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À mon chevet: No et moi

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

book cover
Lucas writes me little notes in class. He folds them over and slides them in front of me. 'Awful!' when the English teacher wears a strange skirt with fringes and pearls around the hem. 'He can sod off' when Mr Marin has given him his umpteenth zero. 'Where's the gnome?' because Gauthier de Richemont is absent (he's not particularly good-looking and Lucas has hated him since he grassed Lucas up to the principal one day when he was smoking in the toilets). In French class he stays quiet, even when we're doing grammar. It's the class where I'm most attentive. I hate being disturbed, I concentrate so as not to miss the tiniest thing. Mrs Rivery gives me special homework. French class is like a logic puzzle or a deduction, an exercise in dissection without a scalpel or a body.

People who think that grammar is just a collection of rules and restrictions are wrong. If you get to like it, grammar reveals the hidden meaning of history, hides disorder and abandonment, links things and brings opposites together. Grammar is a wonderful way of organising the world how you'd like it to be.

-- Delphine de Vigan, No and Me (trans. by George Miller), Ch. 30
Like so many excellent books, this novel by Delphine de Vigan was a recommendation from James Wood. Based on the experience I think I will be reading all of her books. She wrote this one and three books before it while holding down a day job in a business. The narrator, Lou Bertignac, has the same nickname as de Vigan, under which pseudonym (Lou Delvig) she published her first novel. What gripped me instantly was the individuality of that narrative voice: troubled, quirky, boundlessly intelligent, yet touchingly naive. There is nothing flowery about de Vigan's style, which is terse and rapid-fire, but there are marvelously diverting tangents, observations that are slowly unraveled in small lengths. The book's British translation is presented as a book for teenage girls, but don't let that put you off.


To Judge a Musician by his Hair!

The issue of performer-and-hair has recently come up on a conversation thread on the instagram account of the fellow writer, obsessed listener, and musical explorer "foreignwords" (he runs the podcast & website Fugue for Thought). There, the cellist Carmine Miranda, having just joined the social media world, found a mention of himself regarding his recording of the Dvořák and Schumann cello concertos which he took exception to. I had made the particular comment and was briefly the subject of the artist’s vented ire. (We've since made up.)

The ionarts Hair-RADAR

Hair is a hairy issue and has a particular, if minor, place in classical music. Beethoven’s revolutionary mane seems almost the embodiment of his music and personality, in a time of manicured wigs. Haydn was expelled from the choir he served in—if memories of the Haydn-for-Kids tape I used to devour as a tot serve me correctly—for clipping his fellow chorister’s wig’s pigtail. There has been a harpsichordist’s spat recently, and at the root of it hair. And when we imagine Bach, it’s the wig that comes to mind first.
Hair has made its appearances in several of my ionarts reviews, too. I’ve just (re) published the interview with Daniel Müller-Schott, whose pony-tail had for the longest time given me a negative bias which I, in order to do his art any justice when I ran into it, I had to consciously overcome. (His hair is absolutely impeccable now.)

On cellist Alban Gerhard: “. It is difficult to align [Alban Gerhardt’s] youthful good looks with the fact that he already looks back on an illustrious 15-year career in Europe. Although that hair is just two years from being designated a comb-over…” (Dohnanyi's Brahms Wins the Day).

On cellist/conductor Michael Sanderling: “…Attendance would be seemly for the following reasons, in order: […] #3: Here I was going to list Michael Sanderling’s hair (see: Sanderling Jr. for Muti), which is the only legitimate successor to Riccardo Muti’s. But Sanderling, the youngest of the conducting clan, had to cancel the tour.” (National Youth Orchestra of Germany rocks Viktor Ullmann)

On Heinz Holliger: “Heinz Holliger is wonderful: A charming advocate of contemporary music—his own but especially that of others’. Still an outstanding oboist. The finest Haydn conductor I’ve heard in concert. And of course someone who has taken the comb-over to Olympic levels… often going with “Squirrel-that-came-home-to-die”, or another successful creation that he sported on this occasion of the Klangforum Wien performing contemporary Japanese composers: the “Pigeon-that-flew-into-a-ceiling-fan”; a lighter, fluffier creation particularly suited to hot Salzburg summers.” (Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 16 ) | Salzburg contemporary • Klangforum Wien 2, Heinz Holliger)

I’ve not found mention of it on ionarts, but I’ve long suspected Gautier Capuçon of being more concerned about his hair than his intonation and a generally lesser musician than his brother. Even though my first impression of him in concert had been a very positive one. (Also I’m beginning to notice: What’s with cellists in particularly featuring so prominently on my hair-radar? Notes for the couch.)

