Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran, cont.
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 9:47 AM | Link to this article
Fortunately, Omar Sharif did not die of shame, allowing him to read Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's adaptation of his own play, Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran (Mr. Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran). The main attraction of the movie is its setting in the Rue Bleue area of Paris in the 1960s, where a Jewish teenager named Moïse, nicknamed Momo (played by newcomer Pierre Boulanger), living under the oppressive control of his depressed father, finds a breath of fresh air in Monsieur Ibrahim, the Turkish grocer who owns the shop across the street. Momo's other release is found in visits to the local prostitutes (who are as permanent in their location on the street as the buildings), the first of which is the focus of the opening sequence, showing the 13-year-old cracking open his piggy bank, changing the coins for notes at Monsieur Ibrahim's grocery, and rehearsing his opening lines in the mirror.
Momo's father has a collection of valuable books, which he insists be kept in darkness, and obsessively controls the household money. As he begins to steal from Monsieur Ibrahim's grocery, to cut corners on his food budget, the old man takes the boy under his wing, turning a blind eye to his shoplifting and even advising him to give his father cat food and call it pâté. (Momo's father loses his job and abandons his son, leaving only a note and a pile of money: he is subsequently found, after having committed suicide under a train in Marseilles.) All of this should be very depressing, but we follow Momo's voyage into Monsieur Ibrahim's view of the world. In a hilarious sequence lampooning the French bureaucracy (a series of sour-faced fonctionnaires say "Non," one after another), Monsieur Ibrahim is finally able to adopt Momo legally.
The area of Paris around the Rue Bleue, at the boundaries of the 9th, 10th, and 2nd arrondissements, is near some of the dicier parts of the city, the Grands Boulevards, the Gare du Nord, and the Gare de l'Est. One of the most touching sequences in the movie is when Monsieur Ibrahim and Momo take a walk through Paris together: they stroll along the quais of the Seine and have a drink at a café. For Momo, "living in Paris" would be like a dream, he says; what he means is that the distance between this "real Paris" (where wealthy people live and tourists wander) and the Rue Bleue is too great. Fulfilling a long-held dream, Monsieur Ibrahim buys a red convertible sportscar, and they set off for his village back in Turkey. This road-trip sequence is beautiful and rich in evocative power, especially as the characters cross the Dardanelles on a ferry, listening to the call of the muezzin from the minarets of Istanbul, and as they drive east through Turkey, visiting Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim shrines and seeing a Dervish ceremony.
The movie's main attraction for me, of course, was the chance to look at a recreation of 1960s Paris, accomplished mostly through the careful placement of old cars and a soundtrack of that era's pop music in France. Listening to the radio is Momo's great solace and, simultaneously, a way to annoy his father. All in all, Monsieur Ibrahim is a fun and poignant tribute to that hopeful and turbulent time.
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Der Ring from New York, cont.
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 9:34 AM | Link to this article
Fortunately, the second scene is saved by the mercurial character of Loge, whose entrance in Das Rheingold is accompanied by the shifty leitmotif that is one of best signatures in the Ring cycle. Tenor Philip Langridge gave a great performance in this role, the lying trickster of the gods, who manages to stave off the death of the gods (which would be assured by the absence of Freia) by relating the story of the theft of the Rhinegold and the creation of the ring of power. With lust for the gold, the giants carry off Freia and allow Wotan 12 hours to come up with it as a ransom for her. The orchestra weaves its transitional tapestry again, as the scene descends into Nibelheim where Mime and the other Nibelungs do Alberich's bidding in the third scene. Both entering and leaving Nibelheim, the orchestral fabric is interrupted by a short rhythmic section of music that calls for 18 tuned anvils. This sounded great on the radio, in spite of the challenges inherent in making this work in a live performance. As Alberich Richard Paul Fink gave what was, I think, the best performance of this remarkable cast. He had power, consistency, and great variation of color and tone.
Wotan and Loge eventually trick Alberich and steal everything: all of the gold and treasure the Nibelungs have amassed for him, the Tarnhelm (which makes its wearer invisible), and the ring, upon which Alberich places his curse. Back in the upper world, the gods come back together as the giants return looking for their ransom. The giants insist that the treasure has to be piled up so that it covers Freia, in order that they may forget her beauty and release her. The treasure covers most of her, but they insist that the Tarnhelm be added to cover her hair, and the ring, now on Wotan's finger, must cover her eye. With his usual shortsightedness (he has only one eye, after all), Wotan refuses to yield the ring, but the mysterious goddess Erda rises up from the earth and, with the Rhine music leitmotif recast in a minor key accompanying her singing, warns Wotan that he must yield the ring. This must be a difficult role, sung by contralto Elena Zaremba, appearing only at the end of the opera in what is a crucial and dramatic scene. Ms. Zaremba has a dark voice that seemed a little forced on the radio, almost cracking at some points and undermined by a sometimes wild vibrato.
Of course, Wotan does yield the ring. The giants quarrel over how to divide their treasure, and Fafner slays his brother Fasolt to claim everything for himself. Freia is returned, and with her the eternal youth of the gods. Donner, god of thunder, swings his hammer and a bridge of clouds forms, over which the gods enter their new fortress in the sky, Valhalla. While I would have enjoyed seeing the production at the Met (I have yet to see the Ring cycle staged: see my post on August 12, 2003, Bayreuth, Anyone?), I was quite glad to be able to listen to this admirable performance on the radio.
Tune in for the rest of the Ring cycle broadcasts: Die Walküre on April 3, Siegfried on April 17, and Götterdämmerung on April 23.
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English Mermaid Stranded in Washington, cont. — by Jens Laurson
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 12:25 AM | Link to this article
A little informational talk between the Schumann and a selection of seven songs from Hugo Wolf’s "Italienische[m] Liederbuch" gave the audience some pertinent information regarding the first two songs, "Auch kleine Dinge" (Little things, too) and "Mein Liebster ist so klein" (My dearest is so small)—namely that Wolf was a mere five feet tall. In that light, the songs shone brighter and obviously more humorously. Le botiglie etc. bla bla bla.
A word or two on Eugene Asti, who had stepped in for Julius Drake at relatively short notice, is more than in order. He is a delightfully competent accompanist who worked out the emotions of the songs as much as can be reasonably expected. But most admirably, he played awfully well without ever being obtrusive or overly timid. Sophie Daneman's most noticeable organ—her voice, that is (were she quiet, it might be a different matter)—doesn't need a pianist's kind consideration anyway.
Reynaldo Hahn's song "A Chloris"—substituted for the scheduled "Dans la nuit," the score of which could not be produced by the performers, who consequently fell in love with the tribute to the beauty of Chloris's eyes—is stolen entirely from all sorts of composers. Moreover, it is heart-rending, beautiful, stunning. It sounds like the lovechild of a Händel opera and Glenn Gould playing Bach (add a spice of Beethoven). I should be surprised if Hahn did not succeed in bedding Chloris, if such were his intentions. Two Gounod songs also convinced me with sheer beauty of composition and execution.
