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March 2013

Iván Fischer Leads the Orchestra of St. Luke's and Musica Sacra in "St. Matthew Passion"

by Michael Cirigliano II

Feast of Music, Orchestra of St. Luke's, Musica Sacra, St. Matthew Passion 1

While the Los Angeles Philharmonic was introducing the Lincoln Center crowd to John Adams’ new biblical account, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, many New York City ensembles chose to move forward traditional Eastertime programming. Chief among them was Thursday night’s pairing of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with the venerable Musica Sacra, presenting Bach’s beloved and perennial St. Matthew Passion at Carnegie Hall. Under the direction of Budapest Festival Orchestra conductor Iván Fischer, the ensembles presented a robust—if, at times, uneven—presentation of the choral masterwork.

Riding the critical high of last year’s innovative presentation of the Mozart Requiem—a performance that brilliantly interspersed the chorus and soloists with members of the orchestra—Fischer also incorporated some avant-garde stage settings into the Bach: separating the two orchestras by a considerable distance (calling to mind Moses’ parting the seas), and allowing both singers and soloists to engage the audience while traversing various segments of the stage.

For a three-hour work, such stage elements are welcome, adding a dimension of drama to an otherwise operatic textual treatment. As opposed to the diverse sound world of the Mass in B minor, the Passion can become staid at times, relying on a large amount of recitative and narration from the Evangelist to account for the many twists and turns in the story. As the Evangelist, John Tessier gave a strict account of the central role, delivering very little in terms of vocal nuance or color, even as the tragic elements quickly unfolded around him. Luckily, the mighty voice of Hanno Müller-Brachmann was captivating throughout, delivering vivid accounts of Jesus, Judas, Peter, and Pilate.

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Zs and Mivos Quartet at Issue Project Room

Mivos and Zs, Issue Project Room

It's been a tough slog for Issue Project Room over the past few years. In 2008, they were forced to abandon their space in an old Gowanus silo, thanks to a greedy landlord. (The space continues to remain empty.) After several years at the Old Can Factory on 3rd Avenue, things were finally looking up when Issue won a 20-year rent-free lease on an elegant 4,800-square-foot space in downtown Brooklyn. But, once curators investigated the space, they found that it needed a lot of work—cosmetic, electrical, acoustic—to the tune of $4 million. 

Not to be cowed, Issue gamely started booking shows in the space while raising the necessary funds to renovate. But then, last August, a 50-pound wrought-iron lantern attached to the ceiling broke loose, crashing to the floor. Fortunately, no one was in the space at the time, but the incident prompted its immediate shuttering while a full engineering review was conducted.

After seven months of work, Issue was finally able to reopen earlier this month with a marathon performance of Dennis Johnson's recently rediscovered minimalist opus, November, played by pianist Andrew Lee. I missed that show, but did make it last Saturday for a double bill by free jazz/rock outfit Zs and Mivos Quartet—an odd pairing, if there ever was one. 

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Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens & Bryce Dessner's "Planetarium" at BAM

by Aristea Mellos and FoMPlanetarium, BAM, 3/22/13

For those who remember stealing their parents' car to catch the old Pink Floyd laser-light shows at the Hayden Planetarium (okay, maybe that was just me), last weekend's performances of Planetarium at BAM were a mutlimedia walk down memory lane.

Backed by Nico Muhly on celesta and keyboards, Bryce Dessner on guitar, James McAllister on drums, a string quartet, and a battery of seven trombone players, Sufjan Stevens sang his way through all of the celestial bodies of our solar system: the planets, the sun, and moon—even poor Pluto, which was downgraded to a "dwarf planet" in 2006. 

Co-commissioned by the Barbican, the Sydney Opera House, and the Muziekgebouw Eindhoven, the 60-minute song cycle was a feast for the senses. Deborah Johnson bathed BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House in vivid celestial hues while lasers danced above the audience's heads. Above the stage hung a massive sphere onto which were projected numerous gaesous images evoking each of the planets.

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Commentary: What's Happening to Music Criticism?

Olin_downes, NY Times Critic
"No statue has ever been erected to a critic." - Jean Sibelius

Times are tough for music criticism. Just this past year, one newspaper reassigned one of their two full-time music critics, offered the classical music editor a retirement buyout (with no intention of replacing him), and only runs half of the stories they assign. In their place, this same paper has taken to running dubious Top 20 composer lists and profiles of presenters that feel one way to attract new audiences is by turning concerts into fashion shows. 

No, this isn't the Miami Herald or the Des Moines Registerit's our very own New York Times, once referred to as the "paper of record" and, for more than a century, this country's go-to arbiter of art and culture. As recently as 1978, the Times had five full-time classical music critics that contributed up to 40 reviews a week, but by 2002, that number had dropped to three full-time critics and two stringers (essentially, a regular freelancer).

Today, the Times has exactly ONE full-time critic: Tony Tommasini, who's still referred to as the "Chief Music Critic," even though there's no one else under him. And that's to say nothing of the Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, and the half-dozen other New York City papers that once offered serious music coverage on par with the Times but have since either folded or fired their critics. The way things are going, it won't be long before there's zero classical music coverage in New York's mainstream media. Wow.

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