Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bullet points on Boris Godunov HD cast

In no particular order:
  • The HD cast people really need to chill with the closeups--I get that they want to avoid the impression that any of this is taking place on a stage, but its quite maddening in a production with so much going on to not be able to orient yourself with periodic wide shots.
  • Rene Pape is a great man. That said, this didn't bowl me over the first time. Also, the HD cast is not really his friend. Some part of Pape's reputation is about a silky smoov voice, but its a far cry from a one-size-fits-all-spaces voice. Understanding his volume choices is key to appreciating his portrayal, and the HD cast drastically compresses those things.
  • With her mane of red curls as Marina, Ekaterina Semenchuk bears an uncanny resemblance to Glory, the villain from Buffy season five.
  • Props to all who deserve it for bringing together such a ginormous and strong cast for this. Alexandrs Antonenko (Grigory) is the real deal, rite?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Talich Quartet at LOC

Went back to the Library of Congress for the Talich quartet in a program of Beethoven, Janacek, and Dvorak last night.

The Talich's Beethoven (No. 6) had a light, appealing bounciness to it, but I'm afraid I need something more to get me going about this piece. Why not serve up an all-Janacek first half and let DC hear both quartets 1 & 2? Do we really need to bait a FREE concert that only music lovers are schlepping to with such well-trod material? Did they feel an all-Czech program would pigeonhole them? Grumble. Anyhow, it was perfectly nice.

The Janacek quartet was a treat indeed. For anyone who knows the operas well, it is wonderful to hear those distinctive Janacek-ian harmonies emerge in these pieces. But the string quartets are a step beyond the operas in their inventiveness and interest in new sounds. Folky elements enter not as melodic material, but as disjointed fragments alongside passages of jarring noise. The Talich's take played up this inventiveness I think--rather than the propulsive energy I've heard elsewhere, the leisurely pacing, warm tone, and attention to detail allowed one to soak up the shifting, surprising environments Janacek creates. There are visceral and emotional thrills to be had in this piece that were not played to the hilt here, but the alternative was a more fluid and cerebral reading that fully inflamed one's sense of injustice at how rarely it gets programmed.

The Talich reserved their most profound investment for the Dvorak G Major Quartet (Op. 106) after the half. Making a solid case for the level of commitment necessary to ensure these works don't degenerate into static priddiness, they highlighted the many distinct textures in Dvorak's writing while maintaining a steady core of rich, generous, warmth--like strings with a molten chocolate inside. If Dvorak isn't always played like great Brahms, as I think it was here, well it should be.

The encore was more Dvorak featuring the viola of Vladimir Bukacs, whose clear, consistent tone was a standout throughout the evening. Special props are also warranted for the the exciting agility of Petr Prause's cello.

Other takes: Joe Banno in WaPo...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Two Mahlers

The Gergiev show that has been tramping up and down the East Coast this month landed at the KC last night for a Mahler 8 with his Mariinsky Orchestra, the Choral Arts Society, the Children's Chorus of Washington, and others.

I love me some good Gergiev, and was totally game for wherever he was going with this. While the first part had some thrilling climaxes (and really, how can you get 300 professional musicians to play in coordination as loud as possible and not have some thrills) it didn't come together for me. Too often the textures were muddy and the momentum unfocused, with aimless stretches that felt like they were trying to balance predictability and survival with the music making. Having been in choruses during a few such massive operations, the together but middling sensation is familiar, but of course doesn't really create the conditions for an inspired reading. Gergiev likes to play it close to the edge, but the prospect of losing control of this most freight-trainish of movements may have inhibited even him.

The virtues of Gergiev and orchestra were much more evident in Part II--unabashed old-movie-score-pathos in the strings; an exciting ruddy brass sound that doesn't just dig deep, it excavates; and an unflagging attention to the drama and heart of the piece--like Bernstein after an all-night Stoli-fueled bender.

The vocal ensemble was pretty strong, with tenor August Amonov the standout in his passionately sung Part II solo work. The women brought some nice Slavic flavor (loved deep-voiced mezzo Zlata Bulycheva) but individually were a bit underpowered in relation to the orchestra, with the possible exception of Lyudmila Dudinova (UPDATE: Ok, I'm pretty sure I can't figure out the name of the soloist I'm trying to indicate here and I don't know the 8th well enough to figure it out, so...dark-haired one third from stage right, with a lot of material about 2/3rds of the way through Part II: you sounded good).

The choirs sounded tremendous. Any ensemble deserves a lot of points just for showing up and wrestling successfully with this thing, but there were moments where the vocal forces distinguished themselves, to be sure. The opening of the Chorus Mysticus was a model of controlled, finely blended piano singing, not an easy effect to achieve in such a large group, and the result was quite magical.

More reviews: Tim Smith...Anne Midgette...Downey (who is having none of that)...


Haven't had a chance to write about it, but I had my first opportunity to see Eschenbach as NSO director last Friday, in the second installment of the the Mozart 34/Mahler 5 program that concluded his Fall run. While I haven't been terribly diligent about attending NSO shows the last few years, I think that's about to change...