Separated from her seven-month-old boy, either pining for the toddler or the telepathic powers of music must have been the reason for two sets of children songs in this program. The apology of Mme. Daneman in her explanation, however, was wholly unnecessary. The Schumann and especially the Poulenc, in his La courte paille (The short straw), are very worthy and fully recital-competent compositions that add their wit (musical and otherwise) to an atmosphere that can use every bit of it.
Noel Coward, of course, is a wonderful way to end a concert. The beat in "A Room with a View"—nod to Eugene Asti—and Sophie Daneman cooing the audience with her ample charm had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. "If Love Were All" and "Chase Me, Charlie” made sure that I'll be looking for a record with more of this man's work. Especially since I best remember him (unfortunately, that is) from his role as an over-the-top prison king in the dreadful original The Italian Job. Ian Bostridge's acclaimed account of Coward songs on EMI will likely be the first choice. Up two notches from Rodgers and Hammerstein but two steps away from standard classical repertoire, it is work fully deserving of Daneman's blooming voice that suddenly seemed to use the West Garden Court and all the resonance to its advantage. Way to go out.
But, of course, that wasn't quite all. Most amusingly and oddly appetizing was the (I think) Coward song about the lonesome oyster—an oyster's taste of high society (and vice versa). That set the mood for what is one of the best ways to conclude these Sunday concerts. Having experienced both gustative and musical stimuli, Utopia on U Street is a great way to enjoy one's après-concert over drinks, live jazz, and food. Wayne Walentz and Pam Bricker plus their percussionist were responsible for good music and a splendid ending to the night.
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Music in Proust, cont.
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 9:41 AM | Link to this article
Also in the fifth book, another fascination with the power of music is expressed in the conversation between the narrator and Albertine about the calls of merchants in the streets of his neighborhood.
It is the magic charm of the old aristocratic quarter that they are at the same time plebeian. Just as, sometimes, cathedrals used to have them within a stone's throw of their porches (which have even preserved the name, like the porch of Rouen styled the Booksellers', because these latter used to expose their merchandise in the open air against its walls), so various minor trades, but peripatetic, used to pass in front of the noble Hôtel de Guermantes, and made one think at times of the ecclesiastical France of long ago. For the appeal which they launched at the little houses on either side had, with rare exceptions, nothing of a song. It differed from song as much as the declamation—barely colored by imperceptible modulations—of Boris Godounov and Pelléas; but on the other hand recalled the psalmody of a priest chanting his office of which these street scenes are but the good-humored, secular, and yet half-liturgical counterpart. . . . Several of the foodstuffs cried in the street, which personally I detested, were greatly to Albertine's liking, so much so that Françoise used to send her young footman out to buy them, slightly humiliated perhaps at finding himself mingled with the plebeian crowd. Very distinct in this peaceful quarter (where the noise was no longer a cause of lamentation to Françoise and had become a source of pleasure to myself), there came to me, each with its different modulation, recitatives declaimed by those humble folk as they would be in the music—so entirely popular—of Boris, where an initial intonation is barely altered by the inflexion of one note which rests upon another, the music of the crowd which is more a language than a music. It was "ah! le bigorneau, deux sous le bigorneau" [hey! sea snails, 2 sous a sea snail], which brought people running to the cornets in which were sold those horrid little molluscs, which, if Albertine had not been there, would have disgusted me, just as the snails disgusted me which I heard cried for sale at the same hour. Here again it was the barely lyrical declamation of Moussorgsky that the vendor reminded me, but not of it alone. For after having almost 'spoken': "Les escargots, ils sont frais, ils sont beaux" [Snails, they're fresh and beautiful], it was with the vague melancholy of Maeterlinck, transposed into music by Debussy, that the snail vendor, in one of those pathetic finales in which the composer of Pelléas shows his kinship with Rameau: "If vanquished I must be, is it for thee to be my vanquisher?" added with a singsong melancholy: "On les vend six sous la douzaine. . . ." [Get them for 6 sous a dozen]This contemplation of hawkers' cries in the streets of Paris is far too lengthy to cite in its entirety, but another great passage from it underscores the medieval plainchant quality of their cries.
It was true that the fantasy, the spirit of each vendor or vendress frequently introduced variations into the words of all these chants that I used to hear from my bed. And yet a ritual suspension interposing a silence in the middle of a word, especially when it was repeated a second time, constantly reminded me of some old church. In his little cart drawn by a she-ass which he stopped in front of each house before entering the courtyard, the old-clothes man, brandishing a whip, intoned: "Habits, marchand d'habits, ha . . . bits" [Clothing, seller of clothing, clo . . . thing] with the same pause between the final syllables as if he had been intoning in plainchant: "Per omnia saecula saeculo . . . rum" [For ever and e . . . ver] or "requiescat in pa . . . ce" [May he rest in peace] albeit he had no reason to believe in the immortality of his clothes, nor did he offer them as cerements for the supreme repose in peace. And similarly, as the motives were beginning, even at this early hour, to become confused, a vegetable woman, pushing her little hand-cart, was using for her litany the Gregorian division: "A la tendresse, à la verduresse, / Artichauts tendres et beaux, / Arti . . . chauts" [For tenderness and greenness, / Tender and pretty artichokes, / Arti . . . chokes].In the United States, the best example of the music of vendors' cries is probably the calls of hot dog or beer sellers at hockey or baseball games (e.g., "Getcha cold bee-eer, cold beer"), which have often fascinated me. The similarity Proust sees between his urban music and Gregorian chant is interesting, too, because there are examples of polyphony in the Middle Ages and Renaissance that use this sort of melody as the basis for composition. I have a memory of a piece that was in the Norton Anthology of Music when I was an undergraduate music major. Since this was in the late 1980s and several editions ago, I haven't been able to find any precise information on it yet. What I recall was that it used a fruit vendor's call, quite similar to what Proust describes in this section of his novel, as a cantus firmus: something like "Fraises nouvelles, mûres fraîches" (Wild strawberries, fresh blackberries). If I can locate this piece, I'll fill you in. This section of Proust's book is quite beautiful to read.
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The Battle of Algiers, cont.
