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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.