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4.3.15

Reviving Strauss's 'Guntram'


(L to R) Zachary Nelson, Robert Dean Smith, Maestro Antony Walker, Marjorie Owens, Tom Fox, and cast
in Guntram, Washington Concert Opera (photo by Don Lassell)

Wagner's last opera was Richard Strauss's Guntram, or so the joke goes. Its story, about a wandering minstrel-knight who falls in love with another man's wife, only to deny himself her love because of his guilt at killing her husband, has strong echoes of Meistersinger here, Parsifal there. Derivative or not, the composer's first performed opera was a flop, both in 1894 when it was first premiered and after Strauss revised it in 1940. The libretto, written by Strauss in imitation of Wagner, is a bit of a dud -- although more compact than Wagner's more unwieldy examples -- but the music is generally quite glorious, especially in the revised version performed by Washington Concert Opera on Sunday evening at Lisner Auditorium. It was the first time the work came under review in the history of Ionarts, a welcome addition to the celebration of the Strauss anniversary, for which the National Symphony Orchestra and other groups focused on the same old, often-done works.

Another reason why Guntram is so little performed is that the title role is a killer, and the risk for a heroic tenor in learning it is far greater than with a more established work by Strauss or Wagner, where the payoff in future performances is more certain. Robert Dean Smith, an American singer we have reviewed mostly in Europe, gave it his all. His reliably powerful instrument, giving out only on a few strained high notes over two hours of mostly impassioned shouting, still had considerable suavity and suppleness in Guntram's Act II song scene. One of the best young Strauss voices I have heard in recent years -- soprano Marjorie Owens, heard at Wolf Trap's Ariadne in 2008 -- surpassed Smith as Freihild, the role created by Pauline de Ahna, the soprano who would become Strauss's wife. While Owens had plenty of zip to launch herself over the large orchestra, the voice is a precision instrument, silky but full-bodied, particularly exultant in the awakening scene toward the end of the second act.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Washington Concert Opera exhumes Strauss rarity — once (Washington Post, March 3)
Freihild's evil husband, Duke Robert, is not that much of a role, sung capably by Annapolis-born baritone Zachary Nelson. The villain duties fall more to Freihild's father, the Old Duke, voiced with snarling outrage by baritone Tom Fox, while bass Wei Wu, a regular in the Washington National Opera young artist program, had a robust turn as Guntram's fellow-knight, Friedhold. The supporting cast was generally strong, with a stand-out performance from the youthful, bright-toned tenor of James Flora as the Duke's Fool.

Antony Walker, who is also mid-run as conductor of Washington National Opera's production of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, brought out this perfumed score's beauties. His hardy orchestra could have benefited from another rehearsal or two, to be sure, but they did justice to Strauss's youthful excesses -- double harps and double timpani, the latter with plenty of rumble in the battle scene -- if not yet approaching the wonders of the later orchestrations. The strings, in particular, felt underpowered -- numbers-wise, 10/8/7/6/4 -- and at moments of great strain, like the conclusion of the first act, the sound squealed at the edge of ugliness. The male chorus, with a number of regulars from the WNO chorus, was stalwart in their limited appearances, most beautifully in the off-stage monastic Requiem Mass sung for the murdered Duke Robert.

Washington Concert Opera's 2015-2016 season is devoted to the bel canto era, with performances of Rossini's Semiramide (November 22, 2015) and Donizetti's La Favorite (March 4, 2016).

3.3.15

Mark Morris and Lou Harrison


Words, Mark Morris Dance Group

The Mark Morris Dance Group has been coming to the George Mason University Center for the Arts every couple of years. We try not to miss any of their local appearances, especially not one that features two choreographies set to the music of American composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003), seen on Saturday evening in the first of two performances. The whole affair, including two fun dances set to Mendelssohn and a recording of Indian music, was whimsical and occasionally breath-taking, invigorated by Morris's reliance on the shape of the music to create his dancers' movements -- and, not unrelated, his insistence on live music.

Morris created Pacific for a different company, and this performance was the premiere of this choreography with his own troupe. Harrison and Morris collaborated on several works in the 1980s and 90s, and this work sets the third and fourth movements of the composer's piano trio, performed here by violinist Georgy Valtchev, cellist Robert Burkhart, and pianist Colin Fowler. Sections of music for solo violin and combinations of the instruments correspond to groupings of the nine dancers, with the men bare-chested in long skirts and the women in dresses (costumes by Martin Pakledinaz), combining bright colors with white. Stark lighting of glowing colors projected on a rear screen (lighting by James F. Ingalls) was matched to the costumes. The finale of this dance, bringing together all of the dancers, was vibrant and joy-filled, with shifts of steps that corresponded to the metric disorientation in the music, over a constant beating pulse.

Grand Duo, also from the 90s, opens to the somewhat mysterious prelude movement of Harrison's Grand Duo for Violin and Piano, on a stage shrouded in darkness, with the dancers reaching their hands into a beam of light shining across the stage. To the slightly folksy, active-sounding movements that follow, Morris gives a somewhat ritual or tribal feel of dances for his large group of 14 dancers, with the men in skirts or loincloths and the women in colored dresses. The second movement, Stampede, had multi-metric shifts in the movements that matched the music, echoed in the later Pacific, followed by A Round, featuring graceful but painstaking held poses. The finale, the antic Polka, was a wild rumpus of crazy movement, capturing beautifully the verve of Harrison's music, hammered clusters and all.


Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, Mark Morris Dance Group’s many surprises flow naturally at GMU (Washington Post, March 2)
The two dances in between provided the whimsy, especially the brief Tamil Film Songs in Stereo Pas de Deux, the only piece performed to a recording, featuring the sounds of Indian music. Brian Lawson's campy gay dance instructor harasses, belittles, but ultimately affirms the struggling dance student of Stacy Martorana, a welcome moment of levity with some resonance as commentary on how dance is taught.