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 1:36 PM | Link to this article
In an article (The Pentagon's Film Festival: A primer for The Battle of Algiers, August 27, 2003) for Slate, Charles Paul Freund gave a long and thoughtful response to this news. He answers a series of self-posed questions, including these thoughts in response to this one, "What does any of this have to do with Baghdad?":
Terror. The Mideast learned the efficacy of insurgent terror from Algeria. The PLO, Hamas, and other groups are indebted to the Algerian strategy of so-called "people's war." Its lessons are now apparent in Iraq, too. Yet the film treats the Algiers terror campaign as a failure: its later bombings and shootings are made to appear increasingly desperate and strategically pointless. "Wars aren't won with terrorism," says one key revolutionary. "Neither wars nor revolutions." But that depends at least in part on how the other side reacts to terror, whether the other side is France in Algeria or the United States in Iraq. Wars may not be won with terror, but they can be lost by reacting ineffectively to it.Now, thanks to an article (Pontecorvo and the rebirth of 'Battle of Algiers', March 17) by Elisabetta Povoledo in the International Herald Tribune, you can learn something about what the film's director thinks about all this attention:
When Gillo Pontecorvo heard that the Pentagon had organized a screening of his 1965 film "The Battle of Algiers" for a group of military and civilian experts last summer, he said he found it a "little strange." If anything, he conceded, his movie about the bloody uprisings that led to Algeria's eventual independence from France in 1962 was useful to "give an idea of the horror of the situation," not necessarily to teach Guerrilla Warfare 101 to a roomful of strategists pondering the current war in Iraq.To be sure, the movie shows some things that are horrible to watch, but it does so in an objective and unbiased way, creating the same sense of revulsion for the torture of Algerian informants by the French army as for the terrorists murdering civilians by placing bombs in crowded restaurants. When it was first released, of course, The Battle of Algiers was banned in France, a place where the collective guilt for national atrocities is assuaged only by denial of their existence. However, the tactics used by the French army in Algeria have been the subject of national debate in France for the past several years. In 2000, a group of intellectuals made a national call for a full investigation and public disclosure of the torture practiced in Algeria.
"I don't think that any film can teach anything," Pontecorvo said. "I think that the most that 'The Battle of Algiers' can do is teach how to make cinema, not war." The Pentagon viewing—to which participants were invited via a flier declaring, "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas"—came a few months before the re-release of the film in a new 35mm print. "Perhaps the reason they've dusted it off is Iraq," Pontecorvo said in an interview in his Rome apartment. "But action and love always work in the movies. They never get old and this is above all an action film."
The following year, an 83-year-old French Army general, Paul Aussaresses, broke the code of silence and published a book, Services spéciaux, Algérie 1955–1957 (that's a link to amazon.fr; here it is, translated into English), about his experiences in Algeria as the Army's Coordinator of Information Services, where he served under General Massu, the cold-hearted leader of the French crackdown depicted as General Mathieu in The Battle of Algiers. (Sadly, Aussaresses is not a whistleblower interested in bringing the Army's crimes to light: he apparently describes his involvement in the "torture, summary execution of suspects sometimes disguised as suicides, and massacre of civilians" with pride in having acted as any dedicated soldier would.) You can find out a lot more about this issue, if you read French, at La torture pendant la guerre d'Algérie, from the Association Internationale des Droits de l'Homme in Geneva.
Not to harp on the same string (see post on March 15, about the Academy missing out on the chance to recognize The Triplets of Belleville and Destino), but this film was nominated for an Oscar in 1966 as Best Foreign Language Film. It didn't win.
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Millennium Wagner Opera Company, cont.
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 2:39 PM | Link to this article
The program began with mezzo soprano Joci Patrice Houston's rendition of two of Richard Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder, called by Carol Berger in her program notes "the emotional and musico-thematic blueprints for the music drama Tristan und Isolde." Im Treibhaus (In the hothouse) is related to the third act of Tristan, and its long introduction and postlude, played by pianist Stephen Hargreaves, are studies of longing extended harmony. Träume (Dreams) led directly into the music in Act 2 of Tristan it is thought to have inspired, the love duet "O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe" (Come down here, night of love; see the German text with English translation of Act II) with soprano Anne Wright Coffman as Isolde. The tenor for the evening was a surprise: Hans Aschenbach (an American who has been singing in Europe for the past several years), it was announced, had agreed to replace the scheduled singer because of his admiration for the goals of the Millenium Wagner Opera Company.
Next, Ms. Houston descended from the stage to sing her warning song from the watchtower, "Einsam wachend in der Nacht" (Alone watching in the night), most of which she sang from various points in the central aisle between the halves of the seated audience. The Tristan story, of course, is as old as the hills (at Tristan and Isolt, a number of versions of this story, both text and images, have been catalogued by the The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester), but Wagner's transformation of it is surely the most powerful. The first half of the concert concluded, not with a scene from Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten as in the program, but with an excerpt of the third act, first scene, of Tristan, "Isolde kommt! Isolde naht!" (Isolde is coming! Isolde approaches!). Mr. Aschenbach's singing is powerful, and his acting was dramatic and insistent, which made for an exciting performance to experience.
Between the two Tristan excerpts, however, were some more songs: two of the Vier Letzte Lieder of Richard Strauss (Beim Schlafengehen [While going to sleep], by Hermann Hesse, and Im Abendrot [In twilight], by Josef von Eichendorff) and three of the Liebeslieder, op. 52 (no. 7, no. 13, and no. 17). The latter's juxtaposition with his own music would probably have made Wagner gag, but I found the combination charming.
After a brief pause, Ms. Coffman and Ms. Houston sang the Evening Prayer ("Abends will ich schlafen gehn" [Evenings when I go to sleep]) from the end of the second scene of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel. This beautiful duet between the two children has a cloying but ultimately pleasing text about the 14 guardian angels who protect sleeping children. It was a welcome light alternative to the more serious Wagner selections. This was followed by something even lighter, the comic terzett ("So muss allein ich bleiben" [So I must remain alone]) from the first act of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus (The Bat), with its very catchy refrain.
The final piece on the program was the Act I dialogue between Siegmund (Mr. Aschenbach) and Sieglinde (Ms. Coffman) from Die Walküre: "Winterstürme" and "Du bist der Lenz" (found in the third scene). After much applause from the audience, Ms. Berger introduced three encores. First, Ms. Houston sang the Marienlied (Song of Mary, from 1910) of Joseph Marx, a lush song that required all of the big sound of Ms. Houston's voice. Second, Ms. Coffman sang Richard Strauss's orchestral song Zueignung (Dedication), with its refrain of "Habe Dank" (Be thankful). Finally, Mr. Aschenbach sang an excerpt from the final scene of Wagner's Parsifal: "Nur eine Waffe taugt" (One weapon alone will serve), from Act III. Ms. Berger introduced it with the comment about the spear in this scene, which caused the wound, is now transformed into a tool of healing. In the present climate of international confrontation, we can only hope that the spirit of mutual understanding will prevail over the insanity of violence.
This was a well-conceived program of beautiful vocal music, and the three singers featured show that the Millennium Wagner Opera Company is on its feet. If you like Wagner or you just like to hear emotionally charged singing, you should join me in hoping for the company's success. All kinds of support would be welcomed by them, I can assure you. If you are in the Washington area and want the chance to hear a longer version of this program, the same singers will perform this coming Saturday evening (March 20, 7:30 pm), at St. George's Church in Arlington (915 N. Oakland St., which is a short walk from the Virginia Square Metro stop). They will then give a concert the following weekend (Saturday, March 27, at 8 pm) in the Crystal Room at the Union League Club in Chicago (65 West Jackson Blvd., which is downtown). Master classes with the three singers and Ms. Berger are also being offered. See the Millennium Wagner Opera Company Web site for details.
