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Bartok’s Six String Quartets

I had to admire the Kennedy Center for staying open last month, when snow, wind and then bitter cold temperatures made it an adventure to get there. Two magnificent concerts by the Takacs String Quartet were sold out, but the weather depressed attendance. Too bad, because they were some of the best hours I’ve spent with live music in a long time. The program was Bartok, all six of his string quartets, played over two nights. I wrote up my response to the music for The New Republic, an article that was picked up by a few other sites, including Andrew Sullivan, which is a delightful bit of good luck for a music and art drudge. They chose to link to a dynamic performance by the Pacifica Quartet. Here’s another option, by the Alban Berg Quartet:

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Google Honors Harriet Tubman

Google is honoring Harriet Tubman today. In most images, especially on postage stamps, she appears as a sweet if rather haggard old woman, often with a wrap around her hair. Google uses a younger version, with the famous guide to the Underground Railroad holding a lantern. The image below, taken from a book, appeared in an exhibition of CIvil War era photographs and other images I reviewed at the National Potrait Gallery last year. Most images honor her accomplishment; this one depicts her resolve.

Image

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Fernand Leger in Philadelphia

RMN18428I went up to Philalelphia a few weeks ago to take in the Philadelphia Art Museum’s “Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis.” It’s a large show with ambition, locating Leger’s work as a nodal point for many different competing definitions of how art should relate to the modern world. The only problem is the actual art of Leger, which is well made but leaves me rather cold.

The exciting thing about Léger is how closely he tracks with very contemporary definitions of what artists do. He made easel paintings, to be sure, but he also worked as a teacher, as a theorist, he contributed to journals, designed sets and costumes for the theater and played an instrumental role in assembling one of the most important and radical film experiments of the century, “Ballet Mecanique” from 1923-24. He sought inspiration and collaborated with architects, including Le Corbusier (whose paintings always look like second-rate Légers) and the Dutch De Stijl group (which helped inspire him to conceive of art as fully integrated into everyday life). He also worked with poets and writers to create images that far surpass mere illustration, books and prints that integrate text and imagery in novel ways. His creative energies were seemingly moving in all directions at once, his idea of a “career” as unorthodox as the career of most artists today.

The weakness, unfortunately, in any exhibition of Léger is the art of Léger. When you encounter his paintings in a gallery of 20th-century art, near the work of cubists, surrealists, expressionists and other contemporaneous styles, Léger’s paintings often feel like a pleasant respite from all the rest. They are orderly, well-made and have a pleasing sheen to them. They are agreeable, like rectangular relief valves, allowing an occasional respite from the aggression in other work. They are almost like windows opening on a cartoon version of the city, without the angst and anguish of other more trenchant artists’ visions. Nothing bad ever seems to happen in Leger’s city.

Image: Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Les Disques, 1918. Fernand Léger, Musée d’Art Modern de la Ville de Paris.

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Lieux funestes

This aria, from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Dardanus, may be the most wonderfully French music ever written. It doesn’t seem to have a melody, just an anguished collection of swells and sighs and other forms of musical respiration. And it’s gorgeous.

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November 1, 2013 · 5:25 pm

Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra

         Some conductors, standing in front of an orchestra, seem to draw forth sound, sculpting music ex nihilo. Valery Gergiev, the head of the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, seems more inclined to contain it, as if the orchestra is an insuppressible force which he merely delimits around the edges, holding back crescendos lest they spiral into chaos, topping off magnificent fortissimos before they do damage to the back walls of the auditorium. It is exciting to watch, if the music is energetic and calls for great quantities of sound. If the music isn’t big and bravura, if it is delicate and wants shading and color and refinement, Gergiev can be shockingly disengaged.

            Gergiev brought his Mariinsky Orchestra to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday evening for a generous, exciting and fascinating program of Stravinsky: The three major ballets written before the First World War for the Ballets Russes. With two intermissions, and a running time of almost three hours, he and his indefatigable players presented these magnificent scores in chronological order, the 1910 Firebird, the 1911 Petrushka, and the 1913 Rite of Spring (celebrating its centennial this year).

            This is the sort of program that American orchestras should be doing, big, challenging, engaging and easy to love. It’s a shame, and a sign of the appalling silos that separate arts institutions in Washington, that the concert—or a similar program—wasn’t presented in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art’s Ballets Russes exhibition.

