Friday, October 1, 2010
Chronicle of August 2010
Salzburg Festival presents Alban Berg's Lulu. Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, Austria. "[I]t was clear that musical matters were in very capable hands. The German conductor Marc Albrecht drew a consistently plush, urgent and taut performance from the Vienna Philharmonic. In the prologue, as the baritone Thomas Johannes Mayer snarled and bellowed the words of the Animal Tamer, inviting the audience to witness a menagerie in which the principal attraction was the snake representing 'woman’s original form and nature,' the orchestra reveled in Berg’s insinuating music for the bleakly comic scene: all abrupt phrases, jagged lines and bursts of astringent chords. But Berg’s 12-tone score is also rich with wistful allusions to late-Romantic lyricism. Under Mr. Albrecht, the chief conductor-designate of both the Netherlands Opera and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna musicians played Berg’s score as if it were a natural extension of Wagner, late Brahms, and early Strauss -- a completely valid approach. The warmth and body of the Vienna Philharmonic’s strings proved ideal for Berg’s unfinished final work (played here in the now standard three-act version, with the final act orchestrated by the composer Friedrich Cerha). Still, the talk of any new production at the Salzburg Festival inevitably focuses on the staging. Well before opening night, predictions circulated in the opera world and on opera chat lines that this Lulu, by the Bulgarian director Vera Nemirova, was going to be another Eurotrash outrage. Yet Ms. Nemirova’s daring and engrossing production earned her, and the production team, a sustained ovation. She has clearly worked closely with the German artist Daniel Richter, who designed the sets and painted some stunning flats. In Act I the backdrop is a huge blowup of a surreal portrait of the voluptuous Lulu, dressed only in underclothes and wearing incongruous angel wings, that the Painter is working on as the lights go up. And in Act II, when a cholera epidemic has broken out, the backdrop is a panorama of sickly, ghostly faces in garish reds and yellows that change color with the stage lighting. That Ms. Nemirova is more than a purveyor of directorial high concept comes through in the minutely detailed characterizations she draws from her cast. The French soprano Patricia Petibon is a blithely amoral Lulu. When we meet her, she is married to Dr. Goll, a browbeaten professor of medicine. As Lulu, she sometimes sang with a hard-edged sound and wavering high notes. Yet those qualities fit the character of this cagey seductress, who gets ahead by using the only power she has: her allure over men. Slender and sensual, she was riveting in every scene. And she nailed the skittish passagework of this high-lying role while summoning earthy rawness when Lulu was up against it and had to take charge, however ruthlessly. The Painter was the tenor Pavol Breslik, and it was fascinating to see this character, usually an oily opportunist, presented as a handsome, cocky young artist. And as Dr. Schön, the editor of a newspaper, a controlling man who has supported, groomed and demanded sexual favors of Lulu for years, the baritone Michael Volle towered over Ms. Petibon and sang the role with menacing power. All the characters were similarly fleshed out. Though the tenor Thomas Piffka has a big, robust voice, he was movingly befuddled as Alwa, Dr. Schön’s lost-soul son, hopelessly smitten with Lulu. The mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, who adores Lulu, brought both pitiable longing and fragile dignity to her portrayal. And the bass-baritone Franz Grundheber as the old, shriveled Schigolch, who may be Lulu’s no-good father (or a former lover or an abusive stepfather; it is not clear), found endless ways to convey the character’s creepiness. Ms. Nemirova’s staging was sometimes heavy-handed in its symbolism. Did we need to see seven agonized, blood-stained, shirtless men of various ages and body shapes crawling on the floor and clinging to Lulu to get that she is irresistibly sexual? On the other hand, the choreographed writhing was quite a sight. For nearly the entire first scene of the final act, which takes place at a Paris soiree, Ms. Nemirova had the cast sing out in the auditorium, walking up and down the aisles with the house lights on. The singers, in over-the-top evening wear (thanks to Klaus Noack’s inventive costumes), passed out drinks and scattered gambling money (bills playfully marked 500 eros) to delighted audience members. The wily Marquis (the tenor Andreas Conrad) walked across the auditorium on a narrow wooden rail that divided two sections of seats. This theatrical coup proved an effective setup for the harrowing final scene, in which Lulu, reduced to prostitution in London, is murdered by a pickup who turns out to be Jack the Ripper. I have never seen the climax staged with such matter-of-fact degradation" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 8/3/10].
