Les Arts Florissants at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater
The New York Times, October 31, 2007
Joshua Bell with the Orchestra of St. Luke's at Carnegie Hall
The New York Times, October 30, 2007
Night After Night turned two years old today, and I wish I had something suitably momentous to share for the occasion. I don't, but at the very least I can provide a scattered handful of observations, tidbits and links.
Last week a reader asked me announce in advance the gigs I would be going out to see. I sheepishly confessed that the reason I hadn't been doing so was because of a superstition that arose after I ended up missing more than a few concerts I'd stated I'd be attending. But it seemed like a reasonable request, so I agreed to try again.
Guess what? I'm recanting already. The last thing I'd announced my intention to attend was Appomattox at the San Francisco Opera. If you've wondered why I haven't gotten around to saying anything about that, there's a simple explanation: I didn't go. I was home ill all last weekend, and swallowed the cost of my plane tickets in order to sit down and repair for a spell.
So, my superstition persists, and I'll be keeping my precise datebook to myself. Still, I used to be a lot better about drawing attention to worthy, interesting upcoming events that I learn about through my day job. And as year three commences, I promise to do a better job of posting advance information about those, at the very least.
For example, were I not tied up with other duties this weekend, there's no way I'd miss out on one of the two concerts Gamelan Çudamani is presenting at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. I'm no expert on the subject of Balinese music, although I did play for a very short time in a local gamelan now known as Dharma Swara, based at the Indonesian Consulate. But I have it on excellent authority that Çudamani is one of Bali's most innovative, progressive ensembles, with a penchant for new music based on a unique seven-tone scale rather than the usual five, and an unusual dedication to training women not just as dancers but as musicians, traditionally a male role. The brief audio and video samples I was sent attested to the group's strong reputation. The two shows are on Saturday the 27th at 8pm and Sunday the 28th at 2pm; everything else you need to know is on the Skirball site.
Reactions to Richard Taruskin's New Republic evisceration of three recent books about classical music's continuing necessity and vitality -- and, to some extent, innate superiority -- are coming fast and furious. Three of the strongest responses have come from Marc Geelhoed, Matthew Guerrieri and John Gibbons. Mr. Gibbons, whose Holde Kunst blog is new to me and promises much fascination, posted a comment here, begging to differ with my characteriztion of Taruskin's essay as "snarky-in-the-right-way." I've come to agree. In my defense, as I stated at the time, I hadn't yet finished reading the essay. Now that I have, I'll say that while I continue to concur with many of his observations and find his dissection of the Joshua Bell busking stunt right on the money, Taruskin's tone ultimately struck me rather like hunting rabbits with a vengeance -- and a bazooka.
From Anne-Carolyn Bird, we learned today that blogging baritone Thomas Meglioranza has released his first CD, an all-Schubert program accompanied by pianist Reiko Uchida. Having had the privilege of reviewing a recital this pair presented last season, as well as an opera in which Meglioranza was featured more recently, I wasted no time heading over to CD Baby to snag a copy. Sound samples are available on the site.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: One of the very best things about my job is the thrill of discovery that can result from unwrapping a new CD by an unfamiliar artist and being completely knocked out. That happened late this afternoon with a disc called The Song Within by drummer Asaf Sirkis and his trio, the Inner Noise. Sirkis is an Israeli drummer currently active in England, and his group plays a powerful, lyrical strain of jazz-rock fusion. He's a fluid, compelling player whose stylistic predecessors are Tony Williams and Jack De Johnette, and a solid writer as well. But with no slight intended toward him or the equally fine keyboardist, Steve Lodder (whose playing on church organ during one track might be a first for this genre), what really did it for me here was guitarist Mike Outram, whose gorgeous legato style comes out of Allan Holdsworth without being slavishly imitative. Outram is apparently a rising star in British jazz, having worked with Herbie Mann, Julian Argüelles, Photek and the Cinematic Orchestra, among others; he also holds teaching posts at a number of British colleges and academies. Based on this evidence, he's someone to watch. I'm looking forward to spending more time with this disc.