The Bone of Contention

Foreignwords’ posted the CD cover of Carmine Miranda’s recording (and a generous remark about the recording’s quality). My comment on it ran thus: “I reject this performance on ground of its hair. (Tell me that I really need to put this back out of the discard bin...?!?)” A mixture—less obviously than I had thought—of snark and poking fun at my own biases.

available at Amazon
Schumann & Dvořák, Cello Concertos
Carmine Miranda, Moravian PO, P.Vronský
Navona (Parma) Recordings

This, as you might be able to imagine, did not please the artist: “Since I am brand new to @instagram and trying to figure things out” he wrote, “I came across this very ignorant reply. I understand that this post is quite a few months old but I couldn't resist to reply to this myself…” And off he went. On his own account, he posted a screen shot, circling the offending passage, and continued: “Can you believe this guy? (@classicalcritic) He definitely puts a new meaning to "listening with your eyes". He is a "classical #music #critic" for the acclaimed #classical #publication @listenmusicmag and @Forbes. His premise for not #listening or even reviewing my latest recording of the Schumann and Dvorak #Cello Concerti is because he doesn't like my hair? I hope this is not a representation of the magazine that I have been reading since I was a child…”

I could dissect the statement (especially on this poor child of my imagining having to read Forbes magazine as a toddler), but that is tit-for-tat nonsense and would only be good for imaginary score-keeping and playing to the peanut gallery. The kerfuffle seemed mostly a slew of misunderstandings and perhaps a touch of bent ego. Mr. Miranda[1] might have thought that I dismissed his performance because of his Off-Off-Broadway-Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-the-Musical looks[2]. [I have since heard from him in a message[3] that shows that it is possible, with a bit of mutual effort, to take a social-media tussle and turn it into something productive, creative.]

But I hadn’t taken a dislike to his interpretation based on such a ludicrously superficial reason as his looks[4]. Much rather I had simply not given it a first chance. Still, he does get it partly right in his second statement: “Can you believe this guy? […] His premise for not #listening or even reviewing my latest recording of the Schumann and Dvorak #Cello Concerti is because he doesn't like my hair? […] You can't please them all, especially the #ignorant! I bet he didn't see this one coming! #unbelievable”

Listening-Choices: Soft and Hard Biases

If this is a bit humorless, as far as responses go, it’s because he is missing a crucial element in which—in a self-referential way—am poking fun at that dismissal because it is/should be obviously ludicrous and unrelated to the performance. That could be overlooked… And I have often noticed with myself that my sense of humor tends to make a hasty retreat whenever the target of a joke or criticism is my own person, leaving only flustered outrage at the front to deliver the response. It’s also a clumsy response, because it stokes potential antagonism, rather than trying to sooth it. But that, too, is understandable. Especially in the semi-anonymity of the internet.

The real disconnect lies here: Carmine Miranda thinks that I obviously, decidedly should listen to his recording. (Fair enough, from his point of view.) When he reads the hair-nonsense, he must think: “This guy had the choice between listening to my recording and not listening to it… and he didn’t listen to it for that of all reasons?”

That would be potentially upsetting, but it’s not so. In reality my choice is whether I should be listening to this, or this, or this, or this [etc. ad infinitum] recording. And his CD is somewhere among the stacks of hundreds of CDs I still have to make my way through. I have to be discriminating, somehow, unless I grab randomly into the To-Be-Listened-To shelf or boxes. Quite naturally I am led by all my biases in choosing which recordings I will listen to first. These biases are manifold and wide-ranging and—as is the nature of biases—wildly subjective: The composers I like and what time of the day it is. (Weinberg in the morning isn't as attractive as Thomas Tallis; Casella in the evening with a bottle of Birrificio Via Emilia, but not Ferneyhough…) Or my opinion of the label. The quality of the presentation or even the quality of the jewel case. The professionalism of the design or the font-choice. What I have listened to the day before. Whether I have heard of the artist. How does she or he present himself? And here we are in that territory where hair enters again.

These are soft biases; they can push a recording to the front or the back of the considerable listening-pile. (There are a few hard biases, too: Anything by John Rutter is out, as would be Riccardo Muti conducting Schubert. Bach, Haydn and Alexandre Tharaud are always in. But that’s really it.) A haircut could be said to be a simply superficial way of making such a choice. Silly, and besides-the-point, but not really worse than many other reasons.

