen's mermaid suffers terrible searing pain every time she walks on her magical legs. The Mer-Witch tells her that she will move more gracefully than any human but with this terrible pain, which she endures quite happily for the chance to please the prince. The stakes in the Andersen story are deadly: if a human does not marry her, thereby sharing his immortal soul with her, the soulless mermaid will dissolve into the sea foam. The mermaid's family strikes another pact with the Mer-Witch, trading their hair for an enchanted blade: if the mermaid kills the prince with it, her fish's tail will return and she can go back to the sea. Selflessly, the mermaid throws the knife into the sea, giving up her life, but she joins spirits in the air, who can earn a soul by performing acts to help the living. Zemlinsky's has its eeriest effects in the third movement, including the return of the menacing deep sea music from the opening of the piece, with radiant string strings lifting up the violin solo, with harp twinkles and muted brass, quite ethereal. It is a score that should be on every conductor's To Do list.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, NSO concert stuffed with Romantic music by Zemlinsky, Korngold and Brahms (Washington Post, April 11)

Terry Ponick, NSO, James Conlon highlight 20th century’s missing masterpieces (Communities Digital News, April 11)

Jesse Hamlin, James Conlon leads musical revival of Nazi-banned composers (San Francisco Chronicle, April 9)
Gil Shaham has been specializing in 20th-century violin concertos, and here he was the soloist for the sugary Korngold concerto. Shaham's tone is often beautiful and his phrasing sensitive, when the sound of the orchestra does not push him too far and the writing is not too high on the E string or otherwise demanding, so the delicate parts of this concerto were lovely, often colored by the celesta, seated right in front of Conlon's podium in this performance. In recent years, though, elements of Shaham's playing have unraveled a bit, and there were some hairy flautando notes here, iffy intonation, and slightly sketchy double-stops -- not enough to make the performance disastrous by any means, but dulling some of its shine. After these two large works, the Brahms "Variations on a Theme by Haydn" were probably unnecessary, especially since it was last heard from the NSO only in 2009, but it offered another chance for the NSO musicians to shine, especially the contraforte player Lewis Lipnick, whose line was given special prominence in the theme and several variations. Conlon kept most of the piece moving along, with a minimum of oozy sentiment to the rubato, making the minore variation (no. 4) legato and smoldering.

The NSO season continues next week, with guest conductor Cornelius Meister leading performances of overly familiar Mendelssohn and Mozart, plus Prokofiev's third piano concerto, with Nikolai Lugansky as soloist (April 17 to 19).


Another Year, Another 'Carmen'

Charles T. Downey, Virginia Opera stages ‘Carmen’
Washington Post, April 14, 2014

An opera company is unlikely to have a triumph, in the critical sense, by staging “Carmen,” but Georges Bizet’s story of passion and murder will fill a house. It worked for Virginia Opera, which staged the opera on Friday night at George Mason University Center for the Arts. With some talented singers and a handsome production, updated by director Tazewell Thompson to Franco-era Spain, it was bound to be a crowd-pleaser.

Mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson... [Continue reading]
Bizet, Carmen
Virginia Opera
GMU Center for the Arts

Falstaff | Magic Flute | Ariadne auf Naxos

Sadly, Virginia Opera will celebrate its 40th anniversary season by giving over half of its productions to music theater and operetta. It is a long way from the company's daring 2011-12 season.


In Brief: Tax Man Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio, online video, and other good things in Blogville and Beyond. (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 of Vivaldi by Vivica Genaux and Europa Galante, conducted by Fabio Biondi. [France Musique]

  • From the Wiener Staatsoper, Wagner's Lohengrin, with Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin), Camilla Nylund (Elsa von Brabant), and conductor Mikko Franck. [ORF]

  • From the Théâtre Graslin de Nantes, a performance of Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande, recorded last month. [France Musique]

  • Philippe Jaroussky and Emöke Barath perform Pergolesi's Stabat Mater at the Château de Fontainebleau. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Violinist Thomas Zehetmair joins conductor Alan Gilbert and the Berlin Philharmonic for music by Lutoslawski, LJanacek, Bernd-Alois Zimmermann, and Bartok. [France Musique]

  • Philippe Herreweghe conducts the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, joined by mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg and Collegium Vocale Gent in music of Brahms. [France Musique]

