posted by James Reel
A review I wrote for Fanfare:
POULENC Chansons françaises; Chanson à boire; 7 Chansons; Petites voix; Un Soir de neige; Figure humaine • Jörg Straube, cond; N German Figuralchor • MDG 947 1595-6 (SACD: 65:19 )
Put aside your preconceptions about Germans performing French music, for this is a very fine survey from North Germany of all of Francis Poulenc’s a cappella secular choral works. (Of course, because this collection ignores the sacred works, Poulenc’s greatest choral hits must be sought elsewhere.) The booklet photo shows this group, founded in 1981 by its present conductor, Jörg Straube, to consist of approcimately 40 members, which is about the maximum for this music; more voices could overwhelm the light textures and clear part-writing, which periodically blends into lush harmonies. The very clear surround recording does not quite expose individual voices, but gives the impression of a highly unified chamber choir, singing with both sensitivity and gusto.
The selections range from the witty little Chanson à boire (Drinking Song) of 1922 through the childhood scenes of Petites voix (Little Voices, 1936, sung here by adult women rather than children) and very sensitive settings of Paul Éluard poem in the Sept Chansons of 1936, to the masterly Figure humaine of 1945, a 19-minute cantata of wartime resistance again using Éluard texts. In general, Poulenc’s choral writing here may be less seductive than in his more voluptuous religious works, but it is entirely characteristic of this composer, a man who was hardly the trivial boulevardier his lighthearted instrumental pieces have led some people to believe. James Reel
posted by James Reel
July 14 is Bastille Day, the big national holiday in France, commemorating the 1789 storming of the Bastille, Paris' fortress-prison (which at the time was holding only a handful of political prisoners), and becoming a seminal event in the French Revolution. (The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was proclaimed just a few weeks later.) At KUAT-FM, we're joining the celebration with a full day of French music. You'll get an idea of the range of possibilities just by looking at the schedule for the 6 a.m. hour, which, among other things, sandwiches the Harp Concertino by 20th-century composer Germaine Tailleferre between pieces from the 16th and 17th centuries. The most substantial works through the day will include the Violin Concerto No. 3 of Saint-Saens, the complete incidental music that Bizet provided for the play L'Arlesienne, the full ballet score Coppelia by Delibes, Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales (and much else by that composer), the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, the rarely heard Symphony No. 2 of Charles Tournemire, Roussel's ballet The Spider's Feast, Poulenc's Aubade, and selections from Rameau's delightful opera-ballet Les Indes galantes. Many Gallic hors-d'oeuvres in between, as well. Bon appetit!
posted by James Reel
Composer, biographer and music essayist Jan Swafford, with whom I worked a little on a couple of his past visits to Tucson, has concocted a wonderful little guide to white he identifies as the three most prominent streams in contemporary art music: spectralism (a commonly used term), aesthetic brutalism (which he borrows from an aging architectural movement) and new niceness (which sounds and is rather condescending, but aptly describes the sort of music most people are going to want to hear, and with good reason). Here's the full article.
posted by James Reel
This quarter, KUAT-FM is broadcasting concerts from the Spoleto Festival on Thursday nights. If that's not enough first-rate chamber music for you, I suggest you spend a week or two this summer attending the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. It opens Sunday, July 17 and continues with multiple concerts each week through August 21. You can peruse the full schedule here. Fortunately, the organizers have abandoned their ill-considered efforts to present jazz and bluegrass concerts as part of the festival; I have nothing against those music forms, but their inclusion wasn't relevant to the festival's core mission of presenting classical chamber music. It was cheap tokenism that didn't draw any crossover audience, and hardly served the interests of bluegrass and jazz, which can be heard in their own festivals (in fact, there's a short bluegrass festival in Santa Fe every August).