The longer Words is set to selections from Mendelssohn's various Songs without Words. Here the costumes (pastel tank tops and shorts with belts) and a blanket, carried on and off to cover entrances and exits, suggested a picnic or beach party, as did the playful gestures of some of the dances, something like tennis or another type of game. Again, Morris found movements that were the ideal visual counterpart of the music they accompanied: twirling bodies for the chromatic "spinning wheel" motif of op. 67/4; heavy steps and lowered heads for the "funeral march" (op. 62/3), ending with two dancers finally seeing one another and looking into each other's faces; much of the choreography is a jeu de miroirs, with dancers in paired parallel movements. Most strikingly, in one piece dancers clenched their hands in front of their bodies, making them shudder up and down, when there was the distinctive sound of an authentic cadence over a tonic pedal. The sound, which is distinctive, will now forever be linked to that gesture in my mind.

2.3.15

Silk Road Ensemble


available at Amazon
A Playlist without Borders, Silk Road Ensemble, Yo-Yo Ma
(Sony, 2013)
Robert S. Pohl, One of Yo-Yo Ma’s second acts is a force in its own right
Washington Post, March 2
Having traveled the globe, appeared with the world’s leading orchestras and achieved virtually anything a solo cellist could dream of, Yo-Yo Ma has sought a range of second acts. One is the Silk Road Ensemble, a group of international musicians Ma founded to explore other musical styles and traditions and mingle them with his own. Now that once-experimental ensemble is a recognized force in its own right. On Sunday, the group appeared at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, presented by Washington Performing Arts, as part of its 15th-anniversary tour. How time flies.

Some pieces were more successful than others... [Continue reading]
Silk Road Ensemble
With Yo-Yo Ma, cello
Washington Performing Arts
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

Congratulations to our own Robert Pohl, who was at this concert last night for Ionarts and ended up covering it for the Washington Post.

Folger and Jacobi's 'Merchant of Venice'


available at Amazon
Lo Sposalizio (Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli), King's Consort, R. King
(Hyperion, 1998)
Charles T. Downey, In ‘Merchant of Venice,’ authentic music accents the Bard’s history (Washington Post, March 2)
Sometimes the mission of the Folger Consort, to present historically informed performances of early music, overlaps with the specialization of its host institution, the Folger Shakespeare Library. Over the years, the ensemble has collaborated with actor Derek Jacobi and stage director Richard Clifford to present adaptations of the plays of Shakespeare, combining excerpts of the play with appropriate music. After their version of “The Tempest” in 2010, these artists reunited for a program of “The Merchant of Venice,” heard Friday night at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda.

Three traditions came into play in the choice of music,... [Continue reading]
Folger Consort and Piffaro
With Derek Jacobi, Richard Clifford, and Samantha Bond
The Merchant of Venice
Music Center at Strathmore

SEE ALSO:
Rebecca Ritzel, Concert of late Renaissance music inspired by an unlikely source (Washington Post, February 24)

PREVIOUSLY:
The Fairy Queen (2007)
The Tempest (2010)

Stile Antico @ Ascension and St. Agnes


available at Amazon
From the Imperial Court: Music for the House of Hapsburg, Stile Antico
(Harmonia Mundi, 2014)

[Review]
Charles T. Downey, Sounds from olden Europe return to Washington
Washington Post, March 2
Stile Antico, the 12-voice English choir specializing in Renaissance polyphony, will celebrate its 10th anniversary this summer. This relatively young group has given three concerts in Washington since 2011, all met with acclaim from this reviewer. The latest, on Wednesday night at the Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes, was in an acoustic closer to the vaulted stone churches for which this austere music was intended.

The group has recorded most of the music in this concert on its most recent disc, devoted to pieces made for the Hapsburg imperial court... [Continue reading]
Stile Antico
Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes

PREVIOUSLY:
2013 | 2011

1.3.15

Perchance to Stream: St. David's Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Get your Welsh on with the St. David's Day Gala featuring baritone Bryn Terfel and the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, recorded at St. David's Hall in Cardiff. [BBC3]

  • Listen to a production of Bellini's I Puritani, starring Olga Peretyatko (Elvira), Carlos Alvarez (Riccardo), and others, from the Wiener Staatsoper under conductor Marco Armiliato. [ORF]

  • William Christie leads Les Arts Florissants, countertenor Tim Mead, and other soloists in music of Handel composed for Queen Caroline, recorded in 2013 at the Abbey of Ambronay. [ORF]

  • Watch Sandrine Piau, Maite Beaumont, and others in a performance of Handel's Alcina, with Christophe Rousset conducting Les Talens Lyriques, recorded in Brussels. [De Munt]

  • Listen to the audio of performances from the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. [Alcina | Tamerlano]

  • René Clemencic leads the Clemencic Consort in Jacob Obrecht's Missa Sub tuum presidium confugimus, vocum septem, recorded last month in the Wiener Musikverein. [ORF]

  • Philippe Herreweghe leads soloists and Collegium Vocale Gent in music of Purcell, recorded at the Cathedral of Wrocław in Poland. [RTBF]

  • The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and sopranos Gillian Keith and Rebecca von Lipinski perform contemporary songs for voice and small ensemble, by Jonathan Harvey, Babbitt, Adès, Birtwistle, and others, recorded at the Wigmore Hall. [BBC3]

  • Pianist Nikolaï Lugansky gives a recital of music by Schubert, Franck, and Tchaikovsky at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. [France Musique]

  • Christoph Eschenbach leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra in music of Beethoven and Schumann, plus Mendelssohn's violin concerto with Ray Chen as soloist, recorded in the Royal Festival Hall. [BBC3]

  • Bernard Haitink conducts the Orchestre National de France and clarinetist Patrick Messina in Mozart's clarinet concerto and Sibelius's ninth symphony. [France Musique]

  • Murray Perahia joins the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under Bernard Haitink, for the Schumann piano concerto, plus music of Purcell, Steven Stucky, and Brahms. [ORF]

  • From the Barbican Hall, Leif Segerstam conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner's eighth symphony, plus motets by Bach and Bruckner, with James O'Donnell conducting the BBC Singers. [BBC3]

  • Baiba Skride joins the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, under conductor Kazuki Yamada, for the Brahms violin concerto, plus Albert Roussel's suite from Bacchus et Ariane. [RTBF]