Then again a haircut could also be considered an initial communication on the part of the artist. Especially on a cover photo. An artist’s choice of dress or undress, coiffure, or makeup is one of the ways in which an artist wants to communicate[5]. Fusty writers complain when comments are being made regarding the state of dress of the likes of Yuja Wang et al. (see also: A Yuja Wang Dress Report, Prokofiev 2, and the Munich Philharmonic in Brahms), but this is rubbish. Thought gets put into dress and presentation and to suggest that they don’t matter at all would be as silly as suggesting that the presentation of food in a restaurant doesn’t matter. Worse: It’s a case of lying to oneself or just a dismal lack of awareness of one’s own biases. And that’s one of the points I wanted to arrive at: It is better to be aware of one’s biases than to be ignorant about them. Speaking about them in public is not only OK, it should be encouraged. Outward appearances influence our judgement. If we are not afforded to be blind, we must be aware[6]. Acknowledging them—and certainly making fun of them—is not the same thing as being proud of them (which would be worrisome). Being aware of our (and others’) biases helps us, when called upon, to try our best to overcome or avoid them. In order to give criticism of any kind any validity, we should be aware of them constantly and try to overcome them or else state them bluntly (which is also useful).

For any artist, this might be helpful to understand. There is often reason or awareness behind that which may seem outrageous to quickly offended sensibilities. If one puts all of oneself into a project, an interpretation, then rejection of any kind—especially the inconsiderate kind—must sting because it is in essence a rejection of the person they are. But that’s the artist’s life and those who learn not to care too much, or to take everything with a grain of salt will fare better. A slight sense of detachment helps, a dose of irony or self-deprecation can break the ice. It would have been easier for everyone, had Carmine Miranda responded by saying “I reject this critic’s opinions on grounds of his shoe size” than if he had tried to make an exasperated example of my alleged ignorance. No one likes a thin-skinned artist; everyone loves someone displaying a sense of humor in a tough spot. Still, we’ve managed to find common ground quickly enough and he’s got his way and I my benefit: He’s got me listening to his recording now, and more intently than I might otherwise had and I’ll learn something. But just to get around my biases, I shall make it a blind listening, instructing a friendly helper to mix a few interpretations and play them to me. It’s the thing you do when you fear that you might otherwise reject a performance on account of its [sic] hair. After that, I hope, Carmine Miranda and I will continue the conversation about Schumann and superficial perceptions.

[1] He first responded to my suggesting that this was less reason to take offence than a misunderstanding by offering that I may ‘reach out to [him] through [his website] if I would like to learn more about his performance, interpretative choices and [were willing to] give the recording a second chance’. Nice and all, but still reversing the ‘duty of interest’…. “Duty of interest” meaning that I have no inherent duty or inclination to be interested in anyone’s work – whereas an artist’s work has the duty (or intent, certainly) of making me interested in it.

[2] Incidentally: I had the CD lying around as an acquaintance stopped by last night and the cover prompted an immediate, unsolicited comment of rather unflattering nature. Arguably it’s only natural that my realm of acquaintances may, on average, tend towards a similar ideal of kemptness [sic] and self-presentation. But I think the take-away is: The cover does and will, objectively, divide opinions quite strongly.

[3] “Very nice! I’ll tell you what! Why don’t we turn this into an informational and educative experience for both of us and readers? I am willing to personally send you a copy of this record and a full copy of my scholarly research (Musical Times Journal of Music, London) on “Decoding the Schumann Cello Concerto” which was the basis for my interpretation of one of the concerti (very briefly summarized in the liner notes). If you are willing to put aside your bias and give it a “first listen” we can discuss about your views and mine, interpretative choices, questions you might have about the album or even listening gear (e.g. why did you prefer this instead of that?) openly and publicly.”

[4] Looks which I had in any case attributed to the performance itself, which I thought would have made the coy absurdity of the statement more pointed.

[5] Unless he or she just doesn't care at all – and even then not caring about one’s appearance—Holliger, Sokolov—is also a statement!

[6] (Does no one remember Kurusawa’s Sanjuro, which takes up that issue?)


'Little Mermaid' flounders amiably at Wolf Trap

The Disney Company knows how to line their pockets. They carefully guard their most popular products, their movies, and string people along with countless related paraphernalia. Such is the case with the musical version of The Little Mermaid, which is visiting Wolf Trap this weekend. It has the big songs from the beloved movie, fleshed out into a merely adequate musical form (music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater). The audience on Thursday evening, not quite filling either the outdoor pavilion or the lawn of the Filene Center, went quiet or sang along to the movie songs they knew. During most of the rest, the children got restless and the adults chatted.

