Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Chronicle of August 2008

August 1

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. St. Francis Auditorium, Santa Fe, NM. "Modeled on a Pueblo mission church, St. Francis Auditorium opened in 1917, part of the Pueblo revival period in Santa Fe architecture. A series of colorful murals depicts scenes from the life of St. Francis and the good works of Franciscans in New Mexico. A row of carved-wood ceiling beams are both imposing and beautiful. The festival, which this summer offers 39 concerts of 100 works, including premieres, rarities and favorites, also presents some programs in the city’s 821-seat Lensic Performing Arts Center, an elaborately decorated vaudeville house from 1931, renovated in the late 1990s. While here, I caught . . . a fascinating contemporary-music program featuring Anssi Karttunen, a brilliant Finnish cellist, early on Friday evening. The main draw for music-minded visitors to the city each summer is the respected Santa Fe Opera, something well understood by the pianist and composer Marc Neikrug, the chamber music festival’s enterprising artistic director. So the festival wisely schedules concerts that do not conflict with the opera company’s performances. The noontime series, with concerts lasting about an hour, is popular with tourists. And most evening concerts begin at 6, leaving plenty of time for a postperformance dinner and enabling voracious classical music buffs (and critics) to drive the few miles north to the Santa Fe Opera in time for a production. Mr. Karttunen’s concert on Friday offered diverse contemporary works for solo cello, with a few short exceptions: three tango-tinged pieces for three cellos by the Argentine composer Pablo Ortiz. Mr. Karttunen began with a recent solo work by Mr. Ortiz, Manzi, quirky music with pungent harmony and Baroquelike passages that surely pay homage to Bach. Luigi Dallapiccola’s arresting Ciaconna, Intermezzo e Adagio (1946), for cello solo, is the kind of visceral music that may cause listeners who fear the term '12-tone' to have an epiphany. Berio’s Sequenza XIV (2002) ingeniously explores the sound possibilities of the cello, including long stretches in which, by tapping on the body of the instrument and rapping the strings, the cellist evokes Sri Lankan drum rhythms. Mr. Karttunen played both works commandingly. The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, whose Adriana Mater is receiving its American premiere production at the Santa Fe Opera this summer, was in attendance for Mr. Karttunen’s performance of her Sept Papillons (Seven Butterflies), from 2000, a suite of short (roughly a minute each), capricious, vividly colorful fantasy pieces in the spirit of Schumann. Each explores a different cello technique or musical element, like fluttering rhythmic riffs or eerie, thin tunes hovering over weird pedal tones. Leaving the auditorium, the audience came upon a mariachi band inviting people to a crafts fair in the plaza. From Saariaho to mariachi: a typical day in Santa Fe during the summer festival season} [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 8/5/08].

Mostly Mozart Festival presents a program of W.A. Mozart and Anton Webern. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "Surely, it can’t have been the first time in the 42-year history of the Mostly Mozart Festival that anyone has booed. But to one who remembers all too well the soporific feel-good programs of the 1980s and ’90s, it came as a jolt. True, it was provoked. The current custodians of the festival are intent on challenging listeners’ expectations rather than merely satisfying them. That meant, in the concert by the festival orchestra . . . a program of Mozart and Webern -- unmediated, First Viennese School met Second. With Louis Langrée, the festival’s music director, conducting, and Christiane Oelze applying her versatile soprano, the first half of the program did some artful dodging between tonality and atonality: from the Overture and an aria from Mozart’s Idomeneo to Webern’s Five Canons After Latin Texts (Op. 16) and back to Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue (K. 546); from Webern’s Five Religious Songs (Op. 15) to Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music (K. 477). It was a calculated risk and not a huge one, since the Webern numbers amounted, in total, to less than 10 minutes. But that first Webern set, as the performers were trying to proceed seamlessly back into Mozart, drew a smattering of polite applause and a resounding boo. It can’t be said that the experiment was entirely successful. Quoted in the program notes, Mr. Langrée cited “the structural complexity, the eloquence of rhetorical gesture and the economy of orchestral colors” common to the music of both composers. But coming after that spare Webern set, with its instrumentation limited to clarinet and bass clarinet, the strings of Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue carried a wash of Brahmsian if not Mahlerian warmth. Ditto the more heavily scored Masonic Funeral Music after the second, slightly more intricate Webern set. Those relatively unknown Mozart works are among his most austerely beautiful, an austere beauty that in some ways they share with Webern’s exquisite miniatures but that does not necessarily translate into compatibility. Still, if the notion smacked of an effort to make Webern palatable for a larger audience, that is a laudable goal, and this was an experiment worth trying" [James Oestreich, The New York Times, 8/4/08].