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What's the Beef with The Passion?, cont. — by Jens Laurson
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 12:27 AM | Link to this article
As a German atheist, I find the idea of salvation by the cross to be one of the most pervasive lies and/or misunderstandings in the history of modern man. To anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers I react no less sensitively than Abe Foxman. But what has Mel Gibson's disturbing father got do with The Passion? Or, for that matter, must we see this film through the mind of Mel Gibson's rather orthodox Catholicism that includes the rejection of Vatican II, one of the few things that I find positive about the Catholic Church?
I came away with a very different picture of The Passion than Hitchens, Krauthammer, Sullivan, and Co. The depiction of the Passion has some inherent difficulties, Gibson or not, and even the Gospel itself can be a divisive issue. But is this really what springs to mind when seeing the film? I find it hard to believe that people would leave the theater any more anti-Semitic than they had or had not been before seeing this film. As Christopher Hitchens points out in his article ("Schlock, Yes; Awe, No; Fascism, Probably," in Slate), an inscription of the Lovingway United Pentecostal Church in Denver that read "Jews Killed the Lord Jesus" was posted before the movie even opened. Such despicable attitudes are present in the murky waters of some unfortunate people's brains, but The Passion does not cause them. And if the film were to elicit such a public show of disgrace, the reaction of the public should rein it in. We need not attribute the word fascism to the film to that end.
The polarizing figure of Gibson aside, the fact that Gibson would not allow critics to see the film ahead of its opening provoked the ire of many journalists, who were consequently hurt in their professional egos (The Nation's Stuart Klawans all but admits so much). Beyond that, is the actual film anti-Semitic? I don't think it is. While it would be disingenuous and stupid to claim that the film can't be anti-Semitic because Jesus and his followers were Jews themselves, the film does not visibly go out of its way to portray Jews per se as particularly malevolent. There are characters who are portrayed with all of Hollywood's skills available as evil and vengeful and many of them happen to be Jews, but that alone does not make this picture anti-Semitic.
In "Mel Gibson's blood libel" (in the Washington Post) Charles Krauthammer is right to point out the history of interpretation of the Passion, that it is one including utmost horror and thus cannot be considered in splendid isolation. For many Christians and non-Christians, Vatican II is the "disclaimer" of sorts for the story of the Passion. Mel Gibson's rejection of Vatican II, for whatever reason (there might be other ones involved than his desire to attribute the death of Jesus to the Jews for all eternity) is unfortunate in this light, but The Passion itself does not come with a disclaimer one way or the other. The context we give the Passion is that which we provide ourselves. That is the reason why it is important to know history and the Bible well when seeing this movie. Everyone who doesn't will fail to understand the film altogether.
Gibson's "singular act of interreligious aggression" can't be whitewashed with the "Leni Riefenstahl defense" (all Krauthammer) of having had other intensions? Oh, boy . . . the crux is that Krauthammer thinks it is impossible to have an artistic vision and not impose one's personal interpretation at the same time. This is a problem that many, Christian and non-Christian, viewers or non-viewers alike have mentioned to me: "We don't want Mel Gibson's version of the Passion stuck in our head." To the degree that the four Gospels, told as one, lend themselves to interpretation, one of the single most positive surprises to me was the fact that in telling the story Gibson succeeds remarkably in making it a very matter-of-fact account of the 14 stations. Why ten minutes of sadistic flogging and not "zero, as in Luke?" I suppose that's the focus on the suffering, more of which later. But it is hardly to drill home the point about what bastards the Jews were—or the Romans, who do all the flogging.
Retelling or Propaganda? When I mentioned that I found the film rather unremarkable, I meant mostly that the story of the Passion is not particularly new to me, as a European. From Johann Sebastian Bach's Passions to Grünewald's altarpiece (see Ionarts posts on February 29 and March 5) to the sullied history of the Oberammergau Passion play to more harmless little Passion plays and school, I have been surrounded with this story often enough. I don't know the exact effects of the Oberammergau staging and its contribution to the Holocaust, but growing up long after World War II, the last thing I took away from these depictions was a particular hatred for anyone. Indeed, Gibson's account, save for the graphic nature of it, corresponded surprisingly well with the naively benign picture I had about the Passion from childhood on. German though I am, I would object to the claim that I must have grown up amidst rabid Jew-haters and that I was nurtured with propaganda fostering "interreligious aggression."
Mel Gibson either did not try or did not succeed in making this his story; it is the story of Christ. Whatever his personal beliefs, untimely as they are to me, I believe he tried to make a depiction of the Passion as faithfully as he could, being a religious man, and as good a movie as he could, being an artist. That's what he does. Movies. Tricky as this may be, I believe he succeeded. This is not The Lord of the Rings or Erin Brockovich, where a director imposes his view of a book or story onto a subsequent film. It is not Moses in The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston. This is a director making moving pictures out of a moving account of Jesus with the means that he knows from his trade.
But Chris Lehmann, writing for The Revealer ("Picturing the Passion"), makes the point that it is precisely not "a faithful, realistic account of the [...] the greatest story ever told, [but] Gibson's loudest command ever barked." Am I one of the unthinking victims of his insidious Leni Riefenstahl propaganda flick? Sorry, I don't get it. Am I naturally inoculated against the message or too ignorant to discern it? Sure, there were a few moments in which I thought that Gibson the director had taken over from Gibson the "faithful" storyteller. Especially when the cloth, which Veronica holds after cleaning Jesus' face with it, looks suspiciously like the Holy Shroud of Turin. Or when Jesus gets thrown over the cliff only to dangle in front of Judas. Where was that again in the Bible? But neither that nor the italicized Latin nor all the beautiful tall people nor Satan's four cameos really justify the claim that the film is trying to "bend it" or "stretch it" whenever "it comes to the Jews" (Krauthammer) or to whatever else. The link that Krauthammer draws between Satan and the Jews among which he (Satan, not Krauthammer) moves in two of those four appearances—concluding cynically with "a perfect match: Satan's own people"—is pugnacious, or at least silly.
All Suffering, No Love? Another frightfully ill-perceived criticism comes up surprisingly often. Somehow, the claim is that The Passion of the Christ is too much about the suffering and not enough about "the message" of Christ. Kenneth Turan from the LA Times complains that the film "fosters a one-dimensional view of Jesus, reducing his entire life and world-transforming teachings to his sufferings, to the notion that he was exclusively someone who was willing to absorb unspeakable punishment for our sins." Smarty-pants David Denby from The New Yorker, too, finds that "Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagerly involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus' message of love into one of hate."