Olivier Messiaen's Visions d l'Amen. Le Poisson Rouge, New York, NY. "Visions de l’Amen (1943), Messiaen’s work for two pianos, is as prismatic and astounding in its way as his Quartet for the End of Time (1941), a glimpse of the apocalypse crystallized as a work for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. That the scoring of Visions is more monochromatic scarcely matters: Messiaen approached the piano not only with an organist’s sense of sonority but also with an imagination that drew on birdcalls, Asian music (and tuning systems) and recent innovations in Western harmony, as well as his own ideas about Roman Catholic mysticism. Sarah Rothenberg, who studied Messiaen’s piano music with his wife, Yvonne Loriod, and Marilyn Nonken, who performs with several new-music groups hereabouts, have just released a recording of Visions de l’Amen on the Bridge label, and to celebrate -- CD release parties being all the rage in classical music circles -- they played the seven-movement piece at Le Poisson Rouge . . . Messiaen’s kaleidoscopic writing, with its exoticism and mystical underpinnings, wrested the attention and commanded it fully" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 8/3/10].
The Knights. Naumburg Bandshell, New York, NY. "[Conductor Eric] Jacobsen invited the audience to dance along to two waltzes by [Dmitri] Shostakovich: the first from his score for the 1948 Soviet film Michurin and the second, used in the 1999 film “Eyes Wide Shut,” from his Suite for Variety Orchestra. Both were performed in appealing arrangements by Lev Zhurbin, known as Ljova. After intermission came Henri Mouton’s arrangement of Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite, originally for piano. Debussy dedicated it to his daughter, Claude-Emma, nicknamed Chou-Chou, who was 3 when he composed the work in 1908. The Knights played three of the six movements: Serenade of the Doll, The Little Shepherd, and Golliwogg’s Cakewalk. Jim Roe was the excellent oboe soloist" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 8/4/10].
Asphalt Orchestra. Lincoln Center, New York, NY. "[One] might have wondered what on earth was going on when a large, eclectic crowd made a frenzied dash across 65th Street, following a ragtag band of musicians who had careened across the road like deranged pied pipers. The moblike scene occurred during a performance by the rambunctious Asphalt Orchestra, an avant-garde 12-piece marching band presented here by Lincoln Center Out of Doors. This quirky ensemble, the brainchild of Bang on a Can, marches to an iconoclastic beat, eschewing typical brass-band fare for funky arrangements and inventive new works. The event began in a comparatively sedate fashion, with the audience seated on the steps in front of Alice Tully Hall, as the ensemble entered from 65th Street and paraded up and down the triangular staircase on the corner of the plaza. The musicians stopped in front of the hall for their first work, Carlton, by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. Listeners stayed seated despite the toe-tapping rhythms and ear-catching tunes. At a few points the band shouted out the letters of the song title. There was an element of performance art throughout the approximately 30-minute show. The musicians played with virtuosic flair while twisting, turning and executing moves choreographed by Susan Marshall and Mark DeChiazza, no easy feat when dealing with complex metric shifts and carrying bulky percussion and brass instruments as large as a sousaphone. The performance art aspect seemed particularly vivid during the premiere of Yoko Ono’s Opus 81, when the trumpeter Stephanie Richards, dressed in shorts and boots, stood alone in Lincoln Center Plaza’s reflecting pool playing a mournful solo. Her colleagues gathered at the edges of the pool, their insistent motifs underpinning Ms. Richards’s elegiac solo. The action shifted to the grove of trees nearby for the premiere of Two Ships, by David Byrne and Annie Clark (who is known as St. Vincent), and Ms. Richards’s arrangement of the sultry Wild About My Daddy, by the Laneville-Johnson Union Brass Band. Some members of the large, appreciative crowd that followed the Asphalt players as they moved through the plaza swayed to the irresistible beats in the lively arrangement of Thomas Mapfumo’s Ngoma Yekwedu, by Alex Hamlin, the band’s soprano saxophonist. The musicians snaked over to the fountain for their final piece, an arrangement by Peter Hess (the group’s tenor saxophonist) of Frank Zappa’s Zomby Woof. Patrons waiting for a Mostly Mozart concert to begin at Avery Fisher Hall leaned over the balcony to enjoy a vigorous rendition of the arrangement, with slapstick musical touches, rapidly shifting time signatures and wailing trumpet solos that echoed through the plaza" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 8/5/10].