August 7

The final concert by the Police. Madison Square Garden, New York, NY. "[The concert] could have felt like any number of things: a victory lap, a spectacle, a backward glance, an amen. It was all of the above to one degree or another, but what it ultimately suggested was the last day of school. At the close of a reunion tour that stretched past a year, reaching well over three million fans and earning more than $350 million, this three-piece rock band seemed not only festive but also relieved, and frankly giddy at the prospect of freedom. 'It’s been a huge honor to get back together,' a full-bearded Sting said several songs into the show, before thanking the group’s drummer, Stewart Copeland, and its guitarist, Andy Summers, 'for your musicianship, your companionship, your friendship, your understanding, your patience with me.' Have a nice summer, he could have added. Instead he sounded a note of jocular confession: 'The real triumph of this tour is that we haven’t strangled each other.' Not that it hadn’t crossed their minds, he added. The crowd roared knowingly, well versed in the history of a band that broke up in 1984, at the pinnacle of its success, in a bitter haze of clashing egos. So the tour, which began in May 2007, has apparently been more of a diplomatic rapprochement than a sentimental journey. . . . The grand finale . . . was no different in that regard: it confirmed the unusual chemistry that always bonded these artists, musically if not personally. . . . In a nod to the setting, the group welcomed nearly two dozen members of the New York City Police Department band near the start of the show, for a souped-up version of Message in a Bottle. This did nothing to improve the song, but it was welcome stagecraft, even if Sting looked patently silly in a police cap. . . . Sting had other points to make. Introducing Don’t Stand So Close to Me, he recalled his early career as a schoolteacher, mock-lamenting his wayward path as a rock star. . . . But the concert’s closing moments -- involving a crew member in costume as the fat lady singing, and an audio clip of Porky Pig stammering 'That’s all, Folks' -- came across like a fizzy drink with a bitter aftertaste. It was a prankish, almost flippant way to go, but its sharp ambivalence felt totally honest" [Nate Chinen, The New York Times, 8/7/08].

[Steven Ebel and Rebecca Jo Loeb in Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny]

August 9

Kurt Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930, libretto by Bertolt Brecht). Tanglewood Music Center, Lenox, MA. "Weill’s music, though mostly stern and rigorous, has stretches of plaintive lyricism and searching harmony. Weill softens the anticapitalist screed in Brecht’s text and humanizes the characters. Seeing the opera performed by this cast humanized it even more. There was something touching about watching young singers full of promise portraying vacant-eyed prostitutes, like the dusky-toned mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb as Jenny. Or hapless lumberjacks, like the boyish lyric tenor Steven Ebel as Jimmy Mahoney, the pitiable hero of the work, who is electrocuted for failing to pay a reckless gambling debt and a big bar tab. To be without money is the one unpardonable crime in Mahagonny. In casting Mahagonny a production can treat the work as an opera or a musical theater piece. Mr. Levine certainly cast it as an opera at the Met, starting with the original production headed by Teresa Stratas, a Jenny for the ages, and the Wagnerian tenor Richard Cassilly, scoring a career triumph as Jimmy. . . . The final chorus, a slow, steady, hard-driving march, had the requisite bleakness. With the hedonistic town in shambles, the residents demonstrate for their ideals, holding placards that are all too timely: 'Support Fear,' 'Trust Us,' 'Don’t Think,' 'Who Are They?' Yet to experience the chorus performed by young artists on the thresholds of their careers lent the show an element of uplift that -- my guess -- would have gratified Weill and infuriated Brecht" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 8/11/08]

August 12

Bob Dylan. Prospect Park, New York, NY. "Dylan struck a pose. He was standing at center stage, feet planted wide. Dressed in black from his hat on down, he faced outward, proud, flanked by stone-faced band members. Then he formed his hands into pistols -- six-shooters, let’s say -- and fired shot after shot, roguishly slaying the crowd. It was a pretty good illustration of what had been happening for the past two hours. Mr. Dylan can be an inconstant performer, and sometimes an indifferent one. . . . As usual Mr. Dylan transformed his old songs, in some cases preserving only the lyrics. . . . Necessity surely birthed some of these inventions: Mr. Dylan, 67, now sings with a (more) limited range, and a coarse, throaty tone. . . . Masters of War . . . draws its focus wide but sharp. Here Mr. Dylan enunciated unusually clearly, over a drone-haunted vamp. 'I hope that you die,' he snarled . . . But his peak of intensity came paired to something other than a death wish. 'I can see through your masks,' he wailed . . . . He seemed to know firsthand about masks" [Nate Chinen, The New York Times, 8/13/08].