With the pleasant weather that evening, it was still a mostly enjoyable experience, especially during Act II when Miss Ionarts and I abandoned our seats in the pavilion, where the amplified sound was a little overwhelming, to sit at the top of the lawn and eat our rather expensive but deliciously cold frozen yogurt. Diana Huey belted believably in the title role, with enough enthusiasm for two lifetimes, matched nicely by Eric Kunze's Prince Eric. Arlington native Allen Fitzpatrick was a dry wit as the Prince's tutor, Grimsby, and Jennifer Allen stole the show as the evil sea witch Ursula, two parts drag queen. Melvin Abston's Sebastian got the most laughs.

Other Articles:

Keith Loria, ‘The Little Mermaid’ swims into Wolf Trap (Fairfax Times, June 30)
The movie's story is fleshed out a bit, as we learn that Ariel's father believes that humans killed Ariel's mother, making him distrust them, and Ursula is King Triton's sister, bitter that her parents favored her brother over her. The orchestral sound, mostly canned digital music, was a disappointment, especially as it was calibrated for the seats on the lawn, putting the sound inside the pavilion at almost an ear-splitting level.

The production, directed by Glenn Casale glows with neon colors (costumes by Amy Clark and Mark Ross; lighting by Charlie Morrison; scenic design by Kenneth Foy), with the chorus costumes recalling a Las Vegas floor show at times (choreography by John MacInnis). The problem of how to put a story taking place partly underwater is solved with some brilliant flying effects (choreographed by Paul Rubin), which when the actors wriggled in their flowing costumes made a fairly convincing imitation of swimming.

The Little Mermaid runs through July 2, in the Filene Center at Wolf Trap.


Hairy Matters—Classical Performance, Criticism and Coiffure: 
The Daniel Müller-Schott Interview 
(Supplementary Post)

The issue of performer-and-hair has recently come up on an instagram conversation thread of the always interesting fellow writer, obsessed listener, and musical explorer "foreignwords" (he also runs the podcast & website Fugue for Thought), where cellist Carmine Miranda, having just joined the social media world, found a mention of himself regarding his recording of the Dvořák and Schumann cello concertos which he took exception to. I had made the comment and was briefly the subject of his vented ire. (We've since made up.) More on this in a separate (and perhaps future) posts here on ionarts and on But to open this series of tangentially hair-related classical music posts first this interview with Daniel Müller-Schott conducted a few years ago for WETA.

Resurrected WETA Post: A Brief Conversation with Daniel Müller-Schott, originally posted on Monday, 3.14.2011

Daniel Müller-Schott is the kind of musician I have always expected very little of, and in doing so always ended up positively surprised. Something that without fail would repeat at the next concert or recital or recording, which I will again have approached with limitless lack of enthusiasm, only to be pleasantly touched once more.  It’s hard to figure out quite why that is. Perhaps the reason is as shallow and silly as my intense dislike of that hideous pony tail he sported in his earlier days. Well, that pony tail is long gone and I operate on the firm presumption and hope that his concert at Strathmore this Wednesday with the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Japan and his buddy André Previn will be full of pleasant surprises. I’ve talked to him earlier this month, starting with the concerto-rarities by Robert Volkmann and Joseph Joachim Raff which are part of his extensive discography:

available at Amazon
R.Volkmann & R.Schumann, Cello Concertos
Daniel Müller-Schott / C.Eschenbach / NDRSO

available at Amazon
J.J.Raff, Cello Concertos
Daniel Müller-Schott / H.Stadlmair / Bamberg SO

available at Amazon
J.J.Raff, Cello Concertos
Daniel Müller-Schott / H.Stadlmair / Bamberg SO

Hmm, yes, those are of course little jewels in the repertoire that are, unfortunately, very unknown. For me it was fascinating to search for composers that have almost been forgotten in our time but who were very popular at the time of the romantic era where the audiences enjoyed them tremendously. I found Robert Volkmann’s name when I was looking through the archives researching Robert Schumann. They knew and liked each other and they had exchanged letters and this is how I stumbled on the Volkmann concerto. And when I studied the piece and looked for extant recordings, I found out that my cello had already recorded it at the beginning of the last century. So this is the second recording on my “Ex-Földesy” Goffriller cello which was another nice inspiration for me. That cellist was Arnold Földesy, solo cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic before becoming soloist, and one of his first recordings—at a time when the recording industry was only just getting under way—was the Volkmann concerto.

