Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Messiah as theater

I almost didn't go to Apollo's Fire's Messiah this Christmas. I get tired of the endless repetitions of the Christmas section, which so debilitates the power of this complicated and not altogether holiday-friendly oratorio. But Cleveland Classical asked me to review it, so we went.

We loved it. The performance had integrity and drama. Every part seemed rethought for the moment. And beautifully performed. Photo of Apollo's Fire by Roger Mastroianni.

As usual, here's my review. If you like it, I hope you'll subscribe to ClevelandClassical.com.

One of the stars was the soprano Meredith Hall, a wonderful convincing and utterly musical singer. Here's a clip from her website of her singing "Rejoice greatly" from the Messiah.

Another star was the wonderful baroque trumpeter Josh Cohen. Here's him playing "The trumpet shall sound" with another group:

Monday, December 10, 2012

Oberlin Musical Union

It's no wonder that Amadeus featured the Mozart C Minor Mass. Like so much of Mozart, this piece transcends its occasion (a commissioned mass in Salzburg, the town Mozart was so glad to have left).

Here's the throbbing, opening Kyrie (John Eliot Gardner):

And that spectacular solo he wrote for his wife Costanze-- the Christe eleison! Here's Salieri "listening" to it: http://youtu.be/vNaXQQbcgw0

Oberlin's Musical Union performed the mass last night.

My review is here: http://www.clevelandclassical.com/121112omunjrev.  Don't forget to sign up with Cleveland Classical while you're there!

The high point was Ellie Dehn's gorgeous singing of Et incarnatus est. (She's an Oberlin graduate!). On her website, here is her rendition of this "concerted" piece for flute, oboe, bassoon and soprano...

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

I went to Midori's recital at Cleveland Institute of Music last night. My review on Cleveland Classical is here.

It was incredible playing, astoundingly controlled. Her bow hand is unbelievable.

But oddly, the fire was not there, even in the Kreutzer.

My pet peeve (you've heard this before): don't program the most intense piece for the end of the concert. Ears like mine get tired. Performers get tired. The juice runs out.

I think the second part of the first half is the key: it's when we're warmed up as listeners, and at our most attentive.

Frankly, I think recitals should be shorter, too: under two hours. We pay a lot  to hear these performers, but we don't pay by the minute.

More thoughts from readers are welcome!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


I had the chance to hear, and review, Apollo's Fire's latest concerts, featuring Bach Brandenburgs 1, 2 and 5. So many NEW experiences of some very familiar works!

Want to know more? Check my review at ClevelandClassical.com.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Trio sonatas and other delights

Oberlin's a tiny place that also happens to hold many of the world's joys. Great libraries, art museum, residents, students -- and visitors. Two recent visitors brought great Baroque music -- with two of my good friends who live here!

If that's enough of a teaser, link over to ClevelandClassical to read more:
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, October 8, 2012

Early Music -- Cleveland

It's astonishing, the wealth of early music performances at a high level in the Cleveland area. There's Oberlin, of course (more soon on that). There's Apollo's Fire, Jeannette Sorrell's prolific 20-year old baby. There's the relative newby, Debra Nagy's Les Délices, specializing in oboe and French music. And now, Burning River Baroque. I'm not sure I'm happy about the name (memories of the OLD Cleveland!), but the group is promising and fun.

My review of their concert this weekend is here, at Cleveland Classical.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sunday in London

Three highlights today:

First: Manet (and more) at the Courtauld.

Second: strange sighting of Queen Victoria at Guildhall.

Third: a compressed, intense and fully committed performance of 'the Duchess of Malfi' on fringe theatre. This is the mad duke with his sister the duchess. You don't want to know what he's on about.

Saturday, September 29, 2012


Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious Sumer by this sun of York.
The sun of England shone today and we were at the Globe to see Richard III, unabashedly rhetorical, performative and thrilling. Mark Rylance as a funny, wheedling, smarmy duke on his way to an unhappy kingship. Things moral and historical, as we know, catch up with him at the end, and what a shame. He's so entertaining to be around!

We sat in the Lords' rooms right over the stage!

Southwark Cathedral: tombs, history, no pretensions of being St. Paul's. loved it. This is the medieval poet John Gower.