Speaking of Holdsworth, yesterday one of his former bandmates in prog-rock supergroup U.K., Eddie Jobson, announced the formation of a new band, UKZ. Jobson, a violinist and keyboardist who played in Curved Air, Roxy Music and Frank Zappa's band prior to forming U.K. with Holdsworth, John Wetton and Bill Bruford, hasn't worked with a band in decades, probably not since his stint as a guest with Jethro Tull for the album A and a subsequent tour in 1980.
Apart from a one-off rock album in 1983 and a new age solo CD in 1985, Jobson, famously an ultra-perfectionist, has confined his efforts to commercial studio work and TV scoring. Supposedly he puttered around for ages with a U.K. reunion project that was said to have involved Wetton, Bruford, Tony Levin and the Bulgarian Women's Choir -- three songs from which ended up on the choir's 2000 album, Voices of Life. (A trivial aside: Jobson was reportedly the first keyboardist approached when Yes reunited to record 90125 in 1983, but turned down the offer. When Tony Kaye briefly quit the band after the album was completed, Jobson signed on. But Kaye soon returned, and Jobson was out. Nevertheless, Jobson actually appears ever-so-briefly in the video for "Owner of a Lonely Heart.")
UKZ includes one other prominent player well known to American prog-heads: the excellent touch-guitar player Trey Gunn, formerly of King Crimson. Of the remaining members -- vocalist Aaron Lippert, guitarist Alex Machacek and drummer Marco Minneman -- I know nothing at all. But Jobson's controlling interest seems to be implicit, given that the band's music is currently being assembled via e-mail. (Judging by the obviously Photoshopped band photo available on its press page, one wonders whether these musicians have ever actually met.) UKZ's debut performance -- and Jobson's first onstage appearance in 27 years -- is scheduled to take place on January 25, 2008 in Los Angeles. I can't imagine any circumstance that would make it possible for me to attend, but I'm hopeful that someone will provide a report. Henry Holland, I'm looking at you.
That's all for now. In closing, my deepest thanks to everyone who has made this blogging experience a joy from the very beginning, and all who continue to do so.
Marc Baron, Bertrand Denzler, Jean-Luc Guionnet and Stéphane Rives - Propagations (Potlatch)
R.E.M. - Live (Warner Bros.)
Radiohead - In Rainbows (W.A.S.T.E. download)
Phil Lesh and Friends - Onondaga County War Memorial Auditorium, Syracuse, NY, Oct. 21, 2007; Glen Falls Civic Center, Glen Falls, NY, Oct. 20, 2007; Shea's Buffalo Theatre, Buffalo, NY, Oct. 18, 2007; and Lyric Opera House, Baltimore, MD, Oct. 16, 2007 (Archive.org streams)
Café Tacuba - SiNo (Universal)
Asaf Sirkis and the Inner Noise - The Song Within (SAM Productions)
Grateful Dead - Live at the Cow Palace New Year's Eve 1976 (Grateful Dead/Rhino)
More than a week after my return from vacation, I still feel like I'm in catch-up mode. (That's normal, actually; what's different here is that I wonder whether I'll ever catch up.) So instead of my usual wordiness, here are a few quick hits:
I still have fond memories of a Cleveland Orchestra concert led by Christoph von Dohnányi at Carnegie Hall in 2002 that featured Sibelius's Night Ride and Sunrise, Birtwistle's The Shadow of Night and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. Clearly this is a cocktail recipe that works for the conductor, since his current run with the New York Philharmonic is a subtle variation: Birtwistle's Night's Black Bird, Sibelius's Violin Concerto and, once again, the Beethoven Fifth. The newer Birtwistle is a slighter variant of its predecessor, but it was still satisfying to hear its effects on the NY Phil: burnished strings, mysterious winds, aggressive brass. Those were good assets to have on hand for the Sibelius concerto: the orchestra's playing was magical. Nikolaj Znaider -- a bigger, taller man than I'd pictured from his svelte Sony photos -- was incredible in the most introvert and extrovert passages, and mostly solid in between, though there were definitely a few wayward passages. I don't make a habit of leaving concerts midway through, but I confess that I bailed on the Beethoven. [EDIT: I should make clear that my departure was due to workload and looming deadlines, not my response to the first half.] At least I had fond memories to lean on. Last time I heard Dohnányi conduct this piece (in 2002), I wanted to jump up and cheer after the first movement; last time I heard the NY Phil do it (or most of it, anyway, last summer in Central Park under Marin Alsop), a big chunk of the audience did exactly that.
