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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.