Isabelle Faust’s illuminating solo Bach at the Phillips Collection

Isabelle Faust (Photo by Marco Borggreve)

J.S. Bach, Partita for Solo Violin No. 3 in E, BWV 1006
J.S. Bach, Sonata for Solo Violin No. 3 in C, BWV 1005
J.S. Bach, Partita for Solo Violin No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004

After the final note of Isabelle Faust’s memorable recital at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, the German violinist held the audience in rapt silence for what seemed like an eternity. That moment – really about half a minute – allowed for a deep appreciation of what had just passed: an hour and a quarter of intensely concentrated and illuminating solo Bach.

Faust performed two of Bach’s solo Partitas and one Sonata, all without intermission. Her Bach had none of the romantic gloss or mechanical perfection that other violinists bring to this repertory. Instead, her instrument sang with a natural eloquence and an austere beauty, speaking not of Olympian mastery but of a humane approach to these towering masterworks, full of freshness and vitality. Faust’s technical security, to be sure, was never in question. But there was a touching vulnerability and even humility to her performance – in Faust’s directness and emotional honesty, in her willingness to show a sense of struggle.  This was Bach on a very human scale – an act of secular pilgrimage.

The recital ended with a searching account of the monumental Chaconne that concludes the D-minor Partita. For all of Faust’s command of the movement’s progression of ideas and sense of drama, it was the quieter moments that proved the most moving: her whispered mezza voce after the music modulates to a sunny D major, and her artlessly inquisitive probing of the unexpected harmonies Bach passes through as he returns home to D minor. Through her eloquent introspection, Faust constructed the ideal musical space for a Sunday afternoon after a cataclysmic week in Washington: a cathedral of contemplation.

Pianist and conductor diverge, clash during their BSO debuts

Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (Photo by Paul Mitchell)

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Johannes Debus, Conductor
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Pianist

Rossini, Overture to The Barber of Seville
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 19
Brahms, Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

It was a tale of two debuts. On Saturday night, French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and German conductor Johannes Debus made their first appearances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore. The program of Rossini, Beethoven and Brahms in itself was nothing remarkable. But the standard-repertory evening offered a canvas for a sometimes uneasy and often fascinating clash of artistic temperaments from the debutants.

Read the full review here (Washington Post, January 22, 2017).

The Dictator’s Wife at WNO is a flawed, dramatically flat new opera

The Dictators Wife 1 - photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.jpg
This photo makes the opera look much more dramatic than it actually is.  (Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.)

The Dictator’s Wife
Washington National Opera
Music by Mohammed Fairouz, Libretto by Mohammed Hanif
Kennedy Center Family Theater

Mohammed Fairouz’s music for The Dictator’s Wife, the new hour-long work premiered by the Washington National Opera as part of its American Opera Initiative Festival, is unremarkable and mostly forgettable.  But the real problem with the opera is Mohammed Hanif’s flat and dramatically inept libretto.  Hanif is a respected British-Pakistani writer, who made his name first as a journalist and then as an award-winning novelist.  But his disappointing work for The Dictator’s Wife makes one suspect that Hanif is familiar with neither Aristotle’s Poetics nor the time-tested principles of a well-constructed Broadway musical.

The Dictator’s Wife is based on a dramatic monologue Hanif wrote in 2008 about an unnamed wife of a third-world dictator.  In advance press, the opera’s creative team (and/or the WNO press office) appeared to be playing up the parallels with Melania Trump, but the opera’s actual setting most closely resembles Hanif’s native Pakistan or another dictatorship in the developing world.  (Dexter Filkins has suggested that the titular character most closely resembles the wife of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Sebha, while Fairouz has also mentioned Pakistani General Zia.)

Hanif’s libretto for The Dictator’s Wife, though, betrays its origins in a monologue and suffers from some basic dramaturgical problems:

1.  The opera’s central character, the First Lady, remains almost completely undefined.  The audience is given no sense of her back story and no understanding of her motivations and objectives.  Despite being on stage for almost the entire hour-long opera, she is never given the equivalent of an “I Want” song, or anything else that could tell us who she is, where she is coming from, and what she wants out of life.  She is not so much a caricature of a dictator’s wife as a complete cipher.  The libretto does gesture toward some psychological turmoil–some kind of inner conflict between the First Lady’s embrace of her glamorous lifestyle and anguish over the plight of her country.  But that element is woefully underdeveloped.

2.  There is no real conflict in the opera.  The characters of the three protestors are meant to act as the vox populi and represent opposition to the dictator’s regime.  But because the dictator himself remains off-stage for the entire opera and because the First Lady isn’t the figure oppressing them (she invites them into her palace for tea and conversation), the story never erupts into direct, interpersonal conflict.  The “vox populi” characters themselves are also flattened and oddly defined through caricature as obnoxious “professional protestors,” robbing them of dramatic power.  The only moment of genuine dramatic frisson comes when the First Lady rushes to stop one of the invited protestors from going into the bathroom where the unseen dictator has holed himself up.  That is the only time in the opera when characters with opposing objectives come into direct conflict on stage.  Literally the only one.

3.  The opera is deeply unfunny.  The program notes call The Dictator’s Wife a “bitingly satirical work,” and Hanif aims his satirical pen at not only the rich and powerful but also the professional protest class, the clueless and self-serving international development community, and regime bootlickers and sycophants.  But Hanif really needs to hire someone to punch up his jokes.  His ongoing gag about the protestors smelling bad gets old real fast, and none of his jokes really land.  The audience sat in stony silence through most of the opera.

