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Britten’s Curlew River: Tanglewood’s Madwoman makes sense through the art of subtraction


Benjamin Britten could be so comforting when at his most dictatorial. His advice to performers was simple: Do exactly what he wrote, no more and no less, and all will be well. Certainly that seems true in his instrumental works, performances of which have acquired a uniformity (or quality control, in the composer's mind). But what about theatrical matters? Does his word carry as much weight? His credibility isn't helped any by his famous dislike of Jon Vickers's revisionist portrayal of the title character of Peter Grimes, an … [Read more...]

What Stockhausen left for us Earthlings


Karlheinz Stockhausen made it his business to be enigmatic - which is the core cause of his being modern music's greatest public relations disaster. Long before he made his 9/11 gaffe ("And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos"), long before he revealed that he had extra-terrestrial origins (he claimed to be from a planet orbiting the star Sirius), Stockhausen retreated from the public, all but posting no-trespassing signs on his work by withdrawing his extensive discography from conventional circulation and making … [Read more...]

Living Blind: In plays, operas and restaurants


Rarely pleasant and all-too-familiar, stumbling blindly into uncertain darkness - whether bicycling down a nighttime country road or solving a near-impossible problem - is an accepted fact of adult life. But not everybody wants to attend an opera that embraces that condition - starting with the blindfolds that audiences were required to wear throughout The Blind, Lera Auerbach's opera, developed by American Opera Projects and presented last week at the Lincoln Center Festival. Lining up in the hallway leading to the Kaplan Penthouse, one … [Read more...]

David Oistrakh in China – and other Russian footprints in Asia


Russia's cultural invasion of China was relatively short - roughly 1952 to 1961 - but left a lasting mark, despite efforts to stamp it out.   The evidence is increasingly visible. In the lobby of the Shanghai Concert Hall, two manuscript pages from Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 are framed. How did they survive Mao's Cultural Revolution? Inside the hall, the Shanghai City Symphony Orchestra is conducted by 88-year-old Cao Peng, who now proudly proclaims himself to be a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, has given his semi-professional … [Read more...]

Report from China: Mysteries of cinematic censorship


SHANGHAI - Mysterious indeed was the delayed China opening of Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained. It finally arrived on Mother’s Day weekend, in a limited way, after a delay of approximately a month, when the film was announced for wider release but got only a few hours into its first screenings before being abruptly pulled by censors with little warning and, of course, no explanation. A revenge parable about a pre-Civil War freed slave in the Deep South trying to find his lost wife, the film had already run the gauntlet with Chinese … [Read more...]

Laurie Anderson’s Landfall: Sinking into numbers, sounds and extinction?


Is Laurie Anderson too cool to be anguished? Not lately, and certainly not in her new collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, Landfall, that had its East Coast premiere over the weekend at Montclair (NJ)  State University’s Peak Performance series. Early on in the piece, the string quartet plays a probing, wandering melody amid vaguely mournful chords gently propelled by an electronic rhythm track. Then, Anderson began to speak – something she hadn’t done so much of in this piece. Knowing that her personal archive at her downtown … [Read more...]

From Rittenhouse Square to the Salome Chamber Orchestra: Are rare instruments starting to play us?


"A Stradivari in Philadelphia" was the name of a recent concert on Rittenhouse Square, and, in my experience, the first time the instrument took top billing over the performer and repertoire. Some composer names were found in the fine print (no mention of what pieces) and the violinist was one Matteo Fedeli. Strads are hardly news in Philadelphia.  Why would anybody suggest otherwise? My theory: The veneration of rare instruments has escalated to a new level. Price records keep getting broken, the current one being $3.6 million paid for the … [Read more...]

Paul’s Case: An opera that buries carnations in the snow


Sometimes an opera grows into the time in which it’s meant to be heard. Such is the situation with the unpromisingly-titled Paul's Case by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Kathryn Walat, first heard in ink-not-yet-dry circumstances in the 2009 Philly Fringe Festival. Now, in a new, late-April production by the Washington, D.C.-area company Urban Arias, the piece is nearly ready to claim a place in the chamber opera repertoire - thanks to a long-haul development process for which American Opera Projects deserves much … [Read more...]

Bennewitz Quartet: Young musicians with eternal hindsight


The Frick Collection’s Sunday afternoon concerts are often portals into European music making, presenting one debut after another of artists for whom a larger U.S. presence has been stymied by post-9/11 security hassles. But on Sunday’s April 14th respite from tax deadlines, the Bennewitz Quartet went rather further by entering a temporary time warp – fitting for a venue that, with any performer, feels so blessedly distant from everyday American life. Modern musicians (well, a few of them) can convincingly echo the musical manners that died … [Read more...]

Poul Ruders at Curtis and N.Y. Phil: Transcending notes, rests and contradictions


Danish composer Poul Ruders (b. 1949) made a post-Easter sweep through the northeast U.S. – though it didn’t feel brief in the least and was never likely to. “He strikes a huge stride over all kinds of music. Light, dark, contrapuntal, monophonic, high and low registers ... he revels in extreme contrasts. And like a tight-rope artist, he’s also an entertainer,” said guitarist David Starobin, a longtime advocate of Ruders, introducing the composer’s music at an April 3rd recital at the Curtis Institute of Music. To that, I would add that … [Read more...]

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