And then, at the site of the Rose Theater, where Marlowe's plays were acted, in a tiny room above the excavated foundations, another strange excavation, the play 'Cardenio' by Shakespeare? fletcher? Who knows? Spoiler: ALL the characters were dead at the end.

This is the underground excavation, the outlines of the original Rose in red lights, lurid and dank like the play.

Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new. Well, not actually: another Jacobean tragedy, Duchess of Malfi.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

London, day 1. Three cool things

One. St. Paul's reigns over the skyline of London as usual. I think of it as the original London Eye.

Two. Near there at the National Theatre, a bizarre, disturbing production of Timon of Athens, Shakespeare's least-read, least-liked play. Brilliantly acted by Simon Russell Beale although the production had problems. Did we need a rebellion as 'Occupy Athens?' Relevance but not enough scariness to the threats of the rebels to do nasty things to Athenians. The play is nasty enough without my saying more about those nasty things.

Three. The Wallace Collection, of decorative art (end tables to beat even Ikea!) and painting, in the house of the people who collected it, a house that is beautiful in itself. And such paintings! Hals, the laughing cavalier, Rembrandt, Boucher, Bonington... The galleries are newly papered with the most gorgeous silk, and hung in such interesting ways. Now, how do I get my Oberlin students past the opulence, which is pretty intense, to the payoff? ( note, in the picture, the dad earnestly talking with his, maybe, eight year old about...Canaletto! Home for nerds. I love it)

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, September 7, 2012

My recent review on Cleveland Classical of a book about 17th-century music: nationhood, time, and sex -- oh, and also modes and tonality!


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Great expectations

Dickens is often, rightly, accused of saying too much. No one can miss the over-determined denunciations of London, the sappy announcements of faith in barely-developed children. But every once in a while he speaks with an almost modernist reticence. He sometimes won't give us the baby with the bath water-- though mostly hell give us both with gusto.

Case in point: Great Expectations. Pip can't say enough about his distant, proud, disdainful Estella.

But here he says it all with one tiny verb, 'touched'.

'We played until nine o'clock, and then it was arranged that when Estella came to London I should be forewarned of her coming and should meet her at the coach; and then I took leave of her, and touched her and left her.'

'and touched her'! What was that touch? Dickens, or Pip, or whoever controls the story, won't tell. It is a barely physical touch, of course, and semiotically barely sentient. But it tells a whole history about this strained and tragic relationship.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Beethoven at Blossom

I went to Blossom again on Saturday, for an almost-all Beethoven program with the amazing Gil Shaham. Read my review at Cleveland Classical: http://www.clevelandclassical.com/073112tcojuly28rev

Here's a version of Shaham playing the Beethoven in LA:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Mozart under the stars. . .

We went Saturday to Blossom for the all-Mozart program.

Hope you'll check out my reviewHaffner, Jupiter, Clarinet Concerto. What a beautiful evening. 

Next Saturday is all-Beethoven! 

Sign up for more reviews at ClevelandClassical.com

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Schütz at early music camp

I'm on the way home from Amherst Early Music, in a Comfort Inn in Clarion PA. What a change from last night at what I've come to think of as "Baroque Fantasy Camp." Early music performing and chat 24/7 is a very special and rare thing.

Last night was the final concert by the faculty and students. Actually, there were so many performances, all day, so wonderful and varied that by five in the afternoon I had to opt out of a dance concert because I could hardly stand up. I had a nap instead, much needed; but I missed what I hear was a very cool event.

I napped so that I'd have the energy to sing in the last big event, the Schütz Requiem. Two really wonderful things happened for me in this performance: they had to do with focus and insight.

Focus: On Wednesday, I'd volunteered to sing what I thought might be one solo. I got to sing about five -- all the second tenor solos (actually, most are ensemble pieces, from duets to sextets, but still, it's just one voice per part). This is in a program where there are fabulous singers, from the students up to the professionals, like the great Julianne Baird! So, I'm nervous, practicing a lot, trying to stay calm, trying not to panic. And I didn't, and I got through it, with only a few bloops and a much clearer sense of what I really need to learn about singing. How? It had to have been the sense of focus I felt about it, about focusing on the music and what I wanted it to say, about being present, there and then, and not daydreaming; even about making a mistake and moving right on. The key, I think, was the sense of support I felt from everyone around me. Thanks to all!

