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23.6.17

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 Forbes.com:

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






22.6.17

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.

10.6.17

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.

8.6.17

New York City Ballet: Balanchine, Ratmansky, Peck


Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin De Luz in Odessa, New York City Ballet (photo by Paul Kolnik)

New York City Ballet is back in town for a week-long run at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Its first program, seen on Tuesday night, represents the best the company has to offer, past and present. It is one of the most beautiful and diverting mixed programs seen in recent memory. With no sets, only glowing colors illuminating the side drops and back wall, this selection of choreography put all its attention, and ours, on the movement of bodies.

The evening began with two choreographies by George Balanchine, NYCB's founding ballet master. In Square Dance Balanchine made a brilliant connection between classical and folk dance styles. Selections of Baroque concertos by Vivaldi and Corelli (Concerto Grosso in B minor, Op. 3 no. 10, by the former, and Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, no. 12, by the latter), where American folk music traces some of its rhythmical, repetitive roots, offered striking contrasts of tempo and spirit. The musical performance, complete with actual harpsichord on the continuo part, was conducted sensitively by Andrews Sill.

In particular the alternation of refrain and solo episodes of different characters in ritornello movements worked beautifully for dancing. Six men and six women, costumed in white and gray dresses or T-shirts and shorts, made paired patterns that recalled the inward-facing format of square dancing. (Originally Balanchine had a caller on stage who yelled out the moves to the dancers, a more explicit reference to square dancing, wisely excised in later years.) Balanchine kept the movements mostly classical in style, with a few simplified steps as a nod toward the square dance. Two principal dancers, Megan Fairchild spirited and elegant paired with a slightly rough Chase Finlay, were an ardent duo in the pas de deux accompanied by lovely violin and other solos in the first plangent slow movement. Fairchild's series of slow pirouettes en pointe in the Vivaldi slow movement were exquisite.

Balanchine's Tarantella was the odd man out in this program, a cutesy but charming bagatelle included to feature two younger, non-principal dancers. Erica Pereira and Spartak Hoxha, in Neapolitan peasant costumes (designed by Karinska), burst onto the scene waving to the audience. The choreography is breathless, an almost constant movement of arms and legs, which the dancers pulled off with a smile. Hoxha was so enthusiastic with the tambourine he played at one point that he knocked two of the metal zills loose from it. The music, Louis Moreau Gottschalk's Grand Tarentelle for Piano and Orchestra, op. 67, is a semi-corny Romantic finger-buster, reconstructed and orchestrated by Broadway orchestrator Hershy Kay, Balanchine's favored arranger, which challenged guest pianist Susan Walters at times.


Other Reviews:

Sarah L. Kaufman, New York City Ballet’s knockout punch is delivered at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, June 7)

Alastair Macaulay, For the Couples in This Alexei Ratmansky Ballet, Love Is Not Enough (New York Times, May 5)

Apollinaire Scherr, Ratmansky premiere, Lincoln Center, New York — tremendous (Financial Times, May 5)

Siobhan Burke, No More Gang Rape Scenes in Ballets, Please (New York Times, May 15)

The second half of the program featured new works by NYCB's most talented living choreographers. The company premiered Alexei Ratmansky's Odessa just last month, and it is one of the best new short ballets seen in recent years. Ratmanksy drew his score from the 1990 Soviet film Sunset, a set of tango- and klezmer-infused musical cues by Leonid Desyatnikov. The subject matter came from the same source, Isaac Babel's play about Jewish gangsters in Odessa after the Russian Revolution, in turn based on his collection of short stories The Odessa Tales. The ballet's story does not seem to line up with the play exactly, but the air of jealousy, abuse, and desperation does. Keso Dekker designed the colorful tango costumes, glowing like stained glass under Mark Stanley's lighting.

Ratmanksy follows three couples, who are first to enter the scene. One of them, danced here by Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin de Luz with tender grace, is not happy. Ratmanksy's choreography is generally busy and rife with ideas, and that profusion of ideas here obscures the story line, unclear even after going back on Wednesday night to see this program a second time. That impenetrability does not make the ballet any less powerful, and some of the tableaux are breath-taking in their originality and beauty. The male dancers at one point become like puppeteers, lifting Hyltin and de Luz into the air in their pas de deux (pictured above), which degenerates into a gang attack scene, accompanied to heart-sickening circus music. The score, dotted by charming solos for tuba, accordion, and the space-age sound of the flexatone, provides many delights.