A jury rejects the lawsuit brought by a classical music critic Donald Rosenberg of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland who sued his newspaper and the Cleveland Orchestra management after being reassigned following complaints about negative reviews. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, Cleveland, OH. "The eight jurors . . . dismissed claims of age discrimination against The Plain Dealer and its editor, Susan Goldberg, and of interference and defamation against the orchestra’s governing body, the Musical Arts Association; its executive director, Gary Hanson; its chairman, Richard J. Bogomolny; and its former president, James D. Ireland III. The plaintiff, the longtime critic Donald Rosenberg, 58, had written a number of negative reviews, mainly aimed at Franz Welser-Möst, the orchestra’s music director. Orchestra officials complained several times to the newspaper’s editors. In September 2008 Mr. Rosenberg was told not to review the orchestra anymore but was kept on the staff as a music reporter and dance critic who writes some music reviews but not of the Cleveland Orchestra. A younger writer was assigned to review the orchestra. The affair became a cause célèbre among music critics, who charged that The Plain Dealer had caved in to complaints from a subject of its reviews, touching a raw nerve among those who review arts for a living. Ms. Goldberg testified that after 14 months as editor, she had concluded that a 'hefty chunk of the community was saying that Don Rosenberg was biased and unfair and that he was compromising our integrity,' according to an article in the newspaper. She said she had made her decision because of 'growing concerns about Don’s fairness,' The Plain Dealer reported. Mr. Rosenberg had a closed mind about Mr. Welser-Möst, she testified. The orchestra argued that in complaining to the newspaper about Mr. Rosenberg, it was merely making its opinion known. In a statement after the verdict, the Musical Arts Association called the jury’s decision a recognition of its members’ 'First Amendment rights to express their opinion in defending their institution.' The trial lasted four weeks and included video depositions from Mr. Welser-Möst and his predecessor as music director, Christoph von Dohnanyi. Thomas Goldstein, the director of the mass communications program of the University of California, Berkeley, testified for the orchestra’s management. Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music critic, took the stand on Mr. Rosenberg’s behalf. In a brief telephone interview, Mr. Rosenberg called his legal battle a fascinating, grueling process that was worthwhile because it highlighted the issue of critical independence. 'We gave it our best shot,' he said. 'I stood up for what I believed. I don’t regret a moment of it.' Mr. Rosenberg said that his life at the paper had been 'uncomfortable' since he was reassigned two years ago but that for the time being, he had no plans to leave. 'I have a lot to think about,' he said. After taking vacation and furlough time to attend the trial, he went back to work on [August 5]. . . . [The next day] he and another reporter had a front-page story -- about the city’s opera company" [Daniel J. Wakin, The New York Times, 8/7/2010].
Aaron Copland's The Tender Land. Glimmerglass Opera, Cooperstown, NY. "Copland wrote The Tender Land for youthful singers in 1953; . . . it served as an apt vehicle for the first production entirely turned over to members of the Glimmerglass Young American Artists Program. Inspired by Walker Evans’s Depression-era photographs in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the opera contains some of Copland’s most luminous strains, along with a libretto by Horace Everett (pen name of Erik Johns) that ranges from quiet poetry to mawkish sentimentality. As Laurie, a teenager who yearns to experience the wider world beyond her grandfather’s farm, Lindsay Russell sang with gracious tone and ample volume, soaring over the rich strains of Copland’s original full orchestration. Andrew Stenson was a thoughtful, lyrical Martin, the drifter who briefly desires a settled life with Laurie; as Top, his travel companion, Mark Diamond was boisterous and entertaining. Joseph Barron was a gruff Grandpa Moss, Stephanie Foley Davis a poised, touching Ma Moss. Apart from one stiff dance number, Tazewell Thompson’s direction was unfailingly potent and insightful; Stewart Robertson, the conductor, drew outstanding playing from the orchestra" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 8/9/10].
