Monday, February 28, 2011;
'Trouble in Tahiti'and 'The Medium'
Catholic University's Opera Theater offered a melange in every sense of the word this past weekend. Its doubleheader, which opened Thursday (I was there Friday), juxtaposed Leonard Bernstein's wry "Trouble in Tahiti" with Gian Carlo Menotti's melodramatic "The Medium," featuring student singers (many of the roles were double-cast) and a small orchestra of professionals and students. The production, small in scale and set in Catholic's venerable but dinky Ward Hall, was nevertheless quite elegant, its sophistication set off by its modest surroundings.
In Bernstein's one-act opera, a day of missed opportunities in the life of an emotionally constipated couple is set off excruciatingly against the backdrop of a "chorus" - in this production, a quartet - of perky singers/dancers/actors who keep showing up like annoying door-to-door hucksters to sell the joys of married bliss. On Friday, they were a wonderfully energetic chorus as they projected the wide-eyed enthusiasm of 1950s pop culture.
The communication-challenged couple, Michael Gigante as Sam and Leslie Baird as Dinah, were strong vocally and dramatically and played off each other with spot-on dramatic timing.
"The Medium" didn't get as well balanced a performance. A more complicated scenario, the show needs to be dominated by the character of Baba, the medium, and, indeed, mezzo-soprano Kristin Green gave a larger-than-life, powerful performance Friday. But her passion and wildness overwhelmed the more modest presences of Catherine Wethington as Monica, Baba's daughter and accomplice, and of John Danley, Katherina Acosta and Lillian Blotkamp as Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau and Mrs. Nolan, all of whom could have made more of their pathetic longings as they hoped to make contact with the spirits of their dead children. Alexander Mosko, compelling as he was as the mute, Toby, didn't move like the mime/dancer the part was written for.
Murry Sidlin led his small band of 17 musicians with a sure and incisive hand, and stage director Jay D. Brock did a terrific job of ensuring that every bit of stage business was necessary and made sense.
- Joan ReinthalerCLASSICAL MUSIC
Pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel have been labeled the "rock stars of chamber music." Together, the husband-and-wife team lead the venerable Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, where they spend considerable time pondering such things as programming philosophies and sustaining audiences.
The duo returned to the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center on Friday night, adding violinist Philip Setzer, for what could arguably be called a resolutely old-fashioned concert experience. There were no new pieces, no gimmicky programming juxtapositions, no chatty remarks to the audience. The music itself - two huge piano trios by Franz Schubert - was all that seemed to matter.
Written together in 1827, Schubert's symphony-size trios are like the mythological double-headed Janus. The B-flat Trio, with its sunny comportment and jaunty rhythms, looks backward to good times, while the E-flat Trio, with its bipolar mood swings and aching melodies, looks forward into the abyss. Schubert, in failing health, would be dead the following year, at age 31.
Han, Finckel and Setzer have been publicly performing these trios for roughly three years, yet they played with the exuberance of musicians still in love with (and in awe of) the music.
Han was the glue throughout the evening, bonding Schubert's many dovetailing melodies with layers of rippling notes, especially in the E-flat Trio's opening Allegro. Finckel shined in the trio's march-driven Andante, supporting its singing, anxious theme with his usual resonant warmth.
With corresponding gravitas, the B-flat Trio's Andante is also its emotional nexus. Setzer's delicate solo exposed Schubert's characteristically bittersweet musical personality.
The penetrating music spoke volumes for itself. One left the hall with only poor Schubert in mind. What must he have been thinking?
- Tom HuizengaCLASSICAL MUSIC
If, like most of us, you lie awake at night wondering what great things a string quartet could do if only it included a Chinese lute, you should have been at the Freer Gallery on Friday night, when the superb Shanghai Quartet and pipa superstar Wu Man joined forces. There were, of course, the usual lute-free quartets from Beethoven and Schubert, and a couple of folk-songy works for solo pipa. But what raised the evening out of the ordinary - far, far out of the ordinary - was composer Lei Liang, who brought pipa and quartet together in a work so brilliantly original and inarguably gorgeous that the two may never be the same.