Justin Peck showed a lot of chutzpah in taking on Aaron Copland's music for Rodeo, set originally to an evergreen choreography by Agnes de Mille, even if it was the symphonic version with the "Ranch House Party" movement excised. Rather than a single Cowgirl among a group of boisterous cowboys, Peck's mostly male dancers seem like a bunch of athletes, with costumes recalling gymnasts, racers, or soccer players. They line up at the start line on one side of the stage to open the ballet, running across the bare stage, and when not exercising together, they walk around casually, leaning on each other.

Into this all-male gymnasium setting comes the delightful Tiler Peck (no relation to the choreographer), a gymnast who seems to like physical activity as much as the men. One of them, danced by the choreographer himself, finally notices her, dancing with her to the "Saturday Night Waltz" music. Although touching, this duet somehow did not seem as tender or sincere as the dance for the five men of the blue-costumed "soccer team" in the "Corral Nocturne" that preceded it. Male and female worlds were reconciled in the concluding "Hoe-Down," a whirlwind of athletic activity given its start humorously by Justin Peck, who knelt down at the stage edge and pulled on a cord, like that of a lawnmower, which cued a drum roll.

This program repeats on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Opera House. We will review the second program offered by NYCB on Friday evening.

6.6.17

On Forbes: How To Build A Top Quality Classical Music Library For $100


How To Build A Top Quality Classical Music Library: The Second $100


Back in February of 2013, George Pieler and I wrote a column here on Forbes.com (“Two Cents About Classical Music For $100”) on some of the market- and technology-changes that affect this sneakily growing, more-important-than-you-think niche in 21st century entertainment: classical music. We followed this up with an actual list, “How To Build A Top Quality Classical Music Library For $100” – which refers back to a 2011 post on Tyler Cowen’s “Marginal Revolution”. Here’s the sequel.

The complete list on Amazon on CDs – and as mp3s/streaming.

...

A quick reminder what this list is not: It is not a historical survey. It is not meant to be representative of (Western) classical music. It is not a list of what is or should be considered “great” in classical music. It’s not just a list of classic recordings. It is not a “Best of” list, though I like to indulge in those, too: The 10 Best Classical Recordings Of 20142015, and 2016. It is not exhaustive and, given the limit, not even that extensive. There may be overlap with all these criteria, but the goal is simply to put out the best classical-music “bait”.

-> to the article.





30.5.17

'Timon of Athens' a wonderful problem play at the Folger



Whenever a production of Timon of Athens comes around, you should probably go see it. It is one of the least often mounted of Shakespeare's plays. Its status as one of the "problem plays" is upheld by the current staging at the Folger Theater, seen mid-run on Saturday night.

This play, about a wealthy man brought low by his own prodigal generosity, is difficult to bring off, skirting the traditional qualities of both comedy and tragedy. Without excellent actors, it would be impossible. The Folger is blessed with two excellent performances, beginning with Ian Merrill Peakes in the title role. He was among the best parts of the Folger's production of another rarity, Henry VIII, in 2010. He was able to rivet attention again as a modern Timon, a high-tech mogul whose fear of germs and obsessive-compulsive behavior mean that he does not really connect with or even understand the false friends holding out their hands for his money.

Timon has a beautiful mad speech ("I have a tree, which grows here in my close"), which is excerpted here throughout the second act, to show the character's mind unraveling. The best lines of the play come in Timon's confrontations with the cynical philosopher Apemantus, especially in the second act, played here with bitter delight by Eric Hissom. The two actors jousted happily as the characters traded barbs, the brutal honesty of the philosopher, the only character who speaks the truth to the wealthy Timon, repaid with derision.


Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, Shakespeare’s ‘Timon of Athens’ takes a rare Washington bow (Washington Post, May 17)

Lauren Landau, Folger's 'Timon Of Athens' Vividly Charts A Rich Man's Fall (DCist, May 30)
The rest of the cast seemed unremarkable for the most part, with the exception of the intense sympathy of Antoinette Robinson's Flavius, Timon's loyal steward. Robert Richmond, who also directed that Henry VIII mentioned above, has updated the action to our own time. Timon's house is a modern building, all neon lights, steel, and video screens: the sets by Tony Cisek wrap around the older beams and pillars of the theater. The only real negative is the use of painfully loud audio feedback sounds, an unnecessary reinforcement of the collapse of Timon's mind.

Timon's flatterers receive their payouts on their smartphones, in the form of diamond-shaped icons reminiscent of virtual currencies like Bitcoin (projections by Francesca Talenti). Richmond, sensing the possible lulls in the action, tarts up many scenes with dance numbers and dumb shows, which reduce the subtle victimization of Timon to something too literal. Still it is the best sort of modernization, showing how relevant Shakespeare's words can be in our world of vapid gratification and one-percenter privilege.

Timon of Athens runs through June 11 at the Folger Theater.

5.5.17

Beethoven visits Japan: On Tour with the Vienna Academy Orchestra (Part 7)











available at Amazon
LvB, 9th
OWA / M.Haselböck
Alpha

But come back to me from the morass of easily aroused vanities and delicate egos (mine included) to a gloriously sunny, blue-skied, balmy Sunday afternoon of Japanese suburban calm and wholesomeness that is Musashino on such a day. The end and grand finale of the Vienna Academy Orchestra’s (OWA) visit to Japan looms, with a performance of the Eighth and the impoverished-by-greatness Ninth Symphony.

The audience that assembles before 3PM is particularly decked out today, with several traditional kimonos dotting the audience like beautiful flowers on a lawn. It is the doom of the Eighth Symphony to float by like a prelude of an afterthought, overshadowed by expectations of its unequal brother. That’s a shame, because apart from the smeared entry and a host of flute irregularities, this wallflower symphony, this—to speak with the words of the poet Ralston McTodd “pale parabola of joy”—has the heck played out of it, at a wild pace and with the kind of tempo-unrelated panache that is the OWA trademark.



And now for the Ninth, ladies and gentlemen, a symphony so popular and so laden with symbolism that it has become its own cliché. The notes seem to summersault off the staves, as the orchestra and their conductor Martin Haselböck jump into it. An interesting acoustic phenomenon of total heterogeneity occurs, quite the opposite on the symphonic cohesion of the previous two concerts: A pointillist picture emerges. The third movement is a constant walk on the edge by the horns, which adds a riveting quality that ears spoilt by modern, studio-recorded perfection might find hard to get used to. But there’s a real question to what extent composers, very possibly Beethoven and certainly Mahler, composed the ‘difficult’ into their works as an expressive element:



Take, by way of excursion, the Frère Jacques moment in Mahler’s First symphony. Leaving the question aside whether it’s a solo for one double bass or for the whole section (reasonable people disagree), what is of chief importance here is character. The ‘absolute-edge-of-the-playable’, the deliberately designed to-be-out-of-the-comfort-zone character of that episode is the key to Mahler’s deliciously insidious tilting of the “Bruder Jakob” ditty. Unfortunately (of sorts), today’s best double bass players are too good to let that part frazzle them in the least. You can hear blindfolded audition renderings that are spot-on: Great playing and an impressive achievement, but unfortunately undermining the intention of the composer and the character of the bit.



The writing for voices in Beethoven often suggests something similar, as does Schumann writing deliberately for natural horns when he would already have had new and improved models available to be played. A Beethoven Ninth that oozes with assurance and confidence sounds different from one where there’s always a bite to the affairs, and a proverbially chewed nail or two. From precariousness can arise a certain kind of tendresse.


Fourth movement. Enter several Japanese percussionists in charge of the Janissary elements—and of course the Japanese chorus, the New National Theater Chorus (drilled, on this occasion, by Kyohei Tomihira). The chorus members take their positions—as they would have during Beethoven’s times (and as they did at the Resound-performance in 2015)—to the left and right of the conductor and proceeds to sing, amazingly (though almost a given in Japan) from memory: Females with grim determination in their faces on the (audience-) left and men with bold wide stances on the right, and both equally ready to take a bit bite out of the music. Which, being principally an opera chorus, they do with dramatic gusto. If you know the work of the Bach Collegium Japan in the Bach cantatas, it will also not come as a surprise that the New National Theater Chorus’ articulation, enunciation, and pronunciation, is so darn perfect that they are easier to understand than most native German-speaking choruses in this work.