   Hearing all three ballets in one evening gives one a much more comprehensive sense of Stravinsky’s remarkable evolution during these epic years, and it helps the ear detect common elements of his musical language that might not be so easily detected if each work is listened to in isolation. The full-length Firebird suddenly seems more experimental and less cohesive, and things that might sound uniquely explosive and anarchic in Rite of Spring are clearly gestures deriving from early work, when heard in the context of its predecessors.

            And Petrushka sounds more magnificent than ever. It was the highlight of the evening, because it is a better work than Firebird, and because Gergiev was more attentive to its nuances than he was with the Rite of Spring (played last, and everyone seemed a bit exhausted). The Mariinsky found colors I’ve never heard in the piece, a busy, full-orchestra shimmering, a dozen shades of blinding white and glinting silver. The orchestra doesn’t necessarily exploit the entire spectrum of sonic color, but when it comes to the brilliant hues, the percussive sounds, the nasally high pitches of brass or woodwinds pushed to the point of shrillness, here they can divide and subdivide a small patch of color into seemingly infinite nuance.

            Petrushka ends inconclusively, one of Stravinsky’s wry, bitter gestures. It isn’t a grand summation, just a flick of the wrist and the comic-tragic story is over. Gergiev dispatched this anticlimax with just the right imperious indifference.

            Firebird and Rite of Spring build to noisier endings, and were rewarded with noisier demonstrations. But the latter felt constrained. The opening pastoral elements were already forceful and aggressive, not so much a scenic introduction as a formal, musical setup for what became a seemingly unstoppable drive to the end. The piece was presented as a single, through line of music, rather than a succession of episodes, but one had a sense that Gergiev was in a hurry. His haste in Rite was preferable to his palpable boredom throughout much of the first part of Firebird.

            Is the Mariinsky a great orchestra? Section by section, soloist by soloist, you can always find something wanting: Horns that can produce that round, full, faraway sound; oboes with a honey-colored tone; flutes that sound like they’re made of old wood. The dry string sound, exacerbated by the Kennedy Center Concert Hall’s dismal acoustics, is generally bright and heard to best effect during fast passages. They are, however, far better rehearsed than most American orchestras. Of course they are on tour, so the repertoire is being repeated. But the music is clearly deeply engrained in every player. Gergiev’s responsibility isn’t to traffic cop the complexities of Stravinsky, but resist and direct the impulsive flow of music from his expert players. Spending a few hours without one tentative sound, one loose joint, one scrappy misplaced note, is a pleasure. More American orchestras could do this too, if they had the time and will.

            The concert was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

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La forza del destino at the Washington National Opera

