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Cue Sheet – June 2008

BOY HOWDY

When I arrived a few mornings ago, the computer desktop confronted me with an alarming image:

Boy George of the Jungle

It's only the latest incarnation of 1980s pop star Boy George, but I immediately sensed that this would be an excellent addition to the cover art used for John Eliot Gardiner's Bach cantata series, featuring photos of exotic peoples of the world. Consider:

Gardiner cover 1 Gardiner cover 2

quodlibet,

SAVALL'S VESPERS

Having just played a Jordi Savall recording of Marin Marais on the air, I remembered that his recording of Monteverdi's Vespers, one of the best ever, is back in print in better sound than ever before. Here's the review I wrote for Fanfare:

MONTEVERDI Vespro della Beata Vergine • Jordi Savall, cond; soloists; La Capella Reial; Coro del Centro Musica Antica di Padova; Schola Gregoriana • ALIA VOX AVSA 9855 (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 95:43)

This is not a new recording, but a multichannel re-mastering of an old favorite: Jordi Savall’s highly Mediterranean 1988 account, recorded in Mantua’s Santa Barbara Basilica, where Monteverdi may or may not have first heard this music. Given the locale, Savall interpolates antiphons associated with the Feast of St. Barbara, and if you object to this, well, it’s only a few seconds of chant here and there that are separately tracked. He leaves out, as so many do, the second version of the Magnificat and the Missa in illo tempore. The performing forces include a smallish but colorful instrumental complement (not the 30 pieces Monteverdi may have used in at least one performance), a male quintet for the plainchant, a 32-voice choir and the usual complement of soloists.

Javall’s way with the Vespers is both sensual and devotional; tempos are on the slow side (akin to those of the more recent King on Hyperion, also on SACD), and there is a tremendous warmth to every moment (compare to the “whiter” voices of the leading English versions: Pickett, Parrott, Gardiner and especially the chilly McCreesh). The choral production is characterful rather than silken; Savall admits as much in a new introduction he wrote for the booklet: “United by the common bond of our very ‘Latin’ voices and sensibility, we all pursued an ideal approach to song, one in which declamation of the text and purity of sound were inextricably linked to an essential warmth and profound spirituality of performance.” Well, Savall just wrote my review for me.

Compared to the original Astrée set (I never encountered the more recent budget repackaging), this Alia Vox revamping is clearly superior. To begin with, the packaging is more lavish, with color illustrations, a bit more introductory material and translations into more languages (helpful if you are Catalan), although this means the texts and translations can no longer be given side-by-side. The sonics were quite good to begin with—a complex variety of forces captured only with a pair of omnidirectional microphones—but here the sound is even lovelier; rear-channel ambience provides a better sense of the basilica’s natural acoustics, while the performers seem to have been pulled just a bit closer to the listener than before, resulting in a hard-to-achieve clarity within a generous space. For nearly 30 years, Savall’s has been one of the finest versions of the Vespers on the market, and this Alia Vox revivification makes it even more attractive.

Classical Music,

DINNER AND THREE SHOWS

The Tucson Weekly kept me busy last week. In today’s issue, I review three plays and a restaurant. I actually liked all three theatrical productions, as you might guess from the teasers:

