“Kiki” at the Ken Cen

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa backstage at the Kennedy Center with Yr Hmble Srvnt and WDAV supporter Catherine Connor. Next day I had an hour on stage with KTK hosting her “exit interview” at the New Zealand Embassy, courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society. (For all of her trips to DC this was the first time the native Kiwi had ever been there, and the Embassy folks were suitably thrilled!). A fascinating discussion that sadly was not taped (I know, I know, but those were the ground rules…). More later on our discussion.

Avant Gershwin

WASHINGTON – The reason I’m posting from downtown D.C. this morning has to do with the lady on the left — jazz vocalist Patti Austin, who helped to usher in the New Year with a dynamic all-Gershwin concert at the Kennedy Center last night. Patti’s two-set show, backed by a crackerjack octet (piano, guitar, bass, drums, sax, trumpet, ‘bone) was part of Toast of the Nation, NPR’s annual all-night New Year’s Eve jazz party. Yr Hmble Srvnt was on hand to produce the show for the net.

In my previous life coordinating this production was Tension City; the logistics of pulling off six live shows through multiple timezones is only dizzying when it’s not downright frightening. By comparison, spending a day backstage at the KenCen with old friends and terrific musiciains, old pros all, was pure pleasure.

That’s not to say there weren’t the usual hiccups and anxieties that arise anytime you’re producing live radio. To be sure, there were. But it was all redeemed by the music on stage: some really interesting arrangements of Gershwin standards, mostly drawn from Austin’s recent CD called Avant-Gershwin. The disc has been getting a lot of buzz — a pair of Grammy nominations, and USA Today critic Elyse Gardner even had it down as her Top Album of the Year, edging out Junior Senior and Springsteen’s Magic. — and if we didn’t get the memo, Patti was there to remind us. (As a veteran showbiz producer, she’s not the type to let these PR moments pass…..)

But the praise is hard-won and well-deserved. Her voice was in top form, and the arrangements by Michael Abene are clever, quirky, and swing. You can check out a couple of the CD cuts (recorded with the excellent WDR Big Band) here. The Kennedy Center show was the first time that Austin has taken the show on the road with a pared-down octet, and the results were pretty impressive, particularly for the second set that we broadcast live to the nation. Though I have to say that my lasting memory was a haunting version of But Not For Me, featuring just Patti and pianist Mike Ricchiutti.

But don’t take my word for it: check out the whole concert on the new NPR Music site.

Update 1/2/2008: Critic Mike Joyce talks about Patti’s “Star Jones Moment” in his review of the concert in today’s Washpost. You can read the review here.

Cleveland Rocks!

Disclaimer: This is posted by a card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation, now smarting over a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS…

Monday was a good night for Cleveland at the Jake and at the Ken Cen, where yours truly got the chance to see the fabled Cleveland Orchestra up close and personal. Not that they’ve been strangers here…their press dept. helpfully pointed out that the orchestra has played 57 times in DC, including 43 times in the Kennedy Center’s 36-year history.

And they are still as good as advertised: In his excellent NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music my old friend Ted Libbey writes: “The Cleveland Orchestra is very nearly in a league of its own, a crack ensemble with an esprit de corps matched by only a handful of orchestras in the world. Its recordings are the discographic gold standard. ” Hard to argue with that assessment, on disc or in person. Monday night the orchestra had plenty of virtuosity on display, to go with usual crack ensemble playing and spot-on intonation. And, unusually, pride of place to the viola section, who were seated opposite the first violins, with the cellos and second violins filling in the middle around conductor Franz Welser-Most.

On the program: Mozart’s Symphony No. 28. Not a symphony you hear all that much, but with some absolutely propulsive outer movements with some feverish fiddling. You want a “discographic gold standard?” The October ’65 recording made by George Szell and the Clevelanders (reissued on CD in 2006) is still amazing. Clarity, balance, and speed – with no sacrifice in precision. When critics talk about Szell’s ability with Mozart as “chamber music for symphony orchestra,” they’re talking about recordings like this.

But the Mozart was merely a warm-up for what came next: The Guide to Strange Places by John Adams. I’ve blogged about Adams before and doubtless will again, and while I didn’t love everything about the piece (at 24 mins I think it’s about five minutes too long), it’s pretty damn cool, with cascading blocks of sound moving through, over, and around the orchestra. Or, in the words of the New York Times: “a jarringly turbulent piece, channeling its energy into shifts of clashing colors, both visual and emotive.” And a visual treat to watch the internal ballet of the stand-sharers in the violin section turning the pages for their stand partners as carefully-
and quickly- as they would for any virtuoso pianist.

But what really grabbed me was not so much a “Strange Place” but a location thoroughly familiar to us hardy Harpers Ferry residents. Adams’ inventive scoring includes a Doppler-effect freight-train rumbling through the brass and percussion sections….a sound I hear routinely as long freighters go rumbling into the night through the Harpers Ferry Gap.

Adams absolutely nailed the sound. Despite the fact that nearly everything Adams has written is available on CD, you can only hear this snippet of the Guide on Adam’s extremely well-done website.

Strange but true footnote: This piece represents a connection between the Pulitzer Prize- winning composer and the 2nd president of the US beside the fact that both were born in Massachusetts: The “Guide to Strange Places” was commissioned and first performed by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic at the Concertgebouw. And before he succeeded George Washington, the “other” John Adams was the first US ambassador to the Netherlands, where his efforts at diplomacy are seen as so significant that he recently merited a three-part series on Radio Netherlands called Adams in Amsterdam. And then I found out there’s a John Adams Institute in Amsterdam…an independent, nonprofit foundation dedicated to furthering a longstanding tradition: cultural exchange between the USA and the Netherlands. Founded in 1987, the John Adams Institute continues to expose the best and brightest American writers and thinkers to audiences in The Netherlands.