The Raff recording—with Hans Stadlmair and the Bamberg Orchestra—came about when I was traveling in Switzerland where I happened across the name of Joachim Raff on one of the programs. And then I got into a conversation with a person from the Raff Society and found out that the amount of works that Raff has written in his life is just humungous and that’s what kept me interest to look for the cello repertoire and so I found the two cello concertos. And I think that the second one had never been recorded before. I’m always glad to look into repertoire that is less well known… because otherwise it’s always the same big concertos—the Dvořák, the Schumann, Elgar, maybe Shostakovich, Haydn…  And there’s much more than that, of course.  Of course in our time Mstislav Rostropovich has inspired so many composers… I think the works for cello and orchestra alone that are dedicated to him number more than 70. There’s a lot to study, still.

Are there any other concertos that you are looking at to add to your repertoire or have already added and would like to record?

Yes… Myaskovsky is something that I studied and would love to play. And there are several pieces by American composers I’d like to study: The Barber concerto, Viktor Herbert’s who inspired Dvořák to write his. Then I love Britten’s Cello Symphony which I am also going to record this year, so yes, there’s a lot to explore in the future. And of course I always enjoy premiering pieces. Actually, André Previn has just written a cello concerto for me which is going to be premiered in Leipzig with the Gewandhaus Orchestra later this year.

You record CDs… do you actually listen to them?

Once I’ve actually completed the work and listened to the final edits I very rarely listen to my own recordings. It’s a very intense process: studying the work, recording it, and editing it—to find the right takes… and after I’m finished, I’m pretty much done with it. Sometimes I’m surprised when I’m in the car and I listen to the radio and I hear a cellist and when it’s me I sometimes don’t even notice. And then I am happy to hear that it was one of my recordings.

Hopefully happy to hear… “Yes,” he chuckles, “yeah… hmmm. Most of the time.”

Is being a cellist a handicap when listening to other cellists, perhaps because you might constantly think: ‘Why, I would do this or that differently…’?

Yes, there is of course a tendency when you listen to other cellists that you always have a certain idea in your head about some interpretations. But then you also have to be able to step aside from your own view of the music and be very open to other ideas and to respect what the other cellists do. Because everyone tries—they all try—we all try our best and we want to get best results for the music and to support the composer and get out what he presumably had in his mind. So I think it’s very important to basically worship what other cellists do and to learn from that.

Is that easier when the cellist in question is dead?

Maybe. Maybe. I suppose it’s easier to think about the legacy of a cellist—like Feuermann or Casals or Rostropovich—if he has passed away… which makes it even more attractive in a way. But since music is always living in the moment you also have go to concerts which represents so more of the whole creative process which is why it’s such an important experience. I try to actually learn from both, old recordings and from going to concerts and listen to my colleagues, which is something I enjoy. And among the dead ones I like Pierre Fournier a lot. I think he was one of the most elegant and complete masters of his instrument and he always played it in a wonderful style. And I also really like Emmanuel Feuermann who is a great virtuoso on the instrument and who has also the lightest touch to the instrument. That’s something that has always influenced me. And of course I love the old Bach recordings by Casals. I think these recordings will always remain one of the greatest achievements.

One of your very first recordings were the Bach Suites. Was that a little gutsy, in retrospect, doing it quite that early?

Yes, well… it was probably good to do it that early because I didn’t at all think about it. At that time—it was the year 2000, the 250th Bach anniversary year—I just had, in my youthful naïveté I just had the idea of doing the Bach cycle. I wanted to play all the six Suites and really try to master them. When I started playing the cello, I started with the First Suites after only a year of lessons, so I felt that the Bach Suites really was the music I had spent the most time with. I didn’t really think about a recording, it just happened that when I programmed the recital—I played it throughout the year 2000—someone heard me in a concert with the cycle and offered me the recording and then I just said ‘OK, why not’.

A few words about the opening of the Elgar concerto:

The opening of the Elgar Concerto is something so monumental in a way… and also tragic. You try to really bring out those chords as passionately as possible, of course. Of course this concerto very autumnal and melancholic, but it also has great moments of virtuosity and joy. It’s really the complexity of it that makes it challenging. I don’t think of other interpretations when I play this piece, which is really one of the last great romantic statements. I always try to go back to the score and re-study it. And when you play this piece with different musicians—now with André I have recorded this concerto in Oslo and we really worked really hard on it—you always also take on the influence of the person you work with.  And now I am really looking forward to playing it at Strathmore Hall—a fantastic hall where until now I’ve only been a listener, never a performer

[The—truly superb—Volkmann Concerto is included on a disc on ORFEO that also features the Schumann concerto, Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, and Richard Strauss’ Romance in F for Cello and Orchestra. The NDR Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Listen to a brief excerpt from the concerto's opening above.]