Music of Bohuslav Martinu. Avery Fisher Hall and Kaplan Playhouse, New York, NY. "Janine Jansen, the violinist, and Maxim Rysanov, the violist, . . . gave . . . robust and occasionally steamy accounts of Martinu’s Three Madrigals and the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia. . . . The Martinu, composed in 1947, alludes to the contrapuntal intricacy of Bach’s music but couches it in a hard-driven, 20th-century sensibility, which thrived on the energy these two players brought to it. . . . Martinu had a place in the orchestral program as well. [Jiri] Belohlavek opened his selections with the Serenade No. 2 (1932), a brief, lightweight neoclassical work for violins and violas" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 8/14/08].

August 13

Kaija Saariaho's Passion de Simone. Rose Theater, New York, NY. "There is not much uplift . . . in the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s wrenching and gravely beautiful Passion de Simone. . . . This dramatic work, essentially a 75-minute oratorio for soprano, chorus and orchestra, explores the life and writings of the Jewish French philosopher, mystic and social activist Simone Weil, who died at 34 in 1943 in England. In solidarity with her compatriots in concentration camps, Weil, who was sickly all her life, refused to eat more than meager rations, virtually starving herself. Ms. Saariaho, 55, is composer-in-residence at Mostly Mozart this summer, and La Passion de Simone can be seen as the festival’s defining work. This is the third dramatic piece Ms. Saariaho has collaborated on with the Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf, who, like the composer, lives in Paris. The text is in French. Their two previous operas were grimly involving: L’Amour de Loin, a medieval romantic fable that ends in tragedy, and Adriana Mater, which recently had its American premiere at the Santa Fe Opera, a brutal tale of a woman raped by a neighbor in a war-torn country. La Passion de Simone may be the most despairing of the three. It is unremittingly bleak and probably too long. Still, it is hard to resist the sheer, misty allure of Ms. Saariaho’s thick-textured, rhapsodic music and the unusually inventive dramatic structure of this work, especially as presented here. The soprano Dawn Upshaw gave a mesmerizing performance, joined by the superb choral ensemble London Voices (Terry Edwards, music director) and the excellent City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, directed by the Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki in her impressive New York debut. The production was conceived and directed by Peter Sellars. (Lincoln Center was one of four institutions that commissioned the work.) This oratorio, which Ms. Saariaho has likened to Bach’s passions, is subtitled a Musical Journey in 15 Stations, as in Stations of the Cross, each one offering a contemplation upon an aspect of Weil’s life and beliefs. Rather than presenting Weil as the central character of a biographical drama, the story is told by a narrator, Ms. Upshaw, dressed in a gray housedress. She sits at and circles a bare wood table, poring over Weil’s journals, though she is visited by a silent spectral figure, a dancer, Michael Schumacher, dressed like a barefoot prisoner, who enters Ms. Upshaw’s solitary room through a lone door. . . . As always, Ms. Saariaho’s orchestral writing is wondrous. She masterfully builds shimmering, organic sonorities from multilayered orchestra elements that blend natural and electronic sounds. Her tonally wayward harmonies are alive with pungent dissonance. Yet, as the collages of orchestral sound flow by inexorably, they come across as grounded and elemental. And the soprano part deftly balances ruminative lyricism with conversational naturalness. . . . The score does have moments that pulsate with rhythmic energy. Sometimes all it takes is a simple ostinato in the percussion section, or a riff that swings in a four-squared, hammering meter, as when Ms. Upshaw describes Weil’s months spent bound to a machine: Weil took a leave from her teaching job to work incognito in two factories, the better to understand the plight of workers. . . . By the end, La Passion de Simone does present a small element of uplift. Despite her confounding philosophy and acts of self-abnegation, Weil left behind her writings, her journal" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 8/14/08].