Their forcefulness and occasional fierceness actually suits the performance of the orchestra, which may have adapted to it, as it was—in this movement—playing all-out. Only on “Sternenzelt” do we get a hint of fire-sirens from the choir. The soloists, flown in just for the occasion, were all very good. Çigdem Soyarslan first came to my attention when her Jemina was the best thing about a Theater an der Wien performance of Schubert’s Lazarus… The work at hand didn’t give her the opportunity to push expectations still further, but consolidated the good impression. Mezzo Michaela Selinger is all charming sonority, Marcel Reijans proves a tenor with a surprising elegance and downright noble restraint, and Sebastian Holecek (a member of the Vienna Volksoper’s ensemble whom I first heard as Keikobad in Munich’s Frau ohne Schatten), despite having a bit of a bearish streak about his delivery, sounds darn good, too; round and warm. Once all the world is sufficiently kissed and the last of the Götterfunks fully gefreudet, the show is over and the warm and enthused audience shows its appreciation with very considerably prolonged applause. Mission accomplished—the first HIP Beethoven cycle in Japan has commenced.


Furthering my mission of immersing myself in Japanese culture as best I can—a task which pertains mostly to my most sensitive and appreciative organ, my stomach—I seek out my old college roommate (and fellow foodie) to go for some Korean Barbecue (or Yakiniku). By way of Shinjuku Station (I don’t notice much of the nearly 4 million daily travelers that apparently use this busiest of all transport hubs), I end up in Toshima and enjoy some of the best beef I’ve had. Also excellent liver (rebā) and easily the tastiest intestines (tetchan) and tripe (mino) of my life.


My friend’s little kid courteously ladles the marinated and grilled intestines on both of our plates by the chopstick full. I can tell a gourmand when I see one, and there’s a pint-sized one sitting across from me. First Beethoven One through Nine and now a cow, snout to tail—what an evening, what a week! Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt, indeed.





1.5.17

Beethoven visits Japan: On Tour with the Vienna Academy Orchestra (Part 6)


After a day of exploring the world of semi-suburban middle-class Japanese shopping, including accidental acquaintance with the Japanese Wallmart (Seiyu, similar but vertical) which leers in the area of the Harmonica Yokocho, the little grid of shopping alleys north of the Kichijoji station, and walking through the Nakamichi shopping street, it is onward to the third of the four Beethoven concerts of the Vienna Academy Orchestra at the Musashino Hall, featuring symphonies One, Two, and Three.


Those symphonies—despite the presence of the ‘gate-to-romanticism’ “Eroica” Third—having less cachet than the higher numbers, this is the only concert that wasn’t sold out on subscription. On the upside, this allows a few more spontaneous Beethoven-seekers to purchase tickets and the hall ends up just as sold-out, and with a crowd perhaps even more enthusiastic than that on the days before. Then again, they had reason to be. Starting with a tight first movement of the First Symphony, this was the best concert of the tour so far, by far.


available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Symphonies 1 & 2
Vienna Academy Orchestra / M.Haselböck
Alpha

Second movements really do appear to be something of a blind spot for the orchestra, though, because once again this movement in the First is just a bit more slack and looser and less precise than those before and after. Meanwhile the fourth movement opening—several false starts before it gets going—is one of the rare instances of Haydnesque wit and coyness in Beethoven, and I have never heard it so obvious or as humorous as in this performance. It’s like a little toy car revving up to get over a hump: One-uhrmp-umhmp. Two-uhrmp-uhmp-ump. Three-uhrmp-uhmp-ump-mp. Four-uhrmp-uhmp-uhp-mp-p. Five-uhmp-uhmp-phmp-ump-mp-p. Six—and we’re off to the races, with the movement motoring and humming, unleashed and unbound and full of spontaneity. It’s a darling touch by Beethoven, wonderfully accentuated by the orchestra, and enough to raise the First Symphony in my estimation considerably.