Touring 'Sound of Music' hits the Kennedy Center

Charlotte Maltby as “Maria Rainer” and the von Trapp children, showing "Do-mi-sol" (photo by Matthew Murphy)

When opera subscribers complain to me about Washington National Opera, led down the Glimmerglass path, wasting some of its meager budget on producing a musical (Show Boat, Lost in the Stars, and the ill-advised trend continues next year with Candide), it is not pearl-clutching. Many opera fans like musicals just fine, but there is no need for the city's major opera company to mount them. Almost all of the major theaters in Washington produce an astounding number of musicals already, including the Kennedy Center itself. The complaint is only about a waste of resources on something that is already a glut in the performing arts market. We would not expect any of those theater companies to mount an opera, and their subscribers would be understandably upset if they did.

Among the best of what Broadway has produced is The Sound of Music, from 1959, the last collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, who died months after its premiere. America's leading musical theater duo were at the height of their powers, and it is good to be reminded that the stage version is more effective in many ways than the memorable film version, starring Julie Andrews, released in 1965. This production directed by Jack O'Brien, now at the Kennedy Center Opera House, has been touring North America for a couple years, and it is a charming staging that hits all the right emotional marks. It is sadly stripped down musically, with only fourteen live musicians in the pit, including only four string players, augmented by sounds from two synthesizers (orchestration by Robert Russell Bennett). The sound of this rather glorious score is, as a result, sometimes canned and pathetic, especially at the big climactic moments. As most people's ears have become so accustomed to such sub-par digital sound, it will likely not matter.

Charlotte Maltby is an irrepressible bundle of energy as Maria, tall and gangling and lovably awkward, and she has a pretty voice, all the way up to some high notes, that works well over the amplification. Understudy Cáitlín Burke stood in for Melody Betts as Mother Abbess, with sturdy results in the big Act I closer "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," but vocally the highlight of the cast was the sweet, laser-precise voice of Paige Silvester's Liesl, sparkling and effervescent as the eldest von Trapp daughter. The other six children who play the von Trapp singers -- Elliot Weaver (Friedrich), Stephanie di Fiore (Louisa), James Bernard (Kurt), Dakota Riley Quackenbush (Brigitta), Taylor Coleman (Marta), and Anika Lore Hatch (Gretl) --
form an excellent ensemble. Kudos to this production for having Maria teach the children their solfege ("Do-re-mi") with the hand signs advocated by Zoltán Kodály (see photo above). Musicians approve.

Other Reviews:

Kristen Page-Kirby, ‘Sound of Music’ fans: You think you know Elsa? You don’t. (Washington Post, June 15)

Nelson Pressley, Touring ‘Sound of Music’ is as fundamental as do-re-mi (Washington Post, June 16)
Nicholas Rodriguez made a dramatically strong Georg von Trapp, but with some vocal limitations this evening, mostly at the top of the role's range. The best musical moments came in the extraordinary ensemble writing for the nuns, who open the show chanting Psalm 109 ("Dixit dominus"), the first psalm of most Vespers services, to the eighth Gregorian tone. Rodgers wrote some beautiful choral pieces for the nuns to sing, and the ensemble here performs it all quite well. O'Brien has restored the two numbers cut from the film version, "How Can Love Survive?" and "There's No Way To Stop It," which give greater depth to the characters of concert promoter Max Detweiler (a cynical Merwin Foard) and wealthy widow Elsa Schraeder (a world-weary Teri Hansen). The order of songs from the Broadway version is also restored, so that Mother Abbess and Maria sing "My Favorite Things" near the start of Act I, and Maria sings "The Lonely Goatherd" to comfort the children during the storm.

The production also returns to the charming original dialogue (book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse), and the production is largely quite traditional. Set pieces fly in to create various rooms in the Abbey, as well as the main room, governess's room, and porch of the von Trapp home (designed by Douglas W. Schmidt). It is by intention a production for nostalgists, also providing a fine introduction to this classic musical for young people. I often long for the occasional opera production that would be completely true to the composer's original intentions. After all, I have yet to experience many of the great operas, none more regrettably than Wagner's Ring Cycle, in the way that the composers envisioned in their original productions. Not that every production would have to do that, but it would be nice at least once. On the other hand, it might be quite entertaining to see what Calixto Bieito or David Alden would make of Hello, Dolly.