On Tuesday night, I was at Zankel Hall for a concert by the Takács Quartet that deserves more detail than I'm going to give it here. (Get the rest from Tony Tommasini's review, which I'm refraining from reading until I type these next few lines.) The concept, devised by first violinist Edward Dusinberre, was to combine readings from the Philip Roth novel Everyman with suitable music by contemporary composers; pieces by Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass were selected. I'm not entirely convinced that ethereal Pärt and intellectual Glass meshed so well with Roth's earthy, sweat-stained grief and humor, though I'm not sure what would have better served this admirable concept. I will say, however, that the Takács players made the most of Pärt's misty medievalism, and invested far more emotional commitment into Glass's Company than anyone else I'd heard. My excellent concert companion, a professional gourmand whose training was in theater, didn't think actor Philip Seymour Hoffman seemed especially invested in Roth's texts, the three selections of which dealt with cemetaries and by extension mortality, nor prepared enough to deliver them in a meaningful manner. But kudos to the Takács players for thinking, imagining and stretching. The concert ended with a performance of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet filled to the breaking point with blood, sweat and passion. It was humbling.
I also ate a taco filled with dried grasshoppers prior to the concert, but perhaps that's a story for another time.
So: I wanted to call your attention to a snarky-in-the-right-way, eminently quotable mega-essay in book-review form by Richard Taruskin in the latest issue of The New Republic, which I picked up on the newsstand Monday night. A representative of the magazine even e-mailed me a convenient link to the article, unsolicited. But the sound and furious ACD has already beat me to the punch. (More on this, perhaps, when I've digested the whole article. The grasshoppers come first.)
And: Big fat love to everyone's favorite Friday Informer -- not to mention a valued Time Out New York contributor, a cherished concert companion and especially a dear friend -- who's been too modest to trumpet the fact that she's just won a prestigious ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for her writing.
Finally: Pliable notes the passing of Ursula Vaughan Williams, wife of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. As a musical Anglophile and a passionate lover of RVW's symphonies -- I'm the proud owner of five complete cycles (Boult 1, Previn, Handley, Thomson and Slatkin) and numerous individual issues, and believe it's the most overlooked, underestimated canon of the 20th century -- I can only concur with his salute.
Playlist in memoriam Ursula Vaughan Williams:
Thomas Tallis - "Why Fum'th in Fight"; Ralph Vaughan Williams - Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; Symphony No. 5; Serenade to Music - Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Robert Spano (Telarc)
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Symphonies Nos. 2 and 8 - Hallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli (Dutton)
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Symphony No. 4 - BBC Symphony Orchestra/Ralph Vaughan Williams (Naxos)
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Symphony No. 6 - London Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Boult; A Song of Thanksgiving - Luton Choral Society, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult (Dutton)
(Posted this afternoon on the TONY Blog, slightly tweaked.)
We were less than impressed with the highly touted, immensely hyped new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that opened the Metropolitan Opera’s current season last month: Dull sets, uninspiring direction and uneven performances resulted in a presentation effectively salvaged single-handedly by the leading lady, Natalie Dessay. Interestingly, almost exactly the reverse is true of the season’s second premiere, a new take on Verdi’s Macbeth directed by Adrian Noble, formerly of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The production, which opened on October 22, isn’t perfect, but it’s got a whole lot going for it—and this time, it’s the leading lady who’s nearly redeemed by the show, rather than the other way around.
As Lady Macbeth, soprano Maria Guleghina generated no small amount of excitement in seductive scenes of nightie-clad writhing and clutching. Less noteworthy was Noble’s decision to have Guleghina play Lady Macbeth’s drinking song like a cavorting socialite starring in an impromptu parlor production of Carmen.
