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Stars and Strings, cont. — by Jens Laurson
Contributed by jfl at 1:11 PM | Link to this article
Among the papers in Schoenberg's estate, a note was found that proclaimed: "A great man lives in this country—a composer. He has solved the problem of how to stay true to oneself and still learn. He reacts to neglect with disdain. He needs neither accept nor reject (snub) criticism. His name is Ives." That was of course very true, not the least because Ives had a well-run insurance agency and was a millionaire for most of his life. Not only did he not have to care about criticism, he didn't even write music in the last 35 years of his life. It was his first string quartet that was the sandwiched "modern" piece on the program: not really modern, as it is some 110 years old, originating from Charles Ives's student years at Yale. (Was it just me, or did the cello suddenly sound full and round? Am I going insane or are/were my tin ears playing tricks on me?)

American hymns and Bach peek through the first movement quite a bit. This came as no surprise after reading the always-excellent program notes by Tomás C. Hernandez, who tells us in them that the first movement, composed independently from all the other movements, started out as an organ fugue for a counterpoint class. (Indeed, all four movements may have started out as works for organ.) Ives, a devout Puritan, studied under the arch-conservative Horatio Parker, whose influence comes through in these four movement-pieces. There is apparently a dispute as to whether the first movement even belongs to the string quartet and not rather to the Fourth Symphony for which it was appropriated. Alas, it is an interesting and fine piece of music, and I was glad to hear it from the Leipzig Quartet, even if it violated Ives's intentions.

Quoting from all these sources that I am not familiar with, I may have missed a good part of the wit of the quartet, but it holds its own as "pure music" just as well. Perhaps a bit on the easy side, but that is quite fine. There were musical ellipses, a little Viennese flavored jest, a tiny Mozart allusion, and just a hint of "care-me-not" thorns present in that music that bobs back and forth between venturing into denser sounds and its straightforward musical quotations. Towards the last third it got very entertaining, indeed. Splendid, even. The audience, more often used to far thornier beasts at this part of a concert (think Hoiby or Babbitt) was likely grateful, as the reasonably excited applause afterwards showed. Ives is familiar territory to the Leipzig String Quartet. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reviewed their fine recording of both of Ives's string quartets as well as other, smaller works for string quartet and piano, just last year, as part of their very extensive and impressive discography with the audiophile label MD&G.

Little needs to be said about the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. It's one of the most beautiful pieces of chamber music ever composed, and hearing it twice within weeks (just recently at the National Academy of Sciences with the Debussy String Quartet) does not detract one iota from that. Ricardo Morales joined the Leipzig String Quartet that night. The playing was perhaps a little less lyrical than it had been in the French/Russian hands, but technically, as was the entire evening, beyond reproach. Best just to sit back and enjoy with a smile. Enjoy as I did, it must be said that the Brahms was evidently not their strength, and the Quintet did at times come across as routine and even somewhat tedious. Shy of the luscious thing it can be, but with plenty of merit, still. Most everyone else seemed not to have shared my opinion about the Brahms being lackluster, and the enthusiastic applause elicited an encore.

It took a while for the encore to get under way, because the notes could not be procured by Mr. Morales, whose nice tone on the instrument was better communicated in the third movement of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, coincidentally the same encore that the Debussy String Quartet gave. It was much softer, consoling, indeed. Those members of the audience who had left early deserved to miss it, those who innocently thought they could beat the line at the loo were to be pitied. An extraordinarily long pause after the end of the piece was a refreshing antidote to the tyranny of overzealous clappers and permanent standing ovations. That alone deserved standing ovations.

Charles Ives, Musik für Streichquartett, Leipziger Streichquartett, Steffen Schleiermacher, Yeon-Hee Kwak
Emerson String Quartet, Ives string quartets
Leipziger Streichquartett, Mendelssohn, vol.4, String Octet and Quartet (1823)
Leipziger Streichquartett, Brahms Quintet and Quartet

Other recordings by the Leipzig String Quartet from Amazon:

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Some Thoughts on the Washington Opera, cont. — by Jens F. Laurson
Contributed by jfl at 10:27 AM | Link to this article
But what got a loud "What?" out of me upon first reading the review was this: "Placido Domingo is not only a great singer but a great actor as well [...]" Huh? Plácido Domingo's "acting"—if one can call it that—is painful to watch. It is extraordinarily bad. If he does not sing, it exhausts itself in empty gestures, slow-motion miming. Theatrical plunk and open-ended, purposeless limb extension is all there is. Surely, he's not alone in that in the opera world, but to call him a great actor is almost insultingly off the mark. (For a truly great actor/singer, albeit in a different repertoire, see Bryn Terfel live some time!) Domingo's singing, on a happier note, is still remarkable, if on its way out. The strain that Tim Page heard was audible at the dress rehearsal already. The role of Siegmund is about as far as Domingo's voice can make it on stage. His pronunciation has improved over the years (judging from recordings) but is barely adequate and would hardly garner much approval from a German-speaking audience.