Insight: I've loved the Schütz Requiem since I sang it with John Ferris and the Harvard Memorial Church Choir in 1972 (the 300th anniversary of Schütz's death). But this time I think I understood it better. I'll write this up in a different context, I think, not here in the Comfort Inn. But in general it had to do with understanding more about the way the piece captures not just the brevity of life (that's pretty obvious: "we remain here only a short time" etc) and the way that in that 17th-century theology, it's only the soul, not the body, not the world, that lasts. Yes, the piece is about learning how NOT to value the worldly, the bodily, the tangible. But it's got the opposite idea built in as well: the tangible, material, audible, musical, performable life of the world IS the medium of this beautiful piece of music, of these profound texts. The piece says it's leaving this world in ways that are utterly tied to the beauty, wit, intensity, profundity OF this world.

Like George Herbert's great, beautiful poem about beauty and death, from the same decade in those terrible 1630's (with its reference to "closes" -- musical cadences: it's as if he had been listening to Schütz!):


Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridall of the earth and skie:
The dew shall weep thy fall to night;
                                    For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angrie and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave
                                    And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My musick shows ye have your closes,
                                    And all must die.

Onely a sweet and vertuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
                                    Then chiefly lives.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


I'm at a gathering of early music fanatics, nerds, experts, amateurs, devotees. It's Amherst Early Music, going now for several decades, but not currently taking place in Amherst. We're at the beautiful campus of Connecticut College, overlooking Long Island Sound, and, yes, there is a nice breeze off the sound and the temperatures are pleasant.

I'm working on recorder techniques, some Renaissance music, some baroque, singing Schütz's incredible German Requiem (Deutsches Exequien). I did some English country dancing tonight, too, to get the feet moving as well as the fingers, the tongue, the diaphragm, and all the rest that you need to sing and play.

Tonight there was a concert by the Bay-area recorder quartet named Farallon. Since the theme of this workshop is German music, they played from about 8 centuries of German composers, from Hildegard to Bach (the art of the fugue). These four people must have played about 25 recorders total.

Most was played on Renaissance recorders, which have wider bores and much less dependable fingering and intonation than the more stable and standard Baroque recorder.

The Hildegard piece (their arrangement) took advantage of the rich, open, wide tone of that recorder, creating a mood of meditative chanting with octave drones while the wonderful melodies spun out.

Three pieces by the early 16th-century master Ludwig Senfl showed the intricacy and complexity that the Renaissance courts demanded (Senfl worked for the Emperor Maximilian): I got the sense that these courts (like the Tudors, about whom Hilary Mantel has just now been writing her dark novels) must have loved intrigue, political complications and machinations, if they loved this fascinating but often inscrutable music. You can hear Farallon play Senfl on YouTube. They also have a CD of Senfl.

Pieces from the anonymous anthology called the Glogauer Liederbuch (late 15th century) showed a remarkable modernity, if it is fair to use that term about something that of course owes no debt to our confused era. Their polyrhythms showed up beautifully on the clear recorder quartet. A little less successful to my taste was their transcription of an 18th-century orchestral suite: the obviously-written-for-strings gestures didn't translate terribly well. A very slinky version of "Bei mir bist du schön" was a great encore.

The dangers of a recorder quartet are many: two of the biggest are bad tuning and boring playing. The tuning was incredible here: octaves, fifths, and unisons stunningly clear. And the playing was exciting at all points: these are virtuosos, and they put to rest that old saw that the recorder is only good for playing "Hot Cross Buns."

Monday, July 2, 2012

Being at a lute recital is like going out of a noisy intersection to a path in the redwood forest: you hear differently. The amplification of motors, TVs, life, has to be, is ideally, pushed aside and an older acoustic takes over. It's older, and at the same time, newer: it opens up the ears instead of shutting them down. We lean forward, ask more of the ears and the eyes (the movement of the fingers on the strings cues us to what we are hearing). It's a world of spruce and gut, not Sony and gasoline.

Last weekend I went to Cleveland to hear the lutenist Paul O'Dette. My writeup from clevelandclassical.com is here:  http://www.clevelandclassical.com/062612olsadetterev

Friday, June 1, 2012

Music in Indianapolis

I'm in Indianapolis for a family graduation, but I got to attend the Indy Symphony Thursday matinee concert. I felt like a retiree, since grading is finished and I have some 'free' time.