  • Roger Norrington conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in symphonies by Haydn (no. 49) and Beethoven (no. 6), plus Mozart's D minor piano concert with Lars Vogt as soloist. [BBC3]

  • Gustavo Dudamel leads a concert by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, recorded last April in Lucerne, in music of Beethoven and Stravinsky. [ORF | Part 2]

  • From the Anvil in Basingstoke, violinist Viktoria Mullova plays the Brahms violin concerto with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, plus music by Smetana and Dvorak. [BBC3]

  • Pianist Steven Osborne joins the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, under conductor Douglas Boyd, for music by Mendelssohn and Mozart. [France Musique]

  • Les Surprises and La Main Harmonique perform sacred music by Clérambault, Brossard, Charpentier, Gesualdo, and Lasso. [France Musique]

  • Concentus Musicus Wien, under Nikolaus Harnoncourt, plays the last three symphonies of Mozart. [RTBF]

  • Organist Iveta Apkalna joins the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, under conductor George Pehlivanian, for Khachaturian's third symphony. [RTBF]

  • Pianist Anastasya Terenkova gives a recital of music by Bach and Alessandro Marcello in the Auditorium du Musée d'Orsay. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Alexander Melnikov and conductor Teodor Currentzis join the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, for music by Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. [ORF]

  • From the Présences Festival, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France performs music by Gordon, De La Fuente, Carter, and Rizo Salom. [France Musique]

  • Martyn Brabbins conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, with violinist Jack Liebeck, in music of Beethoven and Bruck. [ORF]

  • Listen to a concert by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, recorded in January, with violinist Christian Tetzlaff and conductor Daniel Harding and music by Beethoven and Berg. [France Musique]

  • A recital by violinist Nicola Benedetti and pianist Alexei Grynyuk, with music by Beethoven, Prokofiev, and Elgar. [RTBF]

  • Pianist Aaron Pilsan plays a recital of music by Bach, Schubert, Widmann, and Schubert, recorded last month at the Wiener Konzerthaus. [ORF]

  • Four pianists -- Vanessa Wagner, Marie Vermeulin, Cédric Tiberghien, and Wilhem Latchoumia -- perform music by Schönberg, Stravinsky, Ravel, and Varèse, recorded at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and conductor join the Orchestre National de France for music by Bizet, Pierné, Debussy, and Ravel. [France Musique]

  • Sofi Jeannin conducts La Maîtrise de Radio France and the Orchestre des jeunes du Conservatoire à rayonnement régional de Paris, in Ibrahim Maalouf's Au pays d'Alice.... [France Musique]

  • Pianist Nicholas Angelich plays a recital of music by Haydn, Beethoven, and Schumann. [RTBF]

  • Have another listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Mozart's Don Giovanni. [France Musique]


28.2.15

New Mahler Cycle from Frankfurt


available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphonies 1 & 2,
P.Järvi / Frankfurt RSO
Unitel / c-major

Paavo Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (in Germany the hr-Sinfonieorchesters, "hr" standing for "Hesse Radio"), performed and recorded the Mahler Symphonies at the Rheingau Musik Festival between 2007 and 2013. They were recorded in three different venues, the Basilika of the Eberbach Abbey, the concert hall of the Kurhaus (now named Friedrich-von-Thiersch-Saal) and the Old Opera, the home of the Frankfurt RSO.

The orchestra isn't new to recording Mahler; it has recorded the complete works (but with a performing version of the 10th, whereas this set will only include the Adagio) for Denon in the 80s under Eliahu Inbal. (Now on Brilliant.) Three releases of five are now out in Europe, in the US, only the first DVD/Blu-ray seems out at this point.

Paavo Järvi’s previously recorded Mahler includes SymphonyNo.2 and Four Short Movements. (Review here). His father, Neeme Järvi, of course, has recorded most (but not all) of Mahler. Here are these recordings (Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 on Chandos, 8 on BIS, 2 and Das Lied von der Erde on DVD/Vai)
collected in one place. (Not that they ever made much of a splash, except perhaps the oddly wonderful Eighth, which we have reviewed here.

27.2.15

Paavo Järvi's Beethoven: The Eroica for Our Age

First published in June of 2009


Ionarts' Choice Recording
available at Amazon
Lv.Beethoven, Symphonies 3 & 8,
P.Järvi / German Chamber Philharmonic Bremen
RCA SACD


Good thing that art, and especially music, defies mundane economics. If recordings of Eroica Symphonies were cars, we’d speak of an oversaturation of the market, excess capacity, and the need to reduce the supply sharply back to healthy levels. Governments would be falling over themselves to promote their Symphony producers over foreign ones, or perhaps legislating that the Eroica is too big and time consuming a symphony anyway, and mandate that we all listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No.1, or Langgaard’s 15th and 16th, instead. Good thing it ain’t so… although that means missing out on the scrappage bonus where we would turn in our old, big bold Eroicas and get newer, leaner ones in return.

As it turns out, these new, leaner Eroicas are well worth getting . Happily, no scrappage bonus is required; we can get them and keep our Kleiber (Erich) and Kletzki and Böhm and even Bernstein. The lean one under review here isn’t all that new anymore and if I’ve been tardy in writing about it, it’s only because I wasn’t sure my words could do it justice. Meticulous cross-comparison ensued in trying to get it all right and in the end I had nothing but papers with scribbled bar numbers (music, not liquor), tempo comparisons, and exclamation points.


available at Amazon L.v.B, Sys 1 & 5, P.Järvi / Dt.ChPh Bremen
RCA SACD

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon L.v.B, Sys 2 & 6, P.Järvi / Dt.ChPh Bremen
RCA SACD

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon L.v.B, Sys 4 & 7, P.Järvi / Dt.ChPh Bremen
RCA SACD

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon L.v.B, Sy 9, P.Järvi / Dt.ChPh Bremen
RCA SACD

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon L.v.B, Overtures, P.Järvi / Dt.ChPh Bremen
RCA SACD