The consolation Mozart was very nice (it was supposed to be an all-Mahler program)--I was especially struck by the orchestra's sensitivity to the precise articulation Eschenbach called for--though its a bit hard to keep one's mind on Mozart when you know you have Mahler in store. (Sorry.) There was the usual defensiveness in the program and the nice post-show talk Eschenbach participated in about doing the piece with the regular ol' orchestra with only modest reductions. Eschenbach had a funny story about a letter from Mozart to his father in the 1780s where he is all jazzed about seeing some freaky big orchestra, so take that HIP facscists. I mean, I don't REALLY know how bad the situation is--maybe Eschenbach went home to find some threatening note on his doorstep festooned with catgut--but all the HIP backlash backlash seems like a bit of a straw man these days. And PS, can you think of anything more tragic than the major symphonies of the world starting to up the quotient of Mozart and Haydn in their programs again?

But anyhow, the MAHLER. In my aforementioned limited experience, this really is the best thing I've heard the NSO do. The orchestra delivered a wonderfully vivid, transparent sound, complemented by very high caliber solo work. Eschenbach's Mahler is thoughtful and intimate. He devotes loving attention to the lyrical moments, drawing them out of the din with great clarity and poignancy. He also has a penchant for creating an effect whereby passages sound almost suspended in time, allowing one to discover and linger in Mahler's eclectic sound worlds.

One could get used to this...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

English Concert at the Library of Congress

You know what? People who badmouth the federal government can suck it. Because: A) Social Security, B) volcano monitoring, and C) last night the Library of Congress hooked up a killer free show with the English Concert, led by Harry Bicket and ft. Rachel Podger and Alice Coote.

The chamber selections--Vivaldi's Trio Sonata in D minor ("La Follia"), Violin Concerto in D Major ("Il Gross Mogul"), and Cello Concerto in C minor--were stunning, totally in love with the dancing rhythms of these pieces and the glory of the sound of the solo string instrument.

Can we talk about Rachel Podger for a sec? Save for the Ionarts notice that got me interested, I didn't know her before but am now mildly obsessed. The woman is a completely sensational performer--the audience was clearly ill-prepared for the disarming immediacy and personality she brings to this music and applauded with abandon. Part of it is surely how she works that baroque violin--those modern instruments make Vivaldi all FM smoothness, but this sound is unprocessed, not afraid of hitting a few speedbumps, and very, very direct and exciting.

Jonathan Marson, soloist for the cello piece was also splendid. Podger, Marson and the band clearly relish Vivaldi's mastery in building unbearable tension; and, when this group finally breaks that tension, like in the lush treatments of the "free-jam" sections in the trio, the release is overpowering.

Coote, who I've never heard live before but enjoyed in the Met Hansel n' Gretel bcast, was probably least effective in Monteverdi's "Lamento d'Arianna". The content was interesting--the only surviving fragment of Monteverdi's opera on the Ariadne story--but there was maybe a little too much OPERA going on for the material at hand. A selection of songs by John Dowland, accompanied by William Carter on lute, were beautifully read, perfectly pitched to illuminate the emotional resonance of the poems. The Handel selection, an oratorio on the Lucrezia story, is a small masterpiece, culminating in a spectacular sequence on Lucrezia's suicide. The full splendor of Coote's rich mezzo was most on display here and made for a powerful climax. Put on a copy of this and listen for the incredible passage where Lucrezia talks about the knife in her breast and her melodic line undergoes this disintegration at once painful and sensual--Coote was on fire. The EC band throughout was a dream of sensitive, urgent Handel playing--must have the Messiah they did under Pinnock in the late 90s.

Check Downey's review here.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Voigt in D.C.

Surely the perfect antidote to a spate of neither-here-nor-there Ballo's is a ballsy, cathartic Salome. If the new revival at WNO isn't quite in the league of Salome's that make you forget your name and moral compass, it's nonetheless a rich and effective reading from an excellent cast and new music director Phillipe Auguin.

We saw Debbie V's Salome's in Chicago a few years back, and I think its safe to say her Salome is more secure and exciting today than it was then, which was a pretty high standard already. The key money music was positively thrilling, with Voigt bringing the big rich pealing sounds we all know and love. Naturally, there is a bit more "negotiation" today as compared to her former peaks of effortlessness, and there were a handful of rocky moments in the high soft business (her middle seemed to carry poorly too, though this may be partially Auguin's fault). Her portrayal also remains on the efficient side: her motivations are clear in the moment but she never quite grasps the longer game necessary for a truly devastating Salome. But "settling" for this level of commitment and sheer vocal splendor ain't much of a chore.

Rest of the cast was pretty strong. Daniel Sumegi's ruddy-voiced Jokanananaaan captured the terror of the character and was also deliciously LOUD. Doris Soffel's vampy Herodias delivered a truly musical reading of that oft-shrieked role. Sean Panikkar gets the requisite "oh what a nice sounding Narraboth" mention.

If anything though, it was the pit that set the musical standard for the evening. Auguin led a sweeping account, long on majesty and grace, and the band played with great authority.