Bard Music Festival: Berg and Vienna. Sosnoff Theater, Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. "[O]ne aspect of Berg’s career continues to draw attention above others: He was a prominent disciple of the composer Arnold Schoenberg, whose development and promulgation of atonal and 12-tone composition decisively shaped the course of modern music during the middle of the 20th century. For those who view Schoenberg as the start of everything wrong in modern music, Berg is guilty by association. In subscribing to Schoenberg’s methods, Berg extended a putative lineage devoted to musical logic, from Beethoven and Brahms into Schoenberg’s work. What made Berg’s music stand apart from that of Schoenberg and most of his disciples was a reconciliation of modernist techniques with emotional efficacy and unambiguous communicativeness: qualities that made Berg as much an inheritor of a Romantic line running through Schubert, Wagner and Mahler. Accordingly, and somewhat unusually for a Bard presentation, you sensed an agenda at work during the first weekend, titled Berg and Vienna. In six long concerts and related lectures, weight was shifted from Berg’s debt to Schoenberg toward his strong connections to other Viennese late Romantics, like Mahler, Zemlinsky and Schreker (whose opera Der Ferne Klang was presented here in previous weeks as a precursor to the Berg events). Th initial concert . . . was a concise overview of Berg’s career arc . . . . Jeremy Denk’s account of the Piano Sonata, a wistful, elusive study in post-Wagnerian chromaticism, seemed conjured on the spot. Wagner and Strauss resounded in the vocal lines of the Seven Early Songs, mingled with Impressionist daubs in the piano writing; the soprano Christine Goerke sang magnificently, with elegant accompaniment from the pianist Pei-Yao Wang. Berg’s Four Pieces (Op. 5), for clarinet and piano, had dramaturgical concision and a lapidary gleam in a riveting performance by the clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein and the pianist Danny Driver. And even if you didn’t know that Berg planted numerous references to an extramarital affair in his Lyric Suite, a superb account by the Daedalus Quartet made plain the urgent passions and melancholy regrets encoded into the work" [Steve Smith, 8/16/10].
Bard Music Festival: The Vienna of Berg's Youth. Sosnoff Theater, Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. 'The . . . afternoon program . . . included rudimentary piano works and fledgling songs by Berg that pointed to the strong influence of Schubert and Brahms. The . . . late-Romantic sound of a similarly youthful Piano Quintet by Anton Webern, who along with Berg became a Schoenberg adherent, offered no hint of the gemlike miniatures of Webern’s later years. More distinguished were two works by Zemlinsky, based on poetry by Richard Dehmel. The pianist Alessio Bax showed a dreamy ease in Fantasien über Gedichte von Richard Dehmel (Fantasies on Poems by Richard Dehmel); the tenor Nicholas Phan, with Ms. Wang, was poised and insightful in five elusive songs Zemlinsky composed nearly a decade later. Agreeable works by Joseph Marx and Karl Weigl indicated a more conservative agenda. [The] night’s concert by the American Symphony Orchestra, meant to show the powerful influence of Mahler, opened with a businesslike account of the Adagio from his unfinished Symphony No. 10: music searing in its emotional impact and rich with the promise of future developments Mahler would not live to realize. Berg’s Three Pieces (Op. 6), despite a shaky performance, suggested how Berg’s orchestral writing might have emerged from Mahler’s. Christiane Libor, a soprano, sang majestically in Berg’s first orchestral composition, Fünf Orchesterlieder nach Ansichtkartentexten von Peter Altenberg (Five Orchestral Songs on Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg), and Akiko Suwanai, a violinist, played with supple beauty and authority in Berg’s final completed work, the Violin Concerto. . . . Korngold’s Prelude and Carnival Music from “Violanta” and . . . two selections from Pfitzner’s Von deutscher Seele (Of the German Soul) made Berg’s originality and brilliance more apparent" [Steve Smith, 8/16/10].