Unfortunately, wayward is the best way to describe Guleghina’s vocal production: Shrieks, wobbles and affected growls filled in for notes that simply weren’t there. Almost everyone believes Guleghina is possessed of a substantial voice and is capable of greatness; here, what was proved is that she definitely has substantial presence and is capable of loudness. (There are those in every Met crowd for whom little else matters—they were the ones bellowing "Brava" after each shattering near-climax.)
That said, there were still plenty of reasons to praise this new presentation. Mark Thompson’s stage design looked something like a dark, cutaway fishbowl, with trees, pillars and windows that descended as needed—a versatile set that proved suitably claustrophobic for Verdi’s darkest opera. Thompson costumed most of the cast in World War II–era military garb, complete with ubiquitous automatic rifles. The witches, ostensibly patterned after photography by Diane Arbus, looked like a gaggle of demented church ladies.
When the crones made their prognostications, their faces were eerily illuminated by bulbs hidden inside their clutch purses. Whether this was Thompson’s idea or that of lighting designer Jean Kalman, it was an effective touch. (Certainly more effective than Noble having the younger witches mime dry-heaving to concoct the potion Macbeth drinks to achieve his visions. Um, we’ll have water here, thanks.) Those visions included the spectacular sight of Banquo’s progeny depicted in the form of life-size gold medallions that yo-yoed from the ceiling, while green lasers lit up clouds of fog like nothing you’ve ever seen outside of a Laser Pink Floyd show.
Baritone Željko Lučić was a powerful Macbeth: conflicted, superstitious and driven. His insightful acting was matched by a voice that was solid and handsome from top to bottom, from whisper to roar. Bass-baritone John Relyea, one of the Met’s most dependable character actors, was a striking Banquo before his murder, and a gaunt, creepy spectral presence thereafter. Tenor Dmitri Pittas was a clear, bright Macduff, pleasing if not especially commanding. And the tiny role of Duncan might not have earned tenor Russell Thomas a bio blurb in the program, but his exciting clarion sound was what we were talking about as we made our way up the aisle and out into the night.
One can always quibble about choices of tempo, but James Levine drew a powerful, nuanced performance from his orchestra. And the Met chorus was in extraordinary form in this, an opera that absolutely depends on a strong choral contribution.
You’ve got two more chances to see this cast before the production comes down for a few months: this Friday (October 26), Halloween night and November 3. Macbeth returns in January with the veteran baritone Lado Ataneli in the lead role; late in that run, Andrea Gruber takes over for Guleghina—not exactly an improvement, based on recent encounters, but it’s always wise to be charitable. Three final performances next May could be best of all, when Gruber is joined by Carlos Alvarez in the title role, René Pape as Banquo and Joseph Calleja as Macduff.
American Composers Orchestra at Zankel Hall
The New York Times, October 22, 2007
"A Daunting Composition, Approached With Daring"
The New York Times, October 18, 2007
A succinct, newsy article about the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble's newly issued recording of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. Regular readers of Alex Ross's blog have heard about this rather amazing project a few times now, and those who saw my review of this year's Bang on a Can Marathon might remember my description of what it was like to hear this group play the piece as dawn broke over the great glass ceiling of the World Financial Center.
Bill Ryan, the ensemble's founder and director, is in town tonight to celebrate the new release with a listening party at the Monkey, Dominic Frasca's performance loft in Chelsea, which is equipped with the beefiest surround-sound system I've ever laid eyes or ears upon. I dropped by on Monday for a private preview, and was impressed by the remarkably realistic soundstage and depth achieved in the GVSU recording. But it's the playing that matters most, and this new disc has earned the approval of Reich himself. It won't (and shouldn't) replace your copy of one of Reich's own recordings, but it will stand proudly next to it on your shelf.
Bringing the whole group back to town for the celebration was unfeasible -- and squeezing four pianos into the Monkey would no doubt violate any number of codes and statutes, anyway. But two participants in the project, percussionists Greg Secor and Sam Gould, will be playing Reich's Nagoya Marimbas live, and David Cossin will be on hand to perform his uncanny "Dance of Shiva" arrangement of Piano Phase.
Early Music New York at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine
The New York Times, October 15, 2007