Tag Archives: Philip Kennicott

Hvorostovsky, Radvanovsky and Verdi, at the Kennedy Center

At least twice last night, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky drew a finger across his brow after singing, as if to wipe off a little bit of sweat, as if to remind the public that the great stream of dark, smooth sounds he has been making for more than twenty years takes real work. I first heard Hvorostovsky the year after he won the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. He appeared at Alice Tully Hall–a famous recital, a genuine New York event–and wowed a rapt crowd of critics, managers, publicists, envious opera stars and the rest of us, lucky to get in to an unforgettable performance.  Few singers have given me more pleasure, and while Hvorostovsky is now in his late 40s, he still has all the old power if not 100 percent of the old effortlessness.

Hvorostovsky appeared at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, in a program of arias and duets, mostly by Verdi, but with a show-stopping finale from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” thrown in. It was good fun, an evening of unhinged singing that revealed Radvanovsky in a new light. She has a major Verdi voice, from top to bottom, and she isn’t afraid to use it. There are quirks here and there, such as her tendency to scoop into notes for dramatic and expressive effect, and some odd breaks in the line (hard not to notice when singing next to Hvorostovsky, who is famous for his endless column of air). But none of these mattered compared to the overall effect: A soprano singing Verdi on the razor’s edge of disaster.

Together, in scenes from Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” and “Un ballo in maschera,” the two artists have genuine chemistry. Hvorostovsky had to melt with paternal affection in his recognition scene with the “Boccanegra” Amelia and thunder with bloodthirsty intent in Renato’s confrontation with the “Un ballo in maschera” Amelia. He has mastered the spectrum of masculinity as articulated by 19th century melodrama, and with the slightest shading or a hint of nasal tone, he can turn from husband to brute, from paternalism to sinister bullying. But Radvanovsky more than held her own, with a substantial lower register and a top that is occasionally calculated but nevertheless thrilling.

Who brought them together? And why were they singing with the National Philharmonic, a local orchestra that has been growing (and sounds much better than I remember them from almost ten years ago) but isn’t quite at the level one might expect with two such stars on the program? It seems the singers met at the Met, when the baritone went backstage to compliment the soprano after hearing her in “Il Trovatore.” On April 1, they will bring their joint act, apparently forged in friendship, to Carnegie Hall, the last stop on a national tour.

That doesn’t explain the hook-up with the National Philharmonic, which sounded generally solid and professional under the baton of Marco Armiliato, but struggled at times to provide that invisible, but adamantine, rhythmic foundation upon which so much of Verdi’s music is constructed.

I heard Armiliato at the Met on Saturday night conducting the last of a run of Verdi’s “Attila.” Early Verdi (and though “Attila” was his ninth opera, it still qualifies as early) is more difficult to make meaningful than mature Verdi. When he premiered “Attila” in 1846, Verdi was still an interesting but constrained mid 19th-century composer, not the definitive master of Italian opera he would become only a few years later (with “Luisa Miller”? Or “Rigoletto”?). Armiliato, however, knows how to make early Verdi as creditable as anything by Rossini or Bellini or Donizetti, and his “Attila” was a delight.

Much of the music heard last night falls into the same general period as “Attila,” including the overtures to “Nabucco” (1842) and “Louisa Miller” (1849) and two arias from “Ernani” (1844). The “Nabucco” overture and “Ernani” excerpts didn’t show the ensemble at its finest. Here and there you could hear weaker players diminishing the collective effort, and when it came time for Verdi’s characteristic harder-than-it-sounds repetitive accompaniment figures, often they were cumbersome, and the singers sounded uncomfortable and awkward. Early Verdi is fragile stuff.

But the orchestra rose to occasion with bigger music, and by the time the two soloists came together for a scene from “Boccanegra,” the accompaniment was no longer an obtrusive presence, but a genuine psychological mirror to the shifting emotions of the drama. Some rhythmic difficulties in the introduction to the Tchaikovsky scene, an occasional solo line with noticeable flaws, and some sour violin intonation in the intermezzo from Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” kept reminding one that they have work to do. But from the end of the first half of the program until the end of the concert, they transcended themselves and one is inclined to give credit both to Armiliato and the infectious high spirits of the evening.

The title role of Tchaikovsky’s “Onegin” is just about perfect for Hvorostovsky, who is handsome, has a seductive voice and knows how to send a soupcon of sneer to the back of the opera house. I interviewed Hvorostovsky once, and found him immensely personable and pleasant. But on stage, no one captures the frigid egotism of Onegin better, in part because Hvorostovsky has the astonishing ability to make simple, uninflected, unemotional singing sound like the height of haughty indifference.

It was a pleasure to hear it all once again, paired with Radvanovsky’s desperate but determined Tatiana. It earned the singers two encores. Radvanovsky previewed her upcoming Tosca in Denver with a very promising “Vissi d’arte,” and Hvorostovsky sang an unaccompanied Russian folksong, just as he did the night I first heard him in New York two decades ago. It sent chills down my spine then, and it did again last night.

The concert was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society and was dedicated, by Hvorostovsky, to the victims of Monday’s dreadful subway bombing.

Photo by Pavel Antonov courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society

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Walter and Trust

            Commenting on culture with a small c, that blur of ephemera constantly droning from the flat screen television in your kitchen, bedroom, living room, garage and the swivel mount in your recreational vehicle, used to be a much bigger part of what I do. Now, it’s mostly culture with a capital C: Art, performance, books, cartoon ducks. I miss it, from time to time, especially when ten inches of frothy prose on the subject of Walter Cronkite and Trust garners the link love (Romenesko, Slate) that a cultural scribe can only dream of. Join the herd.