UK | DE | FR
Appropriately I’m scrapping all ­that to simply say it how it is: Paavo Järvi’s disc with the Third Symphony of Beethoven (and a nearly equally zany Eighth) performed by the German Chamber Philharmonic of Bremen is stunning. One of those recordings that, after having listened to something like four dozen other Eroicas, you didn’t think would come along. If the phrase “blow your socks off” ever made sense, it does here. This is a brisk, bold, in your face performance. Järvi smacks the symphony onto your ears with a force that makes Osmo Vänskä’s take (BIS) sound almost tame. And my hitherto favorite Gardiner (Archiv|Cycle), the only one to take all the repeats and still clock in below Järvi (45:03 to 44:29), ends up sounding rather breezy, as if Gardiner didn’t really mean to speed. Using a 28-player string section (8-7-5-5-3), Järvi’s Chamber Orchestra sounds to be in complete control of the work, too, whereas Gardiner’s HIP forces (tuned lower by a half step, give or take a few Herz of wiggle-room) sound more authentically (if not necessarily more appropriately) challenged.

Comparisons are inevitable, especially with three more SACDs of the same symphony appearing in a short span of time and with approaches to the music that, at least superficially, are similar: Vänskä, Andrew Manze (Harmonia Mundi) and Philippe Herreweghe (Pentatone). But if you expect the same lean, Järviesque, violent tenacity from Manze or Herreweghe (perhaps amplified by their HIP gene), you are in for a surprise. If Järvi slaps, Manze and Herreweghe pat. And gently at that. Listened to after getting ready and riled with the Bremen band so bent on speed and creative mayhem, the gentleness comes as a sore disappointment, at least at first.

Taken on his own merits, Manze (50:24) excels especially in the pleading, soaring moments he builds from his rather lyrical approach. The fourth movement is worth the investment in Manze’s disc alone. [Aside, it’s very appropriately coupled with the “Creatures of Prometheus” ballet music finale, revolving around the same topic (Napoleon) and melody (used again in the Eroica’s finale).] The Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra with its 40 string players (11-10-7-7-5) makes as fine a noise as Herreweghe’s Royal Flemish Philharmonic (47:20), another modern, but historically informed orchestra (natural trumpets and timpani, but not, for example horns—and playing at 440Hz).

Somewhere at this point of the trajectory from Järvi towards bigger orchestras and more modest tempos, Vänskä comes in  whose cycle—foremost his genial Fourth— quickly became my new favorite as it was released. He, too, uses a considerably larger orchestra than Järvi. He consistently takes a little more time and uses it to punch a little harder than the Estonian Järvi. For those who want more meat on their Eroica-bones but still tight and tough excitement, Vänskä’s their man. Comparing the two would be like matching early Sugar Ray Leonard (Welterweight Järvi) against Michael Spinks or early Cassius Clay (Light heavyweight Vänskä). And, once we reach Vänskä, we might realize that the early Karajan (1963, DG) is right up there, tempo- and energy-wise. No wonder people were so astonished by Herbie
’s 1960’s Beethoven cycle. 

Thus working my way ‘backwards’ (mainly in terms of tempo, not just recording dates) from Järvi’s whirlwind performance, I could probably favorably acquaint myself with the (lovely, actually) Frans Brüggen Eroica (Philips|Cycle) which, though HIP, rivals not Gardiner but Barenboim in tempos (a shade under 50 minutes, but not including all repeats). It shows that you can wean yourself of the excitement that speed necessarily brings, but only gradually. That every version of this symphony has something offer isn’t too surprising: It’s too great a piece of music for any interpretation not to. Force me to name favorites among these here and I will yield Järvi ahead of Vänskä and then Manze, because ultimately it’s the excitement I crave most.

But since the Eroica-economy is not a zero sum game, I ask to be left dabbling happily in the multitudes, enjoying each one, depending on my mood. All of which goes to show that many ways lead to Rome. But only Järvi takes a motorcycle.


Paavo Järvi's recording of Symphonies 2 & 6 made the "Best of 2009 Almost" List.



Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major Op. 55 Eroica (1803) [45:03]
Symphony No. 8 in F minor Op. 93 (1812) [24:08]
German Chamber Philharmonic Bremen / Paavo Järvi
rec. August 2005, Bremen
RCA 713066 [79:11]

Blomstedt and Ax Return to NSO

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Symphonies, Staatskapelle Dresden, H. Blomstedt
(box set, Brilliant Classics)
Most orchestras do well to offer some audience favorites now and again. This week's program from the National Symphony Orchestra, devoted to two major works of Beethoven, had that feel, and the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was well filled in response. The program featured two classical music veterans, with Herbert Blomstedt, born in Massachusetts but raised in Sweden, returning to the podium for the first time since his last appearance with the NSO in 2012. It was a good idea to pair him with pianist Emanuel Ax, as soloist in Beethoven's third piano concerto, a composer with whom he has a way, last heard in the second concerto with the NSO in 2010 (if not so much Chopin 2 in 2013).

As he did with the second concerto, Ax's approach was mostly ruminative, with a tempo choice on the slow side for the Allegro con brio marking and an emphasis on the soft and mysterious, especially in the development section, kept mostly sotto voce in both orchestra and keyboard. This put the spotlight on the slow movement, taken not too Largo but with enough rhythmic freedom that it had the feel of something quasi-improvised, a somewhat understated, at times almost off-the-cuff sound. The rondo finale was brisk enough to be perky fun, with a nice filigree touch from Ax in the chromatic runs. The comparison with the last time this work featured on an NSO concert, with Christoph Eschenbach and Lang Lang in 2012, was a reminder that faster is not always better. Perhaps taking advantage of the overture-less program, a little shorter than normal, Ax offered a most welcome encore, Brahms's A major intermezzo (op. 118, no. 2), where again simplicity reigned supreme, to most musical effect.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Herbert Blomstedt illuminates Beethoven, joyously, with the NSO (Washington Post, February 27)
The last time that the NSO played Beethoven's third symphony was also in 2012, with Christoph Eschenbach conducting. Blomstedt instead seemed to have taken some ideas from conductor Andrew Manze, in his historical study of the Eroica. Tempo choices were fast, with little fluctuation, and articulations crisp, although the power of modern instruments put some of the balances off here and there, especially causing some problems with woodwind lines being covered. Blomstedt once told Michael Steinberg, in a 1985 interview, that "a concert for me is a holy moment." A devout Seventh-Day Adventist, he makes an exception to his normal Sabbath observance to conduct on Friday evening and Saturday for that reason. Those who heard this concert could hardly avoid the sense of communion achieved by Blomstedt's earnest approach.