Now I am only a non-believer, but isn't the suffering precisely the point? The quibble that there is no focus on the message and doing of Christ—say, a juicy quote from the Sermon on the Mount—but only this assemblage of carnage misses the point spectacularly! If you are looking for Hippie-Jesus with a smile and a bumper-sticker quality quote on love and peace on his lips you might want to try your corner bookstore's esoteric section. Don't look for it in Catholic thought, though—and don't look for it in this film.
The very message of Jesus was his suffering, was his sacrifice. Every doing and saying of Jesus makes sense only in light of his crucifixion, his willingness to die for our sins. It may sound pretty stupid to Krauthammer and me, but that's the belief. And if and only if you understand that can you look beyond the film as Gibson's "personal obsessions" and "a sickening death trip" (Denby). Focusing on a part and making it the whole is, perhaps singularly, appropriate when it comes to the Passion. That's why people unfamiliar with the story should not see this movie, and by "not unfamiliar" I mean "very familiar"! Not because there is something to hide from anyone else, but simply because it won't make sense otherwise. It would then indeed be nothing but an oddly spiritual gore-fest. But if understood rightly, it ought to be the feel-good movie of the year.
Amen. Unfortunately, the apparent inappropriateness of expressing strong, "outdated," and politically incorrect faith in public rubs many people the wrong way. Take that, Mel Gibson's personality, the hurt ego of journalists, the hype, and the incredible ignorance that many reviewers brought to the subject matter and apparently you get the loathing response that is still being poured out over this venture. I don't suppose that the criticism is any more anti-Catholic than the film is anti-Semitic, but it's surprising and pathetic in both of the meanings of the word.
All the more interesting, it becomes what professional movie critics have to say. Calm and a no-nonsense approach come from Roger Ebert ("Ebert & Roeper") and Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun-Times): "It's the only religious film I've seen, with the exception of The Gospel According to Matthew by Pasolini, that really seems to deal directly with what happened instead of with [...] cleaned-up, postcard versions of it," says the former. The latter concludes, "Mel Gibson's [Passion] does not preach that anyone—past, present, and future—must bear sole responsibility for the death of Jesus Christ. [...] It is not a work of hate. It is a powerful and important film, helmed by someone with a sincere heart and a warrior's sense of justice. It is [...] ultimately a message of redemption and hope."
Ultimately, it is not a film for a thumbs up or down; I don't give the Bible a thumbs up or down. But many of the overblown attacks on this film deserve a big thumbs down. Try again: this time perhaps with more love, less hate.
The Triplets of Belleville, cont.
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 7:28 PM | Link to this article
I'm not going to give away too much of the plot, but the abandoning cyclists are taken prisoner by the French mafia and transported by ship to a big city called Belleville. In some ways, this place is obviously an American city, with a grotesquely fat Statue of Liberty in its harbor and residents who eat hamburgers and look like they have been lifted directly from a Botero painting (see post on January 8). In his interview, here is what Chomet had to say about it:
The first thing we see of Belleville in the movie is the Château Frontenac in Québec City. We made numerous references to Québec City and Montreal, in trying to imagine how those cities would have looked if they developed in the way New York had. When Québec became independent, money was invested in Toronto instead, which is an English-speaking metropolis. The bridge that appears in the film is the Jacques Cartier Bridge, which is also surrounded by typical Québecois buildings. The Statue of Liberty image is a reference to the American way of life and to the incredible number of obese people you see in American cities. That is something that has always struck me.In one of the most beautiful sequences in the movie, the grandmother, who has followed Champion throughout the race, chases the boat carrying him to Belleville on a pedalboat, which she rents from a flamboyantly gay man in a cabin on a beach (his mannerisms and the beefcake pinups in his cabin give him away). In one of the funnier jokes in the movie, which made me laugh out loud in the theater (but no one else), is that we learn she has rented a pedalboat when we see the boat owner in front of his cabin, on the front of which reads in huge letters the word "PÉDALOS." This is a pun on the French slang word pédale or p.d., meaning "fag." The music that accompanies the storm-tossed journey of the little pedalboat is the Kyrie movement of Mozart's C Minor Mass, one of the two important themes in the movie. The other is first heard near the film's beginning, when the grandmother and Champion watch a wonderful animation of Glenn Gould playing the C minor prelude from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, a most memorable performance which made the piano sound like a harpsichord. Both of these pieces of music are heard at various points in the movie, often transformed under different guises. This music was much more satisfying than the new songs composed for the movie, with their whimsical performances on household appliances.
The movie's main characters were animated by different teams of artists, and they have incredibly individual looks. The grandmother with her uneven legs wears one huge elevator shoe to even out her pace. The grandson is a caricature of the cyclist's body, all muscle and little else, with an enormous Gallic nose. The Mafiosi have perfectly square shoulders and look like walking blocks of stone. And the hilarious sad sack of a dog, who comes into Champion's life as a puppy and grows into a fat adult dog, howls at the Métro train that passes by the house every five minutes. You should go and see the movie to appreciate this for yourself.
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Marcy Rosen & Co. at the Library of Congress (The Bat Strikes Again), cont. — by Jens Laurson
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 9:04 AM | Link to this article
The quartet starts as a gentle affair executed with impeccable taste. The opening movements (Moderato and Menuetto) were, in my favorite phrase, "perfectly delightful" and never overbearing. Devoid of any pretense and just engaging enough. Indeed, it fit the relatively early Haydn (composed in his mid-thirties) like a glove. Neither Romantic, which they should not be, nor boring, which it can more easily turn into than one would think. With the Adagio, Haydn shows over and over again his absolute mastery of that form, no matter in which genre. From the man who brought us seven adagios on a row in Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze (The seven last words of our savior on the cross), this is simply a beautiful and beautifully simple warmth-filled movement that should win every listener over. Haydn was lucky to have it performed as the Mendelssohn String Quartet did. The fugal last movement perfectly rounded up the performance. It was lighthearted, quicksilvery almost, quaint certainly. A little energy was lacking, and it was the string quartet's version of the "Dresden china" approach to the music. Polite but not too cool. It may well have been the least favorite piece to play for the four musicians that night, but it was kept together so splendidly that I found it entertaining throughout. Had the day been less nice, had I been less energetic myself, I would possibly have found it less exciting.
Then followed the part I was most excited about, the Washington premiere of William Bolcom's 2002 String Quartet No. 11. Viola and first violin excursions that continually increase in length were interrupted by the second violin and cello pizzicatos. Out of the first motive sprawled ever-longer parts, like sluggish cream that wound curdling spirals through tea (Joyce's words, not mine). A quicker pace entered and left, leading back to the harmonically tame theme and derivations thereof. What came to my mind immediately was, "Haydn for the 21st Century"! It does not have the energy of Shostakovich or Bartók (Beethoven's counterparts), but a lightness that is very enjoyable and reasonably accessible. Allegro con fuoco, the second movement, is understandably more driven and continues to be a cleansing of the musical palate. Notturno is evocative and very, very nice, so far as the listener can find the modernist harmonies "very, very nice" at all. Michael Tippett's string quartets are far more challenging. The concert at the Freer Gallery the day before also comes to mind, with its Whistler "Nocturnes" exhibited above and Chopin Nocturnes played downstairs.