Bard Music Festival: Teachers and Apostles. Sosnoff Theater, Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. "Morning brought a characteristically Viennese intermingling of love and death, sexual frankness and psychotherapy, during a cheeky recital of songs by Berg, Schoenberg, Strauss, Alma Mahler and others; it was narrated by Byron Adams, a composer and musicologist. Four excellent young singers -- Mr. Phan; Marnie Breckinridge, a soprano; Fredrika Brillembourg, a mezzo-soprano; and Thomas Meglioranza, a baritone -- sang with style and dramatic flair, elegantly accompanied by Ms. Wang and Lucille Chung. The program ended with a speculative reconstruction of the final movement from Berg’s Lyric Suite, arranged by the composer and Berg scholar George Perle to make audible a Baudelaire poem Berg wrote into a score presented as a gift to a mistress. With the Daedalus Quartet, Ms. Breckinridge gave a luminous performance. Mr. Driver opened [th] afternoon’s program . . . with a superb performance of Schoenberg’s Six [Little] Piano Pieces (Op. 19), along with a bravura romp through Viktor Ullmann’s Variations and Double Fugue on a Theme by A. Schoenberg. Egon Wellesz and Theodor Adorno were revealed as lesser lights within the Schoenberg constellation. But the program’s real meat came in confirmed classics: Webern’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano (Op. 7), brilliantly played by the violinist Soovin Kim and Mr. Bax, and Berg’s String Quartet (Op. 3), one more outstanding performance by Daedalus. . . . [At] night Mr. Kim joined Mr. Denk and members of the American Symphony Orchestra in Berg’s formidable, passionate Kammerkonzert (Chamber Concerto). Focusing on lean works . . . -- Busoni’s limpid Berceuse Élégiaque; Schoenberg’s gamboling Chamber Symphony No. 1; Hindemith’s brash Kammermusik -- the concert also showcased the orchestra’s excellent principal string and wind players" [Steve Smith, 8/16/10].
International Contemporary Ensemble. Rose Theater, New York, NY. "Here . . . was a top-notch contemporary-music ensemble, under the brilliant direction of the fast-rising French conductor Ludovic Morlot, in a program featuring three audaciously modern scores by three living composers. The hall was packed; the audience gave cheering ovations to each work. . . . [T]he specific credit for [this] program goes to the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the curator for Bach and the Polyphonies, the adventurous six-part series that ended with this thoughtful concert. Using works by Bach as a focus, Mr. Aimard’s programs explored the technique of polyphonic writing by looking backward to the sources of polyphony (or counterpoint) in medieval and Renaissance music and to contemporary practitioners like the three formidable composers presented here: George Benjamin, Harrison Birtwistle and Helmut Lachenmann. . . . Mr. Aimard loves assembling programs that juxtapose new and old music in ways that invite audiences to hear musical commonalities. He began with the short, somber Fantasia VII by Purcell, performed here in an ingenious arrangement by Mr. Benjamin for clarinet, violin, cello and celesta (played by Mr. Aimard). Mr. Benjamin’s recasting of the music highlights the mix of lacy counterpoint and haunting harmonies. The performance was an ideal setup for the next work, Mr. Benjamin’s 20-minute Antara. He composed it in the mid-1980s while working at Ircam, the electronic-music center in Paris, where a band of Andean folk musicians often played in the square outside. Mr. Benjamin was entranced by the sounds of the panpipes (Antara is the Incan name for that folk instrument). He uses two digital keyboards to evoke the panpipes, and the large chamber ensemble includes other dueling pairs of instruments. In this context the work came across as music driven by overlapping, interacting contrapuntal lines. The leap from Purcell to Mr. Benjamin, and back, seemed not that far. Next came two short pieces from Mr. Birtwistle’s Bach Measures, arrangements of eight chorale preludes for organ by Bach, as a mood-setting prelude for Mr. Birtwistle’s complex, arrestingly visceral Slow Frieze. In this 1996 work he tries to evoke in music the effect of seeing a series of ancient friezes, bas-relief panels that seem to convey movement as you walk by. Beginning with staggered bursts of chords for a solo piano (played incisively by Jacob Greenberg), the music evolves in chunks of sound that on the surface seem to be static blocks but quiver with activity within. The third pairing began with Luciano Berio’s arrangement of the final Countrapunctus from Bach’s Art of the Fugue. This was Bach’s last work, left incomplete. Most performances just stop cold where Bach’s score breaks off. Berio ends his wondrously colorful arrangement by having the instruments trail off into some realm of the beyond. This piece served as a prelude for Mr. Lachenmann’s stunning Mouvement ( -- vor der Erstarrung). The parenthetical phrase translates as 'before paralysis' or 'before stillness.' This tense, skittish and pointillist piece from the early 1980s is like a series of dialogues in fits and starts for a large ensemble of instruments, grouped by category and separated onstage. The allure of the music comes from the strikingly inventive writing for the instruments, using unconventional techniques like tapping on clarinets and blowing into them without the mouthpieces, and all manner of string glissandos and scratches" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 8/17/10].