The production isn't much to look at. From the press photos I couldn't figure out if this was the same Zambello Salome Voigt did in Chicago, or if it was an entirely new production, which seemed unlikely. Turns out it's the Chicago production--Jokannanan with dreads, check; garish O'Hare tunnel to Terminal C lightshow, check; massively unimaginative dance of the seven veils, check--but WNO couldn't afford the sets. So the nondescript desert-flavored business in Chicago has been replaced here by a manhole cover on an empty stage surrounded by shimmery shower curtains plus maybe some arches in the back that you can't really see. That's it. I could probably move the whole thing in my car if you let me do a couple of trips. It is being billed as a "new production" replete with Zambello actually in house for a curtain call, but "reheated" would be more accurate. Ragging on WNO for lame productions when they are in dire financial straits feels mean, but it would be nice to see them embrace the situation and get creative, rather putting up distractingly half-hearted stuff like this. (BREAKING: Anne Midgette's generally enthusiastic review is here--seems WNO disputes the earlier report that it was a cost issue, and that the Lyric sets just didn't fit in the KC. Either way, the result was bleh--I mean, its Salome, the physical production just needs to get out the way, but throw us a bone.)

All the more a pity because the staging does have some striking moments. The Jokanaaanan preaching to Salome section was particularly tender and moving, especially given Sumegi's uncompromising characterization. I also loved Salome addressing the "I will now kiss your mouth Jokaaanan" speech directly to the horrified Herod/Herodias, a choice which emphasized what is surely one of the best instances of sticking it to your parents ever.

A lot more performances left--tonight a BUNCH of the upper tier was empty, which seems like a scandal of some kind. Go git a ticket.

UPDATE: See Downey's review at DCist here, including an amazing DV-as-character-on-True-Blood shot from the curtain call...

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

New Music Director Madness

Great news for WNO: Philipe Auguin, celebrated leader of last year's Gotterdammerung anti-spectacular spectacular, is taking over as WNO music director. My praise for that show is here, and here's a positive mention in the '06 incarnation of the Wilson Lohengrin; Charles Downey's coverage here.

As Anne Midgette has noted, the company seems to be on the fence about whether it is to continue to aspire to the tier of American houses with a claim to international interest, or whether it is going to be a solid regional enterprise. Sure, some of that has to do with the amount of A-list talent they can muster, but it's a lot more about the degree to which the company seems to have a distinct mission and artistic personality. And that has a lot to do with leadership--leadership which, for the WNO, has seemed in absentia for the last few years.

I don't have the history to really judge Domingo's tenure--but as an audience member, the broad impression was more "PR goldmine + guaranteed chance to hear him" than compelling vision. Sounds like Fricke deserves a lot of credit for getting the orchestra to where they are today (which is a very good place to be) but the low-profile twilight of his tenure has also surely contributed to the general sense of drift.

So, in sum, the introduction of Auguin and the promise of a discirminating and steady hand for the company's musical fortunes is a very exciting turn indeed, and another reason to get stoked about tomorrow's Salome!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Random Cosi Watching

A: man, roschmann is so cute
J: what was she in?
A: i bought this random cosi dvd
A: that is like cosi via boeing boeing
A: and she is all tiny in these 60s getups
A: like this:

J: cute!
J: I think she's excellent
A: huh
A: Ferrando just wrote an "F" on Dorabella's boob
J: heh
A: i'm thinking that's going to come back
A: Gugliemo is going to be all "lemme see those tits...the F!"
J: haha
A: the young-ish evil preppy sexy Don Alfonso is fun in this
A: the dorabella kind of looks like Patsy

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Double Bill from the In Series

Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti and Bolcom's Casino Paradise, the two one-acts offered by the In Series Friday (perfs are done now), both operate in that fertile "American operetta" terrain. To lovers of musical theatre in all its forms, there's something so appealing about this combination--the musical is freed from the stultifying limitations of the song n' book format while the opera gets to revel in a degree of literacy and playfulness with language that it rarely achieves. It's hard to compare these works with the often leaden libretto of something like AmTrag* (New York has changed you? Otay...) or the dreadfully opaque Dr. Atomic** and wonder if the latter pieces weren't translated into English from some other language.

Tahiti's heart is a drama of marital dissolution that succeeds on an insightful libretto and Bernstein's wonderful score. There's a lot of anti-suburban snark around that emotional core that one hopes sounded fresher and less mean-spirited back in the day, but this is done cleverly and with such a nice grasp of the styles it riffs that you can't hate it. The sung dialogue scenes and the big centerpiece number are both particularly memorable. One can imagine more vocal beauty being brought to bear on the score, but the sensitive readings turned in by leads Grace Gori and Will Heim were more than sufficient to make the piece successful. Here's that big number from a BBC production:

The scrappy delights of Casino, which cribs styles and stock characters from wherever they can be found in the service of a nutty satire about a tycoon and seaside town that falls for his ill-fated Casino, were well served here in a tight, inventive staging. Special shout-outs to Scott Sedar's charismatic tycoon and the finest vocalism of the night from Jase Parker (they tycoon's son) and Brendan Sliger (as a townsperson).

*Which I generally liked a lot and wish they would bring back, despite that knock.

**Which I do not forgive.