The Sound of Music runs through July 16, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.


News: Alan Gilbert Goes to Hamburg

Alan Gilbert. Thinking deeply. Photo © Michael Avedon When Alan Gilbert was named the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in July of 2007, the classical music world did its best impression of one of those cartoon-double takes and a Tim Allen grunt. The New York Phil had courted Riccardo Muti to continue to lead them out of their era gerontology (Kurt Masur 1991-2002 and Lorin Maazel 2002-2009), one of the biggest names in the industry (if hardly a guarantee for excitement) and therefore a conductor the New York Philharmonic will have deemed fitting to lead it. After all, the band – despite decades of delivering little more than civilized torpor, considers itself one of the great, select few orchestras in the world. Then, rather suddenly, Muti – openly coy about taking another engagement in the US after his 12 years in Philadelpha – opted to become the new music director of the Chicago Symphony, a direct rival of the New York Philharmonic (to the extent that rivals can really exist in this business). Ouch. And as everyone was looking how the New York Phil was going to scramble to come with as big a name possible to wash away the stain of embarrassment, they announced, eventually, that Alan Gilbert would be their next guy. Alan Who?...

The full article can be read on

New York-Hamburg: Alan Gilbert's New Orchestra And His Architectural Upgrade


À mon chevet: Go Tell It on the Mountain

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

book cover
The Sunday morning service began when Brother Elisha sat down at the piano and raised a song. This moment and this music had been with John, so it seemed, since he first drawn breath. It seemed that there had never been a time when he had not known this moment of waiting while the packed church paused -- the sisters in white, heads raised, the brothers in blue, heads back; the white caps of the women seeming to glow in the charged air like crowns, the kinky, gleaming heads of the men seeming to be lifted up -- and the rustling and the whispering ceased and the children were quiet; perhaps someone coughed, or the sound of a car horn, or a curse from the streets came in; then Elisha hit the keys, beginning at once to sing, and everybody joined him, clapping their hands, and rising, and beating the tambourines.

The song might be: Down at the cross where my Savior died!

Or: Jesus, I'll never forget how you set me free!

Or: Lord, hold my hand while I run this race!

They sang with all the strength that was in them, and clapped their hands for joy. There had never been a time when John had not sat watching the saints rejoice with terror in the presence of the Lord; indeed, it was no longer a question of belief, because they made that presence real. He did not feel it himself, the joy he felt, yet he could not doubt that it was, for them, the very bread of life -- could not doubt it, that is, until it was too late to doubt. Something happened to their faces and their voices, the rhythm of their bodies, and to the air they breathed; it was as though wherever they might be became the upper room, and the Holy Ghost were riding on the air. His father's face, always awful, became more awful now; his father's daily anger was transformed into prophetic wrath. His mother, her eyes raised to heaven, hands arched before her, moving, made real for John that patience, that endurance, that long suffering, which he had read of in the Bible and found so hard to imagine.

On Sunday mornings the women all seemed patient, all the men seemed mighty. While John watched, the Power struck someone, a man or woman; they cried out, a long wordless crying, and, arms outstretched like wings, they began the Shout. Someone moved a chair a little to give them room, the rhythm paused, the singing stopped, only the pounding feet and the clapping hands were heard; then another cry, another dancer; then the tambourines began again, and the voices rose again, and the music swept on again, like fire, or flood, or judgment. Then the church seemed to swell with the Power it held, and, like a planet rocking in space, the temple rocked with the Power of God. John watched, watched the faces, and the weightless bodies, and listened to the timeless cries. One day, so everyone said, this Power would possess him; he would sing and cry as they did now, and dance before his King.

-- James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain, pp. 13-14
The summer reading season is upon us, and more Balzac is on my nightstand again as I slowly work my way through La Comédie Humaine. This week, though, has been devoted to some of the works of James Baldwin, beginning with the marvelous, ground-breaking Giovanni's Room, his 1956 novel about an American in Paris struggling to accept his homosexuality.

While that novel was drawn from Baldwin's personal experiences, in a disguised way, Go Tell It on the Mountain is more transparently about his youth as the son of an abusive stepfather who was a preacher in Harlem. Although Baldwin was not a believer himself, all of his work is suffused with a knowledge of the Bible and Gospel music that could only have come from first-hand experience, such as the scene described in this passage. Baldwin's writing is fluid and packed with vivid descriptions, a style that draws you in after a couple of pages and holds you. Next up is Notes of a Native Son, a 1955 collection of Baldwin's essays.