Taka Kigawa. Le Poisson Rouge, New York, NY. ["T]he sense of clarity and apparent ease he brought to a parade of harmonically thorny and, in some cases, texturally dense piano works. He gave himself no breaks in this short but intense recital. You get an idea of how difficult the program was once you realize that the least demanding score Mr. Kigawa played was the Webern Variations (1936), a piece that taxes both the technique and imagination of a pianist intent on winning an audience to its charms. Making listeners as passionate about the Webern as he is -- Mr. Kigawa said, in comments from the stage, that it was one of his favorite works -- was clearly among his goals. Where many pianists use the score’s sparseness as the foundation of a disembodied, abstract interpretation -- certainly a legitimate approach -- Mr. Kigawa used it as the basis of a warm, shapely account that put its structural logic and occasional playfulness in the spotlight. Every phrase was carefully defined, and Webern’s silences were embraced as part of the music’s fabric. Iannis Xenakis’s Evryali (1973) is everything the Webern is not. Though not as opaque or harmonically complex as other Xenakis works, it made the Webern seem light textured and breezy by comparison. That said, harmony often takes a back seat to rhythm as the driving impulse of Evryali. Chords are frequently repeated with an almost Minimalist insistence, but rhythmic patterns evolve. At times the work takes on a mechanistic character, like an engine gone mad, but even in these passages Mr. Kigawa was firmly in control. And when Xenakis shifts suddenly from a heavy, repetitive whirlwind passage to a moment of delicate tracery at the top of the keyboard, Mr. Kigawa negotiated the change deftly. Like the Webern and Xenakis scores, pieces by two young composers (both born in 1971) proved an appealingly contrasting pair. On a Clear Day (2004) by Matthias Pintscher is a gentle, atmospheric meditation that Mr. Kigawa played with graceful restraint. Jason Eckardt’s Echoes’ White Veil (1996) is a more outgoing and eventful work, with a fast, richly dissonant opening section that melts into a quieter, more variegated finale, full of sparkling figuration and captivating pianissimo writing. The Eckardt also has an improvisatory spirit at times, and Mr. Kigawa played it with the fluidity that a jazz player brings to an extended solo. More surprising, he brought that same sense of freedom to Pierre Boulez’s First Sonata (1946). Mr. Boulez’s early serial works can sound abstruse and severe, but there is more in them than that. Mr. Kigawa recast the sonata as an essay in how to apply suppleness to virtuosity, and the result was an energetic but also characterful account" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 8/25/10].