Back in my print journalism days, I'd go to Santa Fe during the first week of August, because that's when I could cover all five works presented by Santa Fe Opera in a concentrated period, and squeeze in two or three chamber concerts, too. If you're interested, here's the August opera calendar, from which you can navigate to other months. And here for your edification is the press release I just received from the chamber festival:
Opening Week of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s 39th Season
Includes Performances by Artist-in-Residence Dawn Upshaw, the Shanghai Quartet and pianists Kuok-Wai Lio and Inon Barnatan
The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival kicks off its 2011 summer season at St. Francis Auditorium in the New Mexico Museum of Art on Sunday, July 17th.
In the opening week’s first two evening concerts (Sunday, July 17th and Monday, July 18th), the world-renowned Shanghai Quartet perform a work written for them in 2008 in honor of the Quartet’s 25th anniversary and the 75th anniversary of its composer, Kryzstof Penderecki. Well-known to film buffs for his mood-setting, hair-raising compositions (Penderecki’s works have been adapted for soundtracks including The Shining, The Exorcist, David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, and more), String Quartet No. 3, “Leaves from an Unwritten Diary” begins with what cellist Nicholas Tzavaras described in a program note for the 2009 American premiere as “an almost grave introduction with a dark and screaming melody by the viola.” The Quartet also performs Dvorak’s expressive masterwork Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81 with pianist Kuok-Wai Lio.
Mr. Lio, a popular artist with Festival audiences over the last few years, performs Janacek’s In the Mists, a collection of four works for solo piano with a sensitive, introspective air as part of his noon solo recital on Tuesday, July 19th. Additional early afternoon concerts during the opening week include a Youth Concert featuring the Shanghai Quartet on Sunday, July 17th at 1:30 pm, and a noon concert on Thursday, July 21st that includes Schumann’s moving Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 63 played by violinist Harvey de Souza, cellist Ronald Thomas, and Mr. Lio.
Mid-week, the Festival presents the first of three concerts in its Albuquerque Series at the Albuquerque Academy’s Simms Auditorium (Wednesday, July 20th). The program, which repeats in Santa Fe on Thursday, July 21st, includes Schubert’s Piano Sonata, D. 958 performed by internationally acclaimed pianist Inon Barnatan, Poulenc’s sparkling Trio for Oboe, Bassoon & Piano performed by oboist Allan Vogel, bassoonist Stefanie Przyblska and Mr. Barnatan, and Spohr’s wonderful Double Quartet in D Minor, Op. 65 performed by violinists Jennifer Gilbert and Harvey de Souza, violist CarlaMaria Rodrigues, cellist Ronald Thomas and the Shanghai Quartet.
The week concludes Saturday, July 23rd, with an all-Bach concert featuring the first of five festival performances by World-famous soprano Dawn Upshaw, the Festival’s 2011 Artist-in-Residence. The celebrated soprano will sing Cantata No. 199, “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” (“My Heart Swims in Blood”), BWV 199, with oboist Allen Vogel, violinists L.P. How and Kathleen Brauer, violist CarlaMaria Rodrigues, cellist Ronald Thomas, bass player Marji Danilow, and harpsichordist Kathleen McIntosh. Also on the concert is British violinist Daniel Hope in Bach’s beautiful Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, BWV 1041.
The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival continues its role as a noteworthy contributor to the contemporary chamber music repertoire with the addition of three new co-commissions this season by internationally acclaimed composers Christopher Rouse (String Quartet No. 3, July 28th & 29th), Marc-Andre Dalbavie (Piano Quartet, August 10th, 11th & 12th) and Sean Shepherd (Quartet for Oboe & Strings, August 11th & 12th; world premiere). In conjunction with the performances, the Festival presents pre-concert talks with all three composers open to the public. Through its American Composer Residency program, this summer the Festival also offers private master classes with Mr. Rouse and Mr. Shepherd to area conservatory/college music students. The American Composer Residency program is made possible with a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts’ American Masterpieces: Chamber Music initiative.