Long but very separate notes that travel up and down the scales are the skeleton of this movement and every instrument gets its take. Sometimes accented with long, soft trills on the first violin or over equally long held vibrato notes on the cello or viola. There is a delicacy the Mendelssohn Quartet allow the music to bring out that continues ever further to the softest notes, the tiniest pizzicatos, all the way to where my pen on paper was louder than the music. Eerie sounds, almost sci-fi-like, are added to the mix just a bit before it fizzles out. Perhaps I was the only one to think so, but this was very, very enticing. Cute in the best way. The Presto scherzando speeds things up, gives familiar figures some "oompf," and bubbles along rapidly. Aroused and angry hornets seem to swarm from the four players at one point, the metallic sci-fi sound makes another short cameo, and a grabbing and fairly melodic burst brings it to its well-deserved end and well-deserved (if perhaps a bit modest) applause.
Excited enough, the Mendelssohn after the Intermission sounds very promising. Despite some neglect, his string quartets are very fine, op. 44, no.3 in E-flat major not the least. But when it came to tending his posthumous reputation, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy went about things in completely the wrong way. If one lives at a time when a Mozart or Beethoven has long since established definite standards with regard to how a real artist behaves, lives, looks, and finally dies, then it is no good being totally at odds with this Romantic ideal of an artist, at any rate if one wishes to secure a place for oneself among composers who are not only first class but also profound. The above-mentioned ideal demands quite unequivocally of the true artist that he is wild, eccentric, uncouth, poor, ill, neglected, and creative. Genius can only blossom in damp attics, and an early death is definitively an advantage. Only with regard to the latter respect was Mendelssohn in the running, since he died at the age of 38. In all other respects he failed miserably and indeed had to pay the price of having an almost indestructible reputation for being smooth and superficial. He was wealthy, good-looking, of an amiable disposition, and had an unprecedented capacity for hard work. He appears to have been liked by everybody, to have been an excellent husband and father, and to have been little interested in originality for its own sake. Next! (This description of Mendelssohn has in large part been shamelessly plagiarized from Ulrik Spang-Hanssen's wickedly funny liner notes for his recording of Mendelssohn’s complete organ works, on Classico, CLASSCD 193-95.)
This string quartet defies such notions instantly. Perfect music best enjoyed leaning back, with a big smile on one's face. Often gentle, never bland. Almost conspicuously musical and without gimmicks. "The Power of Melody" would be the Hollywood subtitle of "String Quartet op. 44 no. 3: The Movie." A long string quartet, with a first movement lasting well over ten minutes, it sounds unhurried and splendidly flowing. Tonight it seemed much shorter than usual. The music is an unqualified success and makes the four instruments seem like a far larger band. The movements just flew by, and by the time the wonderful Adagio non troppo came about, the audience ate out of the Mendelssohn Quartet’s palm. If it is well played, which is difficult, it is much more satisfying than most Schubert or Schumann. The long, loving, trailing end delivered us into the last movement, Molto allegro con fuoco. Heads started bobbing as its vivacious chasing runs sprinted up the scales. It is one of the very few string quartets where I would have liked a da capo al fine. One more time. Alas, it was the end to a stupendous night with great music superbly played. That the audience could not muster a third curtain call and perhaps an encore brings back my unkind view of the Washington audience at large, but nothing could take away from what had been offered already. Hopefully on more time, some other time.
Once Every Four Years, cont. — by Jens Laurson
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 9:12 AM | Link to this article
The facial expression of the three musicians did not quite communicate the joy of music making. No doubt unrelated to the piece at hand, theirs were the faces of consternation, struggle, and, for that matter, constipation. Brooding and almost suffering: transfigured, in short. Cellist Matthias Gredler with his polite, schoolboy appearance looked like he was ready to weep just about any moment; Wolfgang Redik, the violinist, contorted his face as though he were ascending heavenwards with a lemon in his mouth; and Stefan Mendl did his own thing on the piano, but in a much more light-spirited way than his fellow trio members. While this might be unfortunate, because facial expressions and gestures communicate the music almost as much as the sound waves, it matters less so in the West Garden Court where only the most dedicated listeners arrive early enough to get seats with a good view. Comparison with the Takács Quartet to which I continue to refer (and will write about) made it more obvious than it otherwise would have been. This arrangement of the Schoenberg piece, a joy to hear and hear live as it is in whichever version, finally falls ultimately short of its string sextet and orchestral versions. Were it not for those editions, though, Schoenberg would have been considered the esteemed author of the most important piano trio of the looming 20th century.
Intermission separated this well-received part of the performance from Schubert's Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat major, op. 99, D. 898, from 1828, commonly referred to as the "Piano Trio." It dates from the unfathomably productive period of Schubert's last two years, and as virtually every single work from that time, it is an unqualified success. Elmer Booze in his always enjoyable and informative program notes points out that it had been first recognized as the masterpiece it is by Robert Schumann. The famous Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein (I used to tack a hyphenated "not related" to his name, but it turns out that he was a cousin of his more famous physicist namesake) hears all kinds of self-references to Schubert songs in this work. I should not be surprised that the musicologist has finer ears than I. Or perhaps a score to work from. I enjoyed the music, nonetheless. If you thought that Schubert chamber-works would be a dainty affair of nimble niceness and pure pleasantry, you were wrong. Excitement from the first to the last note with plenty of energy to spare was revealed with ease in the outstanding interpretation by this very young trio. At the time of hearing it, I even found the word riveting to be "deserved without qualification." That's difficult to imagine for early-19th-century chamber music even though I was there. But the 16-year-old trio (they must have started playing together in the sandbox) made a wonderful impression on me.
From the beautiful second movement (Andante), with its piano/cello opening that casts a spell over the audience to the wild Scherzo: Allegro, it is captivating music. The Scherzo saw Mr. Redik's bow suffer some major hair loss and the horsehair strands flew like an exclamatory fane through the air, conducting the music in giddy excitement, but always slightly after the fact. All of this is miles away from the beautiful but far less exciting "Rosamunde" string quartet played just last week at the Library of Congress by the Brodsky Quartet (see Ionarts reviews on February 23 and February 27. The crashing finale to the fourth-movement rondo, with its variations of a motif in different keys, made the point once more. And what would a Viennese evening be without dessert! The audience was well rewarded for its applause with the third movement from Antonin Dvořák's Piano Trio in F Minor in honor of the centennial of the composer's death. Composed just 16 years prior to Schoenberg's work, it has a strong and moving character while remaining squarely within the realm of tradition. Truly a great way to end the concert that was one of the innumerable highlights of this season at the National Gallery of Art.