Back to the concert…the Clevelanders closed out with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony (No. 6) that was everything as advertised. Ted Libbey again:

It is still fashionable for critics to dismiss Tchaikovsky as one of two things: a superficial manipulator or a self-absorbed boderline hysteric wallowing in his own emotions. He was neither…He managed to create worlds of feeling in his symphonies. Tchaikovsky biographer David Brown calls the Pathetique “The most truly original symphony to be composed in the 70 years since Beethoven’s 9th.”

As the first truly tragic symphony, concerned with loss, isolation, and despair, it projects a negative image of Beethoven’s triumphant aspiration, in place of spiritual transcendence, it seeks annihilation. This marks a fundamental turning point in the history of the symphony. Psychologically, the Pathetique symphony marks the beginning of modernism.
The Clevelanders did not disappoint. And the Kennedy Center audience behaved…no applause at the end of the third movement, to my surprise.

Lots of applause at the end, and no encore either. Now they’re off to Carnegie Hall and the Musikverein. And I’ll have more on Adams in a bit.

Postscript: The Washington Post review of this concert can be found here. Don’t know how the reviewer got the impression was a U.S. Premiere, however, since DC’s own National Symphony Orchestra played it on their East Coast Tour three years ago.

Critics and Clapping

Woke up this morning thinking about the old saw, attributed to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius to “Pay no attention to what the critics say; there has never been set up a statue in honor of a critic.” (Though actually Alex Ross went out and found three not long ago….)

Anyway. The Sibelius quote comes to mind as I process a couple of unusually churlish reviews of the concert I blogged about a few days ago – the DC debut of the National Philharmonic of Russia, a/k/a the “other” NPR. First, Robert Battey in the Monday (3/26) Washington Post griped that “Woodwind and brass entries were often slightly staggered. The percussion missed cues. The strings were energetic but displayed little homogeneity, either in vibrato or bowing, with a concertmaster who appeared past his prime. The NPR, in short, lacks refinement.” But that was more charitable than what Jens Laurson had to say in the generally-fine ionarts blog: he essentially said phooey and left at intermission.

Which is too bad, since he missed – and IMHO the Post reviewer was not of a mind to hear – an absolutely riveting performance of the Shostakovich 5th Symphony. Comparing what I heard and they wrote, in both cases I couldn’t help but feel the reviews were mostly written before the orchestra had played a note; one seeing the whole thing in the dark context of Putin-as-Stalin and the revival of Soviet-style “Russian propaganda,” the other, once you parsed the review a bit, clearly bothered by a conductor’s interpretation of a piece (the Shostakovich symphony) that differed from his own:

“But the pith of the conductor’s job in this sprawling work lies in subtler tasks — building and releasing tension on large time scales, creating internal episodes and relating them to the whole. Shostakovich’s incessant dactylic rhythms often just sat there, and Spivakov brought none of Mstislav Rostropovich’s anguish to the Largo (let alone Leonard Bernstein’s). Overall, a long afternoon.”

Well. I didn’t even know that use of the word “dactylic” was permitted in a family newspaper! I for one found the (other) NPR’s take on the Shostakovich 5th was pretty compelling — even thinking to myself at one point about what a coherent statement Spivakov and the orchestra were making, and I could feel the audience with them the whole way (noticeable lack of coughing and fidgeting). But no, not the way that Rostropovich would conduct it. Hey – I get that. I grew up with an LP by Istvan Kertesz conducting the Dvorak “New World” Symphony and I remember being shocked the first time I heard it being conducted “differently” than that classic recording.

I think it’s connected, in fact, to what Washpost columnist Richard Cohen was calling “emotional truth,” what often veers significantly away from intellectual truth. Cohen was connecting a key moment in his life when he was inspired to become a writer to a turning point in candidate Barack Obama‘s young life that made him keenly aware of the consequence of skin color for the very first time. Only maybe it didn’t happen. I think a lot of our musical memories (and thus lifetime musical convictions) are formed the same way:

“Indeed, the memory of the event/non-event is so firmly planted in Obama’s mind that it seems to have become an emotional truth for him, far more powerful than an intellectual truth. Two and two are four. That’s an intellectual truth for you. But America is a uniquely great country. That’s an emotional truth, and I’m far more likely to die for the latter than the former. So, I suspect, are you.”

My own emotional truth concerns Penny and her father. Years later, when I reconnected with Penny, I mentioned that day on the porch and how much it meant to me. No such porch, she told me. I insisted otherwise and did not relent until she sent me a picture of the home. No porch. Still . . . I like the story my way. In Obama’s case — and maybe my own — there might be something more than foggy memory at work.

I think so. So my crystalline-at-this-point memory was that I was in a shared experience in a sold-out Kennedy Center Concert Hall where I witnessed 108 musicians creating a remarkable performance that required them to think and act as one. And we stomped and hooted and cheered. But I think what will linger the most in my mind is observing the genuine affection and mutual respect in this orchestra. (Check out the backstage photo from their performance in Boston!) When it came time for bows, Vladimir Spivakov asked first the principle players to stand – the French horn, the clarinet, the trumpet, and so on. And to a man, and woman – they did something I have never seen an orchestra of professionals do before….they clapped back. For Spivakov, for their fellow performers, for the audience. A remarkable contrast to the general slouch/wisecracking/ignoring the audience that infects a lot of orchestras at curtain-call time. It was a remarkable and genuinely moving gesture.