He performed with Anja Kampe, as Sieglinde, who gave her company debut and a good one at that. I bemoaned her diction though, and the German native she is, it was a shame that I had the utmost trouble understanding her words. Her singing was warm for the most part. It was a well-delivered, solid performance, though probably not "the next Glenn Gould" when it comes to "North-American-debut-made-in-Washington-fame" for Beltway residents to be proud of.

On Alan Held, Mr. Page and I can happily agree. Page's writing that his "acting and singing are lithe and plausible" I can only second. In fact, over the course of four hours, I appreciated and liked Mr. Held more and more. In the end I was convinced to have seen and heard a wonderful bass and a good and very potent(ial) Wotan. A singer with subtlety as part of his repertoire, with great pronunciation and diction (I could understand virtually every word he phrased), Alan Held left me with my most favorable impression of that night.

Next to Held was his wife, or rather, Wotan's wife, Fricka. Fricka is to the Gods in Der Ring what Yoko Ono was to the Beatles. She seems irrational and bitter, vengeful even, but is actually the calm focus point of the world of the gods: the last instance of morality, without which the world order of the gods would only have crumbled earlier. The singer behind this figure was Elena Zaremba. I had never imagined her as a Fricka but have liked her very much ever since seeing her as Carmen in Munich. (She was also the saving grace as a vocally enticing Ulrica in an otherwise rather dreadful 2002 Washington Opera Un Ballo in Maschera.) Her Fricka was downright outstanding. She held back across the board at the dress rehearsal, but part of the impression she left is also her singing Wagner, rather than yelling it. Not exactly sotto voce, but not too far away from it either, she never forces her voice to be bigger than it actually is. Her performance gave the production a value on a psychological level that came despite, rather than because, of the direction.

Linda Watson—uninjured still at that point—was pale. She didn't really sing at the rehearsal, so I reserve my judgment on her vocal ability. But acting, pronunciation, and surefootedness could all be improved upon, it seemed. Kurt Rydl as Hunding neither impressed nor disappointed me. He was well regarded with applause from the sparse crowd though.

The Valkyries were simply dreadful. Vulgar, pointless, affectedly juvenile in pathetic outfits (more of that later), and vocally a mixed bag, I shall refrain from inflicting pain by naming them. Aside, I need reserve my poison for Francesca Zambello, Peter J. Davison, and Anita Yavich, the three culprits guilty of direction, sets, and costumes, respectively. In his description in the Post ("Matrix-Night at the local S&M bar—you've seen it all if you've ever been to the opera in Germany"), Mr. Page is dead on. The conclusion, however, is different from mine. First, not only was the staging miles (rather, decades) away from being even slightly novel, it was an old idea badly rehashed. If you've wondered how three or four stereotypes (about Wagner, Valkyries, Wagner stagings, etc.) superimposed onto each other might look, you would have had your chance to get the satisfactory answer courtesy of Brünnhilde, Waltraute, Gerhilde, Helmwige, Schwertleite, Ortlinde, Siegrune, Grimgerde, and Rossweisse.

But in order to balance the bit of insight in one part of the Post out, Dan Via, "special to The Washington Post," gets his say about it also. "[Anita] Yavich's costumes draw inspiration from modern manifestations of these impulses: industrial structures such as oil derricks, bridges, and scaffolding." Ah-hum. Mme. Yavich is quoted: "I thought it would be a great metaphor for how we try to control everything, but at the same time, nature is completely uncontrollable. . . . If you say yes to a Valkyrie, that means you will die and follow them," Yavich explains. "What do these women have to look like to make these guys want to go? I think they have to look very attractive but, at the same time, look very strong." Admirable thoughts. Just one small detail would be the fact that if the Valkyries pick you up, you are already dead.

The whole Valkyrie ordeal, where the shortcomings of the production were most obvious, was utterly unenjoyable. To present the ultraconservative Washington audience as modern that which was dusty in the 80s—and then badly done on top of it—was a coup that somehow failed to excite me. And just why did the scenery look so familiar? Ah, yes, of course: it was the Fidelio staging regurgitated in black! Responsible then: Zambello, Davison, and Yavich. (It needs to be said that it worked much better in Fidelio, which was a reasonably fine production.) Every element in Fidelio had its copied part in Die Walküre, just a bit darker and more crooked. The industrial stagedrop, the flat extension of the stage with cut-outs—be it Florestan's cell or Brünnhilde's fiery resting place—it was entirely devoid of new ideas.

Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen, conducted by Karl Böhm at Bayreuth (1966–67)

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It would have been just another performance at the Washington Opera, and not a particularly good one, had not Fricka, alias Elena, and Wotan, alias Alan, held it together. Both added something to already rather good singing and rescued otherwise sordid acting. The Post concludes, "Get a ticket immediately" (?!). Is this perhaps necessary encouragement so that the Washington audience would not pass on the last performance at the inept DAR Constitution Hall and instead hold out for the return to the Kennedy center? I'd say: save up for a trip to Munich, Berlin, or (if you have eight years' worth of patience) Bayreuth to see how it's really done. Don't expect much from future Wagner performances in this town. Immediate Karl Böhm antidote recommended.

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