4.  The opera’s resolution comes out of nowhere.  At the end of the opera, the First Lady, after mutilating her face with a knife, is given an Evita-like “11 o’clock” number, where she addresses the nation and finally expresses sympathy for the plight of the people.  But this climactic moment feels almost completely unmotivated. Her psychological torment is only barely hinted at for most of the opera: there is no arc to follow, no gradual breakdown of her character to trace, no inciting event that triggers what feels like tacked-on, artificial drama.

This project is in dire need of a dramaturg and/or a script doctor, and the talk of producing the work more widely as a musical should be considered a pipe dream, as there is not much here for a popular audience to sink its teeth into, aside from self-importance.

As the Washington National Opera seems to be embracing topicality for its American Opera Initiative, the company may as well just go ahead and commission a Black Mirror opera from Charlie Brooker.  That way, the libretto would have a chance of actually being interesting, and Brooker would be able to find the most sympathetic audience imaginable for his hating on social media–the aging opera-going demographic.

Dover Quartet boasts young stars in the making

Dover Quartet members Joel Link, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, Camden Shaw, and Bryan Lee (photo by Carlin Ma)

Mozart, String Quartet in F, K. 590
Caroline Shaw, Plan & Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks)
Bedrich Smetana, String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, “From My Life”

The Dover Quartet is the very model of a modern young classical ensemble. Boasting a fistful of international prizes, the promising American quartet plays with impeccable refinement and offers judicious interpretations of the standard repertory.

The opening piece of the Dover Quartet’s recital at the Kennedy Center Family Theater on Monday night, Mozart’s String Quartet in F (K. 590), demonstrated why the ensemble became the darling of the competition circuit. The quartet’s sound was pristine and immaculately balanced, exemplifying Mozart’s concertante style to the letter. But while the quartet colored beautifully within the lines, its interpretation was a little self-effacing in its reticence to shape expressive lines and lean into Mozart’s dissonances and agitated rhythms…

Read the full review here (Washington Post, January 10, 2017).

Liszt’s Transcendental Études, twice

(Deutsche Grammophon)

Franz Liszt. Transcendental. The Complete Concert Études. Daniil Trifonov. Deutsche Grammophon.

Franz Liszt. Transcendental Études. Kirill Gerstein. Myrios Classics.

Daunting. Formidable. Punishing. A supreme test of a pianist’s technique and stamina. Liszt’s “Transcendental Études” are indeed all of these things. But the rare genius of Daniil Trifonov’s recording of these works, released in 2016, lies in the ability of this 25-year-old Russian phenomenon to remind us that Liszt was not merely a composer of virtuoso showpieces but a musical poet of the highest order.

Unlike Chopin’s pathbreaking studies for solo piano, Liszt’s Études do not isolate specific technical problems. Instead, Liszt harnessed a dazzling array of innovations on the level of sheer sound — new colors, textures and sonorities — to create a cycle of tone poems for the piano that captures the breadth and intensity of the composer’s imagination. The sheer range of musical expression is astonishing: pastoral reveries, woodland scenes, romantic arias, heroic dramas, historical legends and visions of spiritual strife.

Trifonov displays staggering technical mastery and structural command. But the special quality of his performances comes from his musical finesse: the kaleidoscopic array of colors he can conjure and his seemingly endless variety of articulation and phrasing…

Read the full review here (Washington Post, December 30, 2016).

Stewart Goodyear performs his “Nutcracker” transcription at the Phillips

Stewart Goodyear (Photo by Anita Zvonar)

Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker, Op. 71 (Arranged by Stewart Goodyear)

Stewart Goodyear is nothing if not courageous. Last January, the Canadian pianist fearlessly re-created the program from the legendary Glenn Gould’s American debut at the Phillips Collection in 1955 and made it his own. On Sunday, Goodyear returned to the Phillips to showcase his latest feat of musical daring: an arrangement of the complete score of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” for solo piano. It was a bold, gripping performance, full of propulsive drama if short on balletic grace…

Read the full review here (Washington Post, December 19, 2016).

French pianist Lucas Debargue makes his East Coast debut

Lucas Debargue (photo by Evgeny Evtyukhov)

Scarlatti, Sonata in C, K. 132
Chopin, Ballade No. 4
Ravel, Gaspard de la Nuit
Medtner, Sonata in F minor, Op. 5

Lucas Debargue may be more myth than man. At last year’s Tchaikovsky International Competition, the young French pianist emerged from nowhere to claim fourth place, gaining a cult following while at the same time polarizing opinion. Some felt he offered the competition’s most magnetic performances; others refused to overlook perceived technical shortcomings. On Saturday at the UDC Theater of the Arts, Washington had the chance to hear what all the fuss was about, as Debargue, 26, made his East Coast debut under the auspices of Washington Performing Arts.

Debargue’s now well-rehearsed backstory — that he was mostly self-taught until he was 20 and played in jazz clubs at night while preparing for the competition — threatens to overshadow his artistry. What emerged from Saturday’s solo recital was a portrait of a remarkable but still developing pianist…

Read the full review here (Washington Post, November 13, 2016).