Sunday, March 25, 2012

Washington Bach Consort plays the Art of the Fugue

Washington Bach Consort provided a rather unique opportunity to hear the entirety of the Art of the Fugue in concert Sunday afternoon--one that was not forsaken by Washington Bach lovers, who sold out the house.
The Art of the Fugue, great summit of achievement in contrapuntal writing, timeless enigma of Western art, purest expression of music's foundational genius (see the apt, if oft-disputed epigram found on the cover of the 1746 manuscript of Contrapunctuses 1-4 : "Wie gefällt dir mir jetzt?"*)...can be a bit problematic in performance. The probability that the average human brain is processing all that dense counterpoint, on roughly the same theme, in the same key, in any sort of pleasurable or enlightening manner, rapidly approaches zero as the contrapunctuses march on. So one needs to find ways to keep it fresh, and the varied configurations the Bach Consort brought to bear Sunday--including solo organ, two harpsichords, and a period string quartet of violin, tenor and treble viol, and violone--provided enough variety that one happily never succumbed to the dreaded fugue overdose.
That said, there is surely a case to be made that period strings are not an imperative when dealing with the Art of the Fugue. No doubt the quartet produced an appealing sound, especially where organ doubled certain parts to bring out the fugue themes, and Andrew Fouts (Bach Consort's concertmaster) had some of the most exhilarating playing of the afternoon in parts that lend themselves especially well to the violin, such as the syncopated melody of Contrapunctus II. But the violin just seemed to highlight how often the counterpoint ended up muddled in the bottom three strings, both on account of the imprecision in performance that tends to crop up with these instruments and the fuzzier textures they produce. It's hard to listen to something like the Emerson Quartet performance below and not suspect something is missed about this work when precision is sacrificed.
No such complaints about the use of harpsichord though (the two onstage were played here by Bach Consort leader J. Reilly Lewis and Scott Detra). I'm all for Bach on the piano, but listening to the Aimard recording as I write this, I am reminded that piano in this work specifically is perhaps one layer of information too much. The dynamic choices seem falser than they do elsewhere, more futile, and the whole magnificent edifice sort of degenerates into sounding new agey music. The austerity of the harpsichord, on the other hand, keeps us riveted to the score without distraction.
*i.e. "How you like me now?"

NSO plays Dvorak, Janacek

Took in the NSO's Prague/Budapest/Vienna "off-night" show Friday, mainly for the welcome opportunity to hear two Janacek chamber works--the "Concertino" for piano-left hand, strings, clarinet, horn and bassoon, and the "Capriccio," also for piano left-hand and a variety of brass and wind instruments, minus the strings. These pieces hail from the heart of his mature period (1926 and 1925 respectively) but meander much further than the familiar sound of the first string quartet or the operas of the early 20s. Both use the building blocks of the folk songs that inspire so much of Janacek's work, but they are largely unrecognizable in the more abstract setting of these works.
This is really a fascinating side of Janacek, and it was a great chance to hear them live--but overall the performance didn't quite come together for me. No doubt greater familiarity would make for a more rewarding experience, but at the same time the NSO players and pianist Lukas Vondracek (and assistant conductor Ankush Kumar Bahl who led the Capriccio) seemed to miss some of the playful propulsive energy and mercurial texture so key to the appeal of these works. Both seemed frequently trapped in a plodding tempo, while Vondracek's work at the piano often felt heavy-handed and too deliberate.
The bookends for the Janacek were two Dvorak Serenades conducted by Eschenbach. The first, for winds in D minor (Op.44), was charming, with standout work done by the main quartet of oboes and clarinets. The familiar Serenade for Strings in E major (Op. 22) constituted the entire second half and, despite being the "greatest hit" on the program, generated some real interest thanks to Eschenbach's sensitive but not overly sentimental reading, and the NSO strings' great responsiveness to his ideas. The piece was only somewhat marred by a strident, uneven tone here and there and a few rough edges on some of the more exposed passages.
Here's Downey's take.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

NSO All Bartok Show (Belated)

Just a quick belated comment on my first encounter with the NSO side of the "Music of Prague/Budapest/Vienna" festival at the Kennedy Center the other week (in my defense, I'm participating in the chorus for this weekend's offering, the Dvorak Stabat night left!) Though terribly bitter about missing Goerne/Eschenbach Winterreise the previous Monday, I saw the all-Bartok program on the following Saturday w/ Eschenbach, Goerne and Michelle DeYoung in a concert performance of Bluebeard's castle. (Yes, I skipped Fidelio, because I don't really like it and because the weather was super nice the Thursday I could go. Though reviews like this certainly make me second guess that decision.)
Anyhow. This was a tremendous Bluebeard, driven by Eschenbach's expansive, emotionally exhausting reading and the NSO's searing sound under his baton. Shattering moments of raw power like the "opening of the 5th door" (twitter plot synopsis: Bluebeard takes new wifey Judith home, opens 7 doors, last one are previous murdered wives, she joins 'em. Fin.) replete with trombones in the balcony, will not soon be forgotten. But nor will the delicate, haunting colors found in some of the quiet, dread charged exchanges between Bluebeard and Judith.
Both soloists were very fine. Michelle DeYoung offered a rich characterization for Judith, projecting a heady mixture of fear of, as well as passion for Bluebeard, via a notably sweet ringing sound. Matthias Goerne played off her burbling enthusiasm with an unflinching portrayal that left no doubt he should be first in line if they ever do an opera of Sling Blade. I've only ever heard Goerne live in big symphonic settings, and it always leaves me wishing I could hear a recital already. While dramatically fascinating, there's no denying that the smoky color which makes his lieder so uniquely exquisite just doesn't scale as well as voices that with more cutting edges. But he was nonetheless riveting.
Before the half we got Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin" suite, which I heard the NSO do this last year or the year before sometime. Again, this fascinating work, which perfectly captures a certain cinematic sound world of the early 20th century, proved itself an ideal showpiece for the orchestra. The NSO could do a very fun show featuring this and other early 20th century works for the stage and screen by major composers.
One final note--many of the otherwise positive reviews of this concert made the now routine complaint that Eschenbach let's the orchestra swamp his singers in big moments. I'm starting to feel like maybe this isn't so much a "balance problem" as Eschenbach just actually not giving a shit. Clearly, people are free to disagree with his choices, but just to be clear, it seems to be not so much a case of carelessness as the fact that sometimes he feels the orchestra's "fff" shouldn't be hindered by the relatively puny volume limits of the soloist.

