Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Music Video for "Cathedral City" by Victoire

Mellissa Hughes and Victoire come up with a new answer to the old question, "How many sopranos does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"*

*The previous answer: "Three! One to climb the ladder, one to pull it out from under, and one to say, 'That was really too high for her.'"

(Via PopMatters. I review the disc here.)

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

China Has, Indeed, Got Talent

More talent in its big toe than I've got in ten fingers!

Explanation here.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Thoughts on the HD Broadcast of Rheingold

I slipped into the screening at Yale on Saturday, as the plus-one of a Yale-affiliated friend.

Happily, most of my positive impressions from the live performance were confirmed by the broadcast. The look on Eric Owens' face when he is deciding, inwardly, that he will renounce love and forge the Ring was the most moving moment of the afternoon, for me (granted, I was a little jittery from all that caffeine); Stephanie Blythe, too, was a consummate Wagnerian, modulating her emotional state in synch with the orchestra and carrying herself like a goddess.

The amplification did Bryn Terfel a lot of favors as Wotan. His singing did seem far more relaxed, but it was clear that his mic also did a bit of heavy lifting in the bassier bits. It did Richard Croft a few favors as well, apparently, which I only learned secondhand—at the Prima, his Loge had plenty of ping in the back row of Family Circle, the Met's acoustical sweet spot, but apparently he was inaudible enough at Saturday's performance to earn him a few boos. (I still, for the record, have very little sympathy for anybody who booed.) For the broadcast audience, who'd heard him plenty loud, the boos were mystifying.

And the Rainbow Bridge was GREAT. Really spectacular effect.

Disappointments: Somebody's cellphone went off. (Couldn't tell if it was in the theater or the auditorium. "Ringtone des Nibelungen!" I whispered to my date. Yeah, I know.) Were the projections a little off-kilter at first? (The bubbles were rising not from the Rhinemaidens but a little to their right (our left), and ditto with the pebbles in that same scene.) The sound seemed a little compressed. (The opening E-flat wasn't as soft as it might have been, as some commenters here pointed out, and when the orchestra really boiled over it didn't have that hot, hot intensity of the Met's live brass.) Oh and Terfel's Wotan seemed a bit passive (which is an easy mistake to make to make, since he doesn't spend much of the opera DOING anything, but still exactly wrong—everybody's coming to him for help, after all; Terfel needs to convince us that they've got the right guy. He needs to be a King).

All in all, though, it was a happy afternoon at the opera. Movies. Operamovies. Ohmygod, and Brünnhilde tweeted at me!!!

Okay that's all. Boris tonight!


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Reservoir Tip

You guys, we need to start listening to more Donnacha Dennehy. Donnacha Dennehy, you need to start putting out more CDs! I keep hearing all these great pieces of his on New Sounds or in concert and then looking for CDs of them and no they haven't been released yet!

But some of his stuff is in print, and one more piece has just trickled out: Reservoir, a solo piano work he wrote for Isabelle O'Connell. O'Connell's on keys in his Dublin-based ensemble CRASH, conducted by Alan Pierson of Alarm Will Sound fame, and the focus on her latest disc (also called Reservoir) is on Irish composers, which is fantastic, because the East Coast new-music scene can get so provincial, right? Sometimes it seems like we're all just playing each other's stuff up here, and so it's quite nice to get a hot injection of fresh meat from the British Isles.

And this is a terrific array of composers. There's the title track, of course, which reminds me of the surprisingly intense effusions of sentiment that you'll hear in a Terry Riley piece, but I was also quite taken with the Ligeti-like relentlessness of Brian Irvine's three movements from The Klippel Collection. The one piece that didn't appeal to me was Jennifer Walshe's becher, a collage of musical quotations from rock and classical music, which seemed conceptually facile—each quotation seemed designed to elicit an easy "ah-ha!", like some cross between a Music Appreciation drop-the-needle quiz and the trailers for EPIC MOVIE—but it also serves as a phenomenal showcase for O'Connell's stylistic versatility, as does the disc as a whole. These composers don't have all that much in common other than a knack for virtuoso piano writing (quick namedump: Ian Wilson, Jane O'Leary, Seóirse Bodley, John Buckley, Elaine Agnew, Philip Martin, CHECK 'EM OUT, ALL OF 'EM), and O'Connell comes through in a big way.

The last time I was this pleasantly surprised by a disc was Danny Holt's A Fast Jump, another new-music solo recital by a pianist who isn't as famous as he ought to be; the other thing these two discs have in common is the quality of the recording. O'Connell's piano thunders and sings and sounds great. Reservoir's out now on Diatribe Records (you can order here), and I basically have no idea what's a "Diatribe Records," but apparently they know how to record an album there.

You can also hear Reservoir, the piece, when O'Connell plays it at the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn on November 5. I know you'll be disappointed to learn that the rest of the music is by regular old Americans, but I promise that these are totally underplayed Americans—John Luther Adams, Bunita Marcus, James Mobberley—and the other act on the bill is Flutronix, a flute duo whose recordings play automatically (you've been warned!) at the bottom of their homepage. (I highly recommend the second track, Stacked, by flutronicist Allison Loggins-Hull.) That's 7:30 p.m., admission only $10.