A poor production of Tennessee Williams' _Cat on a Hot Tin Roof_ subjects us to three hours with a disagreeable Southern family in countless forms of denial. A good production cracks through those hard, nasty exteriors and squeezes out the complex pathos of each family member. In that and all other respects, Arizona Repertory Theatre's production is very fine, indeed. … What Arizona Repertory Theatre presents is a play that's not at all about hard, hateful people, but about people who love too much. … Arizona Onstage Productions' mounting of _Sunday in the Park With George_ is critic-proof, insofar as the whole run, including some added performances, is sold out, with the possible exception of the show tonight (June 26). But, as usual, producer-director Kevin Johnson has critic-proofed his production in a more important way than putting butts into all the seats before reviews appear: He's crafted something of sufficiently high quality that it stands on its own merits and generates a buzz even without help (or hindrance) from critics. … The romantic comedy _Prelude to a Kiss_ is not a particularly ambitious choice for Live Theatre Workshop, whose seasons are dominated by this sort of well-crafted entertainment. But director Terry Erbe has complicated things to good effect by introducing a live musical component to enrich the transitions between scenes. The lovely Amy Erbe, in a black evening gown and long white gloves, sings snippets of standards with piano accompaniment, the lyrics reflecting developments onstage. These are not stop-the-action musical numbers, but merely brief elements that bridge the action. She sings full-length songs only before the play and during intermission, and it's a shame that the audience chatters so much that you can't hear her very well when she and the pianist have the stage to themselves. As for Craig Lucas' play itself, it's a witty and warm psychoanalytic fairy tale about sex and death. Don't forget that "witty and warm" part, which is most important. But the business about transference and fear and desire is what gives the play a bit more intellectual heft than most works of its ilk. … Lucas wrote this in the late '80s as a subtle AIDS metaphor, but that's barely evident in Live Theatre Workshop's mainstream approach. It's about love and devotion, period, and if you want to read more into it, that's your business. As Peter and Rita, Nate Weisband and Dallas Thomas are an irresistible couple; they have tremendous chemistry together, the sort that makes you really care about their relationship from the beginning and root for them to be reunited, one way or another, by the end.

Get my more detailed and enthusiastic opinions here. On the other hand, the restaurant didn’t do much for me:

Let me make it clear that there is nothing bad about Arizona Pizza Company, but not much about it is interesting, either. It might be an agreeable drinks-and-pizza hangout if you live in the vicinity, but the next time I eat in that neighborhood, I'll be more inclined to patronize the more characterful Lebanese place nearby.

You can read that full review here.


BRUCKNER SEVENTHS

Somehow my editor at Fanfare has gotten it into his head that I'm a Bruckner fan, so he sends me most of the new Bruckner SACDs to review. Here are two reviews I've penned in recent months of recordings of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony.

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 7 • Bernard Haitink, cond; Chicago SO • CSO RESOUND (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 67:31) Live: May 10-12 and 15, 2007

This is, I think, Bernard Haitink’s third and finest recording of the Bruckner Seventh, a symphony that has been appearing on disc with increasing frequency. In Fanfare 31:3 I reviewed the Yannick Nézet-Séguin SACD on Atma, and observed that “while the music maintains motion, it never really gains momentum. For one thing, there’s very little tempo variety within or between the first two movements (by the way, Nézet-Séguin uses the Nowak edition, complete with cymbal crash and triangle). The remainder, though well organized, lacks the tension and detail of, for starters, Jochum/EMI.” Haitink, in contrast, although he is never a conductor to push and pull at a score, brings out those inner details with great finesse. From the very beginning, the performance promises to be patient, with careful dynamic shaping helping the music’s argument to unfold easily. It’s not a performance of sudden, high contrast, though. In the Adagio, for example (including the disputed but effective cymbal crash), the orchestra glows, but doesn’t really burn; this is a matter of Haitink’s interpretation rather than the Chicago Symphony’s sound. Throughout this performance, the brass playing is brilliant and the woodwinds are full of character, which goes without saying for this orchestra, but the strings also hold their own, which was not always the case in the Solti era. If you prefer a non-interventionist approach to Bruckner that, even so, illuminates the most telling details, this beautiful new performance will serve you well—especially if you want a surround-sound Seventh. The sonic perspective is from the middle distance, with everything in place but not as hyper-present as in some SACDs. There’s a bit of air around the orchestra, but the hall is not strongly reverberant.

An odd detail in the simple but attractive packaging: Inside the front cover, there’s a little blurb about the cover art, an image called “Underpainting.” According to the note, “Like the layers of sound within this symphony, the visual composition overlays color to build perceptions of depth, volume, and form. Emotive cues radiate from beneath, emanating a subtle glow that infuses the color palette. Variations in saturation, tone, and hue evoke the contrast between defined and open space.” True enough, of the music, the performance, and the well-chosen abstract cover art. But nowhere can I find a credit for the artist.

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 7 • Herbert Blomstedt, cond; Leipzig Gewandhaus O • QUERSTAND VKJK 0708 (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 69:45) Live: Leipzig November 23–25, 2006

Each month brings an SACD issue of Bruckner’s Seventh, and the latest entry comes, effectively, from the source. The work was first performed by the Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1884 under Artur Nikisch, a conductor who would lead the orchestra in all of Bruckner’s symphonies, including a full cycle during the 1919-20 season. That, of course, was long ago, but the current generation of the orchestra has a natural feel for the music, at least under its recently retired music director, Herbert Blomstedt.