This city is amazing, to support a beautiful downtown (canals, murals, plazas, and a renovated war memorial column smack in the middle of the city) and a full-time orchestra. The hall is right downtown, too.

Moreover, they dared to play Pendercki! The Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima sounded great in the hands of the new, young music director, Polish-born Krzysztof Urbański, who was in command not only of the 70-odd timed sections of the piece but also of the hundreds of entrances, swerves, flutters, thumps, barks and moans that the string players have in this complicated and intricate score. It's a sad and grieving piece, but strangely listening to it--or more accurately, feeling its soundscapes in my chest--I felt remarkably at peace.

The audience seemed to like it, not least because an unidentified but very articulate lecturer had spoken for 15 minutes before the concert about why the piece was important, how it was written (with projections of the score, and comparisons to a standard classical score). A great idea, turning a captive audience into a willing one.

They also stayed because the second piece was the Brahms violin concerto with Hoosier Josh Bell. Bell drove the orchestra, cajoled them, challenged them to faster bow speeds, in short, played chamber music with them. He was best in the third movement, where the hellacious passagework just flew off his fingers with gypsy nonchalance.

After the concert I got to meet principal violist Mike Strauss, who is coming to Oberlin as a faculty member this year. Oberlin's gain; Indy's loss. The violas sounded great in counterpoint with Josh Bell, but of course Brahms did know how to write for the viola!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mozart in Cleveland

My review of a wonderful concert -- Mozart, Uchida, the Cleveland Orchestra...

Thursday evening, while two miles west of Severance Hall another home team played (and lost) in a record-setting sixteen innings, the Cleveland Orchestra played and won.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Magic Flute -- a review

Apollo's Fire: Mozart's The Magic Flute
at Finney Chapel, Oberlin (March 22)

By Nicholas Jones

AF Tamino & 3 boysMozart’s Magic Flute is an appealing blend of silly and sublime, heroic, romantic, and ultimately wonderfully comic. Like the song from A Funny Thing, it offers ‘Something familiar, / Something peculiar, / Something for everyone: / A comedy tonight!’

We have a heroic prince and his beloved, a princess stolen from her mother by an evil sorcerer; it’s the material of operatic romance, but (like the dragon that opens the show) the evil seems to vanish at the flick of Mozart’s pen. (In this witty staging, the dragon was done in by violin bows and the conductor’s baton!)

We have the joking servant, always on the lookout for something to eat and drink, who nonetheless endures the opera’s trials along with his more serious master, and comes out on the other side with a new bride (with whom he sings one of the most inventive love duets in music, the love song of two birds!). 

It’s a romantic tale where help is always just around the corner (in trouble? just play your magic flute or your enchanted glockenspiel).

Apollo’s Fire’s ambitious production of Mozart’s last opera is the highpoint of the group’s 20th anniversary year. We AF Magic Flute Papageno & Papagenasaw it on opening night in Oberlin’s Finney Chapel; subsequent performances are Friday in Severance Hall and Saturday at Cartwright Auditorium at Kent State. A discretely shortened version, the opera lasted about two and half hours, including a generous intermission.

The staging, while necessarily spare compared to (say) the Metropolitan Opera, was witty and effective. The costumes were elegant reminders of rococo court life and of the visual imagination of Mozart’s time (Papageno and his bride in feathered garb reminiscent of the wonderful quetzal-feather headdress brought to Vienna from Montezuma’s court).

The orchestra, conducted by impresaria Jeannette Sorrell, was a large one by Apollo’s Fire standards, and showed the very high standards of musicianship we are used to with that group. The overture, the real show-off piece for the orchestra, after a few ensemble problems in the slow introduction, took the allegro at a blistering pace and pulled it off with panache.

Throughout the opera, sensitive playing from the winds gave the singers expressive support, and during the serious ‘Masonic’ moments, the large brass section was exceptionally sonorous. We should probably also mention the frequent thunderclaps indicating the displeasure of the gods – a combination of timpani and an off-stage thunder sheet (played from the balcony by production manager Thomas Frattare).
AF Magic Flute Orchestra
The orchestra and chorus were seated in the back half of the stage, and the action took place in front of them, in a somewhat narrow space. The resulting limitation on dramatic movement was more than made up for by the presence of two wonderful baroque dance specialists (Carlos Fittante and Robin Gilbert)—of whom I would have liked to have seen more.