This concert repeats today and Saturday.

26.2.15

Second Opinion: 'Dialogues of the Carmelites'

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.


Dialogues of the Carmelites, Washington National Opera, 2015 (photo by Scott Suchman)

On the evening of Monday, February 23, I attended the second performance of Washington National Opera's production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Kennedy Center. This is an opera I have long loved, but never seen on stage. My expectations were high, and they were largely met. (See Charles's review of the production's opening night.)

First of all, one must explain the challenge of this somewhat difficult work. Most of the action is interior in a spiritual sense. It is very difficult to dramatize an inner struggle of the soul, but this is what Poulenc attempted and succeeded at portraying.

It’s not as if the context of the story lacks drama. It is all the more gripping because it is based upon the true history of the French Revolution. In 1794, the revolutionary prayer police caught a group of Carmelite nuns from Compiègne still secretly practicing their vows. They had been expelled from their convent two years earlier. Declared enemies of the state, the sisters were marched to the scaffold and guillotined on July 17, 1794. Upon this episode, George Bernanos, the famous French novelist, based his only screenplay. After his death, Bernanos’s literary executor fashioned it into a successful play. Poulenc took a version of the text as the libretto for his opera.

Bernanos and Poulenc avoid the melodrama and typical verismo hysterics that normally would be associated with an opera on a subject such as this. This translates into a relatively conservative, though rich operatic style that is part recitative and part lyrical. The opera is set without arias or “big numbers.” Poulenc does not deploy his full orchestral resources, familiar to those who know the Stabat Mater or the Gloria, until the very end, at the scaffold scene, when he does so to glorious effect. At whatever volume, the music is charged with the same level of energy as its spiritual subject.

Bernanos and Poulenc seek neither to sensationalize nor sentimentalize the events of the Revolution. Those events are depicted only insofar as they impinge on the lives of the nuns and serve only as background to their interior spiritual drama, which is the real subject of the opera. One must praise the direction of Francesca Zambello for staying true to their intentions. The stage direction remained focused and never distracted from the inner action. In fact, it enhanced it. I was particularly impressed at how restrained Zambello kept the crowd scenes, when a more indulgent director would have succumbed to the opportunity for raucous spectacle.

The opera aims at a high level of spiritual realism and achieves it with profound psychological and spiritual complexity. Fear, faith, death, and providence are the subjects of this opera. The story revolves around Blanche de la Force, who, out of her fears of both life and death, enters the convent with an idealized notion of the joys of detachment. The prioress warns her: “What does it avail a nun to be detached from everything if she is not also set free from herself — that is to say, from her own detachment?” Sister Blanche soon witnesses the agonizing death of the prioress, who exclaims: “God has become a shadow.... I have been thinking of death each day of my life, and now it does not help me at all.” Moments before death, she foresees the desecration of the chapel and cries out, “God has abandoned us!” The shocked Sister Marie, who attends her, keeps the other sisters out of range so they will not be scandalized.

The prioress’s difficult death disturbs the community, except for young Sister Constance, who suggests, somewhat blithely, “At 59, is it not high time to die?” Yet it is also Sister Constance who grasps how providential the difficult death may be. She proposes to the puzzled Blanche that the troubled death of the prioress belonged to someone else: “One would say that in giving her this kind of death, our good Lord had made an error; as in a cloakroom they give you one coat for another.” She suggests that, because of this, someone who least expects it will be surprised by how easy death is. Constance further upsets Blanche by telling her that they will die young together. Blanche spends the rest of the opera resisting this notion. When her own death approaches in the last act, after the nuns have taken the vow of martyrdom, Blanche flees in terror. Only at the last moment, when the guillotine has begun to fall, does Blanche reappear “incredibly calm” to take her place by her sisters. They die singing the Salve Regina. Blanche joyfully sings the four last verses from the Veni Creator Spiritus as she submits to the blade.

One could easily argue that Blanche’s last-minute arrival at the scaffold, composed and ready to die, is, dramaturgically speaking, a deus ex machina. How is it that she suddenly receives the grace for her peaceful, though violent, death? It is not a development we observe. It simply happens. Yet, in this case, the deus ex machina adds to, rather than detracts from, the drama of the work because it operates on the same plane of grace that is the premise of the whole work. The prioress’s deathbed cry that God had abandoned her echoed Christ’s cry from the cross. Yet, mysteriously, Christ’s cry was salvific. What of the prioress’s ugly death? Did it share in that salvific work? How? The working out of this mystery and the spiritual tensions within it drive the opera. Providentially, the prioress’s agonizing death in a peaceful setting makes possible Blanche’s peaceful death in an agonized setting.

From this brief summary, one can easily see that the key roles are those of Madame de Croissy, the Old Prioress, and Blanche de la Force. American mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, who actually sings the Divine Office with the Carmelite Sisters of Reno when she is at home, did an excellent job vocally and dramatically as the prioress. Her agonizing death scene was every bit as disturbing and repugnant as it needed to be to give force to the rest of the opera. As Blanche, Canadian soprano Layla Claire had exactly the right kind of fragility and vulnerability to make Blanche’s struggle real, with a warm and tender voice suited to the part. American soprano Ashley Emerson was suitably impish and impulsive as Sister Constance, and played the perfect foil to Blanche. Leah Crocetto as Madame Lidoine and Elizabeth Bishop as Mother Marie were both convincing. The two main male roles were sung with distinction by American bass-baritone Alan Held as the Marquis de la Force, Blanche’s father, and tenor Shawn Mathey as the Chevalier de la Force, Blanche’s brother.