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The Ordos Prize

            Young Chinese architects are blessed and cursed with an abundance of work. Many of them have burgeoning portfolios of built projects in their 20s, when young architects in the West are still thoroughly in the apprenticing process. But when I visited China last year, I heard the same refrain: While it’s nice to work, they also want a chance to think.

            When  I visited a class of aspiring architects at Nanjing University, they wanted to talk about Kenneth Frampton and regionalism and debate the merits of starchitecture. They wanted time to ponder China’s role in the world, and how the younger generation could steer the country away from building fast and encourage it to build well. They were idealists, but they knew that their likely fate was a life of long hours, cranking out formulaic designs for warehouses and generic housing.

            Announcing the Ordos Prize, a new architecture competition funded by a Chinese billionaire. It is named for the Inner Mongolian city of Ordos, one of China’s astonishing “mushroom” cities that has grown from a population of zero in 2001 to 1.36 million today. Part of the award includes a commission to build a new building, plus $20,000 in award money.

Though not so grand as the Pritzker Prize, or so thorough in its process as the Aga Khan Award for Architecture  (which operates on a three-year cycle and is meant “to encourage architecture that reflects the pluralism that has always characterised Muslim communities”), the Ordos Prize does seemed design to address the malaise of over-worked and under-theorized young architects. It is not limited to Chinese architects, and the nominating committee is thoroughly international: Ben van Berkel, Stefano Boeri, Liz Diller, Jacques Herzog, Thom Mayne, Pierre de Meuron, Enrique Norten, Kazuyo Sejima, Wang Shu and Robert A. M. Stern, according to a press release.

 “Unlike other major prizes that recognize an architect for a significant project or body of work, The Ordos Prize is the first to honor emerging young talent,” says Rem Koolhaas , who heads The Ordos Prize Jury.


The prize process is being thrown together rather quickly. A spokeswoman for the award said that nominees are currently coming in, and the jury will meet in July. The award will be presented August 20, 2009. The commission that goes along with the cash award is “still a work in progress,” according to Barbara Sayre Casey, whose public relations firm sent out the announcement. At this point, it’s not clear what the building will be, though it will be built in the city of Ordos. Which already seems to have one of everything.
Architecture critics love prizes because they are a lazy man’s way of sorting through a large and confusing field of data. I also think there’s a desire to see something interrupt what seems like an intractable problem in China—the disappointing lack of authenticity and innovation in a country that is building so much new stuff. There are exceptions, of course, and perhaps this prize is one way of locating and promoting them.

 Meanwhile, it’s worth taking note of the larger fact of Ordos, the city-out-of-nowhere that is cashing in on the fossil fuels trade. It is also the site of the Ordos 100 project (funded by the same billionaire, Cai Jiang), a collection of 100 individually designed villas being curated by Herzog and de Meuron. An international array of architects is involved, and according to Sayre Casey, who has just returned from the site, they are actually being built. So far, a half dozen or more are underway. And the city includes a museum, also under construction, designed by the Beijing-based MAD firm, which I visited last year. MAD is a very interesting, ambitious and innovative young company that always manages to find itself in the headlines.

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Looking East, to the operatic horizon


     One of the more pernicious habits of blinkered historical thinking is to imagine that all exotic lands exist in isolation from each other, and have substance only in relation to our frame of reference. The Smithsonian’s The Tsars and the East, which opened on May 9th at the Sackler Gallery, is a delightful confrontation with that bad habit. Early in the exhibition is a map showing the trade routes that connected Russia, during the days of the Grand Dukes of Muscovy and the early Tsars, to the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Iran. Lines of commerce trace across the Caspian Sea through Astrakhan and Baku, and down the Dnieper and the Don, to the Black Sea and Istanbul.

            This is not the Russia we think of when learning about Peter’s Window on the West. This is not the Iran (or Persia) that comes to mind when remembering the battle of Salamis or Alexander’s conquests. And it’s not the Ottoman empire that creaks and groans through First World War. All of those places are connected by direct lines to the Western imagination, but not to each other.

            But here’s the material proof of their complex, long and rich interaction: Chain mail and helmets covered in lacy traces of gold and Koranic inscriptions, sitting in the treasury of the Tsars; a Russian-made surplice of silk, gold, silver, precious gems and pearls, many of its constituent parts brought from Turkey; and a luxurious caparison (a covering for horses) made in 17th century Iran, brought as an ambassadorial present to the ruler of Russia. The show brings to Washington dazzling  treasures from the Armory of the Moscow Kremlin.

            These sort of “treasures” exhibitions are often just a lot of bling without much historical context. But for opera lovers, especially, this is a thrilling show. Because while we may all too often think of these faraway places in isolation from each other, there is an embedded memory of their interconnection in the great tradition of Russian opera. As you walk through the exhibition, you feel as if you’re in the costume shop of a well-funded opera house preparing for a production of “Boris Godunov,” or Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Sadko.”

            Even the handiwork seems strangely like costume jewelry. The settings of emeralds and sapphires and rubies are strikingly crude. Their effect, on sword hilts and horse bridles, was calculated for its impact at a distance. Up close, the work is blunt. In the sun, from a safe remove, it must have been brilliant and blinding. It’s theatrical production.

            You realize, looking at the over abundance of riches here, how much Western discomfort with the Tsar’s theatricality and display was a second-order response to the age-old fear of the same things in the more familiar East of Xerxes and co. It was a backdoor for “Orientalist” anxieties about luxury and tyranny and excess. Mussorgsky’s Coronation Scene, in “Boris,” is a memory of these connections, between Russia and the East, at a time when Russia (and Russian composers) were increasingly turning to the West. Its thrill, its menacing power, its grand racket of noise, is an aural imagining of the world that The Tsars and the East makes visually manifest.

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