Because the orchestra was behind the singers (rather than in a pit), they were in a true sense a ‘back-up band’ for the vocalists. Though this caused occasional problems of ensemble (the singers could not see Sorrell most of the time), it put the singers closer to the audience and enabled them to sing with, rather than over top of, the orchestra. At Finney Chapel, the singers wore head-mikes for the spoken dialogue which increased intelligiblity in that relatively large hall.

AF Magic Flute TaminoThe soloists were a group of generally fine singers with quite different vocal qualities. Tenor Ross Hauck, a very handsome Tamino, sang with lithe expression and commanding presence: the role can often seem stiff, but he made it dramatically and vocally flexible after some initial difficulties. His partner in trials, the feathery Papageno, was sung by Kelly Markgraf, whose big baritone voice (and comically expressive face) conveyed his obvious delight in the role – and in life in general.

Soprano Teresa Wakim as Pamina has a perfect early-music voice, supporting her plangent arias with an architecture of sustained and astonishingly clear vocal line. The vocal fireworks of the Queen of the Night were spectacularly set off by Rachel Copeland, whose high arpeggios in her revenge aria (probably the most famous motifs of the opera) were delivered like burning hot knife thrusts.

It is a strange feature of The Magic Flute that the Queen, with so much dramatic music to sing, is put aside at the end like so much kitchen trash. She loses out to the magisterial priest Sarastro, whose music – uniformly slow and low – is the complete opposite of hers. Baritone Edward Crafts brought an appropriate solemnity to Sarastro, accompanied by an welcome affability of manner, but his singing in the (very low) registers of the bass role seemed ungrounded.
 AF Magic Flute 3 ladies & Papageno
The three ladies of the Queen of the Night (Lianne Coble, who doubled as a charming Papagena, Amanda Powell, and Raquel Winnica Young) and the two priests who accompany Sarastro (Jeffrey Strauss and Joseph Gaines) sparkled in excellent ensemble singing. The three ‘boys’ were charmingly portrayed by local youngsters Rhuna Wall, Ryan Vincent, and Clarie Peyrebrune. The minor baddie, Monastatos – thwarted at every turn in his lustful intentions – was (probably wisely) not played as a Moor; the part was sung with playfully villainous glee by Jeremy Gilpatric.

Advance publicity for the performance made a good deal of of the keyed glockenspiel that Apollo’s Fire borrowed from England for this performance (something like what we surmise Mozart to have played at the premiere). The instrument was probably more compelling in theory than in practice: the sound was, to our ears, tinny and not as ‘magical’ as the context demands.

Photographs by Steven Mastroianni, courtesy of Apollo's Fire.

Nicholas Jones is Professor of English at Oberlin College, and a keen amateur musician.

Click here to comment on this article. All comments will be moderated by the editorial staff.

Published on ClevelandClassical.com March 23, 2012
Click here for a printable version of this article.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Tallis Scholars

Heard this wonderful group on Wednesday. Only thing that would have made it better is to be an old church by candlelight. I'm glad I didn't live in the Renaissance, but, oh, the music! Makes me want to sign up for the Tallis' Scholars summer camp in Seattle -- or maybe the one in England?

They sang the whole of Gesualdo's wonderful Tenebrae: dark, gnarly, full of lamentation. I've got to get the CD of this!

Thursday, February 16, 2012


What a great job I have! Today I got to re-read poems by Keats and Wordsworth for a class on literary theory, which I got to lead on front of Oberlin's fascinating Diebenkorn painting.

Only problem, I decided tp kneel on the floor while we discussed, and my knees still feel it. The first graders that passed by looked amused, or was I just projecting?

Later I got to go to a video and sound installation of three colleagues about Antarctica. Barely walked out, it was so moving.

and after, I got to talk with the brilliant students in Oberlin's Historical Performance program ( early music, that is) and two of my wonderful colleagues about Italian madrigal texts. I learned so much, and I think they might have, too.