New York City Ballet, Part 2

Lydia Wellington and Andrew Scordato in The Four Temperaments, New York City Ballet (photo by Paul Kolnik)

The second program of the New York City Ballet's visit to the Kennedy Center Opera House was not as marvelous as the first. The formula was the same as the first program: classic Balanchine paired with new works by the company's best young choreographers.

The Balanchine was a choreography long on my wish list, The Four Temperaments, the best known of the ballet scores composed by Paul Hindemith. The composer is not one most people think of as a dance composer, but his music worked exceptionally well in this collaboration with Balanchine from 1946. The music is in the form of a theme and variations, perhaps the musical structure best suited to ballet dancing because it provides variety in discrete sections. Balanchine created dances, mostly pairings and small groups costumed in domino-like black and white on a bare stage, that went with each of the temperaments in the score.

In the theme, Lydia Wellington and Andrew Scordato set the tone in a stiff and formal way, a vocabulary of movements that seemed mostly geometric but coordinated with and inspired by the music in the most natural way. The second pairing (Lauren King and Devin Alberda) entered with the piano solo, played expressively by Stephen Gosling in the pit, with King's foot kicks accenting flourishes from the keyboard. The third pair of the theme section (Ashley Laracey and Aaron Sanz) entered in a more deliberate set of movements that went with a fine violin solo section, one of the highlights of the choreography, with gorgeous form from Laracey, ending on her being carried off with her legs at a right angle.

Gonzalo Garcia flung himself around in the Melancholic variation, followed by two women who flitted around him in agitation. When joined by four more dancers, the moves became slower and heavier, with repeated gestures weighing down the movement in the style of the music. The Sanguinic variation was marked by enthusiastic high kicks in the entrance of Sara Mearns and Jared Angle. When four women joined Mearns in an active, decisive dance, the black one-piece costumes made them look almost like a synchronized swim team. Solo dancer Ask La Cour was measured and balanced in the Phlegmatic variation, each advance forward matched by a solemn retreat, later shadowed by four women in one of the other highlights of the ballet. Teresa Reichlen, her tall and lithe form all points and edges, led the Choleric section through Balanchine's calculated addition of dancers to involve the whole cast in a climactic final scene.

Other Reviews:

Sarah L. Kaufman, From New York City Ballet: Big music, big dancing (mostly) (Washington Post, June 9)

Alastair Macaulay, Sign of the Times: City Ballet’s Ashly Isaacs Laces Up Her Sneakers (New York Times, May 10)

---, New York City Ballet Opens a Spring Gala, and Some Umbrellas (New York Times, May 5)

---, New York City Ballet’s Very 21st-Century Steps (New York Times, January 27)
The two more recent works on either side of The Four Temperaments could not really measure up to it. Christopher Wheeldon's story-length ballets have not been among my favorites, but in shorter formats he can be intriguing. Sadly his new work American Rhapsody never really seems to connect to its music, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, played with gusto by the NYCB Orchestra and pianist Elaine Chelton. Here was the first set backdrop of the entire run, a starburst on a midnight-blue backdrop encircling the dancers (design by Leslie Sardinias). The costumes, also purple-blue with red and white highlights, recalled the vivacious era of the 1920s when the music was composed. The movements never seemed to have come from the music, indeed had little in common with it, and the central duo dance (Lauren Lovette and Unity Phelan) came not as a result of dramatic growth or with any sense of who the pairing was or why we should care about them.

Justin Peck's The Times Are Racing, premiered this past January, is a mixture of ballet and many other dance forms, including tap, breakdancing, hip-hop, Broadway, and tap. A mass of dancers, dressed in tennis shoes, T-shirts (some marked with the word "DEFY"), jeans, and other street clothes (costumes by Humberto Leon) pulsated to the recorded electronic music of Dan Deacon (the last four tracks from his album America), played through the theater's speakers at ear-piercing volume. The choreography is a tour de force of frenetic action and irrepressible energy, never seeming to slacken its pace for over twenty minutes, and it captures the seething rage, mostly about political realities in the United States, of the music.

The performance also offered another chance to see the choreographer in action as a dancer, because he stepped in to replace Ashly Isaacs in the second pairing of this ballet. Peck's dances with Taylor Stanley were a highlight, but in the closing sections of the ballet Peck's choreography began to repeat itself a lot, as if filling out the time of the final track. It is a brash, bracing work that captures the bristling anger and frustration of the country at this moment, but it felt uneven.

This program repeats this afternoon in the Kennedy Center Opera House.