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March 14, 2011

Bryn Terfel, Placido Domingo, Christoph Eschenbach and Olivier Messiaen create hot night in D.C.

Saturday night offered such tantalizing musical prospects in D.C. that I couldn't resist making the trip, lingering cough and all.

At 7 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, Washington National Opera presented the stirring Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in a concert conducted by giga-star tenor and WNO general director Placido Domingo.

At 8 p.m., a few yards from the opera house, the National Symphony Orchestra offered Olivier Messiaen's monumental "Turangalila Symphony," conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.

Thanks to the fact that the NSO devoted the first half of its program to a discussion of the Messiaen work, I managed to catch nearly all of Terfel's performance and then all of "Turangalila."

I left both events on a high.

Terfel remains one of the most compelling vocal artists of our time. If more opera singers had his combination of musicality and audience-embracing personality, the art form would be a lot more popular.

The program, part of WNO's new Placido Domingo Celebrity Series, contained the usual assortment of chestnuts, but the delivery was anything but routine. For one thing, Terfel started off with

a couple of appropriate props to sing Dulcamara's fake elixir-pushing aria from "L'elisir d'amore," and quaffed one of them midway through. "I've never drunk beer onstage before," the singer said afterward.

Assuming that's what he really did guzzle in a single gulp, you've got to hand it to him for chutzpah. You also had to admire the brilliant delivery of the aria, with plenty of ripe tone, colorful nuance and delicious humor.

Terfel had a wicked time in a showpiece from "Mefistofele," complete with piercing whistle. Excerpts from "Otello" and "Falstaff" reaffirmed what a fine Verdian Terfel is, while selections from "Porgy and Bess" underlined his effortless crossover ability.

He was joined in "Bess, You Is My Woman" by soprano Ana Maria Martinez, who stepped in on short notice to fill in for the indisposed Catherine Naglestad (the sopranos are currently alternating performances in WNO's "Madama Butterly" production). Martinez, I understand, learned the Gershwin music at the last possible moment, but she sang it beautifully. On her own, she also delivered an elegant account of "Vissi d'arte."

Domingo seemed to be having an awfully good time on the podium; the orchestra was in mostly strong, vivid form.

As for the NSO, that ensemble was operating on all cylinders for Messiaen's massive challenge. I was struck repeatedly by the richness of the sound, from the silken strings in the "Jardin" movement to the powerful brass in the score's most ecstatic outbursts. It was a great night for the percussion, too, not to mention the woodwinds (the clarinet solos had particular eloquence).

The guests soloists were terrific -- pianist Cedric Tiberghien, who was almost spookily unfazed by the wildest demands of the keyboard part and who summoned a great deal of color and expressive power; and ondes Martenot-player Tristan Murail, who made sure that crucial element registered tellingly.

Above all, there was Eschenbach's superb shaping of the sprawling, roughly 90-minute score. The love theme that runs through symphony was given an extra rhapsodic pulse; moments of serenity took on a remarkable glow. The explosion Eschenbach unleashed in the "Joie du sang" movement and again in the finale sounded truly rapturous.

"Turangalila" is not an everyday challenge (the NSO's only other performance of the work was 10 years ago; the Baltimore Symphony has never tackled it), and it's not everyday listening, either. But, man, is it wonderful to encounter once in a while. It puts you in a whole different place, mentally and emotionally -- almost physically, even. Eschenbach and company made this experience a peak of the season.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:50 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO, Opera



"... It puts you in a whole different place, mentally and emotionally -- almost physically, even ..."

ALL Messiaen does that to me!

Wish I'd been there.



How do you get the information about what works the Baltimore Symphony has performed in the past? - you do mention that the BSO never performed "Turangalila." Is there a database search engine, or you simply contact the historian at BSO?


I have a secret stash of every BSO program for more than 90 years -- I wish. No, I just contact the orchestra's librarian, who also pointed out that the BSO has performed only one Messiaen work ("Oiseaux exotiques") in 2007. I'm glad I was there for that. TIM

" I couldn't resist making the trip, lingering cough and all" I can certainly sympathize - irresistible program - but I wish more people observed my personal rule: when I have a cough, no matter how tempting the performance, I DO NOT go to the opera. Coughing ruins the experence for others ... there was a barker audlble throughout the softer passage of BORIS GODUNOV at the Met last Saturday, how can anyone justify that? It's like smoking a cigar in a restaurant ... anyone remember THAT? I hope your cough is better. I hope you managed to suppress it while Beautiful Bryn Bach was doing his thing ...

I assure you I was a model cough-restrainer, a paragon of self-sacrifice. Mind over mucus. I agree that when things are really bad, better to forego a performance than ruin it for others. I learned from my mother, who, determined not to miss 'Tristan' with me in DC years back, managed to suppress her coughs even though she had a severe case of bronchitis. Not for everyone, of course, but it can be done. TIM

The irony of the timing of the Messiaen concert -- one of my favourite developers just released a sample library for the "Ondes Martenot": excuse me if I go into "plug" mode, but you can inspect it here:

Seriously, this thing's _awesome_.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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