Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Met On Demand: Damnation of Faust

First time I had seen this production, which I narrowly missed in house back in 2008. Robert LePage's video driven production of Berlioz' oratorio was a big hit at the time, soon to be remembered as the "good" LePage production after opinion polarized over the first installment of his Ring. (Though Tommasini dropped some good shade at the time: "To judge from the rousing ovation Mr. Lepage received, this innovative production looks to be a popular success...")

No doubt this is a more effective, immersive use of video than the subsequent Ring productions, which suffered from the fundamentally off-putting Machine set and a mismatch with the pace and dramatic constraints of the Ring. Berlioz' fantastical meditation on the Faust myth, never intended for the stage, makes much more sense as a purely sensual experience, and a perfect fit for the possibilities of LePage's visual approach.

All that said, and admitting the difficulty of judging this kind of production on video, I was surprised at how frequently I found myself blaming the effects for the difficulty the work had grounding itself and gathering any momentum. While succeeding with a more unified aesthetic approach to the video aspects, LePage hasn't figured out what makes dramatic sense here any better than the Ring. Too often the production drives you to distraction rather than enhancing your experience of Berlioz' work.

The work is a feast for orchestra and chorus, and the Met's crack forces, led by Levine, make this a memorable production even before the soloists are taken into account. Love the hell chorus section where the civilians of the Met chorus, no buff supernumeraries in sight, have to take off their shirts and sing about demons with mean looks on their faces for (what feels like) 20 minutes. Great chorus work and a weirdly unsettling piece of stagecraft.

Giordani sounds great in Faust's music, delivering the delightfully predictable old school vocal swagger that gets him the big bucks, though his acting chops are a shade blander than his colleagues when subjected to closeup HD. He keeps it together for most of the show, though when the going gets more strenuous he noticeably straddles the line between effortful-but-legit and wait-I-don't-think-this-sounds-good-anymore territory.

This is a sweet-spot role for Graham and she proves again why she is the consummate Live in HD professional, sounding great and hitting all her marks as Marguerite (note how long she holds her beatific face as she has to climb a ladder all the way to the rafters facing camera at the end). "Professional" of course can cut two ways, and if you have trouble getting excited about her, this will not change your mind.

John Relyea, still the man to beat when it comes to 19th century devil characters, frequently threatens to steal the show with his codpiece and the unflagging silky-manly sound he serves up for Berlioz' Mephistopheles.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Musicians from Marlboro play Beethoven, Penderecki and Brahms

Cover of first edition of Brahms piano quintet, with four hand piano arrangement.

Amidst some nasty pre-snowmageddon precipitation, musicians from the Marlboro Festival served up the first of their two off-season tour shows at the Library of Congress Wednesday evening, injecting a bit of that gentle Vermont summer into crappy mid-Atlantic January.

Having made it to Marlboro the last two summers, I will disclose that I have fully drunk whatever the audience version of the Marlboro Kool-aid is. Whether it is the time that participants are able to lavish on a single work, the sense of camraderie, or the bucolic setting, there is something very special about Marlboro performances (obligatory link to Alex Ross' article from a few years back). Time and again one finds a depth in precision, blend, and articulation that ensures these performances are never boring, and it is enough to keep audiences (and musicians) traveling back to the country to get another hit of that sweet sweet chamber music drug. Happily, the stuff they export shares many of these winning qualities, too.

Beethoven's String Trio in C-minor, op. 9, featured the gorgeous blend of violinist David McCarroll, violist Daniel Kim, and cellist Marcy Rosen, in a reading both aurally decadent and musically engrossing. The first half also included Kryzysztof Penderecki's 1993 quartet for clarinet and string trio, adding the violin of Emilie-Anne Gendron, and Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. This fascinating piece covers huge thematic and emotional ground in its brief running time, and the quartet brought out moments of tremendous beauty (Gendron's solo in the closing Larghetto) as well as controlled frenzy in the second movement.

The second half featured a bit of unabashed luxury programming in Brahms' late Clarinet Quintet, famously composed near the end of his life after he had considered giving up composing. His collaboration with the clarinettist Richard Muhlfeld stayed his retirement and produced some of the most beloved works in his entire output and enduring pinnacles of the literature for the instrument. I will also note that this past summer in Vermont, I heard Rosen lead a performance of the Brahms String Quintet in F Major that immediately ranked in my top Brahms encounters of all time, so needless to say, this was an exciting prospect.

The Marlboro crew turned in a furious first movement, reaching for blistering fortes that immediately belied the "autumnal" modifier usually applied to this work. If things got a bit aggressive at times (and McGill occasionally seemed overextended trying to compete with the strings), the choice made sense in the striking contrasts with those moments where the movement slows to catch its breath. The Adagio offers the most intimate and individual writing for the clarinet, and McGill provided a solo of overwhelming beauty and quiet touches of personality. The interplay here between solo and strings, the epic push and pull of emotional tension, all unfolded with irresistible vitality. After a gentle Andantino, the group delivered a moving closing Con Moto, by turns yearning and ambivalent, a palpable chill descending with the arrival of the final dark figures in the strings.

Monday, January 18, 2016

NSO plays Eller, Prokofiev, and Sibelius

Esteemed Estonian conductor Neeme Jarvi took the NSO's helm this past weekend in the first subscription concert since the announcement of music director designate Gianandrea Noseda (and the bittersweet end of conductor roulette). Thursday's show opened with "Five Short Pieces for Orchestra" an attractive mid-century work by Heino Eller, an Estonian composer championed by Jarvi, which offered a compelling showcase for the NSO strings.

The highlight of the evening was Prokofiev's first Violin Concerto, featuring a mesmerizing performance by Latvian violinist Baiba Skride. Skride and Jarvi created fine tension in a restrained, inward facing first movement, bringing the audience in close to catch the hushed solo. Skride then abruptly shifted gears for the raucous second movement, skillfully highlighting Prokofiev's biting sarcasm and giving free rein to harsh earthy sounds in the blistering passage work. When the third movement finally turns to indulgence, Skride delivered a pure, beguiling sound for the doomed cocktail music of the finale.

After the half, Jarvi opened with a raw reading of the first movement of Sibelius' Symphony #2, heightening the contrasts between the scattered motivic fragments that run into and over each other and eliciting some especially fine piano dynamics from the orchestra. A heavy hand in the grim second movement was perhaps too much at times, and the plodding tempo might have been partially responsible for some muddy sounds in the brass. Thankfully things snapped back into place for a precise scherzo and exquisite solos for oboe and clarinet, capped with an appropriately irresistible climax leading into the Finale. Here and there transitions felt overly generic and on-the-nose, but overall Jarvi brought the work to an exhilarating close.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Better Gods at WNO

I wrote about WNO's new hour long work Better Gods for Parterre:
The arrival of winter in DC heralds a long fallow period for Washington National Opera’s mainstage offerings, as the Opera House is turned over to the Kennedy Center Honors and extended sit downs for traveling musicals. But WNO is staying busy, and while Aretha Franklin and Matilda cavort downstairs, the company continues to present new work up in the Terrace Theatre under its American Opera Initiative banner.
Read the whole thing here...