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Friday, October 1, 2010

Get Your Hahn On

Have we discussed the genius of Hilary Hahn's programming yet? Probably, right? But lately she does this thing where she puts together one household-name violin concerto with a concerto nobody ever plays: Paganini/Spohr, Sibelius/Schoenberg, and now the Tchaikovsky concerto paired with a concerto written personally for Hahn by Jennifer Higdon. This is great because it helps connoisseurs (snobs) like you and me from letting, say, yet another disc of the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concerti from dropping into the vast ocean of Tchaik/Sibelius pairings, and because let's face it America's classical radio–loving grandmothers are about as likely to demand the Schoenberg/Higdon pairing they heard about on NPR as they are to pose for a knifethrower.

So depending on who you are, you're likely to consider one of these courses your Vegetables and one of them your Dessert, and if you're a regular reader of this blog, I'm going to guess that it's not the Dead White Male. But I have a very… I have a very intimate personal relationship with a specific recording (Heifetz) of this specific concerto, which I'd probably better not get into here. I'll defend this piece with knives, if I have to, is what I am saying. I really feel, without entirely rational justification, that this is one of the greatest concerti ever written for any instrument, in the history of the form. It manages not to fall into that Concerto Trap, where the first movement is a SERIOUS ESSAY that goes on about ten minutes beyond the point where it starts to become an excruciating bore, and the third movement is a kicky little bagatelle, and that or the second-movement aria is the only thing I actually want to listen to. The first movement of this Tchaik is pure musical ecstasy! The second movement is also gorgeous! The third movement is total gravy!

Anyway, the point is: there's no filler on this disc.

Hilary Hahn's Tchaikovsky is, first of all, meticulous. Maybe even too meticulous? During her entrance, each one of those little black notes is so carefully laid down you could probably transcribe them by ear. It's an arresting effect, but surely the character of those opening bars is supposed to be a bit more extemporaneous. Heifetz is unafraid to make the whole runs sound like big blurry smears of sound, rather than discreet little points, and by doing actually so makes the big picture clearer.

But Hahn's clarity is pretty awesome. It reminds me of what my viola teacher used to say, that when she was a student they would listen to Heifetz (that name again!) 78s at the wrong speed in order to hear if it was true he used vibrato on each and every 16th note. Hahn isn't an "old-fashioned" player as in "sentimental," but a quick, narrow vibrato seems to run through every note of hers as well, every line taut and electric like high-tension wire. She's got a terrifically powerful left hand, and she wants you to know it—every note's ringing and bright and full of life.

But you know who else is great here is Vassily Petrenko, who along with Hahn somehow makes the Tchaikovsky concerto sound more Tchaikovskian than any interpreter I've ever heard. The slow movement sounds like the Tchaikovsky of the operas, with a folksong's combination of heavy pathos and steady forward motion; the last movement sounds like the Tchaikovsky of the ballets, full of flying leaps and fairy magic and shit; the wind soloists of the Royal Liverpool Phil give pleasingly tart, rustic solos throughout the piece.

So while this isn't my desert island recording of the Tchaikovsky, it ought to please fans of the composer as well as fans of virtuoso fiddling in general—but even so, I would hesitate to claim that the Tchaik is the A-side here, and the Higdon the B-side, and not just because the Higdon comes first in play order.

Really, I'm not sure why I've been so disinclined to seek out the music of Jennifer Higdon in the past. I must have heard some piece of hers that didn't strike me once, and then when her name just kept coming up with regard to this prize or that commission, I said to myself, oh, she's one of THOSE composers, YOU KNOW THE ONES, who's middle-of-the-road enough to win all the prizes and get all the commissions, but, ugh, people, don't be like me. Don't take that attitude about music, ESPECIALLY music you don't actually know. That's the moral of this story, because I finally sat down and listened to this piece and I assure you that it is Quite Good.

The first movement seduced me immediately with its violin concerto-ness. (Are there enough tautologies in this review yet? Tchaikovsky that sounds like Tchaikovsky, and a violin concerto that sounds like a violin concerto…) The pitch materials, the actual music-stuff, are pretty engaging, and just as importantly, it's a fine showcase for the soloist. But it's the gestural language that hooked my ear, and that's what I want in a concerto dammit is HOOKS. In the small picture, it's the physicality of Higdon's writing for the instrument, the echoes of the Hahn's harmonics in the percussion, and the back-and-forth between Hahn and orchestral soli; in the big picture, it's the way all of the material returns just when you'd have wanted it to, if only you'd known to ask.

The second movement is called "Chaconni," which I'm pretty sure is not a word, but which I guess describes the way the piece spins out over a ground—not that my ears have enough brains between them to pick out how the technique is used in this incredibly elaborate movement. There's a real pleasure, anyway, in the way Higdon intertwines all the competing lines, and the last movement, like Tchaikovsky's, is a stomper.

I actually cannot imagine that this piece will not enter the American repertory—it's just too much fun—and Hahn's Tchaikovsky is a strong enough contender to be measured against the classic recordings. Everybody should probably check this disc out—and violin buffs, actually, must.

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