To buy the recordings mentioned in this review at Amazon:
Beethoven Boyled Down, cont. — by Jens Laurson
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 6:37 PM | Link to this article
Usually introducing every piece with a few words, Emil Chudnovsky made reference to the fact that there was "rather a lot of music" on the program and, hoping that the ensuing Brahms would speak for itself, that the fewer words were said, the better. The way he and Michael Sheppard dove into the Brahms sonata (1888) proved this assumption right from the get-go. Deft and with a perfectly appropriate "take no prisoner" approach! The famous Adagio line was somber rather than wallowing in emotion. No unnecessary lingering on notes was befitting the more energetic reprise of the theme that makes nonsense of an all-too-soft approach the first time around anyway. Un poco presto e con sentimento, the third movement—to its advantage, let be it said—was a good deal sooner presto than it ever got sentimento. The Finale: Presto agitato then was aptly wistful, witty, boasting, and stormy. The bow suffered more, but the sound afforded great effect and entertainment.
Intermission followed enthusiastic applause and gave me time to read up on who that contemporary composer, Benjamin C. S. Boyle, might just be. I already knew that he was in the audience and that he looked audaciously young. The looks weren't deceiving: Mr. Boyle is some very upsettingly 24 years young! Upsetting of course only to me and only because deep within me boils the gall of insane jealousy. But then, I haven't heard his Kreutzer Concert Variations yet: it could still turn out to be pleasingly hackneyed and deliciously atrocious. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. The piece, adapting the Beethoven sonata theme as the first few bars, immediately makes an important point: better well copied than ill created. After the introduction of the famous theme, the piece fits its variations out with a sumptuous, tamely modernist tint. Not terribly novel as a sound but utterly pleasing! Never really too challenging for the crowd, some of whom have already complained about how little of Ludwig van Beethoven was on the program ("Why do they call it the Beethoven Society then?"), it is solidly within the musical vernacular palatable to people who usually "draw the line" at late Beethoven. Yet it is also fresh enough to bring an enjoyable breeze into a program stuffed with warhorses. In some moments it was tempting to ascribe to the Kreutzer Concert Variations an energy not unlike, say, Bela Bartók's 4th String Quartet. (A recent performance of that masterpiece by the Takács Quartet at the Freer Gallery is still fresh in my mind.)
If I hold myself back in enjoying the work unabashedly, it is perhaps because I do not trust it quite yet. I would love to hear more of Mr. Boyle's work to see if substance is a regular part of it. The Washington Times's kind words about Mr. Boyle quoted in the program notes are of little help because the reviewer cannot resist tacking it onto his or her vitriolic antimodernist agenda. Mr. Boyle "seems somehow to have escaped academia's toxic postmodernist flotsam." I can't stand the message, but I love the great use of the word "flotsam"! Boyle's list of teachers, meanwhile, reads like a veritable "who's who" of modern composers. Lukas Foss, David del Tredici, Nicholas Maw, and Christopher Theofanidis, etc., are household names among the hard core of classical music lovers. This short work then, not surprisingly, is rather complementary to the earlier Beethoven. If it finds a few friends besides Emil Israel Chudnovsky, who collaborated with Boyle in the work's creation, I should like to hear it pop up in public performances. Especially for stuffy programs, it is like opening the windows for a few moments. If I am not mistaken, the performance was its premiere. (I should like to make that sound a bit more bombastic: it likely was the World Premiere!)
After this work, it was all downhill for me and pure delight for most of the rest of the audience. Saint-Saëns was a quaint and sweet thereafter with his Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Stripped of its orchestral part it dabbles along nicely, with plenty of effects by which Mr. Chudnovsky could show off his impressive skills on the fiddle. After the taxing first half, this was likely a pleasantly relaxing fare. Well, for Mr. Sheppard at any rate. Mr. Chudnosvky might beg to differ after the Sarasate Gypsy Airs and Ravel's Tzigane, even if he played them from memory. About Fritz Kreisler's Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta, there isn't much to say other than that it's not particularly Viennese, only moderately rhapsodical, and mostly devoid of fantasy. Ear candy with a sticky aftertaste. Quaint and made to please. The bow lost more hairs. So did I.
Zigeunerweisen—Sarasate's famous violinist's showcase—without the orchestra (who needs it, anyway) was indeed more "Cognac" (Chudnovsky's word) than a mean "Firewater" (my expectation). Splendidly done, for sure, but lacking in that pure testosterone and aggression that I like to hear in this piece. Tonight it was not so much a fierce fireball crashing down but rather a clown having a jolly good time and bumbling about. The crowd, surely, loved it, just as they had loved the Kreisler terribly much. Tzigane finally (still no orchestra but much in need of one) was a little lean and bare. Some 60 bars or so of amiable solo effort on Mr. Chudnovsky's part gave Mr. Sheppard some time to relax before the none-too-challenging piano accompaniment entered the scene. Sheppard got to race around on the keyboard for a bit, and then soon enough this somewhat anticlimactic end piece to a most astounding and fabulous evening was over. The standing ovations and bravos were forthcoming in force. Mine somewhere among them.
Chudnovsky and Sheppard then added an encore to the already full program, appeasing the audience's somewhat relentless applause. I still think that German labor laws likely forbid the amount of work put in by the young artists, but such concerns were not on the mind of anyone else. Any such laws would only have protected my ears from Jenö Hubay's Hejre Kati, op. 32, another gypsy pastiche with familiar tricks and familiar sounds by (judging by this work, at any rate) a justly unfamiliar composer. Alas, it fit the evening and was easy enough on the ears. A cutesy interaction between pianist and violinist (the latter playing an endless trill until the former turned the page for him) sent a collective chuckle through the audience.
So, the concert was great. Everyone with the urge to bother Messrs. Boyle, Chudnovsky, and Sheppard about it had the chance to do so at the reception afterwards. What bothered me, meanwhile, was the miserly reception itself. I know now that the embassy, just host to the event and not the organizer, can't be blamed for a skimpy cheese and coldcut buffet with crackers or the wine, which was somewhere between drinkable (at least a German white) and downright awful (red). "How can anyone possibly be so petty and complain about the less-than-stellar cheese after a great concert," you might ask. True, it seems negligible, but then it somehow is part of the experience. And especially after a great concert, especially at an embassy (no matter what the logistical details), it is not far-fetched to expect something with more thought. It is bad enough that the reception cannot take place in the representative reception hall, because September 11th aftershocks somehow disallow the use of it for the purpose for which it was built. Add cheap cheese and cheaper wine to that small grievance, and you, too, would leave with an unnecessary bad aftertaste. To say that this impression does not or will not stick would be a lie. But hopefully it cannot tarnish the outstanding evening that had been brought to everyone courtesy of the two young artists and the (upsettingly) young composer and the Beethoven Society.