  • Jordi Savall leads violinist Manfred Kraemer and Le Concert des Nations in music by Michael Praetorius, William Brade, Guillaume Dumanoir, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Johann Rosenmuller, Henry Purcell, and Jean-Philippe Rameau. [France Musique]

  • Thomas Hengelbrock conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Beethoven's Mass in C Major and Schubert's Stabat mater and "Unfinished" Symphony. [ORF]

  • Watch Marin Alsop conduct the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, in music by Shostakovich and Rachmaninov. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Semyon Bychkov conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in symphonies by Beethoven and Schubert, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall. [BBC3]

  • A program of Vivaldi concerts from Gli Incogniti, led by violinist Amandine Beyer. [ORF]

  • Shostakovichs 13th symphony and Messiaen's Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine, with Ingo Metzmacher leading the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien and Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien. [ORF]

  • Watch Myung-Whun Chung conduct the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, in music by Gustav Mahler. [Cité de la Musique Live]

  • Conductor Tugan Sokhiev and cellist Johannes Moser join the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, in music by Miecyslaw Weinberg, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Albert Roussel. [ORF]

  • London Handel Players perform at the Wigmore Hall, as part of the London Handel Festival 2014. [BBC3]

  • Music of Bach, Richard Danielpour, and Prokofiev performed by violinist Gil Shaham and musicians from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. [France Musique]

  • Harpists Iris Torossian and Marion Lénart join La Maîtrise de Radio France, under conductor Sofi Jeannin, to perform music by Francis Poulenc, André Caplet, Holst, Bernard Andres, and Daniel Lesur. [France Musique]

  • Violinist Arabella Steinbacher joins the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, with Andrés Orozco-Estrada at the podium, in music by Haydn, Prokofiev, Ysaye, Friedrich Cerha, and Rachmaninov. [France Musique]

  • The ensemble Sillages offers a celebration of composer Allain Gaussin, with the world premiere of his latest work, Le vent se lève, plus music by Javier Torres Maldonado, Francisco Guerrero, and Alex Mincek. [France Musique]

  • A performance of Eugen d'Albert's Tiefland, starring Paul Schöffler (Sebastiano), Oskar Czerwenka (Tommaso), Gre Brouwenstijn (Marta), and Hans Hopf (Pedro), with the Vienna Symphony. [ORF]


Briefly Noted: 'The Mermaid'

available at Amazon
A. Zemlinsky, Die Seejungfrau, Gürzenich Orchester Köln, J. Conlon
(EMI, 1997)
James Conlon has devoted much of his career to the revival of forgotten works and composers from the early 20th century. One of those composers is Alexander Zemlinsky, one-time teacher of Arnold Schoenberg and eventually his relative, when Schoenberg married Zemlinsky's sister Mathilde. A little-known tone poem by Zemlinsky, Die Seejungfrau, was given its premiere in 1905, on a concert sponsored by the Society of Creative Musicians that also featured Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. Zemlinsky's 45-minute work, for a massive orchestra [4 3 4 3 - 6 3 4 1 - timp, perc(2), hp(2), str], is based on the same Hans Christian Andersen story (Den lille Havfrue) that was (loosely) the basis for Disney's film The Little Mermaid, except that in the Danish story the mermaid decides not to stab the prince, who has betrayed her by marrying another woman, opting instead to throw her knife into the sea and dissolve into the air as a sort of benevolent spirit. Conlon was not the first to record this work, but it has become associated with him since this recording with the Gürzenich Orchester Köln. In his concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra this week -- the last performance is this evening -- Conlon is leading the first U.S. performances of a new critical edition of the work, which restores a section of 83 measures cut by the composer after the work's premiere, from the mermaid's visit to the Mer-witch.

According to Antony Beaumont's biography of Zemlinsky, it was Die Seejungfrau "that stole the show" at that 1905 concert: "His diaphanous orchestration teased the ear; the rich harmonies and passionate climaxes gave pleasure, and with his experience as a conductor of operetta, he knew how to articulate the finest nuance, to negotiate the subtlest of rubatos." During the Schoenberg piece, on the other hand, the audience grew restless, and many listeners left. Conlon's recording is well worth revisiting, or hearing for the first time, revealing a work that is in keeping with other fairy-tale music works of the same era, including the Pelléas adaptations by Fauré and Debussy. Listening to it now (see embedded video below), as with many of Zemlinsky's works, it is hard to believe that this composer could have passed into obscurity.