Ted Hearne conducts his Katrina Ballads. Le Poisson Rouge, New York, NY. "His ensemble [consisted] of 11 musicians and 5 singers. . . . The texts of the 10 Katrina Ballads are drawn entirely from news reports, mostly from the week of the storm. It is in the selection of those texts, and in the way they are set and accompanied, that Mr. Hearne’s sadness and anger come through. What he was after was not a documentary about Katrina as the people of New Orleans experienced it, but rather an inflected, interpreted record of how the rest of the country watched it unfold -- that is, as the news media presented it, complete with resoundingly famous sound bites. They include President George W. Bush’s praise of Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” -- which Mr. Hearne made into the full text of an extended jazz aria, and Kanye West’s declaration that 'George Bush doesn’t care about black people.' To commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina -- and to celebrate the release of the Katrina Ballads on CD (New Amsterdam) -- Mr. Hearne and nearly all the musicians on the recording performed the full cycle. . . . The contrast between the disc and the live performance was extraordinary: the fastidiously produced recording, though it delivered some of the work’s punch, left me cold. But the concert reading had a tough edge and a wildness of spirit that suited the music, and the subject. It had an important visual element too. The four vocal soloists sat on high stools in front of a scrim, with the instrumental ensemble, conducted by Mr. Hearne, behind it. A film by Bill Morrison, using footage from New Orleans, as well as some of the television interviews Mr. Hearne set to music, was projected onto the scrim and a wall to the side of the stage. Mr. Hearne’s Prologue uses part of a report from The Houston Chronicle about New Orleans’s vulnerability, originally published in 2001, and set as a slow blues number. René Marie sang it with a supple, evocative lilt, with the rest of the singers joining in for a staid, polyphonic rendering of the final line, 'to some extent, I think we’ve been lulled to sleep.' The melding of popular and classical styles begins immediately. The bluesy vocal line of the Prologue is underpinned by a score that seesaws between chamber scoring and rock guitar. The second ballad, When We Awoke, It Was to That Familiar Phrase: New Orleans Dodged a Bullet, is mostly an essay for French horn and electronics, and the two instrumental interludes take in some of the livelier elements of New Orleans jazz. Dennis Hastert: 8.31.05, given a dark, jazz-tinged rendering by the tenor Isaiah Robinson, is accompanied by a churning, almost Minimalist piano figure. The work’s centerpiece is a setting of an interview conducted by an angry Anderson Cooper, the CNN anchor, with the calmly, almost robotically diplomatic Senator Mary Landrieu. It is presented first as a duet between Anthony Turner and Abigail Fischer and as a quartet when Mr. Cooper presses Ms. Landrieu to say she is angry, and at whom. But an extended, jazzy riff built around President Bush’s 'heck of a job' statement, sung with unbridled energy by Mr. Hearne, is also a clear highlight, as are Mr. Robinson’s barnstorming performance of Mr. West’s speech and Ms. Marie’s affectingly direct rendering of a long, reflective quotation from Ashley Nelson, an 18-year old resident of New Orleans" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 8/25/10].
Dan Pritzker's Louis. Chicago, IL. "[Pritzker] believes he’s got a film that will satisfy an audience unmoved by superhero sequels and 3-D extravaganzas: a black-and-white silent movie (with hints of color) based loosely on the childhood of Louis Armstrong. And for the price of your ticket, you also get music composed and arranged by Wynton Marsalis, and performed live by him and a group of 11 other musicians. . . . The moment of inspiration came for Mr. Pritzker in the late 1990s, when a stage manager first told him about Charles (Buddy) Bolden, the turn-of-the-20th-century cornet player credited as a creator of jazz. . . . Mr. Pritzker spent several years consulting with authors and musicologists on Bolden, a forerunner to Armstrong who died in 1931 and recorded little if any of his work. In writing what became the scripts for Louis and a second feature, Bolden, Mr. Pritzker concluded that it was easier to fabricate large swaths of his stories because Bolden’s history was nebulous, and Armstrong’s adult life was documented to death. 'After he got to Chicago, everybody knows every minute of that guy’s life,' Mr. Pritzker said with some exaggeration. . . . Instead, his Louis puts a Chaplinesque tilt on Armstrong’s childhood in New Orleans, where a fictionalized version of the future trumpeter (played by Anthony Coleman) in 1907 plays a crucial role in a comically complicated affair involving a corrupt politician (Jackie Earl Haley) and a prostitute (Shanti Lowry) who has given birth to his child. . . . Mr. Marsalis, a New Orleans native who was approached a few years ago by Mr. Pritzker to provide the music for his films, said the director’s fictionalized presentation of his subjects’ lives was perfectly appropriate. . . . Besides his own original compositions, Mr. Marsalis provided contemporary arrangements of classic jazz tunes like Jelly Roll Morton’s Black Bottom Stomp" [Dave Itzkoff, The New York Times, 8/27/10].