Despite an opening stumble in the Second Symphony which might bode ill for that ominous second movement, said movement goes by without a hitch. The ripping finale sends the audience into the second intermission with broad smiles on their faces, and they come back to a Third that—individual mistakes apart—is well led and dances lightly in the third movement. The fourth movement works along those lines, better coordinated, and uplifting.

But what stands out all of the sudden (and it should have for the last four symphonies already) is that the improved sound stemming from the risers on which the orchestra now sits, also causes the strings to dominate… particularly the first violins, followed by the violas, cellos and finally the rather well hidden second violins. The result is a more conventional orchestral, modern symphonic sound, much less typical of the individual sections that can make a classical symphony sound like a concerto grosso (see Day 2, and the performance at Izumi Hall).


This is not just because the Third Symphony really, truly is a bold step away from the world of Haydn that the first two still occupy… after all, it was precisely in the Third, and also the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, that I have noticed this phenomenon most notably in the first place. Also having heard the orchestra achieve both: a dynamic sound, with brilliance, punch, and easily conveyed energy and very distinctly grouped into instrumental sections, I know this is not an either-or thing, and therefore not a matter of lamentable or laudable choice. For the concert at hand, in any case, the trade-off seems apposite, since the result is much more satisfying than it was at Izumi Hall. Perhaps it really does take the original locations (or similar such types) to get the best of both worlds. In any case, this is a real highlight of the OWA’s Japan stint!


Another highlight afterwards: The most authentically Japanese dinner yet, in a little place with a big carved wooden fish hanging outside and with only a third of the seating Wester-style tables and the rest zashiki style seating. The menu consists of little banners that hang from the ceiling – Japanese only, of course. The staff’s English is better than our Japanese, of course, but not by much. Communication works smoothly at the “Beer” and “Sake” level, but trails off hard, beyond that. Fortunately we find ourselves sharing the restaurant with two couples that were at the concert and which positively beam, being in the presence of the conductor and some of the players. The gentleman in one couple passes his fan around and is thrilled to get it back with everyone’s signature on it and a little picture of everyone’s instrument to go with it. They are only too happy to translate and order for us, and introduce us, upon a little encouragement, to the more hidden delicacies that the Sea of Japan and the North Pacific Ocean bear.


They order a specialty for us, delighted that we are evidently open for less conventional, traditional foods. When nothing is forthcoming, they let the waitress know—but the woman professes innocence: she’d delivered. We look about and sure enough the Tyrolian trumpets (of course!) one table over are licking their chopsticks having just cleaned off the plate initially intended for our table. “Oy! That was our food! Did you know what you just ate?” “Sorry, didn’t know”, they reply. “And no, we don’t, but it sure was tasty! Some kind of stew.” “Well, that was whale.” They are amused, but completely unruffled. “Oh? Really??? What Ho, there it blew! Well, tasty, certainly, as we said.” We get our own serving in short order. Delicious indeed! As are, for the more inquisitive palates, the subsequent whale sashimi, the raw squid, and the octopus. The sake flows liberally, accompanied by Japanese toasts to Beethoven and to the musicians. The kind of cultural exchange that one envisions ideally ensues.


Except for the headache, all bodes well for the final concert.





28.4.17

Beethoven visits Japan: On Tour with the Vienna Academy Orchestra (Part 5)



Day five of the Japan excursion with the Vienna Academy Orchestra starts early: Four-something in the morning, to be ready to leave at five for the famous Tsukiji fish market. We negotiate among our little group of six (a violin, a horn, a manager, the unofficial tour doctor, myself, and a fellow tourist) how to get there via JR lines and the Tokyo Metro system. Not without some difficulty, arriving eventually at Tsukijishijō Station around six. We emerge from the station, where the first whiff of fish tells us that we must be on the right track, awaited by what is already a well-lit morning we throw ourselves into what is supposed to be one of the grand adventures of visiting Tokyo. In fact, I had promised a life-altering experience; insights into culture topped by a sunrise over Tokyo Bay. All just to get everyone to agree to get up at four-something in the morning.