Blomstedt has always struck me as a disciplined, solid, middle-of-the-road conductor without much of a personal profile. His recordings of Nielsen and Sibelius are, on every objective level, excellent, but not as interesting as those of, say, Bernstein (which many listeners will regard as a point in their favor). So I was never inspired to investigate his previous Bruckner recordings on Decca and Denon, or the earlier releases in the Querstand mini-survey from Leipzig (the Third and Eighth are already out, but seem not to have been reviewed in Fanfare). A little discographic research shows that Blomstedt’s various performances of the Seventh (always Haas/1885) have, along with Karajan/EMI, always been among the slowest treatments of this edition among major conductors other than the sui generis Celibidache. (Note that the total time of this disc includes 1:18 of fore and aft applause, separately tracked.) Still, a minute or two over the course of a work that lasts more than an hour doesn’t make a huge difference.

What does make a difference is Blomstedt’s ability to sustain the line and flow of this score. He maintains firm rhythmic definition, but not to the point at which it becomes the sole driving force; Blomstedt allows melody and, to a slightly lesser extent, harmony to be equally motivating factors. Indeed, Blomstedt has an almost Italianate ability to make the strings sing (just listen to the phrasing of the first movement’s initial theme). He’s less successful at decongesting the brass climaxes, but the orchestra plays for him with character, and the sound is captured with great clarity—less swimmy than Nézet-Séguin on Atma (see Fanfare 31:3), less dry than Haitink on CSO Resound (reviewed in 31:4). I gave Haitink, another straightforward interpreter, a favorable review, but frankly, and to my surprise, I find Blomstedt a bit more interesting.

Classical Music,

"STRINGS" THINGS

During my period of blogus interruptus, I lost several opportunities to point you toward material I publish hither and yon. Whatever did you do for entertainment and edification while the blog was gone? Well, you probably thought of something. But now I can gradually catch you up on some of my other efforts.

In the February issue of Strings, I asked violinist Anastasia Khitruk to dig into the solo scores of Ivan Yevstafyevich Khandoshkin, a Russian contemporary of Mozart. We play Khitruk’s Khandoshkin CD from time to time on KUAT-FM, so you might enjoy getting some background info here.

In the same issue, I have a feature on an up-and-coming fiddler, now in his 20s:

When Jason Roberts was an 11-year-old kid in Texas, he pulled a busted-up fiddle out of his late grandfather’s closet and let his mom casually talk him into taking a few lessons. Today, 20 years later, Roberts is a top western-swing fiddler and a veteran member of the Grammy-winning band Asleep at the Wheel. Bandleader Ray Benson says of Roberts, “He is the best musician I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with the best.” Pretty high praise from the man behind a band that’s gone through nearly 100 musicians in its 30-year history.

You can find the full article here.

Classical Music,

POSTLUDE TO "A KISS"

My favorable review of Live Theatre Workshop's production of Prelude to a Kiss will appear in this Thursday's Tucson Weekly, but I think I'd like the play even more if it had a darker ending. If you're ignorant of how the play turns out, and want to remain that way, don't read any further.

The story concerns a young couple in love, Peter and Rita. On their wedding day, an old man gives Rita what would seem to be an innocent kiss, but it causes the two of them to switch souls. The essence of Rita, which is what Peter really fell in love with rather than just her attractive physique, is now trapped in the yellow-toothed body of an old man dying of cancer. And it's the essence of the old man that lies within the body of the woman Peter takes to bed every night.

The play has a happy ending, with the souls winding up back where they belong, but I'm thinking it would be much more moving and, yes, even more romantic if the souls could not switch back, and Peter elected to stay with his soul mate--young Rita in the old man's body--for the few months remaining until that body dies and Rita is lost forever. (It's sort of the reverse of Love Story, wherein a disagreeable old coot has invaded the body of Ali McGraw.)

Of course, if the play ended that way, it wouldn't have become a sentimental favorite in less than 20 years. This is why its author, Craig Lucas, is a successful playwright, and I'm just a critic toiling for an obscure alternative weekly.

tucson-arts,

About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.