Unfortunately, I have no smarts left to translate Cicero for the Latin class I'm taking, which meets tomorrow at 9 am. Oh, we'll, or as the magrigalists would say, oime!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Bronfman, Brahms, Cleveland Orchestra...

The finale of the Cleveland Orchestra's Brahms concerto series -- the Violin Concerto, the 2nd Piano Concerto, the first... I only caught the last of them...


Monday, January 23, 2012

Music marathon

The Rubin Institute of Music Criticism has been going on this week at Oberlin College. It's a new creation of the Conservatory of Music, funded by Holt publisher Steve Rubin, bringing undergraduate aspiring writers about music, nationally-known big-paper critics and regional critics together around a quartet of big-name performances. It's a strange mix, a competition (for pretty big money) combined with a writers' workshop and a music festival. Not all blended in the wintry bowl, but for me it's been more tasty and substantive fare than the upcoming Super Bowl. I have to say, though, that I'm not happy about teaching students to write by dangling a big ($10,000) prize in front of them. I'm not wild about the prize performance competitions, either, but they're well established in music circles.

The students, 10 of them, have been studying music criticism this fall at Oberlin with regional critics, Don Rosenberg of the Plain Dealer (and president of the Music Critics Association of North America) and my colleagues at ClevelandClassical.com, Dan Hathaway and Mike Telin. This week they were joined by visiting critics and writers:  Alex Ross (New Yorker), Anne Midgette (Washington Post), Heidi Waleson (Wall Street Journal), John Rothwell (formerly New York Times) and Tim Page (Annenberg School at USC).

The content of the week came in two flavors (three actually, but I didn't go to the afternoon panels): lectures by the visiting critics and major concerts each night, part of the venerable Oberlin Artist Recital series.

The students' reviews of these concerts, due at 8 am the next day, were published next day on the Institute website, and was a pleasure to watch them work in the hot light of public scrutiny. You can read their work online.  There was also a prize for the best review from the audience, and the best of these were posted as well.

As readers of this blog know, I like to write about music. In fact, I review concerts regularly for ClevelandClassical.com. I'm not officially involved in the Institute, and I'm not reviewing the concerts individually, but I do have some thoughts about the music after this unusual experience of three concerts in a row (there were four, but after spending Saturday afternoon at the MET HD "Enchanted Island" [about which more in another post] I couldn't manage getting to the fourth, which may well have been the best: the contemporary ensemble ICE).

I heard, on successive nights, a very large orchestra (Cleveland), a solo pianist (Jeremy Denk), and a baroque band (Apollo's Fire). What follows are two possibly grumpy maxims about programming music.

1. Program for the hall you're playing in. Here, the hall was Oberlin's Finney Chapel. It holds 1376 people. The acoustics are warm and pretty consistent through the hall.

Cleveland (led by Welser-Möst) played pieces that packed the stage: the first three parts of Smetana's Ma Vlast, "Orion" by Kaija Saariaho, and Shostakovich 6. (The picture, by orchestra photographer Roger Mastroianni, is of another concert of the orchestra in Finney, with, I'd guess, about 80% of the forces they had on Wednesday. It already looks pretty full.) The Saariaho used quadruple winds and tons of percussion, and of course the strings were at their usual dozen or so per section. What were they thinking? After 45 minutes of Smetana's unabashed and unrelenting Big Sound, we got some 20 or 25 minutes of the even bigger sound of the Saariaho (which was an interesting piece, by the way, full of haunting moments). The effect, in Finney, was ear-numbing. There aren't a lot of nuances in the Smetana, anyway, but by intermission, it was almost impossible to think of nuance. Severance Hall is larger (2100 listeners) and the stage is much more capacious: in both respects, it handles the Big Sound and makes it cycle around the hall. (My cousin the acoustician could explain this much better than I). Fortunately,  Shostakovich works in smaller acoustic units -- a few winds here, a few brass there, the violas alone  . . . and he works by counterpoint, which I'm not sure Smetana ever thought about, and with counterpoint you get two or three different things to listen to, each at a more reasonable volume than the Moldau rolling its romantic waves through your skull.