Now, guides and friends and anyone who has ever been to Tokyo or would like to have been there will tell you that you must go to the Tsukiji fish market. It’s the thing to do… and you must do it at five in the morning (our six o’clock arrival was already a compromise), and oh, “you will never eat sashimi anywhere else again.” There’s universal agreement about it – and I think I know why:



If you have made it to Tokyo and actually have hauled your rear out of bed that early, and have made it through the public transportation system at such a wee hour, you’ll be damned if you tell others that the experience of Tsukiji fish market at sunrise consisted not so much of a life-changing moment of immersion in the most bustling, most authentic spot of Japanese culture-become-manifest; an impression to stay with you for a lifetime, but instead the anti-climactic occasion of standing in front of a few dilapidated open industrial shacks, being allowed no more than five feet behind an invisible line after behind which the interesting going-ons might happen, because you’d be swarmed by gamekeepers that make sure the obvious tourists don’t interfere with business. That instead of witnessing the magic of labor and an unparalleled aquatic harvest, the only sight is tons and tons of Styrofoam boxes and a few stands selling spring onions and tea.


And about that ‘never eating nigirizushi anywhere else again’: I definitely will! But I’ll grant that that hyperbole sounds a lot better than: “There are tons of places catering to tourists which serve anything between good and very good goods by way of raw fish and sea urchin… but hardly such that the ignorant westerner (and such we are, even if we have a favorite sushi/sashimi restaurant at home and know our Norimaki from our Temaki) would have an epiphany and suddenly be able to distinguish between the very good and the as-good-as-it-gets. (I’ll grant the possibility of a revelation if you’ve hitherto sourced your “sushi” from Panda Express.) Good seafood aside, the best thing about the market experience ended up watching the little turret trucks zoom about like bumper cars, at reckless speeds and loaded with Styrofoam boxes.


So with all that just between you and me: The Tōkyō fish market is an absolutely magical place; you positively have to go, though of course if you haven’t by now, you may never manage—since the whole place is to be shut down and relocated to a different part of town before the end of the year. That way, conveniently, you can never prove my hyperbole wrong.


But back to Beethoven, the nominal reason for being in Japan: Musashino Hall calls for symphonies Four and Five. And they sound quite different—frankly better, clearer, more brilliant, more overtone rich, more dynamic—now than they did yesterday, because the orchestra sits on risers this time. The effect was noticed during earlier rehearsals of the Ninth Symphony, where the risers were needed for the orchestra, because the chorus stood—in accordance with the original performances of that symphony—in front of the orchestra. That result noted, the arrangement is being kept for the remaining performances. The timpanist (a new face because the regular was busy and couldn’t come along on tour) shows his rock-star potential, explosive and on target and equally capable of subtlety… something which some of his species, when they get carried away, occasionally forget about.


“Horns must crack and squeak”, said Nikolaus Harnoncourt once, in his disingenuous (or genuinely confused) attempt to justify the lack of a high standard in natural horn-playing in the early and mid-days of the Historical Informed Performance world. That’s nonsense of course, but it is true that they will crack a few times on all but the best days and nights. They do so here, but as per usual, the energy of the performance carries the day and individual mistakes be damned. Certainly is Fourth was better than the last time I heard the orchestra in it, at the Theater an der Wien. In particular the Adagio, which is much improved, whereas the under-coordinated Allegro vivace third movement isn’t.


That said, there’s a caveat: Everyone around the orchestra wishes the band well, especially on this tour, which really is a special occasion, so they don’t have to hear a critical word about their performances, seemingly ever. It’s a problem of the entire classical music world (and beyond), and one that P.G Wodehouse wonderfully lampooned in his Hollywood stories that carefully described the rôle of the Yes-Men and Nodders. Bringers of bad news are likely to get shot or, worse, looked at askance. Fine, shoot me—I don’t mind much.


