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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...]

Cavalli’s Eliogabalo: An opera that needed rescuing…out of The Box

The pickup truck pulled up alongside me and my bicycle on 47th Street in need of directions: “Where’s that street with all the strip clubs?” “You’re asking the wrong guy,” I said. And before I could disqualify myself by claiming to be gay, the driver’s head snapped the other direction and was off. In retrospect, that moment began my karmic payback for being so dismissive toward some guys with a simple need for risqué fun. Weeks later, I was in such a place, not wanting to be there, and discovering the meaning of that old adage: “The main … [Read more...]

Gloriously useless beauty on a rainy New York night

“Beauty makes me sad,” said Steven Mackey, threatening to take a Byronic turn. “If you can’t have sex with it or eat it, what good is it? “Maybe that’s why people invented picnics. If they can’t eat it [beauty] they can at least eat in its presence.” So said the Princeton-based composer by way of introducing his piece Groundswell to the audience at American Modern Ensemble’s American Stories concert on March 26 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music. The subject, on that rainy Monday in New York City, was what makes composers … [Read more...]

Van Cliburn and his fraught generation

With any luck, Van Cliburn lived to watch the Oscars one last time. The legendary pianist, who died Wednesday at age 78 after a long struggle with liver cancer, was that kind of guy. In the years after his 1978 retirement from full-time concertizing, the way to engage him was not with some erudite conversation about music – such things seemed to pain him – but to discuss the latest movies and who might get the big prizes. He would just light right up. That’s not what the world expects from musicians who have been saddled with expectations of … [Read more...]

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