The Force of DestinyVerdi’s La forza del destino lingers in the mind as one of those late mid-career messes, a giant cauldron of opera overflowing with musical inspiration but stewed up with a super-heated libretto and way too many melodramatic plots twists. It feels like we never see it on stage, though we know it in bits and pieces, its famous overture (turned into folk music in Claude Berri’s Pagnol films of the 1980s) and its arias, especially “Pace, pace mio Dio,” a regular of soprano recital programs.
    It’s good to see it at the Washington National Opera in a stylish and often sexy production, directed by WNO artistic head Francesca Zambello and beautifully designed by Peter J. Davison. Although the production has casting problems throughout, the show nevertheless works, making a strong case not just that Forza has great material, but that is a coherent, cohesive opera, building to dramatic unity despite or because of its many divagations. By the end of this tale of vengeance, shame and thwarted forgiveness, the piece takes on some of the primal power of Greek drama, breathless and relentless, like Aeschylus’s Euminides, or Sophocle’s Electra.
    The production updates the setting to what has become the standard vision of the operatic present tense, with neon lighting and lots of flesh-revealing sexy costumes, though a gray, formal sense of the 19th century lingers around the edges. The stage pictures are compelling, an enormous dining room for the first act, a Times Square vision of fleshpots for the beginning of the second, and a gritty, graffiti splattered urban alley for the monastery scenes. Each one is meticulously realized, and only moderately discordant with the more historically specific references of the libretto.
    Dramatically, the hallmark is energy, and a nuanced sense of dark comedy always in the background. Valeriano Lanchas, as Brother Melitone, sang the most explicitly comic role, and conveyed the officious bumbling of his character without caricature. Like a big sprawling 19th-century novel, there are small strains of muted comedy throughout the opera, and it’s impressive that Zambello finds them without tipping the scales to smug mockery of the libretto’s easily ridiculed excesses. Even so, there was laughter in the house several times on Saturday evening, which is frustrating and silly. There are conventions to 19th-century drama just like any other art form or period style, and one convention is that intensifying the dramatic conflict takes precedence over strict verisimilitude. No one laughs at Van Gogh because he intensifies color and stylizes brush work to heighten visual impact. Why is melodrama treated as such a bastard form?
    Soprano Adina Aaron, as Leonora, sang with remarkably energy, unflagging dramatic intensity and vocal abandon. Even at the end of a long evening (Forza stretches on to three hours), tenor Giancarlo Monsalve and baritone Mark Delavan egged each other on through the opera’s crucial final scenes, when the possibility of redemption is agonizingly close, but squandered again and again by hatred and emotional insecurity. The opera lives or dies on the believability of its last act, in which years of animosity, regret and self loathing are finally felt in their full, corrosive power. The cast gets high marks for constantly pushing this study in relentless forward motion always forward, with exuberant spirits and total commitment.
    But not one of them is entirely vocally satisfying, and several of them lead one to be quite concerned about vocal longevity. Aaron is an exciting singer and fine actress, but too much given to vocal effects, to low notes with a lot of bite, and impressive but perhaps mannered diminuendos and crescendos on top tones. One wished for a simpler, more lyrical, more direct line, with attention to continuity and legato. I hope she can continue to do everyone of these impressive vocal feats twenty years from now; and I hope they are better integrated into a more natural sense of style. Monsalve looks the part and sings with intensity, but when pushing his voice, very few notes are hit directly, but come with little helper tones just before attack, a bad habit that makes tenors such as Roberto Alagna very hard to listen to unless the only thing you want is volume. As Preziosilla, mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze was physically a seductive, boisterously sexual presence, but only approximate to the musical line in her lower register. I often couldn’t make out what she was singing.
    As for conductor Xian Zhang, making her WNO debut, it’s hard to be certain. The overture (displaced to serve as an entr’acte between Acts I and II) was deftly done, dramatic and detailed. But the first act was a mess, and often the beat felt spongy. One heard more problems–tempo disagreements and ensemble smudges–than there should be when opera is made at this level, and yet the overall effect was often exciting. And the orchestra sounds very well these days. So the jury is out.
    But this show remains worthwhile despite serious musical misgivings. Verdi’s experimental genius, his restless creativity, shines through. That alone is worth the investment.

Photograph: Adina Aaron as Donna Leonora of Vargas, by Scott Suchman for WNO

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Recent Work

    Two recent Washington Post pieces were somewhat hard to find on the website, so I post them here. One deals with the controversy in Detroit over the possibility that the Detroit Institute of Arts may have to sell paintings as part of the city’s larger bankruptcy crisis. I think this is disastrous, but not unexpected given larger cultural trends.  Thus:

This is about dismantling the public commons: There are things we hold in trust for the common good, places and institutions such as libraries, museums and public parks that are meant to be held, enjoyed and passed on to future generations without regard to their monetary value, immediate cost or other inconveniences presented by their maintenance.It is about the fraying and ultimate destruction of a social contract built on the robber-baron philanthropy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the progressive movements that championed education and political reform in the last century and the ideals of equal access that emerged in the civil rights struggles since the 1950s. If you believe there is nothing more to the social contract than the inalienable right of all men to thrive or perish in the market, then museums are an obnoxious example of irrational collectivist thinking.

And then there was a review of a new MOMA show devoted to Magritte. Nugget:

On a purely visual level, Magritte’s art still appeals today because it is spare, clean, and mostly empty. His people may be ciphers, living in apocalyptically empty rooms, but today empty is looking pretty inviting. The clean, precise lines of architectural modernism haunt even the most old-fashioned of his interior spaces, and while many of them are stage settings for dark and disturbing messages, they remain strangely appealing places.Magritte’s paintings also do one, limited kind of artistic work very well. They begin one place, then take you to another, with a satisfying sense of unraveling or unlocking the meaning. They reduce artistic looking to an almost addictive level, with a clear and rewarding payoff for a small amount of study.     

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Putin, Gergiev, The Met and Onegin

This piece, a much expanded version of what I wrote on the blog a few days ago, got lost in the holiday shuffle. My subject is the so called “gay propaganda” law, recently passed in Russia, that criminalizes any positive (and perhaps neutral) mention of homosexuality, and how protests against the law may play out in the cultural realm. So far, the attention has focused mostly on Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Will gay athletes and visitors be safe? Will anything so small as a rainbow lapel pin be subject to the force of this ugly and dangerous proscription? But there is already a developing cultural aspect to the protests as well, including a fascinating but somewhat ill-directed petition to asking the Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its opening night performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin to “LGTB rights.”