Pianist Steven Beck plays Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Debussy. Bargemusic, New York, NY. "To perform Schoenberg’s 12-tone Suite for Piano (Op. 25) as expressively as he did seemed a greater feat than offering a poetic rendition of a Chopin nocturne, something within the grasp of most competent pianists. Schoenberg’s five-movement atonal work, modeled on a Baroque suite, represents an important step in his development as a serial composer. The rhythmically lively Gavotte parodies Baroque music. Details abound in other movements, like the ostinatos in the Intermezzo. Mr. Beck infused his interpretation with myriad colors and textures, even occasionally rendering Schoenberg’s logic poetic. Stravinsky, in his elegant Serenade in A, which opened the program, also toyed with Baroque forms, reflecting the 18th century through a 20th-century prism. Mr. Beck offered a thoughtful and suitably unsentimental rendition, the moments of harmonic acidity emerging with sharp edged clarity. Debussy’s Twelve Études, which reflect his less pictorial side, concluded the program. The French pianist Alfred Cortot dismissed these pieces as pianistic exercises. Whether music sounds like an exercise depends in large part, of course, on the interpreter. (Bach’s cello suites, for example, were also considered mere finger workouts before Pablo Casals redeemed them.) Messiaen conceded that Debussy’s Études lacked the charm of Chopin’s effort in the genre but remarked on their complexity -- describing Debussy’s as 'exceptional above all as a result of the allusive nature of their form,' adding, 'Things are unsaid, implied, elusive.' Mr. Beck intelligently conveyed the elusive nature of these difficult and unconventional études, which Debussy dedicated to Chopin. Each addresses a pianistic challenge from a particular angle, using intervals of a third, fourth, sixth and octave, for example. In the first etude Debussy parodies Czerny’s five-finger exercises. Playing with an impressive technique and cleanly articulated touch throughout, Mr. Beck illuminated the quirks of each étude, beginning with the ironic glint of the first and the harmonic twists of the second (In Thirds) and third (In Fourths). He explored the allusive structures and elusive ambiances noted by Messiaen, with the technical intricacies of the multilayered For Octaves and the cascading runs of For Eight Fingers revealed with crystalline articulation" [Vivien Schweitzer, 8/29/10].
Michel Galante and his Argento Chamber Ensemble. Austrian Cultural Forum, New York, NY. "Called Lunar Movements, the series includes five programs (one per month, to be repeated every week, through December 19). Most are built around movements from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and works influenced by that seminal score. The first program . . . (it was also performed on August 22, the opening of the series), may not have been the best indication of what is to come. For one thing, it included nothing of Pierrot itself, though one work -- an electronic piece by Eric Lyon -- included a quotation from it. If the idea is to show the influence of Schoenberg’s 1912 work, what was a movement from the Ives String Quartet No. 1 -- composed in 1900 -- doing here? And what is the influence of Pierrot on Strauss’s mournful, smoothly flowing Metamorphosen? Perhaps everything will become more apparent after all five programs are performed. Mr. Galante described this one as 'a preview' and began with Heinz Holliger’s Eisblumen (1985), in which a string ensemble, playing entirely in harmonics (the light, whistling sound a player gets by not depressing the string fully), slowly decorates the chord progression of a chorale from Bach’s Cantata No. 56, played at one-sixth its normal tempo. This was not especially inviting, and the performance was too uneven to make much of a case for it. Much the same could be said of Philipp Blume’s S, M, L, XL (2010), an intensely dissonant but texturally varied work meant to explore size and our perception of it. That is a fairly concrete idea for such an abstract work, but the contrasts and interplay among sustained tones, pizzicatos and trills, silences, pianissimos and fortissimos (all musical depictions of size) made the work seem akin to Cubism in the visual arts. An excerpt from a 1949 radio interview with Schoenberg gave the musicians a brief break. They had another when Mr. Lyon’s fascinatingly quirky Sacred Amnesia (2001) was played. Mr. Lyon subjected fragments from Parsifal, a Sousa march, and Pierrot Lunaire, (reharmonized to sound tonal), to electronic distortions that gradually rendered the originals unrecognizable (and even inaudible) within the sonic haze. The players were at their best in the program’s oldies. In the Ives they moved easily among the many quotations and styles, folksy and formal, that swirl around the opening movement of the quartet. And though the original septet version of Metamorphosen lacks the power and heft of Strauss’s more familiar revision, for 23 strings, the musicians gave it a sumptuous, deeply expressive reading. They closed the concert with focused, rich-hued performances of two Schoenberg fragments, a Septet (1918) and Toter Winkel (1899)" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 8/30/10].