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Lohengrin Sings Schumann, cont. — by Jens Laurson
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 12:45 AM | Link to this article
Part Two (of three) showcased Beethoven's (1770–1827, Google count 683,000 to 2,960,000) greatest achievement in the Lieder repertoire after the marvelous song Adelaide. Just how difficult it must be to substitute at short notice was shown by Mr. Jelasic in these pieces. Auf dem Hügel sitz' ich, spähend showed some difficulties with the piano accompaniment. Jon Lackey's sound is strangely nasal at times. His pronunciation was rather fine for my picky German ears, but the diction was not at all. It simply takes too much effort to understand any of the words, and the acoustics can only be blamed for so much.
This all sounds terribly negative, and perhaps that is the curse when An die ferne Geliebte is etched into your brain with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it impeccably. But the songs are so good that a good performance is sufficient to make them highly entertaining. It is a joy just to hear them live and have a singer—Dieskau or not—give his all in this traversal that is so much more uplifting than for example Schubert's gloomy Winterreise.
By Es kehret der Maien, my ears have adjusted a bit better to the loudness, and the last of the six songs, Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder takes me captive. At home, I cannot supress the urge to ruin this wonderful Lied by singing along and so it was nice to sit through the whole song without my vocal noise distorting what is a perfectly proportioned song. It was certainly worth every bit of applause. And while no one could distinguish if the applause went more towards Mr. Beethoven or Mr. Lackey, it is clear that there and then the performance could not have been done without either. During the intermission I talked to people sitting in different locations in the West Garden Court to get their impression of the balance of singer and piano. Apparently, the back rows got a more evenly distributed sound. A little probing found people perfectly delighted with the balance. In the interest of full disclosure, those audience members also were Mr. Lackey's church choir members.
Just as I was about to scribble down some very lovely things the Washington Post said about Jon Lackey's performance of Dichterliebe, by Robert Schumann (1810–1856, Google count 268,000), Lackey ruined Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (In the wonderfully beautiful month of May) thoroughly. It seemed affected, weak, and narrow in the high registers, too strong in the lower, and erratically accentuated.
Aus meinen Tränen sprießen (From my tears sprout forth), one of my favorite songs in this cycle, didn't win me over either. The breakneck-speed Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube (The rose, the lily, the dove), however, was very nicely done. It is simply too fast to allow for indulgence and emotional emphasis of the kind from which some of the other songs suffered. The deep, dark, and Ur-German Romantic Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome (In the Rhine, in the holy stream) was not badly done at all, but the piano playing was mechanical and clumsily uninspired. Ich grolle nicht (I carry no grudge), an absolute favorite for the punch it packs and the bitter, unrelenting force of admonishment with which it portrays a gargantuan . . . grudge should be packed to the top with suppressed energy to be released at certain points. Solidly done, it is a pleasure to hear, no matter where and when.
I noticed that looking at Mr. Lackey distracts more than it adds to the experience. In fact, when I looked at his contortions, stretching and otherwise grimacing along with the music, I was more critical than when I simply listened to his singing and looked down on my notepad. While the declamatory style of Dieskau or the wonderfully felt and sung Bostridge account fought in my head, I enjoyed the concert despite my constant quibbles. Quibbles that were soon much more annoying to me than the performance's shortcomings themselves. It would be sad if musical snobbery and comparison to recorded standard-bearers should deny me the enjoyment of a concert experience. "Live" adds so much to the enjoyment over the "canned" version in any case that it is always worth going out to see and hear a performance. When it is for free, and of usually outstanding quality as at the National Gallery of Art (or Library of Congress), even better! Now if only a venue could be found for the Gallery that were not so grossly inept for performances!
I trailed with Messrs. Lackey and Jelasic through the rest of the songs and enjoyed myself, almost delighting in a few and finding myself a lot more gently disposed. The warm applause was well deserved for both. Jumping in with only 48 hours or less of notice makes the performance all the more notable. Finally, a look through the program notes unearthed to my amusement a mention of Jon Lackey's "unique blend of Heldentenor and lyric tenor qualities." Now I know why I thought of Lohengrin serenading a distant beloved in a manner that she would actually hear it. One of the quoted critics was right when he mentioned "penetrating power."
The concert turned out to be one of quicksilver spirit, leaving me fresh and ready to go out and about, rather than to home and sleep. In this sense, it had been one of the finest. It was also one of the more forgettable concerts and, in that sense, obviously less impressive. But if unfortunate circumstance and a tad less quality collude to such a program at the Gallery, it is actually a most encouraging sign. It is one of the few places in town that could try to present a bad program and still have it be worthwhile.
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This Man Should Have Known Suffering?, cont. — by Jens Laurson
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 10:51 AM | Link to this article
Back to the second movement for a bit. The Andante con moto is a wonderful example of the emotional richness that music can bring to us. It is, rather than determinedly playing to a certain mood or suggesting a particular feeling, an amplification of whichever mood you find yourself in. It can be anything from resting, calm, and elated happiness—smiling as the day passes—to a harrowingly sad and overwhelmingly sorrowful movement. Until you listen to it, you may well not even be aware of the mood that is consequently unearthed by this music. LSD is said to function on the user in ways that may seem comparable, though I imagine it expedient to stick with the former over the latter.
You might be tempted to eschew such music during times in which heartbreak (or sorrow) slumbers, but at your own peril! Living, after all, is not about happiness: it is about the whole range of emotions. If heartbreak drags you down, at least let it be to such wonderful music. And equally important, in the third movement Schubert rescues you. The Menuetto and Trio (Allegro Molto) carry the listener off to happier (if need be) times or interrupt the happy complacency. There is, after all, a lively Finale (Molto vivace) to be headed for. And this finale allows neither heavy tears nor idle rest.
Here as elsewhere, music can take even the most mildly perceptive listener on a journey through all of his very own emotions. A thrill not unique to classical music, but likely to be more prevalent in it than many other forms of art. "Why do you listen to classical music?" is a question to which I heard a wonderful, if slightly quipped answer: "For the cheap emotional thrills!" A Schubert symphony, well played and conducted as in this impeccably delightful recording with the masterful late Günter Wand in one of his last concerts, is such a little journey to behold. It is neither as long nor as intimidatingly tense as a symphony by Gustav Mahler. (The latter was famous for stating to his colleague Jean Sibelius that "the symphony must contain the world.") Schubert's 5th contains the village, perhaps.
The recording shines in comparison to others through its unpretentious manner, for which Wand was famous. He does not impose ideology on the music, he lets it be. When listening to his Mozart or Schubert or Brahms, there is a feeling that the music is "just right." Mannerisms and interpretive questions suddenly cease to exist. If the Pope had as much to say about Schubert as he allegedly did not say about The Passion (see Ionarts post on December 26), it might be, "The music is as it was!" This recording in particular is the very last Günter Wand made. The Schubert, which fills half a disc, is coupled with an interview, with a literal translation provided in the booklet. That it accompanies one of the best recordings of Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 can't be a deterrent. The Bruckner—Wand's true specialty—has none of the ease that marks the Schubert, but it is a sublime and profound statement in symphonic terms that more than warrants its own little review. Or perhaps it will just reveal itself. Spiritual enough to do so it certainly is!
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