Monday, March 12, 2012

WNO Announces

So, apparently some glitch is preventing me from getting WNO emails anymore and I was also kind of oblivious last week, hence the tardy comment on their 2012-2013 season announcement, which goes something like this:
  • Anna Bolena w/ SondRAD in her role debut
  • Manon Lescaut w/ Pat Racette
  • Norma w/ Angela Meade and Dolora Zajick
  • Don Giovanni w/ Ildar Abdrazakov and Barbara Frittoli
  • Showboat a la Zambello
The names are a decided improvement in casting glamour over the current season's modesty, but it's hard to read this lineup as anything other than WNO crawling even further back in its shell.
It wasn't always this way. They seem to have disabled the single page WNO performance history since the merger, but browse around this mess for a bit and you'll see a very different kind of WNO--one that produced a lot of chestnuts, sure, but also made room for at least one or two significantly off-the-beaten path works, especially American and post-1950 pieces, per season. Replacing this slot with (what is sure to be) a poorly put together musical, is all it takes to change the WNO from a company that pays the bills but still has something distinctive to say to one that know.
I'll probably see everything except Showboat (a near-death-by-boredom experience during the tour of the Hal Prince version back in the day has turned me off of poorly-thought-out productions of that thing forever), and will be downright excited about Anna Bolena and Norma. But c'mon, WNO, throw us a bone.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Cosi at WNO

Well there is certainly no shortage of faults to be found in WNO's new Cosi, I'm afraid. Jonathan Miller's production, which has been kicking around for nearly 20 years (it premiered at ROH in 1995), is something of a racket, it seems. Impossibly nondescript, this Cosi takes place nowhere and may thus be pitched anywhere; it travels from town to town, hawking its "contemporary" aesthetic and spinning promises to flood the opera house with the cheapest of laughs through gimmicks like including local references in the super-title translations ("Leesburg," "Baltimore," and "Adams Morgan" are put forth as potential origins of the disguised lovers, har-har). I suspect even Miller's program note is populated using mail merge.
The trouble is that a successful "updating" requires so much more than simply clothing people in generic "contemporary" dress and doling out the cell phones (though i must say the single finger iphone stroke makes for a great stage gesture). A coherent concept must find some logic in a modern setting that can align with the logic of the original play, be it congruent, dissonant, or what have you. Miller's Cosi has zero ideas about this, he just wants to see the guys in snappy suits.
But much more damning than a meh physical production, the direction is just lame. Cosi's great dramatic interest has to do with the way it blurs the line between farce and serious drama, but time and again, Miller's production (or whoever is responsible at this point) squanders them, overplaying the farce and leaving opportunities for creating something more resonant on the table.
And unfortunately the problems didn't end with the production. Phillipe Auguin--and y'all know I got love--kindled some embers here and there, but more often we got this turgid four-square business that unfortunately seemed critical to keeping the frequent coordination problems from getting out of hand.
But Cosi is scrappy, right? With strong singers and actors its awfully difficult not to come up with some irresistible goodness, and so, for all of the aforementioned problems, it was still an enjoyable evening. Elizabeth Futral offered a strong, persuasive Fiordiligi despite the occasional absurdities demanded by the production (e.g. the hoochie dancing and cougar-tastic ensembles); both Come Scoligio and especially Per Pieta commanded attention, if momentum flagged during the finale of the latter. Renata Pokupic brought a sweet, playful sound to Dorabella's music, and blended nicely with Futral in the duet work.
On the male side of the ledger: Teddy Tahu Rhodes' considerable charisma carried most of the farce for the evening and for that we thank him; the voice is certainly commanding, though by the end I was finding it less interesting than just loud. Joel Prieto seemed to lack the support needed to really send Ferrando's "L'auna amorosa" over the top, but his winning, sweet tone and touching delivery were enough to make it a rewarding moment.
And finally, kudos to William Shimell's Don Alfonso, sung with great class and, in his ruthless malevolence, perhaps the only character that seemed to represent some kind of a clear choice in this production. I'm not sure if anything so dull as a "Washington DC Cosi" is really worth producing, but if you were going to do it, this evil lawyer/lobbyist Don Alfonso would certainly be a way to go.