The concert opened conventionally, with Beethoven's early Quartet in D, Op. 18, No. 3. It's a likable, rather gentle work in most hands, but the Shanghai players chose steel over charm and turned the thing into a powerhouse, playing with razor-sharp precision and pitiless logic. While it never quite achieved that spontaneous feel that makes these quartets sound fully alive, it was a wonderfully ferocious and illuminating performance nonetheless. Wu then took the stage (and shifted the tone) with Huiran Wang's delicate and light-filled "Dance of the Yi People" for solo pipa, which she brought off with effortless virtuosity.
But this was all prelude to Liang's "Five Seasons," a sonic tour de force from a composer not yet 40. Full of rapturous invention, it unfolded with all the naturalness of a turning planet as it worked its way through the cycle of birth, death and renewal. The pipa and the quartet achieved a kind of exuberant synergy together, as if each were leapfrogging over the other in a mad rush to expressive extremes, and when it ended, it ended too soon. The evening closed with Schumann's Quartet in A, Op. 41, No. 3, and as you would expect, heartstrings were tugged, garments were rent, and there was much Sturming und Dranging to and fro. All good fun, and the Shanghai brought it off with affection and tasteful restraint.
- Stephen BrookesCLASSICAL MUSIC
The collections of the Library of Congress preserve not only important archival documents but also precious musical instruments. On Saturday afternoon, the superlative viola da gamba player Paolo Pandolfo performed a concert in the library's Coolidge Auditorium that featured one of those instruments. Rather than historical preservation, a term that implies the embalming work of the museum conservator, this program aimed to revive the extemporaneous art frozen on the pages composed for this largely forgotten instrument.
Like Pandolfo's concert at Dumbarton Oaks in 2006, the focus was on the two most important viola da gamba virtuoso composers: Marin Marais and his pioneering teacher, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. Pandolfo and Thomas Boysen, on theorbo (or archlute) and baroque guitar, approached each piece with improvisatorial freedom. Marais's "Musette" rocked back and forth over two repeated chords, with the drone of the viol's low strings evoking the eponymous medieval bagpipe. Dramatic pauses inserted in the dance "La Georgienne, dite La Maupertuis" cut up the phrases into angry gestures.
Although both musicians played with virtuosic speed and accuracy, Marais's "Plainte" was the highlight of this one-hour recital, a whispering thread of melody from the viol accompanied by gentle arpeggiated chords on the theorbo, making the lament an intense, personal cry of anguish. With these composers' pieces as a template, three improvisations in baroque style opened the concert: a freewheeling fantasia, a set of variations on a cantus firmus and a dizzying rendition of a ground bass pattern. For an encore, Pandolfo gave a newly restored viola da gamba, from the library's Wilkins collection of early stringed instruments, its maiden performance on two pieces by Marais.
- Charles DowneyCLASSICAL MUSIC
When Frederic Chopin set off for a vacation in Majorca in 1838, he packed his mistress under one arm and a copy of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" under the other. The Bach, at least, turned out to be a good choice of luggage: It became the inspiration for Chopin's astonishing set of 24 Preludes, Op. 28. Brief almost to the point of nonexistence - many are less than a minute long - they nevertheless lay bare aching depths of the human heart and, when played together, make up one of the most passionate, insightful works of the romantic era.
But what, exactly, do the Preludes have to do with Bach's more austere and exalting work? That was the question posed at Historic Dumbarton Church on Saturday night, when Andrius Zlabys and Adam Neiman aimed their pianos at each other and, alternating back and forth, juxtaposed the two. It was a thought-provoking evening, a sort of conversation between the baroque and the romantic, full of contrasts and unexpected connections. The contrasts were plentiful: Chopin's emotionalism against Bach's Olympian detachment; funereal brooding against serene optimism; poetic, improvisatory tone-painting against perfectly worked-out counterpoint. But over the course of the evening, it became clear that both composers were doing the same thing: probing deeply into the human experience, from two vastly different perspectives.
Both Neiman and Zlabys are accomplished pianists, but it was Neiman's account of the Chopin that made the evening. Zlabys seemed a bit off his game; in truth, he seemed half asleep, and turned in an adequate but lackluster performance. Neiman, on the other hand, brought fire and real imagination to the Preludes, delivering transparent, detailed and sensitive readings of virtually everything he played.
- Stephen Brookes