Mr. Mathey was also the only singer who sang with sufficient diction that his words could be understood without looking at the supertitles. I am not sure that the other singers are entirely at fault in this matter. Poulenc wrote the opera to a French libretto, and the English translation does not scan musically as well as the French. My bet would be that there is at least a slight expansion factor – that the English libretto has more words in it than the French – thus requiring the singers to get through the words faster. In any case, Mr. Mathey was crystal-clear. Overall, I would have preferred to hear the opera in French, though that would have been against the wishes of Poulenc, who thought audiences should be able to hear it in their own language.

The large curved-wall sets were economical and I thought, at first, crude. But as things proceeded, I saw how much set designer Hildegard Bechtler was able to get out of a little. For instance, in the nuns’ chapel against a somewhat bland curved wall, what looks like a wooden bas-relief of Virgin and Child, with two pairs of candles below it, is lowered. That was just enough to break the austerity of the setting and communicate the purpose of the space. The only other visual reference I have for this opera is from a DVD of the Netherlands Opera Amsterdam production at La Scala, under Riccardo Muti. In it, the huge dark space of the stage was certainly menacing, but it was allowed to swallow the intimate drama. The WNO production, sets, and staging avoided this potential pitfall, and attention remained where it needed to be. I was also very grateful for the traditional costumes, so capably rendered by Claudie Gastine. One’s attention was never diverted by trying to figure out what the anachronisms were supposed to mean, because there weren’t any.

The Washington National Opera Orchestra, under Canadian conductor Antony Walker, gave a spirited performance, but was too often out of balance with the singers, who were more than occasionally swamped. This will, no doubt, be ironed out in future performances.

The otherwise excellent notes in the Playbill program failed to mention that the 16 good sisters of Compiègne were beatified by Pope Pius X in 1907.

This production continues through March 10. One ought not to miss this opportunity to see a production so close to the intentions of its composer and librettist.

25.2.15

Renée Fleming in Recital

The news about Renée Fleming these days is less about the Metropolitan Opera season and more about her upcoming turn on Broadway. With the Met set to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her debut on their stage in 2016, Fleming's career may have reached its peak. The beloved American soprano is on a recital tour at the moment, with Russian pianist Olga Kern, and the duo made a stop on Monday evening at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, presented by Washington Performing Arts, who also presented Fleming's last recital here in 2011.

With the selections that suited her, especially in the sets of songs by Rachmaninoff and Richard Strauss, Fleming could still use her voice to exhilarating effect, reaching thrilling heights in Rachmaninoff's A Dream and Spring Waters and caressing the melody tenderly in Strauss's Meinem Kind and Liebeshymnus. Partnering with Kern, a gold medal winner at the Van Cliburn Competition in 2001, was a brilliant move, as it was the pianist who truly animated many of these songs. The often daunting accompaniments of the Rachmaninoff songs, in particular, were supple clay in Kern's hands, with subtle voicings in In the Silence of the Mysterious Night, charming wrong-note accents in The Waterlily, and an uncanny evocation of a babbling brook in Strauss's The Little Brook -- not to mention the delightful lagniappe of the piano transcription of Rachmaninoff's Siren (Lilacs) (op. 21/5). Ending with Strauss, still one of Fleming's greatest strengths as shown in last year's Der Rosenkavalier with the National Symphony Orchestra, was the right choice.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Mastering the art of entertainment: Renée Fleming in recital (Washington Post, February 24)

Tim Smith, The art of song, the art of Renée Fleming (Baltimore Sun, February 25)

Rashod Ollison, Renee Fleming whimsical, exhilarating in performance (The Virginian-Pilot, February 20)
At the same time, many things went awry in this recital. Fleming's intonation was dicey at the start of the Rachmaninoff set, especially in the perilously high ending of the gorgeous song Ne poy, krasavitsa and the squeezed-out high opening of A Dream. Then there was Schumann's celebrated song cycle Frauenliebe und -leben, which opened the recital on shaky ground indeed. With some text issues in spite of Fleming's use of music for this set, this music felt under-rehearsed and a little taken for granted. Nothing in her grab bag of cutesy vocal tics, the little scoops and sobs, could help create the lightness and simplicity required in these songs. Vocal lines that required a little agility felt logy, and only the songs that allowed her to use a broader, more sustained approach worked well, most beautifully in Süßer Freund, du blickest, taken at a rapturous tempo and with an admirable cranking up of musical intensity, and in the gorgeous low range of Nun hast du mir. The encores, which I predicted with almost 100% accuracy to the friend seated next to me, were true to form: another Strauss song (I picked Morgen, but she went with Cäcilie), Gershwin's Summertime, Frederick Loewe's I Could Have Danced All Night (with audience-pleasing singalong verse), and Puccini's O mio babbino caro.

The next important recital on the Washington Performing Arts season will feature pianist András Schiff (March 15, 4 pm), in the Music Center at Strathmore.

24.2.15

Finally, 'Dialogues of the Carmelites' at WNO


Dolora Zajick (Madame de Croissy), Layla Claire (Blanche de la Force), and cast in Dialogues of the Carmelites,
Washington National Opera, 2015 (photo by Scott Suchman)

Almost ten years ago, I made a wish that Washington National Opera would get around to staging Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites. This powerful opera is based on the true story of the Sixteen Blessed Martyrs of Compiègne, a convent of Carmelite nuns who died at the guillotine after the French revolutionaries disbanded their community. The work has been performed in Washington before, by Opera International in 2004 and by Catholic University's Summer Opera before that, but not with the sort of cast marshaled by Washington National Opera, heard on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick was a powerhouse Madame de Croissy, the ailing prioress of the community who takes in the naive, somewhat disturbed Blanche de la Force as a novice. Likewise, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop and soprano Leah Crocetto, the latter in a striking company debut, were equally powerful as Mother Marie of the Incarnation and Madame Lidoine, respectively, the nuns who lead the community after the death of Madame de Croissy. Soprano Ashley Emerson, heard last season as a spirited Papagena, was a tiny dynamo of energy, both physical and vocal, as the flighty Sister Constance. In such company, Canadian soprano Layla Claire, though slender and pretty as the nobleman's daughter turned nun, seemed vocally outclassed as Blanche de la Force. Her voice sort of dissipated at times, and sometimes intonation suffered, possibly related to a slight fragility of tone and fluttering vibrato.


Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, “Carmelites” is too cool, in every sense, in WNO debut (Washington Post, February 23)

Susan Dornady Eisenberg, Dolora Zajick Chats About Her Debut This Week in Dialogues of the Carmelites at Washington National Opera (Huffington Post, February 20)
The supporting cast was generally fine, too, especially the ardent Chevalier de la Force of tenor Shawn Mathey, admired previously in San Francisco and here in Washington, and the curmudgeonly Marquis de la Force of Alan Held. Antony Walker, the talented director of Washington Concert Opera, was a sure presence at the podium, lining up all the musicians of the large orchestra (the performance uses the full version of the score), some splats in the horns aside, and the unusually large cast. Another snow storm kept about one-fourth of the chorus members marooned at home, but the sound of the choral and ensemble numbers, some of the most musically satisfying in the opera, did not suffer too badly. WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello generously asked those in the limited audience to come down and fill in the seats toward the front if they wanted to do so, and many did.

Zambello's staging of the opera, originally mounted by the Opéra National de Paris, was austere but effective. After the absurd treatment of the Franciscans in Zambello's production of La forza del destino, I was prepared for the worst in her handling of this story about Carmelite nuns, worry that was entirely misplaced. The costumes were traditional, down to the brown, black, and white habits (designed by Claudie Gastine), and the sets designed by Hildegard Bechtler were looming cast iron curved walls, as menacing and bare as a Richard Serra sculpture. It is true that the stylized approach of the production -- the scaffold makes it look like the nuns are going into a sort of tanning booth -- weakens the opera's power in places, which is hard to justify. While the English translation by Joseph Machlis, approved by the composer, is generally effective, one wished that the supertitles included more than just the first few words of the Latin texts sung, words that were central to the lives of these nuns and, indeed, with resonance for the opera's action.

This production runs through March 10, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

23.2.15

Dutoit and the Suisse Romande


available at Amazon
V. d'Indy, Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français (inter alia), M. Helmchen, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, M. Janowski
(PentaTone, 2011)

[Review]
Charles T. Downey, Geneva orchestra at Kennedy Center shines with Debussy, Stravinsky (Washington Post, February 23)
When Charles Dutoit filled the leadership void at the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2008, he came to Washington for four consecutive years with that ensemble, always to great acclaim. On Saturday afternoon, Washington Performing Arts presented him again, this time with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, in a blockbuster concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

The orchestra from Geneva, which last visited Washington in 1989, shone immediately in Debussy’s “Ibéria”... [Continue reading]
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
With Charles Dutoit (conductor) and Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
Washington Performing Arts
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

PREVIOUSLY
Charles Dutoit: NSO 2009

With Philadelphia Orchestra: 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009

22.2.15

Perchance to Stream: Feels Like Home Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Soprano Karina Gauvin and violinist Julien Chauvin perform arias from Handel's Rodelinda, Ariodante, Rinaldo, and Alcina, plus concertos with Le Concert de la loge Olympique. [France Musique]

  • Watch Sophie Karthäuser, Delphine Galou, and Ann Hallenberg in a performance of Handel's Tamerlano, with Christophe Rousset conducting Les Talens Lyriques, recorded in Brussels. [De Munt]

  • The Tallis Scholars, under Peter Phillips, perform at the Oratoire du Louvre with music by John Taverner, Thomas Tallis, Gregorio Allegri, and Arvo Pärt. [France Musique]

  • Mikhail Pletnev leads the Russian National Orchestra in a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera May Night, recorded last September in Moscow. [RTBF]

  • Giuliano Carmignola leads the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, in concertos by Vivaldi at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. [France Musique]

  • Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Nielsen's 4th Symphony, Zemlinsky's Maeterlinck Songs (with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter), plus Sibelius and Ravel. [BBC3]

  • Maurizio Pollini joins the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and conductor Andris Nelsons for Chopin's first piano concerto, plus the Brahms third symphony. [RTBF]

  • From the Mozart Festival, the chorus Aedes and Le Cercle de l'Harmonie perform music by Mozart at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, conducted by Jérémie Rhorer. [France Musique]

  • Les Musiciens du Louvre, under Marc Minkowski, perform Mozart concertos at the Mozartwoche in Salzburg. [ORF | Part 2]

  • Ingo Metzmacher leads the ORF RSO Wien in Szymanowski's Stabat Mater, with Aleksandra Kurzak, Ewa Wolak, and Artur Rucinski. [ORF]

  • The Vienna Piano Trio performs music by Mendelssohn and Beethoven. [RTBF]

  • Vaclav Luks leads Collegium 1704 in Zelenka's Requiem Mass and Handel's Dixit Dominus, recorded last September in the St. Maria Magdaelena church in Warsaw. [ORF]

  • Donald Runnicles leads the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven's violin concerto, with Alina Pogostkina as soloist, and music by Sibelius (Finlandia and the seventh symphony. [BBC3]

  • Grand motets by Rameau and Mondonville performed by Les Arts Florissants, recorded last summer at the Proms. [RTBF]
  • Pascal Dusapin celebrates his 60th birthday with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conductor Myung-Whun Chung, and violinist Renaud Capuçon at the Philharmonie de Paris, with the violin concerto Aufgang. [France Musique]

  • Stephen Cleobury leads the BBC Singers in music about the creation of the world, by Copland, Byrd, Walton, and others. [BBC3]

  • Violinist Viktoria Mullova joins the Orchestre National de France, under Dima Slobodeniouk, for music of Brahms and Shostakovich. [RTBF]

  • Clarinetist Martin Fröst and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, under Thomas Sondergaard, perform music by Sorensen, Fröst, Brahms, Hilborg, and Mozart. [France Musique]

  • Also hear Martin Fröst with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, recorded at the Wigmore Hall in London, in music by Mozart, Schumann, and Brahms. [BBC3]