There is a standard of performance out there, for HIP bands just as there is for grand philharmonic orchestras, and it’s a standard I’ve heard this orchestra help set and on rare occasion surpass. This concert, and the two before it on this tour, were not among them. There is much to be said for the energy the OWA almost uniquely manages to convey in Beethoven, and the excitement this can create. But there’s a loss of efficiency when sloppiness gets in the way, which is lamentable. If it could be better, it should be better. The fact that the performances were sufficiently different from anything Japanese audiences are likely served as Beethoven and the fact that the Japanese are both sufficiently enthusiastic not to notice and sufficiently polite not to mention it, shouldn’t distract from that fact. Even if something well short of perfection is enough to enrapture a hall of 1500, that is not alone the determinant of true success. If the orchestra is to take on the mantle of the Concentus Musicus Wien as principle HIPsters in Vienna and beyond, which it now might just have the chance, “sufficient” will have to be the new minimum standard, not the average, and its knock-out performances like those of Schubert’s Ninth (reviewed on Forbes) and very recently the “Eroica” at the at the Palais Niederösterreich (reviewed here on ionarts) will have to be the average.


Knowing, as I write this, how the next concert turned out, I am filled with some optimism about the possibility, if not probability, of this happening.


More pictures below.

26.4.17

Forbes Classical CD of the Week: Johann Pachelbel, Un orage d’avril


…Misreading this present disc’s title as “An Orange in April”, I thought it a basket of sweet delights, juicy Suites for two violins and basso continuo. Now that I know better – “Un orage d’avril”, not “Une orange en avril” – I amend that impression, still accurate though it is…

-> Classical CD Of The Week: A Very Brief Excursion Into The World And Music Of Johann Pachelbel

25.4.17

Beethoven visits Japan: On Tour with the Vienna Academy Orchestra (Part 4)



The sun rises over the Vienna Academy Orchestra’s Day Four in Tokyo, a beautiful day and the day of the first concert at Musashino Hall. But there’s plenty of time until then to discover a bit of Tokyo. Little groups set out to get lost in the city; some new to the place and others veterans already from previous trips. Daring the Tokyo commuter rail network – what with nine rail and two metro companies some of which seem to require different tickets, some of which seem to require transfer tickets, and a number of stations that serve several millions of passengers each day – can be a bit daunting.


I opt to visit the Meiji Shrine, more on random instinct than for any particular reason. It was described to be somber, which appeals, and so it was, alas in vast parts covered for restauration. There’s a garden within the park, with a tea house which the emperor to whom the shrine is dedicated enjoyed, with a view of a little pond with lots of carp and a field of lilies that must be spectacular when they are in bloom.


The wooden tori gates are the largest of their kind and appeal to my sense of architectural stereotype. Despite its popularity with tourists and Japanese alike, the park—and especially the garden—are a lovely spot of calm green in Tokyo… not that I particularly yearn for that, since I haven’t even remotely experienced the hum and buzz of hyper-urban Tokyo yet.


I also head to another more personally relevant shrine of mine which happens to be just south of Yoyogi Park in the Shibuya district. I walk through the quainter, hillier part of Shibuya just below the Yoyogi 1964 Olympic National Gymnasium, I turn an inconspicuous corner, and there it is, rising high above me: Tower Records! As a veteran of Tower Records, albeit the bankrupt American branch, not the Japanese survivor, and an inveterate CD collector, this is a Mecca… a refuge… a treasure island. There’s still one, vast floor entirely devoted to classical music and I barely know where to start. Why not “B” like Beethoven. And look at that, right at eye level, replete with mini-review, sits highlighted one of the Beethoven recordings of the Vienna Academy Orchestra (OWA)! It’s the fresh-off-the-presses Ninth, but unfortunately I can’t read what the employee’s recommendation says.


There are lots of other goodies to be had at Tower, too, especially box sets of recordings long out of print in Europe, specially made for the Japanese market which seems not to know the idea of deletion. Haitink’s unfinished Berlin Mahler cycle. Ingrid Haebler’s second Mozart Piano Sonata cycle. Sawallisch’s Bruckner—all that which he got to record before his untimely death. And many Japanese composers either entirely unknown to me, or only by name. The only think I cannot find are the sets—be it Beethoven, Bruckner, or Sibelius—of the classic Japanese conductors of the last generation, NAME Asahino and NAME Watanabe – the “Karl Böhm” of Japan, as I am told.