For more information on the Festival concerts and to purchase tickets, please call 505-982-1890 or visit the website at www.SantaFeChamberMusic.com. To purchase tickets in-person, the Festival Ticket Office is located in the lobby of the New Mexico Museum of Art at 107 West Palace Avenue and is open daily from 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM.
posted by James Reel
Another review I contributed to Fanfare:
TCHAIKOVSKY Nutcracker & • Martin West, cond; Damian Smith (Drosselmeyer); Elizabeth Powell (Clara); Davit Karapetyan (Nutcracker); David Arce (Mouse King); Yuan Yuan Tan (Snow Queen); Pierre-François Vilanoba (Snow King); Vanessa Zahorian (Sugar Plum Fairy); Maria Kochetkova (Grand pas de deux); San Francisco Ballet O • BBC/OPUS ARTE BD7044D (Blu-ray: 132: 00) Live: San Francisco 12/19–20/2007
& Illustrated synopsis, cast gallery, artist interviews, documentary on 1915 World’s Fair
David L. Kirk gave the DVD release of this production a thorough review in Fanfare 32:5, rightly declaring this to be “a first-class production with brilliant dancing, imaginative special effects, colorful costumes, and attractive scenery,” and numbering it among his three preferred video Nutcrackers. I second that notion.
In order for San Francisco Ballet to take possession of this ubiquitous classic, choreographer Helgi Tomasson and his superb design team moved the action to San Francisco in 1915, the year the city hosted the World’s Fair. What this means in practical terms is that the women’s costumes in the first act are much slimmer and more dance-worthy than when the ballet is set in its original, earlier period, and that the action in the second act takes place in what seems to be a fairy-infested World’s Fair exhibition hall. As fine as the dancing is (from soloists and corps alike), it’s really the costumes of Martin Pakledinaz (including a Ballets Russes touch in the act II getups) and the scenic design of Michael Yeargan that make this production so vivid.
Now, it must be said that Tomasson doesn’t bring much deep psychology to his version (aside from establishing some motifs that really pull the developments in act I together). There’s nothing at all sinister about Drosselmeyer, who here is just an odd toymaker who likes to entertain kids with magic tricks (and serves as Clara’s chaperone through act II). There are no psychosexual shenanigans involving Clara and the Nutcracker, and despite the 1915 setting, the battle with the mice follows the conventions of 18th-century warfare, with nary a sniff of the trench or mustard gas.
Conductor Martin West’s work with the company orchestra is good, although the conducting and playing tend to lose focus in low-key numbers like the Arabian Dance. (The best musical contribution to a video Nutcracker I know is Charles Mackerras’s account for the Pacific Northwest Ballet production, with its pointed rhythms and intense yearning.)
The extra features are truly interesting, not just filler. The audio is PCM only (choice of two or five channels), and the 16:9 picture is derived from a film transfer of multicamera video. There are a couple of sloppy little video edits that probably occurred when the show was being rushed onto PBS a couple of years ago, and should have been corrected before the home-video release, but they’ll probably slip by most viewers.
This endearing production deserves to be the basic Nutcracker for every household. James Reel
posted by James Reel
The beginning of July brings two North American holidays. July 1 is Canada Day, marking the 1867 act that joined three British colonies into a single country called Canada within the British Empire. (It's more of a union day than an independence day; Canada didn't shake loose from the United Kingdom until 1982.) So on July 1 we're marking the occasion by sprinkling music by Canadian composers through the schedule. The most substantial Canadian content is the 43-minute Second Symphony of Healey Willan (Canadian by adoption rather than birth), which will dominate the 11 a.m. hour. Otherwise, today if the composer's name sounds British or French and is obscure, it's probably Canadian.
July 4, of course, is Independence Day in the United States. (I've always felt we'd be better off celebrating Constitution Day; any surly teenager can declare independence, but creating a lasting union under rule of law is a great achievement.) Our July 4 programming is all-American, ranging from The Star-Spangled Banner (actually an old English drinking song with new text) following the 6 a.m. news through such American standards as Rhapsody in Blue, The Stars and Stripes Forever, the Grand Canyon Suite and Fanfare for the Common Man, and on to less familiar fare by various American composers over the past 200 years. We'll also have a couple of "American" works by such visitors as Wagner and Offenbach.