  • From Birmingham, the Heath Quartet plays music by Haydn, Janacek, and Dvorak. [BBC3]

  • Tomas Brauner leads the Prague Symphony in music by Martinu and Klusak. [ORF]

  • Baritone Georg Nigl and pianist Eric Schneider perform Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin, recorded last month at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. [RTBF]

  • The percussionists of the Orchestra National de France perform at the Présences Festival. [France Musique]

  • The vocal ensemble Calmus performs music from the 16th and 17th centuries at the Psalm-Festival in Graz last April. [ORF]

  • Pianist Madoka Fukami plays a recital at the Auditorium du Musée d'Orsay, with music by C.P.E. Bach, Debussy, and others. [France Musique]

  • From the Présences Festival, music by Charles Ives, Peter Lieberson, John Adams, and Esteban Benzecry performed by the Choeur and Maîtrise de Radio France and the Orchestre National de France under Giancarlo Guerrero. [France Musique]

  • Have another listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, starring Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala. [France Musique]

  • Listen again to the broadcast of Verdi's Macbeth from the Metropolitan Opera, with Fabio Luisi conducting Zeljko Lucic (Macbeth), Anna Netrebko (Lady Macbeth), René Pape (Banco), and Joseph Calleja (Macduff). [ORF]

21.2.15

Arcal's 'Armida'


The operas of Haydn do not see many productions these days. One of them, Armida, has been mounted by an unusual troupe called Arcal, a national opera company that takes its stagings to small halls all around France. How could it make the magical detours of the story, not to mention its medieval religious sensibility, relevant to a modern audience? By shifting the action to our own time, director Mariame Clément has centered the story on a "war of ideals" involving an issue at the forefront of our society, marriage equality. Thierry Hillériteau has a report (Armida s'accorde à tous les genres, February 20) for Le Figaro (my translation):

Neither militancy nor demagoguery. Besides, Haydn's music, as sublime for Armida as for Renaud, never tends toward one camp or the other. It is rather a play on this question of gender common in opera, from Lully to Mozart. Strangely, this transposition that is at least opportunistic is revealed as effective: one soon forgets the context and enters into the story, that of two beings torn between duty and passion, faith and convictions. Above all, it offers the young singers a chance to give themselves over to a true dramatic conflict.

In the title role and in male dress, soprano Chantal Santon is without a doubt the principal revelation. More moving than terrifying, she reveals the beauty of a music as tragic as it is virtuosic and that does not merit the relative oblivion into which it has fallen. Juan Antonio Sanabria, with grand clarity of tone and conquering high notes, is no less deserving as a Rinaldo fallen pray to doubt. But it is especially in the pit that the saving resurrection of this Armida plays out, thanks to the limpid and incisive conducting of Julien Chauvin, first violin and cofounder of Le Cercle de l'Harmonie, who here strikes out on his own with his ensemble, Le Concert de la Loge Olympique.
The company takes this production next to Clermont-Ferrand (February 25 and 27), Cergy-Pontoise (March 5 and 7), and Niort (March 10).

20.2.15

Pintscher Debuts at NSO

To no one's surprise, the National Symphony Orchestra will not renew Christoph Eschenbach's contract as Music Director after the 2016-2017 season. The announcement came on the heels of more shocking podium news, principally that the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert are parting ways at the same time as Eschenbach and the NSO. Speculation ran rampant on Twitter as to what conductors around the world might be on New York's short list, and many of the same names might be on the wish list of Deborah Rutter, the new president of the Kennedy Center since last September. Such speculation, as entertaining as it can be, is nothing more than that, but one can peruse the list of guest conductors who have appeared with the NSO in recent years, and those will appear in the near future, to form a possible list.

With that in mind, the NSO debut of young conductor Matthias Pintscher was thrown into sharp relief last night. The relatively young German is also a composer, whose works have been heard in Washington a fair amount in recent years and who was introduced to the NSO by none other than Christoph Eschenbach. Pintscher's music, to my ears, is hit and miss, with fine and interesting efforts like the Hérodiade-Fragmente, heard from the NSO in 2010, alongside the rather dull violin concerto, Mar'eh, given its North American premiere last night. Pintscher is a first-rate orchestrator, and the new piece teems with unexpected sounds, but a half-hour of scratches and wisps of sound, no matter how intriguing, is a burden to most ears. It is the sort of writing that can be a slog for orchestral musicians: as a musician friend once said, it is "the kind of piece where you rest for 57 bars and then click your key pads on an offbeat." Violinist Karen Gomyo, heard with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra a few years ago, is not on the same level as Julia Fischer, for whom the work was created, but was up to the challenges of the solo part.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, At NSO, German composer leads French music — and his own (Washington Post, February 20)

Kate Molleson, BBCSSO/Pintscher review – ardour at arm’s length (The Guardian, December 5, 2014)

Anthony Tommasini, Philharmonic’s Contemporary Foray Ends, With a Promise of More (New York Times, June 8, 2014)
The rest of the program was devoted to late Romantic French music, a style that is a major influence on Pintscher's compositional voice. Pintscher serves as music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the band that Pierre Boulez built, and has made his name as a contemporary specialist. At the podium in Fauré's suite of incidental music for Pelléas et Mélisande and Ravel's complete ballet score for Daphnis et Chloé, Pintscher helped to make some pretty, especially soft sounds but fell short of what one would hope for a music director in the canonical repertory.

In both pieces, different sections of the orchestra seemed at odds with each other here and there, especially in the irregular-meter sections of the Ravel, an ensemble deficiency that has to be attributed to Pintscher's beat, not always clear. (To hear music of this period at its best, go hear Charles Dutoit conduct examples by Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande tomorrow.) Individual contributions showed off the NSO's new-found strengths: silvery, low-set flute solos (including alto flute); strong oboe playing from both principal and associate principal players; the tremor-free sound of the horn in the Ravel. About sixty singers from the Washington Master Chorale did well with the thankless job of singing the wordless chorus parts, heard from offstage in the ballet as first choreographed by Michel Fokine (later also choreographed by Frederick Ashton).

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.