I also do find another whole wall and listening station decked out with all the Beethoven recordings of the OWA and Martin Haselböck. The only thing that’s missing is a poster announcing the concerts at Musashino Hall that start tonight… though it might be argued that that didn’t matter, since they are sold out, anyway. But it would seem that the orchestra has already made its mark on the town, before a note has been played Eventually I tear myself away and without knowing that it is the busiest intersection and famous for it, I cross PLAZA and am amazed at the spectacle—and urban ballet, almost—of all these people starting to cross the street in six directions (including diagonally) at once. From Shibuya station it’s back to the comparatively sleepy Musashino and its bourgeois charm.


A few Gyozas at the newfound favorite dive to strengthen myself for the concert and off to Musashino Hall for symphonies Six and Seven… the start to the first historically informed Beethoven Symphony cycle in Japan if not all of Asia. A historic, historicist event!


The hall itself has a distinct new car smell – so much that I realize I’m in the right place when I walk by the unfamiliar side entrance after dark. It makes sense when I hear that the community center has just been renovated and that this was the grand re-opening of the hall… and not a shabby re-opening that is, with a complete Beethoven cycle.


It looks like an outsized high school multi-purpose auditorium and seats 1252. Not a bad looking hall… just a little… different. The audience is dressed more casually than I had assumed, which suits me just fine. Whether correct or not, to me that suggests that they might be there for the music, rather than the event and its prestige. Decorum is nice, but stale traditions are not.


The acoustics on 12th row of the raked auditorium seating is good; certainly more effective in transmitting the orchestra’s efforts, than Izumi Hall which, on paper and judging by its looks, should have been the superior sounding place. Acoustics is a strange science—or rather: no science at all, but advanced guessing with a dash of luck. The acoustic is also more effective in the sense that it generously covered some off moments and ensemble issues whereas Izumi hall had been on the exposing side. In the Sixth symphony, the horns behave notably well; the third movement is particularly energetic.


The Seventh Symphony’s slow opening strikes me as a little slack. If that were tightened, I think it could be more effective in ushering the ears along and the contrast to the Vivace would be just as great, even if the latter was a touch less furious. The transition between the two parts consists of a few staggered notes traded between the flutes and oboes together and the violins: little hesitations, that ought to unleash the awesome forward momentum of the Vivace, rather than being a mere interruption of the flow. Like an expanded, dramatic comma in a narration, not fumbling for the shopping list between the dairy isle and the what-is-it-that-I-wanted-again… ah, grapes![1] Just a tiny moment that struck me, but in any case wiped away by said furious Vivace which I swear had some Japanese audience-members utter impressed chuckles. This ain’t your Karl Böhm Beethoven! (Not that there’s anything wrong with. Although, yes, actually… there is. Different topic, though.)


If Viennese Beethoven cycles in Asia seem to ring a bell, in Shanghai, the Vienna Symphony just played the complete Beethoven cycle of nine symphonies, under Philippe Jordan. On the occasion, Jordan commented—as reported on China-Daily—somewhere along the lines of the famous Vienna sound of the strings being “warm and sweet, with lots of vibrato playing that makes it sugary, with gliding notes and portamenti” and that playing the Beethoven symphonies with the special Vienna sound is less aggressive, even when sometimes Beethoven requires that: “It is always a beautiful sound”. The OWA is also not your Philippe Jordan’s Beethoven. And if aggressiveness is required by Beethoven, they are the first to give Beethoven his dues. I like the OWA’s rough-n-ready ways; the VSO’s homogenized brawn rather less in Beethoven, although it is decidedly good to have both and then some other varieties, still.


The third and to some extent the fourth movement of the Seventh Symphony, to get back to Musashino Hall, too, were fiery stuff, at the edge and sometimes beyond, even if it sounds nothing like in the original performance spaces, which is of course the conceit of the ReSound Project and where I find it affects the listener most profoundly. A Japanese Wine bar (again: recognizable as such only on the foreigner’s second look) reveals a very decent Japanese white wine, from the Kerner varietal. Later I am told that the specialty of Japanese white wine, unlike French et al., is that it goes with soy sauce, making it a commendable partner of Sashimi and Oysters. An assertion that would need to be put to the test, it seems. More pictures below.