I don’t start there, but with the character of Monsieur Triquet, one of my favorite, though also one of the saddest in Tchaikovsky’s setting of Pushkin’s novel in verse. I think it’s clear that Triquet is a closeted gay man. And I think it’s all too clear that the closet is being reinvented, and re-purposed, for new forms of oppression. Here’s a sample:

Much of the world is finally beginning to notice the cultural and historical abundance of Triquets, the closeted characters, the unmarried aunts and uncles, the flamboyant men who never talked of sex, allowing their voices, warped and corrupted by homophobia, to be heard at last with sympathy. But Triquet is also a model for how advocates of a new, reorganized, homophobia would like gay people to live: Allowed into the party on condition of self-denial, alienated from their nature, singing someone else’s heterosexual verses. What’s old is new, and whether it’s Putin’s Russia or the Catholic Church taking aim at teachers who enter into same-sex marriages, Triquet reminds us that the closet that gay people left over the past half-century is being repurposed, refitted to the job of oppression, by laws such as the one being protested so widely today.

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The Castleton Festival

I wrote a piece about the rural Virginia-based Castleton Festival for Opera News, which appeared in the magazine’s June issue. It’s now online. I returned from a month of travel to catch the last of the Castleton performances, a scrappy and often exciting production of Verdi’s Otello, with soprano Joyce El-Khoury in the role of Desdemona. El-Khoury built through the afternoon, to a powerful and nuanced characterization in the last act, with wonderful pianissimos and delicate but fully supported singing. As Iago, Javier Arrey was another standout. Arrey looks like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, and he occasionally struggled to project genuine malevolence. But the singing was gorgeous, and the Credo filled with creepy twists and turns of spite, cynicism and loathing. All the optimism in my Opera News piece seems fully justified based on last week’s final performance of the season.

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Benjamin Grosvenor at Wolf Trap

     Benjamin Grosvenor, a young pianist from the United Kingdom, comes very highly praised. You can’t open the pages of Gramophone magazine these days without some news of his career and accomplishments, and last year he won both the instrumental and young artist awards in the magazine’s annual honors. Grosvenor performed with the National Symphony Orchestra on Friday evening at Wolf Trap.
      I haven’t been to Wolf Trap in years. The summer venue has mostly abandoned classical music, with only a scant handful of concerts I can remember over the past several years holding much interest for orchestra lovers. Mostly it’s pop acts and orchestral pops, and not very interesting pops either (the next three NSO concerts there are a Broadway evening, a Bugs Bunny spectacular and a live accompaniment to the film “Singin’ in the Rain”).
      But Grosvenor was a draw. I hadn’t heard him live, though I’ve admired his most recent recording for Decca, which includes Saint-Saens’s Piano Concerto No. 2. It wasn’t easy to make a real assessment of his playing, given the overbearing amplification on Friday evening. From a seat in the center of the pavilion, the piano was strangely too big for the orchestra, not overwhelming it, but cutting through the textures in an electronically aggressive way.
      Still, it was obvious that Grosvenor is a very interesting artist, and a sensitive one. His performance claimed the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 as an intimate piece, and argued the point despite the disadvantages of performing in an outdoor venue, to an audience that is picnicking and distracted. Grosvenor isn’t flashy, he isn’t aggressive, he isn’t a pianist who generates a big sound. He likes intimate gestures, a nuanced and fluid give and take with the accompanying orchestra, and textural delicacy. Often, he distilled the piano line down to its top and bottom lines, a clear, slightly accentuated melody against a round, robust bass, as if he was aware of the amplification issues and attempting to compensate with clarity.
      In the second movement he was as attentive to the music when accompanying the orchestra as he was when playing solo lines. The effect—or the effect intended—was bardic, and improvisatory. Unfortunately, the amplification wreaked the worst damage here, placing Grosvenor’s too far forward, like a screen between the audience and the orchestra.
There were problems throughout synchronizing the soloist and the orchestra, conducted by Ankush Kumar Bahl. I remember these difficulties from a decade ago, when I regularly reviewed the NSO. The seams in almost every concerto I heard for several years were ragged and uneven, the soloist arriving just before or after the orchestra entrance. I had hoped this was less of an issue now, but alas, no. Limited rehearsal time is the likely culprit.
     Still, it was good to hear the orchestra play a few substantial pieces of classical music under the stars. The program was filled out with Tchaikovsky waltzes and a spirited rendering of the 1812 Overture, complete with some kind of enormous canon just to the right of the concert pavilion. The effect on the audience was as intended: Riotous good cheer. It was a fun evening.

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