Apollo's Fire needs a smaller hall for many of the nuances to be heard. The size of the hall seemed to push Sorrell and her players to play at the top of their dynamic range pretty much all the time, with the result that there wasn't room for relaxation of the sound. Jeannette Sorrell also wrongly chose to play her harpsichord version of Vivaldi's "Summer" which was barely audible even in the twelfth row. Violins carry: she should have asked concertmaster Olivier Brault to play it. (Oddly, you can hardly hear the harpsichord in the video of this piece on AF's website.)

It will sound too much like Goldilocks to say that Jeremy Denk on the big Steinway was just right, so I won't say it.

2. Program a concert that you care about and make sure we know why you care about it. Let's start with Jeremy Denk. He opened with two Bach Toccatas, and it was clear from his playing and from the program notes (written by Peter Laki but apparently channeling some of Jeremy's own concerns) that these were meant seriously, as introductions to a program that explored several things: the "toccata" nature of piano music -- the intentional touching of the keys; the intricacy and unsettling quality of Bachian counterpoint, whether in Bach or later composers; and the almost guilty joy of virtuosic intricacy. Those concerns and explorations opened up further in the pieces that followed, three pieces of increasing depth: Beethoven's Eroica Variations; Ligeti's Etudes, Book 1; and the Beethoven Opus 111 sonata. Denk gives the listeners lots of ways of understanding what he cares about, among which are: his seriousness and focus at the keyboard; his articulate comments during the concert (only once, but very apt in helping us understand the Ligeti and its place in his thinking about piano music, Bach, and Beethoven); and his wry and insightful blog (Think Denk).

It was helpful that Apollo's Fire gave us a program note that suggested why the tempest theme was important. Sorrell wrote that she is interested in the possibilities of explicitly transgressive Baroque music (storm scenes, chaos descriptions, madness) in opening up performers (listeners, too?) to "transcend the confines of the notes on the page." Excellent! it's something we all should do. "This repertoire," she continues, "is fertile ground for all of us in challenging ourselves to play sentences, phrases, gestures, and emotions -- not to play notes." (I question whether, apart from reading the note, listeners caught this theme and this intention.)  Disconcertingly, for this challenge, Sorrell also programmed a pretty sentimental modern "Baroque" style piece on the nineteenth-century hymn, "For the Beauty of the Earth"; if you are exploring and specializing in Baroque style, you might well stick with Baroque style.

The Cleveland Orchestra program notes suggested little that would help us see what these pieces meant to Welser-Möst, or what he thought they might mean to us. Nor did his conducting, which as many noted, was detached and almost aloof. The conductor doesn't need to be Dudamel in order to cue us to at least some of what he cares about.

Monday, January 2, 2012

An opera on Il Postino

I have always loved the 1994 film Il Postino, about the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, in exile (fictionally) on an Italian island. The film romantically ducks most of the struggles of the pre-Pinochet years (Neruda died only a few days after Pinochet seized power). It's a fantasy, a little like The Tempest, a film about forgiveness and metaphor on an island remote from political intrigue. It deals in words and desire, not least the desire of the postman-figure, a naif who learns the power of metaphor. It's a simple plot, really, a male-bonding movie with a twist -- here the Italian postman longs for the attention of the about-to-win-a-Nobel Prize Chilean poet; he loves, he loses, he finds love again. . .

Tonight we watched a Great Performances show we taped off NPR of an opera, Il Postino, based on the film. A Mexican composer, Daniel Catan, who died this past year, wrote the opera for Placido Domingo -- one of the first serious operas in Spanish to be performed by a major US opera company (LA, in this case). Catan's lush music is like Puccini, accessible, emotional, through-composed but with big aria moments -- largely, the poems of Neruda and the poems that he inspires from the postman. The postman's love-interest, Beatrice (yes, Beatrice, and Dante and D'Annunzio are both cited as sources for this improbably literary romance) gets some great tunes, too. But mostly, it's a love-duet between Neruda and the Postman -- when do two tenors ever get to sing like that together?

It was played without intermission -- maybe two or more hours. We sat and watched without a break. It was beautiful. Now I want to reread the book: Ardiente paciencia by Antonio Skármeta

Daniel Catan died less than a year after the opera was premiered. Massimo Troisi, who played Neruda in the film, died just days after shooting the film. Let's hope Placido Domingo is spared. Here he is as Neruda.

Some scenes from the opera are on YouTube.