August 20

Four-hour concert of African music. Damrosch Park, New York, NY. Cultural exchange rarely gets more rapturous than it did . . . at Damrosch Park, in a free concert of African music presented by Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Over the course of about four hours, an overflow audience beheld the efforts of several imposing legends from Ethiopia; a raucous art-punk band from the Netherlands; a jazz combo from Cambridge, Mass.; and a group with roots in Kenya and Washington. The show started strong and never flagged, helped along by an enthusiastic crowd. The show’s biggest stars were Mahmoud Ahmed, a transfixing vocalist, and Getatchew Mekurya, an authoritative saxophonist. Both artists have reached global audiences through “Éthiopiques,” the acclaimed reissue series on Buda Musique, a French label. And both artists used their stage time to evoke the exuberance of Addis Ababa in the 1970s. But they appeared in separate sets, and with two strikingly different groups. Mr. Ahmed, 67, began his portion of the evening with Atawurulegn Lela, wafting a sinuous melodic line over briskly tumbling polyrhythm. His voice was strong, even youthful, and his phrasing was supple. Later he sang Ere Mela Mela, an anthem with a more meditative groove, and here his singing grew rich and plangent; at times its microtonal shivers suggested the somber beauty of an Islamic call to prayer. His accompanying coterie was the Either/Orchestra, a light-on-its-feet big band led by the saxophonist Russ Gershon, an Ethiopian-music specialist. As they do on Ethiogroove, a DVD issued last year, Mr. Gershon and company refurbished the sound of Mr. Ahmed’s old records, with sharper horn intonation and less rhythm-section distortion. In addition to Mr. Ahmed, the Either/Orchestra backed Alemayehu Eshete, a singer with an equally assertive but less transcendent style. Opening with Addis Ababa Bete, Mr. Eshete was at his charismatic best; each verse began with a single clarion note and then plunged into rapid-fire patter. He tried a few other approaches in his set, like an insinuative croon and a bark befitting his nickname, the Ethiopian James Brown. Extra Golden, the Kenyan-American band, hit upon funk as a byproduct of its style, which blends Nairobian benga music and old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll. With a steady-thumping downbeat but much variation elsewhere -- Onyango Wuod Omari, the band’s drummer, is a mischief-maker -- the group made its hybrid feel unlabored. But there were subtle indications of an arduous exchange. Some songs juxtaposed English and Luo, a bit jarringly. And at one point Opiyo Bilongo sang Obama, a song of gratitude for a certain United States senator and his crucial assistance with artist visas. (Earlier Bill Bragin, Lincoln Center’s director of public programming, had similarly thanked Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York. There was no tune called Schumer, though.) The concert closed with a gripping performance by Mr. Mekurya, the king of Ethiopian saxophone, and the Ex, the punk band from Amsterdam. Drawing primarily from their 2006 album Moa Anbessa (Terp), they dug in deeply together, creating a cyclone of stomping rhythm, brash distortion and fluttering modal melody. There were vocal turns by G. W. Sok, the band’s hyperdeclarative frontman, and Katherina Ex, its rigidly propulsive drummer. But the stage belonged to Mr. Mekurya, who held his ground against two scabrous guitars on his trademark, Shellela, his tone a mixture of husky stoicism and earnest supplication. At another point, when he played an unaccompanied cadenza, he earned one of the biggest cheers of the night" [Nate Chinen, The New York Times, 8/21/08].

The Emerson String Quartet performs Bela Bartok's Quartet No. 3 and Kaija Saariaho's Terra Memoria. Joe’s Pub, New York, NY. "The venerable Emerson String Quartet is accustomed to performing in glittering concert halls. But it seemed entirely comfortable at Joe’s Pub on Wednesday, offering a raucous performance of Bartok’s head-banging String Quartet No. 3 that would have sounded appropriate in a far grittier establishment than this upscale spot. . . . The program also included an unsentimental rendition of Barber’s Molto Adagio" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 8/25/08].

August 21

The Emerson String Quartet performs Kaija Saariaho's Terra Memoria. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "Although in some ways a delicate piece, Kaija Saariaho’s striking Terra Memoria, which starts and ends with a whisper, seemed . . . suited to Avery Fisher. Dedicated to 'those departed,' the angst-ridden, dissonant textures of the one-movement work create an anxious momentum and haunting cloud of sound, a startling mood swing" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 8/25/08].

August 23

Zukofsky Quartet. Bargemusic, New York, NY. [Karol] Szymanowski’s String Quartet No. 1 [is] a shimmering, deliciously quirky score with a melancholy spirit that suddenly evaporates in a vigorous finale . . . [a] real find . . . and given the fascination his music holds for audiences these days, the work is likely to appeal to a larger audience now than when he composed it, in 1917. It begins and ends with the sparest of gestures: a single high tone at the start, two whispered pizzicato chords at the end. In between, its plush textures surge with an intense chromaticism that creates an unusual world, largely Romantic but with early modernist leanings. Cyrus Beroukhim, the ensemble’s first violinist, painted his lines with a graceful portamento that underscored the work’s Romantic roots. If the performance sometimes shortchanged the air of mystery that Szymanowski’s harmonic language creates, it was solid and vigorous, and consistently lush [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 8/25/08].